Viewpoint Magazine

Archive of issues of the online publication Viewpoint Magazine, an autonomist Marxist influenced online publication.

Issue 1: Occupy Everything

Complete first issue of Viewpoint Magazine, an autonomist Marxist influenced online publication.

Originally posted: October 17, 2011 at Viewpoint Magazine

Everybody talks about the weather

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi analyze the Occupy movement and the conditions that created it.

“Every­body talks about the weather. We don’t.” This 1968 poster was a response by the Ger­man Social­ist Stu­dent Union to an ad cam­paign for weath­er­proof trains. The stu­dents were sug­gest­ing that like the fig­ures pic­tured above, they had more impor­tant con­cerns than every­day things like the weather. The next year, jour­nal­ist and future Red Army Fac­tion ter­ror­ist Ulrike Mein­hof would use the slo­gan to argue that rad­i­cals should talk about every­day life, since “the per­sonal is political.”

For us, it just means that we should talk about the weather. It’s going to start snow­ing on the occu­pa­tions, and the author­i­ties want to use the weather as a weapon. They’re hop­ing that win­ter will kill the move­ment off, and it’s hard to deny that camp­ing out in the mid­dle of Jan­u­ary would be a poor tactic.

But the weather rep­re­sents a much big­ger ques­tion: what will it take to make this move­ment last? There is great poten­tial in what has been achieved, but there are also sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles, which present them­selves both inside and out­side the move­ment. With an eye towards advanc­ing this strug­gle, let’s start by try­ing to under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing: who is protest­ing, and what does it mean?

In a reflec­tion on the riots in Lon­don this past sum­mer, “The Prince and the Pau­per,” we argued that the com­po­si­tion of the riot­ers reflected the blurred bound­aries between a pre­car­i­ous and hyper­ex­ploited “lumpen­pro­le­tariat” and the main­stream work­ing class. What was impor­tant above all was that the spon­ta­neous vio­lence of the riots took place at the same time as a strike by Ver­i­zon work­ers across the pond, within the very indus­try that pro­vided the riot­ers with means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And though strug­gles were com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other across the world, these two polit­i­cal com­po­si­tions – one reflect­ing a dis­or­ga­nized pop­u­la­tion usu­ally sub­jected to the worst state repres­sion, the other reflect­ing the clas­si­cal mode of trade-union pol­i­tics – did not encounter one another.

The Occupy Wall Street crowd seems to be an in-between ele­ment, both tech­ni­cally and polit­i­cally. Much of the energy behind it comes from the activist milieu that char­ac­ter­ized the Seat­tle “anti-globalization” protests, but it also clearly draws from a wide base of work­ing peo­ple who are now see­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of clas­si­cal forms of work along­side the social fab­ric that once sup­ported them. So the Occupy move­ment is simul­ta­ne­ously the space where encoun­ters can take place, as well as a form of strug­gle with the implicit objec­tive of cre­at­ing con­di­tions in which these encoun­ters can take hold. But who exactly is in this space?

The best infor­ma­tion we have now is about Occupy Wall Street; though other occu­pa­tions may have unique ele­ments, this serves as a use­ful start­ing point. The com­po­si­tion of Occupy Wall Street is unsur­pris­ingly het­ero­ge­neous. Age, wealth, and expe­ri­ence vary widely; some par­tic­i­pants are vet­er­ans from for­mer strug­gles, oth­ers are join­ing in for the first time; there’s a large con­cen­tra­tion of youth, but more than 28% are over 40. You’ll find the home­less, doc­toral stu­dents, and pro­fes­sion­als of var­i­ous stripes all camp­ing out together. Despite these sharp dif­fer­ences, how­ever, some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics stand out. First, the vast major­ity is highly edu­cated: a study by CUNY soci­ol­o­gist Hec­tor R. Cordéro-Guzmán observed that over 90% reported “some col­lege, a col­lege degree, or a grad­u­ate degree.” Sec­ond, the great major­ity does not sup­port either of the polit­i­cal par­ties. Third, and per­haps most impor­tant, the move­ment as a whole is over­whelm­ingly com­posed of the unem­ployed, under­em­ployed, or pre­car­i­ously employed.

In many impor­tant ways, it’s no coin­ci­dence that this par­tic­u­lar tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion would choose the Occupy move­ment as its form of strug­gle. By fir­ing work­ers, putting them on fur­lough, demand­ing that they work part-time, or sim­ply forc­ing them to accept an early retire­ment, the cap­i­tal­ists gave them all free time. Instead of sit­ting at home, these work­ers are using this imposed free time against those cap­i­tal­ists who forced it upon them in the first place. The Occupy move­ment demon­strates how work­ers can cre­atively turn their sit­u­a­tion against their bosses, how they can trans­form an imposed form of pro­duc­tion into a weapon. It’s not so much a kind of pro­longed march as it is a trans­formed strike, work stop­page, or col­lec­tive slow­down. It’s a form of strug­gle that has emerged directly from the par­tic­u­lar eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion that cap­i­tal has led us into. But not only is it a form of strug­gle, it’s a bridge between a mul­ti­plic­ity of forms, where already exist­ing move­ments can cross-pollinate and new ones can be tested for the first time.

This bridg­ing is inter­na­tional in char­ac­ter. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the strug­gles in Greece, and the Span­ish indig­na­dos, Occupy Wall Street first emerged as yet another moment in this broader cycle of strug­gle. It’s sig­nif­i­cant, how­ever, that after becom­ing a real move­ment by spread­ing itself across Amer­ica, this form of strug­gle then found its way back into the hands of those who had inspired it in the first place. There is no greater illus­tra­tion of the cir­cu­la­tion of strug­gles today: from Puerta del Sol square in May, to the occu­pa­tion of Zuc­cotti Park, and back to Madrid in Octo­ber. But it’s not as though the same coin has passed through thou­sands of new hands just to return to its owner unchanged. The cir­cu­la­tion of this strug­gle has added some­thing; it returns with more expe­ri­ences, a sharper per­spec­tive, a more rad­i­cal edge.

But we’re not deal­ing with the same strug­gle. There’s a plu­ral­ity of almost bewil­der­ingly diverse forms of con­tes­ta­tion. Before Occupy Wall Street, there were lit­er­ally thou­sands of dis­tinct strug­gles from Greece to the Mid­dle East to China. What the Occupy move­ment has done is strate­gi­cally sub­sume many of these pre­ex­ist­ing strug­gles into a shared dis­cur­sive space – pro­vid­ing them with a com­mon lan­guage. In China, demon­stra­tors have held up ban­ners read­ing: “Res­olutely sup­port the Amer­i­can people’s mighty Wall Street Revolution!”

On Octo­ber 15, protests erupted in 900 cities across the globe. Though many had already wit­nessed their fair share of dis­tur­bances over the past few years, it was the bold syn­chronic­ity of it all that was so unprece­dented. This could have only been accom­plished through a recod­ing of each par­tic­u­lar strug­gle into a more gen­eral ver­nac­u­lar. Of course, all of these strug­gles were already implic­itly – and in some cases explic­itly – in touch with one another. But now, they speak the same lan­guage. Slo­gans reap­pear, sym­bols are shared, and prac­tices are recy­cled on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents. Strug­gles all over the world are begin­ning to recode them­selves in this idiom.

The dilemma is that while unions have expressed their sup­port, orga­ni­za­tions like Occupy the Hood are attempt­ing to pri­or­i­tize the sec­tors of the work­ing class that are racially mar­gin­al­ized, and inter­na­tional strug­gles are tak­ing up occu­pa­tions as their ban­ners, no con­crete and insti­tu­tional con­nec­tion has been made. It could very well be that the dura­bil­ity and rad­i­cal­iza­tion of this move­ment will rely on its poten­tial as a medi­at­ing ele­ment between the the var­i­ous seg­ments of the class, their par­tic­u­lar inter­ests, and their tra­di­tional forms of strug­gle. Achiev­ing this means going beyond a spon­ta­neous reflec­tion of changes in our work­ing lives. It has to start by under­stand­ing the sys­tem under­ly­ing them.

We Are the Wage Relation

We all know how the protest rep­re­sents itself. “We are the 99%,” said Occupy Wall Street, and this sin­gle slo­gan has spread like a prairie fire.

Only a philis­tine would dis­miss the move­ment based on objec­tions to this slo­gan. A quick glance at the now-famous web­site shows what it has achieved. In a soci­ety that is sup­posed to be hope­lessly atom­ized, made up of alien­ated zom­bies star­ing at indi­vid­ual TV screens, ordi­nary peo­ple are show­ing sol­i­dar­ity with each other. The prob­lems peo­ple describe on this web­site might once have been thought of as per­sonal issues, of no con­cern to any­one but your spouse and your land­lord. Occupy Wall Street has given us the lan­guage to under­stand our per­sonal prob­lems as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal strug­gle against the 1% who got rich from our misfortune.

At the same time, the slo­gan advances no analy­sis about how things got this way. Social inequal­ity is shame­ful, to be sure, and it’s been grow­ing steadily. But does this hap­pen because there are bad eggs at the top? Because the good guys in gov­ern­ment aren’t strong enough? Or is it because there’s an under­ly­ing rela­tion­ship in our soci­ety that pro­duces this inequal­ity and ensures that it con­stantly increases?

It would be no improve­ment to quib­ble about per­cent­ages. (“We are the 87.3%! Down with the 5.2% and their 7.5% run­ning dogs!”) The fig­ures which actu­ally demon­strate the fun­da­men­tal changes in our econ­omy lead­ing to today’s dis­con­tent­ment are shown in the fol­low­ing graph, cov­er­ing the period from 1947 to 2010, from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics:

The top line rep­re­sents worker pro­duc­tiv­ity, mea­sured by out­put per hour. The line lag­ging behind is their hourly com­pen­sa­tion, which means wages plus ben­e­fits, adjusted for infla­tion. The grow­ing “wage gap” between the two lines essen­tially mea­sures the change in the rate of exploita­tion, and it shows that exploita­tion has been steadily increas­ing. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t exploita­tion before the 1970s, it just means that social inequal­ity wasn’t grow­ing; now big­ger and big­ger por­tions of wealth are being trans­ferred from labor to capital.

In 1865, Karl Marx engaged in a debate in the First Inter­na­tional Work­ing Men’s Asso­ci­a­tion against a utopian social­ist named John Weston. Weston argued that the wave of strikes across Europe demand­ing higher wages was dan­ger­ous, since if wages were increased, cap­i­tal­ists would sim­ply raise com­mod­ity prices to com­pen­sate and make life more expen­sive for work­ers. Marx argued in his speeches, later pub­lished as Value, Price and Profit, that this posi­tion was based on a totally incor­rect under­stand­ing of the wage. Cap­i­tal­ists pay a wage that ensures the worker will show up to work the next day, equiv­a­lent to the socially aver­age col­lec­tion of neces­si­ties (food, hous­ing, enter­tain­ment) required to repro­duce labor-power, or the abil­ity to work. They don’t pay for each indi­vid­ual com­mod­ity the worker pro­duces, because the cen­tral fact of cap­i­tal­ism is that work­ers pro­duce more than the value of their daily neces­si­ties. The dif­fer­ence between their wages and the value of the com­modi­ties they pro­duce is the “sur­plus value” that belongs to the cap­i­tal­ist. No other input of the pro­duc­tion process gen­er­ates more value than it costs; the exploita­tion of labor is the source of profit.

What Marx pointed out is that if there is an increase in the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor, but wages stay the same, strug­gles for higher wages have to be under­stood as “reac­tions of labour against the pre­vi­ous action of cap­i­tal.” If cap­i­tal can’t pay work­ers less, or work them longer hours, it has to increase the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor by dis­ci­plin­ing work­ers and intro­duc­ing tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. This has two dra­matic effects. First of all, it reduces the demand for labor, which means unem­ploy­ment. Sec­ond, it means cap­i­tal­ists are invest­ing more in expen­sive machin­ery than in their source of profit.

If pro­duc­tiv­ity has dra­mat­i­cally increased, and indus­tries across the board pro­duce many more com­modi­ties, they need peo­ple to buy them – but that’s dif­fi­cult to pull off when wages have been so low for so long. The result of ris­ing social inequal­ity is that cap­i­tal­ists are sit­ting on vast amounts of money, or chan­nel­ing it into a lux­ury econ­omy, and banks are run­ning out of prof­itable invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ers, on the other hand, need money just to live. The solu­tion to these prob­lems is well known. The wide­spread reliance on con­sumer credit – a risky invest­ment for the banks and poten­tially life­long debt for the con­sumer – increases pur­chas­ing power beyond the wage.

Along­side the use of home equity loans and credit cards to shore up con­sump­tion is the mas­sive stu­dent loan indus­try, which lends future work­ers the resources to develop their pro­duc­tive pow­ers. In the­ory, these debts would be paid off by future income, assum­ing some kind of immi­nent recov­ery. The prob­lem is that peo­ple grad­u­at­ing with enor­mous and unrea­son­able loans are not get­ting jobs, and as we’ve already noted, cap­i­tal­ism is tend­ing towards unem­ploy­ment. With the clas­si­cal sys­tem of exploita­tion by the wage under­min­ing itself, cap­i­tal is forced to find ways to use debts to extract wealth. Ever paid an over­draft fee?

There’s also a dra­matic polit­i­cal effect of debt: it pre­vents peo­ple from desert­ing the sink­ing ship of the wage sys­tem. In spite of the fact that nobody expects a job to become a life­long career any­more, which used to be work’s way of jus­ti­fy­ing itself, they’re still forced to accept pre­car­i­ous work – rush­ing between mul­ti­ple part-time jobs unre­lated to their edu­ca­tion, if they have jobs at all, and cut­ting every pos­si­ble expense to pay off their loans.

This is just an exten­sion of the bru­tal strat­egy of expro­pri­a­tion already imposed on the poor­est sec­tors of the work­ing class, the preda­tory lend­ing that specif­i­cally tar­geted black and Latino women. Just as stu­dent debt estab­lished a sup­ple­men­tary form of exploita­tion, by com­pelling peo­ple to pay for the rest of their lives to acquire a com­pe­tence they may be unable to cash in on the job, sub­prime mort­gages prac­ticed exploita­tion at the site of repro­duc­tion. Low-income work­ers who needed an address, a place to main­tain their abil­i­ties to work and to insti­tu­tion­al­ize their social exis­tence, found them­selves strug­gling to pay an unman­age­able debt until the bank sim­ply took the house back to sell it again, pock­et­ing the already-extracted payments.

It should be clear that these very vis­i­ble actions by finance can’t be reduced to the greed of indi­vid­ual crim­i­nals. They are the vio­lent and reck­less attempts by cap­i­tal­ists to defend and rad­i­cal­ize the exploita­tion that took place in the wage sys­tem, in spite of the grow­ing con­tra­dic­tions of that sys­tem. So we have to decou­ple our rhetoric from notions of cor­po­rate power and law­less bankers. It’s a rela­tion­ship we’re fight­ing, not a bunch of guys in expen­sive suits.

What the 99% slo­gan moves us towards is a con­cept of class. It’s the lad­der that we’re using to climb up to a class analy­sis. But to really develop that analy­sis, we’ll have to leave the lad­der behind. “We are the wage rela­tion” is not a very good slo­gan. It’s a shift in per­spec­tive that indi­cates the need for new slogans.

The 99% is a coali­tion built upon many dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies, inter­ests, and projects. While it helps us unify our sep­a­rate strug­gles, dis­cover the social in the per­sonal, and forge our dif­fer­ent demands into a com­mon dis­course, it ulti­mately con­ceals more than it reveals. The dan­ger is most appar­ent when we con­sider that some of the ten­den­cies within the Occupy Move­ment hope to use the momen­tum of the strug­gle to enter into a prof­itable alliance with finance. The “professional-managerial sec­tor,” or what has been com­monly though erro­neously labeled “the mid­dle class,” is cer­tainly part of this 99%. But it’s a pecu­liar part of this per­cent­age: although it is exploited by cap­i­tal like every­one else, it nev­er­the­less occa­sion­ally prof­its from its own exploita­tion. As that layer which embod­ies the inter­ests of both labor and cap­i­tal, the “mid­dle class” stands as a vari­able and poten­tially dan­ger­ous ele­ment within the move­ment as a whole.

The “mid­dle class” is, in its own way, tor­mented by wage labor – we think of what Ric­cardo Bellofiore and Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba describe as “the lack of social life, the end­less cig­a­rettes, the psy­chic dis­tur­bances and the hem­or­rhoids of our ultra-modern knowl­edge work­ers.” But this layer also has a ten­dency to look for a way out – not by abol­ish­ing exploita­tion in gen­eral, but by tak­ing a cut of the exploita­tion of lower-income work­ers. The professional-managerial lib­er­als want to make finance work for them; their gam­ble is to co-opt the more exploited sec­tors of the pro­le­tariat, to claim to speak for the whole work­ing class, to use reform as a means of sta­bi­liz­ing the wage rela­tion rather than putting it into question.

In many ways, it’s an old strat­egy that goes at least as far back as the French Rev­o­lu­tion. The Third Estate united its het­ero­ge­neous com­po­nents by recon­sti­tut­ing itself as the nation. Every­one else – the upper clergy and the nobil­ity – was regarded as a mere par­a­site idly leech­ing off the labors of the over­whelm­ing major­ity. The dom­i­nant fig­ures of the Third Estate – the busi­ness­men, lawyers, and aspir­ing politi­cians – at first hoped to use the strength of the move­ment to advance their own dis­tinct inter­ests rather than those of the masses. Even some aris­to­crats threw in their lot with the masses in the hopes that they too could domes­ti­cate it. This was all in 1789.

But now we’re in the twenty-first cen­tury – we don’t need another French Rev­o­lu­tion. So we have to ques­tion the strange resur­gence of the lan­guage of par­a­sitism. It’s a con­ve­nient way to reduce the objec­tives of the move­ment to noth­ing other than cast­ing off the par­a­sites in order to pre­serve the body. And the rhetoric of the 99% helps dis­sem­ble the very real con­tra­dic­tions slowly tear­ing apart that pur­port­edly coher­ent body. The dan­ger is all the more severe when we remem­ber that this body is not so much Amer­i­can as it is international.

Beyond the divi­sions within the Amer­i­can “99%” there are global divi­sions. Inequal­ity of wealth extends to the inequal­ity between nations and sug­gests that the sit­u­a­tion of the work­ing class varies with national bound­aries. In many nations work­ers are caught between the increas­ing impov­er­ish­ment of agri­cul­ture and an unsta­ble slum life struc­tured around con­tin­gent or infor­mal work. Farmer sui­cides in India are echoed by iPhone fac­tory worker sui­cides in China.

The Amer­i­can inflec­tion of the slo­gans now cir­cu­lat­ing glob­ally is sig­nif­i­cant. It sig­nals the deci­sive reen­try of the United States into this inter­na­tional cycle of strug­gle; the dom­i­nant pole of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion can no longer dis­tance itself from the strug­gles rend­ing the rest of the world. But there is a dan­ger that the grow­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the Amer­i­can strug­gle will begin to blind us to the dis­tinct char­ac­ter of other strug­gles and the spe­cific his­tor­i­cal form of the wage rela­tion in which they have found them­selves. The Israelis began with a hous­ing cri­sis, the Chileans attacked edu­ca­tion, the Greeks aimed at aus­ter­ity, and the Fil­ipinos united against Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism. Move­ments in the coun­tries of the “Third World” will have to take on a dis­tinct set of inter­ests and strate­gies pre­cisely because their com­po­si­tion is already so dif­fer­ent. So while the Occupy move­ment has allowed these dialects to trans­late, it will have to avoid the risk of oblit­er­at­ing its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. The con­tra­dic­tion is not between a homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional major­ity against an equally homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional minor­ity, but between the dif­fer­ent poles of a global wage rela­tion that nec­es­sar­ily assumes dif­fer­ent forms in dif­fer­ent places.

Enemy of the State?

The media like to sug­gest that the Occupy move­ment is the Tea Party of the left. And maybe there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties: both are socially het­ere­oge­nous, both have brought together indi­vid­u­als from across the coun­try, and both have sev­eral decen­tral­ized griev­ances, some of which may even be the same. Where they dif­fer most strongly, how­ever, is their rela­tion­ship to the state. While the Tea Party has strate­gi­cally insin­u­ated itself with the Repub­li­can Party in the hopes of reori­ent­ing the state itself, the Occupy move­ment has con­sis­tently refused to do the same with the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. The Democ­rats are too polit­i­cally impo­tent to effec­tively co-opt the move­ment, and even the unof­fi­cial demands of the occu­pa­tion are well beyond any­thing the Democ­rats will ever be will­ing to get behind. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the move­ment rejects the entire party sys­tem. The Cordéro-Guzmán sur­vey dis­cov­ered that the vast major­ity of those involved in Occupy Wall Street – some 70% of the respon­dents – iden­tify as polit­i­cally independent.

This sig­nals a major shift in the polit­i­cal cul­ture. While just a few years ago the Democ­rats were able to rebrand them­selves as a party of oppo­si­tion, change, and new hopes, they’re now widely regarded as oppor­tunists with noth­ing to offer. This legit­i­ma­tion cri­sis forced open a wide vac­uum on the left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum that has been filled by the Occupy move­ment. But while the move­ment has clearly aban­doned the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, it has not yet defin­i­tively aban­doned the state.

There are two ten­den­cies that fetishize the state. The first is the typ­i­cal lib­eral call for finan­cial reg­u­la­tion – if it was the unreg­u­lated avarice of the cor­po­ra­tions that got us into this mess, then we can resolve it by pres­sur­ing the state into reg­u­lat­ing them more tightly. The sec­ond, para­dox­i­cally, is the oppo­site end of the spec­trum, the “End the Fed” Ron Paul fanat­ics who believe that fiat cur­rency is the root of all evil. The shared ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tion of both these ten­den­cies is that the state and the mar­ket are some­how totally dis­tinct actors with con­trary interests.

So the com­par­i­son with the Tea Party should lead us to an unex­pect­edly impor­tant ques­tion: why is the only anti-government rhetoric to be found on the right? The para­noid notion that “big gov­ern­ment” seeks to take away the pri­vate prop­erty of indi­vid­u­als is a mys­ti­fied under­stand­ing of the real­ity that wealth really has been trans­ferred away from middle-income Amer­i­cans, and it accu­rately intu­its that this process has been over­seen by the state. We don’t have to spend a lot of time empha­siz­ing the fact that the state not only rep­re­sents the inter­ests of the wealthy, it’s actu­ally com­posed of them. Every­body knows this.

Add to this that all these processes of finan­cial­iza­tion have been admin­is­trated by the state. The bail-out was no aber­ra­tion; it just con­firmed who the state is here to sup­port. Con­sider the telling exam­ple of stu­dent loans. Since 1965 the gov­ern­ment has under­writ­ten pri­vate lenders who facil­i­tate an increas­ingly expen­sive col­lege edu­ca­tion, as part of the Fed­eral Fam­ily Edu­ca­tion Loan Pro­gram. What this means is that the abil­ity of uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing for-profit col­leges, to rad­i­cally increase tuition, and of pri­vate lenders to prey on more stu­dents, has been enabled by the gov­ern­ment. The pol­icy was ended in 2010, but not before mak­ing it absolutely clear in 2005 that the gov­ern­ment was not inter­ested in extend­ing any sup­port to the bor­row­ers: stu­dent loans have become nondis­charge­able, leav­ing a gen­er­a­tion of unem­ployed grad­u­ates with­out the option of declar­ing bank­ruptcy. The only win­ners are the finan­cial cor­po­ra­tions, which have been pack­ag­ing stu­dent loans into lucra­tive finan­cial prod­ucts called stu­dent loan asset-backed secu­ri­ties. Even the most recent mea­sures announced by the White House only make it eas­ier for peo­ple to get into debt; they do noth­ing to coun­ter­act the 8.3% increase in tuition at pub­lic colleges.

In spite of the government’s vis­i­ble defense of the cap­i­tal­ist class, the ten­dency on the left is to imag­ine that we can some­how just nego­ti­ate with the state. It’s not the first time this has been attempted. A mil­i­tant labor move­ment con­fronted cap­i­tal on the shop-floor dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s. Cap­i­tal and the state were forced to find a way to sub­sume and con­trol this threat; that strat­egy was called the New Deal. Under the pres­sure of World War II, the Com­mu­nist Party entered into an alliance with the Democ­rats and threw in its lot with the New Deal, sup­press­ing rank-and-file activ­ity in the name of the “no-strike pledge.” The sit­u­a­tion estab­lished had seri­ous con­se­quences after the war. The labor bureau­cracy set the stage for its com­ing decline; they strength­ened cap­i­tal and paved the way not only for the Smith and Taft-Hartley Acts, the legal foun­da­tions for the purg­ing of com­mu­nists from the unions, but also for the dev­as­tat­ing sep­a­ra­tion of the work­ing class from the labor movement.

Rec­og­niz­ing that the state is an adver­sary, how­ever, doesn’t mean moral­is­ti­cally ignor­ing it. It won’t wither away if we just refuse to engage with it out of prin­ci­ple. The les­son from our labor his­tory is not only that alliance with polit­i­cal par­ties is treach­er­ous, but also that mean­ing­ful reforms were won by the labor move­ment as a result of mil­i­tant and antag­o­nis­tic strate­gies, extend­ing from the 1919 Seat­tle gen­eral strike to the 1934 San Fran­cisco gen­eral strike. It would be the worst sec­tar­i­an­ism to reject reforms; they alle­vi­ate suf­fer­ing and advance the posi­tion of the work­ing class. But the ques­tion is whether mean­ing­ful reforms can be achieved within the polit­i­cal lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. If the polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus is con­trolled by the cap­i­tal­ist class, this means that those lim­its are not exter­nal lim­its that can be over­come by a stronger pro­gram. Instead, they are inter­nal to the strat­egy of reform. The only way to force the cap­i­tal­ist class to con­cede reforms is to con­front it with an antag­o­nis­tic agent, a uni­fied work­ing class. Let’s not delude our­selves into think­ing we can con­vince them with our bet­ter ideas.

Today the imme­di­ate tac­ti­cal ques­tions of the move­ment also pose the ques­tion of the state. In a telling inter­na­tional exchange between the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions across the world, a New Yorker ques­tioned occu­piers in Frank­furt about their deci­sion to request a per­mit from the police. Not­ing that Lib­erty Plaza was occu­pied with­out a per­mit, she asked why the Ger­mans had asked for one, won­der­ing if such col­lab­o­ra­tion with class ene­mies could have been the result of a “cul­tural dif­fer­ence.” But why not be flex­i­ble, on the look­out for open­ings that can be strate­gi­cally exploited? Some com­pro­mises may advance the class posi­tion, allow­ing a move­ment to con­front the state on a dif­fer­ent plane. If the state is will­ing to give us a per­mit, let them make that deci­sion and live to regret it.

The ques­tion of police per­mits touches more gen­er­ally on the police force itself. Are they, as some pro­test­ers have chanted, part of the 99%? From the start there has been a clear ten­sion with the police. They have made arrests, have begun infil­trat­ing the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions, and will cer­tainly be called in, as they have been in Berlin and Oak­land, to vio­lently crush the movement.

But the chal­lenge of the police is that they gen­uinely are work­ers, and their work is to repress pro­le­tar­ian antag­o­nism. This para­dox is not to be taken lightly. Nei­ther blindly defend­ing them as fel­low work­ers nor blindly attack­ing them as hated pigs will help us now. Any fail­ure to under­stand their spe­cific func­tion is either a reformist dan­ger or an adven­tur­ist error.

The real prob­lem was posed in 1968 by Pier Paolo Pasolini, after the Bat­tle of Valle Giu­lia, in which police and stu­dent rad­i­cals clashed vio­lently. Pasolini, the com­mu­nist film­maker, would later write a poem declar­ing sol­i­dar­ity with the police:

At Valle Giu­lia, yes­ter­day, there was a frag­ment
of class strug­gle: you, my friends, (although
in the right) were the rich,
and the police­men (although in the wrong)
were the poor…

The impor­tant point in Pasolini’s poem is not his roman­ti­ciza­tion of the police’s pur­ported pro­le­tar­ian iden­tity, but instead the ques­tion of the com­po­si­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The prob­lem this poses is that the repres­sive state appa­ra­tus has greater con­tact with many more lay­ers of the pro­le­tariat than the polit­i­cal move­ment. In many spec­tac­u­lar street con­fronta­tions the police have seemed to be the only rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “tra­di­tional” work­ing class, includ­ing peo­ple of color, allow­ing the reac­tionary media to rep­re­sent the pro­test­ers as enti­tled col­lege stu­dents. And there can be no doubt that the police force recruits from the under­class; it offers one of the last careers avail­able. Though in the abstract it is pos­si­ble to bring the police over to our side – the pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin suc­cess­fully won the sup­port of the police – this strat­egy can’t be assumed as some kind of utopian reflex. The Oak­land Police Depart­ment gave us a cru­cial reminder of the insta­bil­ity of Pasolini’s per­spec­tive, when the vicious and obscene vio­lence used for years against the black com­mu­nity was brought down upon Occupy Oak­land. The real goal of the move­ment should be to move past the fetishiza­tion of the police, and to forge deeper con­nec­tions with excluded seg­ments of the pro­le­tariat, sur­round­ing the police with their neigh­bors along­side col­lege students.

What­ever the com­po­si­tion of the police, they remain an index of the state’s expe­ri­ence of protest. Remem­ber the wise words of William S. Bur­roughs: “a func­tion­ing police state needs no police.” The Wall Street occu­pa­tion was taken far more seri­ously when the pep­per spray came out; even more when 700 were arrested on the Brook­lyn Bridge. The acts of vio­lence per­pe­trated by police have served as indi­ca­tion that the protest is a threat to the state’s func­tion­ing. Deter­min­ing the next steps will require care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, and lead­er­ship by peo­ple of color, who have the most expe­ri­ence deal­ing with police violence.

The Roof is on Fire

Some squea­mish left-liberals com­plain that the Occupy move­ment lacks orga­ni­za­tion. This is obvi­ously ridicu­lous. How can the sim­ple occu­pa­tion of a park spon­ta­neously ignite sim­i­lar occu­pa­tions in well over 50 Amer­i­can cities, incite a global protest in nearly 900 cities across the globe, and suc­cess­fully link together a series of het­ero­ge­neous strug­gles with­out any form of orga­ni­za­tion? The Occupy move­ment is per­haps one of the most orga­nized move­ments in history.

An accom­pa­ny­ing com­plaint is that the occu­pa­tions have not put forth demands. But it’s not at all clear that demands are a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for social trans­for­ma­tion. To a cer­tain extent, as we wrote about the Lon­don riots, the refusal to make demands is a protest against the idea that the exist­ing order could make our lives bet­ter, a refusal to speak in capital’s lan­guage. At the same time, the absence of “offi­cial,” insti­tu­tional demands coex­ists with an incred­i­ble mul­ti­plic­ity of demands made by indi­vid­ual pro­test­ers, as the list of griev­ances in the first offi­cial state­ment indicates.

The impor­tant ques­tion is whether this orga­ni­za­tion is durable, and whether the movement’s demands put the social struc­ture into ques­tion. No spon­ta­neous col­lec­tiv­ity could come together with­out at least an abstract set of com­mon demands, and it would be unable repro­duce itself with­out some kind of orga­ni­za­tional form. But can these forms rad­i­cal­ize the demands so that they are ori­ented towards the trans­for­ma­tion of the social real­ity out­side of them?

The mean­ing and polit­i­cal effect of demands will depend ulti­mately on the orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that makes them. It’s pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, that even a highly desir­able demand, like free health­care, could be posed by a fac­tion of the pro­tes­tors who will make it pos­si­ble to dis­solve the move­ment into the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. But this dynamic could just as eas­ily work in the other direc­tion. Take, for exam­ple, this poster pro­duced by the Ital­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary group Potere Operaio (Work­ers’ Power).

The text reads, “Reforms don’t pro­tect wages from ris­ing prices, from the rob­bery of deduc­tions. Com­rades, let’s take the offen­sive for our objec­tives. Trans­porta­tion, rent, school, meals – free. No taxes.” The police fig­ure wields the scale like a baton, show­ing how the deduc­tions out­weigh the wage. The base of the fig­ure is labelled: “par­ties – bosses – unions.”

The analy­sis offered by these demands is clear. Like debt today, the prices of daily neces­si­ties is a deduc­tion from the wage, a wage which already rep­re­sents exploita­tion. But the Amer­i­can reader will find two things very strange about this poster. The first is the idea of com­mu­nist par­ties and bosses in alliance with unions; while Italy in the 1960s and 1970s had large and pow­er­ful bureau­cratic unions and a reformist com­mu­nist party, we have no influ­en­tial left par­ties and our unions have barely any social power. Where it says “par­ties – bosses – unions,” we should write “liberals.”

The other puz­zle is the final demand: “no taxes.” Isn’t this the core plat­form of the right, of free-market extrem­ists? It is, of course, but this demand is a plat­form of the right because it is embed­ded in class, in the orga­nized struc­ture of the rul­ing class. No taxes for whom? The cap­i­tal­ist class tries to escape from taxes, to con­tinue to redis­trib­ute wealth towards the top, and to give the state an excuse to dis­man­tle the social gains made by labor. But if the cap­i­tal­ist class was sub­jected to a tax that even began to approach the per­cent­age it expro­pri­ates from work­ers, this would ren­der taxes on work­ers obsolete.

Since the tax is expe­ri­enced by work­ers as yet another deduc­tion from the wage, while the pub­lic pro­grams that ben­e­fit them are on the chop­ping block, it seems unnec­es­sary to allow the right to monop­o­lize the attack on taxes. If an anti-tax plat­form is put for­ward by work­ers as a class, it rep­re­sents a pro­gram of elim­i­nat­ing one deduc­tion from the wage while charg­ing cap­i­tal­ists for the main­te­nance of the state. The demand to tax the rich is, of course, accepted by many left-liberals. While it’s def­i­nitely a good idea to charge the cap­i­tal­ists, tax­ing the rich as the max­i­mum pro­gram sets us up for social devel­op­ment by the state. The occu­pa­tion move­ment gives us the poten­tial to inde­pen­dently develop the class.

Other demands may be more appro­pri­ate for our sit­u­a­tion. But they will have to be put for­ward by an orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that rep­re­sents a uni­tary class power. And the con­struc­tion of such a form of orga­ni­za­tion will have to emerge from strate­gies of action that pro­duce class solidarity.

A con­crete exam­ple of this kind of strat­egy took place in La Puente, Cal­i­for­nia. Rose Gudiel, who was about to be evicted from her fore­closed home, dis­cussed her sit­u­a­tion at Occupy LA. Her seem­ingly per­sonal story turned out to be a social one; oth­ers there had suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. Many of the occu­piers fol­lowed her back to her home in sup­port. A few days later over two hun­dred joined her as she protested in front of the man­sion of OneWest’s CEO; the next day they staged a sit-in at the Pasadena branch of Fan­nie Mae. Faced with such wide­spread oppo­si­tion the bank gave in and decided to mod­ify her loan.

This was a strat­egy, how­ever spon­ta­neous, that united par­tic­i­pants in the move­ment who were hit by fore­clo­sures. It pro­vided a con­cep­tual lan­guage in which indi­vid­u­als began to rec­og­nize that their own prob­lems are closely related to other seem­ingly dis­tinct prob­lems. Not every­one who sup­ported Gudiel was fac­ing evic­tion; they joined her in part because they rec­og­nized that their own dif­fi­cul­ties – unem­ploy­ment, debt, ris­ing cost of liv­ing – were con­nected to hers. The woman who loses her home is not so dif­fer­ent from the neigh­bor that lost his job. The power of this strat­egy emerged from a unique kind of sol­i­dar­ity. For the banks to fight Guidel, they had to fight the whole movement.

A fore­closed home is an inter­est­ing site for an occu­pa­tion. Among the many dif­fer­ences between a house and Zuc­cotti Park is the fact that a house has a roof. And this brings us back to the weather. Everybody’s talk­ing about it; every­body knows that win­ter will force the move­ment to rethink its tac­tics. This is the pol­i­tics of weather: it’s not some neu­tral phe­nom­e­non, but a weapon like any other. We will have to use it to our advan­tage before cap­i­tal enlists it to crush our movement.

This won’t be the first time weather has fig­ured promi­nently in a strug­gle. A reform ban­quet was sched­uled by the mod­er­ate oppo­si­tion to take place in Paris on Feb­ru­ary 22, 1848. Fear­ing an esca­la­tion of the already exist­ing con­flict, hop­ing to break the sol­i­dar­ity of the oppo­si­tion, and know­ing full well that the dis­trict where the meet­ing was to be held was a real hotbed of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity, the forces of order can­celled the ban­quet the night before, undoubt­edly hop­ing that the week’s hor­ri­ble weather would work to keep the demon­stra­tors away.

But despite the heavy clouds, cold wind, and bit­ing rain, the pro­test­ers took to the streets any­way, enraged by this provo­ca­tion, and quickly set about build­ing bar­ri­cades, loot­ing gun shops, and throw­ing stones at the National Guard. While order was restored in some of the more pub­lic places, the demon­stra­tors strate­gi­cally regrouped in their labyrinthine neigh­bor­hoods. Already a chal­lenge for the army, the wind­ing streets, tor­tu­ous alley­ways, and bewil­der­ing ter­rain became even more dan­ger­ous to out­siders now that it was pour­ing rain. So the forces of order hoped to use the weather to dis­suade pro­test­ers from com­ing out; the pro­test­ers ended up strate­gi­cally using the weather to bol­ster their pri­mary points of resis­tance and esca­late the strug­gle. So began the rev­o­lu­tion of 1848 in France.

We can also use the weather to our advan­tage. The forces of order are hop­ing that win­ter will kill off the move­ment by forc­ing us to retreat back to our homes. We should do just that. We should strate­gi­cally regroup by reoc­cu­py­ing fore­closed homes, squat­ting aban­doned apart­ments, occu­py­ing var­i­ous other build­ings, trans­form­ing each and every one of these into the cells of an esca­lat­ing move­ment. From the occu­pa­tion of a pub­lic park we can shift towards reoc­cu­py­ing those spaces from which we have been forcibly ejected by mount­ing debt, unem­ploy­ment, aus­ter­ity mea­sures, and cuts to social ser­vices. We can take back the pub­lic libraries, schools, lost homes, com­mu­nity cen­ters, and more. The point is to con­stantly think of cre­ative ways to use the weapons of our ene­mies against them. Let’s start with the barometers.

Who threw the can of green paint?: the first two weeks of Occupy Philadelphia

An article by Ben Webster on the contradictions and potential of the Occupy movement in Philadelphia during Fall 2011.

On the morn­ing of Octo­ber 14, one week into Occupy Philadelphia’s encamp­ment beside City Hall, some­one emp­tied the con­tents of a paint can on the building’s south­west­ern entrance. The unknown painter fled the scene, leav­ing behind a decid­edly unsym­bolic smear. Not of angry black or bloody red, but a smear of bland mint green. Police cor­doned off the entrance, dis­miss­ing eager Occupy vol­un­teers offer­ing their assis­tance. A pres­sure cleaner quickly removed all traces of the deed.

This bizarre inci­dent sug­gests much about Philadelphia’s iter­a­tion of the Occupy phe­nom­e­non. Like other occu­pa­tions, its porous bound­aries inte­grate the protest site with the flows of the city. Par­tic­i­pants, passers-by, police, and provo­ca­teurs move freely through­out, with the pos­si­bil­ity of enrich­ing or desta­bi­liz­ing the action; was our painter a police provo­ca­teur or a well-intentioned but strate­gi­cally chal­lenged par­tic­i­pant? Both were con­sid­ered in the aftermath.

This inci­dent also sug­gests the ambi­gu­ity and con­tra­dic­tion in the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion of Occupy Philadel­phia (OP). What con­sti­tutes mean­ing­ful action – a spec­tac­u­lar act of van­dal­ism, the peace­ful occu­pa­tion of pub­lic prop­erty, or direct action on the hori­zon more con­fronta­tional and rad­i­cal? There has been no short­age of activ­ity – daily marches strike out to the usual tar­gets – but as of yet no dra­matic con­fronta­tions like those of Occupy Wall Street have occurred. This is the real sig­nif­i­cance of the green paint inci­dent. That such a bla­tant act of van­dal­ism against the seat of munic­i­pal power was shrugged off so quickly by occu­piers and police alike indi­cates both the power and impo­tence of OP. On the one hand, there was no police advance under the pre­text of this or any other num­ber of small provo­ca­tions – surely an index of our power. On the other hand, the inci­dent is an index of the lim­ited threat to capital’s power that OP poses, which is, as of yet, not enough to move the heavy hand of the state, a hand whose ruth­less power has been amply shown in recent Philadel­phia his­tory, from the 1985 bomb­ing of the MOVE house to the repres­sion of protests against the 2000 Repub­li­can National Convention.

To use two famil­iar polit­i­cal con­cepts, Occupy Philadel­phia is at once ani­mated by both the spirit of the com­mons and of the strike. I do not wish to argue for the pri­macy of either approach or assert their incom­pat­i­bil­ity, but rather to frame the young his­tory of OP as a state of ten­sion between these two poles. As a par­tic­i­pant in the occu­pa­tion, I hope to describe from both expe­ri­ence and analy­sis the dis­tinct char­ac­ter of the Occupy X move­ment in post-industrial, working-class Philadel­phia, and its sig­nif­i­cance for the con­tem­po­rary class struggle.

Fight­ing City Hall

Occupy Philadel­phia feels like a march, a strike, a com­mune, and a car­ni­val. This vari­ety of forms derives from the pecu­liar­ity of the tac­tic. One can par­tic­i­pate in OP just by mov­ing ordi­nary human activ­i­ties – like sleep­ing, eat­ing, social­iz­ing – to the occu­pa­tion site. But “extra­or­di­nary” human activ­i­ties – demon­stra­tions, assem­blies, teach-ins, movie screen­ings – have taken place there as well, cre­at­ing a charged but uneven topog­ra­phy. The per­sonal and the polit­i­cal do not yet coin­cide here, but they rub shoul­ders. A read­ing group on Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of Com­mu­nity next to campers dry­ing their soggy socks on a clothes line; a col­lege dude test­ing out pickup lines in earshot of the peo­ple of color caucus.

Philly’s unique Occupy iden­tity has devel­oped in large part due to a détente with the city and its police. Over 1,000 peo­ple attended a rau­cous plan­ning meet­ing two days before the occupation’s inau­gu­ra­tion, a siz­able show of force well cov­ered by the local press. Of the two options avail­able to the Philadel­phia police – mas­sive and very pub­lic repres­sion or tacit coop­er­a­tion – they opted for the lat­ter. At 9 AM on Octo­ber 6, hun­dreds assem­bled on the west side of City Hall and began con­struct­ing an encamp­ment with rel­a­tively lit­tle inter­fer­ence. Although police are sta­tioned vis­i­bly around the occu­pa­tion and con­duct walk-throughs both uni­formed and plain-clothed, so far they’ve acted with restraint.

Activ­ity in vio­la­tion of city codes, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of pal­let struc­tures for the home­less, has been per­mit­ted, embold­en­ing some occu­piers but cre­at­ing an acri­mo­nious inter­nal debate. The hands-off approach thus far by the police con­firms the lib­eral naiveté of some who, using the movement’s vocab­u­lary, iden­tify the police and city brass as part of “the 99%,” and there­fore our allies. Indeed, Mayor Michael Nut­ter and Chief of Police Charles Ram­sey made very pub­lic, very genial appear­ances at OP in its first days. Oth­ers, from polit­i­cal acu­men or per­sonal expe­ri­ence, view the city’s over­tures with skep­ti­cism or overt antag­o­nism. This debate came to a head with the early ques­tion posed to the gen­eral assem­bly of acquir­ing a per­mit, and has per­sisted to cur­rent dis­cus­sions on how to respond to the city’s evolv­ing posi­tion. The GA voted for a per­mit after much dis­cus­sion. Although unprece­dented in mod­ern Philadel­phia his­tory for the lib­er­ties and exemp­tions it grants to the occu­pa­tion, the per­mit does bind OP in a legal­is­tic sta­sis – offi­cial, even granted a wel­come by the pow­ers that be, but neutered of antag­o­nism. To the out­law, rela­tions of power are crys­tal clear.

This Philly com­pro­mise dis­tin­guishes OP from its Occupy Wall Street (OWS) tem­plate. Freed from both the glare of the inter­na­tional media and the men­ace of overt police activ­ity, OP turns inward. Free­dom from repres­sion in a far larger phys­i­cal space than OWS offers oppor­tu­ni­ties to strengthen our posi­tion but also deep­ens the con­tra­dic­tions latent within the Occupy move­ment. And although the police aren’t yet using pepper-spray and batons as they have against our New York com­rades, this doesn’t indi­cate a lack of police tac­tics to crush OP. Two strate­gies must be antic­i­pated from our ene­mies in City Hall. One, the strat­egy of patience, in which the police bide their time and wait for either win­ter weather or the “tragedy of the com­mons” to dis­perse OP. Two, the exploita­tion of inci­dents of non-passivity at OP-associated direct actions to crack down on the encamp­ment. Both approaches can be antic­i­pated, and, with proper fore­sight, made to back­fire as the attempts at repres­sion in New York have.

Strike and Commons

Philadel­phia City Hall is mon­u­men­tal, the sym­bolic and geo­graph­i­cal cen­ter of a bat­tered but tena­cious city. It is the second-tallest masonry build­ing in the world, and in its hey­day was a won­der of archi­tec­tural achieve­ment. The city’s two sub­way lines inter­sect under­neath it, send­ing con­tin­u­ous rum­blings up to its cold stone plazas. Along its west side is Dil­worth Plaza, a two block long con­crete plaza cast in the aus­tere style of 60s urban renewal. It is the habit­ual dwelling of a large home­less pop­u­la­tion, and is sched­uled to be handed over shortly to a pri­vate devel­op­ment group for the build­ing of a cafe, skat­ing rink, and con­cep­tual foun­tains. In autumn, the plaza is per­pet­u­ally in the shadow of City Hall and the sur­round­ing office build­ings, and whipped by intense winds.

OP has adapted many orga­ni­za­tional fea­tures of the Occupy move­ment. The gen­eral assem­bly, which meets daily at 7 PM, is the pri­mary forum for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and decision-making. Work­ing groups assure the daily repro­duc­tion of the occu­pa­tion (food, medic, edu­ca­tion, safety, facil­i­ta­tion, etc.) and its strate­gic thrust (direct action, media, mes­sag­ing, etc.). Over 300 tents have been erected across Dil­worth Plaza, pop­u­lated by var­i­ous “tribes” of the polit­i­cal and non-political (“do you go to the gen­eral assem­bly?”), young and old, white and black, counter-cultural and normies. Things are typ­i­cally quiet before noon, and after­wards through the evening swell with part-time par­tic­i­pants who sleep at home, curiosity-seekers, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, cops, passers-by, and the media. OP ben­e­fits greatly from its loca­tion lit­er­ally on top of the city’s busiest tran­sit hub. High school stu­dents and com­muters con­tribute to its open vital­ity; there is strength in num­bers, even if they are anony­mous and tem­po­rary. Despite its prox­im­ity to Philadelphia’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, OP does not have the belly-of-the-beast feel of OWS; this is not a global city, and a pro­le­tar­ian mien con­t­a­m­i­nates even those quar­ters fash­ioned in the mold of neolib­eral finance capital.

OP, like its peers, strives for hor­i­zon­tal orga­ni­za­tion – ide­ally all par­tic­i­pants have an equal right to deter­mine the course of the occu­pa­tion. The space cre­ated at OP for exper­i­men­ta­tion in egal­i­tar­ian decision-making should be applauded; the pro­lif­er­a­tion of such spaces is essen­tial for the project of pro­le­tar­ian auton­omy. How­ever, since thus far par­tic­i­pa­tion in decision-making and exe­cu­tion is encour­aged but not com­pul­sory, I would sug­gest that in prac­tice, power at OP is func­tion­ing along the lines of a kind of prim­i­tive syn­di­cal­ism. Pro­pos­als sub­mit­ted for approval at the gen­eral assem­bly must first pass through a daily co-committee meet­ing (“co-co”), com­posed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the var­i­ous work­ing groups. In effect, access to power at OP is stream­lined by par­tic­i­pa­tion in a work­ing group: in the micro-society of OP, the work­ers in the work­ing groups that con­sti­tute its infra­struc­ture con­sti­tute its sov­er­eign power. Is this a pos­i­tive model to acknowl­edge and prop­a­gate, or a model that will tend to pro­duce a divi­sion among occu­piers between more active par­tic­i­pants and those who par­tic­i­pate by sim­ply show­ing up and remain­ing in the encamp­ment? It should be noted that groups such as cau­cuses of anar­chists and peo­ple of color, by dint of their orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity or moral power, read­ily move to the cen­ter of OP’s sov­er­eign power at par­ity with the work­ing groups. The ambi­gu­ity of the sit­u­a­tion lies in the ques­tion of access to power: should this be deter­mined by capac­ity for orga­ni­za­tion or objec­tive posi­tion within exist­ing social hier­ar­chies? How can the repro­duc­tion of these hier­ar­chies be actively com­bated within the occupations?

Con­fu­sion, over­lap, and frus­tra­tion are tol­er­ated out of neces­sity at OP by the pro­lif­er­at­ing work­ing groups. Good faith and move­ment momen­tum – for the time – paper over the con­sid­er­able chal­lenges of con­sti­tut­ing a micro-society from a milieu of strangers with vary­ing expe­ri­ences and back­grounds, except­ing the occa­sional raised voices and scuffles.

How long can the momen­tum last? OP has passed through three over­lap­ping stages: spec­ta­cle, orga­ni­za­tion, and critique/action. In the early days in which spec­ta­cle dom­i­nated, every­one seemed to be film­ing every­one else with cell­phone cam­eras, and the media swarmed over it all. When peo­ple gath­ered on the morn­ing of Octo­ber 6, they seemed uncer­tain what to do, which protest rit­u­als to fol­low – who do I show my sign to? Is this a rally, a sit-in, or what? Who’ll be the first to set up their tent, and where? The pro­lif­er­a­tion of image pro­duc­tion coin­cided with a ner­vous amor­phous mass, only vaguely aware of its com­mon­al­ity and power.

In the sec­ond stage, orga­ni­za­tion, the encampment’s infra­struc­ture was estab­lished. With the for­ma­tion of work­ing groups and pro­ce­dures for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and decision-making, the poten­tial of the mass was har­nessed. Dil­worth Plaza was spa­tially delin­eated and mapped. Sub-groups such as the peo­ple of color cau­cus and the wheelchair-dependent self-organized to iden­tify and cor­rect pat­terns of exclu­sion. Brief strug­gles for con­trol of media and out­reach efforts finally expelled a nar­cis­sis­tic indi­vid­ual who treated OP’s Face­book page as a per­sonal fief­dom. Inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion is an ongo­ing process involv­ing con­sid­er­able exper­i­men­ta­tion, but the day to day repro­duc­tion of OP is secured for now, clear­ing the way for a deep­en­ing focus on cri­tique and action.

In this cur­rent stage of cri­tique and action, the con­cep­tual para­me­ters of com­mons and strike assume their power. Two ques­tions, of demands and of accept­able direct action, pre­dom­i­nate. It is widely accepted that OP can only main­tain its momen­tum with a con­stant sched­ule of marches, teach-ins, and speak­ers. In this lab­o­ra­tory of praxis, in which the tac­tic of main­tain­ing the occu­pa­tion and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of col­lec­tive cri­tique are mutu­ally rein­forc­ing, the only thing lack­ing is a cat­a­lyst of true resis­tance. Marches have set out from OP to harass banks, visit preda­tory stu­dent loan sharks, tour shitty hos­pi­tals, and, arguably most suc­cess­fully, chase Eric Can­tor from a speak­ing engage­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. Philadel­phia PD duti­fully block off inter­sec­tions and escort the marchers to their tar­get and back to the occu­pa­tion. OP now iron­i­cally pos­sesses the power to march unob­structed any­where in the city it chooses, but seems to be run­ning out of sym­bol­i­cally potent des­ti­na­tions. All dressed up with nowhere to go, obscure polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences take on a new impor­tance. What if the police are our ene­mies pre­cisely by act­ing like our most oblig­ing friends? If the “1%” can so eas­ily neu­tral­ize our efforts, why will they bother lis­ten­ing to our demands?

OP recasts Dil­worth Plaza as a com­mons, shift­ing it from a nom­i­nally pub­lic space to an actively com­mon one, col­lec­tively owned by those who rule to the extent that they actively par­tic­i­pate. It is a space striv­ing towards decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, where human rela­tion­ships have more value than the exchange of money. Yet it also bears a resem­blance to a strike, a col­lec­tive sus­pen­sion of nor­mal activ­ity lead­ing to a con­fronta­tional moment of deci­sion. As the weather turns, the quo­tid­ian qual­ity of OP tends towards the grim resolve of a picket line in the dead of win­ter. The two forms are not mutu­ally exclu­sive; every com­mons must be defended, and every strike relies on a shared ter­ri­tory of expe­ri­ence, spa­tial or oth­er­wise. The ten­den­cies towards com­mons or strike do not neatly coin­cide with reformist or rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tives. Yet the inter­sec­tion of the forms makes for an unhappy ten­sion, unable to develop with con­fi­dence in either direc­tion. To expand and deepen the com­mons would be to hit too deeply and rad­i­cally at the rela­tions of pri­vate prop­erty and social repro­duc­tion for some par­tic­i­pants. To adopt the antag­o­nis­tic sol­i­dar­ity of the strike would be to aban­don all pre­tenses of coop­er­a­tion with the state and its agents, unac­cept­able for some. The project of OP, and the Occupy move­ment more broadly, is to syn­the­size the com­mons and the strike in a form appro­pri­ate to cur­rent rela­tions of power and production.


Pro­le­tar­ian com­bat­ive­ness in Philadel­phia, the site of many proud clashes in the his­tory of Amer­i­can class strug­gle, still exists, evi­denced by a vari­ety of expres­sions rang­ing from the vic­to­ri­ous PASNAP strike at Tem­ple Hos­pi­tal in 2010 to the auto-reduction action orga­nized by teens at a local Sears store this past sum­mer. OP is poten­tially a site of encounter and recom­po­si­tion for a met­ro­pol­i­tan work­ing class changed by decades of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, a swelling pop­u­la­tion of recent immi­grants, and the com­bat­ive youth sub­cul­tures of the flash mob and debt-ridden col­lege grad vari­ety. Although the process remains vague and pre­lim­i­nary, the occu­pa­tion move­ment in Philly is a promis­ing indi­ca­tor of the work­ing class’s polit­i­cal recomposition.

Two of the largest pop­u­la­tions in the OP encamp­ment are the long-term home­less and the col­lege stu­dent milieu. That they sleep will­ingly side by side for weeks at a time speaks to the nov­elty of the Occupy move­ment. The close, extended con­tact of occu­piers tends to cut through prej­u­dice and ide­o­log­i­cal mys­ti­fi­ca­tion, even though the egal­i­tar­ian ideal of the move­ment remains dis­tant. Indi­vid­u­als and groups who may never have oth­er­wise encoun­tered each other in the huge city now find them­selves shar­ing both an eco­nomic cri­tique and a tent. Should a major work stop­page occur in the city soon – both the Ver­i­zon nego­ti­a­tions and a num­ber of pub­lic sec­tor con­tract nego­ti­a­tions remain unset­tled – encounter on a far larger scale is pos­si­ble. The city’s major unions have issued state­ments of sup­port for the occu­pa­tion, but a mate­r­ial min­gling has the poten­tial to change the con­sti­tu­tion of both move­ments for the bet­ter and expand momen­tum beyond the focal encamp­ment. OP, how­ever, may in the long run be a bet­ter pro­ducer of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties then of con­crete demands, and this would not be a fault.

An impor­tant sub­jec­tiv­ity crys­tal­liz­ing in the Occupy move­ment is sim­i­lar to the dri­ving force behind the global orig­i­na­tors of the occu­pa­tion con­cept in Spain, Egypt, and Tunisia: young, edu­cated, and down­wardly mobile work­ers. Many recent grad­u­ates or dropouts of local uni­ver­si­ties like Tem­ple and the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­vide a motive force behind OP’s work­ing groups, expe­ri­enc­ing a mode of col­lec­tive strug­gle quite dif­fer­ent from man­aged, pre­dictable cam­pus “activism.” As com­rades in Cal­i­for­nia noted dur­ing the uni­ver­sity occu­pa­tions there in fall 2009, the prac­tice of occu­py­ing tends to dis­solve out­dated dis­tinc­tions like that between “work­ers” and “stu­dents.” A tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­ity beg­ging more research is the con­nec­tion between OP’s site above a tran­sit hub, and the highly mobile nature of this sec­tor, mov­ing around the city at odd hours between mul­ti­ple part-time jobs, casual work, and classes. Ear­lier cycles of strug­gles in Philly, from the post-New Left Move­ment for a New Soci­ety in the 1970s to the clashes at the 2000 RNC, bequeathed long-lasting infra­struc­tures of rad­i­cal insti­tu­tions and expe­ri­ence. Will OP be the coming-out party for a new cycle or just a flash in the pan?

Think Locally?

OP clearly owes its inspi­ra­tion to Occupy Wall Street, encamped just two hours up the New Jer­sey Turn­pike. The prox­im­ity of the two cities allowed many Philly orga­niz­ers to visit OWS before launch­ing OP, tak­ing note of its orga­ni­za­tional model and learn­ing from its mis­cues. As one of the largest occu­pa­tions in the coun­try as of yet spared overt police repres­sion, OP is both a sig­nif­i­cant model for the national move­ment and some­thing of an aber­ra­tion. Among occu­piers, the rela­tion­ship of OP to the move­ment remains uncer­tain, bespeak­ing a larger ambi­gu­ity towards the global, national, and local con­texts of the cri­sis. Mate­r­ial efforts have been made to share resources with OWS, and sol­i­dar­ity actions with com­rades attacked by police in Oak­land and Atlanta are under discussion.

The polit­i­cal imag­i­nary of OP remains largely stuck at the national level. Rhetoric of the 99%, Wall Street, and cor­po­rate taxes implic­itly locates the cur­rent social and eco­nomic crises within national bor­ders. Yet these crises have inter­na­tional causes and impli­ca­tions, and resis­tance in the form of occu­pa­tions has like­wise been a global phe­nom­e­non. As the calls for uni­fied Occupy X demands increases, a real dan­ger exists both in ignor­ing the global char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal and our strug­gles, and in fail­ing to con­nect Occupy’s cri­tiques with local con­di­tions and local grievances.

A fac­tion within OP seized an early oppor­tu­nity to advance long-standing local griev­ances and make demands of the city. After receiv­ing a let­ter from the city gov­ern­ment which made sev­eral demands of OP (dis­man­tle fire haz­ards, con­trol open uri­na­tion, etc.), they refused a pater­nal­is­tic rela­tion­ship and in turn advanced sev­eral demands at the GA that OP should make in response. One of these included a repeal of Philadelphia’s racist youth cur­few law. Con­ve­niently up for a vote of exten­sion steps away in City Hall, the law was ini­tially passed to kill off the flash mobs that once rocked the city. Fight­ing a law that inten­tion­ally seeks to frac­ture, dis­ci­pline, and man­age spe­cific lay­ers of the work­ing class would go a long way to recon­nect­ing with those sec­tors that are still under­rep­re­sented at OP.

This gen­eral effort was accom­pa­nied by dis­tri­b­u­tion of an excel­lent sum­mary of recent local strug­gles, enti­tled “The Mayor and Police Are not Our Friends!” Spear­headed largely by anar­chists (who have been the con­ve­nient tar­gets of an ongo­ing red-baiting cam­paign), this effort has bril­liantly changed the inflec­tion of OP, focus­ing atten­tion on local com­mu­ni­ties already in strug­gle. A pre­dictable back­lash fol­lowed, with many claim­ing that link­ing the occu­pa­tion with strug­gles around the cur­few and police bru­tal­ity diluted our mes­sage and weak­ened pub­lic support.

This back­lash esca­lated when 15 occu­piers were arrested in front of Philadel­phia PD head­quar­ters on the national Octo­ber 22 day of protest against police bru­tal­ity. Although the effi­cacy of their non-violent civil dis­obe­di­ence tac­tics is debat­able (all blocked a street overnight, refus­ing repeated police orders to dis­perse), the real­ity of police bru­tal­ity in Philly is not. The first arrests of OP were denounced by many who sought to dis­tance the activ­i­ties at City Hall from those which, pushed out­ward by the occupation’s momen­tum, occurred else­where in the city. Should this fail­ure of sol­i­dar­ity and cen­trifu­gal polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion con­tinue, OP will likely die a win­try death shiv­er­ing in the shad­ows of Cen­ter City.

The Octo­ber 22 arrests and the emer­gence of a new ulti­ma­tum from the city throw the future of OP into ques­tion. After grant­ing an open-ended per­mit to the occu­pa­tion, with no stated end date, the city announced Novem­ber 15 as the first day of the ren­o­va­tion of Dil­worth Plaza. This ren­o­va­tion includes the total recon­struc­tion of the plaza by a pri­vate com­pany bear­ing a 30-year lease, which will install an ice-skating rink and chic cafe, obvi­ously inspired by Man­hat­tan tourist geo­gra­phies. Of course, the ren­o­va­tion will entail fenc­ing off the plaza, expelling not only the occu­pa­tion, but also the home­less who use it as a long-term home. So the date has been set for con­fronta­tion. Whether the city backs down, OP relo­cates, or is forcibly expelled, is uncer­tain. How OP decides to act against this threat will be a major indi­ca­tor of the movement’s resolve and potential.

A far larger chal­lenge, how­ever, is the win­ter weather. The last two Philadel­phia win­ters have been among the harsh­est on record. Sim­ply put, OP can­not with­stand a north­east­ern win­ter at its cur­rent size, and should not try to. Dis­cour­aged dis­per­sion when the tem­per­a­ture dips is the worst pos­si­ble out­come, and pro­vid­ing a spec­ta­cle of per­sonal suf­fer­ing to the media through it all is a ter­ri­ble tac­tic. Occu­pa­tions have cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the world, but fetishiz­ing the tac­tic is a strate­gic blun­der. The only limit to con­tin­u­ing and grow­ing this nascent move­ment is our imag­i­na­tion. Our con­ver­sa­tions and GAs must move, and quickly, to the dis­cus­sion of new tac­tics – occu­py­ing aban­doned build­ings (of no short sup­ply in Philly), sub­ver­sive orga­niz­ing in our schools and work­places, strength­en­ing of the local strug­gles our anar­chist com­rades have drawn atten­tion to – action, edu­ca­tion, and the­o­riz­ing with­out a cen­tral encamp­ment if need be. GAs can con­tinue indoors, marches and direct action can expand through­out the city, and of course hard­core occu­piers can con­tinue out­side if they wish. This strate­gic retreat is actu­ally an advance across the entirety of the social ter­rain – but one that will require defy­ing the logic of media rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the spec­ta­cle of con­tem­po­rary politics.

In one form or the other, we can be opti­mistic that Occupy Philadel­phia will inspire a win­ter of dis­con­tent in the City of Broth­erly Love. Come spring, we can reoc­cupy not only Dil­worth Plaza, but Rit­ten­house Square, Love Park, Franklin Park­way, and – why not – Inde­pen­dence Hall and the Lib­erty Bell, too.

From Egypt to Wall Street

Wendell Hassan Marsh on the links between the Wisconsin protests, the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement.

For­mer Egypt­ian pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak had already stepped down, fol­low­ing a pop­u­lar move­ment that estab­lished a micro-republic, the Gumhuriyyah el-Tahrir (Repub­lic of Lib­erty), which con­tra­dicted the per­vad­ing logic of the inter­na­tional eco­nomic sys­tem. And now pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin were occu­py­ing the state house to pre­vent the pass­ing of leg­is­la­tion that would effec­tively sus­pend bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic work­ers. Sit­ting in a Wash­ing­ton news­room, we needed a head­line. I very quickly sug­gested some­thing along these lines: “Mid­dle East unrest spreads to the Mid­west.” I got a side eye. After all, how could a free and open soci­ety, the demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety, be tak­ing its cues from, of all places, Egypt, an antique land with back­ward ways, Islamic fun­da­men­tal­ists, and Arab dic­ta­tors? The edi­tors went with a more mod­est title.

How­ever, for many in the Arab world, the con­nec­tion was not lost for a minute. They saw in the occu­pa­tion of the Wis­con­sin State Capi­tol the same spirit that was present in Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation: the refusal to accept the finan­cial order’s demand to oblit­er­ate decades of pro­gres­sive strug­gle and negotiation.

Maybe my own time in Cairo made me see the easy con­nec­tion that my edi­tors missed. I lived there for a almost a year and a half on the largess of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. The con­di­tions of my pres­ence were a reminder of the struc­tural inequal­i­ties of the global sys­tem. Any old Amer­i­can can arrive to the air­port with­out a visa, lit­tle train­ing in any use­ful domain and quickly find gain­ful employ­ment and a life of com­fort. An Egypt­ian, how­ever, even with years of edu­ca­tion, has to strug­gle to make a living.

As many set out today to occupy every­thing, let us take a moment to remem­ber the real ori­gins of this global move­ment and allow it to guide our ongo­ing politics.

Deep in the land of Han­ni­bal the Carthagin­ian, who once chal­lenged the power of another global empire, Bouaz­izi was born to a con­struc­tion worker, liv­ing his entire life in Sidi Bouzid, an agrar­ian town. The 26-year-old scraped together an exis­tence for him­self and a large fam­ily by sell­ing fruit. Rel­a­tively speak­ing, he did well to have even that hus­tle, as the New York Times reported that unem­ploy­ment reaches as high as 30% in his area. There was a nearby fac­tory, but that only pays around $50 a month. Even the col­lege edu­cated were head­ing to the coast, where they too strug­gled with underemployment.

A vet­eran fruit ven­dor, Bouaz­izi was used to the author­i­ties that policed the fruit stands. Some­times he paid a fine, other times a bribe. But on the morn­ing of Decem­ber 17, Bouaz­izi refused to do either. He also refused an attempted con­fis­ca­tion of his fruit, com­modi­ties that are often bought on credit by the para-legal ven­dors. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the state even­tu­ally won the first bat­tle. Beaten and humil­i­ated, Bouaz­izi quickly tried redress­ing his griev­ances at the governor’s office, request­ing that, at the least, his scale be returned. Ignored at the governor’s, he was reported to ask, “how do you expect me to make a liv­ing?” He set him­self ablaze and ignited a global movement.

Protests started hours after the inci­dent. Bouazizi’s fam­ily and friends threw coins at the governor’s gate. “Here is your bribe,” they yelled. As the unrest grew, police started to beat pro­test­ers, fir­ing tear gas and even­tu­ally bul­lets. But the spirit wouldn’t be sti­fled. Orga­nized labor joined in the strug­gle, iden­ti­fy­ing the cen­tral prob­lem as eco­nomic. After all, it was global cap­i­tal that had denied Bouaz­izi and his sup­port­ers their dig­nity; it extracted sur­plus value from human objects down to the last drop of blood.

For­mer colo­nial power France offered to lend a hand with its secu­rity savoir-faire. Or maybe they would have just hired a pri­vate firm to han­dle the con­tract. Later acknowl­edg­ing the mis­step, Sarkozy tried to jus­tify his government’s sup­port of the author­i­tar­ian regime with reveal­ing, if trite, argu­ments. “Behind the eman­ci­pa­tion of women, the drive for edu­ca­tion and train­ing, the eco­nomic dynamism, the emer­gence of a mid­dle class, there was a despair, a suf­fer­ing, a sense of suf­fo­ca­tion. We have to recog­nise that we under­es­ti­mated it,” Sarkozy said in a press con­fer­ence.

Sarkozy under­es­ti­mated the effect that the “eco­nomic dynamism” of the rul­ing elite had on the major­ity of the coun­try. He under­es­ti­mated the dimin­ished eco­nomic prospects that resulted from Tunisia’s decreased agri­cul­tural and man­u­fac­tur­ing exports to Europe. He under­es­ti­mated the Tunisian people’s reac­tion in the face of poten­tial anni­hi­la­tion by eco­nomic violence.

The move­ment quickly spread to nearby Egypt, where con­di­tions have been even worse, the socio-economic divide between the top 1% and the rest even more dra­matic. Sev­eral self-immolations occurred through­out the coun­try, prompt­ing the Cheikh of al Azhar, the most respected insti­tu­tion in the Sunni Islamic world, to issue a fatwa against the prac­tice. Youth with degrees but with­out jobs started to occupy Tahrir Square, to call for the dig­nity that global neolib­eral poli­cies had denied them. They took the recent tac­tics of Egypt’s young but grow­ing labor move­ment and added others.

When Mubarak, whose 30-year reign had been marked by the open­ing of the coun­try to West­ern busi­ness inter­ests, started to crack down on the pro­test­ers as the empire’s strong man, the peo­ple said he had to go. The pub­lic began to protest against dic­ta­tor­ship, but only inso­far as they were protest­ing the global eco­nomic empire.

Some­how a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive has emerged in our media that the Arab spring protested against dic­ta­tor­ship, against mur­der­ous regimes. These pop­u­lar strug­gles have been reduced to rebel­lions against the vil­lainies of a Qaddafi, an Assad, a Saleh.

But the Arab Spring started as a protest against global finance and its hench­men. Almost across the board, pro­test­ers claim­ing pub­lic space were demand­ing mostly eco­nomic reforms. It was only after Arab dic­ta­tors, whose decen­nial rules offered up their coun­tries to the jaws of the global mar­ket, started to repress this pop­u­lar strug­gle with vio­lence, that dic­ta­tor­ship became the tar­get of regime change.

Occupy Wall Street and the sub­se­quent Occupy move­ment were ini­ti­ated in the same spirit of eco­nomic jus­tice. Zuc­cotti Park, iron­i­cally taken and renamed Lib­erty Plaza by its occu­piers, is a micro-republic where the logic of empire doesn’t work. Peo­ple take pride in dis­com­fort, in being arrested and work­ing for free. Altru­ism has become nor­ma­tive and hier­ar­chy repug­nant. To be sure, there is inner dis­sent and strug­gle within the body politic of the micro-republic. Nev­er­the­less, the audac­ity to live a utopian prac­tice has become lib­er­at­ing in itself.

Yet this move­ment can’t con­tent itself with grant­ing young peo­ple the right to take on more debt to live the lives the world can’t sus­tain, or reform­ing the way can­di­dates fund their cam­paigns. The despo­tism that west­ern pow­ers decry in the name of human rights is a symp­tom of a wider sys­tem of eco­nomic exploita­tion, which at home man­i­fests itself in the attack on the Amer­i­can work­ing and mid­dle class. They are connected.

The repres­sive mea­sures states use against their own pop­u­la­tions has also been imported from the Mid­dle East. A recent post by Max Blu­men­thal con­nects the dots behind recent alarm­ing exam­ples of social con­trol and police militarization:

The police repres­sion on dis­play in Oak­land reminded me of tac­tics I wit­nessed the Israeli army employ against Pales­tin­ian pop­u­lar strug­gle demon­stra­tions in occu­pied West Bank vil­lages like Nabi Saleh, Ni’lin and Bilin. So I was not sur­prised when I learned that the same com­pany that sup­plies the Israeli army with tear­gas rounds and other weapons of mass sup­pres­sion is sell­ing its dan­ger­ous wares to the Oak­land police. The com­pany is Defense Tech­nol­ogy, a Casper, Wyoming based arms firm that claims to “spe­cial­ize in less lethal tech­nol­ogy” and other “crowd man­age­ment prod­ucts.” Defense Tech sells every­thing from rub­ber coated tear­gas rounds that bounce in order to max­i­mize gas dis­per­sal to 40 mil­lime­ter “direct impact” sponge rounds to “spe­cialty impact” 12 gauge rub­ber bullets.

One vet­eran of the war in Iraq knows the effects of the police-sponsored vio­lence first­hand. After being hit by a tear gas can­is­ter launched by the Oak­land Police Depart­ment, Scott Olsen suf­fered a frac­tured skull and a swollen brain. As though that were not enough, video footage shows a police offi­cer throw­ing a flash bang grenade next to the blood­ied man to dis­perse the crowd of peo­ple com­ing to his aid. But such police bru­tal­ity is noth­ing new in Oak­land, home of a rad­i­cal black pol­i­tics that has strug­gled against struc­tural eco­nomic and phys­i­cal vio­lence against the work­ing class, the poor, and minorities.

We should remem­ber that the pol­i­tics forged by the Black Pan­ther Party in the late 1960s and 1970s made deep ties with the anti-imperial projects of North Africa, the hotbed of today’s van­guard move­ment. Alge­ria made the Pan­ther head­quar­ters in Oak­land their embassy, pro­vid­ing a sort of diplo­matic shield against police sur­veil­lance. When Eldridge Cleaver went into exile, Alge­ria hosted him and the inter­na­tional sec­tion of the party. A chap­ter was also cre­ated in Cairo, then, a nerve cen­ter for the world wide free­dom struggle.

Much is rid­ing on the direc­tion of the Occupy move­ment in Amer­ica. While vis­it­ing the Wall Street occu­piers, two of Tahrir’s lead­ing activists empha­sized the impor­tance of the Occupy move­ment for the renewal of the Arab Spring. To Amer­i­cans who asked how they could help the ongo­ing Egypt­ian strug­gle, Asmaa Mah­fouz replied, “get your rev­o­lu­tion done. That’s the biggest help you can give us.” What Mah­fouz was count­ing on was the pos­si­bil­ity that strug­gles in the United States could pres­sure the gov­ern­ment to cut off the $1.3 bil­lion yearly pay­ments that sus­tain Egypt’s military.

Long-time activist Ahmad Maher reminded the crowd of the immense task the Arab Spring con­fronted, and which activists around the world still con­front. An Amer­i­can asked him the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: “how do you over­throw a sys­tem?” Speak­ing as a grass­roots polit­i­cal orga­nizer who has been on the Egypt­ian street for years, Maher replied, “It’s eas­ier to over­throw a dic­ta­tor than an entire system.”

There is a rea­son that the Occupy move­ment does not have a sin­gu­lar mes­sage, tied to one polit­i­cal body; its suc­cess or fail­ure will lie in the degree to which it changes everything.

Insurrection, Oakland style: a history

An article by Matthew Edwards on the roots of Occupy Oakland, which includes the movement and riots that happened in response to the police murder of Oscar Grant in January of 2009.

This is an unfin­ished work – a snap­shot of his­tory as it occurred, expe­ri­enced by me, reported on social media, or retold by trusted com­rades. It will lack the final­ity of hind­sight. Con­tained within is my account of the Oak­land Insur­rec­tion, as it has unfolded over the past days and weeks. Both the insur­rec­tion and this essay are works of hope. I hope that we push for­ward on the streets of Oak­land, the Bay Area, and every­where else, to the limit of what is pos­si­ble – beyond occu­pa­tion and the pro­posed gen­eral strike to “total free­dom” for us all.1


Inspired by the upris­ings across the world and fueled by the increas­ingly pre­car­i­ous eco­nomic con­di­tions across the United States, a call­out was made for an occu­pa­tion of Wall Street. On Sep­tem­ber 17, 1000 peo­ple occu­pied the finan­cial hub of the United States and arguably global cap­i­tal­ism. Within days, dozens of towns and cities had their own ver­sion of the #Occupy move­ment – with vary­ing degrees of encamp­ment, protest, and orga­niz­ing space; within weeks, hun­dreds of cities were occu­pied; within a month, over a thou­sand world­wide.

Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by many Bay Area res­i­dents, was occu­pied on Octo­ber 10. Logis­ti­cal plan­ning started a week before the occu­pa­tion date, with #Occu­pyOak­land field­ing a fully func­tional can­teen, child­care, medic, sound, and gen­eral assem­bly area on day one, with per­son of color (POC), gen­der, and queer safe spaces soon to fol­low. #Occu­pyOak­land had the same pop­ulist rhetoric regard­ing the prob­lem­atic “homo­ge­neous” nature of “#Occupy…”, but pushed the “99%” cri­tique in a decid­edly anti-capitalist direc­tion. Cou­pled with this was a dis­tinctly anti-police and anti-state tone that also trans­lated into anti-oppression orga­ni­za­tional forms.

On Octo­ber 21 the city of Oak­land pre­sented the gen­eral assem­bly, the offi­cial orga­niz­ing body of #Occu­pyOak­land, with a let­ter of evic­tion, cit­ing “pub­lic safety.” The words of Oak­land­Com­mune, posted Octo­ber 19 on the Bay of Rage web­site, beau­ti­fully fore­shadow what tran­spired on Octo­ber 25 and 26when the police made good on their threats:

Social rebels from around Oak­land have descended upon Oscar Grant Plaza and have cre­ated a gen­uine, autonomous space free of police and unwel­com­ing to politi­cians. Whereas other occu­pa­tions have invited the police and politi­cians, or have nego­ti­ated with them, Occupy Oak­land has carved a line in the cement. That line of demar­ca­tion says: if you pass this, if you try and break up or over shadow this autonomous space, you are well aware, as observed over the last cou­ple of years, what we are capa­ble of.


The Bay Area’s his­tory of social resis­tance is well doc­u­mented, and it’s impor­tant to remem­ber the con­text behind the mil­i­tancy seen around #Occu­pyOak­land. The gen­eral events these social rebels are refer­ring to are the upris­ings and demon­stra­tions that have occurred over the past three years in the Bay Area, respond­ing to police vio­lence and “aus­ter­ity.”2 To under­stand the events of the past week, one must under­stand the atmos­phere in which these actions took place. The most rel­e­vant of these demon­stra­tions revolve around three sets of riots that fol­lowed the mur­der of Oscar Grant III on Jan­u­ary 1, 2009.3

One week after Oscar’s mur­der by police, Jan­u­ary 7, 2009, a rally at the Fruit­vale BART sta­tion tran­si­tioned into a march that even­tu­ally evolved into a riot, with run­ning street fights against police. The action resulted in 100 arrests and hun­dreds of thou­sands in polic­ing costs and prop­erty destruc­tion. Johannes Mehserle, the offi­cer who killed Grant, was arrested one week later – a day before thou­sands marched through Oak­land, serv­ing notice to the police that their actions had consequences.

A series of low and mid-intensity direct actions and marches occurred over the next 18 months until the ver­dict day, July 8, 2010, when Mehserle was osten­si­bly acquit­ted for mur­der and found guilty of invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter for shoot­ing an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant in the back. Police prepa­ra­tions, dubbed “Oper­a­tion Ver­dict,” were one of the largest local buildups of state and fed­eral police forces in recent his­tory.4 The buildup actu­ally seemed to inten­sify pop­u­lar opin­ion against the police. Oper­a­tion Ver­dict not only failed to stop another riot, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of prop­erty was destroyed, but also failed to arrest as many demon­stra­tors as the riots of a year before. Sen­tenc­ing day, Novem­ber 5. 2010, saw an evo­lu­tion of police tac­tics that stopped the march before it mor­phed into some­thing greater. The march was ket­tled and every­one was arrested in mass, all later to be released with­out charges.

Oscar Grant’s Legacy

I would like to rec­og­nize that Oscar Grant was a real per­son; with a daugh­ter, fam­ily, and friends. I would like to rec­og­nize this because the human ele­ment can get lost when we make mar­tyrs out of casu­al­ties. The actions around his death were liv­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries for many Bay Area res­i­dents, specif­i­cally youth and polit­i­cal rad­i­cals – anar­chists, anti-authoritarians, and anti-capitalists. For some, this was the first time they had tasted tear gas or felt the sting of a rub­ber bul­let. The Jan­u­ary 7 riot was a hur­ried affair, with peo­ple quickly learn­ing how to stay together, erect makeshift bar­ri­cades, or set fires to neces­si­tate getaways.

July 8 saw the forces of the state pre­pared and still unable to stop scores of “crews” smash­ing shop win­dows.5 Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion appeared to improve between the var­i­ous demon­stra­tion par­tic­i­pants. Masks were worn and code names used. It was appar­ent that even just a few “bat­tle hours” dra­mat­i­cally increased a collectivity’s “street” effec­tive­ness, i.e. the abil­ity to cre­ate social unrest and get away with it. Through these events, it was revealed that street demon­stra­tions, with riots in par­tic­u­lar, did have an effect on, if not pub­lic pol­icy, then at least civic discourse.

There were fail­ures as well. Media and state forces con­spired to cre­ate the con­cept of the “out­side agi­ta­tor” – the anar­chist from afar whose only pur­pose was to smash. The actions of prop­erty destruc­tion seemed to over­shadow the con­text in which they were used. The tac­tic itself was the per­fect expres­sion of the pow­er­less­ness that peo­ple felt in demand­ing, from an unjust state, some sort of “jus­tice.” It was an action of tantrum, say­ing, “in this protest zone, in this space of social rup­ture, I only have the abil­ity to destroy.” A state­ment like that, while uni­fy­ing for the par­tic­i­pants within that instant of “social rup­ture,” has lit­tle to no orga­niz­ing poten­tial. And so the move­ment went from active con­flict to his­tory. Its steam and momen­tum were lost. How­ever, with its pass­ing came a time of tac­ti­cal and strate­gic reflec­tion, the results of which were prac­ticed on the streets of Oak­land under the ban­ner of #Occupy only a week ago.


The efforts and effects of the anar­chist tra­di­tion in the Bay Area can­not be ignored, nei­ther in the case of Oscar Grant nor #Occu­pyOak­land. There are hun­dreds of anar­chists active in “street level” actions; hun­dreds more work­ing in var­i­ous cor­po­rate, non-profit, alter­na­tive, and other indus­tries that bring money, logis­ti­cal sup­port, and expe­ri­ence when needed; and hun­dreds still who are engaged in their own projects, com­mu­ni­ties, and build­ing families.

The pres­ence of such a high con­cen­tra­tion of anar­chists at rad­i­cal or poten­tially explo­sive demon­stra­tions has influ­enced how peo­ple protest. To be sure, not every per­son at a demo is an anar­chist, far from it, but many have adopted anar­chist prac­tice. Mask­ing up, wear­ing black, and work­ing in teams has cre­ated a safer and more dis­ci­plined force. The atten­dance of anar­chist street medics, pro­pa­gan­dists, and expe­ri­enced street fight­ers adds a level of infra­struc­tural and logis­ti­cal sup­port that makes actions on the streets feel sup­ported and embold­ened. Tra­di­tion­ally orga­niz­ing on egal­i­tar­ian and non-hierarchical planes, as well as a famil­iar­ity with con­sen­sus process, have facil­i­tated the cre­ation of a strong gen­eral assem­bly. The cre­ation of sol­i­dar­ity groups for those arrested at actions, and access to the legal net­work that years of Bay Area activism cre­ated has been key in move­ment progress. In both social move­ments the anar­chist pres­ence has been an impor­tant, though by far not the only, ele­ment to any success.

This is not to say that an anar­chist pres­ence in the Bay Area has not had its trou­bles in recent years. The attempt by the state to brand anar­chists as “out­siders” failed in the buildup of Oper­a­tion Ver­dict, but did high­light racial and class issues that peo­ple are still con­fronting. Fur­ther­more there was a suc­cess­ful attempt to brand anar­chists has vio­lent, although this was just one more step in a process dat­ing back hun­dreds of years to rede­fine “anar­chism” in the neg­a­tive. Still, the only con­tact that many peo­ple have had with anar­chists is the images pre­sented by the media of “black-clad hooli­gans destroy­ing things.” The insur­rec­tionary anar­chist cur­rent that is alive within the Bay has showed itself as a trend of attack, secu­rity cul­ture, and tightknit net­works. In the past it was inward focus­ing and only sur­faced in times of action, although the pres­ence of many insur­rec­tion­ists at the gen­eral assem­blies and their use of vio­lence in a form dif­fer­ent from that of prop­erty destruc­tion does give cre­dence to the idea that this trend is maturing.

Insur­rec­tion and Strike

Through­out the week, prepa­ra­tions were made within the #Occu­pyOak­land space for arrival of police enforc­ing the evic­tion notices. The plan was to con­struct and defend bar­ri­cades to keep the Oak­land Police Depart­ment (OPD) out for as long as pos­si­ble. Over the past two weeks, the police made only a hand­ful of incur­sions into the autonomous space. The response by those camped was always force­ful yet dis­ci­plined, with the dis­tilled mes­sage being: “get out!” As a result there was lit­tle worry about the ques­tion of “when” “they” would come. “They will come when they do,” one camper told me with a shrug the night before the evic­tion. On Tues­day Octo­ber 25, at 4:30 AM, hun­dreds of riot police from over a dozen dif­fer­ent agen­cies descended upon the camp. After call­ing a dis­per­sal order, police waited for five min­utes before throw­ing con­cus­sion grenades, launch­ing tear gas, fir­ing pep­per and rub­ber bul­lets, and hit­ting peo­ple with batons. The night con­cluded with around 80 arrests and some seri­ous injuries.

A call out was made for 4 PM the same day to meet at the Oak­land Library for a march to Oscar Grant (OG) Plaza. A diverse crowd of over 1500 peo­ple arrived. They marched around Oak­land, swelling in num­bers as peo­ple came into the streets. The police attacked with gas, less-than-lethal rounds, and batons. Demon­stra­tors responded with bot­tles and paint bal­loons. Police snatch squads grabbed and beat pro­tes­tors in full view of the crowd, with a hand­ful hav­ing to be taken to the emer­gency room.6 The march con­tin­ued to OG Plaza where lines of riot police stood behind metal bar­ri­cades block­ing all pos­si­ble entrances. A stand­off ensued.

At roughly 8:30 PM a crowd of 500 assem­bled at 14 and Broad­way. After repeated warn­ings the police attacked. The gas attack was the worst of the day. Injured pro­test­ers lit­tered the inter­sec­tion, includ­ing Scott Olson, two-tour Marine vet­eran, who took a tear­gas can­is­ter to the head. Oth­ers were blinded and chok­ing on the gas. Numer­ous burn vic­tims from the gas can­is­ters ran for cover; at least one of them needed plas­tic surgery on her foot. The crowd recom­posed within min­utes, play­ing cat and mouse with the police, ral­ly­ing and tak­ing the streets out­side the bar­ri­cades, flee­ing from police attacks only to form again.

The chat­ter of excite­ment and anger was easy to under­stand. Groups of peo­ple were swap­ping sto­ries from the days events. The gas was loos­ing its fear effect; these crowds were not dis­pers­ing. Teenagers were laugh­ing at each other’s snot and tear-soaked faces. Older peo­ple were talk­ing about the 1960s; “gas nowa­days seems more potent,” they said. Anar­chist and other rad­i­cal medics were help­ing gas vic­tims. By about 10 PM it was obvi­ous that even though the group had failed to retake the plaza, they had in fact won two impor­tant vic­to­ries. #Occu­pyOak­land was effec­tively in con­trol of all of down­town Oak­land save OG Plaza. Or, to put it dif­fer­ently, the police had lost the ini­tia­tive: they had lost their mobil­ity and the abil­ity to dic­tate terms out­side the range of their weapons. By con­trol­ling the plaza they abdi­cated con­trol of the rest of down­town Oak­land to the occu­piers. Declar­ing vic­tory on the ground, the hun­dreds of occu­piers began to dis­perse to ready them­selves for the next day.

The sec­ond vic­tory was not seen until the next day, when media out­lets had no choice but to broad­cast images of the night’s insur­rec­tion. Grab­bing the media’s atten­tion as well was the griev­ous injury to Scott Olson. Sur­viv­ing two tours in Iraq to come home and be shot by OPD sealed the police’s fate in the realm of pub­lic opin­ion. Not only had #Occu­pyOak­land suc­ceeded in con­trol­ling the streets, they had also won over hearts and minds. As of this writ­ing it looks as though Scott will recover and not become a mar­tyr for any cause, just another vic­tim of police brutality.

A gen­eral assem­bly was called for 6 PM on Octo­ber 26. The police were nowhere in sight, but some reported that they were mass­ing at a nearby park­ing garage. They were never to mobi­lize in any show of force. Bike patrols were pass­ing back infor­ma­tion, and a gen­eral feel­ing of safety per­me­ated the camp. The metal fence that had been set up by the city was taken down, and once again the plaza was in the hands of #Occu­pyOak­land. A pro­posal was sub­mit­ted for a gen­eral strike in Oak­land on Novem­ber 2. The pro­posal passed by 96.9%; 1484 votes for to 77 against, with 47 absten­tions, more than enough in Oakland’s mod­i­fied con­sen­sus of 90% for the pro­posal to pass.

After the vote, 2000 peo­ple attempted to march for the down­town Oak­land BART sta­tion to travel to San Fran­cisco, where it was reported that the SF occu­pa­tion was to be attacked by SFPD. The sta­tion was closed by BART offi­cials, so the 2000-strong group marched through Oak­land, stop­ping once at the OPD head­quar­ters to yell at the police, once at the Oak­land jail chant­ing in sup­port of those incar­cer­ated, and once under a free­way over­pass, to dis­cuss whether the group should cross the Oakland/Bay bridge to sup­port #Occu­pySF. The march decided to retake OG Plaza instead.

A truly star­tling real­iza­tion emerged among many of the anar­chists present at the gen­eral assem­bly. As thou­sands of peo­ple dis­cussed the gen­eral strike pro­posal, oth­ers were cir­cu­lat­ing and inter­min­gling, talk­ing about the vic­tory of the night before. A major theme of the dis­cus­sion was the fact that so much had been gained with­out resort­ing to prop­erty destruc­tion. A tacit under­stand­ing devel­oped amongst many of the rad­i­cals that no one was going to phys­i­cally stop any of the “wreck­ing crews” from smash­ing win­dows, but peo­ple under­stood that much of the pre­vi­ous night’s vic­tory could be attrib­uted to the images of police vio­lence against pro­tes­tors and the counter-violence of pro­tes­tors against the police. If there is an insur­rec­tionary imper­a­tive to attack the state, that idea seemed to gain sup­port, at least among those in the gen­eral pub­lic who watched the live stream. The march on Octo­ber 25 showed how the pro­tes­tors had done due dili­gence in their attempt to remain “peace­ful”; they responded to police vio­lence with defen­sive force, instead of the less under­stood (and less direct) tac­tic of attack­ing prop­erty. A vio­lence of low-intensity self-defense actu­ally gained #Occu­pyOak­land inter­na­tional support.

Lessons Learned

In the OG Plaza riots, the impo­tent vio­lence that resulted in Mehserle’s arrest also doomed the move­ment to remain mar­ginal. Peo­ple have many unre­solved issues with prop­erty destruc­tion. It is my pre­sump­tion that those in com­mand of the police forces on the night of the Octo­ber 25 expected to see protester-initiated prop­erty destruc­tion. Bro­ken win­dows have the power to retroac­tively ratio­nal­ize the use of police vio­lence. The destruc­tion of the camp and the attack on the march would sud­denly seem under­stand­able once the nightly news flashed images of bro­ken glass. Unfor­tu­nately for police com­mand, the rad­i­cal and urban #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders did not fall into their trap. There was no need; con­fronting OPD and Alameda Sheriff’s Depart­ment was enough.

There was a very real feel­ing that if the OPD had changed its tac­tics on the night of Octo­ber 25, and – instead of hold­ing posi­tions and gassing pro­tes­tors – went in for arrests, the police might have started a fight that they were not pre­pared to win. There were roughly equal num­ber of police and #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders, around 500 each, but the police were spread out, cov­er­ing the perime­ter of OG Plaza, while the demon­stra­tors were able to focus all their num­bers in one loca­tion. Even more impres­sive is that on the night of Octo­ber 26, with the police lack­ing the author­ity to act in response to #OccupyOakland’s retak­ing of OG Plaza, the occu­piers were able to push the police out of their autonomous zone and defend it. This cohe­sion and the strength of will it pro­duced is a direct result of the reflec­tions, lessons, and tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that grew from the OG riots. Those ini­ti­at­ing con­fronta­tions with police did so with dis­ci­pline, and, dare I say it, style.

There has been a lot of talk about a lack of demands as a weak­ness of the #Occupy move­ments. I hear their demands loud and clear. The cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism, oppo­si­tion to state power, clear revul­sion towards the police, rede­f­i­n­i­tion of social and power rela­tions, inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion, coop­er­a­tion, and the attempt to recon­fig­ure our exist­ing world into one that is healthy for all; these are demands that are being made by those occu­py­ing. The idea from the begin­ning was to cre­ate. In acts of cre­ation power is returned. We have held our ground, defended a space that is our own. Now we are orga­niz­ing not just for our­selves but also for oth­ers. A gen­eral strike will occur. The next ques­tion is clear: what other cities will follow?

See you in the streets.

Matthew Edwards is a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz, and an organizer in the Bay Area. A native Californian, he has been involved in radical politics since refusing deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002. Comments can be sent to anewhope AT

  • 1. This phrase appeared on a mas­sive ban­ner by a con­tin­gent of Greek anar­chists at the 2009 G-20 in Ger­many. While not explic­itly Insur­rec­tion­ist, the Greek anar­chist ten­dency of spec­tac­u­lar street bat­tles has become syn­ony­mous with the Insur­rec­tionary Anar­chist milieu that has dom­i­nated North Amer­i­can dis­course in recent years.
  • 2. For an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of news sto­ries dat­ing back over 10 years, see
  • 3. The first mur­der of 2009 was com­mit­ted by a police offi­cer against an unarmed per­son of color.
  • 4. It is also impor­tant to note that the National Guard was mobilized.
  • 5. One could also use the term “affin­ity group,” but an affin­ity group is an expressly polit­i­cal form of self orga­ni­za­tion that may not nec­es­sar­ily apply to all those who ran together that night.
  • 6. It is impor­tant to point out that the police were not the only per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence that evening. One arrestee was punched, elbowed and pushed to the ground by an Oak­land fire depart­ment mem­ber who also made deroga­tory sex­ual and racial com­ments towards him. Later in sher­iff cus­tody at the county jail he was beaten by at least four cor­rec­tional officers.

The Italianization of Puerto Rico: a reflection on social struggles against university policies in the world's oldest colony

A former University of Puerto Rico professor briefly describes the imposition of austerity on the UPR, the struggle in response and the similarities to the Italian experience.

Dismantling a public education system in a country with strong background of political struggles requires a mitigated form of neoliberal strategy. Shutting down a whole language department, which is happening at SUNY Albany, is something you can do in certain areas of the United States. But it is a whole different story in a hot and participatory place like Italy. In a situation where active unions and a strong popular movement still have a say in public policies, one cannot launch a blitzkreig. What is needed is a longer and murky war of position. Thus various center-right governments, with the complicity of the center-left, embarked since the 1990s in a long-term project that aimed at progressively cutting off key resources from public education (while financing the private Catholic sector) so that the whole edifice would eventually crumble under the weight of its own (apparent) contradictions. At that point, they simply need to suggest that the public system is inefficient and ultimately unproductive and voilà! Who could deny the crude reality of the fact?

If the Italian peninsula displays the last stage of this drama, a similar – yet perhaps more rapid – operation has been carried out in Puerto Rico in the last three years. Between 2009 and 2010, I observed this operation as a new professor at the University of Puerto Rico. The new right-wing governor, Luis Fortuño, initiated the process I had already seen completed in Italy by frontally attacking the lower classes, the true source of his opposition. This happened through the infamous Ley 7 that fired about twenty thousand public employees in a matter of a few months. In 2010, the time was ripe to begin grinding down the public university system, one of the largest public sectors on the island and the last stronghold of a once fertile tradition of pro-independence and socialist thought. With the drastic reduction of state support for the university budget, the true revenue for higher education in Puerto Rico, the newly appointed bureaucrats (all political nominees) enforced draconian measures that crippled the institution. Tenure-track promotions were frozen, funds for research eliminated, contributions from the employer to pension funds were slashed away. After the technocrats sampled the weak response of their opponents – the professors – they hit the toughest contingents: the university maintenance workers, and students.

Employees of the university responded with a series of limited mobilizations. In the spring of 2010, students instead opted for an indefinite strike.1 The most controversial point, a matter that unified students in their fight, was a proposal to levy an additional yearly tax of eight hundred dollars for enrollment (the so-called cuota). The measure was presented by the president as the essential step to save the university from bankruptcy, but while the budget kept on shrinking in the following academic year, the university also refused to open its books and show how and where it was using the remaining funds graciously made available by the state. The reactions to these unfair and discriminatory actions were immediate. The strength of the response was especially noticed in a traditionally conservative campus like Mayagüez – the technological pole of the University of Puerto Rico. Ignoring the most politicized wing of the student body, who boycotted the referendum in fear of manipulations by the administration, the majority of students cast their ballot in favor of the strike three consecutive times.2 A felicitous case of popular outflanking of one’s own political avant-garde, the one-month-long occupation of the Mayagüez campus left a permanent memory in those who participated in it. Pickets were organized so that ongoing activities were taking place at all time during the hot days of the protest. Participants caught a glimpse the true meaning of a general strike, the moment when social norms and masked forms of oppression break down, making room for new modes of conviviality, where a gratuitous kind of social unity proliferates.

And yet, in the best Italian tradition, during that summer the university administration staged a treacherous coup de théâtre: it accepted the conditions of the Student National Negotiation Committee, declaring the rejection of its increase in tuition, only to enforce it a few weeks later when students had returned to the classroom.3 It was a perfect maneuver, which used trickery to spread a sense of impotence among the movement. Only in the main campus of San Juan did students deploy a vigorous and continuous opposition. But as the university – notwithstanding the opposition of the president, José Ramón de la Torre, who on this account later resigned – militarized the campus the movement lost that widespread mobilization that affected the whole island only few months before.4

Meanwhile, the ones who could have replaced the students, keeping alive the hope for an opposition against the destruction of higher education in Puerto Rico – the professors – remained silent. During the occupation, a minority of professors with ties to the union (APPU) actively supported the student movement. But as students were defeated, they had gained no consensus among the rest of the faculty. And yet the latter had every reason to protest, for beyond the serious impact these policies had on instruction, the faculty could also notice how former colleagues were rapidly disappearing while classrooms began to overflow. Those who had a market fled the island, but others, mostly holding temporary positions, vanished as the 2010-2011 academic year began. In the following months, the next most vulnerable component of the teachers’ workforce, international professors, was targeted as the usual procedures for working permits became almost impossible to complete. Here the most astonishing confirmation of the power of ideology took place. Although the large majority of the teachers, independently from their political affiliation, were affected in one way or the other, they kept silent and went about their business as usual.

The background of the teaching body at the University of Puerto Rico is significant. We could divide up faculty in three large sets. The first one is composed of Puerto Rican nationals, as well as Latin Americans and Europeans, who obtained a PhD. in the United States. Here is where the students enjoyed the strongest support. A consistent number of these intellectuals infused the body of theoretical knowledge accumulated in the best North American institutions with the praxis of the decades of struggle at home. Obviously, not all of them were so devoted to the cause. A consistent part of this group was also either cynically refusing any form of alliance with the students on account of some higher and more intellectual superiority, or was implicitly supporting the government. Among these individuals the new cadres of the university bureaucracy were selected; they zealously followed the prescriptions of the administration, opting out of what was left alive in the university.

The second ensemble groups US professors who were catapulted into an unfamiliar reality that remained foreign to them – although they usually operated in it quite effectively, at least from an educational point of view. Though the majority felt like they were living in another country, they usually denied that this territory is in fact a colony with specific tensions and responses in and to social fights. Moreover, accustomed as they were to the costs of education at home, these professors saw no problem in the imposition of the cuota. Overlooking at the disparity in incomes between Puerto Rico and the US, they at best adopted a classic defensive corporatist position tacitly supporting increases in tuition in the interest of the institution. This form of ideological preclusion prevented them from reading the complexity of the issues at stake, which also affected them as part of that community. They channeled their discontent into the usual reproach of Puerto Rico as just another Latin country, where corruption, bureaucracy and protest culture jam the whole social system and make it inefficient and chaotic. Only a few of them, those who knew their history and possibly lived through similar colonial dynamics in the US, avoided this ideological blockage and joined forces with the student movement.

The last group is formed by personnel trained in the former motherland: Spain. Although the Puerto Rican political elite holds the precious fruits of the Spanish academia in high regard, it recently had to realize that Spanish universities no longer produce the highly conformist generations of graduates they used to hurl out under Franco. Support came also from this new and energetic guard of professors, but it was not strong and pervasive enough to win a majority among the faculty.

To be sure, the rigid university hierarchy is very resistant to change, and has so far neutralized any reactions to the current situation. Divided by national differences and stubborn ideological occlusions, the majority of the teaching faculty is unlikely to take any collective step to protect their institution. As the administration rapidly saws away at the branch they are sitting on, along with any future safety net – the employees’ retirement plan recently came under government’s attention as well – they passively wait for a new election. Little do they know that freedom is something you gain, and that you have to defend day by day. It will not be an illuminated sovereign who will reestablishes peace and prosperity. It will be up to the students, instead, to rise again, and, if not defeat the government neo-liberal agenda, at least establish firm conditions for the new government (whatever it will be) to preserve the common good of their university.

Andrea Righi is the author of Biopolitics and Social Change in Italy: From Gramsci to Pasolini to Negri (Palgrave, 2011). He is assistant professor of Italian at Colorado College. Between 2009 and 2011 he taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.

Originally posted at Viewpoint Magazine

  • 1. The strike was supported by the Professor’s Association (APPU), the so-called Hermandad (university maintenance workers) and other unions such as Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and the independent union of the authority of public buildings (UIAEP).
  • 2. Following the no-confrontation policy that is enforced in the university system after the bloody confrontations of the 1970s and 1980s, the University of Puerto Rico grants that if one of the major three branches (the faculty, the student body or the employees) calls for a strike, campuses shut down and classes resume only at the end of the strike.
  • 3. See Leysa Caro González, “Reafirman que la cuota va en enero próximo,” Primera Hora, December 14, 2010.
  • 4. See Cynthia López Cabán, “De la Torre exorciza sus demonios,” El Nuevo Día, May 25, 2011.

The underground history of occupation

Julie McIntyre argues that the Occupy movement, in order to sustain and increase its momentum, should put issues such as housing and the cost of utilities at the forefront and look towards the long history of ephemeral occupations by dancing collectivities for inspiration.

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans migrated from the Deep South to Harlem. Racist white residents fled to the outer boroughs and the suburbs, and landlords began to double and triple Harlem rents, capitalizing on the limited geographic options presented to new black New Yorkers. Families crammed into single rooms, but when the first of the month neared, they still had to search for supplementary sources of income to make their rent payments. Inspired by the tradition of Southern Saturday night fish fries and “breakdowns,” Harlemites began to roll up their rugs, push the furniture aside, and print tickets to promote their “Parlor Socials,” or “Too Terrible Parties.” Hosts invited dueling pianists such as Fats Waller to turn on the heat with “cutting contests,” which sparked unrestrained dancing and revelry, the likes of which working-class blacks could never access in exclusive neighborhood joints that denied admission to black people, such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. The party hosts charged admission, typically a quarter, and made extra rent money from the sale of bathtub gin, corn whiskey, and soul food. The rent party scene served as an incubator for several notable jazz pianists, and it began to play a vital economic and social role in the life of Harlem’s working-class community.

Though some recent media accounts depict rent parties as a novel practice of the alternative white twenty-somethings who gentrify black communities, they began as a dynamic and autonomous response to exploitation, and warrant careful study as a traditional practice of occupation. Although the concept was not widely addressed in mainstream U.S. media prior to the seizing of Zuccotti Park and various other public and private spaces in American cities, the act of occupying has a rich and complex history. Critical participants have emphasized that the United States is occupied land, and have called for the movement to use the word with acknowledgement of its destructive history for indigenous populations. Those with a global perspective have pointed to the occupation of Tahrir Square, and similar popular movements throughout the world over the past many years. For those anchored in labor history, the term brings to mind the tradition of worker occupations of factories – as a strike technique used to prevent lockouts, and in some cases, to “recover” the factories under worker control. Finally, those who have inhabited abandoned buildings, by choice or necessity, clearly draw links between their life’s work and the habitation of major cities’ parks and plazas over the past several months.

But in spite of this attention to occupation, some vibrant and essential forms of the practice have been overlooked. It is these forms to which we should be looking as the winter months near and the movement begins to realize the need to diversify its tactics.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, and the local media whipped up a frenzy, threading together a diverse array of gatherings of black teenagers in predominantly white, affluent areas of the city over the past three years under the umbrella of “flash mobs,” “teen mob attacks,” and even “riots.” A closer look at the eleven incidents identified as flash mob attacks and used as a justification for the enactment of a racist curfew law, which the Philadelphia City Council recently extended across the city for the next two years, reveals that these events have little in common other than the presence of black youth transgressing the boundaries of their neighborhoods to occupy the city’s white economic center.

Several of the incidents can be completely discounted, according to the widely accepted definition of a flash mob, “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse.” Six friends punching a man in the head on the way home from summer school hardly seems to constitute a mob of strangers engaging in a premeditated, pointless act, and anyone who has spent a day in a dysfunctional Philadelphia public school or one of its equally deranged charter counterparts could easily sympathize with the students’ sense of outrage and misdirected aggression.

Even if we set aside incidents in which a small group of people attack an individual, the collection of events identified as flash mobs is complex and ranges from exercises in auto-reduction to what many Philly teens would just describe as “breakin’ it down.” The news and gossip site Gawker investigated the conspiratorial social media exchanges that led up to a March 20, 2011 flash mob on South Street in Philadelphia and discovered links to Team Nike, a neighborhood dance crew that promotes their weekend parties through public dance performances. But while Gawker snidely concludes that Philly flash mobs and party crews such as Team Nike “might be nothing more sinister and revolutionary than a few street performances that got out of hand,” the Occupy movement can learn a lot from young people’s libidinal disruptions of the street.

While Philadelphia’s white elite spent their summer cowering indoors, bracing themselves for “roving gangs” of black teenagers who might “terrorize” their neighborhoods, the rest of the city embraced the heat and the streets, hosting outdoor parties on every block. Like the flash mob, the block party has much to teach today’s occupiers about taking back colonized spaces, and infusing them with a sense of joyful resistance. Black and Latino teenagers living in the Bronx in the early 1970s began organizing parties, inspired by Jamaican yard dances and sound system culture. They were looking for alternatives to the gang culture that had resulted in the deaths of their friends and brothers, and they were pushing back against the crushing force of “urban renewal,” a state-sponsored movement to destroy communities of people of color in major American cities. Young people organized block parties to make money for school clothes, to push their sound systems to the limits, and to demonstrate their vernacular dance expertise. They stacked up speakers in the parks and siphoned power from street lights, and they danced until daybreak.

The youthful founders of hip-hop, who literally rose from the ashes of their burnt, abandoned communities, followed in the footsteps of the Civil Rights activists who came a half generation before them by dancing in the street; but at the same time, they created a new form of occupation and defined new relationships with each other and their city by breaking away from the limited political paths presented. They created what hip-hop historian Jeff Chang describes as a celebratory “space of possibility,” and the tradition lives on in many communities of color each summer.

Party crews, groups of teens who have been loosely linked with flash mobs and described as “junior varsity street gangs,” have appropriated rent parties and block parties and applied them to the temporary occupation of vacant homes and commercial buildings. Coverage of party crew activities has been centered in Arizona and the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where swathes of vacant or foreclosed tract homes stand empty, inviting teenagers to claim the spaces as their own. The activities of young party crews echo the West Coast rave scene of the 1990s. Although many electronic music events are widely promoted and generously funded today, this widespread acceptance bloomed from a culture in which warehouses, malls, and large fields were secretly taken over, essential party infrastructure was put in place, and participants followed a trail of breadcrumbs and map clues to various locations before reaching the actual event. Once there, ravers had the chance to reinvent the spaces of everyday life, to encounter new bodies and sounds, and create strange new forms of community. In the morning, the occupation would end, the space would return to its mundane state of disuse, and the participants would begin planning their next intervention.

Dancing, in its many forms and contexts, from rent parties and block parties to raves and riots, often involves the active and intentional occupation of spaces that are highly regulated and controlled, and not intended for popping, locking, or any similar kind of social relation. Young people from marginalized communities have long politicized this everyday practice simply by insisting on doing it wherever they want, whenever they want. As the frigid weather sets in, the Occupy movement must look beyond its own borders and consult the annals of history to develop a broader repertoire of effective techniques, and the ephemeral occupation of city spaces by dancing collectivities might be just what this movement needs to increase its momentum.

As the movement consults this history, it must also recognize that there are communities who continue to occupy urban American spaces out of necessity and resilience, and that their tactical knowledge should put them in positions of leadership. I work with 18 to 21-year-old youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of traditional public schools. One of my students, a 20-year-old intermittently homeless black mother who is working towards obtaining her high school diploma and securing a job as a home health care aide, issued a demand to me after presenting her research on homelessness. “Y’all need to do something about this,” she explained. “There are so many houses in North Philly with nobody in ‘em, and then there are so many homeless people with no houses. Y’all need to fix that.” But it’s clear that we’ll only be able to fix it by organizing together.

“Turn on the heat.” The phrase refers to the heat generated by bodies dancing in spaces that we have temporarily reclaimed, but it also refers to the concrete concern of paying for heating as winter approaches. While the occupiers at City Hall in Philadelphia and around the Northeast confront cold weather this winter, many families struggle to stay warm every year because they can’t pay the heating bill. The participants of the contemporary Occupy movement need people of color, poor people, and young people to lead us into new forms of struggle. In order to sustain and expand the movement, their issues must be at the forefront; we have to understand that the cost of utilities is a major political issue. But let’s not think of people from marginalized communities as helpless victims. Instead, let’s learn from their history of resistance in everyday life.

Julie McIntyre is an educator who has worked with children and youth in schools, libraries, art organizations, and residential detention centers. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

Occupy the work­place: orga­nized labor and the occu­pa­tions move­ment

The Occupy Wall Street phe­nom­e­non has achieved a stature and longevity unri­valed by recent demon­stra­tions in the United States, and has under­stand­ably struck a chord with a wide range of peo­ple dis­mayed by the bar­baric level of inequal­ity that is the defin­ing fea­ture of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can soci­ety. As the small encamp­ment in lower Man­hat­tan has swelled and spread to cities across the coun­try, the ral­ly­ing cry of the “99%” has at least momen­tar­ily intro­duced the main­stream dis­course to a con­cep­tion of class, which is usu­ally miss­ing from the polit­i­cal the­ater show­cased on cor­po­rate news out­lets. The risks posed by an over-reliance on mass media cov­er­age notwith­stand­ing, the orga­niz­ers’ abil­ity to attract the pub­lic eye has been impres­sive and is an encour­ag­ing reminder that most peo­ple are yearn­ing for a polit­i­cal vision that res­onates with the mate­r­ial anx­i­eties they feel. As the most bru­tal eco­nomic cri­sis in over a gen­er­a­tion grinds on for the third con­sec­u­tive year, per­haps most sur­pris­ing is that it has taken so long for such an upsurge to occur.

How­ever, while an inner-core of par­tic­i­pants may remain for months, with time the size of the direct occu­pa­tions will likely wane and media atten­tion will slowly grav­i­tate to more prof­itable ven­tures. The trav­esty that unfolded in Wis­con­sin over the past ten months should serve as a painful reminder of that inevitabil­ity. And though the moment’s polit­i­cal salience may briefly per­sist, it will be fleet­ing unless anchored in some­thing more durable than a demon­stra­tion, throw­ing into sharp relief the need for a level of orga­ni­za­tion that can sus­tain and expand upon the Occupy energy. The slo­gan of the “99%” may have tremen­dous rhetor­i­cal cur­rency, but his­tory shows that there is no short­cut to the long-term, painstak­ing task of gen­er­at­ing a real move­ment: meet­ing peo­ple where they are, build­ing trust and strug­gling with them over the issues they’re wor­ried about, con­nect­ing those anx­i­eties to a coher­ent polit­i­cal pro­gram, and con­sol­i­dat­ing those efforts into a force to be reck­oned with. While many of the Occupy work­ing groups may be begin­ning this project, most of the mil­lions who con­sti­tute the “99%” have been unable or unwill­ing to par­tic­i­pate and need to be reached by some other means. OWS can be an oppor­tu­nity to start this process, but it is not a spark that will spread on its own.

Here the civil rights move­ment, which is often invoked in rela­tion to OWS, is instruc­tive. Unmen­tioned in most grade school lore on the sub­ject, the strug­gle for racial jus­tice grew out of a deeply rooted orga­ni­za­tional appa­ra­tus that had been con­structed through decades of dili­gent labor and com­mu­nity orga­niz­ing. Rosa Parks was a sea­soned activist who had been trained at the leg­endary left­ist orga­niz­ing acad­emy, the High­lander Folk School, and Mar­tin Luther King Jr. owes his begin­nings to vet­eran trade union­ists who recruited him. No mir­a­cles ini­ti­ated this his­toric fight; it was planned and exe­cuted by indi­vid­u­als and their orga­ni­za­tions who through years of strug­gle in pur­suit of con­crete demands had cul­ti­vated pow­er­ful bases of sup­port in spe­cific communities.

Only through fol­low­ing this long-term orga­niz­ing approach can OWS begin to har­ness the anger and energy it has made vis­i­ble and trans­late it in into a dynamic, class-conscious move­ment. And only the labor move­ment has the expe­ri­ence and orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity to take on the chal­lenge. Weak­ened though they may be, and with all the lim­i­ta­tions of their seden­tary bureau­cra­cies, unions are still the most demo­c­ra­tic mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions in the United States, with estab­lished activists and infra­struc­tures in cities across the coun­try that pos­sess the prac­ti­cal skills and resources nec­es­sary to carry on the fight, par­tic­u­larly when it becomes less vis­i­bly excit­ing. Though union den­sity has pre­cip­i­tously declined in recent decades, still today mil­lions of peo­ple have expe­ri­enced real improve­ments in their lives through work­place strug­gles led by exist­ing labor unions, a much larger and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive cross-section of the pop­u­la­tion than is likely to turn out at any “Occupy” event.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that his­tor­i­cally, orga­nized labor has been the most effec­tive vehi­cle for chal­leng­ing eco­nomic inequal­ity; it is an empir­i­cal real­ity that when unions are weak wealth con­cen­trates in the hands of the few, and when they’re strong it is at least a bit more evenly dis­trib­uted. A recent study demon­strated that between 1973 and 2007 pri­vate sec­tor union­iza­tion decreased by over 75% and inequal­ity increased by 40%. In this spirit, OWS might best be con­sid­ered as an oppor­tu­nity to push the main­stream labor move­ment toward a more aggres­sive orga­niz­ing strat­egy and, hope­fully, an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal vision. Rank-and-file mil­i­tants in a vari­ety of unions have engaged in this gru­el­ing project for decades, with some suc­cesses and many set­backs, and per­haps the most encour­ag­ing fea­ture of OWS is the space it might cre­ate for more work of this sort. How­ever, an oppor­tu­nity is only as valu­able as the con­crete steps taken to cap­i­tal­ize on it, and unless the strate­gic think­ing needed to ori­ent and ini­ti­ate that process begins in earnest, this wave of activism will likely join the recent anti-globalization and immi­grants’ rights demon­stra­tions in the annals of mod­ern left his­tory while neolib­er­al­ism con­tin­ues its plun­der unscathed.

A num­ber of unions have taken up the OWS man­tle and some inspir­ing labor-community part­ner­ships have grown out of it. The New York City Trans­port Work­ers Union (TWU) Local 100 was an early sup­porter, and even went to court to pre­vent police from order­ing union dri­vers to bus arrested demon­stra­tors to jail. The National Nurses United (NNU), one of the most pro­gres­sive and mil­i­tant unions, has been present at occu­pa­tions around the coun­try admin­is­ter­ing flu shots and pro­vid­ing basic med­ical assis­tance. And the coura­geous art han­dlers of Team­sters Local 814 who have been locked-out of Sotheby’s auc­tion house – a quin­tes­sen­tial sym­bol of the “1%” – have cul­ti­vated a remark­able level of sol­i­dar­ity with the New York occu­pa­tion, turn­ing out bus loads to their ral­lies and gain­ing inter­na­tional atten­tion in the process. These three exam­ples rep­re­sent ele­ments of the most dynamic and forward-looking wing of an oth­er­wise rather glacial labor estab­lish­ment that always seems to be on the defen­sive. The best chance OWS has to become the kind of force nec­es­sary to win a more just soci­ety lies in fol­low­ing their lead.

Samir Sonti is a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. He has worked for SEIU.

Deviations, part 1: the Castoriadis-Pannekoek exchange

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's introduction to a series of letters between Anton Pannekoek and Cornelius Castoriadis.

In early 1953 Cajo Bren­del, a Dutch coun­cil com­mu­nist affil­i­ated with a group known as Spar­ta­cus, vis­ited the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie (Social­ism or Bar­barism) in Paris. As mem­bers of a mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tion harshly mar­gin­al­ized by the most blis­ter­ing win­ters of the cold war, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Claude Lefort, and their com­rades under­stand­ably hoped to make con­tact with other com­mu­nist ten­den­cies crit­i­cal of the offi­cial cur­rents. Delighted to dis­cover that Anton Pan­nekoek, that vet­eran com­mu­nist whose dis­sent­ing tracts had drawn the ire of none other than Lenin him­self, was quite close to Spar­ta­cus, the group decided to sup­ply Bren­del with a copy of every issue of the jour­nal, eleven in all, to pass along to the revered the­o­rist. Pan­nekoek, who read them with excite­ment, wrote later to Bren­del the French group showed much promise despite its ques­tion­able posi­tion on the party ques­tion. On Novem­ber 8, 1953, he wrote a let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, which was later pub­lished, along with a response, in num­ber 14 (April-June 1954) of the journal.

Span­ning an entire gen­er­a­tion, a lin­guis­tic divide, and a geo­graph­i­cal shift, the epis­to­lary encounter between Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis in many ways marks the inter­nal trans­for­ma­tion of the ultra-left. But the ultra-left, far from a his­tor­i­cal relic, is mak­ing head­lines again. The appear­ance of a mys­te­ri­ous lit­tle book called The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion on book­shelves across the coun­try in 2009 piqued an already grow­ing inter­est. Not only did Michael Moore name the “left­ist call-to-arms man­i­festo” as his most recent read in an inter­view with the Hol­ly­wood Reporter, the tract even climbed to the top of Ama­zon best­seller list after Glenn Beck told Fox News view­ers it was “the most evil book I’ve read in a long, long time.” But this pam­phlet was only, if we may lapse into pop soci­ol­ogy, the tip­ping point for a resur­gence of for­got­ten ten­den­cies, obscure jour­nals, and pre­vi­ously unheard of milieus, which are sud­denly being dis­cussed every­where from aca­d­e­mic con­fer­ences to national broad­cast­ing chan­nels. It’s likely that the “Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee” that wrote The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion grew out of Tiqqun, a French group that offi­cially dis­banded in 2001 after releas­ing two issues of its epony­mous jour­nal. Tiqqun itself has been redis­cov­ered after the infa­mous Tarnac affair in 2008, when for­mer mem­bers of the group were arrested for sab­o­tag­ing train lines.

The appear­ance of new works and trans­la­tions by groups like Tiqqun, includ­ing Tro­ploin, Théorie Com­mu­niste, Aufheben, and Echanges et Mou­ve­ment, reflect the close engage­ment of the ultra-left with the ten­den­cies and sen­si­bil­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary activist move­ments. An arti­cle in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion traced the “intel­lec­tual roots” of Occupy Wall Street to the anar­chist David Grae­ber, who invoked the lan­guage of the ultra-left in his descrip­tion of the polit­i­cal impor­tance of the gen­eral assem­bly: “One of the things that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have learned over the course of the 20th cen­tury is that the idea of the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means is deeply prob­lem­atic… You can’t cre­ate a just soci­ety through vio­lence, or free­dom through a tight rev­o­lu­tion­ary cadre. You can’t estab­lish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.“1

But this par­a­digm, though it is thor­oughly grounded in the present, nev­er­the­less has deep roots in the past. All of the jour­nals cir­cu­lat­ing today would deny such a strong link to their own ances­tors; they admit the influ­ence of the ultra-left, but none describe them­selves as ultra-leftists. Most believe they have made a clean break with this his­tory, and usu­ally only employ the term as an epi­thet for those still thought to be trapped in anti­quated pol­i­tics. They are on poor terms with each other, and almost cer­tainly would not con­sider them­selves to be part of the same con­stel­la­tion of theories.

Although they have their dis­agree­ments, this dis­sen­sion only con­ceals a shared unity that unsur­pris­ingly orig­i­nates from the com­mon her­itage they all seem intent on repress­ing. Many of the defin­ing prin­ci­ples of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left per­sist, and their pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of blind­ness and insight bears the marks of their prog­en­i­tors. Their shared empha­sis on pro­le­tar­ian self-activity, their will­ing­ness to delib­er­ately con­flate means and ends, their ten­dency to elide the moment of strat­egy, their demand for the abo­li­tion of a tran­si­tion period, and their ten­dency towards fatal­ism, are all age-old his­tor­i­cal debates. And just as before, the ultra-left ten­den­cies of con­tem­po­rary move­ments have pro­voked a back­lash from those who call for a return to the fun­da­men­tals of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, usu­ally rep­re­sented by the fig­ure of “the party.”

What is now com­monly called the ultra-left emerged as an oppo­si­tional ten­dency within the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment in the early nineteen-twenties. Though crit­i­cal of the right, per­son­i­fied by Eduard Bern­stein, the cen­ter, rep­re­sented by Karl Kaut­sky, and even the left, dom­i­nated by Lenin, its mem­bers never orga­nized them­selves into a coher­ent cur­rent: its the­o­rists were spread across sev­eral coun­tries, dis­agreed sharply with one another, and were only grouped together when Lenin crit­i­cized them all in his infa­mous pam­phlet, Left-Wing Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der. Some, like Amadeo Bor­diga, fetishized the van­guard party; oth­ers, like Otto Rühle, saw work­ers’ coun­cils as the only organ of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process; still oth­ers like Paul Mattick turned to cri­sis the­ory. But what­ever their dif­fer­ences, their shared refusal to par­tic­i­pate in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, work with trade unions, or make any com­pro­mises with any kind of reformism, unex­pect­edly brought them all together. It was this under­ly­ing stub­born­ness that allowed Lenin to trans­form them into a sin­gle tendency.

It should be remem­bered, how­ever, that the ultra-left, despite what it would later become, was actu­ally not a minor­ity ten­dency in its hey­day. Its spokes­men were all major fig­ures in the his­tory of Euro­pean com­mu­nism: Bor­diga was the first gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most respected com­mu­nists in Eng­land, and Pan­nekoek was cau­tiously praised in Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion as a bul­wark against reformism. Even more impor­tantly, the ultra-leftists had such a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing in the early twen­ties that they could right­fully claim to be the dom­i­nant com­mu­nist ten­dency of the time. When the PCI was finally formed in Jan­u­ary 1921, it was Bor­diga who com­manded the major­ity. And when the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party (KPD) split in 1920, the vast major­ity fol­lowed the ultra-leftists in form­ing the Com­mu­nist Work­ers’ Party of Ger­many (KAPD). The Com­mu­nist Party, ini­tially led by Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Liebknecht, had itself bro­ken from reformist groups like the Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party (SPD) at the end of Decem­ber 1918. But the KPD, despite its rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance, was pulled in sev­eral direc­tions. Dis­agree­ments over the unions, par­lia­ment, and com­pro­mise in gen­eral, ulti­mately led to another break. It’s been sug­gested, how­ever, that the new party, the KAPD, “embraced almost the entire mem­ber­ship of the for­mer KPD.”2 The mar­gin­al­iza­tion of the ultra-left – Bor­diga, for exam­ple, offi­cially lost con­trol of his party to Gram­sci in 1926 – only set in after the defeat of the rev­o­lu­tions to which they were almost organ­i­cally connected.

With their rev­o­lu­tions crushed, and now harassed by cap­i­tal on the one side and Com­intern on the other, the ten­dency itself began to eat itself apart from within as ultra-leftists fought each other over the most triv­ial mat­ters, and by the thir­ties this once vibrant milieu was reduced to a jum­ble of sequestered groups. The onset of the Cold War proved to be an espe­cially deci­sive time for the ultra-left: mar­gin­al­ized more than ever, jour­nals lost much of their already lim­ited read­er­ship, orga­ni­za­tions dis­in­te­grated, and iso­lated groups ossi­fied into myopic sects. It was in this inhos­pitable con­text that two of the most promi­nent the­o­rists of the ten­dency made contact.

Cas­to­ri­adis Meets Pannekoek

The inter­sec­tion of two lives rep­re­sents the col­li­sion of two worlds. First and fore­most, there is the gen­er­a­tional divide: Anton Pan­nekoek was born in 1873, after the defeat of the Paris Com­mune, and Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis in 1922, just as the Ger­man Rev­o­lu­tion, in which Pan­nekoek had played a part, was painfully com­ing to accept its own defeat. Then there is the implicit geo­graphic shift: Pan­nekoek, born in the Nether­lands, played a con­sti­tu­tive role in the devel­op­ment of cen­tral Euro­pean com­mu­nism, while Cas­to­ri­adis, Greek by birth, made per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the emerg­ing French scene that was made famous in May 1968. Their exchange shows the cen­ter of grav­ity of the com­mu­nist move­ment mov­ing from Ger­many back to France, while French the­ory made increas­ing ref­er­ence to Ger­man history.

And last, the pecu­liar con­ver­gence of two dis­tinct forms of ultra-leftism: one that defined itself against Lenin and another that actu­ally made a con­sti­tu­tive detour through him. Though always aware of his great achieve­ments, most of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left, from Sylvia Pankhurst to Her­man Gorter, even­tu­ally grew quite crit­i­cal of the Bol­she­vik leader’s the­o­ret­i­cal doc­trines. Pan­nekoek stands as per­haps the great­est exam­ple of a ten­dency that crit­i­cized all that Lenin rep­re­sented, from his philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions to his polit­i­cal prac­tice. Shortly after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Pan­nekoek devoted much of his writ­ing to refut­ing the uni­ver­sal applic­a­bil­ity of Bol­she­vik tac­tics. His famous book Work­ers’ Coun­cils sought to defin­i­tively dis­credit the the­ory of the van­guard party by demon­strat­ing the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the coun­cils as the only real form of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. Against both reformists and Lenin­ists, he claimed that “the new ori­en­ta­tion of social­ism is self-direction of pro­duc­tion, self-direction of the class-struggle, by means of work­ers’ coun­cils.”3

Cas­to­ri­adis, in con­trast to Pan­nekoek, had fought in the Greek resis­tance as a Com­mu­nist, later join­ing the Trot­sky­ists in France. Beyond the many pos­i­tive ref­er­ences to Lenin in his writ­ings of the time, it’s quite clear from his the­o­ret­i­cal works and his prac­ti­cal posi­tions that Lenin had left an indeli­ble stamp on him. His ultra-leftism is an unusual case: he entered it through Trot­sky­ism, but broke with that tra­di­tion when he argued that “the con­tent of social­ism” went beyond the abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­erty to “work­ers’ man­age­ment of soci­ety,” down to the orga­ni­za­tion of work on the shop floor – a his­tor­i­cal task whose terms were estab­lished by the expan­sion and inte­gra­tion of man­age­r­ial labor in post­war cap­i­tal­ism.4 He spent a good decade furi­ously pro­duc­ing a body of work so impor­tant that it would effec­tively define the far left in France, lead­ing Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Euro­pean Green par­lia­men­tar­ian who was the most vis­i­ble stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ary of May 1968, to frankly admit in Obso­lete Com­mu­nism: The Left-Wing Alter­na­tive that he had pla­gia­rized Castoriadis’s work. But then Cas­to­ri­adis turned his pen against Marx­ism him­self; hav­ing already grounded self-management in the cri­tique of alien­ation in the young Marx, he con­cluded that the late Marx of Cap­i­tal had capit­u­lated com­pletely to bour­geois sci­en­tism, and brazenly declared that the only way to remain rev­o­lu­tion­ary was to break from Marxism.

The let­ters of these fig­ures not only give us a glimpse into the his­tory of the ultra-left, they also speak to our own time. True, our con­junc­ture is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent: we no longer face the real­i­ties of the Cold War, the role of the Soviet Union, the influ­ence of the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, or the uncer­tain­ties of decol­o­niza­tion. But there are nev­er­the­less ways in which the present resem­bles the con­junc­ture in which these let­ters were writ­ten. We are begin­ning to glimpse the end of a long period of pro­le­tar­ian defeat, just as Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek were. They had the courage and insight to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion, reaf­firm the value of autonomous activ­ity, and empha­size the role of the pro­le­tariat at a time when intel­lec­tu­als of the left and right were loudly declar­ing the inte­gra­tion of the work­ing class, the defin­i­tive sta­bi­liza­tion of cap­i­tal, and the impos­si­bil­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ary rupture.

But Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis were vin­di­cated a few years after their exchange. Hun­gary and Poland erupted in rev­o­lu­tion. Coun­cils dot­ted the social ter­rain, autonomous activ­ity was the order of the day, and sud­denly cap­i­tal did not seem so secure. If their mode of thought was in align­ment with the poten­tial and the lim­its of these nascent strug­gles, it seems that today’s ultra-left has a sim­i­lar align­ment with the erup­tions of Greece, Spain, France, and England.

Read­ing through these let­ters makes it clear that what­ever their agree­ments – and there were many – Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis dif­fered on the very two ques­tions that had defined the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left from the begin­ning: the nature of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the party form. Though both clearly parted ways with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment, their dif­fer­ences were nev­er­the­less irreconcilable.

Although the exchange cir­cu­lated around what may appear to be a pedan­tic rehash­ing of these two seem­ingly irrel­e­vant top­ics, both were using them to think through the key con­cepts of polit­i­cal prac­tice. Beneath Pannekoek’s ques­tion­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion or Castoriadis’s con­sid­er­a­tion of the pos­si­ble degen­er­a­tion of the party lies a shared attempt to ascer­tain the con­tent of the com­mu­nism of their time. With suf­fi­cient his­tor­i­cal dis­tance from every­thing that tran­spired between the storm­ing of the Win­ter Palace and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have begun to ask how the con­tent of com­mu­nism can be reimag­ined beyond sec­tar­ian cliches. For our moment, these let­ters are remark­ably con­tem­po­rary. To grasp their rel­e­vance, we will have to trace the geneal­ogy of these two major questions.

The Russ­ian Revolution

Every com­mu­nist cur­rent that sought to pose an alter­na­tive to the prac­tices, poli­cies, and pro­grams of the Soviet Union first had to explain what kind of soci­ety it really was – an attempt to under­stand the mean­ing of com­mu­nism as well as cap­i­tal­ism. The dom­i­nant expla­na­tions in the West for the nature of the USSR were vari­ants of the Trot­sky­ist analy­sis. How­ever, Lenin had acknowl­edged, before Stalin’s ascent, that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment was not only a pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship, but either a “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ state” or a “work­ers’ state with bureau­cratic dis­tor­tions.”5 Dur­ing the years of “War Com­mu­nism,” from 1918 to 1921, when req­ui­si­tion of peas­ant land and nation­al­iza­tion of indus­try pro­ceeded along­side the intro­duc­tion of Tay­lorism and one-man man­age­ment in fac­to­ries, it was actu­ally Trot­sky who had called for exten­sion of mil­i­ta­riza­tion to the total con­trol of trade unions by the state, as an appa­ra­tus of indus­trial man­age­ment. Lenin insisted that more inde­pen­dent par­tic­i­pa­tion would train work­ers to ulti­mately take on the task of man­age­ment them­selves, argu­ing against Trot­sky that the “sum and sub­stance of his pol­icy is bureau­cratic harass­ment of the trade unions.“6

Begin­ning in 1921 with the “New Eco­nomic Pol­icy” (NEP), Lenin argued for the replace­ment of the state’s “surplus-grain appro­pri­a­tion” with a mod­er­ate “tax in kind,” which would per­mit peas­ant pro­duc­ers to sell the remain­der of their sur­plus in order to obtain man­u­fac­tured goods at a more equi­table rate. In spite of the rein­tro­duc­tion of mar­ket rela­tions this rep­re­sented, it was a tran­si­tion to “reg­u­lar social­ist exchange of prod­ucts,” and indeed an anti-bureaucratic mea­sure, intended to avoid fur­ther devel­op­ment of the state bureau­cracy that had grown in com­pen­sa­tion for “the atom­ised and scat­tered state of the small pro­ducer with his poverty, illit­er­acy, lack of cul­ture, the absence of roads and exchange between agri­cul­ture and indus­try.” If NEP rep­re­sented a move­ment towards the free mar­ket and cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, this was a nec­es­sary step, since it per­mit­ted the peas­antry to develop social power instead of sub­ju­gat­ing it to the inter­ests of the urban and indus­trial pro­le­tariat.7

Lenin had already argued as early as 1918, in a polemic against Russ­ian left com­mu­nists, that “state cap­i­tal­ism would be a step for­ward,” even “a sure guar­an­tee that within a year social­ism will have gained a per­ma­nently firm hold.” Since the tran­si­tion period con­tained ele­ments of dif­fer­ent eco­nomic cat­e­gories, the direc­tion of large enter­prises by the state would be a “pro­le­tar­ian weapon,” since “it is not state cap­i­tal­ism that is at war with social­ism, but the petty bour­geoisie plus pri­vate cap­i­tal­ism fight­ing together against both state cap­i­tal­ism and social­ism.”8 Now, three years later, he reit­er­ated that the fact that the pro­le­tariat, rep­re­sented by the party, held power in the state, was the pri­mary defense against the “restora­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.”9 Recall­ing his ear­lier inter­ven­tion on behalf of inde­pen­dent trade unions, Lenin empha­sized that in a social­ist tran­si­tion there would still be classes, and there­fore “the class strug­gle is inevitable” – the pro­le­tariat would have to use unions to com­bat bureau­cracy and “sur­vivals of the old cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem” in the gov­ern­ment.10 The com­bi­na­tion of an anti-bureaucratic atti­tude and the con­tin­ued belief in shared work­ers’ and peas­ants’ power coex­isted with the some­what con­tra­dic­tory project of indus­tri­al­iz­ing agri­cul­ture, to develop the pro­duc­tive forces to the level of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and NEP man­i­fested these contradictions.

After Lenin’s death, the con­tin­u­a­tion of NEP was advo­cated by both Joseph Stalin and Niko­lai Bukharin, who were part of a hege­monic bloc within the Com­mu­nist Party. Bukharin, in spite of his ear­lier left­ist enthu­si­asm for imme­di­ate nation­al­iza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion, came to believe in the grad­ual enrich­ment of the peas­ants, which would lead to their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the com­mu­nist project. This found sup­port in Stalin’s insis­tence on con­tin­u­ing Lenin’s line on the “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ gov­ern­ment,” defend­ing “the worker-peasant alliance as a car­di­nal means of achiev­ing the social­ist class objec­tives of the pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship in our peas­ant coun­try.“11

How­ever, the enthu­si­asm for NEP was by no means uni­ver­sal; the Left Oppo­si­tion, which included Trot­sky and Bukharin’s for­mer left­ist coau­thor Yvgeni Pre­o­brazhen­sky, had warned that agri­cul­tural mar­ket rela­tions would per­mit the devel­op­ment of a nascent cap­i­tal­ist class in the coun­try­side. Their fears were con­firmed in the rise of the kulaks, the land­hold­ing peas­ants who hired waged labor­ers and hoarded grain to coun­ter­act the drop in agri­cul­tural prices. In the 1927 plat­form of the left, Trot­sky described a grow­ing “class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion among the peas­ants,” the slave-like exploita­tion of farmhands, and a gap between indus­trial and agri­cul­tural prices that threat­ened to sever the “alliance between town and coun­try.”12

The next year Stalin went to Siberia, to address party mem­bers who he accused not only of coop­er­at­ing with the kulaks, but also liv­ing in their homes. He con­trasted “social­ist con­struc­tion in the coun­try­side, in agri­cul­ture” with the dan­ger of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion.13 Later that year, after return­ing to Moscow, he would rage in party plenums against the “Right devi­a­tion” which made restora­tion pos­si­ble, since in spite of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, the roots of cap­i­tal­ism, of cap­i­tal and cap­i­tal­ists, were still embed­ded “in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in small pro­duc­tion in the towns and, espe­cially, the coun­try­side.”14 The threat of regen­er­at­ing cap­i­tal­ism resulted from the con­tra­dic­tion between two foun­da­tions of pro­duc­tion in the USSR: “the foun­da­tion of the most large-scale and united social­ist indus­try and the foun­da­tion of the most scat­tered and back­ward, small com­mod­ity econ­omy of the peas­ants.” To suc­ceed, social­ist con­struc­tion would have to place “agri­cul­ture on a new tech­ni­cal basis, the basis of large-scale pro­duc­tion, and bring it up to the level of social­ist indus­try.”15 With the end of NEP and the elab­o­ra­tion of the first Five Year Plan, Stalin put into place an eco­nomic pro­gram based on the col­lec­tiviza­tion of peas­ant land, aim­ing at the rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the countryside.

Writ­ing in The Rev­o­lu­tion Betrayed, Trot­sky stepped into the mid­dle of these “zig-zags” in pol­icy by paint­ing a pic­ture of the USSR as a “degen­er­ated work­ers’ state.” The work­ers had taken state power, but it had been usurped by the Stal­in­ist bureau­cracy. The dif­fi­culty of this view is that the his­tory of the bureau­cracy in the USSR could by no means be lim­ited to Stalin – Trot­sky had him­self con­tributed to bureau­cra­ti­za­tion. Fur­ther­more, Lenin had already described a close rela­tion­ship between bureau­cra­ti­za­tion and eco­nomic devel­op­ment. “Social­ism has demon­strated its right to vic­tory,” Trot­sky famously wrote in a cel­e­bra­tion of Russia’s pro­duc­tive forces, “in the lan­guage of steel, cement and elec­tric­ity”; and he made a point of not­ing that the blame for Stalin’s ter­ror “lies not upon col­lec­tiviza­tion, but upon the blind, vio­lent, gam­bling meth­ods with which it was car­ried through.”16 But next to Lenin’s acknowl­edge­ment that the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of peas­ant agri­cul­ture by indus­trial state cap­i­tal­ism forced a com­plex bureau­cratic struc­ture, the com­pat­i­bil­ity of these two posi­tions seems unclear.

An unortho­dox Trot­sky­ist shoe sales­man named Bruno Rizzi began to cir­cu­late an analy­sis, cul­mi­nat­ing in 1939’s The Bureau­cra­ti­za­tion of the World, which claimed that if the bureau­cracy had indeed usurped state power, it was impos­si­ble to retain the idea of a “work­ers’ state,” degen­er­ated or oth­er­wise. The orig­i­nal, some­what ultra-left con­cept he advanced was “bureau­cratic col­lec­tivism,” which led Trot­sky to con­clude that Rizzi had “obvi­ously lost his bal­ance.”17 Accord­ing to this the­ory, the man­age­r­ial bureau­cracy was a rul­ing class that extracted a sur­plus for its own enrich­ment, and orches­trated through a total­i­tar­ian state a highly devel­oped monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism indis­tin­guish­able from fas­cism and the New Deal.

Cas­to­ri­adis may have had Rizzi’s account in mind when he under­scored the pri­mary impor­tance of the bureau­cracy as rul­ing class, but he rejected the ear­lier empha­sis on col­lec­tivism. After all, far from a term of Marx­ist the­ory, “col­lec­tivism” is a quasi-ethical term of soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion – it says noth­ing about the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the USSR. For Cas­to­ri­adis, cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem was defined by exploita­tion – the extrac­tion of a sur­plus from labor by a non-producing class who dom­i­nated the pro­duc­tion process – and not by mar­ket rela­tions, which were essen­tially epiphe­nom­ena. The fact that the rul­ing class of the USSR oper­ated col­lec­tively, rather than com­pet­i­tively, was irrel­e­vant – the soci­ety could only be described as bureau­cratic capitalism.

When Pan­nekoek first wrote to Cas­to­ri­adis, he reminded his younger com­rade that the the­ory of a non-socialist mode of pro­duc­tion in the Soviet Union was by no means a devel­op­ment inter­nal to Trot­sky­ism. In fact, the left com­mu­nists had made the case, arguably even before the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, that the poli­cies of Lenin and Trot­sky were not con­sis­tent with the strug­gle for a work­ers’ state and its accom­pa­ny­ing social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. This was a the­ory of “state cap­i­tal­ism,” dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from the later Trot­sky­ist ver­sion made famous by Tony Cliff. It held that the dis­place­ment of the “sovi­ets” or “work­ers’ coun­cils” that defined the explo­sions of 1905 and 1917 by the rule of the party rep­re­sented the defeat of social­ism. In this regard they antic­i­pated the cri­tique of Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

How­ever, there was a pri­mary dif­fer­ence. Con­vinced of the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the Soviet Union, Pan­nekoek went on to denounce root and branch the very rev­o­lu­tion that brought it into being. He called the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion “the last bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, though car­ried out by the work­ing class,” in the tra­di­tion of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion of 1647 and the French Rev­o­lu­tion in 1789. By “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” he meant specif­i­cally “a rev­o­lu­tion that destroys feu­dal­ism and opens the way to indus­tri­al­iza­tion.” He pointed out that even the his­toric bour­geois rev­o­lu­tions had been enabled by the revolt of “the arti­sans, the peas­ants and the work­ers,” but since “work­ing class was not yet mature enough to gov­ern itself,” a “minor­ity of func­tionar­ies and politi­cians” emerged as the dom­i­nant class. This was inevitable in Rus­sia, “the labor­ing class being a small minor­ity among the peas­ant population.”

The para­dox­i­cal ele­ment of this ultra-left the­ory, ulti­mately shared by Rühle and Gorter, was that it swung back around to the par­a­digm of reformism. Karl Kaut­sky vehe­mently denounced the Bol­she­viks, before Stalin’s dom­i­nance and in oppo­si­tion to Trot­sky, for their notion that a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion was pos­si­ble in a Rus­sia that had not yet passed through the cap­i­tal­ist stage of his­tory. As early as 1919, Kaut­sky wrote that the objec­tive con­di­tions in Rus­sia “were not ripe for the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal­ism,” and that the “imma­tu­rity of the exist­ing rela­tions” led the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion to pro­duce “the most oppres­sive of all forms of despo­tism that Rus­sia has ever had.”18

Castoriadis’s response was twofold. He first called atten­tion to the log­i­cal prob­lem behind Pannekoek’s purism: the ulti­mate fate of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion does not alter the fact that within it, the pro­le­tariat strug­gled for its own inter­ests, even insti­tut­ing work­ers’ self-management in the fac­to­ries, rather than sub­sum­ing its strug­gle into the pro­gram of the bour­geoisie. The fact that these inde­pen­dent demands were artic­u­lated by work­ers in Rus­sia “made the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion for­ever a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion.” His sec­ond point was that the con­cept of the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion ignored a fun­da­men­tal devel­op­ment in the mode of pro­duc­tion of the 20th cen­tury: it was the bureau­cracy, rather than the bour­geoisie, which ruled in Rus­sia, and it was this same new class that was emerg­ing as a dom­i­nat­ing force through­out the world, includ­ing the cap­i­tal­ist world.

Through­out the whole ultra-left, these con­cepts of “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion” and the “bourgeois-democratic tasks” were never put into ques­tion. In spite of Pannekoek’s knowl­edge that Rus­sia was pre­dom­i­nantly peas­ant, that pre-capitalist con­di­tions altered the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the work­ing class, and that his own the­ory was devel­oped within the spe­cific con­di­tions of polit­i­cal strikes in urban Europe, he never met the chal­lenge posed by the Bol­she­viks of the­o­riz­ing com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in a peas­ant soci­ety. And though Trot­sky did accept the Bol­she­vik chal­lenge in 1917, the approach to indus­trial devel­op­ment and “per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion” that would pre­dom­i­nate among Trot­sky­ists took as its start­ing premise the sub­or­di­na­tion of peas­ant demands to the indus­trial proletariat.

But it was pre­cisely the peas­ant prob­lem that was cen­tral to the the­o­ries of eco­nomic devel­op­ment within the USSR. Just before Pan­nekoek and Castoriadis’s exchange, in 1951, Stalin wrote a final reflec­tion called Eco­nomic Prob­lems of Social­ism in the USSR. There he pre­empted the entire dis­cus­sion of state or bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia by frankly acknowl­edg­ing, even after the col­lec­tiviza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion advo­cated in his ear­lier speeches, that the law of value “does exist and does oper­ate,” along­side com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in the Russ­ian econ­omy. While the goods pro­duced by state-owned indus­try were dis­trib­uted pub­licly by the state, agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, even in the form of the kolkhoz, the col­lec­tive farm, “will not rec­og­nize any other eco­nomic rela­tion with the town except the com­mod­ity rela­tion – exchange through pur­chase and sale.”19

It is over­all an unset­tling col­li­sion of terms, which recalls Lenin’s argu­ment against the left com­mu­nists. The attrib­utes ascribed by the left to state cap­i­tal­ism were sim­ply the con­tra­dic­tions of the social­ist tran­si­tion, the per­sis­tence of ele­ments of dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion within the same econ­omy – includ­ing the sur­vivals of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. These con­tra­dic­tions within the USSR became clear when, after denounc­ing Stalin in the 20th Party Con­gress and call­ing for peace­ful coex­is­tence with the cap­i­tal­ist world, Nikita Khrushchev orga­nized the sale of the state-owned “Machine and Trac­tor Sta­tions” to the col­lec­tive farms – which, Stalin had warned in Eco­nomic Prob­lems, meant that the agri­cul­tural enter­prises would pri­vately own their means of pro­duc­tion, a step back­wards away from communism.

Only one ultra-leftist seri­ously engaged with this mode of analy­sis. Bor­diga argued con­sis­tently that the cen­tral dynamic of the Soviet econ­omy was the “agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion” – the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for cap­i­tal­ism. Bor­diga had sup­ported the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion as pro­le­tar­ian, which he reit­er­ated in a 1926 let­ter to Korsch, who had taken the state cap­i­tal­ist line; but the same year he per­son­ally butted heads with Stalin when he called for the Soviet Union to be gov­erned by the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist par­ties that made up the Com­intern. While Bor­diga sup­ported Trot­sky and the Left Oppo­si­tion in the 1920s, by 1945 he began to argue for an analy­sis of the Soviet Union that brought him far closer to Bukharin and the right.

The year before Cas­to­ri­adis and Pannekoek’s exchange, Bor­diga wrote a response to Stalin’s Eco­nomic Prob­lems called Dia­logue with Stalin. His assess­ment of the Soviet econ­omy was broadly sim­i­lar, but with an added his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion. Not only did the law of value oper­ate in the USSR, so did all the laws of cap­i­tal­ism, since it was impos­si­ble to develop the pro­duc­tive forces “with­out pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing peo­ple.” This meant a rep­e­ti­tion of the “fero­cious” process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion that Marx described in Cap­i­tal:

It is the kolkhozians who find them­selves deprived of their cow, the nomadic shep­herds of Asia torn away from the con­tem­pla­tion of the beau­ti­ful stars of the Great Bear, or the feu­dal serfs of Mon­go­lia, uprooted from their soil of a thou­sand years. It is cer­tain that the orders demand more goods for pro­duc­tion, more work­ers, a longer labor time with a greater inten­sity of effort, which is to say, an accu­mu­la­tion and expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal to the rhythm of hell.20

The agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, car­ried out in the process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, was the vio­lent refash­ion­ing of peas­ants into land­less pro­le­tar­i­ans, the same process that occurred in 17th cen­tury Eng­land. Unsur­pris­ingly, this returns to Preobrazhensky’s descrip­tion of the coex­is­tence of plan­ning and the law of value in “social­ist prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion.” While Pre­o­brazhen­sky had called for a gen­tle process of accu­mu­la­tion based in pro­gres­sive taxes, he had ulti­mately sup­ported Stalin’s left­ward turn.

The next step for Bor­diga was to describe the eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia. For him, the accu­mu­la­tion of profit was epiphe­nom­e­nal. What counted instead was the exis­tence of enter­prises that engaged in account­ing on the basis of a gen­eral equiv­a­lent, the law of value, and main­tained the exis­tence of prop­erty. Even though pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia was cen­trally planned by the state, it was car­ried out by indi­vid­ual enter­prises, which meant that prop­erty was not social and col­lec­tive, but restricted to pri­vate bod­ies. The rul­ing class in Rus­sia were not bureau­crats, but entre­pre­neurs – con­sis­tent with a the­ory of com­mu­nism that opposed “human com­mu­nity,” grounded in the human essence described by the young Marx, to com­merce, rather than pro­le­tariat to cap­i­tal. For this rea­son the exis­tence of sovi­ets or coun­cils was essen­tially irrel­e­vant to Bor­diga; if the work­ers man­aged enter­prises, they were sim­ply man­ag­ing the cap­i­tal relation.

So Stalin and Bor­diga dif­fered mainly in definitions. Stalin viewed social­ism as a con­tra­dic­tory process of con­struc­tion, while Bor­diga argued for a total con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism incom­pat­i­ble with sur­vivals from the old regime. But the trick is that Bordiga’s his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, while it led him to con­demn the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the USSR, also con­strained him to see it as pro­gres­sive, as he wrote in his Dia­logue:

The homage which, in spite of a band of suck­ers, we ren­der to “Great Stalin” responds pre­cisely to this process of ini­tial cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. If this really reaches the provinces of immense China, mys­te­ri­ous Tibet, and that fab­u­lous Cen­tral Asia that the Euro­pean stock came from, that will be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fact, a fact that will move for­ward the wheel of his­tory, but which, far from being social­ist, will be on the con­trary a cap­i­tal­ist fact. The ele­va­tion of the level of the pro­duc­tive forces in this immense part of the globe is nec­es­sary: but Stalin is right when he says that the credit will not go to him, but to the eco­nomic laws which have imposed this pol­icy upon him. His whole enter­prise con­sists in a fal­si­fi­ca­tion of labels which makes the cap­i­tal­ist com­mod­ity pass under the name of social­ism and which is, itself, a clas­sic expe­di­ent of the agents of prim­i­tive accumulation.

In other words, the whole of the ultra-left returned to Kaut­sky and his stages, which is why Bor­diga described Rus­sia as under­go­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. Indeed, with only entre­pre­neurs man­ag­ing pro­duc­tion, it had not yet pro­duced a prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist class.

Though Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis did not directly address these issues, their exchange offers the­o­ret­i­cal advances that put the prob­lem of stages in new con­texts. On the one hand, the skilled indus­trial work­ing class who could orga­nize coun­cils on Pannekoek’s model were a such a minor­ity in Rus­sia that is very dif­fi­cult to under­stand how this model of orga­ni­za­tion could lead the nation on a mass scale – and it gives no way of deter­min­ing how the mem­bers of these coun­cils will be fed.

On the other hand, Pannekoek’s the­ory of a “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” though it did not address Bordiga’s agrar­ian ques­tion, did step away from Kaut­skyan com­mit­ment to the fixed pro­gres­sion of stages. While Rühle and Korsch ulti­mately con­cluded along with Kaut­sky that Rus­sia was too back­wards, Pan­nekoek empha­sized the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the class, rather than the objec­tive devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces. He argued that if state cap­i­tal­ism led to rev­o­lu­tion, this “would not be the result of eco­nomic crises but of the class strug­gle” – a polit­i­cal rather than eco­nomic change.21 The Russ­ian work­ers, he wrote in the third let­ter, were “not yet capa­ble of tak­ing pro­duc­tion into their own hands”; and when the party bureau­cracy assumed this role in place of the pro­le­tariat, it became, ipso facto, the bourgeoisie.

But Pannekoek’s analy­sis had no way of deter­min­ing whether the class was ready, par­tic­u­larly if it was spread into dis­tinct forms of pro­duc­tion. Castoriadis’s work had focused with greater atten­tion on this prob­lem. He had described the sit­u­a­tion of the peas­antry as “feu­dal exploita­tion” by the bureaucracy, and dis­puted the clas­sic Bol­she­vik claim that the “small pro­ducer” would serve as the basis of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion, instead argu­ing that only the bureau­cracy could play such a role.22 Though he still assumed peas­ant pro­duc­tion should be sub­mit­ted to urban pro­le­tar­ian lead­er­ship, he went on to call for a form of peas­ant auton­omy in “rural com­munes” anal­o­gous to the work­ers’ coun­cil.23 But because in Rus­sia there was no auto­matic pro­gres­sion towards rev­o­lu­tion, and no auto­matic way to unify the class, Cas­to­ri­adis con­tin­ued to insist on the form of the party – our next theme.

The Party

The his­tor­i­cal ultra-left was always some­what divided about the party form. Some, led by Bor­diga, defended the notion of a dis­ci­plined party even more fer­vently than Lenin him­self. Com­bin­ing the intran­si­gence of the Ger­man left com­mu­nists with Lenin’s cen­tral focus on the party led Bor­diga to pro­duce a pecu­liar breed of van­guardist sec­tar­i­an­ism. He soon went from reduc­ing the class to the party to reduc­ing com­mu­nism itself to lit­tle more than the real­iza­tion of an allegedly coher­ent, pure, and for­ever invari­ant pro­gram that was said to stretch back unchanged to the founders them­selves. Oth­ers, like Karl Korsch, remained ambigu­ous. Although a mem­ber of the KPD, Com­mu­nist Min­is­ter of Jus­tice in the regional Thuringian gov­ern­ment, and even a Riech­stag deputy until 1928, he even­tu­ally broke entirely with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment and drew very close to Pan­nekoek, Rühle, and Mattick’s crit­i­cisms of the party, ulti­mately becom­ing some­thing of an anarchist.

It was the Ger­man and Dutch left com­mu­nists, how­ever, who were the most uncom­pro­mis­ing crit­ics of the party form. They effec­tively offered three dis­tinct, though inter­re­lated, crit­i­cisms. The first, which was often shared by the anar­chists, was a kind of moral denun­ci­a­tion of the author­i­tar­ian, unde­mo­c­ra­tic, and hier­ar­chi­cal char­ac­ter of par­ties in gen­eral. The sec­ond argued that the party, espe­cially in its van­guardist con­fig­u­ra­tion, was largely inap­plic­a­ble to West­ern Europe, since its mate­r­ial con­di­tions dif­fered so vastly from those that engen­dered it in Rus­sia. The third claimed that the pro­le­tariat had to pre­fig­ure the very world it was try­ing to cre­ate by invent­ing its own forms of strug­gle, rather than mir­ror­ing those that were firmly entrenched in the old world. Pan­nekoek sum­ma­rized this sen­ti­ment in his sec­ond let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, describ­ing the need to oppose the estab­lished com­mu­nist par­ties: “we can­not beat them by fol­low­ing their meth­ods. That is only pos­si­ble by prac­tic­ing our own meth­ods.” In terms of actual prac­tice, this trans­lated to a refusal of all bour­geois forms, from the trade unions to par­lia­ments. Otto Rühle cap­tured this sen­ti­ment in an essay auda­ciously titled “The Rev­o­lu­tion is Not a Party Affair.”

Even when they did pre­serve the party as a form of strug­gle, the left­ists severely restricted its role. Indeed, Lenin would at one point exclaim that they had essen­tially reduced the party of the class to a cir­cle of intel­lec­tu­als. Accord­ing to Pan­nekoek, the party could only play the ancil­lary role of clar­i­fy­ing, through dis­cus­sion, debate, and exchange, what the pro­le­tariat was already doing. As “organs of self-clarification,” such par­ties – and Pan­nekoek always imag­ined that there would be many – would have to con­tent them­selves with doing lit­tle more than offer­ing sug­ges­tions to the work­ers, cir­cu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion, and calmly debat­ing their dif­fer­ing points of view.24 They would serve as the inves­tiga­tive sub­com­mit­tees of a coun­cil, from which their des­tiny would ulti­mately be indistinguishable.

For both Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek, there was a pri­mary log­i­cal con­se­quence of the Marx­ist premise that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the pro­le­tariat could only be the task of the pro­le­tariat itself: the coun­cil would be the prin­ci­pal organ of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. By regard­ing the coun­cil as both that which would destroy the old and cre­ate the new, both were echo­ing a char­ac­ter­is­tic trait of the ultra-left: the delib­er­ate con­fla­tion of means and ends.

But in con­trast to the sea­soned coun­cilist, Cas­to­ri­adis refused to accept that coun­cil would be the only organ of eman­ci­pa­tion. He believed that the party could con­sti­tute a sep­a­rate form of strug­gle, sub­or­di­nated to, but ulti­mately dis­tinct from the coun­cil: “the party is an organ whose form and sub­stance are unique.”25 Its tasks could not be pre­de­ter­mined, as Pan­nekoek implied, but would have to vary depend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the strug­gle at hand. If the rev­o­lu­tion did indeed lead to the emer­gence of a net­work of decen­tral­ized coun­cils in which unob­structed dis­cus­sion could unfold, as Pan­nekoek sug­gested in his first let­ter, then Cas­to­ri­adis agreed that the party would limit its role. But, Cas­to­ri­adis quickly added, since the coun­cils would likely become the very sites of class strug­gle rather than peace­ful oases stand­ing out­side of it, the party, as some­thing other than the coun­cil, could not limit itself to “appear­ing like the owl of Min­erva at night­fall” but would have to set the stage for this struggle:

To be rev­o­lu­tion­ary sig­ni­fies both to think that only the masses in strug­gle can resolve the prob­lem of social­ism and not to fold one’s arms for all that; it means to think that the essen­tial con­tent of the rev­o­lu­tion will be given by the masses’ cre­ative, orig­i­nal, and unfore­see­able activ­ity, and to act one­self, begin­ning with a ratio­nal analy­sis of the present with a per­spec­tive that antic­i­pates the future.26

Expe­ri­enced as he was with the dirty pol­i­tics of work­place strug­gles in an envi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by Stal­in­ists on the one hand and reformists on the other, Cas­to­ri­adis poured some cold water on his friend’s naive faith in ratio­nal dis­cus­sion. He insisted that the party would have to actively pre­vent counter-revolutionaries from co-opting the strug­gle, and there­fore began to force a dis­junc­ture between means and ends. Unlike the coun­cil, the party would not be an end in itself, but could only be a means. The destruc­tion of the old world would have to be some­thing related to but ulti­mately other than the con­sti­tu­tion of a new one. Indeed, some­times rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies would have to resort to cer­tain unsightly means in order to bring about cer­tain desired ends. This could even mean a mil­i­tant, even unde­mo­c­ra­tic, inter­ven­tion on behalf the councils.

Pannekoek’s sub­se­quent response was envi­ably sim­ple: some­times the class is just not ready to make a rev­o­lu­tion. No amount of party inter­ven­tion, no mat­ter how mil­i­tant, orga­nized, or dis­ci­plined can force that class to mature – and in fact, such inter­ven­tion would actu­ally under­mine the strug­gles of the class, by forc­ing it into a sit­u­a­tion which it did not itself will­ingly cre­ate. The result, what­ever the inten­tions of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, would have to be a new form of oppression.

A famous strug­gle just after these let­ters serves as an exam­ple. From Decem­ber 1960 to Jan­u­ary 1961 Bel­gium was rocked by an unex­pect­edly mil­i­tant strike wave that ulti­mately involved some one mil­lion work­ers. Cas­to­ri­adis called it the most impor­tant event, after the upris­ngs of 1956, of the entire post­war period; Mau­rice Brin­ton, the guid­ing spirit of Sol­i­dar­ity, took part in them; and Guy Debord arrived the fol­low­ing year as part of a team sent by Social­isme ou Bar­barie to research the after­math of the strikes. The pecu­liar thing about these strikes, how­ever, was that despite their strength they com­pletely failed to exhibit any autonomous polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive. Cas­to­ri­adis put it as follows:

We thus find our­selves faced with a strik­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the com­bat­iv­ity of the work­ing class, its sol­i­dar­ity, its aware­ness of its oppo­si­tion as a class to the cap­i­tal­ist class and to the cap­i­tal­ist State, its dis­trust of bureau­cracy, on the one hand; and, on the other, the at-present insur­mount­able dif­fi­culty it encoun­ters as it tries to free itself from this bureaucracy’s grasp, to take on in a pos­i­tive way the direc­tion of its own affairs, to cre­ate its own insti­tu­tions, to for­mu­late explic­itly its own objec­tives.27

Castoriadis’s solu­tion was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. But imag­ine, Pan­nekoek seemed to say, if this orga­ni­za­tion, which claimed to rep­re­sent the pro­le­tariat, had hastily inter­vened by seiz­ing the state, appro­pri­at­ing cer­tain points of pro­duc­tion, and dis­patch­ing red guards out into the streets to fight the Bel­gian police. Even if their inter­ven­tion had some­how pro­duced a rev­o­lu­tion, the con­se­quences would have been dis­as­trous. Nei­ther the pro­le­tariat, nor those other class for­ma­tions which it would have to lead down the road of rev­o­lu­tion, were pre­pared for such a sit­u­a­tion. Rather than eman­ci­pat­ing them­selves, they would only enter a dif­fer­ent kind of class society.

Cas­to­ri­adis never wrote a direct reply. But he had already elab­o­rated the basic premises of his posi­tion. Just as we can never really know if our actions will turn us into bureau­crats, we can also never know whether the pro­le­tariat is mature or not; there is sim­ply no way to sci­en­tif­i­cally mea­sure whether a class is ripe for power. In some cases, as with the Bel­gian strikes, there is some clar­ity. But in oth­ers, such as the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, it is sim­ply impos­si­ble to tell. When the first work­ers went on strike, no one expected the whole coun­try to explode in insur­rec­tion. Even the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who had stud­ied the con­tours of the class strug­gle for decades were caught off guard, and had to deter­mine what to do in this new sit­u­a­tion. As it turns out, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies chose to inter­vene and the class was defeated – but we can only imag­ine the out­come if, after a sober assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion, the pro­fes­sional rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies had decided not to inter­vene because the class was not ripe for power. What would have been the result if the party had cho­sen to fold its arms, take a step back­ward, and sit on the side­lines? Who is to say that it was not the very inter­ven­tion of these rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, their very attempt to esca­late a strug­gle pos­si­bly doomed to defeat, that later pre­pared the mate­r­ial con­di­tions for vic­tory less than a decade later?

The messi­ness of his­tory demon­strates the dif­fi­culty of trans­lat­ing Pannekoek’s thoughts on class imma­tu­rity into con­crete prac­tice. But as we have already seen, this ambigu­ous posi­tion also con­tains an orig­i­nal answer to an old ques­tion: what are the nec­es­sary objec­tive con­di­tions for a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion? For Pan­nekoek, imma­ture objec­tive con­di­tions are not the result of under­de­vel­oped indus­trial pro­duc­tion. In fact, objec­tive con­di­tions are really noth­ing other than the gen­eral level of the class strug­gle itself. Because cap­i­tal is an antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between two classes, its matu­rity or imma­tu­rity can only be under­stood with ref­er­ence to the con­flict between these classes. So when Pan­nekoek speaks of unripe objec­tive con­di­tions, he is actu­ally refer­ring to the under­de­vel­oped sub­jec­tive con­di­tions of the class strug­gle itself. Claim­ing that Rus­sia was unripe for rev­o­lu­tion did not mean it was eco­nom­i­cally back­ward, only that the pro­le­tariat was not devel­oped enough to take power on its own.

But here, as Cas­to­ri­adis inti­mates, Pan­nekoek ulti­mately reveals his fail­ure to under­stand the spe­cific class dynam­ics of Rus­sia on the eve of the rev­o­lu­tion. For him, it is enough to claim that the class was not ready to take power sim­ply because, at the end of the day, the party had to step in. His logic is con­sis­tent only if one assumes that com­mu­nism will adopt the same form at all times: the grad­ual spread of coun­cils over the total­ity of the social fab­ric. If this fails to hap­pen, then the rev­o­lu­tion was bour­geois; if it does, which, one might add, it never has, then it was com­mu­nist. It is this sta­tic con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism, this refusal to accept that com­mu­nism may appear dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions, that it may have to be pro­duced by a diver­sity of means, that led him to mis­read the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the Russ­ian struggle.

Now the two ques­tions, the nature of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the role of the party on the other, inter­sect dra­mat­i­cally. If Pan­nekoek had paid seri­ous atten­tion to the his­tory of class rela­tions in Rus­sia, he would have seen that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pro­le­tariat at that his­tor­i­cal moment – its tech­ni­cal makeup, its polit­i­cal forms, its rela­tion­ship to the other classes – made it impos­si­ble for the class to take power with­out party inter­ven­tion. Because Rus­sia was so riven by class divi­sions, a rev­o­lu­tion with any chance of suc­cess would have to find some way to forge an alliance between pro­le­tar­ian van­guards and peas­ant masses in a way that could tran­scend these sep­a­ra­tions. Pan­nekeok would have seen that the class was, at that con­junc­ture, actu­ally quite ready. It just had to assume a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal form, one dis­tinct from the sovi­ets, in order to make the revolution.

This gap goes a long way in explain­ing Pannekoek’s some­what con­fus­ing belief that the party can never actu­ally be a part of the class itself. In his let­ters, he seems to argue that any enlarged con­cep­tion of the party would nec­es­sar­ily trans­form it into a spe­cial forces team, which would be called in to bash heads when the class runs into trou­ble. He refused to enter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that the party, as was the case in Rus­sia, may itself be a nec­es­sary ele­ment of the class. Unlike Cas­to­ri­adis, who tried to cap­ture the sig­nif­i­cance of the French Com­mu­nist Party by study­ing its pos­si­ble social bases, its par­tic­u­lar his­tory, and its broader rela­tion­ship to the class strug­gle itself, Pan­nekoek con­tented him­self with sim­ply argu­ing that it was on the side of cap­i­tal. For Cas­to­ri­adis, this was not good enough; the task was to metic­u­lously ana­lyze the pecu­liar, and rather unprece­dented, com­po­si­tion of a reformist party work­ing in the ser­vice of a for­eign coun­try, to “explain patiently the com­plete work­ings and mate­r­ial roots of Stalinism’s betrayal” in order to defin­i­tively out­flank it.28

Pan­nekoek delib­er­ately ignored these kinds of ques­tions – ques­tions, he would say, that have been posed in “an entirely prac­ti­cal way” – because his vision of rev­o­lu­tion, despite its numer­ous mer­its, was still largely informed by a kind of fatal­ism. Pro­le­tar­i­ans will nat­u­rally fig­ure every­thing out based on their imme­di­ate expe­ri­ences, as though they pos­sess some kind of innate knowl­edge organ­i­cally dri­ving them to a spec­i­fied goal, like an acorn grow­ing into an oak tree. They will spon­ta­neously become polit­i­cal sub­jects, like the log­i­cal result of an equa­tion, and make their rev­o­lu­tion on their own. If they run into any set­backs, it’s only because they still don’t have enough expe­ri­ence; if they suf­fer a defeat, it’s only because they weren’t ready. For the Pan­nekoek of these let­ters, there is no gap between imme­di­ate needs and the eman­ci­pa­tion of the class through rev­o­lu­tion. The two seam­lessly blend into one another in such a way as to entirely cover up the moment of strategy.

But in order to explore these themes fur­ther we have to take a step back­ward. Though many of the prob­lems above – the con­fla­tion of means and ends, the eli­sion of strat­egy, the sup­pres­sion of class het­ero­gene­ity, and the rever­sion to fatal­ism – per­sist within today’s ultra-left, the best way to under­stand and even­tu­ally super­sede them is to go back to their gen­e­sis. This means return­ing to another famous encounter, that between the ultra-left and Lenin him­self. It was Lenin, after all, who united a set of rad­i­cally dis­tinct groups under the umbrella of the “ultra-left.” Our forth­com­ing inves­ti­ga­tion, there­fore, will move back­wards to Lenin and his adversaries.

Until then, we present the let­ters. The first entry in this exchange, from Pan­nekoek to Cas­to­ri­adis, has been avail­able on the inter­net, and we repro­duce that ver­sion here. Pan­nekoek indi­cates that he wrote the let­ter in Eng­lish, but it was ulti­mately trans­lated into French for pub­li­ca­tion in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. It is not clear whether this ver­sion is a trans­la­tion or the orig­i­nal Eng­lish text. Castoriadis’s response, writ­ten under the pen name Pierre Chaulieu, and a final response by Pan­nekoek, have only been avail­able in French. The ver­sions avail­able here are our trans­la­tions from the orig­i­nals reprinted at

Reply to Pannekoek - Castoriadis

A reply to Pannekoek's letter to Socialisme ou Barbarie, translated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi for Viewpoint Magzine.

Your letter has provided a great satisfaction to all the comrades of the group; satisfaction of seeing our work appreciated by a comrade honored as you are and who has devoted an entire life to the proletariat and to socialism; satisfaction of seeing confirmed our idea of a profound agreement between you and us on the fundamental points; satisfaction finally of being able to discuss with you and of enriching our review with this discussion.

Before discussing the two points to which your letter is devoted (nature of the Russian Revolution, conception and role of the party), I would like to underline the points on which we agree: autonomy of the working class as both means and end of its historical action, total power of the proletariat at the economic and political level as the sole concrete content of socialism. I would furthermore like on this point to to clear up a misunderstanding. It is not correct that we restrict “the activity of these organisms to the organization of labor in factories after the taking of social power.” We think that the activity of these soviet – or workers’ council – organisms after the taking of power extends itself to the total organization of social life, which is to say that as long as there is need for an organism of power, its role will be fulfilled by the workers’ councils. Neither is it correct that we would only think of such a role for the councils in the period following the “taking of power.” At the same time, historical experience and reflection show that the councils could not be the organisms truly expressing the class if they were created to thus decree the future of a victorious revolution, that they will be nothing unless they are created spontaneously by a profound movement of the class, therefore before the “taking of power”; and if it is thus, it is evident that they will play a primordial role during the entire revolutionary period, whose beginning is precisely marked (as I said in my text on the party in number 10) by the constitution of the autonomous organisms of the masses.

Where in contrast there is, in fact, a real difference of opinion between us, is on the question of knowing if, during this revolutionary period, these councils will be the sole organism which plays an effective role in conducting the revolution, and, to a lesser extent, what the role and task is of the revolutionary militants in the meantime. That is, the “question of the party.”

You say “in the conquest of power we have no interest in a ‘revolutionary party’ that will take the leadership of the proletarian revolution.” And even further, after having quite rightly recalled that there are, beside us, a half-dozen other parties or groups that claim to represent the working class, you add: “in order for them (the masses in their councils) to decide in the best way possible they must be enlightened by well-considered advice coming from the greatest number of people possible.” I fear that this view of things has no correspondence with both the most glaring and the most hidden traits of the current and prospective situation of the working class. Since these other parties and groups of which you speak do not simply represent different opinions on the best way to make revolution, and the sessions of the councils will not be calm gatherings of reflection where, according the opinions of these diverse counselors (the representatives of the groups and parties), the working class will decide to follow one path rather than another. From the very moment that these organisms of the working class have been constituted, the class struggle will have been transposed to the very heart of these organisms; it will be transposed there by the representatives of the majority of these “groups or parties” which claim to represent the working class but who, in the majority of cases, represent the interests and the ideology of the classes hostile to the proletariat, like the reformists and the Stalinists. Even if they don’t exist there in their current form, they will exist in another, let us be sure. In all likelihood, they will start with a predominant position. And the whole experience of the last twenty years – of the Spanish war, the occupation, and up to and including the experience of any current union meeting – we learn that the militants who have our opinion must conquer by struggle even the right to speak within these organisms.

The intensification of the class struggle during the revolutionary period will inevitably take the form of the intensification of the struggle of diverse factions within the mass organisms. In these conditions, to say that a vanguard revolutionary organization will limit itself to “enlightening with well-considered advice” is, I believe, what in English is called an “understatement.” After all, if the councils of the revolutionary period prove to be this assembly of wise men where nobody comes to disturb the calm necessary for a well-considered reflection, we will be the first to congratulate ourselves; we feel sure, in fact, that our advice would prevail if things happened this way. But it is only in this case that the “party or group” could limit itself to the tasks that you assign it. And this case is by far the most improbable. The working class which will form the councils will not be a different class from the one that exists today; it will have made an enormous step forwards, but, to use a famous expression, it will still be stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. It will be at the surface dominated by profoundly hostile influences, to which it can initially oppose only its still-confused revolutionary will and a minority vanguard. This will be by all means compatible with our fundamental idea of the autonomy of the working class extending and deepening its influence on the councils, winning the majority to its program. It may even have to act before; what can it do if, representing 45% of the councils, it learns that some neo-Stalinist party prepares to take power for the future? Will it not have to try to seize power immediately?

I do not think that you will disagree with all that; I believe that what you aim for above all in your criticisms is the idea of the revolutionary leadership of the party. I have however tried to explain that the party cannot be the leadership of the class, neither before, nor after the revolution; not before, because the class does not follow it and it would only know how to lead at most a minority (and again, “lead” it in a totally relative sense: influence it with its ideas and its exemplary action); not after, since proletarian power cannot be the power of the party, but the power of the class in its autonomous mass organisms. The only moment when the party can approach the role of effective leadership, of the corps which can try to impose its revolutionary will with violence, may be a certain phase of the revolutionary period immediately preceding its conclusion; important practical decisions may need to be taken outside the councils if the representatives of actually counter-revolutionary organizations participate, the party may, under the pressure of circumstances, commit itself to a decisive action even if it is not, in votes, followed by the majority of the class. The fact that in acting thus, the party will not act as a bureaucratic body aiming to impose its will on the class, but as the historical expression of the class itself, depends on a series of factors, which we can discuss in the abstract today, but which will only be appreciated at this moment: what proportion of the class is in agreement with the program of the party, what is the ideological state of the rest of the class, where is the struggle against the counterrevolutionary tendencies within the councils, what are the ulterior perspectives, etc. To draw up, as of now, a series of rules of conduct for the various possible cases would doubtless be puerile; one can be sure that the only cases that will present themselves will be the unforeseen cases.

There are comrades who say: to trace this perspective is to leave the path open to a possible degeneration of the party in the bureaucratic sense. The response is: not tracing it means accepting the defeat of the revolution or the bureaucratic degeneration of the councils from the very start, and this not as a possibility, but as a certitude. Ultimately, to refuse to act in fear that one will transform into a bureaucrat, seems to me as absurd as refusing to think in fear of being wrong. Just as the only “guarantee” against error consists in the exercise of thought itself, the only “guarantee” against bureaucratization consists in permanent action in an anti-bureaucratic direction, in struggling against the bureaucracy and in practically showing that a non-bureaucratic organization of the vanguard is possible, and that it can organize non-bureaucratic relations with the class. Since the bureaucracy is not born of false ideas, but of necessities proper to worker action at a certain stage, and in action it is about showing that the proletariat can do without the bureaucracy. Ultimately, to remain above all preoccupied with the fear of bureaucratization is to forget that in current conditions an organization would only know how to acquire a noteworthy influence with the masses on the condition of expressing and realizing their anti-bureaucratic aspirations; it is to forget that a vanguard group will only be able to reach a real existence by perpetually modeling itself on these aspirations of the masses; it is to forget that there is no longer room for the appearance of a new bureaucratic organization. The permanent failure of Trotskyist attempts to purely and simply recreate a “Bolshevik” organization finds its deepest cause there.

To close these reflections, I do not think either that one could say that in the current period (and hence the revolution) the task of a vanguard group would be a “theoretical” task. I believe that this task is also and above all the task of struggle and organization. For the class struggle is permanent, through its highs and lows, and the ideological maturation of the working class makes itself through this struggle. But the proletariat and its struggles are currently dominated by bureaucratic organizations (unions and parties), which has the result of rendering struggle impossible, of deviating them from the class goal or conducting them to defeat. A vanguard organization cannot indifferently attend this show, neither can it content itself with appearing as the owl of Minerva at dusk, letting the sound of its beak fall with tracts explaining to the workers the reasons for their defeat. It must be capable of intervening in these struggles, combating the influence of bureaucratic organizations, proposing forms of action and organization to the workers; it must even at times be capable of imposing them. Fifteen resolute vanguard workers can, in certain cases, put a factory of 5,000 into strike, if they are willing to knock out some Stalinist bureaucrats, which is neither theoretical, nor even democratic, these bureaucrats having always been elected in comfortable majorities by the workers themselves.

I would like, before ending this response, to say a couple things about our second divergence, which at first glance has only a theoretical character: that of the nature of the Russian Revolution. We think that characterizing the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution does violence to the facts, to ideas, and to language. That in the Russian Revolution there were several elements of a bourgeois revolution – in particular, the “realization of the bourgeois-democratic tasks” – has always been recognized, and, long before the revolution itself, Lenin and Trotsky had made it the base of their strategy and tactics. But these tasks, in the given stage of historical development and the configuration of social forces in Russia, could not be dealt with by the working class who, in the same blow, could not pose itself essentially socialist tasks.

You say: the participation of workers does not suffice. Of course; as soon as a battle becomes a mass battle the workers are there, since they are the masses. But the criterion is not that: it is to know if the workers find themselves the pure and simple infantry of the bourgeoisie or if they fight for their own goals. In a revolution in which the workers battle for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – whatever meaning they subjectively give to these watchwords – they are the infantry of the bourgeoisie. When they fight for “All power to the soviets,” they fight for socialism. What makes the Russian Revolution a proletarian revolution is that the proletariat intervened in it as a dominant force with its own flag, its face, its demands, its means of struggle, its own forms of organization; it is not only that it constituted mass organisms aiming to appropriate all power but that this itself went past the expropriation of the capitalists and began to realize workers’ management of the factories. All this made the Russian Revolution forever a proletarian revolution, whatever its subsequent fate – just as neither the weakness, nor the confusions, nor the final defeat of the Paris Commune prevents it from having been a proletarian revolution.

This divergence may appear at first glance to be theoretical: I think however that it has a practical important insofar as it translates par excellence a methodological difference into a contemporary problem: the problem of the bureaucracy. The fact that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution has not given way to the restoration of the bourgeoisie but to the the formation of a new exploitative layer, the bureaucracy; that the regime that carries this layer, despite its profound identity with capitalism (as the domination of dead labor over living labor), differs in many aspects that cannot be neglected without refusing to understand anything; that this same layer, since 1945, is in the process of extending its domination over the world; that it is represented in the countries of Western Europe by parties deeply rooted in the working class – all this makes us think that contenting ourselves with saying that the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois revolution is equivalent to voluntarily closing our eyes to the most important aspects of the global situation today.

I hope that this discussion can be pursued and deepened, and I believe it is not necessary to repeat to you that we welcome with joy in Socialisme ou Barbarie all that you would like to send us.

Reply to Castoriadis - Pannekoek

Pannekoek's final response to Castoriadis's letter in Socialisme ou Barbarie, translated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi for Viewpoint Magazine.

I noticed with great pleasure that you have published in your review Socialisme ou Barbarie a translation of my letter annotated with critical remarks in such a way that involves your readers in a discussion on fundamental questions. Since you express the desire to continue the discussion, I am sending you several remarks on your response. Naturally, there are still differences of opinion that could appear in the discussion with a greater clarity. Such differences are normally the result of a different assessment of what one considers as the most important points, which in turn is related to our practical experiences or the milieu in which we find ourselves. For me, this was the study of the political strikes in Belgium (1893), in Russia (1905 and 1917), and in Germany (1918 to 1919), a study by which I attempted to reach a clear understanding of the fundamental character of these actions. Your group lives and works among the turmoil of the working class of a great industrial city; consequently, your attention is completely concentrated on a practical problem: how could the methods of effective struggle develop beyond the inefficient struggle of parties and partial strikes of today?

Naturally, I do not claim that the revolutionary actions of the working class will all unfold in an atmosphere of peaceful discussion. What I claim is that the result of the struggle, often violent, is not determined by accidental circumstances, but by what is alive in the thoughts of the workers, as the basis of a solid consciousness acquired by experience, study, or their discussions. If the personnel of a factory must decide whether or not to go on strike, the decision is not taken by smashing fists on the table, but normally by discussions.

You pose the problem in an entirely practical way: what would the party do if it had 45% of the members of the councils behind it and if it expected another party (neo-Stalinists that strive to conquer the regime) to attempt a seizure of power by force? Your response is: we would have to preempt it by doing that which we fear it will do. What will be the definitive result of such an action? Look at what happened in Russia. There existed a party, with good revolutionary principles, influenced by Marxism; and assured, moreover, of the support of the councils already formed by the workers; however, it was obliged to seize power, and the result was totalitarian Stalinism (if I say “it was obliged” that means that the circumstances were not ripe enough for a real proletarian revolution. In the western world in which capitalism is more developed, the conditions certainly are more ripe; the measure of it is given by the development of the class struggle). Thus, one must pose the question: could the struggle of the party that you propose save the proletarian revolution? It seems to me that it would be instead one step towards a new oppression.

Certainly, there will always be difficulties. If the French, or global, situation required a mass struggle of the workers, the communist parties would try immediately to transform the action into a pro-Russian demonstration within the boundaries of the party. We must lead an energetic struggle against these parties. But we cannot beat them by following their methods. That is only possible by practicing our own methods. The true form of action of a class in struggle is the force of arguments, based on the fundamental principle of the autonomy of decisions! The workers can only prevent the communist party’s repression by the development and reinforcement of their own class power; that means their unanimous will to take the means of production under their control and manage them.

The principal condition for the conquest of freedom for the working class is that the conception of self-government and self-management of the apparatuses of production is rooted in the consciousness of the masses. That agrees, to a certain degree, with what Jaurès wrote on the Constituent Assembly, in his Socialist History of the French Revolution:

“This assembly, brand new, discussing political subjects, knew, barely convened, to thwart all the maneuvers of the Court. Why? Because it held several grand abstract ideas, seriously and lengthily ripened and which gave them a clear view of the situation.”

Of course, the two cases are not identical. Instead of the grand political ideas of the French Revolution, it is a question of the grand socialist ideas of the workers, which is to say: the management of production by organized cooperation. Instead of 500 deputies armed with their abstract ideas acquired through study, the workers will be millions guided by the experience of an entire life of exploitation in a productive job. This is why I see these things in the following way:

The most noble and useful task of a revolutionary party is, by its propaganda in thousands of small journals, brochures, etc., to enrich the knowledge of the masses in the process of a consciousness always more clear and more vast.

Now, several words on the character of the Russian revolution. Translating the English word “middle class revolution” into “révolution bourgeoise” does not exactly express its meaning. When in England the so-called middle classes seized power, they were composed of a large party of small capitalists, or businessmen, owners of the industrial apparatuses of production. The struggle of the masses was necessary to drive the aristocracy from power; but in spite of this fact, this mass was itself not yet capable of seizing the instruments of production; the workers could only achieve the spiritual, moral, and organizational capacity to do that by means of class struggle in a sufficiently developed capitalism. In Russia, there did not exist a bourgeoisie of certain importance; the consequence was that the vanguard of the revolution gave birth to a new “middle class” as ruling class of productive work, managing the apparatus of production, and not as an ensemble of individual owners each possessing a certain part of the apparatus of production, but as collective owners of the apparatus of production in its totality.

In general, we could say: if the laboring masses (because they are the product of pre-capitalist conditions) are not yet capable of taking production into their own hands, inevitably that will lead to new leading class becoming master of production. It is this concordance that makes me say that the Russian revolution (in its essential and permanent character) was a bourgeois revolution. Certainly the mass power of the proletariat was necessary to destroy the former system (and it was in this a lesson for the workers of the entire world). But a social revolution can obtain nothing more than what corresponds to the character of the revolutionary classes, and if the greatest radicalism possible was necessary to conquer all resistances, later on, it would have to fall behind.

This appears to be general rule of all revolutions up to the present day: up to 1793, the French Revolution became more and more radical, until the peasants definitively became the free masters of the soil, and until the foreign armies were pushed back; at that moment, the Jacobins were massacred and capitalism made its entrance as the new master. When one sees things this way, the course of the Russian revolution would be the same as those preceding revolutions that all conquered power, in England, in France, in Germany. The Russian revolution was not at all a premature proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution belongs to the future.

I hope that this explanation, even though it does not contain any new arguments, will help to clarify several divergences in our points of view.

Issue 2: Theory and Practice

Originally posted: September 10, 2012 at Viewpoint Magazine

The neighborhood is the new factory

An article by Liz Mason-Deese on the unemployed movement in Argentina since 2001.

In 2001, Argentina suffered an economic crisis, similar to the one that much of the world is experiencing today. After more than a decade of IMF-mandated structural adjustment, which only deepened poverty and unemployment, the government was forced to default on over $100 billion of public debt and declared a state of emergency in an attempt to calm public unrest. Despite a military-imposed curfew, thousands of people rushed to the streets and forced the president and other politicians out of office with the chant “que se vayan todos/ni se quede uno solo” (they all must go/not one can stay). These protests were the culmination of years of organizing in response to increasing unemployment and simultaneous reductions in welfare programs as part of neoliberal policies. Workers were taking over factories, the unemployed blocking highways, migrants occupying unused land. When joined by the spontaneous protests of the middle class in December, the mobilizations were able to overthrow the government as the president fled Buenos Aires in a helicopter. The movements were not only the largest mass mobilization in Argentina since the 1970s, but also qualitatively different from earlier movements: not interested in taking state power, nor in working more jobs and longer hours, they struggled to create new forms of life, including new forms of socio-spatial organization and the production and distribution of wealth. In the ten years following the crisis, the strongest of the movements, the Movements of Unemployed Workers (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTDs), has continued on this path, even as the country has recovered economically and has so far been able to resist the effects of the global crisis.

Here I’ll examine the history and practices of the MTDs, drawing on research I’ve conducted since 2003 with the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, and current research in Buenos Aires on the organization of the unemployed. The movements of the unemployed, which first emerged in Argentina in the mid-1990s, challenge traditional representations of the unemployed as lacking political agency and revolutionary potential. While many Marxists and labor organizers have maintained the latter position, Argentina’s recent history paints a different picture: the militant organization of the unemployed across the country was instrumental in overthrowing the neoliberal government in 2001 and steering the course the country would take following the economic crisis. Movements of the unemployed in Argentina are redefining work through their organizational practice, discourses around labor, and active creation of different forms of production and reproduction. This will necessarily be a very partial description of a complex, fragmented, and diverse movement, which has existed for over fifteen years.

Organizing the Unemployed

By the mid-1990s, unemployment in Argentina had reached nearly 20% (with even higher levels of underemployment), due to rapid deindustrialization and privatization, alongside a working class weakened from the earlier military dictatorship. New laws had stripped workers of remaining rights and led to the increasing “flexibilization” of labor, allowing employers to hire workers under short-term contracts and provide less benefits, making it easier to fire workers and unnecessary to compensate them upon doing so. Different forms of informal and precarious labor were already the norm for women and youth, and became increasingly so for adult men as well. President Carlos Menem had effectively cut social spending so that only certain sectors received unemployment benefits, and the jobless could not reliably depend on any support from the state. The main, officially recognized labor movement, headed by the CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo), was politically in ruins as it continued to support Menem because of its Peronist party affiliation, while these changes in the organization of work made the traditional forms of labor organizing increasingly difficult. Without stable employment, the poor increasingly relied on different forms of informal labor, illegal activity, and the political parties’ systems of patronage, as well as strengthened networks of mutual aid and support within communities.

It was in this context that the unemployed began to organize themselves, first in the interior of Argentina and soon after in the country’s major urban centers. Their first public actions were roadblocks, using barricades and burning tires to block major highways, sometimes for weeks at a time. The roadblocks were organized without any support from the major trade unions or leftist political parties, but rather through the already existing networks of support of the poor and unemployed. In the interior of the country, laid-off workers of the recently privatized oil company were the first to protest in 1996, demanding unemployment benefits and/or their jobs back. In the urban areas, however, the protests were of a more heterogeneous composition, including many who had never participated in the formal labor market. In the urban periphery of Buenos Aires, the first actions were centered around the question of food, with large public collective meals and protests demanding food assistance from the state. Other early protests focused on the rising costs of electricity and gas, the poor living conditions in working-class neighborhoods, and the lack of state support for the unemployed.

While different organizations of the unemployed emerged during this time in Argentina, the MTDs were generally the most independent and innovative. The MTDs are organized by neighborhood, instead of around a specific workplace or sector, taking the name of the neighborhood or region where they are based. Although the different MTDs sometimes come together in specific campaigns or actions, and have formed coalitions or blocks, there has never been a national organization uniting all the different groups of unemployed across the country. The MTDs are engaged in a constantly shifting constellation of alliances and networks with each other, different sectors of the labor movement, and other social movements. Thus each group is unique, not only in its geographic location, but in terms of its internal organization, political activity and ideological affiliations as well. Yet there are several elements the MTDs have in common, including the tactic of the roadblocks, a form of organization that emphasizes autonomy and a critique of hierarchy, and an emphasis on territorial organization and forming their own productive enterprises.

The MTDs first came into the public eye for their confrontational roadblocks, or piquetes. The roadblock’s immediate purpose is to stop the normal circulation of goods and services, and to make people’s demands visible. It has been widely remarked that the piquetes are the unemployed’s version of the strike or work stoppage, the only available tactic once denied access to this privileged form of workers’ revolt. However, the decision to block roads does not necessarily start from the assumption of lack: the piqueteros took their protests not to the factory doors, but rather to the streets of the city, understanding the city as the crucial site of capitalist production. For this reason, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri exemplify this tactic as a “wildcat strike against the metropolis.”1 In Buenos Aires, the roadblocks were particularly effective because they often took place at the major bridges or other entry points to the city from the suburbs, and as the crisis worsened and the government’s power weakened, at major intersections within the city itself. The roadblocks were essential in giving the piqueteros a sense of agency many felt they lacked without access to employment or the work site as a place to organize and proved to be an extremely powerful and effective tactic. The piquetes were successful in forcing the state to provide unemployment benefits and food baskets to the poor, and for the organizations winning control over the distribution of the subsidies. This control was important, as it allowed the movements to remain independent of the political parties, which would generally distribute benefits in turn for votes and political support, and because it allowed the movements to choose how to reinvest the funds in community organization.

The roadblocks were also important in that they served as a space of encounter, bringing together the different unemployed and forming new social relations and communal values. More than just protests, the piquetes were encampments in the middle of the street, where people took care of each other, and shared food and other responsibilities for maintaining the space.

Horizontality & Autonomy

While different organizations of the unemployed, and later other movements across the country, use the tactic of the roadblock, the MTDs can be further differentiated by their internal organization and commitment to autonomy. The MTDs’ internal organization emphasizes direct democracy, generally using a moderated consensus process in assemblies which are open to everyone in the movement. While the MTDs differ in their exact practices of internal democracy, with some committed to complete horizontalism while others have different leadership structures, they agree upon a critique of unions and parties for their top-down, hierarchical, and bureaucratic structures and practices, and are dedicated to enacting different forms of internal organization. This differentiates them from other organizations of the unemployed that are organized more bureaucratically, or that have come to rely on charismatic leaders.

The MTDs were formed from self-convened and organized groups of neighbors and remained autonomous from trade unions, leftist and national-popular political parties, and the parties’ patronage networks. They have resisted being incorporated into these institutions although at times they make strategic alliances with the more independent unions or leftist political parties. Since the election of Nestor Kirchner in 2003, many social movements in the country, including organizations of the unemployed with a more national-popular/Peronist political leaning, declared their support for the government, and, in some cases, became officially integrated into its ranks. Several of the MTDs, including those that make up the Frente Popular Dario Santillan, and the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, have remained independent from the government, choosing instead to focus on territorial organizing and creating new productive practices, which continue to this day.

The commitment to horizontality and autonomy are accompanied by a critique of representation. It is recognized that the movement is internally very heterogeneous and there is no ideal figure of the unemployed worker. Additionally, these movements emerged at the time of a complete breakdown of representational democracy, as seen in the neoliberal government of the 1990s and its eventual overthrow. It was clear that the politicians in power did not represent the people, not even of their own parties. Nor did the union, which continued to support Menem, represent the workers. The loss of faith in representational politics led to the cries that “they all must go,” and the adoption of popular neighborhood assemblies across the city of Buenos Aires. This skepticism toward representational politics is countered by a commitment to territorial organizing, to creating new ways of life and social-spatial organization in the neighborhoods where the poor live.

Territorial Organization

The territorial organization is another element that distinguishes the organizations of the unemployed, especially those in urban settings, from other social movements in Argentina and elsewhere. “The neighborhood is the new factory” was one of the principal slogans of the MTDs and other organizations of the unemployed. This slogan carries a double significance: production is no longer centered in the factory but dispersed throughout the territory and, in parallel, labor organizing must be dispersed throughout the neighborhood as well. Many of the MTDs, especially in southern reaches of Greater Buenos Aires, emerged from settlements in the urban periphery that had been illegally occupied in the 1980s. In these settlements, the neighborhood was already the key site of political organization, as the settlements were largely collectively controlled by their inhabitants and sites of constant struggles to maintain their land and for access to services. The neighborhood was also the obvious site for political organization for the large numbers of women and youth that had never been included in the formal labor movement and had always been excluded from other political organizations. Thus, they were the ones to take the lead as these movements emerged, a stark contrast to the many forms of political activity dominated by men.

The struggle against capital must also be the struggle to produce a different type of space and different social relations within the space.2 That is precisely what the MTDs seek to do in their territories, by establishing a physical presence in the neighborhood and seeking to collectively manage as many of the elements of daily life as possible. Territorial organization as practiced by the MTDs includes creating schools, soup kitchens, health clinics, daycares, community gardens, social centers and productive enterprises within a given territory. It means organizing around the basic needs of community residents, food, clean water, housing, education and the desire to form community in neighborhoods that are socially and ethnically fragmented. Territorial organization implies opening up all the spaces of daily activity to critique and as possible sites of organization. These movements recognize and more fully value the different types of labor that go into producing a territory. Ultimately, territorial organization seeks to build on the self-activity of the working class as expressed through the practices of everyday life and social organization in the neighborhoods.


The MTDs differ from what is traditionally conceived of as the labor movement because of their decentering of waged labor and explicit organizing of unemployed people. The MTDs have explicitly taken on the challenge of organizing the unemployed, as well as partially-employed, informal, and domestic workers. Through the positive identity of the piquetero and continuing to identify as workers, the MTDs have moved beyond a definition of the unemployed that is based on lack, on what they don’t have (employment), to one that values the political organization of the class. Thus, this discourse no longer privileges wage labor as the norm, recognizing that this is no longer a possibility for much of the country’s working class. Yet, the MTDs continue identifying as “workers,” as the working class, even without employment or even the possibility of employment. Rather, the movement recognizes that there are many types of work, and that they are organized in many different ways.

The MTDs decenter the experience of waged labor and instead put the spaces of everyday life in the center of their struggle. In this way, they are able to challenge distinctions between waged and unwaged labor, or formal and informal employment, to create a space for the majority of urban residents who survive on some combination of precarious work along with state subsidies, illegal activities, and support from family and friends. Residents of the urban periphery often work part-time in domestic labor or construction, are self-employed through micro-enterprises run out of their homes, and are involved in the constant labor of care in their own homes and communities. This labor lacks the rights and security that have helped other workers to organize, as well as geographic stability. This makes workplace organizing extremely difficult, if not impossible, meaning that there is generally little place for these workers within labor unions. The piquetero movement, however, is one of the few movements that has managed to successfully bring together these different type of workers without reproducing the hierarchies and divisions of the labor market.

Within the piquetero movement there are differing analyses of work and diagnostics of the economic situation, which are manifest in the organizations’ demands and practices. One sector of the movement calls for “genuine work” and demands their old jobs back: real, legitimate, authentic jobs. These were opposed to the demands for subsidies and unemployment benefits, which they considered to reproduce patterns of laziness and dependency. While certainly politicians’ use of these these subsidies to pacifty and co-opt movements must be criticized, it is easy to see how the simple critique of subsidies-as-dependency risks reproducing the logic of neoliberal capital and its ideology of individual responsibility. The demand for “genuine work” makes another mistake by labeling certain forms of labor as legitimate and authentic as opposed to others, devaluing women’s work in the household and community, as well as many other types of labor. It fails to take into account structural changes that make its premise worthless: there is no more genuine work.

Another sector of the piquetero movement, mostly adhering to a nationalist-populist ideology, has centered their actions around demanding unemployment subsidies from the state. Thanks to their success in winning these benefits and the right to distribute them, these organizations grew rapidly in the late 1990s, yet were unable to provide a real alternative to the corrupt and hierarchical forms of politics already taking place in working class neighborhoods. A politics based on making demands of the state means that most of these organizations now support the Kirchner administration and many have officially integrated into the government apparatus, thus losing most of their oppositional potential.

The independent MTDs, on the other hand, have taken a different approach from those either demanding “genuine work” or only demanding subsidies. While these MTDs decenter waged labor, work remains at the center of their practice and analysis. The MTDs do not just demand jobs, however. Instead, they ask: “what kind of work do we want?” and answer: “work with dignity.” Work with dignity is not so much a demand as a statement of intent, for it is precisely what the movements are putting into practice, creating new forms of work that spill over into new ways of living and organizing the urban territory.


Starting in the late 1990s, at the same time as some workers began taking over their factories, a number of MTDs started their own productive enterprises as a way to provide an income for some of their members and to regain a sense of control over their lives, which they had lost with unemployment. These efforts multiplied after 2001, as the crisis hit its peak and the lack of a stable government made it clear that solutions would not come from the state. During this time, the MTDs also participated in organizing barter markets and alternative currency networks, creating new economic systems based on mutual aid and support. Recognizing that full employment was no longer an option, or perhaps even a desire, for everyone, these groups decided to create their own ways of reproducing life in their territories, outside of the capitalist market.

There are different ways of interpreting “work with dignity,” and different ways of putting it into practice. We can, however, identify some common threads: (1) self-management/workers’ control/no boss, (2) workplace democracy and horizontality, (3) communal values over market values. These alternatives sometimes take the form of worker-owned cooperatives, but go beyond obviously productive enterprises as well. As part of their territorial organization, the MTDs seek to collectively manage other spaces and activities of life, from healthcare to education to the food they eat. There is a dimension of autonomy to these projects as well: although most are funded at least partially through state subsidies, the MTDs aim to be self-sufficient in order to no longer rely on the state. This is mostly a practical concern, since it is expected that the state will one day take away the subsidies or enforce certain requirements the movements are not prepared to meet. The subsidies are considered useful, however, inasmuch as they provide a material base from which to further strengthen the movement and people’s self-organization.

The alternatives that the MTDs construct are not limited to workplace alternatives, to working without bosses and democratically controlling the workplace. They aim to create different ways of working, questioning what counts as work and how that work is valued, how that work is carried out and organized, and the relationship between that work and other parts of life. This means going beyond the productive enterprises to focus on activities that create new social relations within the neighborhoods, relationships that are not based on competition or profit but on solidarity and mutual aid.

The productive enterprises the MTDs set up are usually small-scale workshops making food or textiles, or providing services. Bakeries and pizzerias are some of the most common. These enterprises are democratically controlled by the workers themselves and ultimately by the movement as whole, making the needs of the community more important than just turning a profit. They attempt to provide an alternative to the hierarchical discipline of most capitalist workplaces, as well as divisions between manual and intellectual labor, by including all workers in decision-making and rotating roles. Profit is generally invested into the organization as a whole or distributed to members most in need.

In many ways, the cooperatives run by the MTDs are similar to the “recuperated factories” that emerged in Argentina around the same time. In hundreds of sites around the country, workers took over and restarted production in factories, rather than submit to owners’ decisions to close the factories and leave workers unemployed. These range from small printing presses to large metal factories. There is a wide range of diversity in how the recuperated factories operate: in some, workers radically transform the relations of production, instituting non-hierarchical relations between workers and equally sharing responsibilities and tasks, decision-making power, and surplus, while others largely reproduce the relations and practices of the factory under its former boss. Yet in many ways the recuperated factories remain limited, because, after all, they are still creating work, which, instead of relying on a boss to instill the factory discipline, relies on collective self-exploitation. Overall, the recuperated factories do little to challenge the overall system of capital, especially as many continue to fill the same contracts with capitalist corporations as when they were run by a boss. The recuperated factories that are doing the most for political change are those that have been able to create networks with other worker-controlled enterprises, recreating the whole supply chain, and those that build ties with other movements and the wider community.

One of the central focuses of all these movements has been education, which can perhaps best be seen in the bachilleratos populares. The bachilleratos populares are high school degree programs for adults run by social movements, but with state funding and accreditation. The schools emerged out of the movements, both the recuperated factories and the MTDs, first without any outside funding or state recognition, as a way to provide education to their members and the public. They arose out of a double acknowledgment: the lack of quality educational opportunities for much of the city’s poor, and the power of education for political empowerment. After years of fighting, the degrees earned in these schools were formally recognized by the state (in 2007 in the province of Buenos Aires and 2008 in the city). The state provides additional resources as well, and in some localities provides small salaries for the teachers. However, the movements control the curriculum, and are responsible for organizing the school and teaching the classes. Teachers are generally movement activists and/or politically committed university students; some work as teachers in other schools. The MTDs put a great deal of emphasis on knowledge production in general, in some cases even operating their own publishing houses, through which they edit and publish their own research.3

Additionally, some of the MTDs operate health clinics, providing an alternative to the overcrowded and underfunded public health system and taking more holistic approaches to health, as opposed to only treating sickness. Alongside the clinics, the MTDs tend to offer classes about nutrition and wellness, seeking to integrate these elements of their activities into the daily lives of their members. The organizations offer a wide range of cultural and educational programming, from painting classes to readings groups on Marx, provide legal aid for migrants seeking to legalize their status, and facilitate women’s empowerment groups.

Participation in these activities, whether a worker-run bakery or a movement-controlled high school, creates new subjectivities and social relations, produces new territories and new forms of life. The participants go from seeing themselves as helpless victims of global capitalism, solely defined by their lack of employment, to identifying as active agents of social and political change, with the power to confront the state and capital and produce different ways of living. The MTDs challenge dominant narratives about the centrality and desirability of waged labor and instead seek to create alternative forms of production and social organization.

Today the MTDs are not as publicly visible as they were ten years ago, with much less open confrontation with the state and piquetes no longer a daily occurrence. The movement, which was never unified, is perhaps even more fragmented today: some piquetero organizations have been integrated into the Kirchner apparatus, receiving subsidies and other resources from the state, and others are increasingly critical of these new forms of co-optation. The lack of unified action poses an important problem as the government tries to divide “good protesters” from “bad protesters,” determining access to subsidies, and the cooperatives discover it is hard to sustain themselves without building larger networks of trade and support. Certain groups, most notably the Popular Front Darío Santillán, are attempting to counter this fragmentation through the construction of new alliances bringing together the unemployed, low-wage and precarious workers, and students, along with indigenous and campesino groups from other parts of the country. Despite these challenges, however, the MTDs remain committed to the day-to-day work of territorial organizing. There are now around 100 popular high school programs offering degrees around the country, dozens of cooperatives, social centers, and other activities, working to directly improve people’s lives while strengthening the self-organization of neighborhood residents and building their autonomy from the state and capital.

Liz Mason-Deese is a member of the Counter-Cartographies Collective and the Edu-Factory Collective, and is a graduate student in the geography program at UNC Chapel Hill. She currently lives in Buenos Aires, where she is conducting her dissertation research.

Originally posted: September 22, 2012 at Viewpoint Magazine

  • 1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • 2. See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991) for a theoretical analysis on the relationship between space and capital. For more on how social movements across Latin America struggle to produce new types of spaces, see Raúl Zibechi, Territorios En Resistencia: Cartografía Política De Las Periferias Urbanas Latinoamericanas, (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Lavaca editora, 2008). This book has recently been released in English as Territories in Resistance, trans. Ramor Ryan (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).
  • 3. The MTD La Matanza has self-published two books: De la culpa a la autogestión: un recorrido del Movimiento de Trabajadores de La Matanza (2005) and Cuando con otros somos nosotros: la experiencia asociativa del Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados de La Matanza (2007).The Popular Front Darío Santillán operates a publishing house which has published over 50 books since 2007. The MTD Solano has collaborated with Colectivo Situaciones on various projects, including the book Hipótesis 891: Más allá de los piquetes.

Against humanities: the self-consciousness of the corporate university

A stan­dard fea­ture of the hand-wringing asso­ci­ated with the cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity is a fix­a­tion on the human­i­ties. After all, for those of us in the so-called cre­ative and crit­i­cal fields, illus­trat­ing, visu­al­iz­ing and – dare we say it – brand­ing the cri­sis is a new and unique oppor­tu­nity to show off. This is what we went to school for, isn’t it? Take a recent event at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, which dra­ma­tized the ques­tion with the fol­low­ing thought exper­i­ment: after some sort of mar­itime dis­as­ter (details are scarce), a group of under­grad­u­ates com­man­deers a life raft. As luck would have it, they have a bit of space left – but, tragic twist of fate, the only peo­ple left to save are pro­fes­sors. Instead of giv­ing up the seats to their elders, our clever young nar­cis­sists make the pro­fes­sors present a case as to why they deserve the remain­ing spot on the life raft. One physics pro­fes­sor and four from the human­i­ties are gra­ciously granted 10 min­utes, dur­ing which stu­dents are edu­cated on the abil­ity of lit­er­a­ture to help us under­stand each other, Homer’s exten­sive insights on rafts in the Illiad, and the power of the­ater pro­fes­sors abroad to impart the “knowl­edge that Ugan­dans could solve many of their own prob­lems” with a firm belief in them­selves – more effec­tive, appar­ently, than “fresh water or a new AIDS vac­cine.” Physics offered elec­tric­ity, fire, and, per­haps most impor­tant of all, dis­tilled alco­hol. While the clas­sics and physics tied, every­one was root­ing for the human­i­ties as a whole by the end.

These cre­ative defenses come with an under­ly­ing sub­text: it has been the pro­grams in the human­i­ties, and to a lesser extent the social sci­ences, that bear the brunt of bud­get cuts, because some depart­ments lack the imme­di­ate abil­ity to par­lay their knowl­edge into con­tracts with sur­round­ing busi­nesses. Uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tions, only mod­er­ately adept at the art of triage, cut those pro­grams that are unable to find out­side sources to bol­ster their exis­tence. This has become a human tragedy – after all, the way we know our­selves is through the com­mon cul­ture that the human­i­ties in the uni­ver­sity are sup­posed to facil­i­tate. For the defend­ers of the human­i­ties, the 1926 words of Har­vard grad­u­ate and clas­si­cal scholar Paul Shorey echo through now-profane halls. From his speech “Can an Amer­i­can be an Optimist?”:

Who shall resist the fierce, unremit­ting pres­sure of the pub­lic, the press, the lec­ture plat­form, the lit­er­ary crit­ics, the school boards and schools of edu­ca­tion to reduce every­thing to the level of the taste and under­stand­ing of the aver­age pupil, the gen­eral reader, the ordi­nary audi­ence, and to sup­press every word, allu­sion, or quo­ta­tion, every dif­fi­culty, every refine­ment and qual­i­fi­ca­tion, every touch of schol­ar­ship in foot­note or appen­dix that may baf­fle or offend the illit­er­ate lit­er­acy of those who have learned to read easy head-line and best-seller Eng­lish and do not wish to learn more? And yet if we can­not estab­lish and main­tain some dike and se-wall of resis­tance to these ten­den­cies, the ris­ing tide of medi­oc­rity will sub­merge us even while we are count­ing our uni­ver­si­ties by the score and our stu­dents by myriads.

When the scalpels are about to be deployed, the nat­ural response of intel­lec­tu­als is to assume defen­sive pos­tures and recite the usual lita­nies of praise for our own pro­fes­sion: the human­i­ties teach democ­racy; they teach a shared sense of self; they teach how to play­fully and intel­li­gently inter­act with the world, and some­times even pro­duce the world; they are the sole patch of life beyond the scope of mar­ket rela­tions. Those who teach in and take classes in the human­i­ties make the prin­ci­pal claim that with­out the noble voca­tion of the pro­fes­sor we’d all be stu­pider, less capa­ble of mak­ing informed deci­sions, and left to the cold cal­cu­la­tions of science.

For those out­side of the defen­sive pos­ture, many of these argu­ments might seem ludi­crous, arro­gant, and insult­ing. Barely muted is the claim that only those who have attended col­lege – the right classes at col­lege – and have sub­se­quently absorbed the req­ui­site cul­tural learn­ing have the capac­ity to make soci­ety thrive. This was pre­cisely the argu­ment used by the emerg­ing intel­lec­tual elite at the end of the 19th cen­tury – the lib­eral sons of the New Eng­land rul­ing class who helped cre­ate the human­i­ties from the rub­ble of the clas­si­cal stud­ies. The argu­ment under­ly­ing their think­ing was that civ­i­liza­tion was essen­tially a frag­ile machine, which must be oper­ated by a small, though hope­fully grow­ing, group of men – a “demo­c­ra­tic aris­toc­racy” whose posi­tion was granted by virtue of their edu­ca­tion and judg­ment, who could incul­cate right ideas in both the busi­ness titans (who they mis­trusted) and the work­ing class (who they feared). In a 1926 speech deliv­ered to the Phi Beta Kappa club at William and Mary, for­mer Prince­ton pro­fes­sor Henry Van Dyke summed it up well:

[democracy’s] high pur­pose should be to develop an aris­toc­racy of its own beget­ting, after its own heart, and ded­i­cated to its ser­vice. Unless it can do this, democ­racy spells con­fu­sion of mind, fick­le­ness and fee­ble­ness of action, and final decay has­tened by the increase of mate­r­ial wealth. The fat­ter it grows the more it degenerates.

The advent of cap­i­tal­ist higher edu­ca­tion by the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury meant that uni­ver­si­ties would no longer serve just the small cohort of legal and reli­gious minds who were to influ­ence the tenor of towns and cities through their exem­plary action and mate­r­ial suc­cess. The trans­for­ma­tion was a direct result of the cap­i­tal­ist class usurp­ing hege­mony from the colo­nial patri­cians, and sub­se­quently ignor­ing those insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion; this forced the cash-strapped uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges (whose num­bers far out­stripped demand) to des­per­ately search for a way to seduce the fledg­ling cap­i­tal­ists, the stub­born farm­ers, and the recal­ci­trant work­ing class.

John William Draper, pres­i­dent of NYU in 1835, com­plained that “mere lit­er­ary acu­men is becom­ing utterly pow­er­less against pro­found sci­en­tific attain­ment.” He asked, “To what are the great advances of civ­i­liza­tion for the last fifty years due – to lit­er­a­ture or sci­ence? Which of the two is it that is shap­ing the thought of the world?” Accord­ing to the his­to­rian Christo­pher Lucas, the super­in­ten­dent of Cal­i­for­nia schools in 1858 declared the grad­u­ates of the old col­leges to be use­less indi­vid­u­als. And Henry Tap­pan, NYU pro­fes­sor and later Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Pres­i­dent, usu­ally cred­ited as the father of the mod­ern US uni­ver­sity, declared that “the com­mer­cial spirit of our coun­try, and the many avenues of wealth which are opened before enter­prise, cre­ate a dis­taste for study deeply inim­i­cal to edu­ca­tion… The man­u­fac­turer, the mer­chant, and the gold-digger, will not pause in their career to gain intel­lec­tual accom­plish­ments. While gain­ing knowl­edge, they are los­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties to gain money.” Engi­neer­ing, phys­i­cal sci­ence, and other prac­ti­cal knowl­edges were the prin­ci­pal means of this courtship (and sports, of course, though these had appeal beyond the bour­geoisie and helped knit uni­ver­si­ties into the urban fab­ric of the indus­trial era). There was not a tremen­dous enthu­si­asm for either clas­si­cal stud­ies or the human­i­ties out­side of a small cohort of aver­age stu­dents, who enjoyed the the­atri­cal­ity of lec­tures, or the scions of the wealthy.

Clas­si­cal stud­ies gave up the ghost as advo­cates of the human­i­ties – a com­pos­ite of clas­si­cal stud­ies and the con­tem­pla­tive ele­ments of the newly splin­tered sphere of polit­i­cal econ­omy, from which emerged the dis­ci­plines of eco­nom­ics, anthro­pol­ogy, his­tory, social sci­ence, and psy­chol­ogy – seized con­trol of uni­ver­sity depart­ments in phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, and the arts. The cap­i­tal­ist uni­ver­sity would not just pro­duce the legal, juridi­cal, and tech­ni­cal minds required for indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism, it would also pro­duce its soul. As Lau­rence Vey­sey recounts in The Emer­gence of the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, the Har­vard philoso­pher Josiah Royce helped pro­vide the core of the new human­i­ties: to encounter the thought behind the sci­en­tific method, not just the method. The human­ists would be the self-described con­science of the uni­ver­sity, the some­times con­ser­v­a­tive, some­times rad­i­cal gad­fly that would pre­serve capitalism’s human­ity in the face of the vul­gar util­i­tar­i­ans who prized pecu­niary gain and spe­cial­iza­tion above all. By the early 20th cen­tury, the human­i­ties had become assured of their place in the uni­ver­sity, allow­ing Paul Shorey to breathe a sigh of relief: “Nei­ther do I fear direct hos­til­ity, sup­pres­sion, or neglect for the so-called human­i­ties. We have out­grown that stage of controversy.”

When those of us who are edu­ca­tors in the human­i­ties reflect on what exactly it is that “we” do, it is easy to dis­so­ci­ate our indi­vid­ual work from that of the total­ity of the insti­tu­tion – and from the ways that stu­dents use or ignore our work. Sure, says our thought­ful pro­fes­sor, the human­i­ties have been partly respon­si­ble for the sta­tus quo over the last cen­tury. But my col­leagues and I sub­vert, decon­struct, trans­form these spa­tial, intel­lec­tual, dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries and help stu­dents actu­al­ize them­selves, con­front inequal­ity, and learn meth­ods for speak­ing truth to power in defi­ance of a cul­ture that seeks to reduce all mat­ter to mar­ket calculations.

This atti­tude will no doubt con­tinue to per­sist because very few of us want to believe that we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in alien­at­ing insti­tu­tions – whether we are bankers, edu­ca­tors, or urban gen­tri­fiers. And of course, the work that some in the human­i­ties do is inter­est­ing, reveals much that is not yet known, and pro­vides tools by which to bet­ter under­stand the social struc­ture. But the truth is that the human­i­ties actively hide and mys­tify the strug­gles that underly the “com­mon culture.”

Hav­ing long prized vir­tu­oso per­for­mances, and the abil­ity of the pen and podium to beat back the sword, the human­i­ties fos­ter a spe­cial­ized tool, abstract intel­li­gence, that can be most pow­er­fully wielded by elites. Writ­ing in The Nation, Christo­pher Hayes gives a fine descrip­tion of the social role of this intelligence:

Of all the sta­tus obses­sions that pre­oc­cupy our elites, none is quite so promi­nent as the obses­sion with smart­ness. Intel­li­gence is the core value of the mer­i­toc­racy, one that stretches back to the early years of stan­dard­ized test­ing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a mem­ber of the elite “bril­liant” is to pay that per­son the high­est compliment.

Hayes describes intel­li­gence like some sort of jewel encrusted dag­ger: “Smart­ness daz­zles and mes­mer­izes. More impor­tant, it intim­i­dates.” This type of val­u­a­tion is rife through­out aca­d­e­mic depart­ments, espe­cially the human­i­ties. The con­tempt with which many fac­ulty and TAs regard their own stu­dents illus­trates just how deeply this atti­tude runs.

What Hayes misses is that this mer­i­to­cratic elit­ism isn’t just a gen­eral risk of orga­ni­za­tion that could be cor­rected by a “rad­i­cal­ized upper mid­dle class”– it’s part of a wider social process. A cohort of prop­erly demo­c­ra­tic elites, long the cen­tral fan­tasy of the human­i­ties, would still fail to step out­side the under­ly­ing dynamic, which is that cap­i­tal­ism requires expan­sion and move­ment. There is no repro­duc­tion of mar­ket soci­ety with­out the con­quest of new mar­kets, and the open­ing of new spaces to mar­ket mech­a­nisms. We would do well to keep this in mind when we dis­cuss the “cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity.” There can be no doubt that the uni­ver­sity is in cri­sis. But the met­rics in vogue to describe the cri­sis seem wrong.

A pecu­liar insight raised by Brian Whitener and Dan Nemser is that the uni­ver­sity as such is not actu­ally in cri­sis, when mea­sured by the only really impor­tant index of our soci­ety: investor return. It would be a mis­take to imag­ine that pri­va­ti­za­tion, cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion, or mer­i­toc­racy are dri­ving the cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity, when in fact the inter­nal dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism itself lay at its cen­ter. Higher edu­ca­tion today is sim­ply unable to remain in any kind of sta­sis, and the sta­sis urged by the defend­ers of the uni­ver­sity in gen­eral, and the human­i­ties in par­tic­u­lar, is a weak lib­eral utopia.

But the utopia isn’t just a weak form of oppo­si­tion – it’s been part of the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion of the uni­ver­sity from the begin­ning. Echo­ing the ear­lier gad­flies, Eng­lish pro­fes­sor James Mull­hol­land argues in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion: “We suc­ceed within a cor­po­ra­tized uni­ver­sity because we offer ways to reflect on it, rein­vent it, and eval­u­ate it. We are the self-consciousness of the cor­po­rate uni­ver­sity.” When this self-consciousness is uni­ver­sal and “human,” ques­tions of social strug­gle can be evaded. And once this eva­sion is com­plete, the fine-tuning of cap­i­tal­ism can commence.

For the ascen­dant lib­er­als of the early 20th cen­tury, a broad frame­work embed­ded in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences was a mech­a­nism by which to absorb local con­flict into the realm of the inter­ven­tion­ist state. With the pass­ing of laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism her­alded by the arrival of the rail­roads, big busi­ness and the emer­gence of an orga­nized work­ing class in the US, the intel­lec­tual and busi­ness lead­ers saw only two paths: a strong cen­tral­ized state anchored through cen­tral­iza­tion of power at the national level, or social­ism. Stephen Skowronek’s Build­ing a New Amer­i­can State shows how this cen­tral­iza­tion of bureau­cratic func­tions within the civil admin­is­tra­tion, the mil­i­tary, and busi­ness reg­u­la­tion was accom­plished, with the help of the National Civic Fed­er­a­tion (NCF), as a response to the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal by large busi­nesses in the 1870s and the con­comi­tant labor strikes that sub­se­quently shook the US. “The con­struc­tion of a cen­tral bureau­cratic appa­ra­tus,” Skowronek writes, “was cham­pi­oned as the best way to main­tain order dur­ing this period of upheaval in eco­nomic social, and inter­na­tional affairs.”

Edward Silva and Sheila Slaugh­ter have traced a par­al­lel his­tory in Serv­ing Power, which tells of the cru­cial role aca­d­e­mics from the newly cre­ated social sci­ences had to play in this trans­for­ma­tion. As “dis­in­ter­ested experts,” they had the dis­tance and author­ity to expound local prob­lems in ways that those involved did not; they could see the whole pic­ture. Through the NCF, “the most influ­en­tial business-sponsored political-economic forum group oper­at­ing dur­ing the Pro­gres­sive Period,” aca­d­e­mics, bankers, man­u­fac­tur­ers, and con­ser­v­a­tive labor lead­ers – AFL pres­i­dent Samuel Gom­pers was a found­ing mem­ber – part­nered together with the goal of “increas­ing the over­all effi­ciency of cap­i­tal­is­tic enter­prise and solv­ing the many prob­lems of rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion” – mean­ing, labor mil­i­tancy and revolution.

Call­ing on will­ing lead­ers in the newly formed divi­sions of the social sci­ences, aca­d­e­mics wrote model leg­is­la­tion, con­ducted stud­ies on work­ing con­di­tions and pub­lic opin­ion, and offered the­o­ries of social change that placed true agency only with the bureau­cratic cen­tral­ized state. Even the orga­ni­za­tions of these new divi­sions – the Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ics Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can Social Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion, and Mod­ern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion – formed, Silva and Slaugh­ter note, as aca­d­e­mics sought to atom­ize and spe­cial­ize the dis­ci­pline of polit­i­cal econ­omy, seen to have fos­tered Marxism.

Through the social sci­ences the uni­ver­sity offered a strat­egy for social change that coun­tered Marx­ist polit­i­cal econ­omy, to entrench both pri­vate prop­erty and an inter­ven­tion­ist state. Through the human­i­ties the uni­ver­sity offered a uni­ver­sal the­ory that saw human­ity as some­thing to be imposed upon those too stu­pid or too obsti­nate to sub­li­mate their own desires and needs to those of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. For this rea­son, writes Richard Altenbaugh in Edu­ca­tion for Strug­gle, the mil­i­tant work­ing class dis­trusted for­mal edu­ca­tion at every level. Altenbaugh cites a 1921 remark by Alexan­der Fich­land, direc­tor of the Inter­na­tional Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union’s “Work­ers Uni­ver­sity,” to this effect:

Work­ers feel that they can­not obtain in non-workers’ edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions cor­rect infor­ma­tion on sub­jects affect­ing their own inter­ests. They feel that they are fre­quently deceived and are fur­nished with inter­pre­ta­tions of life which are intended to keep them docile and sub­mis­sive. They feel that the truth will be told to them only by those of their own choos­ing, whose out­look on life is their out­look on life, whose sym­pa­thies are their sym­pa­thies, whose inter­ests are their interests.

By abstract­ing from class strug­gle in all of its guises, the uni­ver­sity weaponized the knowl­edge of the emerg­ing dis­ci­plines and turned them on the work­ing class. All knowl­edge and all edu­ca­tion are his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated, devel­oped out of par­tic­u­lar his­to­ries and cul­tures, and are depen­dent on vast social struc­tures in order to sur­vive. The thought pro­duced in uni­ver­si­ties has, for rea­sons deeply embed­ded in their his­tory, been used to attack and under­mine class strug­gle in the name of a pro­gres­sive utopia that appears more impos­si­ble now than ever.

And this is pre­cisely why the peans to to knowl­edge and higher edu­ca­tion – espe­cially to the human­i­ties – grow more weari­some every year. Even in The New Yorker, the hal­lowed claims of edu­cated self-consciousness, the crown jewel of the human­i­ties, have been ques­tioned. A recent arti­cle on the research of Prince­ton psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Kah­ne­man con­cludes that we are nearly inca­pable of ratio­nal thought regard­ing our own actions, but revel in crit­i­ciz­ing the actions of oth­ers along sup­pos­edly ratio­nal lines. “Edu­ca­tion,” it acknowl­edges, “isn’t a sav­ior.” In fact, “intro­spec­tion can actu­ally com­pound the error, blind­ing us to those pri­mal processes respon­si­ble for many of our every­day fail­ings. We spin elo­quent sto­ries, but these sto­ries miss the point. The more we attempt to know our­selves, the less we actu­ally under­stand.” Research shows that the smarter – and bet­ter edu­cated – are more prone to these “mis­takes.” A case in point is the author of these words, Jonah Lehrer, who was unable to resist the “pri­mal process” of mak­ing up quotes and no longer has a job with The New Yorker.

Some­thing other than defense of the uni­ver­sity, and some­thing other than the human­i­ties, are nec­es­sary today. And this “some­thing other” must take be con­structed both within and out­side of the uni­ver­sity. Within, because as Gigi Rog­gero has pointed out, the uni­ver­sity is a dynamic site of strug­gle and cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Out­side, because knowl­edge is a par­tic­u­lar kind of power, cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally depen­dent. The human­i­ties and uni­ver­sity aca­d­e­mics are an out­stand­ing exam­ple of this: they were cre­ated as an ide­o­log­i­cal offen­sive against both the mil­i­tant working-class strug­gles that threat­ened Europe and Amer­i­cas and the resid­ual patri­cian elites that threat­ened to hold back cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion. Instead of defend­ing this kind of knowl­edge, we would do bet­ter to heed the words of Gilles Deleuze: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” Our task is to develop new weapons, and that will require leav­ing the uni­ver­sity and aban­don­ing the humanities.

Mark Paschal has written for Reclamations Journal, and is a member of University Research Group Experiment (URGE). He is also a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

When professors strip for the camera

If TED took a turn to left­ist (or any) cri­tique, Žižek, the pro­fes­sor of “toi­lets and ide­ol­ogy,” would be the keynote speaker. The irony of the ani­mated lec­ture, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,” is that a dia­tribe on “global cap­i­tal­ism with a human face” would get over 900,000 views on YouTube. “It’s not just what you’re buy­ing, but what you’re buy­ing into” seems to apply not only to Star­bucks’ “cof­fee ethics” and TOMS Shoes’ 1-for-1 African phil­an­thropy, but also to the avail­abil­ity of 10-minute Lacan­ian Marx­ist “soft apoc­a­lyp­tism” at a Google sub­sidiary with per­son­al­ized ads.

With YouTube’s help, the acad­emy where Žižek’s per­sona was born is an increas­ingly vis­i­ble ter­rain of so-called “cul­tural cap­i­tal­ism.” The last decade has wit­nessed a rev­o­lu­tion in open course­ware, a source of short-circuit con­sump­tion in which any­one with a com­puter can drink elite uni­ver­sity Kool-Aid with­out earn­ing credit. The move­ment has been so explo­sive – the Hewlett Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides the mother lode of fund­ing for uni­ver­sity ini­tia­tives, sup­ported a whole book on it, Tay­lor Walsh’s 2011 Unlock­ing the Gates – that one won­ders how long the polit­i­cal econ­omy of edu­ca­tion that it anchors, con­tra Žižek’s hipster-friendly fan­tasies of con­sumerist dystopia, will last.

To date, the most suc­cess­ful, or at least most promi­nent, ini­tia­tive is MIT’s Open­Course­Ware. In 2001, MIT unveiled a plan to offer most of its courses online for free – read­ing lists, lec­ture notes, exams, and all. In its first five weeks of exis­tence, the OCW site got 361,000 unique vis­i­tors from 177 coun­tries and all 7 con­ti­nents. In response to OCW, UNESCO held a “Forum on the Impact of Open Course­ware for Higher Edu­ca­tion in Devel­op­ing Coun­tries.” MIT was the new Bill Gates. As uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent Charles Vest wrote in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion in 2004:

a fac­ulty mem­ber at a new engi­neer­ing uni­ver­sity in Ghana, a pre­co­cious high-school biol­ogy stu­dent in sub­ur­ban Chicago, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Poland, a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor in upstate New York, or an exec­u­tive in a man­age­ment sem­i­nar down the hall at MIT will be able to use the mate­ri­als our pro­fes­sors rely on in teach­ing our full-time students.

Open Yale Courses, which drafted off MIT’s suc­cess, is now a com­peti­tor in the techno hype-space, only with dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing para­me­ters. The OYC site hosts 42 courses, most of which are intro­duc­tory lec­tures in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Yale gives OYC pro­fes­sors a small hon­o­rar­ium in exchange for let­ting video­g­ra­phers sit in the back of the room and record every lecture.

Occa­sion­ally, there will be an awk­ward moment when the pro­fes­sor asks stu­dents not to walk in front of the class lest they get on cam­era, or apol­o­gizes for hav­ing to fix their mic. It’s the self-assurance of Yale’s hand-picked all-stars which makes OYC dif­fer­en­tiable from TED talks, in which some speak­ers, per­haps get­ting to con­dense their wis­dom into 20-minute nuggets of opti­mism for the first time, repeat phrases or give clumsy post­scripts. Oth­er­wise, Yale qual­i­fies, in the words of Evgeny Moro­zov, as a TED-esque “inter­na­tional meme laun­derer.” Open Yale Courses are the ivory tower of uni­ver­sity TED­i­fi­ca­tion. At the same time that Yale con­tin­ues its 20-year stomp on grad stu­dent union­ism and ’juncts its aca­d­e­mic work­force, it parades pop­u­lar tenured pro­fes­sors – “I keep my eyes open for peo­ple in the news,” direc­tor and OYC par­tic­i­pant Diane Kleiner has said – with few offer­ings in crit­i­cal or polit­i­cally charged dis­ci­plines that pro­duce less mar­ketable research.

Yale isn’t the only uni­ver­sity that picks the best and bright­est for the world screen. Fathom, a failed for-profit ini­tia­tive at Colum­bia that pre-dated OCW at MIT, mar­keted over 600 courses but focused on star fac­ulty. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learn­ing Ini­tia­tive, which offers 15 courses in its core com­pe­ten­cies of sci­ence, math, and for­eign lan­guage, demands sig­nif­i­cant time for course devel­op­ment and thus draws mostly from tenured fac­ulty. The whole open course­ware enter­prise was born of rela­tion­ships among big-name uni­ver­sity lead­ers. Yale pres­i­dent Richard Levin had been on the board of the Hewlett Foun­da­tion since 1998. All­Learn, another failed for-profit ven­ture from the dot-com era, was a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Levin and his friends at Oxford, Prince­ton, and Stan­ford. After All­Learn, Yale’s liai­son went on to be pres­i­dent of TIAA-CREF.

The elite ori­gins of open course­ware, put together with the aca­d­e­mic hyper­re­al­ity of its all-star offer­ings, are noth­ing com­pared to the back­room power play that is 2011’s “Great Big Ideas,” a course offered to stu­dents at Yale, Har­vard, and Bard Col­lege and any­one else will­ing to shell out $199 to watch twelve hour-long lec­tures online. The course, “an intro­duc­tion to the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines,” is the pilot offer­ing of the for-profit Float­ing Uni­ver­sity, a joint ven­ture between Yale-bred busi­ness­man Adam Glick and online forum Big Think. Though it isn’t free like OYC, the con­ceits of open course­ware lie within FU’s glossy syl­labus: Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (Nor­ton authors); Larry Sum­mers; William Ackman’s “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” which explains “the logis­tics of the mod­ern port­fo­lio the­ory of invest­ment, hand­ing stu­dents the tools to become the savvy investors of tomor­row”; and a TED-friendly smor­gas­bord of hard sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, and dis­course on human nature—to be sure, the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines.1

In Shake­speare, Ein­stein, and the Bot­tom Line, Stephen Kirp writes that open course­ware gives elite uni­ver­si­ties the sym­bolic cap­i­tal “to keep their exclu­siv­ity intact.” For schools like Yale that can only drop within exist­ing hier­ar­chies of exchange value – U.S. News & World Report rank­ings, for one – the open course­ware rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sents a new lat­tice of use value that for­ti­fies the gates against dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion from other high-tech knowl­edge ven­tures as well as com­peti­tors from below. (“I don’t want to wake up one morn­ing and find out that Har­vard and Microsoft have put $5 mil­lion on the table,” piped Colum­bia trustee and NBA com­mis­sioner David Stern at the advent of Fathom.) Under this new regime, uni­ver­si­ties accrue a sort of sec­ondary rent on what they already own.

Like the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix, elite uni­ver­si­ties have heeded Bank of Amer­ica ana­lyst Howard Block’s admo­ni­tion to embrace their role as con­tent providers – or, as David Brooks noted opti­misti­cally in a May col­umn, to bank on the trans­for­ma­tion of “knowl­edge into a com­mod­ity that is cheap and glob­ally avail­able.” Famous Berke­ley chan­cel­lor Clark Kerr’s pre­ferred use of the uni­ver­sity is upon us: “Knowl­edge is durable. It is also trans­fer­able. It only pays to pro­duce knowl­edge if through pro­duc­tion it can be put into use bet­ter and faster.” Or, if we take Carnegie Mellon’s fine-tuned, web-specific courses as the model – as Pres­i­dent Obama has, in hail­ing a future for com­mu­nity col­lege expan­sion that doesn’t require more class­rooms – BF Skinner’s “teach­ing machine,” which rewarded stu­dents for cor­rect answers fol­low­ing pre-programmed instruc­tion, is the new motor of the dig­i­tal superhighway.

Open course­ware is a way for uni­ver­si­ties to get by as busi­nesses and as uni­ver­si­ties, with all the atten­dant con­tra­dic­tions. On the one hand, as Walsh recounts in Unlock­ing the Gates, Yale’s direc­tor of mar­ket­ing and trade­mark licens­ing claims that OYC “was dri­ven from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive, because every time some­one views some­thing we made, they’re con­sum­ing Yale, and the qual­ity of their expe­ri­ence reflects how they think of us and the brand.” Indeed, the OYC site is laced with Yale’s name, logo, and col­ors, and every YouTube video has a Yale imprint. On the other hand, as Kleiner has it, “This isn’t a num­bers game, since we’re not mak­ing money off this; this is a gift we’re giv­ing to the world, so we want to see if we can bring that to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.” In a 2000 lec­ture at Oxford, Mel­lon Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent William Bowen waxed that uni­ver­si­ties shouldn’t sell open course­ware for fear of sac­ri­fic­ing their pro-bono pur­pose. The pro­pri­etors of webcast.berkeley con­sider online lec­tures sig­nals to state leg­is­la­tors that the pur­vey­ors of tech trans­fer and pri­vately sup­ported research also teach – for the pub­lic good.

At Yale and else­where, the old boys club has become a gen­der­less, fric­tion­less, sur­fa­ble ocean of phil­an­thropy; and yet these same uni­ver­si­ties remain cor­po­rately man­aged austerity-mongers. Stan­dard cri­tiques of cyber­netic utopi­anism apply. In Data Trash: The The­ory of the Vir­tual Class, Arthur Kro­ker and Michael Wein­stein define the “will to vir­tu­al­ity” as the “dream of being the god of cyber­space – pub­lic ide­ol­ogy as the fan­tasy drive of pre-pubescent males.” In the glob­al­ized acad­emy, a new pan­theon rises.

TED and Twit­ter have two things in com­mon: they pack­age knowl­edge into per­sonal brands; and they dis­sem­i­nate it faster and more widely than the aver­age aca­d­e­mic jour­nal. Any­one can watch a TED talk; hardware-willing, any­one can tweet. Twitter’s mass appeal has as its elite coun­ter­part the slushy mar­ket­ing pitch of the TED talker.

Today’s par­a­dig­matic intel­lec­tual com­modi­ties, like intel­lec­tual prop­erty rights granted to authors but absorbed into the cap­i­tal cir­cuitry of the pub­lish­ing world of 18th cen­tury West­ern Europe, come with new forms of exploita­tion. The labor-power embed­ded in these com­modi­ties is lost not only in the buyer’s fetish but in mega-networks that rede­fine cog­ni­tive labor and reroute it to prof­itable ends. In the Twitter-sphere, The New Inquiry’s Rob Horn­ing put it in a 2011 essay, “we can be aware of our­selves only inso­far as we see our­selves as prof­it­ing or not… We sell out sim­ply by choos­ing to have sub­jec­tiv­ity on social media’s terms.” This alien­ation, one of the “quin­tes­sen­tial aspects of the con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of pre­car­ity,” rep­re­sents “the total break­down of the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity… the trans­for­ma­tional poten­tial of the enhanced social coop­er­a­tion on which the econ­omy depends is neu­tral­ized, frit­tered away in osten­ta­tious narcissism.”

In “The Ide­ol­ogy of Free Cul­ture and the Gram­mar of Sab­o­tage,” Mat­teo Pasquinelli describes this set-up as a regime of exploita­tion, while also point­ing to a cer­tain kind of resis­tance to it. Respond­ing to high-utopian “dig­i­tal­ism” and selec­tively per­me­able net­works like the Cre­ative Com­mons, he writes, “There is noth­ing dig­i­tal in any dig­i­tal dream. Merged with a global econ­omy, each bit of ‘free’ infor­ma­tion car­ries its microslave like a for­got­ten twin.” Akin to cre­ative pro­duc­tion sub­sumed by urban growth machines or media monop­o­lies, “open cul­ture” becomes a kind of multitude-for-rent. For Pasquinelli, sub­ver­sion lies with the likes of Dmytri Kleiner’s copy­far­left, in which the com­mons are open to com­mer­cial use by sin­gle work­ers or worker coop­er­a­tives that till them, but not agents that exist out­side. Over and against the flat world of open cul­tur­ists, Pasquinelli posits a com­mons that runs on both coop­er­a­tion and uncoop­er­a­tion, in which the mul­ti­tude strug­gles within itself.

Sab­o­tage of the copy­far­left sort is an impor­tant plank of resis­tance, but a kind of van­guardist one; cul­ture jam­mers and con­spir­a­to­r­ial dig­i­tal cabals draw on highly politi­cized sub­jec­tiv­i­ties lodged in a world that relies on the acad­emy no mat­ter how much it may dis­avow its ori­gins. By com­par­i­son, strong asser­tions about the impos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity aban­don all attempts to unravel the con­tra­dic­tions and chang­ing class com­po­si­tion of the so-called knowl­edge econ­omy. While it’s pre­dictable for the pro­fes­sional intel­lec­tual to decry the crass­ness of the newest brave new world, tweets and free lec­tures rep­re­sent a redis­tri­b­u­tion of knowl­edge whose latent promise must be taken as seri­ously as its run­away promises. To be sure, it’s easy to crit­i­cize techno-babblers like Wired – which in 2003 wrote of MIT’s OCW, “no insti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing had ever pro­posed any­thing as rev­o­lu­tion­ary” – or, for that mat­ter, MIT’s mar­ket­ing team. The oper­a­tive ques­tion here is whether the tweet­ers or open course­ware con­sumers who aren’tprofessional intel­lec­tu­als can speak. Just as Wired’s take on Occupy Wall Street, a Decem­ber arti­cle enti­tled “#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts,” treats pro­test­ers as mind­less iron fil­ings, Andy Merrifield’s “Crowd Pol­i­tics” in the September/October 2011 New Left Review fore­grounds the “inten­sity of the encounter” while ignor­ing the vari­able sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and lived expe­ri­ences that pro­test­ers carry with them to protest. Who is Horning’s “we”?

For those who never went to a top school or, finan­cial aid notwith­stand­ing, couldn’t take on the debt, open edu­ca­tion rep­re­sents a utopia cap­tured by uni­ver­sity growth machines. Bas­tard sim­u­lacrum of acad­e­mia that it can be, it calls nei­ther for knee-jerk defense of the tra­di­tional acad­emy nor blithe cel­e­bra­tion from those whose depart­ments or job prospects are safe from the chop­ping block, but mea­sured con­sid­er­a­tion of new pos­si­bil­i­ties for reap­pro­pri­at­ing the cri­sis of the university.

As America’s uni­ver­sity sys­tem grew and mod­ern­ized in the post­war era, stu­dents and fac­ulty col­lab­o­rated on sig­nif­i­cant reforms to Yale’s grad­ing sys­tem, grad­u­a­tion cred­its, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for inde­pen­dent study. In the post­mod­ern acad­emy, ideas for appro­pri­at­ing sys­temic trans­for­ma­tion for rad­i­cal ends run wild. At the Open Edu­ca­tion Con­fer­ence in 2009, Christo­pher Mackie offered a “Model Pro­posal for Utterly Trans­form­ing Higher Edu­ca­tion Ped­a­gogy and Intel­lec­tual Prop­erty Gen­er­a­tion,” involv­ing course credit for stu­dents who gen­er­ate online con­tent – ele­vat­ing stu­dents’ con­sump­tion of open course­ware, par­tic­u­larly oper­a­tive at MIT, to a co-creative art. As a res­o­lu­tion to the sky­rock­et­ing cost of uni­ver­sity degrees, n+1’s edi­tors make the less mod­est, if more spec­u­la­tive, pitch for “the cre­den­tialed to join the uncre­den­tialed in shred­ding the diplo­mas that paper over the unde­mo­c­ra­tic infra­struc­ture of Amer­i­can life.”

Break­ing down this infra­struc­ture demands recog­ni­tion that knowl­edge com­modi­ties are objects con­sumed by a het­ero­ge­neous mul­ti­tude rather than a mono­lithic mass trapped within an imposed “con­sumerism.” As Yale’s Michael Den­ning con­tends in Cul­ture in the Age of Three Worlds, “cul­tural forms do not have a nec­es­sary polit­i­cal mean­ing, and may be appro­pri­ated and reap­pro­pri­ated by a vari­ety of social move­ments seek­ing to lead a soci­ety.” For Den­ning, cul­tural prac­tices are not “quick sales” but sites of class con­tes­ta­tion and vari­able mate­r­ial invest­ment. Within this par­a­digm, the masses of peo­ple to whom sim­u­lated aca­d­e­mic knowl­edge is dis­trib­uted are an inte­gral part of any pro­gram that pur­ports to redi­rect the polit­i­cal econ­omy of higher education.

As the acad­emy broad­casts itself to the world, it opens itself to dis­rup­tion from this audi­ence – Ghana­ian stu­dents seek­ing an MIT degree in exchange for all the course­work, high school­ers who love the free lec­tures but can’t access highly ranked uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion because of race or class, let alone adjuncts who see the lies of tenure exposed on cam­era. The onus is on the rest of us to meet them at the gates.

* I’ve ben­e­fited from the per­sonal guid­ance and gen­eros­ity of sev­eral instruc­tors from this course. My state­ments here are directed toward the course and not the pro­fes­sors themselves.

James Cersonsky (@cersonsky) is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. His writing can be found at Dissent, In These Times, AlterNet, and elsewhere. Read about his work on community-centered pedagogy here.

  • 1. I’ve ben­e­fited from the per­sonal guid­ance and gen­eros­ity of sev­eral instruc­tors from this course. My state­ments here are directed toward the course and not the pro­fes­sors themselves.

History and politics: an interview

Asad Haider: You write within a Marx­ist frame­work, but often focus on clas­si­cal polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, prior to or out­side of the Marx­ist tra­di­tion. What’s the rel­e­vance of this kind of study?

Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan: I would say that just as we clearly see that Marx’s eco­nomic think­ing arises out of a cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and that in turn was made pos­si­ble by a prior cri­tique of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy, we also have to see the prob­lems of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics that Marx is address­ing as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with the past his­tory of polit­i­cal thought. There are spe­cific cat­e­gory prob­lems, as well as inter­twined his­tor­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter in an engage­ment with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engage­ment with this lin­eage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and polit­i­cal thinker, clearly, but Hegel’s thought as a cul­mi­na­tion of a tra­di­tion of legal and polit­i­cal think­ing going back to Aris­to­tle. That’s some­thing which has been under­scored by oth­ers in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, you could think of Althusser and Col­letti, who also had works which were explic­itly about the polit­i­cal writ­ers before Marx, who in some way intro­duce or delin­eate the prob­lems of pol­i­tics and his­tory that Marx will sub­se­quently take up in his accounts of the class strug­gles and civil wars of the times that he was liv­ing in.

I want to ask about two polit­i­cal thinkers, and what we can learn from them. The first is Carl Schmitt, the sub­ject of your first book, The Enemy.

Well, you know, it’s not always obvi­ous to peo­ple why it’s nec­es­sary to read fig­ures like Schmitt, a fig­ure who was com­pro­mised by his inti­mate asso­ci­a­tions with fas­cism and National Social­ism. So this is an ini­tial obsta­cle to a crit­i­cal engage­ment – it was even for me. Schmitt, from the other side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, was approach­ing the prob­lems of the forms of pol­i­tics that arose in a period of the his­tor­i­cal and struc­tural cri­sis of the state-form, man­i­fest­ing itself in the inde­ter­mi­nacy around the basic cat­e­gories and con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing from an ear­lier period. His bench­mark is the period of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism, so the con­cepts and cat­e­gory dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing for clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism and before are enter­ing into cri­sis in this new era, in which the oppo­si­tion of state and soci­ety, the fun­da­men­tal sep­a­ra­tion of the eco­nomic from the polit­i­cal – which is of course one of the ways Marx under­stands what’s spe­cific to mod­ern bour­geois or cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety – is under threat. Schmitt is address­ing the same prob­lem as Marx, except he’s doing it in a period when the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, medi­ated by the inter­state sys­tem into a pat­tern of com­bined an uneven devel­op­ment, and fur­ther medi­ated by rev­o­lu­tion­ary and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary rup­tures, is bring­ing about a recon­nec­tion of these pre­vi­ously sep­a­rated spheres or domains of the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic. The actual sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism is recon­nect­ing them in var­i­ous ways, although main­tain­ing fun­da­men­tally the sep­a­ra­tion inso­far as we’re still speak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism. So I think in that sense Schmitt is deal­ing with a prob­lem – indi­rectly, some­times, but some­times directly – a deep prob­lem that arose in Marx’s own thinking.

Now Marx, even though he posited this sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, did not on that basis attempt to elab­o­rate on con­crete forms of mod­ern state­hood and their poten­tial his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions within later phases of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. While he iden­ti­fied the social rela­tions behind the long-term dynamic of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, he devel­oped a more rudi­men­tary account of the basic struc­ture of the state that arises from this sep­a­ra­tion. His accounts of class strug­gles and civil wars of the 19th cen­tury present some gen­eral out­lines of the mod­ern bour­geois state, but not much as far as the­o­riz­ing its con­crete ten­den­cies of devel­op­ment. Unlike cap­i­tal, the state is a very sim­ple cat­e­gory in Marx’s writ­ings. There isn’t really a sys­tem­atic his­tor­i­cal cri­tique of the polit­i­cal order that arises from this con­sti­tu­tive sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, or of con­tem­po­rary rela­tion between state and the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism, although he has much to say about how this played out in the period of the for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. In the early works, when he’s engag­ing with Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Right, he addresses the spe­cific delin­eated forms of the Euro­pean state aris­ing out of this process of sep­a­ra­tion, but its of course still in a rudi­men­tary philo­soph­i­cal form.

Get­ting back to Schmitt: there are of course seri­ous lim­its to his think­ing, to the extent that he only approached these prob­lems through the medi­a­tion of his con­cep­tion of the state in the tra­di­tion of con­sti­tu­tional law and its premises, so his under­stand­ing of the trans­for­ma­tions of cap­i­tal­ism in this period are approached through this medi­a­tion. But what he has to say about the cri­sis of the legal forms of state­hood, pri­vate prop­erty, and war is inter­est­ing in its own right, and often goes well beyond what Marx­ists at the time wrote on these mat­ters. The Weimar Repub­lic was, after all, the epi­cen­ter of a larger his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of an intense inter­war struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and the inter-state sys­tem within which it had evolved. The Weimar state-form, and the con­sti­tu­tional con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing it, was a stag­ing ground for the larger the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions around the char­ac­ter of the period, in terms of the fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tions in the rela­tion­ship of the state to cap­i­tal­ism, of the polit­i­cal to the eco­nomic, that should be of inter­est to any Marx­ist. Of course, many of his stu­dents were Marx­ists, and he was often able to appro­pri­ate ideas from oth­ers across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. This is appar­ent from the very begin­ning of the Weimar Repub­lic, when he wrote on the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat within a wider intel­lec­tual his­tory of emer­gency pow­ers and states of excep­tion, all the way to its end when he addressed the prob­lem of the com­pat­i­bil­ity of the cri­sis man­age­ment of post-laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism with exist­ing forms of democracy.

The sec­ond thinker is Machi­avelli. Both Gram­sci and Althusser wrote about Machi­avelli, and you returned to some of this mate­r­ial in Antag­o­nis­tics.

I would say that one of the ways to think about the sig­nif­i­cance of Machi­avelli is the con­text in which think­ing about the present through a read­ing of Machi­avelli emerged, from the 19th cen­tury to the inter­war period, and per­haps closer to the present con­text as well. If you think about it that way, you can see that there are a num­ber of episodes in the story of the recep­tion with Machi­avelli. In the early 19th cen­tury you have Fichte and Hegel respond­ing to the cri­sis of the Ger­man state, and try­ing to think about the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the recon­sti­tu­tion of a national state, by look­ing at Machiavelli’s writ­ings on the prob­lem of Ital­ian national unity. They saw Machi­avelli as address­ing the prob­lem of the con­di­tions of the gen­e­sis of a state, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of what appeared as cat­a­strophic defeat in the form of for­eign occu­pa­tion. So that’s their his­tor­i­cal link to Machiavelli’s situation.

Keep­ing that in mind, the renewed inter­est in Machi­avelli dur­ing the inter­war period, and this is man­i­fested by writ­ings on him across the polit­i­cal spec­trum – you men­tioned Gram­sci, there’s also Leo Strauss, Wyn­d­ham Lewis, Ray­mond Aron, and many oth­ers. Gram­sci, whether he was deal­ing with the prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal strat­egy in the West, the rise of Fas­cism or even the onset of Amer­i­can hege­mony, raised Machi­avel­lian ques­tions about the nexus between the foun­da­tion of new states and the con­di­tions of their per­pet­u­a­tion. This is the prob­lem that Machi­avelli is deal­ing with in the Dis­courses, the need for an inter­lude or found­ing episode of ter­ror to estab­lish a new state, and the mode by which that ori­gin can be super­seded through the estab­lish­ment of polit­i­cal forms that are capa­ble of per­pet­u­at­ing them­selves on the basis of the mul­ti­tude, the not yet fully inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar foun­da­tion of the new order. So, these episodes of read­ing Machi­avelli are all about the ori­gins and foun­da­tions of new orders, as expe­ri­enced in the after­math of defeat.

So we’re see­ing the res­o­nance of these themes across his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. Crises in state-forms, and crises which are truly global, with cat­a­strophic defeats, sit­u­a­tions in which the shape of a new order can’t be clearly seen. We’re now expe­ri­enc­ing what seems to be an inter­minable eco­nomic cri­sis; how do these clas­si­cal themes play into under­stand­ing the cur­rent period?

The abil­ity of some of these older lega­cies of thought to address the present was called into ques­tion by the resta­bi­liza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem in the post­war period. For that rea­son those who have remained inter­ested in those older lega­cies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal thought, think­ing about a pol­i­tics that could bring them back, have found it dif­fi­cult to find its points of appli­ca­tion to the world of cap­i­tal that arose in the post­war West­ern sec­tor. There were a vari­ety of attempts to keep alive, in some way, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal change, but often this took the form of try­ing to look for other agen­cies out­side the work­ing class, and other sites of strug­gle. For a very a long period of time we’ve expe­ri­enced the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism which is in some respects no longer capa­ble of con­tin­u­ing and repro­duc­ing the suc­cesses of the post­war period.

An ade­quate under­stand­ing of the so-called period of neolib­er­al­ism involves under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent lev­els, some of which seemed to indi­cate that the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem was reach­ing new heights, as the entire world was incor­po­rated into it, while other lev­els of its evo­lu­tion exhib­ited char­ac­ter­is­tics which sug­gested that the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems of the 1970s, in terms of a slow­down in the growth of income, were never really super­seded. What I sug­gest in my piece “Spec­u­la­tions on the Sta­tion­ary State” is that these con­junc­tural prob­lems car­ried over from the 1970s are con­verg­ing with the struc­tural lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism itself, which make it less real­is­tic to assume that this renewal process is going to hap­pen.

It was often thought, until recently, that the last thirty years, after the post­war “Golden Age,” were the great­est period of cap­i­tal­ism ever. Devel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive objec­tive account of what hap­pened in this period has been dif­fi­cult, since there are so many dif­fer­ent lev­els at which what hap­pened unfolded. There’s been a long term period of struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions and adjust­ments with so many new char­ac­ter­is­tics intro­duced into the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, it would seem at least ini­tially para­dox­i­cal that this has not in some way bro­ken forth into a new period of accu­mu­la­tion. So in order to address that prob­lem, its now impor­tant to recon­sider some the­o­riza­tions of longer-term lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. I didn’t really go into the var­i­ous Marx­ist ver­sions of that, which I would do more of now, but I think that the core of it arises out of the Bren­ner account and some unre­solved prob­lems and ques­tions in that account regard­ing the long term, draw­ing the polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal prob­lems out.

Let’s talk about Robert Brenner’s analy­sis of what he calls the long down­turn, which started in the 1970s. His account is con­tro­ver­sial for a num­ber of rea­sons, includ­ing among Marx­ists. He doesn’t make use of the Marx­ian ter­mi­nol­ogy of value, and doesn’t explic­itly refer to Marx’s texts on eco­nomic crisis.

It’s nei­ther framed in terms of Marx’s own char­ac­ter­is­tic ter­mi­nol­ogy, nor is it framed as a gen­eral the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis. Though some gen­eral prin­ci­ples might come out of it, Bren­ner doesn’t advance this as an expla­na­tion of the inter­war eco­nomic cri­sis, the so-called Great Depres­sion, nor of the cri­sis of the last decades of the 19th cen­tury. So although there’s a gen­eral char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the social prop­erty rela­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and there’s an account of some of the long-term dynam­ics and trends, every par­tic­u­lar phase of accu­mu­la­tion is a his­tor­i­cal topic unto itself, call­ing into ques­tion the idea of Marx’s eco­nomic thought as a cri­sis the­ory. That’s good, in my view.

As a sec­ondary issue, on Brenner’s rela­tion to Marx, despite the ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tance, I think actu­ally the account that Bren­ner pro­vides gives a con­crete mean­ing to var­i­ous con­cepts that are the foun­da­tion of Marx’s own account of the value form. I think that there’s still some­thing more to be said on this sub­ject, since Bren­ner him­self doesn’t use the ter­mi­nol­ogy and more or less frames his own account of cap­i­tal­ism and of its accu­mu­la­tion process in terms of a cost-price the­ory, explic­itly avoid­ing the prob­lem­atic that Marx opened up with his under­stand­ing of the social rela­tions which give rise to pro­duc­tion in a value form, that there’s a sig­nif­i­cant dimen­sion of what Marx was try­ing to get at in his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism that is not brought into sharp relief in Brenner’s account.

You’re actu­ally in the midst of research­ing and writ­ing a book on Marx, focus­ing on Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings. One of the major prob­lems for the entire his­tory of what was called West­ern Marx­ism was that Marx never actu­ally wrote what his method was in works like Cap­i­tal.

From begin­ning to end, Marx’s own the­ory arises out of a crit­i­cal analy­sis of the cat­e­gory prob­lems that arose within clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, that it was unable to solve. Marx’s own account of “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion” takes the form of a solu­tion to these prob­lems, from the mys­tery of why the value of com­modi­ties must appear in a mon­e­tary form to why the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion appear in the form of sep­a­rate fac­tors of pro­duc­tion con­tribut­ing to the value of the com­mod­ity, with each appear­ing as a sep­a­rate source of rev­enue to their owner. One of the premises of my work on Marx’s eco­nomic thought is that we have gen­er­ally lost sight of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems that Marx was address­ing, that came out of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy. These were in part still liv­ing prob­lems at the time that Marx was work­ing through them, but even dur­ing the course of Marx’s own writ­ings on these top­ics, from the late 1850s to the early 1870s, this tra­di­tion of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the liv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­tent of the prob­lems it was address­ing, began to fall out of view, became in some way occluded, so I would argue there’s a kind of opac­ity to the fun­da­men­tal under­ly­ing prob­lems of Marx’s eco­nomic thought. The mean­ings of many of the terms he’s using, and more seri­ously the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of his eco­nomic thought, are not appar­ent. Of course, there have always been dog­matic under­stand­ings of the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of Marx’s writ­ings, but putting those aside, inter­pre­ta­tions of his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism have always been medi­ated by the ini­tial attempts to make sense of it, which took shape in the after­math of the decline of the intel­lec­tual tra­di­tions out of which Marx him­self for­mu­lated his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy. These ini­tial attempts estab­lished the points of entry, top­ics and prob­lems that have dom­i­nated much of the com­men­tary since.

That being said, Marx’s own under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism has many char­ac­ter­is­tics of the par­tic­u­lar socio-historical world of 19th cen­tury Eng­lish cap­i­tal­ism embed­ded within it. Although it’s a gen­eral the­ory, and arises as a cri­tique of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic cat­e­gories of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the solu­tion of the fun­da­men­tal cat­e­gory prob­lems and with them obvi­ously the real under­ly­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, with the work­ing through of the prob­lems and impasses of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, Marx arrived at a gen­eral the­ory, but this gen­eral the­ory is in some way con­joined to the spe­cific socio-historical con­text of the cap­i­tal­ism of his time. Not just of course the factory-industrial order that emerged in Eng­land, which is the locus clas­si­cus for the gen­eral the­ory, but also the var­i­ous regions of the larger world-system, from declin­ing Asi­atic empires to the still-intact world of Euro­pean feu­dal­ism in the East, in Rus­sia, in the period of its demise, the emer­gence of white set­tler states, the end of the large plan­ta­tion slavery-based economies. These con­di­tions are spe­cific to the clas­si­cal period of cap­i­tal­ism that Marx is the­o­riz­ing, and not all of them are in some uni­form way sub­sumed under one sin­gle form of cap­i­tal­ism. Many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his age of cap­i­tal­ism belong to another world: cap­i­tal­ist land­lordism based on agri­cul­tural rent, gold stan­dard money, and con­di­tions of work­ing class life that were uprooted with the advent of mod­ern med­i­cine and the wel­fare state – although, of course, this lat­ter devel­op­ment has only taken place in more advanced economies. So there’s a num­ber of ways in which Marx’s world is dis­con­tin­u­ous with our own, though the gen­eral the­ory allows us to make the bridge, to under­stand what in the sub­se­quent peri­ods of cap­i­tal­ism, although they break and depart with the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Marx’s own time, are nonethe­less intel­li­gi­ble in terms of the account that Marx does provide.

What you’re point­ing to is the fun­da­men­tal rela­tion between the log­i­cal expo­si­tion in Cap­i­tal and the his­tor­i­cal chap­ters, which are some­times seen as exist­ing in an entirely dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter.

There is a ten­dency to iso­late the value the­ory, or the “the­ory” part of Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings from the his­tor­i­cal parts, to put it crudely. That has to do with pre­vail­ing con­cep­tions of what the­ory is. I’d like to demon­strate what kind of the­ory Marx is build­ing by pre­sent­ing it in a sys­tem­at­i­cally uni­fied, recon­structed form. Clearly, Marx does not mean by mean by the­ory, gen­er­al­iza­tions applied to some­thing called “his­tory.” But there is another sense of the term “the­ory” asso­ci­ated with Marx which is also not exactly the one Marx him­self had: so-called “Crit­i­cal The­ory.” Marx’s con­cep­tion of the­ory was not merely neg­a­tive in this sense, but aspired to be sci­en­tific and sys­tem­at­i­cally inte­grated with his­tor­i­cal con­tent, that is, with the artic­u­la­tion and solu­tion of real his­tor­i­cal problems.

Many of the attempts now to get to a new read­ing of Cap­i­tal set up as their adver­sary some­thing called “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism or “world­view” Marx­ism, which is con­nected to the polit­i­cal projects of the work­ers’ move­ment. Now, if we do a read­ing of the the­o­ret­i­cal texts that were pro­duced by the work­ers’ move­ment, we find a remark­able het­ero­gene­ity, of per­spec­tives, prob­lem­at­ics, ques­tions. How can we begin to reread this tra­di­tion as well?

I think there are a cou­ple of ques­tions there, some of which pre­sup­pose a par­tic­u­lar answer. I would say that, con­trary to my own incli­na­tions, inso­far as I’m sym­pa­thetic to some of the tra­di­tions of so-called “world­view Marx­ism,” there really isn’t much in Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings to war­rant the idea that it had some imme­di­ate or direct rela­tion­ship to an under­stand­ing of the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the pur­suit of class strug­gles, or imme­di­ately ori­ented towards the prob­lems of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary praxis of the work­ing class. That was an attempt made at a later point, based in the fact that Marx’s writ­ings are not just eco­nomic, but also on the pol­i­tics and his­tory of his time, some of them part of a series of writ­ings on the great upheavals, the rev­o­lu­tions and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tions from 1848 to 1871. So obvi­ously it was not sim­ply culled out of noth­ing, that so-called “world­view Marx­ists” would try to estab­lish the con­nec­tion. But aside from some dis­cus­sions of the work­ers’ move­ment in the form of the strug­gle to limit the work­day, and to estab­lish nor­mal con­di­tions of labor within the fac­tory sys­tem, and the sig­nif­i­cance of the suc­cess of that in induc­ing struc­tural changes within cap­i­tal­ism, as opposed to break­ing with it and over­throw­ing it, there isn’t really that much in the eco­nomic writ­ings which either explic­itly puts the class strug­gle at the cen­ter of the unfold­ing evo­lu­tion of these social rela­tions. There’s much more on the vio­lence of the class strug­gles that char­ac­ter­ized the period of the “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” of cap­i­tal than on any sub­se­quent episodes of it. It’s not even clear whether the the­ory which he presents, and this is a trib­ute to his sci­en­tific integrity, really iden­ti­fies the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for a work­ers’ move­ment, in the sense of a dynamic by which the work­ing class might develop out of the process of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal into a force of eman­ci­pa­tion and recon­struc­tion. It’s not entirely clear that this is his under­stand­ing of what hap­pens to the work­ing class under capitalism.

Nev­er­the­less he described Cap­i­tal as a weapon in the hands of the work­ing class.

Sci­en­tific the­ory is a weapon, it’s ulti­mately ben­e­fi­cial to the work­ers and the down­trod­den of soci­ety because they have the most inter­est in under­stand­ing the world with­out illu­sions. It’s in that respect that I think it’s a weapon for the work­ing class, and it’s not really clear that it can be directly, in the form that Marx wrote it, turned into an instru­ment of the class strug­gle. But that’s not what Marx is try­ing to do, either. He’s try­ing to set up a frame­work for con­crete inves­ti­ga­tions of the evo­lu­tion of this form of soci­ety and the polit­i­cal and other forms of strug­gle that result from its under­ly­ing con­tra­dic­tions. The­ory – in some ways I think this is what Althusser was good at point­ing out – is not there for us, in the sense of some­thing which is imme­di­ately even mean­ing­ful for us, and the ques­tions that we’re ask­ing. It’s not meant to do that. It’s meant to maybe take us away from the ques­tions we’re ask­ing. So we can’t really think of the­ory in an instru­men­tal way, because of that rela­tion­ship, true the­o­ries don’t serve our pur­poses so eas­ily. But they bet­ter serve our pur­poses for all that, because they are ulti­mately about true things and a knowl­edge of them. In that sense I think you could say that the scientific-critical under­stand­ing of the­ory, as opposed to a polit­i­cal world­view under­stand­ing, is really what the clas­si­cal con­cep­tion ulti­mately sub­scribed to. Let me qual­ify that: I think that Gram­sci is maybe, in the after­math of defeat, more attuned to the way a scientific-critical under­stand­ing of his­tory and pol­i­tics leads to a cer­tain, let’s say, dis­abused rela­tion­ship to the imme­di­ate prospects of the con­di­tions of strug­gle for work­ing and sub­al­tern classes. It’s really a dif­fi­cult thing to sci­en­tif­i­cally and crit­i­cally explore these prob­lems. We pre­fer to have our ques­tions result in answers which are enabling to us in some way. There are totally good rea­sons we ask the­ory to do this for us. But it best served even that pur­pose when it did this indirectly.

Now, there are moments in Marx, even in Cap­i­tal, which describe a kind of inex­orable process of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment which will result in communism.

Where would you say that is?

The “His­tor­i­cal Ten­dency of Cap­i­tal­ist Accu­mu­la­tion,” in con­ti­nu­ity with ear­lier works.

I would dis­agree with that, I would say that there’s often a kind of pecu­liar dialec­ti­cal form to the way Marx estab­lishes the con­di­tions of the nega­tion of exist­ing con­di­tions. So although he very strik­ingly sug­gests the dialec­ti­cal form of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism as a process of the expro­pri­a­tion of labor, which will in turn cap­size over into an expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors, that formal-dialectical struc­ture shouldn’t deceive us. I think this is where we might take a cue from some of the crit­i­cism of dialec­ti­cal thought that came out of cur­rents in the, let’s say, Althusser­ian tra­di­tion. The way the logic of devel­op­ment is under­stood as a way of fol­low­ing the logic of nega­tion, can lead to assump­tions about the course of his­tory which ulti­mately turn out to be dialec­ti­cal illu­sions. I’m not advo­cat­ing step­ping back away from the dialec­ti­cal devel­op­ment of laws and ten­den­cies. Much of what is great in Marx’s think­ing takes this form, and any ver­sion of Marx which strips that out of it, really strips out the guts of it. Briefly in the penul­ti­mate chap­ter of vol­ume 1 he speaks of this “expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors,” it seems as if this is cul­mi­na­tion of the analy­sis, at least in that vol­ume of the text. We might be tempted to see vol­ume 1 as cul­mi­nat­ing in this under­stand­ing of the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors. Cap­i­tal is often read today as the story of the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class and, let’s call it, before the let­ter, “the mul­ti­tude.” The basic idea is that as we approach the final chap­ter of the expro­pri­a­tion of the mul­ti­tude, the con­di­tions are emerg­ing for a great rever­sal. This is the enabling ide­o­log­i­cal for­mula of the rad­i­cal left today. There is a ratio­nal core to this. Lib­er­als, social-democrats and rem­nant lega­cies of an older far-left often snicker at such illu­sions, but since they were com­pletely blind­sided by the con­tem­po­rary cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, and failed to pre­dict it, and now offer only hind­sight and stick to what­ever it is they were say­ing before, they’re hardly cred­i­ble either.

It seems to me the rea­son Marx places such an empha­sis on vio­lence, as you men­tioned before, in the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is to break from the idea – which is there in clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, but can also be repeated in a mod­i­fied form in a Marx­ism which relies on a tran­shis­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the forces of pro­duc­tion, the devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion – the idea that the “social-property rela­tions” of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are the real­iza­tion of some­thing nascent in the pre­vi­ous mode of pro­duc­tion, whereas he is describ­ing a process which isn’t a sim­ple real­iza­tion, but which involves dis­con­ti­nu­ity, and which engages every level of the social for­ma­tion. He empha­sizes the role of the state, the inter­ac­tion of var­i­ous ele­ments which don’t con­tain cap­i­tal­ism within them.

I’m not sure if you’re describ­ing Marx here, I think that his thoughts on the sub­ject of the emer­gence or tran­si­tion to some­thing like a “social” mode of pro­duc­tion, are scat­tered, as every­one knows, and really take the form of either this dialectical-overturning, or, more mod­estly, of a con­sid­er­a­tion of the way aspects of social repro­duc­tion which assume a par­tic­u­lar form because of cap­i­tal­ist social-property rela­tions would be sus­pended, given a social mode of pro­duc­tion. In this lat­ter vein his basic point is that what are assumed to be mate­r­ial neces­si­ties of pro­duc­tion are really only such because of these par­tic­u­lar social forms.

You’ve described the story of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class as a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive, with util­ity for the social moment. What would be a sci­en­tific analy­sis of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat? Not Marx’s?

Well, he explic­itly says in that chap­ter, that he is not going to look at the eco­nomic causes of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat, that he is just going to look at the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s an explicit admis­sion that this is not really a the­o­riza­tion, or his­tor­i­cally grounded account of the whole process of the orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, but a counter-myth to the bour­geois story of enter­pris­ing Lock­ean fore­fa­thers scrap­ing together, out of their labors, sums which they are then able to use to employ those who were unable, or didn’t want to do that. That story is basi­cally an ide­o­log­i­cal account of why peo­ple today are divided into classes, and so Marx is coun­ter­ing it with another one unfold­ing within a dialec­ti­cal form, with this kind of reversal.

So he’s laps­ing out of sci­ence? Because you’ve described the sys­tem­atic­ity of this entire work.

I have said that there is a logico-historical sys­tem­atic­ity. I haven’t described it though.

Okay. But your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion seems to sug­gest that they are not part of this.

I think that there’s a con­cep­tual devel­op­ment run­ning through­out Marx’s works, includ­ing the texts on prim­i­tive accumulation.

The­o­riza­tions of his­tory and pol­i­tics are always in some way con­nected to a con­crete his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, an existential-historical sit­u­a­tion. Every exam­ple we have of even the artic­u­la­tion of sweep­ing accounts of basic polit­i­cal forms, whether that’s done in a way that his­tori­cizes them or not, arose in that con­junc­ture and encounter with a par­tic­u­lar set­ting. That’s going back to Aristotle’s Pol­i­tics, and that’s cer­tainly true of early mod­ern polit­i­cal thought. It’s also true of Marx. So this dual­ity of the­ory and, let’s call it ide­ol­ogy, is inside of the­ory. The ques­tions we’re ask­ing of pol­i­tics and his­tory are ques­tions for us, not like when we’re ask­ing ques­tions about other kinds of objects, with the under­stand­ing and com­pre­hen­sion of non-human real­ity, the sep­a­ra­tion of what is and what is for us can in some way be made com­pletely, and that’s obvi­ously not true when we’re talk­ing about pol­i­tics and his­tory. So there is in some way this inter­nal mutual impli­ca­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal and the the­o­ret­i­cal. The­ory takes the form of the dis­so­lu­tion and cri­tique of our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. It doesn’t ever sever itself com­pletely from our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. Ide­ol­ogy in the Althusser­ian sense is ris­ing out of social expe­ri­ence, right? The spon­ta­neous ways things appear, and even the­o­ries can become encrusted with ide­ol­ogy, and become a kind of obscu­ran­tist naivete. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s not the case that we have the­ory on the one hand and spon­ta­neous and direct social expe­ri­ence in its naive form on the other. That social expe­ri­ence is medi­ated by a whole gar­bled set of ter­mi­nolo­gies and half-formed ques­tions and prob­lems, which then it’s the busi­ness of crit­i­cal the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing to break apart and to gen­er­ate tracks and paths for analy­sis and inves­ti­ga­tion. The­o­ries and prob­lems within any tra­di­tion can become ide­ol­o­gized. This is true of Marx­ism, this is true of every tra­di­tion. There’s a moment in which the­ory emerges in some liv­ing rela­tion to scientific-critical prob­lems and does so per­haps in some con­junc­tion with the polit­i­cal moment, and then there are moments when that is left behind, and we only have ossi­fied ter­mi­nolo­gies and poorly-understood ques­tions and problems.

For Althusser, I would argue, the really core char­ac­ter­is­tic of ide­ol­ogy is that it posits the trans­parency of social rela­tions. And this is guar­an­teed by an under­stand­ing of his­tory as a process with a sub­ject and a goal, which is the real­iza­tion of this trans­parency. The pri­mary exam­ple of this is the tele­ol­ogy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, and for him this is repeated in the human­ist, his­tori­cist the­o­ret­i­cal revolt against the cat­e­gories of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. The way this maps out onto Marx’s works is, for exam­ple, that dialec­ti­cal account that you described in that chap­ter in Cap­i­tal, that would be the ide­o­log­i­cal moment, while prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is an attempt to break with that.

Cer­tainly within Marx’s work is the pos­si­bil­ity of devel­op­ing an ade­quate account of the actual prim­i­tive, or orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. There’s plenty of mate­r­ial in Marx which is about this process of the for­ma­tion of wealth in a new social form dur­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing period. That’s the real mate­r­ial on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion. Whether it’s wholly cor­rect is another matter.

So while I am sug­gest­ing, along with Althusser, that the chap­ter on the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors and the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion are in a ten­sion, because one describes a his­tor­i­cal dialec­tic with a goal, the other describes a process of rup­ture which is fig­ured in vio­lence, you’re sug­gest­ing that they’re part of the same ide­o­log­i­cal mold.

Like I said before, I’m not say­ing that Marx him­self was unable to break with this. I’m say­ing that he explic­itly says that in this chap­ter he is only look­ing at the polit­i­cal side, the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s a pretty direct state­ment to the effect that this is not a com­pre­hen­sive account of the whole process. The process of social and his­tor­i­cal change, the emer­gence of a new mode of pro­duc­tion, can’t be explained ade­quately by a “force the­ory of his­tory.” Although Marx once referred to force as the mid­wife of such changes, Engels had to launch an attack on exag­ger­ated reac­tionary ver­sions of this view. By the late 19th cen­tury there’s an increas­ing wide­spread rejec­tion of the older peace­ful account of the ori­gins of civ­i­liza­tion, and Bis­mar­ck­ian blood and iron is replac­ing Lock­ean labor as the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy of the ori­gins of soci­ety. Marx­ism as a result devel­oped not just a cri­tique of the story of the peace­ful rise of civ­i­liza­tion that you get from the clas­sics, it also devel­ops as a cri­tique of the bour­geois reac­tionary accounts of blood and iron as the motor of his­tory, and in this respect Marx was a Marxist.

It never really suf­fices to say “it’s more com­pli­cated than that,” but social and his­tor­i­cal change is, to put it gen­er­ally, a multi-dimensional process. In some way Althusser tried to con­vey this with his under­stand­ing of the dis­con­ti­nu­ities between lev­els of a social total­ity, that they were not capa­ble of coher­ing into a sin­gle sub­ject, because they all had their own rel­a­tively autonomous ten­den­cies and his­to­ries. So in this sense there were his­tories, but there is no sub­ject from which one could speak of a his­tory. This was the point of con­tention with Sartre and Lukács. The for­ma­tion of his­tory was not an auto­matic and given process, it was a com­plex one in which the medi­ated and rel­a­tively autonomous social and his­tor­i­cal exis­tence could be given a uni­fy­ing account which would become the basis for a process of their sociopo­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The idea of a sub­ject of his­tory, and I think Althusser came to this under­stand­ing later, is some­how implicit within our pol­i­tics of his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. One of the rea­sons why I think he’s wrestling with the prob­lem of the­ory and ide­ol­ogy later on, is that he real­izes that these are not sep­a­ra­ble things, in pre­cisely the man­ner in which this was thought to be pos­si­ble in the ear­lier writings.

Some­times the cri­tique of “tra­di­tional” or “world­view” Marx­ism extends as far as the claim that cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment required a work­ers’ move­ment in order to com­plete itself. So the end of the work­ers’ move­ment was essen­tially inscribed in its ori­gins. To me it seems we’re back at what Althusser cheek­ily described as “poor man’s Hegelian­ism,” repro­duc­ing the Sec­ond International’s tele­ol­ogy in what claims to be a cri­tique of the very deep­est cat­e­gories of Sec­ond Inter­na­tional Marx­ism. The same struc­ture of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment is now applied to the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment itself.

If by this you mean the idea that we can under­stand his­tor­i­cal processes through gen­eral inter­re­la­tion­ships between cat­e­gories of analy­sis, this is truly to be avoided. This is some­thing that Marx him­self had things to say about. So the idea that one can, instead of actu­ally doing his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion in the mold that Marx does him­self, which he is in some sense cre­at­ing the foun­da­tion of, if one thinks that we can instead of that do a kind of under­stand­ing of the world-historical dynam­ics that arise out of the inter­nal rela­tion­ships between cat­e­gories, then that is not some­thing which fol­lows Marx. It might be that some things of intel­lec­tual inter­est arise out of this way of fram­ing things, I don’t want to say that there’s noth­ing to that, but it should never be con­ceived of as a sub­sti­tute for real his­tor­i­cal understanding.

The social rela­tions that Marx devel­ops out of an analy­sis of cat­e­gories and the cat­e­gory prob­lems of polit­i­cal econ­omy are always being devel­oped through real his­tor­i­cal con­tent. This real his­tor­i­cal con­tent takes the form of prob­lems that can­not be resolved by appre­hend­ing their con­cep­tual form. They don’t exist inde­pen­dently, the idea that there’s a kind of purely log­i­cal mode of the inter­con­nec­tion of these cat­e­gories to one another is sim­ply to have a mys­ti­fied and fetishis­tic con­cep­tion of what the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories are.

I want to return to these two themes of polit­i­cal thought that you iden­ti­fied ear­lier. One was cri­sis, which we’ve dis­cussed. The other was defeat. The major defeat which frames our period is pre­cisely the defeat of the work­ers’ move­ment, across the end of the 1970s through the 1980s. As the ambiva­lence towards “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism demon­strates, this defeat poses con­sid­er­able prob­lems for peo­ple inter­ested in mass move­ments and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion today.

On the one hand we seem to be in a period in which more and more peo­ple are com­ing around to the view that the eco­nomic prob­lems of the day speak to a deep struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. Even a few years ago when I wrote the piece on the sta­tion­ary state this wasn’t widely held to be the case, but it’s now increas­ingly accepted. On the other hand, as you point out, we’re con­fronted with the absence of any large-scale agen­cies of social and polit­i­cal change that might open up the ques­tion of a new social eco­nomic order beyond cap­i­tal­ism. The way the cri­sis has unfolded so far is pri­mar­ily to raise ques­tions about how to sus­tain and prop up the sta­tus quo, and even forms of oppo­si­tion to aus­ter­ity have not really been able to break out of a set of purely defen­sive demands, to roll back some of the dam­age of the finan­cial cri­sis and think about resta­bi­liz­ing the econ­omy by restor­ing a pre­vi­ously exist­ing level of eco­nomic equal­ity and job secu­rity, which is thought to be per­haps attain­able. Some peo­ple are draw­ing the con­clu­sion that the prob­lems are so deep that those kind of solu­tions aren’t going to work any­more, but the fun­da­men­tal struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions that would have to hap­pen for these prob­lems of unem­ploy­ment, declin­ing wages, and mass poverty around the world, to be over­come are so daunt­ing, that the fall­back posi­tion is under­stand­ably one or another of these forms of left-wing pop­ulism. I don’t have any prob­lem with that being the form that strug­gles assumes, it’s inevitable for that to be the case. But the rea­son the rea­son why this can­not ulti­mately suc­ceed even as a strat­egy of defense is because there’s no new track that cap­i­tal­ism seems to be able to go to. Var­i­ous types of left-wing reformism have been depen­dent on the abil­ity of cap­i­tal­ism to deliver employ­ment and ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards. So even though cap­i­tal­ism is in this deep and sys­temic cri­sis, the cri­sis is simul­ta­ne­ously man­i­fest­ing itself in under­min­ing the con­di­tions of social and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. That hasn’t just been a mat­ter of defeat of rev­o­lu­tion­ary chal­lenges to the sys­tem, but has also in this period taken the form of a roll­back of the reformist accom­plish­ments of the work­ing class within the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, and else­where the var­i­ous mixed lega­cies of the attempt to pro­mote eco­nomic devel­op­ment in some vision of progress in more eco­nom­i­cally “back­wards” zones of the world-system. That’s the con­text in which we operate.

Gopal Balakrishnan is an editor at New Left Review, and the author of The Enemy and Antagonistics. He is a professor in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.

To the party members

The sound and image of a drum cir­cle may be one of the most easily-mocked moments asso­ci­ated with the Occupy move­ments. But the role of music in the move­ment, and its rela­tion to protests and polit­i­cal action in gen­eral, bears closer inves­ti­ga­tion, beyond the drum circle.

Music at Occupy events has been as diverse as the peo­ple and loca­tions involved, from Bay Area rap stal­wart Mis­tah FAB’s freestyle at Occupy Oak­land to Tom Morello’s Gui­tarmy, indige­nous dancers and singers in Min­neapo­lis, polit­i­cal march­ing bands like the Rude Mechan­i­cal Orches­tra or the Hun­gry March Bands in New York, the Mil­wau­kee Molo­tov Marchers, Pittsburgh’s Riff Raff, and the leg­endary Infer­nal Noise Brigade of Seat­tle. Videos and albums have been launched, and many have called for a new era of protest music to arise.

These musi­cal actions them­selves are often char­ac­ter­ized as “protest music.” In fact, march­ing bands serve vital tac­ti­cal pur­poses at street protests (and beyond): sur­round­ing police vans, iden­ti­fy­ing and fol­low­ing under­cover police, de-escalating ten­sion, and help­ing facil­i­tate the flow and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the crowd. But the con­cept of “protest music” can obscure some of music’s most pow­er­ful aspects as a social force. For many involved in Occupy, the spe­cific rela­tion­ship between the music being played and the peo­ple who hear it has not been thought through very care­fully – and this weak­ness can rein­force polit­i­cal weak­nesses. Indeed, when even can call 100 tracks of Occupy-themed music “shape­less and safe,” we might ask our­selves what this protest music is missing.

Har­sha Walia has pointed out that many of the most pow­er­ful aspects of Occupy spaces were not about “protest­ing,” but about enact­ing exist­ing con­nec­tions: what hap­pened in the kitchens, the medic tents, the libraries, the teach-ins and work­shops. These were places where peo­ple brought their exist­ing skills to bear in self-organized con­fig­u­ra­tions, pro­vid­ing for them­selves and each other along a met­ric that was nei­ther char­ity nor busi­ness, but a com­mon inter­est. The most promis­ing polit­i­cal actions were those that con­nected to exist­ing com­mu­nity strug­gles around police vio­lence, home fore­clo­sure, and home­less­ness, where activists, res­i­dents, and even the home­less them­selves, engaged directly with the lived real­i­ties of peo­ple fac­ing sys­temic violence.

Music con­structs sim­i­lar pos­si­bil­i­ties for social rela­tions. The kind of social rela­tions evoked by “protest­ing” are not very fer­tile – a protest can get voices “out there,” some­where – but doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily affect how peo­ple deal with each other. While music, on the other hand, can have a “mes­sage” to com­mu­ni­cate, it can be so much more – it can be a social activ­ity rather than just a prod­uct, what the musi­col­o­gist Christo­pher Small has called musick­ing: a way for peo­ple to per­form con­nec­tions with each other and with exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties, through shared cul­tural expression.

There is a com­plex rela­tion­ship between music and cul­ture that makes music polit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant – and mobi­liz­ing – in ways that go beyond words, and the par­tic­u­lar moment of “protest.” Music can be a lived nego­ti­a­tion and per­for­mance of com­mu­nity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. A bet­ter under­stand­ing of how music does this, as well as more seri­ous atten­tion to its dif­fer­ent cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally spe­cific tra­di­tions, would help forge a more rad­i­cal rela­tion­ship between the het­ero­ge­neous com­mu­ni­ties and inter­ests that par­tic­i­pate in resis­tance movements.

In my own expe­ri­ence as a DJ, dancer, party orga­nizer, and researcher, I’ve engaged in-depth with the every­day prac­tices of Jamaican musick­ing. In Jamaica, even though the cul­ture of the urban poor is offi­cially vil­i­fied and excluded, that cul­ture still sets main­stream trends, and is under­stood to be authen­ti­cally Jamaican. This cul­tural author­ity has per­sisted despite its exclu­sion from mass media tech­nolo­gies like radio and tele­vi­sion, from their ear­li­est incep­tion. Both under­writ­ten by the gov­ern­ment until rel­a­tively recently, these media out­lets have con­sis­tently sup­ported for­eign and British-identified cul­tural expres­sion over pop­u­lar culture.

This same hos­til­ity has lim­ited poor people’s abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in both for­mal employ­ment and pres­ti­gious artis­tic per­for­mance. Such bod­ily restraints oper­ate at the lev­els of both race and class: skin color tracks poverty even more dra­mat­i­cally in Jamaica than in the US, so the phys­i­cal and ver­bal traits asso­ci­ated with poverty are also gen­er­ally asso­ci­ated with dark-skinned Jamaicans. In the face of colo­nial rejec­tion and hos­til­ity at tra­di­tional sites of “mass cul­ture,” poor Jamaicans began, in the 1930s and 1940s, to carve out their own sites of cre­ative expres­sion, espe­cially through nightlife – music and danc­ing at night, usu­ally around home-built sound sys­tem. These dances, espe­cially the free out­door events usu­ally known as “street dances” – became places where poor Jamaicans pro­duced a degree of cul­tural auton­omy from the colo­nial tastes of the rul­ing class.

These par­ties weren’t utopias of free­dom and equal­ity, but the per­for­mances of gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, dom­i­nance, and plea­sure that were enacted there rep­re­sented a col­lec­tive resis­tance to dom­i­na­tion. After Jamaican inde­pen­dence, offi­cial media chan­nels remained dom­i­nated by colo­nial tastes, and poor neigh­bor­hood nightlife became cen­ters of an alter­na­tive voice for the majority.

This alter­na­tive voice speaks in terms that tra­di­tional pol­i­tics usu­ally don’t hear. For exam­ple, sex­u­al­ized dance moves have been con­tin­u­ally pop­u­lar in Jamaica from the 1930s to the present, and crit­ics of nightlife are often unable to hide their dis­com­fort with these erotic social inter­ac­tions. But sweaty moments can have polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Jamaican schol­ars such as Car­olyn Cooper have empha­sized the con­text of these moves: invented by descen­dants of enslaved Africans, such dances were a way to express tra­di­tions and rela­tions denied to them by dom­i­nant soci­ety. Cooper sug­gests that that dance­hall cul­ture is “an eroge­nous zone in which the cel­e­bra­tion of female sex­u­al­ity and fer­til­ity is rit­u­al­ized.” Tak­ing this point more broadly, for mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties – espe­cially those with a his­tory of enslave­ment – sex­ual auton­omy is a seri­ous issue. Secur­ing this auton­omy fre­quently requires trans­gres­sion of reli­gious, sex­ual, and even eco­nomic rela­tions val­ued by dom­i­nant society.

These issues are still alive. Jamaican elites, and the gov­ern­ment itself, have been so hos­tile to local pop­u­lar music that to this day there is no large music venue in the cap­i­tal city – so the abil­ity of pop­u­lar spaces to redraw and resist dom­i­nant cul­tural hier­ar­chies remains rel­e­vant. As Son­jah Stanley-Niaah puts it, these can be spaces where peo­ple “revaloriz[e] aspects of the body that are cen­sored in the wider social sphere.” Con­sider, for exam­ple, the 2010 vic­tory in a Jamaican “Dance­hall Queen” com­pe­ti­tion by Kristal Ander­son, a viva­cious and tal­ented per­former who was both dark-skinned and weighed over 200 pounds. Anderson’s glo­ri­ous skills and tal­ents, honed in the dances that occur in what Obika Gray calls “exilic spaces,” drew enthu­si­as­tic pop­u­lar sup­port. The judges, whose ties to the local music scene require that they respect the audience’s taste, had to rep­re­sent that audience’s sub­ver­sive val­ues. It would be a mis­take to under­es­ti­mate the impor­tance of street dances, and the cul­ture cen­tered on them, in chal­leng­ing dom­i­nant standards.

Valid crit­i­cisms can be made of these prac­tices. Sex­u­al­ized per­for­mances can par­tic­i­pate in the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of bod­ies along gen­dered and racial lines, and many sub­cul­tures are not free of the homo­pho­bia and sex­ism that also dom­i­nates main­stream soci­ety. How­ever, ignor­ing the spe­cific con­text in which such inequal­i­ties take place risks mis­in­ter­pret­ing their ori­gins, and per­pet­u­at­ing hier­ar­chies of race and class. The Jamaican dance­floor, while echo­ing with the sound of many an explic­itly anti-gay lyric, is simul­ta­ne­ously a place where per­form­ers chal­lenge stan­dard def­i­n­i­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity – con­sis­tent with a cul­tural shift, even in main­stream Jamaican pol­i­tics, towards a less homo­pho­bic stance than many pop­u­lar elected offi­cials in the US. Under­stand­ing how dance­floor pol­i­tics reflects and pos­si­bly pushes towards these changes requires a cri­tique informed by the subject-positions and expe­ri­ences within the com­mu­ni­ties being dis­cussed. Unfor­tu­nately, white-dominated “activist com­mu­ni­ties” have not demon­strated a hum­ble com­mit­ment to under­stand­ing mar­gin­al­ized cul­tures. This is a great loss for many rea­sons. For one thing, it’s clear that so many com­mu­ni­ties care about music, and use it as a basis for sol­i­dar­ity and plea­sure – which ought to make any good orga­nizer sit up and pay attention.

My own obser­va­tion of (and par­tic­i­pa­tion in) white-dominated activist scenes sug­gests that the abil­ity to col­lab­o­rate often falls apart not over polit­i­cal plat­forms, but over per­sonal and social engage­ments around race, cul­ture, eth­nic­ity, and gen­der – often in seem­ingly non-political set­tings, like night­clubs and par­ties. In rela­tion to music, these prob­lems result from the “protest” mind­set. Many par­tic­i­pants in the Occupy move­ment have approached music as a didac­tic event, instru­men­tal­ized around “get­ting a mes­sage to peo­ple,” to inspire them or oth­er­wise make them behave in a cer­tain way. Alter­nately, music is expected to be a gen­eral com­mu­nal “emo­tional release” where the specifics of par­tic­u­lar cul­tural and musi­cal prac­tices and his­to­ries are expected to be sub­sumed or erased – and that era­sure is appar­ently assumed to be liberating.

Nei­ther under­stand­ing of music is polit­i­cally fer­tile, or likely to take the musi­cal expe­ri­ence very far out­side of white middle-class activists, because it fun­da­men­tally mis­takes or ignores the social func­tion of music within mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. This reflects a broader prob­lem fac­ing the self-identified “Amer­i­can left,” which has long made it irrel­e­vant, or even harm­ful, to com­mu­ni­ties of color, queer com­mu­ni­ties, and indeed the work­ing class – an inabil­ity to deal with cul­ture as an aspect of polit­i­cal iden­tity and practice.

Much like Jamaican street dances, the his­tory of vogue balls, hip-hop (which includes DJing, danc­ing, rap­ping, and graf­fiti), and house or block par­ties where immi­grants play the music of their home coun­tries or dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties, all demon­strate that music affirms spe­cific his­to­ries and iden­ti­ties in the face of mar­gin­al­iza­tion. Queer com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cially queer com­mu­ni­ties of color, have been espe­cially rooted in these spaces, since a queer per­son of color may not be safe diverg­ing from expected iden­tity per­for­mances any­where else they go. While cer­tain norms of gen­der are enforced at home, at school, and at work, the dance floor is a space to work out plea­sure, sex, and style, in the face of often mur­der­ous hos­til­ity from dom­i­nant cul­ture. Plea­sure, sex, and style can be dis­rup­tive of dom­i­nant social orders – not always, but depend­ing on the spe­cific bod­ies and com­mu­ni­ties who per­form them, and the modes of their per­for­mance. It is pos­si­ble, to be sure, for peo­ple to take plea­sure in racism or sex­ism, or for hedo­nism to col­lapse, espe­cially along lines of class, into con­sumerism and addic­tion. But when people’s actual bod­ies face hos­til­ity – from arrest to state-sanctioned vig­i­lante vio­lence, or direct police vio­lence – for devi­at­ing from dom­i­nant norms of sex­u­al­ity, gen­der, and race, then their prac­tices are more sig­nif­i­cant than sim­ple “sex-positivity” or the fetishiza­tion of transgression.

After all, we shouldn’t for­get that despite the white faces of main­stream “gay rights,” it has always been queer and trans­gen­der peo­ple of color at the fore­front of the strug­gles against the polic­ing of sex­u­al­ity. Such strug­gles often began with attempts to defend seem­ingly dis­rep­utable spaces of refuges and resis­tance. Such spaces are spe­cially impor­tant for peo­ple – dis­pro­por­tion­ately queer peo­ple of color – who have been expelled from or are unable to find homes. If a home isn’t safe, or you don’t have one to live in, spaces where you can just be your­self, with­out scrutiny and threat from oppres­sive forces, are even more nec­es­sary. Many of these spaces exist on the mar­gins of respectable and legal soci­ety. From ware­house par­ties to the Christo­pher Street Pier, such strug­gles are rooted in the his­tory of queer lib­er­a­tion: it should be no sur­prise that Stonewall is so sig­nif­i­cant to the movement’s his­tory – a bar fre­quented by trans peo­ple of color like Sil­via Rivera, who led the resis­tance. Nightlife can be a refuge, but also a source of resis­tant iden­tity and mobilization.

When we talk about cul­ture, we’re also talk­ing about his­tory, and often music defines people’s iden­ti­ties from the begin­ning. Songs with lyrics that might make white middle-class activists squirm can take on dif­fer­ent mean­ings in the con­text of the dance floor. Such an engage­ment with music is not defined by the record­ings or lyrics them­selves – music is a socialexpe­ri­ence, and its polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance can’t be under­stood until you know who is phys­i­cally in the room, and how they are inter­act­ing with each other in the moment of musi­cal engage­ment. A room­ful of white frat boys singing along to DJ Assault’s “suck my moth­er­fuck­ing dick” has a very dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance, and a very dif­fer­ent effect, from the same cho­rus sung by black drag queens.

What I’ve learned as a DJ is that the sig­nif­i­cance of a musi­cal expe­ri­ence is enacted by the actual bod­ies of the peo­ple in the room, and thus mak­ing mean­ing­ful musi­cal expe­ri­ences requires know­ing specif­i­cally who you’re try­ing to reach and what their (musi­cal) his­to­ries are. Reusing those musi­cal ref­er­ences can affirm and rep­re­sent the lis­tener in a way that builds col­lec­tive emo­tional con­nec­tions. In the con­text of mass polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tions, these tools are espe­cially impor­tant, to gen­er­ate the inclu­siv­ity that is the con­di­tion for any mean­ing­ful dia­logue or connection.

The fail­ure to build these con­nec­tions has been one of the major weak­nesses of the Occupy move­ment, which set its camps up against insti­tu­tions – like the police – that many com­mu­ni­ties were already in strug­gle against. It’s not sur­pris­ing that Occupy had repeat­edly repli­cated the racist, sex­ist, nativist, and eth­no­cen­tric atti­tudes of main­stream soci­ety; it just requires a con­scious effort to resist. Part of the solu­tion is to more care­fully define the prob­lems fac­ing Occu­piers, to con­nect them to exist­ing strug­gles over, for exam­ple, police vio­lence or indige­nous rights. And another part of the solu­tion is that these same strug­gles take place over the role of music.

The great protest songs were pow­er­ful not only because the lyrics were true, and forced peo­ple to respond, but because the music called out to con­nec­tions that already existed, named real­i­ties and iden­ti­ties that were already lodged in people’s mem­o­ries, in their own expe­ri­ences and tra­di­tions. That force is lost if music is sub­or­di­nated to a pas­sive vision of “mes­sage” and “protest,” or a homo­ge­neously com­mon strug­gle. Attend­ing to music’s cul­tural res­o­nance, and the social dynam­ics around its prac­tice, can make it a pow­er­ful force for shar­ing plea­sure, trust, release, and pur­pose across mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and forg­ing a rad­i­cal, broadly par­tic­i­pa­tory movement.

Larisa K. Mann is a legal ethnographer, educator, journalist, public speaker, and DJ, who teaches Media Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and Sociology of Law at Brooklyn College. She has written for WireTap, the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, and other publications, and has contributed chapters to Bits without Borders: Law, Communications & Transnational Culture Flow in the Digital Age (forthcoming, Elgar, 2012), and Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement (New Internationalist Publications, 2012). As DJ Ripley, she has played in 19 countries across 3 continents over the past 16 years.

Be the street: on radical ethnography and cultural studies

The man who only observes him­self how­ever never gains
Knowl­edge of men. He is too anx­ious
To hide him­self from him­self. And nobody is
Clev­erer than he him­self is.
So your school­ing must begin among
Liv­ing peo­ple. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the under­ground, the shops. You should observe
All the peo­ple there, strangers as if they were acquain­tances, but
Acquain­tances as if they were strangers to you.

—Bertolt Brecht, Speech to the Dan­ish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Obser­va­tion (1934-6)

“Anthro­pol­ogy is the daugh­ter to this era of vio­lence,” Claude Levi-Strauss once said. Poetic as that state­ment is, I pre­fer the more pre­cise and less gen­dered words of esteemed anthro­pol­o­gist and Johnson-Forest Ten­dency mem­ber Kath­leen Gough: “Anthro­pol­ogy is a child of West­ern impe­ri­al­ism.” Much like Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies in the Span­ish Empire, anthro­pol­o­gists exam­ined indige­nous groups in order to improve colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues into the present day with the US military’s Human Ter­rain Project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, this colo­nial imper­a­tive has fed a racist dis­re­spect of the sub­jects under study. It was not uncom­mon, for exam­ple, for researchers to draw upon colo­nial police forces to col­lect sub­jects for humil­i­at­ing anthro­po­met­ric measurements.

Accord­ing to Gough, at their best, anthro­pol­o­gists had been the “white lib­er­als between con­querors and col­o­nized.” Ethnog­ra­phy, the method in which researchers embed them­selves within social groups to best under­stand their prac­tices and the mean­ings behind them, had only medi­ated this rela­tion­ship, while Gough, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist, wanted to upend it. Writ­ing in 1968, she urged her dis­ci­pline to study impe­ri­al­ism and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments against it as a way to expi­ate anthro­pol­ogy of its sins. Gough later attempted this her­self, trav­el­ling through­out Asia in the 1970s. Although she lacked a solid uni­ver­sity con­nec­tion due to her polit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, she man­aged to con­duct field­work abroad, ana­lyz­ing class recom­po­si­tion in rural South­east India dur­ing the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and detail­ing the improve­ment in the liv­ing stan­dards of Viet­namese peas­ants after the expul­sion of the United States.

Years later, anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes sees fit to ask, “Why hasn’t anthro­pol­ogy made more dif­fer­ence?” The prob­lem is not that anthro­pol­o­gists are ret­i­cent to con­tribute to end­ing impe­ri­al­ism. Indeed, there are prob­a­bly more rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists now than dur­ing Gough’s time, and cer­tainly the dis­ci­pline takes anti-racism and anti-imperialism incred­i­bly seri­ously. Gough her­self artic­u­lated some dif­fi­cul­ties:

(1) the very process of spe­cial­iza­tion within anthro­pol­ogy and between anthro­pol­ogy and the related dis­ci­plines, espe­cially polit­i­cal sci­ence, soci­ol­ogy, and eco­nom­ics; (2) the tra­di­tion of indi­vid­ual field work in small-scale soci­eties, which at first pro­duced a rich har­vest of ethnog­ra­phy but later placed con­straints on our meth­ods and the­o­ries; (3) unwill­ing­ness to offend the gov­ern­ments that funded us, by choos­ing con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects; and (4) the bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting in which anthro­pol­o­gists have increas­ingly worked in their uni­ver­si­ties, which may have con­tributed to a sense of impo­tence and to the devel­op­ment of machine-like models.

None of these plague anthro­pol­ogy today. Anthro­pol­o­gists are often incred­i­bly deep knowl­ege about mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines (I have an anthro­pol­o­gist friend I con­sult on any ques­tions of struc­tural semi­otics, Marx­ism, 19th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture, or gam­bling); they have exam­ined cul­ture within large indus­trial and post-industrial soci­eties; they have been involved in all sorts of rad­i­cal issues, from union­iz­ing sex work­ers to ana­lyz­ing the secu­ri­tized state; and while the uni­ver­sity may remain a bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting, anthro­pol­o­gists have largely aban­doned machine-like mod­els. So what gives?

One issue is how anthro­pol­ogy chose to atone for its com­plic­ity in racism and impe­ri­al­ism. Instead of mak­ing a direct polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion into impe­ri­al­ist prac­tice, ethnog­ra­phy attacked impe­ri­al­ist hermeneu­tics. A deep cri­tique of the Enlight­en­ment sub­ject, the source of anthropology’s claims to sci­ence and objec­tiv­ity as well as meta­phys­i­cal ground for West­ern notions of supe­ri­or­ity, became a major tar­get of the dis­ci­pline. Thus rose crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy, decon­struc­tive in spirit. Accord­ing to Soyini Madi­son, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy “takes us beneath sur­face appear­ances, dis­rupts the sta­tus quo, and unset­tles both neu­tral­ity and taken-for-granted assump­tions by bring­ing to light under­ly­ing and obscure oper­a­tions of power and control.”

This func­tions at the level of the method itself: crit­i­cal ethno­g­ra­phers should be self-reflexive. Rather than assum­ing an omni­scient author­i­ta­tive view­point, they should high­light their own posi­tion­al­ity in the field by empha­siz­ing it in the writ­ten account, thereby decon­struct­ing the Self and its rela­tion to the Other when­ever pos­si­ble. In an attack on Enlight­en­ment pre­ten­sions to uni­ver­sal­ity, accounts became par­tial and frag­men­tary, a way to head off poten­tially demean­ing total­ized por­tray­als at the pass.

How­ever, iron­i­cally enough, by per­for­ma­tively ques­tion­ing one’s own research, the fig­ure of the ethno­g­ra­pher risks becom­ing the cen­tral fig­ure in the study, rather than the social group. Even as it pro­duces an often-engrossing lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy can under­mine its own polit­i­cal thrust by dras­ti­cally lim­it­ing what it per­mits itself to say. While Marx­ist soci­ol­o­gist Michael Bura­woy, who shov­eled pig iron for years in the name of social sci­ence, claims that with exces­sive reflex­iv­ity ethno­g­ra­phers “begin to believe they are the world they study or that the world revolves around them,” I’d counter that this isn’t so much pro­fes­sional nar­cis­sism as a prod­uct of the very real anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the ethics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How best to fairly, but accu­rately, por­tray one’s sub­jects? How can one really know the Other? I’ve strug­gled with this in my own work, and I know col­leagues who have been all but con­sumed by it. Writ­ing about one­self seems, at the very least, safer. But this aban­dons sci­en­tific rigor in its reluc­tance to make any gen­er­al­iz­able claims.

My own expe­ri­ence in ethnog­ra­phy came from a study of pop­u­lar cul­ture. I had grown tired of schol­arly tex­tual analy­sis: it seemed like more of a game for the com­men­ta­tors, where we crit­ics bandied about spec­u­la­tive assess­ments of books and films and TV shows, try­ing to one-up each other in nov­elty and jar­gon. These inter­pre­ta­tions said more about our posi­tions as theory-stuffed grad­u­ate stu­dents eager to impress than they did about the puta­tive “audi­ences” for the texts. Our con­scious­ness of the objects in ques­tion had been deter­mined by our mate­r­ial lives as critics-in-training. I felt pulled fur­ther away from cul­tural phe­nom­ena, when I wanted to get closer in order to bet­ter under­stand its sig­nif­i­cance. So I revolted against the rule of thoughts, start­ing to learn the meth­ods that got closer to the mat­ter at hand: ethnography,

In cul­tural stud­ies, ethnog­ra­phy (or as a fully-trained anthro­pol­o­gist would prob­a­bly write, “ethnog­ra­phy”) is most closely asso­ci­ated with audi­ence recep­tion and fan­dom stud­ies. Tex­tual analy­sis tells you only what a critic thinks of the work; in order to dis­cover how “aver­age” con­sumers expe­ri­ence it, you have to ask them. This way you avoid the total­iz­ing, top-down gen­er­al­iza­tions of some­one like Adorno, where a rei­fied con­scious­ness is deter­mined by the repet­i­tive, sim­pli­fied forms of the cul­ture industry.

This was Janet Radway’s goal when she stud­ied female read­ers of misog­y­nist romance nov­els. She found out that read­ers cared more about hav­ing pri­vate time away from domes­tic duties than the borderline-rape occur­ring in the books. How­ever, she was forced to con­clude that romance nov­els worked as com­pen­satory mech­a­nisms, secur­ing women in cap­i­tal­ist patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion – in other words, she took the long way around and ended up in the same Adornoian con­clu­sion: we’re fucked and it’s our mass cul­ture that makes it so.

My cho­sen topic helped me get on a dif­fer­ent path, one that I believe has more rel­e­vance to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics than harangu­ing the choices of hap­less con­sumers. I wanted to study inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar music instead of romance nov­els. This meant I was well posi­tioned to exam­ine music from the stand­point of pro­duc­tion, rather than just sur­vey­ing audi­ence mem­bers, a tech­nique that always felt too spec­u­la­tive and a bit too closely aligned with mar­ket research.

Not that mar­ket research was totally off base. Pop­u­lar music exists in the form of com­modi­ties. Its form, as Adorno rightly points out, is dic­tated by the needs of the cul­ture indus­try. If the music indus­try was a fac­tory, then musi­cians were the work­ers, bang­ing out prod­ucts. A pecu­liar fac­tory, to be sure, where oper­a­tions spread to the homes of the work­ers, the machines were pirated soft­ware, and the prod­ucts were derived from unique cre­ative labors, becom­ing objects of intense devo­tion among consumers.

You can run into resis­tance when you define art in this way – it seems to cheapen it, as if you can’t call a song a “com­mod­ity” with­out implic­itly stick­ing a “mere” in there, just as refer­ring to artists as work­ers seems to demean their abil­i­ties. But this resis­tance comes almost entirely from music fans, who com­mit their own Adornoian blun­der by plac­ing music on that archaic crum­bling pedestal of Art. The pro­duc­ers and DJs I spoke to in Detroit didn’t see it that way. They saw them­selves as cre­ative work­ers; at best, as entre­pre­neurs. One DJ talked about remix­ing songs in the morn­ing over cof­fee. “You know how some peo­ple check their email or read the news­pa­per? Well, I’m mak­ing a remix of the new Ciara song dur­ing that time.” He took pride in his work ethic, but never roman­ti­cized his occupation.

There wasn’t much to wax roman­tic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The cul­ture indus­tries were under­go­ing a restruc­tur­ing for the imma­te­r­ial age. Vinyl was no longer mov­ing. Local radio and local music venues had gone cor­po­rate, squeez­ing out local music. DJs who wanted local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the sub­ur­ban mega­clubs instead of the native styles of elec­tronic music that had given Detroit mythic sta­tus around the world. Many had given up on record labels entirely. Every­one looked to the inter­net as the sav­ing grace for record sales, pro­mo­tion, net­work­ing – for every­thing, prac­ti­cally. Some of the more suc­cess­ful artists were attempt­ing to license their tracks for video games. Almost every­one had other jobs, often off the books. For crit­i­cally acclaimed Detroit pro­ducer Omar-S, music is his side job, in case his posi­tion on the fac­tory line is eliminated.

I wasn’t embed­ded within this com­mu­nity, as an anthro­pol­o­gist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute drive to Detroit when I could, and spent the time inter­view­ing artists in their homes or over the phone. I attended some events, par­tic­i­pated and observed. And still, I could have writ­ten vol­umes on my subject-position and how it dif­fered from many of the musi­cians: I was white, college-educated, not from Detroit (the last one being the most salient dif­fer­ence). But my goal was to go beyond self-reflexive inter­ro­ga­tions, in spite of their impor­tance as a start­ing point. I aspired to write some­thing that would in some way, how­ever minor, par­tic­i­pate in the implicit polit­i­cal projects of musi­cal workers.

I can’t say I suc­ceeded in this goal. But while I may have done lit­tle for the polit­i­cal for­tunes of Detroit musi­cians, I had started to think about how to rev­o­lu­tion­ize my the­o­ret­i­cal tools. The point was not to efface or under­mine my role in my research, but to iden­tify the struc­tural antag­o­nism the artists were deal­ing with and describe it from a par­ti­san per­spec­tive. Beyond the self-reflexive analy­sis of the ethnographer’s subject-position was the pos­si­bil­ity of pick­ing sides.

Decid­ing to pick sides is the dif­fer­ence between mil­i­tant research, of the kind Kath­leen Gough prac­ticed, and purely scholas­tic exer­cises. Bura­woy argues that this is a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of Karl Marx’s “ethno­graphic imag­i­na­tion”: Marx rooted his the­o­ries – not just of how cap­i­tal­ism func­tioned, but how best to destroy it – in the con­crete expe­ri­ences of work­ers, as relayed to him by Engels and oth­ers. Kath­leen Gough is an exem­plary fig­ure in this respect, remain­ing a firm mate­ri­al­ist in her stud­ies. As Gough’s friend and col­league Eleanor Smol­lett puts it in a spe­cial jour­nal ded­i­cated to Gough’s legacy,

she did not arrive in Viet­nam with a check­list of what a soci­ety must accom­plish to be ‘really social­ist’ as so many Marx­ists in acad­e­mia were wont to do. She looked at the direc­tion of the move­ment, of the con­crete gains from where the Viet­namese had begun… Observ­ing social­ist devel­op­ment from the point of view of the Viet­namese them­selves, rather than as judged against a hypo­thet­i­cal sys­tem, she found the people’s stated enthu­si­asm credible.

After study­ing mate­r­ial con­di­tions and for­eign pol­icy in the social­ist bloc, Gough decided that the Soviet Union, while cer­tainly no work­ers’ par­adise, was a net good for the work­ers of the world – heresy for any­one try­ing to pub­lish in the West, let alone a Trotskyist.

Analy­sis is impor­tant, but the really explo­sive stuff of ethnog­ra­phy hap­pens in the encounter. Accord­ingly, ethno­g­ra­phers and oth­ers have increas­ingly turned towards the meth­ods of par­tic­i­pa­tory action research (PAR). In these stud­ies, a blend of ethnog­ra­phy and ped­a­gogy, the anthro­pol­o­gist takes a par­ti­san inter­est in the aspi­ra­tions of the group, and aids the group in actively par­tic­i­pat­ing actively in the research. Mem­bers of the group under study become co-researchers, ask­ing ques­tions and artic­u­lat­ing prob­lems. The goal is to tease out native knowl­edges that best aid peo­ple in nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances while mobi­liz­ing them to cre­ate polit­i­cal change.

But par­tic­i­pa­tory action research has returned to the same old prob­lems of impe­ri­al­ist anthro­pol­ogy. In the hands of rad­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes, PAR led to the for­ma­tion of a sex work­ers’ union in Great Britain. But in the hands of devel­op­ment scholar Robert Cham­bers, PAR is a tool to bet­ter imple­ment World Bank ini­tia­tives and gov­ern pop­u­la­tions by allow­ing them to “par­tic­i­pate” in their subjection.

The point, then, is to real­ize that ethnog­ra­phy has no polit­i­cal con­tent of its own. Pol­i­tics derives not from the com­mit­ment or beliefs of the researcher, but from engage­ment with wider social antag­o­nisms. Ethnog­ra­phy enables Marx­ism to trace the con­tours of these antag­o­nisms at the level of every­day life: a mil­i­tant ethnog­ra­phy means Marx­ism at work, and func­tions not by impos­ing mod­els of class con­scious­ness and rad­i­cal action from above, but by reveal­ing the ter­rain of the strug­gle – to intel­lec­tu­als and to work­ers – as it is con­tin­u­ally pro­duced. Ethnog­ra­phy can con­tribute in just this way, as a method where researchers lis­ten, observe, and reveal the now hid­den, now open fight for the future.

Gavin Mueller is a graduate student in Washington, DC.

In defense of vernacular ways

The crises con­tinue to accu­mu­late: the eco­nomic cri­sis, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the social cri­sis, crises upon crises. But as we try to cre­ate “solu­tions,” we dis­tress­ingly find our­selves up against a limit, dis­cov­er­ing that the only alter­na­tives we can imag­ine are merely mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the same. Pro­posed solu­tions to the eco­nomic cri­sis toss us back and forth between two immo­bile poles: free mar­ket or reg­u­lated mar­ket. When we face the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, we decide between sus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy or unsus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy. What­ever our per­sonal pref­er­ence, a lit­tle to this side or a lit­tle to that side, we all unwit­tingly play accord­ing to the same rules, think with the same con­cepts, speak the same lan­guage. We have for­got­ten how to think the new – or the old.

Ivan Illich, priest, philoso­pher, and social critic, is not a fig­ure that most would expect to read about in a Marx­ist mag­a­zine. But he iden­ti­fied this prob­lem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a com­plete change in think­ing. His sug­ges­tion, both as con­cept and his­tor­i­cal fact, was the “ver­nac­u­lar.” We will not escape from cap­i­tal­ism through the ratio­nal­ity of the sci­en­tist of his­tory; nor will we get any help from the stand­point of the pro­le­tariat. The firm ground of Illich’s cri­tique was pre­cap­i­tal­ist and prein­dus­trial life in common.

Even those who reject this posi­tion must meet its chal­lenge. Those for whom pol­i­tics is embed­ded in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of post­mod­ern “lifestyles,” inflected with pseudo-Marxist jar­gon, will have to rec­og­nize that the only model we have of forms of life based on direct access to the means of sub­sis­tence is pre­cisely the “ver­nac­u­lar” that Illich pro­poses. Alter­na­tively, those who locate eman­ci­pa­tion in a Marx-inflected nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal progress must to face Illich’s deep crit­i­cisms of devel­op­men­tal­ism, sci­en­tism, and pro­gres­sivism. The fol­low­ing is a chal­lenge not only to cap­i­tal­ism and the experts who defend it, but also to its critics.

Mind Trap 1: the eco­nomic crisis

Ignor­ing his own con­tri­bu­tions to the fes­tiv­i­ties, George W. Bush recently scolded those on Wall Street for get­ting drunk on the prof­its from sell­ing unpayable debts.1 The result­ing col­lapse of finan­cial mar­kets her­alded the end of the party. The drunks seem to have sobered up with­out them­selves suf­fer­ing the con­se­quent hang­over. Instead, in the U.S. and else­where, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple are left stranded with­out homes, jobs, food, or med­i­cines in the wake of that twenty-year long binge. In the opin­ion of some, the prospects of full employ­ment or secure retire­ments for US cit­i­zens are a dis­tant and unlikely dream. As recently as April 19th 2011, The McDon­ald Cor­po­ra­tion con­ducted a national hir­ing day. Almost one mil­lion peo­ple applied for those jobs, known nei­ther for their lav­ish pay nor for their agree­able work­ing con­di­tions. McDonald’s hired a mere six per­cent of these appli­cants, as many work­ers in one day as the num­ber of net new jobs in the US for all of 2009.2

Unsur­pris­ingly, diag­noses of what went wrong have pro­lif­er­ated fast and furi­ously. Of the many expla­na­tions offered, three stand out.3 First, in a spirit of self-examination, econ­o­mists have con­cluded that their sci­en­tific mod­els of how peo­ple behave and asset prices are deter­mined were wrong and con­tributed to their inabil­ity to antic­i­pate the cri­sis. That is, econ­o­mists con­fessed to their igno­rance of how economies work. Since their earnest attempts to improve these mod­els are unlikely to ques­tion the credulity that forms the shaky foun­da­tions of finan­cial mar­kets, it is likely that the future of finan­cial and macro­eco­nom­ics will resem­ble the epicy­cles and eccen­tric­i­ties of Ptole­maic astron­omy in the time of its decline.4

Sec­ond, jour­nal­ists, pol­icy mak­ers, and econ­o­mists who began to sing a dif­fer­ent tune after the cri­sis erupted, find fault with the ide­ol­ogy of neo-liberalism. There is wide­spread recog­ni­tion now that dereg­u­lated and unreg­u­lated mar­kets allowed com­mer­cial and invest­ment banks to invent and trade in finan­cial instru­ments that car­ried sys­temic risks and con­tributed to the fail­ure of credit and cap­i­tal mar­kets. This doc­trine that unfet­tered mar­kets pro­duce the great­est eco­nomic ben­e­fit for the great­est num­ber, while embar­rassed, is not in full retreat, at least in the U.S.5 That neo-liberal ide­ol­ogy is not van­quished by its evi­dent fail­ures is related to the third cause iden­ti­fied in these diag­nos­tic exercises.

If igno­rance excused econ­o­mists and pol­icy mak­ers from antic­i­pat­ing the cri­sis and widely worn ide­o­log­i­cal blink­ers exac­er­bated it, then it is badly designed incen­tives that are gen­er­ally fin­gered as the most promi­nent and prox­i­mate cause of the cri­sis. Accord­ingly, much ink has been spilled on redesign­ing incen­tives to more effec­tively rein in the “ani­mal spir­its” that derail economies from their pre­sumed path of orderly growth. As such, incen­tives are a flaw that rec­om­mends itself as remedy.

This con­ceit is per­haps best exposed in the report authored by the Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Com­mis­sion of the US gov­ern­ment.6 For instance, in indict­ing the process and meth­ods for gen­er­at­ing and mar­ket­ing mortgage-backed secu­ri­ties, the com­mis­sion empha­sizes that incen­tives unwit­tingly encour­aged fail­ures at every link of the chain. Low-interest rates allowed bor­row­ers to refi­nance their debts and use their homes as ATM cards; lucra­tive fees drove mort­gage bro­kers to herd up sub­prime bor­row­ers; the demand for mort­gages from Wall Street induced bankers to lower lend­ing stan­dards; rat­ing agen­cies stamped lead as gold because paid to do so by invest­ment bankers; the lat­ter dis­trib­uted these toxic assets world­wide rely­ing on math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els of risk; and the C-suite of the finance, insur­ance, and real estate sec­tors presided over the house of card because hand­somely rewarded for short term prof­its. Unsur­pris­ingly, chang­ing these incen­tives through more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions and better-specified rewards and pun­ish­ments to guide the behav­iors of dif­fer­ent mar­ket par­tic­i­pants occupy most of its rec­om­men­da­tions for the path for­ward7

This pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of igno­rance, ide­ol­ogy, and incen­tives used to explain the eco­nomic cri­sis, also illu­mi­nates the space of con­tem­po­rary politico-economic thought. Most of the heated debates on how to ensure orderly growth, cen­ter on the quan­tum of reg­u­la­tion nec­es­sary to con­trol eco­nomic motives with­out sti­fling them. Accord­ingly, think­ing about eco­nomic mat­ters vac­il­lates on a fixed line anchored by two poles-free mar­kets on the one end and mar­kets fet­tered by legally enforced reg­u­la­tions at the other. Only a brief exposé can be afforded here of the lin­ea­ments of this thought-space cir­cum­scribed almost two cen­turies ago.8

Around 1700, Bernard Man­dev­ille acer­bically exposed the mech­a­nism dri­ving eco­nomic growth. Poet­i­cally, he pointed out that it was the vices—vanity, greed, and envy—that spurred the expan­sion of trade and com­merce. In bar­ing the vicious­ness that nour­ished the desire to accu­mu­late riches, he also left to pos­ter­ity the prob­lem of pro­vid­ing a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mar­ket activ­ity.9 Adam Smith pro­vided a seem­ingly last­ing rhetor­i­cal solu­tion to this moral para­dox. First, he col­lapsed the vices into “self-interest” and so removed the sting of vicious­ness from the vices by renam­ing them. Sec­ond, he grounded “self-interest” in a nat­ural desire to “bet­ter our con­di­tion” that began in the womb and ended in the tomb and so mor­al­ized it.10 Third, he invoked an invis­i­ble hand to trans­mute the self-interest of indi­vid­u­als into socially desir­able ben­e­fits. Not only was the pas­sage from the indi­vid­ual to the social thereby obscured by prov­i­den­tial means but the pri­vate pur­suit of riches was also jus­ti­fied by its sup­posed pub­lic benefits.

Thus, Smith hid the para­dox unveiled by Man­dev­ille behind a rhetor­i­cally pleas­ing façade. The uncom­fort­able insight that pri­vate vice leads to pub­lic ben­e­fit was defanged by the notion that pub­lic ben­e­fits accrue from the unflinch­ing pur­suit of self-interest. Whereas the for­mer revealed the vicious mech­a­nism fuel­ing com­mer­cially ori­ented soci­eties, the lat­ter made it palat­able. Faith in the effi­cacy of the inscrutable invis­i­ble hand thereby under­wrote the pur­ported “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests,” accord­ing to which the butcher and the baker in each pur­su­ing his own ends unwit­tingly fur­thers the wealth of the nation at large.

Smith’s rhetor­i­cal con­vo­lu­tions were nec­es­sary because he excised use-value from polit­i­cal econ­omy and founded the lat­ter entirely on exchange-value. In con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sors for whom the eco­nomic could not be sep­a­rated from ethics and pol­i­tics, Smith carves out a space for the eco­nomic by defin­ing its domain by the deter­mi­nants of mar­ket prices.11 He accepted Locke’s argu­ments: that labor is the foun­da­tion of prop­erty rights; that apply­ing labor trans­forms the com­mons into pri­vate prop­erty; that money ignites acquis­i­tive­ness; and that accu­mu­la­tion beyond use is just.12 Smith delib­er­ately ignores the com­mons and embold­ens the mar­ket because it is the sphere in which acquis­i­tive­ness flour­ishes. He cur­tails his inquiry to exchange-value in full aware­ness of the con­trast­ing “value-in-use.” Even if not in these pre­cise terms, the dis­tinc­tion between “exchange-value” and “use-value” was known to both Aris­to­tle and Smith. Yet, Smith is per­haps the first who rec­og­nizes that tra­di­tional dis­tinc­tion and nev­er­the­less rules out use-value as a legit­i­mate sub­ject of an inquiry on wealth.13 For Aris­to­tle, it was pre­cisely the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange that grounded the dis­tinc­tion between appro­pri­ate acqui­si­tion and inap­pro­pri­ate accu­mu­la­tion. More gen­er­ally, it is when con­sid­er­a­tions of jus­tice and the good con­sti­tute the start­ing point of think­ing about man that profit-seeking becomes vis­i­ble as a force that rends the polit­i­cal com­mu­nity into a com­mer­cial soci­ety. By encour­ag­ing self-interestedness, Smith allows the vain­glo­ri­ous pur­suit of wealth to over­shadow virtue as the nat­ural end for man.14 By focus­ing eco­nomic sci­ence on exchange val­ues, Smith priv­i­leges the world of goods over that of the good. The price Smith pays for ignor­ing use-value is the need to invoke prov­i­den­tial the mys­tery by which self-interest becomes socially ben­e­fi­cial. Since Smith, neo-classical eco­nom­ics has either dis­avowed the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange value or con­fessed to being inca­pable of under­stand­ing use-value.15 By insist­ing that the valu­able must nec­es­sar­ily be use­ful, Marx, unlike Aris­to­tle, could not rely on the lat­ter to crit­i­cize the for­mer.16

Nev­er­the­less, it was soon dis­cov­ered that indi­vid­ual self-interest did not “nat­u­rally” pro­duce social ben­e­fits. Vast dis­par­i­ties in wealth, endemic poverty, mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions, and per­sis­tent unem­ploy­ment con­sti­tuted some of the many socially maligned con­se­quences of unfet­tered mar­ket activ­ity. To account for these vis­i­ble fail­ures in the nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests, a sec­ond for­mula, due to Jeremy Ben­tham, was there­fore paired to it. An “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” forged through laws and reg­u­la­tions were deemed nec­es­sary to lessen the dis­junc­tion between pri­vate inter­ests and pub­lic ben­e­fits. That is, state inter­ven­tions in the form of incen­tives – whether coded in money or by law- were thought nec­es­sary to prod way­ward mar­ket par­tic­i­pants to bet­ter serve the pub­lic inter­est.17

Accord­ingly, it is this dialec­tic between the nat­ural and arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests that encodes the poles of the Mar­ket and the State and con­sti­tutes the thought-space for con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions on eco­nomic affairs.18 Too lit­tle reg­u­la­tion and mar­kets become socially destruc­tive; too much reg­u­la­tion and the wealth-creating engines fueled by self-interest begin to sput­ter. And yet, the con­tin­uum con­sti­tuted by these two poles is uni­fied by a com­mon pre­sup­po­si­tion: that use-value is of no use to com­merce and that the ego­ism implied by self-interest is both nec­es­sary and nat­ural to com­mer­cial expansion.

Though the eco­nomic cri­sis has, once again, exposed the Man­dev­il­lian foun­da­tions of com­mer­cial soci­ety, think­ing about it con­tin­ues to func­tion in the space marked out by Smith, Ben­tham and the founders of that philo­soph­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, which erected the moral­ity of a soci­ety ori­ented by exchange value on the foun­da­tion of ego­ism. When con­fined to this thought-space, one is con­demned to rely­ing, in alter­nat­ing steps, on the inter­re­lated log­ics of free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The ques­tion remains whether there is an alter­na­tive to the thought-space con­sti­tuted by the State and the Mar­ket. Per­haps the answer to this ques­tion lies in tak­ing a dis­tance to what these log­ics pre­sume: that exchange-value is of pre­em­i­nent worth and that pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­als are to be har­nessed to that cause.

Mind Trap 2: the envi­ron­men­tal crisis

Boarded up homes and idle hands are to the ongo­ing cri­sis in eco­nomic affairs, what dis­ap­pear­ing fish and poi­soned airs are to the oncom­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. A gen­er­a­tion after Rachel Car­son and Barry Com­moner, sci­en­tists are now of almost one mind: humankind’s activ­i­ties on the earth have so changed it, that the species is now threat­ened by dis­as­ter on a plan­e­tary scale.19 What poets and prophets once warned in verse, sci­en­tists now tell us through sta­tis­tics and mod­els. Lurk­ing beneath those dry num­bers is a grow­ing cat­a­log of hor­rors – ris­ing seas, rag­ing rivers, melt­ing glac­i­ers, dead zones in the oceans, unbear­able hot spots on land – that fore­tell an unliv­able future.

Were the pic­ture they paint not so dire, it would be laugh­ably ironic that sci­en­tists and tech­nocrats now dis­avow the fruits of the very techno-scientific machine they once served to mid­wife. But it is cer­tainly tragic that in think­ing about what can be done to avert the impend­ing cri­sis, sci­en­tists and engi­neers no less than politi­cians and cor­po­rate bosses insist on more of the same. Atten­tion is now directed at invent­ing meth­ods to not only mit­i­gate the phys­i­cal effects of run­away indus­tri­al­iza­tion, but also to re-engineer the human psy­che to bet­ter adapt to such effects. Thus, from recy­cling plas­tic and increas­ing fuel mileage in cars to devis­ing tow­ers to sequester car­bon under­sea and engi­neer­ing car­bon eat­ing plants, the pro­posed solu­tions range from the mun­dane to the bizarre. More gen­er­ally, the debate on what to do about the con­flict between eco­nomic growth and eco­log­i­cal integrity is anchored by two poles: at the one end, “eco-friendly” or “sus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, and at the other, pre­sum­ably “unsus­tain­able” or envi­ron­men­tally destruc­tive ones.

Thus man’s sur­vival appears as a choice between the Prius, solar pan­els, biodegrad­able paper bags, local foods, and high den­sity urban lofts on the one hand, and the Hum­mer, oil tanks, plas­tic bags, indus­tri­al­ized foods, and sub­ur­bia on the other. Eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies may change the fuel that pow­ers our energy slaves but does noth­ing to change our depen­dence on them. That the fruits of techno-science have turned poi­so­nous is seen as a prob­lem call­ing for more and improved tech­ni­cal solu­tions imply­ing that the domain of tech­nol­ogy forms the hori­zon of eco­log­i­cal thought.20 That more and dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy is the dom­i­nant response to its fail­ure sug­gests that the made (techne) has replaced the given (physis). Eco­log­i­cal thought is con­fined to the space framed by tech­nol­ogy partly because of the unstated assump­tion that knowl­edge is cer­tain only when it is made.

It was Vico who announced the specif­i­cally mod­ern claim that knowl­edge is made, that verum et fac­tum con­ver­tun­tur (the true and the made are con­vert­ible; have iden­ti­cal deno­ta­tion). It is true that the school­men, in think­ing through the ques­tion of the Chris­t­ian God’s omnipo­tence and omni­science, argued his knowl­edge was iden­ti­cal to his cre­ations. They argued this by insist­ing that through his cre­ative act (mak­ing some­thing from noth­ing) he expressed ele­ments already con­tained within Him­self. God knows every­thing because he made it all from his own being. How­ever, the school­men humbly held that the iden­tity of mak­ing and know­ing applied only to God. Man, being cre­ated, could not know him­self or other nat­ural kinds in the man­ner akin to God. Since sci­en­tia or indu­bitable knowl­edge was the most per­fect kind of knowl­edge, and nature or physis was already given to man, it implied that man could not sci­en­tif­i­cally know the sub­lu­nary world. It took a Galileo and a Descartes to turn this under­stand­ing on its head.21

These early mod­erns were “sec­u­lar the­olo­gians” who tried to marry heaven and earth. They argued that geo­met­ri­cal objects or forms – such as tri­an­gles and squares – were unearthly. At best, such math­e­mat­i­cal objects were “ideas” formed by the cre­ative act of the imag­i­na­tion. The imag­i­na­tion as a site of cre­ative activ­ity entailed that it be unhinged from what is given. Exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal objects, whose per­fec­tion owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the imper­fect beings of the world, the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians thus argued that the truth of ideas is guar­an­teed by the very fact that they are made.22

The per­fect and time­less shapes of geom­e­try were once thought to be applic­a­ble only to the unmov­ing heav­ens. The sub­lu­nary sphere of gen­er­a­tion, change, and decay was not sus­cep­ti­ble to immo­bile math­e­mat­i­cal forms. But accord­ing to the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, what was good for the heav­ens was good enough for the earth. By insist­ing that the book of nature was writ­ten in “mea­sure, weight and num­ber,” these early mod­erns raised the earth to the stars.

For them, beneath the bloom­ing, buzzing, phe­nom­e­nal world lurked the laws of nature inscribed in math­e­mat­i­cally for­mu­lated reg­u­lar­i­ties. Thus the made lay beneath the given, it required ardu­ous exper­i­men­ta­tion – the vex­ing of nature – to unveil these insen­si­ble but imag­ined laws. Accord­ingly, math­e­mat­i­cal forms and lab­o­ra­tory exper­i­ments con­sti­tuted the pre­em­i­nent meth­ods for con­struct­ing knowl­edge of the world. Unhinged from the given because com­mit­ted to the cause of the made, techno-science shook off its Aris­totelian roots, where expe­ri­ence was the mem­o­rable formed from long immer­sion in the reg­u­lar­i­ties of the world, gen­e­sis and move­ment were impos­si­ble to know with cer­tainty but only for the most part, and beings in the world were pos­sessed of sub­stan­tive natures.23

Pride­ful immod­esty was not the only rea­son that early mod­ern philoso­phers brought the heav­ens to the earth. They also did so for char­i­ta­ble rea­sons. Moved by con­cern for the poor this-worldly con­di­tion of man, they sought to improve man’s estate by escap­ing what is given – food tech­nolo­gies to erase hunger, cars and planes to over­come the lim­its of time and space, med­i­cines to elim­i­nate dis­ease, and now genetic manip­u­la­tions to per­haps even cheat death. Thus, pride and char­ity infuse that potent and world-making brew we call techno-science.24

Mod­ern techno-science grew, a bit topsy-turvy, but always cleav­ing close to these found­ing impulses. The pride that com­pels to know-by-construction con­tin­ues to be wed­ded to the char­ity fuel­ing the pro­duc­tion of arti­facts that bet­ter our con­di­tion by trans­mo­gri­fy­ing it. Whether TV’s or the­o­rems, the mod­ern techno-scientific endeavor is one by which, Entis ratio­nis, cre­ations or con­struc­tions of the mind, are pro­jected and given form as entis realis, things real­ized. Caught in this closed loop between mind and its pro­jec­tions, every­where he looks, man now sees only what he has made. Instead of recov­er­ing the gar­den of his orig­i­nal inno­cence, mod­ern man is now faced with the grow­ing desert of his own mak­ing. Yet, trapped by the premise of the iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, con­tem­po­rary thought remains unable to think of any­thing other than remak­ing what has been badly made.25

Per­haps it is this com­mit­ment to the propo­si­tion that we can know only what we make, to knowl­edge by con­struc­tion, that forces us to be trapped within the techno-scientific frame. The envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis has exposed the Achilles heel of unre­strained techno-scientific progress. Yet, faith in Progress and in Knowl­edge as the cur­rency of Free­dom remains unshaken. Shut­tling between the poles of “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, the for­mer is prof­fered as the new and improved cure for the dis­eases caused by the lat­ter. And once more, dis­in­ter­ested curios­ity and solic­i­tous con­cern for the wel­fare of oth­ers jus­tify and reaf­firm faith in sal­va­tion through tech­nol­ogy. To escape this debil­i­tat­ing con­fine per­haps requires being dis­abused of the prej­u­di­cial iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, which ani­mates techno-science.

Planely speak­ing, but not entirely

The space con­sti­tuted by the dialec­tic between a nat­ural and arti­fi­cial “har­mony of inter­ests” enfolds the rela­tion between free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The pol­i­tics of a com­mer­cial repub­lic is ori­ented to the sat­is­fac­tion of human needs through com­modi­ties. To con­tin­u­ally increase the sat­is­fac­tion of needs, mar­ket soci­eties must expand the sphere of com­mod­ity depen­dence, that is, the relent­less pur­suit eco­nomic growth. The pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties pre­sup­poses the worker and the con­sumer, and regard­less of who owns the means of pro­duc­tion or how prof­its are dis­trib­uted, eco­nomic growth requires workers/consumers. Even if work­ers are no more likely to find well-paying jobs than are debt sat­u­rated con­sumers likely to buy more stuff, the social imag­i­nary formed of work­ers and con­sumers per­sists. Accord­ingly, any effort to see beneath or beyond this con­fin­ing thought-space must take its dis­tance to this indus­trial mind-set formed by the thor­ough­go­ing depen­dence on commodities.

Sim­i­larly, the debate on the neces­sity of “eco-friendly” tech­nolo­gies that carry a lower “eco­log­i­cal foot­print” pre­sup­poses man as oper­a­tor instead of as user.26 The user is trans­formed into an oper­a­tor when the power of a tool over­whelms that of its user. Thus, whether it is a Prius or a Hum­mer, both aim to improve man’s con­di­tion by frus­trat­ing his nat­ural abil­ity and capac­ity to walk. Both demand skilled oper­a­tors to steer, and nei­ther per­mits the degrees of free­dom nec­es­sary for autonomous use. Whether pro­moted by the tech­no­crat or eco­crat, men are dis­abled by and become depen­dent on their arti­facts when the lat­ter are designed for oper­a­tors instead of enabling users.

The ordi­nary and every­day mean­ing of use­ful­ness embeds it within both human pur­poses and human actions. A thing is use­ful inso­far as it unleashes and extends the capac­i­ties of the user; as long as it can be shaped, adapted, and mod­i­fied to fit the pur­poses of its users. There­fore, the capac­ity of a thing to be use­ful is lim­ited by the innate pow­ers or nat­ural thresh­olds of the user. For exam­ple, a bicy­cle calls for users because it only extends the innate capac­ity for self-mobility. In con­trast, the auto­mo­bile requires immo­bile if adept machine oper­a­tors. In this sense, the for­mer is a con­vivial tech­nol­ogy where the lat­ter is manip­u­la­tive. A hand-pump or a well can be used to raise water for drink­ing or bathing. In con­trast, a flush-toilet or a dam must be oper­ated to pipe or store a liq­uid resource. Thus, to bring to light was has been cast into the shad­ows requires expos­ing the dis­abling fea­tures of some technologies.

Accord­ingly, what­ever lies beyond the thought-space marked by the dialec­tic of the State-Market on the one hand and that of the sustainable-unsustainable tech­nol­ogy on the other, it must be het­ero­ge­neous to both the worker/consumer and the oper­a­tor. In this search, two caveats are to be kept in mind. First, even if the ques­tion is addressed to the present, the answer must be sought for in the past. One is obliged to rum­mage in the dust­bin of his­tory to recover what was once mus­cled into it. Oth­er­wise, imag­ined futures would give wing to utopian dreams just like those that have now turned night­mar­ish. Sec­ond, there is no going back to the past and there is no choice between the (post)industrial and the tra­di­tional immured in habit and trans­mit­ted by mem­ory. The depen­dence on com­modi­ties and manip­u­la­tive tech­nolo­gies has been and con­tin­ues to be estab­lished on the destruc­tion of alter­na­tive modes of being and think­ing. There is lit­tle of the lat­ter around, even as mil­lions of peas­ants and abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples are daily uprooted and dis­placed in China, India, and Latin Amer­ica. But it would be sen­ti­men­tal and dan­ger­ous to think that one can or should bring back the past. Instead, the task for thought is to find con­cep­tual cri­te­ria to help think through the present.27

The Ver­nac­u­lar Domain

Ivan Illich pro­posed to reviv­ify the word “ver­nac­u­lar” to name a domain that excludes both the con­sumer and the oper­a­tor. The appro­pri­ate word to speak of the domain beyond depen­dence on com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies is fun­da­men­tal to avoid­ing one or both of two con­fu­sions. First, the pre­sup­po­si­tions of eco­nom­ics and techno-science are likely to be anachro­nis­ti­cally pro­jected into forms-of-life that lie out­side or beyond the thought space con­sti­tuted by them. This is obvi­ous when econ­o­mists retro-project fables of the dia­mond and water “para­dox,” “utility-maximization” and “scarcity” into pre-modern texts. So does the his­to­rian of tech­nol­ogy who indif­fer­ently sees the mon­key, Nean­derthal man, and the uni­ver­sity stu­dent as tool users. In a related vein, forms-of-life orthog­o­nal to techno-scientifically fueled economies are likely to be mis­un­der­stood. Thus, those who today refuse mod­ern con­ve­niences are labeled Lud­dites or just cussed, while those who get by out­side the techno-scientific and com­mod­ity bub­bles are clas­si­fied as back­ward or poor.

A sec­ond, more potent, con­fu­sion flour­ishes in the absence of a word ade­quate to the domain out­side tech­no­log­i­cally inten­sive mar­ket soci­eties. Dis­abling tech­nolo­gies no less than wage work can pro­duce or gen­er­ate unpaid toil. That the spin­ning jenny and the com­puter have put peo­ple out of work is well-known. But it is less famil­iar that waged work neces­si­tates a shad­owy unpaid com­ple­ment. Indeed, wage work is a per­haps dimin­ish­ing tip of the total toil exacted in market-intensive soci­eties. House­work, school­work, com­mut­ing, mon­i­tor­ing the intake of med­i­cines or the out­flows from a bank account are only a few exam­ples of the time and toil devoted to the nec­es­sary shadow work com­pelled by commodity-intensive social arrange­ments. To con­fuse the shadow work neces­si­tated by the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion with the unpaid labor in set­tings where pro­duc­tion is not sep­a­rated from con­sump­tion is to mis­un­der­stand shadow work as either autonomous action or the threat­ened and shrink­ing spaces out­side the mar­ket.28

Indica­tive of this con­fu­sion is the use of such terms as “sub­sis­tence econ­omy,” “infor­mal economies,” or “peas­ant econ­omy” to refer to what has been cast into the shad­ows. By adding an adjec­tive to the “econ­omy,” his­to­ri­ans and anthro­pol­o­gists unwit­tingly rein­force the grip of what they intend to weaken. By merely mod­i­fy­ing the “econ­omy” they are nev­er­the­less beholden to its pre­sup­po­si­tions. A sim­i­lar weak­ness attends the term “sub­sis­tence.” While its ety­mol­ogy is noble and invokes that which is self-sufficient and stands in place, its mod­ern con­no­ta­tions are irre­deemably nar­row and uncouth. In pri­mar­ily invok­ing the modes by which peo­ple pro­vided for their mate­r­ial needs – food and shel­ter – “sub­sis­tence” rein­forces the eco­nomic by nega­tion. With its con­no­ta­tions of “basic neces­si­ties” or “bare sur­vival,” sub­sis­tence des­ic­cates the var­ied and mul­ti­far­i­ous forms-of-life once and still con­ducted beyond the space cir­cum­scribed by the machine and the mar­ket. One can­not speak of “sub­sis­tence archi­tec­ture” as one can of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures. “Peas­ant” or “infor­mal” does not mod­ify dance and song, prayer and lan­guage, food and play. And yet, these are inte­gral to a life well-lived, and at least his­tor­i­cally, were nei­ther com­mod­i­fied nor the prod­ucts of techno-science. It is to avoid such blind­ing con­fu­sions that Illich argued for reha­bil­i­tat­ing the word “ver­nac­u­lar.“29

Though from the Latin ver­nac­u­lum, which named all that was home­bred, home­made, and home­spun, it was through Varro’s restricted sense of ver­nac­u­lar speech that the word “ver­nac­u­lar” enters Eng­lish. The his­tory of how ver­nac­u­lar speech was trans­muted into a “taught mother tongue,” is an exem­plar of not only what lies beyond the con­tem­po­rary thought-space but also for what may be wor­thy of recu­per­a­tion in mod­ern forms.30

Elio Anto­nio de Nebrija was a con­tem­po­rary of Christo­pher Colum­bus. In 1492, he peti­tioned Queen Isabella to spon­sor a tool to quell the unruly every­day speech of her sub­jects. In the Spain of Isabella, her sub­jects spoke in a mul­ti­tude of tongues. To dis­ci­pline the anar­chic speech of peo­ple in the inter­est of her power Nebrija noted, “Lan­guage has always been the con­sort of empire, and for­ever shall remain its mate.” To unify the sword and the book through lan­guage, Nebrija offered both a rule­book for Span­ish gram­mar and a dic­tio­nary. In a kind of alchem­i­cal exer­cise, Nebrija reduced lived speech to a con­structed gram­mar. Accord­ingly, this con­ver­sion of the speech of peo­ple into a national lan­guage stands as a pro­to­type of the for­ays in that long war to cre­ate a world fit for workers/ con­sumers and operators.

Nebrija fab­ri­cated a Span­ish gram­mar as a tool to rule enlivened speech. Because stan­dard­ized and pro­duced by an expert, his gram­mar had to be taught to be effec­tive. More­over, fol­low­ing gram­mat­i­cal rules for speech con­veys the belief that peo­ple can­not speak with­out learn­ing the rules of gram­mar. By this dis­pen­sa­tion, the tongue is trained to repeat the gram­mat­i­cal forms it is taught; the tongue is made to oper­ate on lan­guage. Hence, the nat­ural abil­ity to speak that can be exer­cised by each and all is trans­formed into an alien­able prod­uct requir­ing pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. The con­ver­sion of every­day speech into a teach­able mother tongue thus ren­ders what is abun­dant into the regime of scarcity – to the realm of exchange-value. Instruc­tion in lan­guage not only dis­ables the nat­ural pow­ers of the speaker but also makes her depen­dent on cer­ti­fied ser­vice providers. Thus, Nebrija’s pro­posal at once dis­closes and fore­shad­ows the world pop­u­lated by work­ers and oper­a­tors, by the mar­ket and the machine.

The war against the ver­nac­u­lar has been pros­e­cuted for some 500 years.31 Once the com­mod­ity and mar­ket occu­pied the inter­stices of every­day life. Today, it is every­where. For most of human his­tory, tools were shaped by the pur­poses and lim­ited by the nat­ural abil­i­ties of its users. Today, their machines enslave the major­ity of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly in advanced indus­trial soci­eties. Though this trans­for­ma­tion has and is occur­ring in dif­fer­ent places at dif­fer­ent times and rates, it nev­er­the­less dupli­cates the dia­gram of how stan­dard­ized Span­ish gram­mar dis­em­bed­ded the speech of peo­ple. For instance, the rapa­cious “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” that enclosed the com­mons in the 17th cen­tury, uprooted Eng­lish peas­ants from the land to make them fully depen­dent on wages. A sim­i­lar dis­pos­ses­sion now occurs in China and India, where hun­dreds of mil­lions move from farms to fac­to­ries and slums. Abo­rig­i­nal tribes of the Ama­zon are being dis­pos­sessed and killed now with the same impunity as those in Aus­tralia and the Amer­i­cas once were. For enter­tain­ment, chil­dren now oper­ate PlaySta­tions where they once kicked around a ball on the street. Mega-churches in the US indoc­tri­nate the flock with power point slides and music, much as teach­ers, train­ers, and coaches do in class­rooms around the coun­try. Food sci­en­tists, nutri­tion­ists, and plant pathol­o­gists pro­vide just some of the inputs that con­sumers depend on for their daily calo­rie intake. Whether in single-family homes or boxes piled on top of each other, peo­ple live in houses seem­ingly cut from an architect’s tem­plate. Women in India now demand valen­tine cards with as much enthu­si­asm as Turk­ish men pur­chase hair, calf, and chest implants. The his­tor­i­cal record is rife with exam­ples that stand as wit­nesses to the con­tin­u­ing destruc­tion of the ver­nac­u­lar –whether of food, shel­ter, song, love, or pleasures.

It is by attend­ing to the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of our present predica­ment in the mir­ror of the past that Illich thus reveals a third axis that lies orthog­o­nal to the plane cir­cum­scribed by the axes of com­mod­ity inten­sity and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. On this z-axis are located forms of social orga­ni­za­tion anchored by two het­ero­ge­neous forms. At the point of ori­gin of this three-dimensional space, are social arrange­ments that plug peo­ple into mar­kets and machines and thereby pre­vent them from exer­cis­ing their freely given pow­ers. At the other end of this z-axis is found a pro­fu­sion of social forms, each dif­fer­ent from the other, but all marked by sus­pi­cion towards the claims for techno-science and the commodity.

For these modes of social orga­ni­za­tion, the dif­fer­ence between “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies is a chimera. Instead, what mat­ters is the real dis­tinc­tion between con­vivial and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Sim­i­larly, the pur­ported dif­fer­ence between reg­u­lated and free mar­kets, between pub­lic and pri­vate prop­erty does lit­tle to shape these social forms. Instead, they are ani­mated by the dis­tinc­tion between the house­hold and the com­mons. Thus, the Amish of Penn­syl­va­nia cur­tail their use of such power tools as trac­tors. The Bhutanese limit the num­ber of tourists to whom they play host. Some cities in Ger­many and Den­mark have banned the car to make way for the bicy­cle and walk­ing. Whether on a rooftop in Chicago or by the rail track in Mum­bai, diverse groups rely on their veg­etable patches for some their daily sus­te­nance. While com­mu­nity sup­ported agri­cul­ture build bonds of per­sonal depen­dence, ceramic dry toi­lets and related forms of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures allow peo­ple to dwell. In a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh on the Lud­dites and the Roman­tics, one is per­suaded by the implicit claim that com­mu­nism for the 21st cen­tury may need to mimic in a new key, the coura­geous Lud­dite defense of the ver­nac­u­lar.32 Even Marx, in his last years, was less of a Marx­ist than many of those who spoke in his name. He was far more open to the peas­ant com­munes of Rus­sia and West­ern Europe than usu­ally assumed.33

These modes and man­ners of liv­ing in the present are informed by the past. Those engaged in the attempt to unplug from the mar­ket and the machine know that the reign of prop­erty – whether pri­vate or public-was erected on the ruins of the com­mons and that the ubiq­uity of dis­abling technologies-whether sus­tain­able or not-was achieved by den­i­grat­ing con­vivial tools. Yet, cru­cially, know­ing what is past has gone, they are not dog­matic in their fight. They prac­tice a form of brico­lage, oppor­tunis­ti­cally tak­ing back what­ever they can get. A shared lawn­mower here, an over­grown and weed infested gar­den there, a polit­i­cal strug­gle to retain arti­sanal fish­ing in Ker­ala, a move to the bar­ri­cades in the Chi­a­pas, the will­ing­ness to ped­dle cocaine derived home reme­dies in Peru and build­ing ille­gal ten­e­ments on pub­lic lands in Sao Paulo, each effort is aimed at reduc­ing the rad­i­cal monop­oly of com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Such ways – of fish­ing, farm­ing, cook­ing, eat­ing, dwelling, play­ing, pray­ing or study – are as diverse and var­ied today as the peo­ple who engage in them. How­ever, what they have in com­mon is being ori­ented by the same genus, the vernacular.

Epis­temic Prudence

The effort to fight against the con­tin­u­ing war on the ver­nac­u­lar also extends to the activ­ity of think­ing.34 What is con­fused for knowl­edge today is largely R&D funded and deployed by gov­ern­ment and indus­try. Sci­en­tists, whether in the employ of uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ments, or cor­po­ra­tions, pro­duce objec­tive knowl­edge for use by oth­ers. The per­ti­nent ques­tion for those affected by these cir­cuits of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and sale is to ask if there are ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing. Is there a kind of thought jus­ti­fied by nei­ther pride nor char­ity? What is the nature of rig­or­ous thought that is nev­er­the­less con­ducted among friends and aimed at shap­ing one’s own modes of life in more beau­ti­ful ways? Are some styles of think­ing bet­ter suited to com­pre­hend­ing the vernacular?

It is likely that the intel­lec­tual effort appro­pri­ate to bring­ing ver­nac­u­lar ways out of the shad­ows might itself be self-limiting. I sug­gest the now dis­carded notion of com­mon sense as a cri­te­rion to both com­pre­hend the ver­nac­u­lar domain and to rec­og­nize the styles of thought appro­pri­ate to it. Though the his­tory of com­mon sense is too tan­gled a story to be told here, it is suf­fi­cient to note its pri­mary mean­ing, at least in Eng­lish. The first mean­ing of com­mon sense is the Aris­totelian “sen­sus com­mu­nis”: “The com­mon bond or cen­ter of the five senses; the endow­ment of nat­ural intel­li­gence pos­sessed by ratio­nal beings.”35 This under­stand­ing of the com­mon sense stretches from at least Plato to Descartes and, in this pri­mor­dial sense, refers to the fac­ulty nec­es­sary for the exer­cise of rea­son­able judg­ments. Con­trary to pop­u­lar prej­u­dice today, com­mon sense does not refer to the con­tent of what is known but rather how knowl­edge is achieved. Com­mon sense is not reducible to a body of propo­si­tions or of knowledge-claims: instead, it is the ground from which judg­ments are reached, par­tic­u­larly, the judg­ment of what is appro­pri­ate, fit­ting, or ade­quate.36

Briefly, com­mon sense is that fac­ulty which syn­the­sizes sense impres­sions into per­cep­tions of the world. In turn, the active intel­li­gence abstracts con­cepts from these sen­si­ble per­cep­tions. An echo of this activ­ity of the intel­lect still res­onates in the word “con­cept,” ety­mo­log­i­cally related to grasp­ing or touch­ing. That con­cepts are teth­ered to per­cepts, which are rooted in the sen­sual, under­writes that Aris­totelian com­mon­place, “noth­ing in the intel­lect that is not first in the senses.” Con­cepts are abstrac­tions. But pre­cisely because they are abstrac­tions from the real, they main­tain an accord between the world and the mind. Stated sim­ply, both per­cep­tion and the con­cepts that flow from them are depen­dent on what is given to the senses; con­cep­tions of the world depend on grasp­ing the world as it is.

Yet, techno-science is based on pre­cisely turn­ing this under­stand­ing on its head. Indeed, the announce­ment of Vico may be taken as the slo­gan behind which a com­mon sense under­stand­ing of the world was slowly suf­fo­cated. From the very begin­ning of mod­ern sci­ence, know­ing is under­stood to be the same as mak­ing: the Carte­sian plane is as con­structed as an air­plane; the Pois­son dis­tri­b­u­tion is as fab­ri­cated as a pipette in the lab­o­ra­tory. Mod­ern sci­en­tific ideas are not con­cepts teth­ered to the senses; instead they are con­structs. Con­structs, as the word sug­gests, are made and not given. As Ein­stein famously said, “Phys­i­cal con­cepts are free cre­ations of the human mind, and not…uniquely deter­mined by the exter­nal world.” Though wrong to use the word “con­cepts,” his acknowl­edge­ment that sci­en­tific the­o­ries are cre­ated under­scores how sci­en­tific con­structs frac­tures the com­mon sense tie between per­cep­tion and reality.

The sharp dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs recalls that the mod­ern world is con­structed and that peo­ple and things are often resized to fit in. Con­cepts are forms of thought engen­dered by the com­mon sense, which itself expresses the union between the world and the senses. Con­cepts reflect a way of know­ing things from the out­side in – from the world to the mind. In con­trast, con­structs are forms of reflex­ive thought express­ing a way of know­ing from the inside out – from the mind to the world.In mod­ern times, what is made up does not ide­ally con­form to what is given. Instead, what is given is slowly buried under the made-up world.

Sci­en­tific con­structs are there­fore not rooted by a sense for the world. Indeed, given the con­trast between con­cepts and con­structs, it fol­lows that sci­en­tific ideas are non-sense. They are not abstracted from expe­ri­ence but can often be used to reshape it. They can be exper­i­men­tally ver­i­fied or fal­si­fied. But exper­i­ments are not the stuff of ordi­nary expe­ri­ence. No exper­i­ment is nec­es­sary to ver­ify if peo­ple breathe, but one is required to prove the prop­er­ties of a vac­uum. Exper­i­ments are nec­es­sary pre­cisely to test what is not ordi­nar­ily evi­dent, which is why they are con­ducted in con­trolled set­tings and also used to pro­pa­gan­dize the unusual as ordi­nar­ily com­pre­hen­si­ble. Exper­i­men­tal results are nei­ther nec­es­sar­ily con­tin­u­ous with nor com­pre­hen­si­ble to every­day expe­ri­ence; they do not clar­ify expe­ri­ence but usu­ally obfus­cate it.

Unlike R&D, ver­nac­u­lar styles of thought are nei­ther insti­tu­tion­ally funded nor directed at the pur­ported hap­pi­ness and ease of oth­ers. More­over, ver­nac­u­lar think­ing also cleaves closely to the com­mon sense under­stood as the seat of rea­son­able judg­ments. Thus, it avoids the mon­strous heights to which thought can rise on the wings of the unfet­tered imag­i­na­tion. Accord­ingly, the abil­ity to grasp the ver­nac­u­lar demands not only the courage needed to buck aca­d­e­mic pres­sures but also to avoid those flights of the­o­ret­i­cal mad­ness pow­ered through the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of con­structs.37

To draw out some fea­tures of the form of thought ade­quate to the ver­nac­u­lar domain, con­sider Illich’s essay titled Energy and Equity, where he dis­tin­guishes between trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic. Whereas tran­sit bespeaks the motion afforded to man the self-moving ani­mal, trans­port refers to his being moved by het­eronomous means, whether car, train, or plane. There, a bul­lock cart trans­ports vil­lagers headed to the mar­ket. Here cars trans­port com­muters to the work­place. By com­mon sense per­cep­tion, trans­port – whether by cart or car – per­verts tran­sit, which is embod­ied in the freely given capac­ity to walk. To those who can­not per­ceive the sen­sual and car­nal dif­fer­ence between walk­ing and being moved as a Fedex pack­age, the dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit is unper­sua­sive. It is equally unper­sua­sive to those mired in that con­structed uni­verse where all motion is iden­ti­fied with the dis­place­ment of any body in space. The rit­u­al­ized expo­sure to passenger-miles – whether in cars or class­rooms – is the likely rea­son for the inabil­ity to per­ceive the felt dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit. Thus, the elab­o­ra­tion of con­cepts to prop­erly grasp the ver­nac­u­lar domain can­not but begin by plac­ing the con­struc­tions of the econ­omy and techno-science within epis­temic brackets.

Yet, if it is to be rea­son­able, such an exer­cise in epis­temic hygiene can­not be immod­er­ate.38 The con­trast between trans­port and tran­sit is clear and dis­tinct, rooted as it is in phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cally dis­tinct per­cep­tions. Yet, traf­fic is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct, pro­posed to com­pre­hend any com­bi­na­tion of trans­port and tran­sit. This neces­sity for con­structs is nev­er­the­less under­mined by their being teth­ered to and by con­cepts. Accord­ingly, the con­cep­tual grasp of the world hob­bles the free con­struc­tion of it. The dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs does not imply refus­ing the lat­ter at all costs but rather entails see­ing the hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion between them. That is, ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing do not exclude the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs but only seek to keep them in their place.

A sec­ond and related fea­ture of ver­nac­u­lar thought-styles con­firms its mod­er­ate and indeed, mod­est nature. In accord with ver­nac­u­lar ways, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the exclu­sion or exci­sion of that which is anti­thet­i­cal and for­eign to its domain – the mar­ket or the machine. For instance, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the era­sure of trans­port so that tran­sit can flour­ish. Instead, because rooted in the per­ceived accord or just pro­por­tion between the tran­sit and trans­port, ver­nac­u­lar thought insists only that the capac­ity for auto-mobility impose a bind­ing con­straint on trans­port. The sug­ges­tion that the speed limit for cars be roughly the same as that reached by a bicy­cle is rooted in the argu­ment that traf­fic be cal­i­brated by the lex­i­co­graphic pref­er­ence for tran­sit over transport.

Thus, ver­nac­u­lar ways of think­ing in con­so­nance with doing and being do not deny con­structs – whether imag­ined or real­ized. It merely refuses the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­ern iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of know­ing and mak­ing, of reduc­ing think­ing to cal­cu­lat­ing, of dis­plac­ing the rela­tion between sub­jects and their pred­i­cates by quan­ti­ta­tive com­par­isons. In see­ing beyond the prej­u­dice that com­pares beings in terms of “mea­sure, num­ber, and weight,” ver­nac­u­lar thought rean­i­mates a sec­ond form of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment that, with it, was also cast into the shad­ows. Recall, as Ein­stein admit­ted, sci­en­tific con­structs are free cre­ations of the mind, exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal con­structs – equa­tions, cal­cu­la­tions, and the like. But such math­e­mat­i­cal mea­sure­ment is only the infe­rior of two kinds of quan­ti­ta­tive measurement.

In The States­man, Plato argues for the dis­tinc­tion between arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ric” mea­sures.39 While both are forms of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ments, arith­meti­cal or numer­i­cal mea­sure is inde­pen­dent of the pur­poses of the cal­cu­la­tor and either cor­rect or incor­rect. In con­trast, “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ments of too much or too lit­tle are inex­tri­ca­bly bound to inten­tion­al­ity and there­fore never sim­ply cor­rect or incor­rect but always mea­sured with respect to what is just right or fit­ting. To clar­ify the dis­tinc­tion, con­sider the fol­low­ing two points. Given a con­ven­tional mea­sure – gal­lons or liters – a quan­tity of water can be pre­cisely and uni­ver­sally mea­sured as 4. How­ever, whether 4 is too much or too lit­tle depends on whether one intends to fill a 3 or 5 gal­lon pail; or to put out a blaz­ing fire or to water a horse. The frame of inten­tion­al­ity or pur­pose thus defines the quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment of greater or lesser, of more or less. Accord­ingly, the numer­i­cal mea­sure of plus or minus 1 gains its mean­ing from and is there­fore sub­or­di­nate to the non-numerically mea­sure of too much or too lit­tle. More­over, it is also rel­a­tive to pur­pose that 3 or 5 is con­sid­ered fit­ting, appro­pri­ate or just right.

But there is a sec­ond point to be empha­sized about the rela­tion between so-called arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ri­cal” mea­sure­ments. Arith­meti­cal mea­sures are utterly ster­ile when it comes to answer­ing the ques­tion of pur­pose, of what is to be done. That is, the ques­tion of whether a given end is appro­pri­ate or fit­ting can­not be debated in math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols. In fact, the oppo­site is true. It is always pos­si­ble to ask if apply­ing arith­meti­cal mea­sures to a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion is appro­pri­ate. Thus, whether one should fill a 5-gallon pail, or con­struct a math­e­mat­i­cal model of human behav­ior or fab­ri­cate a mea­sure called eco­log­i­cal foot­print are unan­swer­able in numer­i­cal terms.40

That arith­meti­cal mea­sure­ments can­not adju­di­cate its own appro­pri­ate­ness shows they are infe­rior in rank or hier­ar­chi­cally sub­or­di­nate to “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ment. The ques­tion con­cern­ing pur­pose is pre­em­i­nently a ques­tion of ethics, of jus­tice among per­sons. More­over, since per­sonal rela­tion­ship can­not but be grounded in the embod­ied sense of and for another, it fol­lows that eth­i­cal judg­ments must be rooted in com­mon sense. Thus, geo­met­ric mea­sures of what is just and right, of what is appro­pri­ate and fit­ting, are judg­ments formed of the com­mon sense. Accord­ingly it fol­lows that con­cepts should reg­u­late and serve as norms for con­structs and, anal­o­gously, that ver­nac­u­lar ways should reg­u­late techno-scientific constructions.

Past or Future?

Illich’s plea to resus­ci­tate the ver­nac­u­lar must be taken seri­ously – espe­cially now, when the ongo­ing eco­nomic and eco­log­i­cal crises reveal the restricted thought-space within which con­tem­po­rary debates con­tinue to be con­ducted. Just as the demand for more reg­u­lated mar­kets expose exchange-value as the pre­sup­po­si­tion of eco­nomic thought, so also the call for sus­tain­able or eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies expose the grip of techno-science on the mod­ern imag­i­nary. The ver­nac­u­lar, we could say, lies orthog­o­nal to these axes of mar­kets and machines, offer­ing us a unique stand­point from which to inter­ro­gate the present. While the object of an almost 500 year long war, it nev­er­the­less per­sists within the inter­stices and byways of mod­ern life, ready for reactivation.

Sajay Samuel is a Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting at Penn State University. He has spoken on science, economic thought, and the vernacular for Canadian radio. His academic publications aim to undermine the current fascination with accounting and related numbers as a modality of management.

  • 1. BBC, “‘Wall Street got drunk’ says Bush.”
  • 2. Andy Kroll, “How the McE­con­omy Bombed the Amer­i­can Worker,TomDis­patch. While advanced indus­tri­al­ized economies can­not find enough jobs for its unem­ployed pop­u­la­tions, so called emerg­ing economies are actively cre­at­ing employ­ment. By inverse sym­me­try, to sat­isfy the demand of eco­nomic growth through indus­tri­al­iza­tion, notably in China and India, peas­ants are con­verted into fac­tory work­ers in the hun­dreds of millions.
  • 3. Of the raft of books on the causes and con­se­quences of the cur­rent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, there are those who argue, rightly in many par­tic­u­lars, that this was only the most severe of the cri­sis prone dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism. In this vein, see for exam­ple most recently, Paul Mattick, Busi­ness As Usual (Lon­don: Reak­tion Books, 2011); David Har­vey, The Enigma of Cap­i­tal (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010); and John Bel­lamy Fos­ter and Fred Magd­off, The Great Finan­cial Cri­sis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009). I ignore these accounts since they are and were largely ignored in pol­icy cir­cles and main­stream eco­nomic thinking.
  • 4. Notably, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Ani­mal Spir­its (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009). But see also Justin Fox, The Myth of the Ratio­nal Mar­ket (New York: Harper Busi­ness Books, 2009); and Paul Krug­man, “How did econ­o­mists get it so wrong?” New York Times, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2009.
  • 5. Joseph Stiglitz in Freefall (New York: Nor­ton Books, 2010) is per­haps the most tren­chant of the well-known econ­o­mists to fin­ger free mar­ket ide­ol­ogy as an impor­tant cause of the cri­sis. Also see, N. Roubini & S. Mihm, Cri­sis Eco­nom­ics (New York, Pen­guin Press, 2010); and S. John­son & J. Kwak, 13 Bankers (New York: Pan­theon Books, 2010). Wor­thy of spe­cial men­tion in this regard, is Richard Posner’s, A Fail­ure of Cap­i­tal­ism (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009), which stands as a model for ret­ro­spec­tive hand-wringing by a booster of neo-liberalism.
  • 6. The Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Report (New York: Pub­lic Affairs, 2011). Most if not all of the writ­ings on the finan­cial cri­sis cite incen­tives as both cause and rem­edy. The U.S. Con­gres­sional report pub­lished after two years of study and inves­ti­ga­tion is exem­plary since failed or inad­e­quate incentives—whether in the form of reg­u­la­tion or compensation- com­prise the sum of causal fac­tors dri­ving the cri­sis. But also con­sult among any of the above-mentioned books, Lau­rence Koltikoff’s, Jimmy Stew­art is Dead (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010) for a sen­si­ble pro­posal to limit finan­cially induced boom-bust cycles through lim­ited pur­pose bank­ing. The lat­ter is designed to dampen the ill-effects of debt financing.
  • 7. The para­dox of design­ing incen­tives to deter­mine future behav­ior seems not to have been fully com­pre­hended. Indeed, in a forth­com­ing work, I intend to argue that incen­tive mech­a­nisms assure only one con­se­quence: they will cer­tainly fail.
  • 8. For a fuller account, see Sajay Samuel & Jean Roberts, “Water can and ought to run freely: reflec­tions on the notion of “scarcity” in eco­nom­ics” in The Lim­its to Scarcity, ed. Lyla Mehta(London: Earth­scan, 2010), 109-126.
  • 9. Bernard Man­dev­ille, The Fable of the Bees or Pri­vate Vices, Pub­lick Ben­e­fits (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1924).
  • 10. “It is because mankind are dis­posed to sym­pa­thize more entirely with our joy than with our sor­row, that we make parade of our riches, and con­ceal our poverty…Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sen­ti­ments of mankind, that we pur­sue riches and avoid poverty. For to what pur­pose is all the toil and bus­tle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambi­tion, of the pur­suit of wealth, of power, and pre­hem­i­nence? Is it to sup­ply the neces­si­ties of nature? The wages of the mean­est labourer can sup­ply them… If we exam­ined his oecon­omy with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon con­ve­nien­cies, which may be regarded as super­fluities, and that, upon extra­or­di­nary occa­sions, he can give some­thing even to van­ity and distinction…From whence, then, arises that emu­la­tion which runs through all the dif­fer­ent ranks of men, and what are the advan­tages which we pro­pose by that great pur­pose of human life which we call bet­ter­ing our con­di­tion? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sym­pa­thy, com­pla­cency, and appro­ba­tion, are all the advan­tages, which we can pro­pose to derive from it. It is the van­ity, not the ease, or the plea­sure, which inter­ests us. But van­ity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of atten­tion and appro­ba­tion.” Adam Smith, The­ory of Moral Sen­ti­ments (Lon­don: A Mil­lar, 1759/1858), pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 3, empha­sis added. Con­sult Louis Dumont, From Man­dev­ille to Marx (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 1977) whose close tex­tual analy­sis of clas­si­cal authors shows that it is the idea of a nat­ural har­mony between indi­vid­ual self-interest and the gen­eral inter­est, that allows, in prin­ci­ple, acquis­i­tive­ness to be free of ethico-political restraints. Though he includes William Petty and John Locke among “econ­o­mists,” William Letwin’s judg­ment is instruc­tive: “…there can be no doubt that eco­nomic the­ory owes its present devel­op­ment to the fact that some men…were will­ing to con­sider the econ­omy as noth­ing more than an intri­cate mech­a­nism, refrain­ing for the while from ask­ing whether the mech­a­nism worked for good or evil”; Ori­gins of Sci­en­tific Eco­nom­ics (Lon­don, 1963), 147-48. See CB Macpher­son, The Polit­i­cal The­ory of Pos­ses­sive Indi­vid­u­al­ism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1962) for sup­port­ing argu­ments that root eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism in 17th cen­tury polit­i­cal thought.
  • 11. “…money has become in all civ­i­lized nations the uni­ver­sal instru­ment of com­merce, by the inter­ven­tion of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one another. What are the rules which men nat­u­rally observe in exchang­ing them either for money or one another, I shall now pro­ceed to exam­ine”; Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4.
  • 12. The impor­tance of Locke to Smith is evi­dent in his paean to prop­erty. “The prop­erty which every man has in his own labour, as it is the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion of all other prop­erty, so it is the most sacred and invi­o­lable” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 10, part 2). For rea­sons of space, I can­not do full jus­tice to Locke’s argu­ments. How­ever, the fol­low­ing state­ments suf­fi­ciently sup­port the four points I empha­size. “What­so­ever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath pro­vided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to some­thing that is his own, and thereby makes it his prop­erty. It being by him removed from the com­mon state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour some­thing annexed to it that excludes the com­mon right of other men”; “And as dif­fer­ent degrees of indus­try were apt to give men pos­ses­sions in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, so this inven­tion of money gave them the oppor­tu­nity to con­tinue and enlarge them”; “…the exceed­ing of the bounds of his just prop­erty not lying in the large­ness of his pos­ses­sion, but the per­ish­ing of any­thing use­lessly in it”; John Locke, Con­cern­ing Civil Gov­ern­ment, Sec­ond Essay, ch. 5.
  • 13. “…These rules deter­mine what may be called the rel­a­tive or exchange­able value of goods. The word value, it is to be observed, has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and some­times expresses the util­ity of some par­tic­u­lar object, and some­times the power of pur­chas­ing other goods which the pos­ses­sion of that object con­veys. The one may be called ‘value in use’; the other, ‘value in exchange.’” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4).
  • 14. Smith argues that “virtue con­sists not in any one affec­tion but in the proper degree of all the affec­tions.” For him, Agree­able­ness or util­ity is not a mea­sure of virtue. Instead, it is ‘sym­pa­thy’ or the “cor­re­spon­dent affec­tion of the spec­ta­tor” that “is the nat­ural and orig­i­nal mea­sure of the proper degree (of virtue).” ***TMS, Part 8, Sec. 2, Ch.3. But such sym­pa­thy is not a virtue. At best it is a mir­ror of social prejudices.
  • 15. The blind­ness to sub­sis­tence in con­tem­po­rary eco­nom­ics is evi­dent in the judg­ment of George Stigler in his review of late 19th cen­tury efforts to grasp use-value: “…and there were some mys­ti­cal ref­er­ences to the infi­nite util­ity of sub­sis­tence.” See his “Devel­op­ment of Util­ity The­ory II,” Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, 58 (1950), 373. Stigler is only capa­ble of equat­ing the use­ful, which is price-less, with the mystical.
  • 16. “A thing can be a use-value with­out being a value. A thing can be use­ful and a prod­uct of human labor, with­out being a com­mod­ity. …Noth­ing can be a value with­out being an object of util­ity..” Marx, K.(1976) Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books), 131.
  • 17. The fun­da­men­tal, though largely over­looked, essay on the elab­o­ra­tion of the twinned yet polem­i­cally related “nat­ural” and “arti­fi­cial” har­mony of inter­ests remains, Elie Halevy The Growth of Philo­soph­i­cal Rad­i­cal­ism (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1955).
  • 18. It would take a longer essay to show the func­tion of law in com­mer­cial soci­ety. Sum­mar­ily, Com­mer­cial soci­ety trans­forms Law into an instru­ment of social engi­neer­ing; and thus of reg­u­la­tion. It began to be used to engi­neer soci­ety towards more or less market-intensive rela­tions. Clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism pred­i­cated on the “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests” requires econ­o­miz­ing on law. In con­trast, to mit­i­gate the destruc­tive­ness of ram­pant mar­ket soci­ety requires shack­ling com­mer­cial­ism with­out destroy­ing it, forg­ing an “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” through puni­tive reg­u­la­tions. Hence both the min­i­mal state of lib­er­al­ism (whether clas­si­cal or neo-liberalism) and the expanded state of wel­fare lib­er­al­ism implies the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of Law. See Michel Fou­cault, “On Gov­ern­men­tal­ity,” in The Fou­cault Effect, eds. Colin Gor­don, G. Burchell and P. Miller (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1998). The newest crin­kle to this old tale is that mar­kets are no longer thought nat­ural. Instead, mar­kets can be designed, often by mar­ket par­tic­i­pants them­selves. Thus mod­er­at­ing mar­kets through incen­tives becomes a mat­ter of auto-engineering of and by mar­kets around the late 20th century.
  • 19. Rachel Car­son, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mif­flin Co, 1962) and Barry Com­moner Sci­ence and Sur­vival (New York: Viking Books, 1967) are per­haps the two most promi­nent sci­en­tists to have jump-started the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment with the bless­ings of sci­ence. By now, despite a few if noisy detrac­tors, wide­spread anthro­pogenic envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion is, as it is said, “sci­en­tific fact.” Over 2000 sci­en­tists world­wide con­tribute to the reports and rec­om­men­da­tions pro­duced by The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) on the envi­ron­men­tal effects of indus­tri­al­iza­tion at per­haps the most gen­eral envi­ron­men­tal reg­is­ter. See Cli­mate Change 2007 for its most recent report.
  • 20. A pair of recent books authored by French philoso­phers sug­gests the philo­soph­i­cal ambit within with the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is com­pre­hended. On the one hand, Michel Serres’s The Nat­ural Con­tract (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Press, 1995) insists on the neces­sity of a con­tract with the Earth now that Human­ity presses against it as does any mam­moth nat­ural force. Such a nat­ural con­tract, pre­sup­poses a new meta­physics, accord­ing to which human­ity can­not be reduced to indi­vid­u­als and Earth is not under­foot but whirling in empty space; both so com­pre­hended by Sci­ence and Law. In some con­trast, Luc Ferry’s The New Eco­log­i­cal Order (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) fears the new meta­physics. Cleav­ing to mod­ern ways, he believes “it will ulti­mately be by means of advance­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy that we man­age one day to resolve the ques­tions raised by envi­ron­men­tal ethics” (127). Nev­er­the­less, nei­ther doubt the path for­ward to be illu­mi­nated by a suit­ably refor­mu­lated techno-science.
  • 21. Lynn White, Jr., “The His­tor­i­cal Roots of Our Eco­log­i­cal Cri­sis,” Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, 155:3767, argued for anthro­pocen­tric sin­gu­lar­ity of Chris­tian­ity and its atten­dant bequest of nature to man for fuel­ing techno-science that has caused the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. In this sec­tion I focus on the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence. For a recent state­ment on how his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence who raise their heads from the dusty archives deal with the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence, see Lind­berg, The Begin­ning of West­ern Sci­ence (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1992), ch.14. He agrees with E.A. Burtt, The Meta­phys­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Sci­ence (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1932), whose judg­ment of the pre­sup­po­si­tions and impli­ca­tions of New­ton­ian mechan­ics has not been fun­da­men­tally chal­lenged. Han­nah Arendt, “The Con­quest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Ran­dom Books, 1993) offers a suc­cinct sketch of the ground­less­ness pre­sumed by techno-science.
  • 22. For a fuller account of the the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal debates that pre­pared this view from nowhere, see Amos Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy and the Sci­en­tific Imag­i­na­tion, (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1986). It is he who names as sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, “Galileo and Descartes, Lieb­niz and New­ton, Hobbes and Vico” among oth­ers. I rely heav­ily on him (par­tic­u­larly part 5) and on Peter Dear, Dis­ci­pline and Expe­ri­ence: The Math­e­mat­i­cal Way in the Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tion (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) to grasp the cen­tral lines in the math­ema­ti­za­tion of physis. Also con­sult Peter Dear’s text­book, Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the Sci­ences (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2001) cast as a pithy sum­mary of the seis­mic changes between 1500 and 1800 in what was worth know­ing and how it was known.
  • 23. See A. Mark Smith’s “Know­ing things inside out: the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion from a Medieval Per­spec­tive,” The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, 95:3 (1990) for an excel­lent sum­mary on the rever­sal of the hier­ar­chy between sense and rea­son in mod­ern sci­en­tific thought. Also, con­sult Eamon Duffy, Sci­ence and the Secrets of Nature (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1994) for a per­sua­sive account of sci­en­tific exper­i­ments as vex­ing nature in order to extract her secrets.
  • 24. To appre­ci­ate the brew of pride and char­ity that con­sti­tutes mod­ern techno-science we need only to attend to Descartes. “…It is pos­si­ble to reach knowl­edge that will be of much util­ity in this life… instead of the spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy now taught in the schools we can find a prac­ti­cal one, by which, know­ing the nature and behav­ior of fire, water, air, stars, the heav­ens, and all the other bod­ies which sur­round us, as well as we now under­stand the dif­fer­ent skills of our arti­sans, we can employ these enti­ties for all the pur­poses for which they are suited, and so make our­selves mas­ters and pos­ses­sors of nature. This would not only be desir­able in bring­ing about the inven­tion of an infin­ity of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agri­cul­ture and all the wealth of the earth with­out labor, but even more so in con­serv­ing health, the prin­ci­pal good and the basis of all other goods in life.” Rene Descartes, Dis­course on Method (Indi­anapo­lis: Library of Lib­eral Arts Press, 1960), part six.
  • 25. The term con­struc­tion refers to things – whether phys­i­cal or sym­bolic – made. The math­e­mat­i­cal roots of con­struc­tion and con­struc­tivism are thor­oughly explored with spe­cial note of Descartes in David Lachter­man, The Ethics of Geom­e­tr (Lon­don: Rout­ledge 1989). Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy, espe­cially chap­ter 5, describes well the philo­soph­i­cal shift from the con­tem­pla­tive ideal of know­ing to the ideal of knowing-by-doing or made knowl­edge. A cur­sory glance at any sci­en­tific book should con­vince that “the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs” are a sta­ple of the mod­ern sci­en­tific enter­prise. Those (so-called post­mod­ern philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists of sci­ence) who think they chal­lenge techno-science by empha­siz­ing that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is con­structed only repeat in prose what Bacon, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, and New­ton said in verse. Those who think they defend sci­en­tific knowl­edge by invok­ing, as the last trump card, its tech­ni­cal pro­duc­tions merely recon­firm the found­ing con­ceit of mod­ern techno-science: that know­ing and mak­ing are interchangeable.
  • 26. In this sec­tion I rely on the most exten­sive state­ment of Illich on crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, Tools for Con­vivi­al­ity (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1973). Note espe­cially the Chap­ter 4, “Recov­ery” (84-99) call­ing for the demythol­o­giza­tion of sci­ence, the redis­cov­ery of lan­guage and the recov­ery of legal pro­ce­dure. He super­sedes this state­ment only in some respects with his later think­ing: on sys­tems; on the his­toric­ity of the instru­ment as a cat­e­gory; and the empha­sis on the sym­bolic power of technology.
  • 27. Louis Dumont, Essays on Indi­vid­u­al­ism (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1983), shows pre­cisely the con­se­quences of attempts to recover the past, whose sig­nal dimen­sion has been the rel­a­tive embed­ded­ness of the indi­vid­ual within the social whole. To insist on recov­er­ing that past today is thus to court a species of inhu­man­ity the West­ern world has once already encoun­tered in the mid 20th century.
  • 28. The chill­ing con­clu­sion of this con­fu­sion is the dis­hon­est sen­ti­men­tal­ism fos­tered in indus­trial soci­eties, to wit “that the val­ues which indus­trial soci­ety destroys are pre­cisely those which it cher­ishes” Ivan Illich, “Shadow Work” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), 99. Thus, the rad­i­cal depen­dence on work pro­motes the cher­ished value of Freedom.
  • 29.Ver­nac­u­lar comes from an Indo-Germanic root that implies ‘root­ed­ness’ and ‘abode.’ Ver­nac­u­lum as a Latin word was used for what­ever was home­bred, home­spun, home­grown, home­made, as opposed to what was obtained in for­mal exchange. The child of one’s slave and of one’s wife, the don­key born of one’s own beast, were ver­nac­u­lar beings, as was the sta­ple that came from the gar­den or the com­mons. If Karl Polanyi had adverted to this fact, he might have used the term in the mean­ing accepted by the ancient Romans: sus­te­nance derived from reci­procity pat­terns imbed­ded in every aspect of life, as dis­tin­guished from sus­te­nance that comes from exchange or from ver­ti­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion… We need a sim­ple adjec­tive to name those acts of com­pe­tence, lust, or con­cern that we want to defend from mea­sure­ment or manip­u­la­tion by Chicago Boys and Social­ist Com­mis­sars. The term must be broad enough to fit the prepa­ra­tion of food and the shap­ing of lan­guage, child­birth and recre­ation, with­out imply­ing either a pri­va­tized activ­ity akin to the house­work of mod­ern women, a hobby or an irra­tional and prim­i­tive pro­ce­dure. Such an adjec­tive is not at hand. But ‘ver­nac­u­lar’ might serve. By speak­ing about ver­nac­u­lar lan­guage and the pos­si­bil­ity of its recu­per­a­tion, I am try­ing to bring into aware­ness and dis­cus­sion the exis­tence of a ver­nac­u­lar mode of being, doing, and mak­ing that in a desir­able future soci­ety might again expand in all aspects of life.” Ivan Illich, “The War against Sub­sis­tence” in Shadow Work, 57-58. The argu­ment of this essay belies its title.
  • 30. For the fol­low­ing sec­tion, I gloss “Ver­nac­u­lar Val­ues” and The War on Sub­sis­tence,” both in Illich, Shadow Work.
  • 31. A more com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the themes in this sec­tion would include a selec­tive sur­vey on the his­tor­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on ver­nac­u­lar ways and its destruc­tion. As a first ori­en­ta­tion to the exten­sive lit­er­a­ture on the war on the ver­nac­u­lar, con­sult Ivan Illich, Gen­der, (Berke­ley: Hey­day Press, 1982). The works of Karl Polanyi, pre­em­i­nently, The Great Trans­for­ma­tion, (NY: Rein­hart, 1944); but also the essays col­lected in Prim­i­tive, Archaic and Mod­ern Economies, ed. George Dal­ton, (NY: Anchor Books, 1968) and those in Trade and Mar­kets in Early Empires,eds. K. Polanyi, C. Arens­berg, and H. Pear­son (NY: The Free Press, 1957) clar­ify the his­toric­ity of commodity-intensive soci­eties, made vis­i­ble when nature and human action become widely priced as land and labor respec­tively. Mar­shall Sahlins in Stone Age Eco­nom­ics, (NY: Adline, 1972) and M.I. Fin­ley in The Ancient Econ­omy, (Berke­ley, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1985) con­firm that pre- mod­ern soci­eties, whether Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia or West­ern Antiq­uity, got on quite well with­out it. Jacques Le Goff, in Medieval Civ­i­liza­tion, 400-1500 empha­sizes the aim of the medieval “econ­omy” as that of sub­sis­tence, of pro­vid­ing for neces­si­ties (Lon­don: Black­well, 1988). The con­tin­u­ing mod­ern war on sub­sis­tence and the resis­tance to it is well doc­u­mented. Con­sult for exam­ple, E.P. Thomp­son, “The Moral Econ­omy of the Crowd,” reprinted in The Essen­tial E.P. Thomp­son, ed. Dorothy Thomp­son (NY: The New Press, 2000), and the essays col­lected in Cus­toms in Com­mon (New York: New York Press, 1993); Eric Wolf, Peas­ant Wars of the 20th Cen­tury (NY: Harper & Row 1969), Teodor Shanin, The Awk­ward Class (Lon­don: Cam­bridge, 1977) and Sub­co­man­dante Insur­gente Mar­cos, Our Word is our Weapon (NY: Seven Sto­ries Press, 2001). James Scott, in See­ing Like a State (Prince­ton: Yale Uni­ver­sity, 1999) argues that vision­ary plans to mod­ern­ize soci­ety invari­ably fail and usu­ally leave their ben­e­fi­cia­ries worse off for the atten­tion. Study the key terms col­lected in The Devel­op­ment Dic­tio­nary, ed. Wolf­gang Sachs (NY: Zed Books, 1992) as com­mands that rally the troops to the war against subsistence.
  • 32. Peter Linebaugh, Ned Ludd, Queen Mab: Machine Break­ing, Roman­ti­cism, and Sev­eral Com­mons 1811-12 (Oak­land: PM Press/Retort, 2012).
  • 33. Con­sult the well-documented essay by Teodor Shanin, “Late Marx: Gods and Crafts­men” in Late Marx and the Russ­ian Road, ed. T. Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), for a per­sua­sive case that “…to Marx, a timely rev­o­lu­tion­ary vic­tory could turn the Russ­ian com­mune into a major ‘vehi­cle of social regeneration.’”
  • 34. This sec­tion is derived from Ivan Illich, “Research by Peo­ple” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), and his unpub­lished man­u­script titled The Wis­dom of Leopold Kohr which makes ref­er­ence to the com­mon sense.
  • 35. This sen­tence from the OED weakly sum­ma­rizes the fol­low­ing: “The senses per­ceive each other’s spe­cial objects inci­den­tally; not because per­cip­i­ent sense is this or that spe­cial sense, but because all form a unity: this inci­den­tal per­cep­tion takes place when­ever sense is directed at one and the same moment to two dis­parate qual­i­ties in one and the same object, e.g., to the bit­ter­ness and the yel­low­ness of bile…” De Anima, III, 425a 30-425b 1. And: “Fur­ther, there can­not be a spe­cial sense-organ for the com­mon sen­si­bles either, i.e, the objects which we per­ceive inci­den­tally through this or that spe­cial sense, e.g, move­ment, rest, fig­ure, mag­ni­tude, num­ber & unity…. In the case of the com­mon sen­si­bles, there is already in us a com­mon sen­si­bil­ity (or com­mon sense) which enables us to per­ceive them non-incidentally; there is there­fore no spe­cial sense required for their per­cep­tion,” De Anima, III 425a 15-26.
  • 36. I do not fully explore here the trans­for­ma­tion from a fac­ulty into the “innate capac­ity” of any per­son to rea­son and judge cor­rectly after Descartes. The judg­ment of Funken­stein in The­ol­ogy, espe­cially page 359, is instruc­tive. He sug­gests that the “mil­i­tant, mis­sion­ary ideal” of edu­ca­tion over the 17th and 18th cen­turies is related to “the shift in the con­no­ta­tion of the term ‘com­mon sense.’” The con­no­ta­tions of the terms “le bon sens,” “gemeiner Men­schen­ver­stand,” and “com­mon sense” after the 17th cen­tury imply the capac­ity to be edu­cated; for all men to become philoso­phers. Indeed, the prop­a­ga­tion of a method for think­ing pre­sup­poses the com­mon­sense as that which is in need of edu­ca­tion. More recently, Sophia Rosen­feld, Com­mon Sense: A Polit­i­cal His­tory (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011) traces the twinned log­ics gen­er­ated by the degra­da­tion of com­mon sense from a fac­ulty. On the one hand, it serves as a touch­stone for the wis­dom of peo­ple against elites; on the other, the mul­ish­ness of the masses needed re-education. For a con­spec­tus of writ­ers on the com­mon sense con­sult, AN Foxe, The Com­mon Sense from Her­a­cli­tus to Pierce (Turn­bridge Press, 1962). It is how­ever frus­trat­ing for the lack of a bib­li­og­ra­phy and a his­tor­i­cally insen­si­tive read­ing of the authors sur­veyed. In con­trast, JL Beare, Greek The­o­ries of Ele­men­tary Cog­ni­tion from Alcemaeon to Aris­to­tle (Claren­don Press, 1926); WR Bundy, The The­ory of the Imag­i­na­tion in Clas­si­cal and Medieval Thought (Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Press, 1927); David Sum­mers, The Judg­ment of Sense (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1987) are excel­lent treat­ments of the his­tory of the com­mon sense as fac­ulty from Aris­to­tle to the late Renais­sance when read seri­ally. See also E. Ruth Har­vey, The Inward Wits: Psy­cho­log­i­cal The­ory in the Mid­dle Ages and the Renais­sance (Lon­don, 1975); and HA Wolf­son, “The Inter­nal Senses in Latin, Ara­bic and Hebrew Philo­soph­i­cal Texts,” Har­vard The­o­log­i­cal Review, 25 (1935).
  • 37. Stan­ley Rosen, The Elu­sive­ness of the Ordi­nary (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002) argues spirit­edly for the com­mon­sense foun­da­tions of thought. Such foun­da­tions sup­port but can­not rise to heights reached by extra­or­di­nary thought, which by neces­sity, exceed its grasp. In the so-called “sci­ence wars” of recent decades, the issue was framed as that between the social con­struc­tivists and the real­ists. In the light of the fore­go­ing dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs, it is clear that both par­ties to the debate agree that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is made, that is to say, constructed.
  • 38. In much of his writ­ings, Illich insists on elab­o­rat­ing con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions built on the per­cep­tion of autonomous human actions. Between Deschool­ing Soci­ety and The His­tory of Homo Edu­can­dus he con­trasts learn­ing to edu­ca­tion and school­ing; in Med­ical Neme­sis, between autonomous cop­ing and health­care; between Research by Peo­ple and R&D. In some cases, he invents or gives new shades of mean­ing to terms to recover per­cep­tions buried by con­structs – for exam­ple, dis­value, shadow work, gen­der and ver­nac­u­lar. Let the triple, hous­ing, dwelling, and habi­ta­tion stand as a par­al­lel exam­ple to trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic used in the text above. A gen­eral case for the com­mon­sen­si­cal Illich still awaits a care­ful exe­ge­sis of his texts.
  • 39. I take some lib­er­ties with inter­pret­ing The States­man, 283d-284e in Plato, Com­plete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hack­ett Pub­lish­ing, 1997).The rel­e­vant dis­tinc­tion as described by the vis­i­tor reads as fol­lows: “It is clear that we would divide the art of mea­sure­ment, cut­ting it in two in just the way we said, post­ing as one part of it all sorts of exper­tise that mea­sure the num­ber, lengths, depths, breaths, and speeds of things in rela­tion to what is opposed to them, and as the other, all those that mea­sure in rela­tion to what is in due mea­sure, what is fit­ting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be-everything that removes itself from the extremes to the mid­dle” (384e).
  • 40. It is a weak recog­ni­tion of this hier­ar­chy that is reit­er­ated in the widely accepted dis­junc­tion or dis­con­ti­nu­ity between “sci­ence” and “values.”

The terrain of reproduction: Alisa Del Re’s “The sexualization of social relations”

In an era when the exploits of Sil­vio Berlusconi’s “pri­vate” life seem to have cat­e­gor­i­cally oblit­er­ated any progress towards sex­ual equal­ity achieved dur­ing the Ital­ian fem­i­nist move­ment of the 70s, it is essen­tial to remem­ber what was once accom­plished. Although second-wave fem­i­nism was already a well-established net­work of debates in the U.S. by 1970, Ital­ian women influ­enced by work­erist writ­ings of the fem­i­nist ilk, most notably Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (1972), set out to ini­ti­ate bat­tles over issues such as abor­tion and divorce.1 Fem­i­nist cur­rents both from within and inde­pen­dent of work­erist move­ments then spread with a fierce momen­tum that would endure through the decade.

From the inad­e­quate patri­ar­chal rubric of the New Left, from the ashes of male-dominated work­erist orga­ni­za­tions such as Potere Operaio, and later Lotta Con­tinua, women through­out Italy orga­nized autonomously, on the basis of the inher­ent con­nec­tion of repro­duc­tion and gen­der roles to class strug­gle.Fight­ing for Fem­i­nism: the ‘Women Ques­tion’ in an Ital­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group." href="#footnote2_cedh3u7">2 It was the prob­lem of mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women within these move­ments, along with the larger ques­tion of unpaid domes­tic labor, that directed many fem­i­nist inquiries. Sil­via Fed­erici has said, reflect­ing on her dif­fi­culty rec­on­cil­ing her expe­ri­ence as a woman with the rhetoric of these orga­ni­za­tions, “I was unwill­ing to accept my iden­tity as a woman after hav­ing for years pinned all my hopes on my abil­ity to pass for a man.“3 An orga­nized col­lec­tiv­ity of women inde­pen­dent of the uni­form assim­i­la­tion to a male-driven class per­spec­tive became nec­es­sary, since women’s work was to this point largely con­fined to the domain of repro­duc­tion, but remained an equally essen­tial yet cat­e­gor­i­cally unique form of pro­duc­tion in the greater sense.

Mari­arosa Dalla Costa has described how, in the 1970s, Ital­ian fem­i­nism largely took one of two posi­tions: a kind of gen­er­al­ized, over­all “self-awareness” or a workerist-driven fem­i­nism. The lat­ter took shape as Lotta Fem­min­ista, which orga­nized into a more sub­stan­tial inter­na­tional move­ment. The focus of their attack, house­work, was described in Federici’s Wages Against House­work as “the most sub­tle and mys­ti­fied vio­lence that cap­i­tal­ism has ever per­pe­trated against any sec­tion of the work­ing class.”4 In 1972, Dalla Costa, Selma James, and oth­ers formed the Inter­na­tional Wages for House­work Cam­paign around the notion that women held a sig­nif­i­cant power as pro­duc­ers of the labor force itself – and that through the refusal of this pro­duc­tion, they engaged in a form of social sub­ver­sion that could lead to “a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety.”5

How­ever, Fed­erici has since acknowl­edged this kind of utopian think­ing as dam­ag­ing to the fem­i­nist movement:

One of the major short­com­ings of the women’s move­ment has been its ten­dency to overem­pha­size the role of con­scious­ness in the con­text of social change, as if enslave­ment were a men­tal con­di­tion and lib­er­a­tion could be achieved by an act of will. Pre­sum­ably, if we wanted, we could stop being exploited by men and employ­ers… rev­o­lu­tion­ize our day to day life. Undoubt­edly some women already have the power to take these steps… But for mil­lions these rec­om­men­da­tions could only turn into an impu­ta­tion of guilt, short of build­ing the mate­r­ial con­di­tions that would make them pos­si­ble.6

In an inter­view accom­pa­ny­ing the vol­ume Futuro Ante­ri­ore, Alisa Del Re describes how she began her own path towards the analy­sis of women and work, ini­tially as a polit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent and research assis­tant to Anto­nio Negri in the late 1960s.7 Encoun­ters with the meth­ods of work­ers’ inquiry, and later the writ­ings of Tronti and Marx, became points of ref­er­ence that would inform Del Re’s involve­ment with Potere Operaio until its dis­so­lu­tion in 1973. With­out offi­cially cross­ing over to Autono­mia Operaia like many of her com­rades, Del Re remained in some­what close prox­im­ity to the group, while begin­ning to address issues from a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive that was unique for this period, par­tic­u­larly regard­ing social ser­vices and the rela­tion­ship between work and per­sonal time.

Del Re reveals a sub­jec­tiv­ity that informed her posi­tion on wel­fare pro­grams – a posi­tion that, stem­ming in large part from her own need for sub­si­dized child­care while nav­i­gat­ing the work­force, would unin­ten­tion­ally oppose the views of Dalla Costa and oth­ers dri­ving the Wages for House­work move­ment. While Wages for House­work sought com­pen­sa­tion for domes­tic labor, Del Re argued for sub­si­dized child­care and other such social pro­grams so that a woman could have a life out­side of work­ing, both in and out­side of the home – not because she dis­agreed with Wages for House­work, but because their demands did not apply to her own sit­u­a­tion as a woman choos­ing to sub­sist within the work­force rather than in the home. She describes how her very posi­tion as a work­ing woman assigned her to the mar­gins of the work­erist move­ment, while the women of Wages for House­work were demand­ing rights from within their imposed “ter­rain” – that of reproduction:

…the issue of wages was per­haps more “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” but from the polit­i­cal prac­tice that Rosa [Dalla Costa] endorsed it was dif­fi­cult to under­stand who was demand­ing these wages and when… maybe my issue was much more reformist even though it is true that we annoyed a few peo­ple when we occu­pied local gov­ern­ment meet­ings, demand­ing the con­struc­tion of nurs­ery schools and propos­ing con­crete forms of ‘lib­er­a­tion from house­work.8

It is worth not­ing, how­ever, that while the posi­tions of Wages for House­work and Del Re were seem­ingly in oppo­si­tion, they are per­haps bet­ter described as par­al­lel streams of strug­gle, progress in both are­nas con­sti­tut­ing a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for women’s auton­omy. In the first place, Wages for House­work rec­og­nized house­work as work, and thus, the strat­egy of “get­ting a job” as a means of lib­er­at­ing women from depen­dence on men’s wages, as Fed­erici would later reflect, alien­ated women who worked because their fam­i­lies need the added finan­cial sup­port “and not because they con­sider it a lib­er­at­ing expe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­larly since ‘hav­ing a job’ never frees you from house­work.“9 Fur­ther­more, Del Re’s view on the recla­ma­tion of per­sonal time sup­ported by state-funded child care pro­vi­sions offers the only pos­si­bil­ity of relief from what would oth­er­wise be a near-24/7 work week, waged or not, for working-class women. Years after Wages for House­work, Fed­erici rec­og­nizes the mutual depen­dence of these two conditions:

…as long as house­work goes unpaid, there will be no incen­tives to pro­vide the social ser­vices nec­es­sary to reduce our work, as proved by the fact that, despite a strong women’s move­ment, sub­si­dized day care has been steadily reduced through the 70s. I should add that wages for house­work never meant sim­ply a pay­check. It also meant more social ser­vices and free social ser­vices.10

In a later piece enti­tled “Women and Wel­fare: Where is Jocasta?”, Del Re describes the labor of repro­duc­tion as “a spe­cific rela­tion between women and the State” that is sep­a­rate from the labor mar­ket and that has been inad­e­quately sup­ported and stud­ied.11 The wel­fare sys­tem, despite “its lim­i­ta­tions on the qual­ity of life,” she pro­poses, “liberat[es] the labor of repro­duc­tion from its depen­dence on another person’s salary,” in other words, the labor of pro­duc­tion.12 Thus, Del Re pro­poses that since women con­trol the means of repro­duc­tion, we “must find a way to present [our] bill” – by mak­ing “vis­i­ble the labor of repro­duc­tion in its total­ity” and by under­lin­ing “its cen­tral­ity with respect to pro­duc­tion and the mar­ket.” As she has con­tin­ued to assert, this begins with a reor­ga­ni­za­tion of one’s time.13

Inter­est­ingly, sit­u­ated upon this same imposed ter­rain were both the sub­jects and objects of a year-long research study regard­ing work and fam­ily, cul­mi­nat­ing in the pub­li­ca­tion of Le sexe du tra­vail: struc­tures famil­iales et sys­tème pro­duc­tif (Greno­ble: Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de Greno­ble, 1984). In an arti­cle for the jour­nal Primo Mag­gio, Del Re exam­ines this work with a favor­able view on their inves­ti­ga­tions, as women researchers, into the sex­ual and social divi­sions of labor. Trans­lated here, Del Re’s piece rep­re­sents in itself an evolv­ing vision of these divi­sions that does not, as she writes, “sig­nal a marginality.”

In “Women and Wel­fare,” Del Re ele­gantly states the impor­tance of the woman’s role as both sub­ject and object:

It is cru­cial, there­fore, that women’s lives – their exis­tence, their nature, as well as their activ­i­ties - become an inte­gral part of philo­soph­i­cal and intel­lec­tual dis­course, so that the acknowl­edg­ment of female sub­jec­tiv­ity, con­structed as it is in mul­ti­ple sym­bolic and mate­r­ial loci, can reveal the par­tial­ity of a vision of the world that even today is con­sid­ered uni­ver­sal.14

Like other projects of the work­erist move­ment, Primo Mag­gio as a pub­li­ca­tion reveals con­cep­tual lay­ers rang­ing from his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal record to schol­arly peri­od­i­cal to polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. As Primo Mag­gio’s Ser­gio Bologna writes in his review of Steve Wright’s Storm­ing Heaven, the jour­nal focused on main­tain­ing a sub­ject posi­tion “within a net­work of ini­tia­tives of self organ­i­sa­tion at the level of polit­i­cal cul­ture and for­ma­tion ‘at the ser­vice of the move­ment.’”15 In an inter­view with Patrick Cun­ing­hame, Bologna describes Primo Mag­gio’s search for new method­olo­gies, in con­trast to the efforts at party orga­ni­za­tion by Negri and Autono­mia Orga­niz­zata:

Primo Mag­gio was not even a polit­i­cal elite. Rather, we had refused our role as a polit­i­cal elite to put our­selves instead in the role of that techno-scientific intel­li­gentsia which exca­vated within the dis­ci­plines. So, we wanted to exca­vate within the his­tor­i­cal dis­ci­plines to make his­tory in another way. You read Primo Mag­gio and it is not a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in the sense that it is a jour­nal … for the trans­for­ma­tion of his­tor­i­cal method­ol­ogy. In the sense of trans­for­ma­tion also of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal lan­guage which has an enor­mous impor­tance in polit­i­cal lan­guage.16

The idea of a “woman-science,” women (and sex­ual divi­sions of labor) as a topic of research by women researchers, is the prod­uct of this strat­egy, recon­struct­ing a sub­ject through its methodologies.

Anna Culbertson is a special collections librarian at San Diego State University, where she has taught courses on using primary sources to research feminism and gender roles.

The sexualization of social relations

From Primo Mag­gio, no. 23/24 (sum­mer 1985)1

“Should work, then, have a sex? Absurd ques­tion. Every­one knows it has existed only in the mas­cu­line [form], in sec­tors where activ­ity is car­ried out by men. No work else­where, and no women in work. What remains, of course, is to set­tle the ques­tion of a few mil­lion ‘actives’…”2 And so is intro­duced The Sex of Work (Famil­ial Struc­tures and the Sys­tem of Pro­duc­tion), pub. by PUG, 1984, by the authors them­selves: a large group of researchers who found them­selves over the course of the pre­vi­ous year in the most diverse spaces of debate: from the con­fer­ence Women and the Work­ing Class (Vin­cennes, Decem­ber 1978); to their days at the Société Française de Soci­olo­gie on The Famil­ial Insti­tu­tion and Women’s Work (Nantes, June 1980); to the con­fer­ence of the Cen­tre Lyon­nais d’Etudes Fémin­istes on Women and the Ques­tion of Work (Lyon, Decem­ber 1980); and finally to the research sem­i­nar of the Unité de Recherche et d’Etudes Soci­ologiques, Divi­sion sociale et sex­uelle du tra­vail, on Women’s Work, Paid Work, Domes­tic Work (1980-81-82), result­ing directly in the for­ma­tion of this group.

Draw­ing upon their own intel­lec­tual and exis­ten­tial resources, their own claims to both fem­i­nism and a suc­ces­sion of the most insti­tu­tional of ini­tia­tives, the group finally formed at the Tenth World Con­gress of Soci­ol­ogy (Mex­ico City, August 1982), express­ing the desire to pro­mote research cen­tered on the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis, for both men and women, of the sit­u­a­tion of work and fam­ily. This book rep­re­sents the bulk of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions pre­sented in Mex­ico City and con­sti­tutes a first tan­gi­ble, vis­i­ble step of the expe­ri­ence of the group, a moment in its life.

Women, researchers, fem­i­nists, in an insti­tu­tion­al­ized group with a research topic both pre­cise and iso­lated from the tra­di­tional sci­en­tific con­text, with the pal­pa­ble need to find new method­olo­gies, new avenues, of recon­struct­ing the sub­jects in their entire form, the same sub­jects that in tra­di­tional sci­ence become chopped, muti­lated, seen in quan­tity and with­out qual­ity. And this in “sci­ence,” to impose a new “sci­en­tific” point of view that con­cerns women and their work, the sex­u­al­ity of social rela­tions as an “exis­tent.” As a method, bring­ing sci­en­tists together from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and dif­fer­ent “schools” (although here we limit our­selves to the social sci­ences) is noth­ing new: inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in the human­i­ties has been fruit­ful in var­i­ous fields. But the nov­elty lies in the fact that it is the woman-subject that is study­ing the woman-object. And the effect this pro­duces is that it seems the very object of the research floods the lim­its tra­di­tion­ally imposed, reach­ing into cur­rent method­ol­ogy, find­ing itself within strict def­i­n­i­tions of use. The very def­i­n­i­tion of the field research requires dif­fer­ent means of approx­i­ma­tion, as if one were to turn on dif­fer­ent lights rather than just one to iden­tify the road ahead, the con­tours of the object to be stud­ied. And some­times it is right at the inter­sec­tion of two dis­tinct fields, in the area of exist­ing soci­o­log­i­cal frame­works, that the object of exam­i­na­tion is found. As Mar­tine Chau­dron says about her research, “The object – the social tra­jec­to­ries and the famil­iar strate­gies of repro­duc­tion, the one and the other sexed – has been con­structed on the inter­sec­tion of two fields, that of social mobil­ity and that of the fam­ily; it [the object] can’t exist soci­o­log­i­cally out­side of the prob­lem attempt­ing to artic­u­late and hold together the sex­ual and social divi­sions of work with social rela­tions of sex and class.”

And this per­ma­nent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with iden­ti­fy­ing the rela­tions between the sexes as social rela­tions is impor­tant, in order to exit the fix­ity of roles, totally deter­mined and hier­ar­chi­cal: “That which is impor­tant in the notion of social rela­tions – defined by the antag­o­nism of social groups – is the dynamic that it introduces.”

The form that attempts this mode of stat­ing, of seek­ing, of point­ing towards a sex­u­al­iza­tion of social rela­tions that does not sig­nal a mar­gin­al­ity, but is in recog­ni­tion of an exist­ing injus­tice, to be changed, requires an adjust­ment to a new vision of real­ity, and to do this demands a dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary inno­va­tion of tools. And then the inter­est to depart from tra­di­tional method­olo­gies that have always made the study of women subordinate.

For exam­ple, as well stated in the gen­eral intro­duc­tion: “The dom­i­nant dis­course on work con­tin­ues to func­tion as an implicit model: the male worker, nei­ther too young nor too old, light-skinned, clearly. In short, the ideal type! All the rest are not spec­i­fied. And so that the fam­ily remains the essen­tial start­ing point of analy­sis for the pro­fes­sional activ­ity of women; as if their work sit­u­a­tion results solely of the oblig­a­tion (real or sym­bolic, mate­r­ial or ide­o­log­i­cal) imposed upon them to take on the bulk of fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties.” “Mater­nity ren­ders sus­pect the pro­fes­sional qual­i­ties of women”: and then, to remove this sus­pi­cion, they must “act like a man,” or not have chil­dren socially. And this, only for women. Because how­ever the worker con­forms to the norms of work is as a non-parent. But the non-parent as an absolute, the priv­i­leged worker, is the father with a fam­ily to pro­vide for, but with­out the respon­si­bil­i­ties of a fam­ily. This bur­den is placed on the mother, so that it becomes non-compliant to the norm and – per­fectly squar­ing the cir­cle – jus­ti­fies her pro­fes­sional stag­na­tion, her non-career with the same motives by which it pro­motes “the man of the house.”

In eco­nom­ics, soci­ol­ogy and the other human­i­ties, the social infe­ri­or­ity of women is due to the mech­a­nisms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion suf­fered by this sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion, most unarmed for the labor mar­ket. So women would con­sti­tute, as the young or the old, as immi­grants or the hand­i­capped, a mar­ginal group, non-competitive. In other words: because of their fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties, women face obsta­cles, and there­fore require assis­tance in order to be able to work, given the para­me­ters of work hours, vaca­tion time, and pensions.

Con­versely, when it comes to study­ing the work of men, there is no ref­er­ence to their mar­i­tal sta­tus, nor to the size of their fam­ily (num­ber of chil­dren, etc.), nor even to the pro­fes­sional activ­i­ties of their wives. Only women are enlisted to a fam­ily, only men to their posts in the work world; women are inac­tive and men are with­out fam­ily. So, a joint approach to the famil­ial struc­ture and the pro­duc­tive sys­tem that is not the super­im­po­si­tion of one sec­tor on the other is sought.

It is by the denun­ci­a­tion of the invis­i­bil­ity of domes­tic work in soci­o­log­i­cal and eco­nomic analy­ses that fem­i­nists have intro­duced a deci­sive break. The analy­sis of domes­tic work and rela­tions between the sexes has sig­ni­fied new approaches in respect to social rela­tions and women’s work. We no longer con­sider the study of rela­tions between the sexes as con­fined to the fam­ily, but rather, merge all the inter-dependencies between house­work and pro­fes­sional work.

And all of this within a con­stant: the crit­i­cal analy­sis of sci­ence con­sti­tutes the insuf­fi­ciency of the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, their blind spots.

So these researchers con­test research (and meth­ods) based on the dis­tinc­tion between pro­duc­tive work and repro­duc­tive work, where the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in “pro­duc­tive” work is not ana­lyzed as such, but as a par­tic­u­lar of a gen­eral, mas­cu­line model. And the over­tak­ing occurs in the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis of pro­duc­tion sys­tems and fam­ily struc­tures. The rejec­tion of the production/reproduction dichotomy, and, to its con­trary, the study of their inter­re­la­tions, nec­es­sar­ily impli­cates the accep­tance of key con­cepts, which I briefly define here from the text:

    The con­cept of repro­duc­tion, used in the text in oppo­si­tion to pro­duc­tion. It’s not, then, treated in the clas­si­cal sense of social repro­duc­tion. Repro­duc­tion includes, apart from the pro­duc­tion of chil­dren and more broadly of indi­vid­u­als, a set of activ­i­ties, exclud­ing the activ­ity of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. From this per­spec­tive the analy­sis of the fam­ily is insep­a­ra­ble from the study of other insti­tu­tions that con­tribute to reproduction.
    The con­cept of work: a term that, in the broader sense, takes into account as much pro­fes­sional activ­ity as that which is devel­oped in the domes­tic sphere. From this per­spec­tive it becomes nec­es­sary to renew the analy­sis of production.
    The con­cept of fam­ily, as some­thing that is not a closed space con­cern­ing the pri­vate sphere. It is nec­es­sary, there­fore, to study it in terms of social rela­tions and not of the rules between the sexes, in terms of the divi­sions of work rather than the divi­sions of labor.

It is from these base con­cepts, these gen­eral agree­ments, that the itin­er­aries of each researcher become the heads of rams with which this group attempts to break down the social sci­ences build­ing, lit­tle by lit­tle, at dif­fer­ent lev­els. Already the crit­i­cal read­ing of the sta­tis­tics of social mobil­ity (gen­er­ally sexed in terms of the mas­cu­line model) is fur­ther enriched by qual­i­ta­tive meth­ods (sur­veys, inter­views, biogra­phies, genealo­gies) of iden­ti­fy­ing the social tra­jec­to­ries of men and women.

The simul­ta­ne­ous study of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion nec­es­sar­ily involves the con­struc­tion of new ter­rains, cut­ting across tra­di­tional dis­ci­plines. And again, all of the more secure con­cepts should be recon­sid­ered: from, for exam­ple, the sex­ual divi­sion of work as a given, it is obvi­ous that the con­cept of the social divi­sion of work itself should be called into ques­tion. “To state, as we do, that work has a sex and that there­fore the divi­sion of work is also sexed, has effec­tively sub­ver­sive virtues”.

And it does not end with the book, because this group con­tin­ues to work together at an annual sem­i­nar (1984-85) called Production/Reproduction Work­shop (pre­sented at PIRTTEM). They con­tinue the hard work of research­ing, defin­ing a sub­ject, woman, at full length; of remov­ing the veil of invis­i­bil­ity, of renew­ing the ties between the vis­i­ble and the hid­den, between the impor­tant and the disregarded.

A short digres­sion: already many passes have been made in an attempt to untie the Gor­dian knot of the rela­tion­ship between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, for exam­ple by study­ing “in con­tin­uum” the two phe­nom­ena, thus defeat­ing the acqui­es­cent accep­tance of inequal­ity, attrib­uted to the nat­ural order of things.

Is it not pos­si­ble to ven­ture fur­ther? Why not attempt to estab­lish a com­pletely new method of inves­ti­ga­tion, that has repro­duc­tion as its epi­cen­ter, its qual­ity, in which com­modi­ties and their pro­duc­tion result in some sub­or­di­nate way, objects of an exter­nal strat­egy; and inside this grid inter­pret the strug­gles, find again the real sub­jects, inter­ests, the same recent his­tory of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal and of its insti­tu­tions? Is it too much to pro­pose a scale of val­ues, even in research, less sub­or­di­nated to the val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion (and I insist that it is already a lot to have even changed the com­po­si­tion of the field of inves­ti­ga­tion by inter­weav­ing the prob­lem of reproduction)?

A woman-science that artic­u­lates itself on (being directly from) an imposed and not cho­sen ter­rain, that is the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion – might that there­fore be a sub­or­di­nate science?

Two con­sid­er­a­tions:

    Even though it has been imposed as a mode of dom­i­na­tion, even though it sub­sists as a form of exploita­tion, even though it has been deval­ued, unpaid, “nat­u­rally” attrib­uted to our sex, repro­duc­tion, in the broader sense of the word, is in real­ity the cen­tral axis of a world of val­ues to recon­sider, plac­ing them in the sub­or­di­nate, direct­ing all work for the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. It may be a con­sid­er­a­tion of plain com­mon sense, but then plainly we speak of work time and free time, we speak of peace and ecol­ogy, from the old poor, we speak of the new poor, of unem­ploy­ment, of famine.
    In the sec­ond place, if it is true of the world in which we live that this is not the case, that work for the sake of work­ing seems to be the only form of social and per­sonal real­iza­tion, and the mea­sure­ment of exist­ing passes through the mea­sure­ment of exis­tence or at least of earn­ing a wage, and, sub­se­quently, the amount of that wage (“Marx was right, but that doesn’t suit me – and then, until when?”), it is not clear why, exactly, in a time in which salaries have the ten­dency to shrink and work to dis­ap­pear, for both women and men, we can’t see a glimpse of a chance to change our point of view.

But I don’t want to cast aside other bud­ding ideas that need the soil of col­lec­tive debate to grow. In every case, the very exis­tence of this group of women-feminists-researchers, of a new rig­or­ous and effec­tive style, requires the assump­tion of a new point of view, mark­ing a point of no return.

All women, researchers, teach­ers, who work on a topic con­cern­ing women, and thus on an issue that directly con­cerns them, have often seen, at some time or another, their results affected by deri­sion, or else by invis­i­bil­ity. Already the fact of “try­ing to remain in touch with our sim­i­lar­i­ties in the world” (see Sot­toso­pra [Upside Down], More Women Than Men) “by weav­ing a web of pref­er­en­tial rela­tion­ships between women, where the expe­ri­ence asso­ci­ated with being a woman becomes stronger in mutual recog­ni­tion by invent­ing ways to trans­late it into social real­ity,” is a mode of exist­ing and cre­at­ing the strength to impose their own ideas. When, then, this also serves to invent new tools with which to under­stand and ana­lyze the real­ity that sur­rounds us, and from this per­haps the strength and courage to change it, we get the impres­sion that some­thing is mov­ing in the right direc­tion, that con­crete pos­si­bil­i­ties reopen.

—Trans­lated by Anna Culbertson

Alisa Del Re is associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Padova.

  • 1. I would like to thank Andrea Righi for his invalu­able advice; any errors in trans­la­tion are my sole respon­si­bil­ity. All notes are the translator’s.
  • 2. The authors of The Sex of Work use “actives” in this case to refer to the four out of ten work­ers that are women, and as such, are “lost” or not accounted for out­side of the domes­tic sphere. The eco­nomic term “active pop­u­la­tion” refers to all per­sons legally able to per­form work, and cor­re­sponds to a country’s labor supply.

Towards a socialist art of government: Michel Foucault’s “The mesh of power”

How sur­pris­ing the events of May 1968 must have seemed to Michel Fou­cault is sug­gested by a remark made to his life-long part­ner Daniel Defert in Jan­u­ary of that year, fol­low­ing his nom­i­na­tion for a fac­ulty posi­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Paris Nan­terre. “Strange how these stu­dents speak of their rela­tions with profs in terms of class war.”1 Inter­pre­ta­tions of this remark will reveal a lot about one’s received image of the late philoso­pher. Among fig­ures of the New Left he had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as an anti-Marxist for dis­parag­ing pub­lic com­ments about Jean-Paul Sartre, and the appar­ent here­sies of Les mots et les choses (1966).2 A younger gen­er­a­tion of left-leaning intel­lec­tu­als, activists, and agi­ta­tors, exposed only to later por­traits of the rad­i­cal philoso­pher – the author of Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish (1974), mega­phone in hand, rub­bing shoul­ders with Sartre and other ultra-gauchistes at protests in the streets of Paris – will prob­a­bly find the con­fes­sion dis­con­cert­ing. Is it pos­si­ble that he was taken off guard by the polit­i­cal sparks that would set alight le mou­ve­ment du 22 mars? He did, after all, arrive in Paris post fes­tum, par­tic­i­pat­ing in some of the final ral­lies at the Sor­bonne in late June.

I pre­fer to read the remark as a know­ing reflec­tion on the pecu­liar­ity of priv­i­leged Nan­terre stu­dents, rep­re­sent­ing them­selves as some rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­le­tar­ian sub­ject, locked in a bat­tle with their pro­fes­sors as though the lat­ter owned the means of pro­duc­tion. As if to draw out the con­se­quences of this con­tra­dic­tion, by 1969 Fou­cault began using the lan­guage of class strug­gle in polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions, and pub­licly declar­ing the “retour à Marx” as the spirit of his age.3 Foucault’s polit­i­cal makeover occurred among a group of Trot­sky­ist stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Tunis where he was teach­ing phi­los­o­phy in 1968. The young Tunisians inspired him to brush up on the clas­sics of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism from Marx’s own work to Rosa Lux­em­burg, in addi­tion to pop­u­lar fig­ures of the New Left, includ­ing Che Gue­vara and the Black Pan­thers.4 Reflect­ing back on this year of strikes, course sus­pen­sions, occu­pa­tions, arrests, impris­on­ments and tor­ture in Tunisia, Fou­cault admired the moral energy and exis­ten­tial charge of his stu­dents’ Marx­ist iden­ti­fi­ca­tion more than its rigor or pre­ci­sion. Revers­ing his ear­lier posi­tion on the his­tor­i­cal obso­les­cence of Marx, he had been con­vinced “that myth was nec­es­sary. A polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy or a polit­i­cal per­cep­tion of the world, of human rela­tions and sit­u­a­tions was absolutely nec­es­sary to begin the strug­gle.”5

These remarks imme­di­ately recall Sorel, rather than Marx; how­ever, is it going too far to sug­gest that Fou­cault sought to cap­ture the polit­i­cal imag­i­nary of his day by spin­ning a new myth, an alter­nate “polit­i­cal per­cep­tion of the world” with his con­cep­tual unfold­ing of the term “power?”6 After all, Foucault’s key insight in this regard – power is pro­duc­tive rather than repres­sive; indi­vid­u­al­ity is itself the prod­uct of a his­tor­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of power – is not some world-weary warn­ing about the ruse of his­tory. It is not to say that “power always wins.” In fact, it is a research agenda: try to his­tor­i­cally val­i­date the hypoth­e­sis accord­ing to which every­where power has crushed some­one in its gears, or men­aced peo­ple with guns and over­seers, it has done so pre­cisely because that indi­vid­ual or group pre­sented some essen­tial threat to the exer­cise of that power. The oppressed, Fou­cault argues, also make use of an immense “net­work of power.” They are not pas­sive vic­tims of a his­tor­i­cal process; in fact, power is his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent. The resis­tance of the oppressed has shaped the present orga­ni­za­tion of power. Rev­o­lu­tion, accord­ing to this view, is a rare bird indeed.7

Such polit­i­cal reflec­tions may be cyn­i­cal, but they are not alto­gether for­eign from the Marx­ist polit­i­cal tra­di­tion of thought. For instance, some of the above for­mu­la­tions are remark­ably sim­i­lar to the lessons Ben­jamin gleans from the his­tory of the oppressed, includ­ing his idea of the “weak mes­sianic power” of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pos­si­bil­ity.2Through­out Foucault’s career, he was atten­tive to the voices of the oppressed. His writ­ten work and its bib­li­o­graphic sources are scan­dalous pre­cisely to the extent that he gives less space to mas­ter thinkers – Ben­tham, Marx, Freud, Decartes, Smith, Machi­avelli, Rousseau – than to long-forgotten voices unearthed from volu­mi­nous time spent in libraries. These were also Marx and Benjamin’s pre­ferred meth­ods. Fou­cault fondly referred to it as the “warm freema­sonry of use­less eru­di­tion.” Although he immersed him­self in the heights of West­ern thought, he was far more likely to write a book about a late-19th cen­tury her­maph­ro­dite like Her­cu­line Barbin, than some more explicit expo­si­tion or com­men­tary on the thought which con­sti­tuted his ground. Detect­ing his intel­lec­tual influ­ences demands care­ful reading.

Given that Foucault’s par­tic­u­larstar rose at the start of the mass media age, dur­ing France’s trente glo­rieuses, it is pos­si­ble that he crafted ambiva­lent con­cepts and catch­phrases with pre­cisely this vastly expanded power of media out­lets in mind. It would be a mis­take to assume that he did not fore­see the dif­fi­cul­ties of phi­los­o­phiz­ing with a word that invokes the stuff of super­sti­tion. In stark con­trast to the Frank­furt School and Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional, Fou­cault refrained from crit­i­ciz­ing mass media tech­nolo­gies and con­sid­ered them as mostly neu­tral instru­ments, which broad­ened the field of dis­cur­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties. This was prob­a­bly due to the fact that he was able to nav­i­gate and manip­u­late this media appa­ra­tus so deftly as a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, fore­shad­ow­ing the rise of the much-loathed, television-ready nou­veau philosophe. How­ever, this too is a prin­ci­pled stance. Foucault’s method­ol­ogy resists divi­sions between “high” and “low” cul­tural forms: Ben­tham is just as likely to betray his era’s par­a­digm of pun­ish­ment as the plan for a Quaker prison in Penn­syl­va­nia or the mun­dane daily rou­tine from a prison in the French provinces. With Machi­avelli in mind, Fou­cault calls this “the local cyn­i­cism of power.”9

Foucault’s thought about power must first be sit­u­ated within his con­junc­ture and our own if we want to artic­u­late his con­cep­tual prob­lems and grasp their stakes. These con­tex­tual moves will help us unlearn the way his thought was received and recon­structed. To uncover the ratio­nal ker­nel of his sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal argu­ment will require de-emphasizing his descrip­tive lan­guage, which was often quite beau­ti­ful but has a ten­dency to dis­tract. He often rhetor­i­cally dis­tanced him­self from his own neol­o­gisms, treat­ing them as index­i­cal place­hold­ers for a thought rather than as rig­or­ous the­o­riza­tions. As a cipher for unlock­ing this admit­tedly par­tic­u­lar read­ing of Fou­cault, I offer a trans­la­tion of “Les mailles de pou­voir” – “The Mesh of Power” – which for rea­sons that still remain obscure is absent from all English-language edi­tions of Foucault’s “col­lected works.”

Orig­i­nally deliv­ered in two install­ments at the Fed­eral Uni­ver­sity of Bahia in 1976, Foucault’s words were recorded on cas­sette tapes, tran­scribed and pub­lished as a text, first appear­ing in Por­tugese, and trans­lated back into French for pub­li­ca­tion in Dits et écrits– now deliv­ered to you in Eng­lish, via the Inter­net. The “mesh” of a net of power, the size or gauge of its holes, is a par­tic­u­larly apt metaphor in the Inter­net age, res­onat­ing with these new kinds of cap­ture and slip­page.10 The trans­mis­sion of this pur­loined let­ter to you is itself the result of the devel­op­ment of tech­nolo­gies that have made it eas­ier to cir­cu­late what Fou­cault once termed dis­cours veridique, par­rhe­sia, or truth­ful speech. Indeed, Foucault’s work from the late 1970s reaches us like a tick­ing time bomb from some for­got­ten past, threat­en­ing to explode a whole set of assump­tions about the unity and dis­unity of his thought, reveal­ing new insights and limitations.

Sit­u­at­ing Foucault’s Intel­lec­tual Cri­sis and “The Mesh of Power”

The “polit­i­cal turn” of 1969 and the late “eth­i­cal turn” towards the “care of the self” are widely cited episodes in the intel­lec­tual his­tory of Fou­cault. This peri­odiza­tion pro­vides a neat tri­par­tite divi­sion of his work into early, mid­dle and late. In the sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture, these turns are noted, but their causes remain obscure. Few have attempted a rea­soned and well-argued recon­struc­tion of their sig­nif­i­cance, and most stud­ies of the sub­ject com­pen­sate for such lacu­nae with gos­sip and speculation.

These dif­fi­cul­ties have only been com­pounded by prob­lems of recep­tion. French his­to­rian François Cus­set con­sid­ers the “Amer­i­can adven­ture with French The­ory” to be a para­dox of com­par­a­tive intel­lec­tual his­tory; although “Der­rida, Fou­cault and Deleuze & co.” were embraced on this side of the Atlantic and pack­aged together “for what was seen as their anti-Marxism… they were banned from their home coun­try under the charges of a per­verse col­lu­sion with the worst of left­ist Marx­ism.”11

For var­i­ous rea­sons, the Amer­i­can recep­tion of Fou­cault emerged as the hege­monic one, and his con­cepts have crys­tal­lized into so many polit­i­cal ontolo­gies – “nor­ma­tiv­ity” in queer the­ory, “biopol­i­tics” and war in the works of Gior­gio Agam­ben, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri – but none of these ontolo­gies responds to our political-economic hori­zon of low or no-growth cap­i­tal­ism and its impli­ca­tions for state power, social insti­tu­tions, and resis­tance strug­gles. Indeed, the period char­ac­ter­ized by bub­ble­nomics, osten­si­ble ero­sions of state sov­er­eignty and the dif­fuse resis­tance offered by alter-globo and anti-war mul­ti­tudes, which once gave these Fou­cauldian assess­ments of the con­junc­ture a cer­tain bite in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has now cap­sized into a sit­u­a­tion of eco­nomic melt­down, con­sol­i­da­tions of old-fashioned class power, sov­er­eign debt crises, uneven reasser­tions of Euro-American mil­i­tary might and emer­gent strug­gles over aus­ter­ity mea­sures in the US and Europe along­side pop­u­lar rebel­lions against author­i­tar­ian regimes in the Mid­dle East.

The Amer­i­can hey­day of French The­ory now appears like a blip on the radar between the eco­nomic down­turn, debt cri­sis, youth unem­ploy­ment and Mideast upris­ings of the 1970s, which was Foucault’s con­junc­ture, and the eco­nomic chain reac­tion set off by the Amer­i­can banks in 2008, polit­i­cal upheavals,youth unem­ploy­ment and Arab Spring which con­sti­tutes our own. His polit­i­cal thought from this ear­lier period of eco­nomic cri­sis – espe­cially his thought con­cern­ing neolib­er­al­ism as an emer­gent art of gov­ern­ment for man­ag­ing the cri­sis ten­den­cies of cap­i­tal – merit a care­ful reap­praisal in light of the present conjuncture.

Most cru­cially for a reassess­ment of Foucault’s thought, all of his pub­lic lec­tures at the Col­lège de France have now been published.These lessons, which had pre­vi­ously cir­cu­lated on boot­leg cas­settes within a lim­ited milieu of con­nois­seurs, have now become a pub­lic record of Foucault’s intel­lec­tual tra­jec­tory from 1971 to his death in 1984. Although his will stip­u­lated that there were to be “no posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions” and Fou­cault admit­ted to being “aller­gic” to the record­ing devices clut­ter­ing his lectern, he under­stood their impor­tance: “word always gets out,” he affirms in a lec­ture from 1976.12 Indeed, with these pub­li­ca­tions, his lessons are no longer sub­ject to the dem­a­goguery and occul­ta­tion that so fre­quently accom­pa­nies arcana. The can­did form of the lec­tures reveals a remark­able tran­si­tional period from 1976 to 1979 in which Fou­cault expe­ri­enced a pro­found intel­lec­tual cri­sis and began a project of self-criticism, before turn­ing to the more eth­i­cal con­cerns that would char­ac­ter­ize his late period.

We may now be in the posi­tion to eval­u­ate the intel­lec­tual sig­nif­i­cance of this moment, and ven­ture a guess as to why the ever-prolific Fou­cault stopped pub­lish­ing from 1976 to 1983.13 Does the thought that emerges from this period of intel­lec­tual cri­sis and self-criticism bring into focus the insights and lim­i­ta­tions of Foucault’s ear­lier attempts to the­o­rize power?Does his empha­sis upon prob­lems of state­craft, his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness, and polit­i­cal econ­omy dur­ing this period rep­re­sent a depar­ture from or a cul­mi­na­tion of his ear­lier stud­ies of the inter­nal phys­iog­nomy of insti­tu­tions such as the mil­i­tary, pris­ons, med­i­cine and psychiatry?

No mat­ter how many col­lege fresh­men have their minds blown by a vir­ginal voy­age through Foucault’s work, his prob­lem­atic and its famil­iar con­stel­la­tion of sexy neol­o­gisms, “biopol­i­tics,” “panop­ti­cism,” and “gov­ern­men­tal­ity,” not to men­tion the dark atmos­pher­ics of a finely-meshed “net­work of power” in which “there is no out­side,” have been in cir­cu­la­tion for nearly thirty-five years.These terms have accreted a mean­ing that can­not be found in the orig­i­nal copy. This lan­guage and its many polit­i­cal valances – lib­eral, anar­chist, rad­i­cal – has gone in and out of fash­ion. The vin­tage of most “The­ory peo­ple” can be ascer­tained from their pre­ferred (or loathed) Fou­cauldian jar­gon. Per­haps with some dis­tance from this period, we are now in a posi­tion to eval­u­ate his remark­able and oscil­lat­ing attempts to think pol­i­tics with­out recourse to bour­geois con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of the state, law or rights.His old ene­mies – psy­chi­a­try, uni­ver­si­ties, pris­ons, human­ism, rights dis­course, and the remorse­less com­pul­sion to give an account of one’s sex­u­al­ity – have con­tin­ued to pro­lif­er­ate and expand along­side the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of his analy­ses of them.This para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion arouses the sus­pi­cion that these insti­tu­tions of power are not threat­ened by the attempt to reawaken the his­tor­i­cal mem­ory of their entry into the world, drip­ping with blood and dirt.In the absence of the social move­ments that once con­tested these insti­tu­tions, Foucault’s his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion up through the mid 1970s risks becom­ing a con­fessed cri­tique, an advanced kind of agi­ta­tion and pro­pa­ganda for a strug­gle that expe­ri­enced defeat and pyrrhic victories.

This con­clu­sion may be pre­ma­ture, but Fou­cault admit­ted as much around the time that he deliv­ered “Mesh of Power” to rad­i­cal stu­dents in Brazil. While edit­ing the final proofs of His­tory of Sex­u­al­ity, vol­ume 1, Fou­cault pub­licly pro­fessed to his audi­tors, as stu­dents are called at the Col­lège de France, that he was suf­fer­ing some­thing of an intel­lec­tual cri­sis. In his first lec­ture of 1976, Fou­cault begins the course by ques­tion­ing both the rel­e­vance and coher­ence of his intel­lec­tual project. He wor­ries that his research agenda “had no con­ti­nu­ity” and was “always falling into the same rut, the same themes, the same con­cepts,” ulti­mately fear­ing that “it’s all lead­ing us nowhere.” Char­ac­ter­iz­ing his genealog­i­cal method as an “insur­rec­tion of knowl­edges” against “sci­en­tific dis­course embod­ied in the Uni­ver­sity” – and here the attack on his old men­tor, Louis Althusser, is barely con­cealed – Fou­cault con­fronts the his­toric­ity of his own thought and the shift­ing cul­tural sta­tus of both the Uni­ver­sity and Marx­ism in France. He states that his work “was quite in keep­ing with a cer­tain period; with the very lim­ited period we have been liv­ing through for the last ten or fif­teen years.” A cer­tain num­ber of “changes in the con­junc­ture” sug­gest to him that “per­haps the bat­tle no longer looks quite the same.”14

Such sober assess­ments give one pause. Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish had just been pub­lished the pre­vi­ous year to great acclaim fol­low­ing an intense period of activism around pris­ons in France. The activ­i­ties of the Prison Infor­ma­tion Group (Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons, GIP) brought about suc­cess­ful reforms of France’s sen­tenc­ing prac­tices and penal sys­tem by foment­ing an unprece­dented wave of prison strikes, forc­ing the appa­ra­tus to become more open and trans­par­ent. In autumn of 1971, twenty pris­ons across France simul­ta­ne­ously exploded into open revolt against their cages and masters.

The suc­cess of the GIP was due in large part to the fact that many of its agi­ta­tors had them­selves been impris­oned for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties – thus the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity by the French state wound up politi­ciz­ing crime.15 In a curi­ously Maoist adap­ta­tion of the tra­di­tion of worker’s inquiries, the GIP smug­gled sur­veys to pris­on­ers to dis­cover weak points in the sys­tem and find out what demands they would make for their reform or abo­li­tion. Pris­on­ers forced anal­o­gous reforms in the US, due to the resis­tance and lit­i­ga­tion of mem­bers of the Nation of Islam who estab­lished an unprece­dented jurispru­dence per­tain­ing to prisoner’s rights in the 1970s.16 Dur­ing this era, French pris­ons per­mit­ted no vis­i­tors, unlike Amer­i­can pris­ons, and remained some­thing of an infor­ma­tion black hole. Fou­cault first vis­ited a prison while in the US; he toured the Attica Cor­rec­tional Facil­ity fol­low­ing its upris­ing and repression.

Due to his grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity, Foucault’s pub­lic lec­tures had become so uncom­fort­able and over-crowded as to per­mit lit­tle exchange or con­tact with students.Politically, the heady days of post-68 French ultra-gauchisme and “new social move­ments” had begun to wane. The milieu with whom Fou­cault had orga­nized and demon­strated in the early sev­en­ties began to dis­solve. Some of these Maoist com­rades became the nou­veaux philosophes, celebrity aca­d­e­mics pre­oc­cu­pied with total­i­tar­i­an­ism or the­o­log­i­cal con­cerns, cit­ing Fou­cault him­self as their inspi­ra­tion. The Stal­in­ized Marx­ism of the French Com­mu­nist Party (Par­tie com­mu­niste française, PCF) had also begun to decom­pose. The PCF had entered an alliance with François Mitterand’s new Social­ist Party, (Par­tie social­iste, PS), sign­ing a com­mon pro­gramme in 1973. The PCF aban­doned all ref­er­ences to the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat” and was forced to reeval­u­ate the legacy of Lenin dur­ing the 1976 firestorm sur­round­ing the French pub­li­ca­tion of Alek­sandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Arch­i­pel­ago, which detailed the abuses of the Soviet Union’s forced labor system.The alliance between the PCF and PS would pro­pel Mit­ter­rand into the pres­i­dency in 1981.All of this amounted to a tec­tonic shift in the intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal ter­rain of the post-68 Left in France.

The con­junc­ture com­ing to a close in the mid-1970s had opened with the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence in 1954, which did more to negate than con­struct a field of pol­i­tics and intel­lec­tual activ­ity in France – Sartre, de Beau­voir and Les temps mod­ernes were excep­tions in this regard. Reports of the bru­tal­ity and tor­ture of the gen­darmes were a major blow to the tra­di­tion of la République and its sup­pos­edly uni­ver­sal val­ues.17 Fol­low­ing the 1957 Bat­tle of Algiers, 1958 coup d’etat and mil­i­tary junta in Alge­ria, the col­lapse of the Fourth Repub­lic, and Charles de Gaulle’s return to the head of a much strength­ened exec­u­tive power, the non-Communist left was argu­ing that the Com­mu­nist and Social­ist par­ties had failed to use their moral and polit­i­cal high ground fol­low­ing the resis­tance to Nazi occu­pa­tion to estab­lish a clear direc­tion and pro­gram. Accord­ing to this view, they no longer rep­re­sented the his­tor­i­cal inter­ests or con­scious­ness of the French work­ing class. Cit­ing the aston­ish­ingly low union mem­ber­ship in France and the wild­cat strikes of ‘53 and ‘55, André Gia­cometti writes that “[t]he bulk of the work­ers is unor­ga­nized, and the real life of the working-class takes place out­side of their scope.”18 Spon­tane­ity was, in keep­ing with long-standing polit­i­cal legacy of French rad­i­cal­ism, still the nation’s only rev­o­lu­tion­ary hope. Sartre and other mem­bers of the non-Communist left saw the party’s sup­port of the Soviet Union’s inter­ven­tion in Hun­gary and the party’s tacit endorse­ment of the Alger­ian War as evi­dence of either a con­ser­v­a­tive turn in the tra­di­tional French work­ing class or a reformist and inte­gra­tionist turn of its offi­cial polit­i­cal organs, or both. Many intel­lec­tu­als of the non-Communist left no longer con­sid­ered “the Party” to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. In this regard, Althusser was the exception.

The rapid expan­sion of the uni­ver­sity sys­tem dur­ing the post­war eco­nomic and demo­graphic boom, along with oppo­si­tion to the Viet­nam War, had estab­lished a new polit­i­cal actor that would become essen­tial to the strug­gle in 1968: youth in gen­eral, and stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar. An increas­ingly edu­cated pop­u­la­tion cre­ated an his­tor­i­cally unprece­dented mar­ket for cul­tural jour­nal­ism, which lent non-party intel­lec­tu­als greater power and influence.The non-party Marx­ist tra­di­tion in France, as rep­re­sented by the work of Social­isme ou Bar­barie and the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional, had reached the con­clu­sion that rev­o­lu­tion­ary agi­ta­tion would have to out­flank estab­lished unions and par­ties if it was to gal­va­nize the population.

Decol­o­niza­tion strug­gles and polit­i­cal break­throughs in the Third World, above all China and Cuba, led to sig­nif­i­cant revi­sions of the the­ory of revolution.Regis Debray pub­lished Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion in 1967, propos­ing foquismo– a viral the­ory of how an armed rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard could dis­trib­ute hotbeds of dis­con­tent through­out a pop­u­la­tion, foment­ing a gen­eral fever of insur­rec­tion – based on the Che Guevara’s expe­ri­ence of guer­rilla war­fare dur­ing the 1959 Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. Beneath the ban­ner of a “rev­o­lu­tion in every­day life” and a renewed empha­sis upon the con­cept of alien­ation, Marx­ism became a the­o­ret­i­cal home for new social move­ments. The events of May 1968 dove­tailed these already exist­ing polit­i­cal currents.

After May-June 1968, the rev­o­lu­tion was no longer con­sid­ered a mat­ter of con­test­ing the own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion alone. State-managed cap­i­tal­ism was not a solu­tion to the social prob­lems iden­ti­fied by the new rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The divi­sion of labor, and espe­cially the author­ity struc­ture of man­agers, union bosses, inspec­tors, and func­tionar­ies in place to keep work­ers in line had to be contested.

In the pages of Les temps mod­ernes, Andre Gorz inter­preted May ‘68 as demon­strat­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon in West­ern Europe, and blamed its fail­ure on the PCF and CGT. Les temps mod­ernes under­took an explicit cri­tique of Lenin­ism from 1969 to 1971 and attacked insti­tu­tions from a rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­tic per­spec­tive, exhort­ing its read­ers to “destroy the Uni­ver­sity” as part of the strug­gle against the divi­sion of labor. Not only the abode of pro­duc­tion, but also those super­struc­tural appa­ra­tuses that repro­duce racial and class divi­sions, cre­ate divi­sions of labor, sup­port tra­di­tional roles for women, and prop up citizen/non-citizen dis­tinc­tions had to be assaulted.19

The extra-parliamentary pol­i­tics of the extreme Left of this period were announced by the 1969 text Vers la guerre civile (Towards Civil War), by indi­vid­u­als who would later found the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne. May ‘68 had, accord­ing to this view, “placed rev­o­lu­tion and class strug­gle at the cen­ter of every strat­egy. With­out play­ing the role of prophet: Rev­o­lu­tion is France’s hori­zon from ‘70 to ’72”; the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for such a strug­gle were iden­ti­fied as the “the pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion of the mass move­ment.”20 Vers la guerre civile empha­sizes the exem­plary use of ille­gal direct action, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat, and the strate­gic impor­tance of the divi­sion of labor for the main­te­nance of dis­ci­pline and hier­ar­chy. Armed strug­gle is invoked as the rad­i­cal legacy of the French work­ing class’s resis­tance to Nazi occu­pa­tion.21

The text pro­vided a pro­gramme for the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne (Pro­le­tar­ian Left, 1968-1973) which was con­sid­ered “a greater threat to state secu­rity than any other left-wing group” by the head of the renseigne­ments généraux (Gen­eral Intel­li­gence).22 With grou­pus­cules scat­tered through­out France, theirs was a pol­i­tics that com­bined vol­un­tarism, rad­i­cal democ­racy and spon­tane­ity. The new fig­ures of this rev­o­lu­tion were the immi­grant worker, ouvrier spé­cial­isé, and prison inmate. Impris­on­ment, state repres­sion, and union bureau­cra­cies were the forces that had, in the ter­mi­nol­ogy of this group­ing, “pro­le­tar­i­an­ized” the mass move­ment. The French state banned the sale of Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne’s broad­sheets in pub­lic spaces, which led to an engage­ment with intel­lec­tu­als of the non-communist left. Daniel Defert joined and invited Fou­cault to par­tic­i­pate in this group’s activ­i­ties. Sartre, Simone de Beau­voir, Fou­cault and other pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als were asked to con­tinue dis­tri­b­u­tion of the broad­sheets on the assump­tion that the Repub­lic would not arrest its lumières. Indeed, dis­tri­b­u­tion con­tin­ued unmo­lested. Foucault’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne even­tu­ally resulted in the found­ing of the Prison Infor­ma­tion Group.

As his­tory would have it, the warm after­glow of May ’68 in France turned out to be “a still­born rev­o­lu­tion – what should have been the turn­ing point of its mod­ern his­tory that, as in 1848, failed to turn.”23 Reflect­ing on this period with his char­ac­ter­is­tic wit, Foucault’s 1976 course hinges on an inver­sion of Clauswitz’s famous apho­rism that war is pol­i­tics con­tin­ued through other means, by trac­ing the geneal­ogy of the view that “pol­i­tics is a con­tin­u­a­tion of war by other means.”Although the theme imme­di­ately recalls the pre­vail­ing polit­i­cal lan­guage of a period of extreme left mil­i­tancy, Fou­cault has deeper philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal prob­lems in mind. In the dis­courses of the 17th and 18th cen­tury aris­toc­racy and rev­o­lu­tion­ary bour­geoisie, he attempts to track the entry of race and class war into his­tor­i­cal reflec­tion, artic­u­lat­ing the cen­tral para­dox of the “the­ory of right” within which mod­ern polit­i­cal strug­gles from the French Rev­o­lu­tion to con­tem­po­rary human rights dis­course become intel­li­gi­ble. Rights talk always appeals to an imag­i­nary his­tory of ancient priv­i­leges which, Fou­cault sug­gests, erect a whole series of dis­tinc­tively mod­ern polit­i­cal oppo­si­tions between the indi­vid­ual and society.

His­tor­i­cal thought is thus polit­i­cally use­ful to strug­gles over gov­ern­men­tal pri­or­i­ties and rec­i­p­ro­cal oblig­a­tions only to the extent that it empha­sizes one of two dis­cur­sive par­a­digms. On the one hand, the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of pol­i­tics as war priv­i­leges the moment of strug­gle, the moment of dom­i­na­tion: “what is being put for­ward as a prin­ci­ple for the inter­pre­ta­tion of soci­ety and its vis­i­ble order is the con­fu­sion of vio­lence, pas­sions, hatreds, rages, resent­ments, and bit­ter­ness.”24 On the other hand, one may priv­i­lege the moment of uni­ver­sal­ity and peace, the found­ing of cities and laws, accord­ing to which all his­tory would be noth­ing other than praise of Rome. Fou­cault con­sid­ers these to be the reac­tionary and lib­eral dis­courses of his­tory – here “reac­tionary” in the strict sense of reac­tion to an ascen­dant bour­geois lib­er­al­ism – reach­ing their high­est philo­soph­i­cal artic­u­la­tions in Hegel and Kant respec­tively, a strug­gle for recog­ni­tion or per­pet­ual peace.25 This dilemma and its bloody 20th cen­tury his­tory of national con­flict and state racism is, accord­ing to Fou­cault, the reef upon which the con­cept of power as dom­i­na­tion, repres­sion, and war comes to grief.

Thus, Fou­cault returns to pre-Marxist the­o­rists of class strug­gle – the Dig­gers, Henri de Boul­lainvil­liers and Abbé Siyès – to show that the rhetoric of class war has cer­tain genealog­i­cal affini­ties with pre-scientific and aris­to­cratic the­o­ries of race. The later crys­tal­liza­tion of sci­en­tific the­o­ries of race also have, as their imme­di­ate antecedent, cer­tain 19th cen­tury pseudo-scientific racial­iza­tions of lower classes.26 Instead of a “war-repression schema” Fou­cault calls for a the­ory of polit­i­cal power as essen­tially “pro­duc­tive,” that is as a set of tech­niques for reg­u­lat­ing human pop­u­la­tions and mak­ing bod­ily com­port­ment more effi­cient. The lec­tures from 1976 cul­mi­nate in an analy­sis of the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Nazi Ger­many and the forced labor sys­tem of the USSR as pro­duc­tive deploy­ments of the power to man­age pop­u­la­tions. It is an attempt to demon­strate the con­ti­nu­ity of these pol­i­tics with those of the Enlight­en­ment project: what estab­lishes their com­mon ground and pro­vides a grid of intel­li­gi­bil­ity for this his­tory is not, as in the Frank­furt School, the “ratio­nal irra­tional­ity” of cap­i­tal­ism; it is rather the phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion, as the liv­ing sub­stra­tum of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and mod­ern polit­i­cal power.

After a year-long sab­bat­i­cal in 1977, dur­ing which time Bernard-HenriLévy and Andre Glucks­mann take to the air­waves and tele­vi­sion screens pro­mot­ing their books La bar­barie à vis­age humain (Bar­barism with a Human Face, 1977) and Les maîtres penseurs (The Mas­ter Thinkers, 1977) with totalitarianism-mongering, Foucault’s lec­tures change course. This is also the year of Foucault’s reportage on the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. He becomes increas­ingly cir­cum­spect regard­ing his ear­lier descrip­tive lan­guage. He explic­itly aban­dons his claim that ours is a “dis­ci­pli­nary soci­ety” in 1978, argu­ing that power now oper­ates through more sub­tle lib­eral tech­niques pro­mot­ing free­dom of var­i­ous kinds.27 He aban­dons the words “biopol­i­tics” and “biopower” after the 1979 course, and con­cludes that they were noth­ing other than an attempt to grasp “‘lib­er­al­ism’… as a prin­ci­ple and method of the ratio­nal­iza­tion of the exer­cise of gov­ern­ment, a ratio­nal­iza­tion which obeys – and this is what is spe­cific about it – the inter­nal rule of max­i­mum econ­omy.”28 Per­haps after cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion and de-industrialization, the fac­tory dis­ci­pline no longer pro­vided the blue­print for power in advanced cap­i­tal­ist societies.

Future French edi­tions of Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish will qui­etly remove the phrase “carceral arch­i­pel­ago,” no doubt because Fou­cault wished to dis­tance him­self from the gulag­ism of Glucks­mann and Lévy. His lec­tures turn to an account of the his­tor­i­cal emer­gence of the con­cept of rai­son d’état and polit­i­cal eco­nomic thought as prac­ti­cal and reflec­tive schemas for the “art of gov­ern­ment” in the 17th and 18th cen­turies. He returns to the clas­sics of polit­i­cal econ­omy in order to make a remark­able analy­sis of Quesnay’s Tableau économique, the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, and the birth of neolib­er­al­ism. At times he seems to address him­self directly to the nou­veaux philosophes, con­fronting a car­i­ca­ture of his own thought on “secu­rity”: he crit­i­cizes right- and left-wing “state pho­bia” as elid­ing, “thanks to some play on words,” the dif­fer­ence between social secu­rity and con­cen­tra­tion camps; “the req­ui­site speci­ficity of analy­sis is diluted.”29 The lec­tures then veer into an analy­sis of the var­i­ous regimes of truth-telling among the early Chris­t­ian desert fathers and con­clude with an analy­sis of the prac­tice of Par­rhe­sia among the ancient Greeks, before Foucault’s project and life are sud­denly cut short by AIDS in 1984. The above intel­lec­tual his­tory sug­gests that, fol­low­ing his intel­lec­tual cri­sis and the clo­sure of cer­tain polit­i­cal hori­zons in France, Fou­cault refused to pro­vide a uni­fied polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and turned to more explic­itly “Marx­ist” themes when Marx­ism was being equated with bar­barism and had became unfash­ion­able for pub­lic intellectuals.

Foucault’s Con­cept of Power and its Rela­tion to Marx

In the wake of the May ’68 upris­ing, the French ultra-left attempted to cir­cum­vent the Com­mu­nist Party as the vehi­cle for the trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety, and sought to dis­place the state-capital nexus of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal the­ory by propos­ing a rad­i­cally expan­sive rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. Foucault’s thought from the early 1970s attempts to cap­ture these dis­parate and con­tra­dic­tory polit­i­cal cur­rents with a con­cept of pou­voir, or “power,” which he claims to have devel­oped out of the work of Ben­tham and Marx. This “power” posits the bio­log­i­cal and social phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion and the phys­i­cal move­ments of the human body not only as the eco­nomic sub­strate of pro­duc­tion, but also the polit­i­cal ground of con­tention and neu­tral­iza­tion. These kinds of knowl­edge, or gen­eral intel­lect – inter­ven­tions in the col­lec­tive social and bio­log­i­cal metab­o­lism, a New­ton­ian ana­lyt­ics of bod­ily com­port­ment, move­ment and habi­tus – make pos­si­ble wholly unprece­dented kinds of polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion, new forms of social engi­neer­ing and con­trol, that cre­ate a pro­duc­tive machine out of human mul­ti­plic­ity, a mul­ti­plic­ity pre­vi­ously wasted by polit­i­cal power.30 Fou­cault is try­ing to think about how a mod­ern polit­i­cal field, dif­fer­ent from abso­lutism, forms, takes shape, and allows for cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion to take place, while under­cut­ting worker mil­i­tancy by pro­vid­ing the pro­le­tariat with “secu­rity” (Polizewis­senschaft) – i.e., mod­est reforms that increase life expectancy, encour­age fam­ily life, and so on. This thought implies that Marx aban­doned the clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­mists’ for­mu­la­tions of the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion, only to redis­cover the phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion as class strug­gle and labor-power.Although this political-economic con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of “power” responds to Foucault’s par­tic­u­lar con­junc­ture of renewed inter­est in Marx, and the demand made by new social move­ments for a more expan­sive model of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject, it is not reducible to such.

By con­ceiv­ing of a prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal moder­nity in terms of the pro­duc­tive man­age­ment of human pop­u­la­tions and bod­ies, Fou­cault strate­gi­cally returns to Marx in order to short cir­cuit the ten­dency of bour­geois thought – and of many Marx­ists, for that mat­ter! – to reify the “state appa­ra­tus” by con­ceiv­ing of power in vul­gar terms of prop­erty own­er­ship, seizure of prop­erty and alienation.This is, accord­ing to Fou­cault, a pro­foundly anthro­po­mor­phic con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the polit­i­cal field. Polit­i­cal power ulti­mately appears as a con­spir­acy of inter­ests which receive rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the state appa­ra­tus; whereas power actu­ally resides in the coor­di­na­tion, cir­cu­la­tion, and pro­duc­tive employ­ment of a mul­ti­plic­ity of forces with­out any “mas­ter plan” or inventor.The gov­ern­ment of these forces is not pro­vided by some cen­tral com­mit­tee of the rul­ing class; it is pro­vided by a non-subjective inten­tion­al­ity or abstract com­pul­sion – the prin­ci­ple of “max­i­mum econ­omy,” the com­pul­sion to work for some­one else to repro­duce your life – which pro­vides the polit­i­cal field with a for­mal unity and prin­ci­pal of intelligibility.

Fou­cault also returns to Marx in order to neu­tral­ize the ten­dency of many fel­low trav­el­ers on the Left to con­ceive of power in terms of sup­pres­sion, which Fou­cault con­sid­ered the polit­i­cal par­a­digm of an early mod­ern tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. He held that both ten­den­cies of thought – power as own­er­ship, power as sup­pres­sion – ulti­mately affirmed the lib­eral model of soci­ety accord­ing to which “soci­ety is rep­re­sented as a con­trac­tual asso­ci­a­tion of iso­lated juridi­cal sub­jects.” To claim such posi­tions for Marx is to aban­don his cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy and merely “re-subscribes us to the bour­geois the­ory of power.” In the polem­i­cal judge­ment pro­nounced in “Mesh of Power,” these alter­nate con­cep­tions of power “Rousseauify Marx,” as if the social form of cap­i­tal­ism were some contract-based free-association of indi­vid­u­als air-dropped from the heav­ens, for­ever abol­ish­ing man’s more per­fect nat­ural state.According to Fou­cault: “The indi­vid­ual is no doubt the fic­ti­tious atom of an ‘ide­o­log­i­cal’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion of soci­ety; but he is also a real­ity fab­ri­cated by this spe­cific tech­nol­ogy of power that I have called ‘dis­ci­pline.’”31

The above pas­sage imme­di­ately recalls Marx’s lan­guage from the intro­duc­tion to Grun­drisse.32 Fou­cault is attempt­ing to trace the geneal­ogy of a social form in which com­mod­ity rela­tions pre­dom­i­nate by grasp­ing the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of the iso­lated indi­vid­u­als of exchange. This trans­for­ma­tion is not the inevitable out­come of the tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion. Instead, the moment of tran­si­tion has to be under­stood as a con­tin­gent out­come of a new form of pol­i­tics, which Fou­cault calls, again fol­low­ing Marx, “dis­ci­pline.” The rel­e­vant pas­sages in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish explic­itly cite Marx’s dis­cus­sion of “coop­er­a­tion” in Cap­i­tal, vol­ume 1, and his exchanges with Engels about the ori­gins of fac­tory dis­ci­pline in mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline. Fou­cault asks how a trib­u­tary sov­er­eign power to levy a tax – on pro­duce, blood, trade, etc. – tran­si­tions to a pro­duc­tive eco­nomic power gen­er­a­tive of sur­plus. The thread of this thought about the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism proper – rather than the ori­gins of mere mar­ket exchange – and its care­ful play on Marx­ist lan­guage can be fol­lowed through all of Foucault’s pub­lished works, though his cita­tions and insin­u­a­tions are rarely as obvi­ous as they appear in “Mesh of Power” or Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.

Pre­sented very schemat­i­cally, consider:

1. His analy­ses of the con­fine­ment of pau­pers and the mad in the same work­houses inMad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion (1961).

2.His con­cern for the pas­sage from an analy­sis of wealth to polit­i­cal econ­omy in The Order of Things.

3. His analy­sis of the impor­tance of dis­ci­pline in the devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.33

4. His asser­tion that human life is the real mate­r­ial sub­strate of an expand­ing and pro­duc­tive deploy­ment of polit­i­cal power in The His­tory of Sex­u­al­ity(1976).

5. His very explicit analy­ses of Phys­io­cratic thought and the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism in Secu­rity, Ter­ri­tory, Pop­u­la­tion (1978).

6. Finally, his pre­sen­ta­tion of the prob­lem of the polit­i­cal sub­ject of neolib­er­al­ism, ver­sus that of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy in The Birth of Biopol­i­tics (1979).

These are not merely inci­den­tal pas­sages or asides. They are in fact quite cru­cial to under­stand­ing Foucault’s cen­tral his­tor­i­cal claims; each of them returns us to Marx.

Per­haps gen­er­ous minds will grant that Fou­cault was a care­ful reader of Marx, a scholar who appre­ci­ated the latter’s enor­mously sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal account of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. But what would it mean to argue that Foucault’s thought expresses some essen­tial under­ly­ing polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual affin­ity for Marx’s project – one pos­si­bly even deserv­ing of the moniker “Marx­ist”? There are many dan­gers to this kind of inter­pre­ta­tion. It must be atten­tive to Foucault’s strong polit­i­cal cyn­i­cism. It requires a full recon­struc­tion of Marx’s thought as well as Foucault’s, and there is no space for that dis­cus­sion here. But this read­ing strat­egy faces other objec­tions as well, con­sid­er­ing his well known cri­tique of the author-function. Wouldn’t call­ing his thought “Marx­ist,” even grant­ing a bit of iron­i­cal dis­tance from such a claim, be to engage in what Jacques Lacan termed “Uni­ver­sity Dis­course,” the use of proper nouns, a chain of sig­ni­fiers in place of actual thought or truth?34

Such an oper­a­tion may be jus­ti­fi­able in Foucault’s own terms. Fou­cault makes the case in “What is an Author?” that cer­tain founders of dis­course, such as Marx and Freud, open up entirely new fields of inquiry, explod­ing the lim­its of what is sayable. Fou­cault con­sid­ers their thought to be infi­nitely pro­duc­tive. New appli­ca­tions and trans­for­ma­tions of such thought have the qual­ity of “reac­ti­va­tions,” for the philoso­pher avails him­self of a new zeit­geist only in order to clear the cob­webs away from old prob­lems.35 Such claims are close to Sartre’s argu­ment in the intro­duc­tion to Cri­tique of Dialec­ti­cal Rea­son that Marx is the untran­scend­able hori­zon of our thought.

The wager of the fol­low­ing is that it is pre­cisely in the spirit of a reac­ti­va­tion of Marx – rather than a faith­ful recita­tion of a dead let­ter, or some more thor­ough crit­i­cal recon­struc­tion – that Fou­cault pur­sued his his­tor­i­cal analy­ses of power. Foucault’s result­ing body of work is a tes­ta­ment to just how fruit­ful or fruit­less such an approach may be. Ulti­mately, we must admit the pos­si­bil­ity that his glib dis­missals of Marx were face­tious. To admit this pos­si­bil­ity is to sug­gest that, by mis­un­der­stand­ing or reject­ing Fou­cault, self-professed Marx­ists are tak­ing the bait. They risk demon­strat­ing that they haven’t under­stood some­thing essen­tial in their master’s discourse.

Although Fou­cault was under no illu­sion that he had sup­planted Marx, he may have con­sid­ered him­self an inher­i­tor of Marx’s project. I quote his words on the sub­ject from a 1978 inter­view with a Japan­ese Marx­ist at length and with­out comment:

So long as we con­sider Marx­ism to be a unity [ensem­ble] of the forms of appear­ance of power con­nected, in one way or another, to the words of Marx [la parole de Marx], then to sys­tem­at­i­cally exam­ine each and every one of these forms of appear­ance is the least that a man liv­ing in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury could do. Even today we are pas­sively, scorn­fully, fear­fully and inter­est­edly sub­mit­ting to this power, whereas it’s nec­es­sary to com­pletely lib­er­ate our­selves from it. This must be sys­tem­at­i­cally exam­ined with the gen­uine sen­ti­ment that we are com­pletely free in rela­tion to Marx. Of course, to be free with regards to Marx­ism does not imply return­ing again to the source to show what Marx actu­ally said, grasp­ing his words [sa parole] in their purest state, and treat­ing them like the one and only law. It cer­tainly doesn’t mean demon­strat­ing, for exam­ple, with the Althusser­ian method, how the gospel [la véri­ta­ble parole] of the prophet Marx has been mis­in­ter­preted. These for­mal ques­tions are unim­por­tant. How­ever, recon­firm­ing the func­tional unity of the forms of appear­ance of power, which are con­nected to Marx’s own state­ments [la parole de Marx lui-même], strikes me as a wor­thy endeavor.36

Polit­i­cal Questions

Three cru­cial ques­tions are raised by “Mesh of Power.” The first con­cerns Foucault’s curi­ous claim that he derives his the­ory of power, at least in part, from the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal. The sec­ond con­cerns “the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion” as the con­cept which gives Foucault’s dis­parate his­tor­i­cal stud­ies a the­matic unity, despite his protests to the contrary;the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion returns us to the ques­tion of the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism and that of any uncer­tain con­tem­po­rary tran­si­tion out of capitalism.The third con­cerns his response to the ques­tion raised at the very end of the lec­ture by a female audi­tor, which will return us to the themes of Foucault’s his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture and the prob­lem of his reception.

1. The ques­tion of Cap­i­tal. Marx’s the­ory of the expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal is impor­tant because he is attempt­ing to describe the unity of dis­parate social processes. Although mar­ket soci­ety has anar­chic qual­i­ties, there is a unity to the social form of pro­duc­tion. Marx avoided the dead­locks of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy with the con­cept of labor-power. Labour, as such, does not cir­cu­late on the mar­ket. The poten­tial for labor –la force de tra­vail, Arbeit­skraft – is what cir­cu­lates. Labor as force, as poten­tial, as power is exchange­able accord­ing to abstract equiv­a­lence regard­less of its par­tic­u­lar uses because the mar­ket estab­lishes a con­crete min­i­mum stan­dard for its value: the labor nec­es­sary to repro­duce labor as human life. Hence, “liv­ing labour.”

Although it is impor­tant to main­tain a dis­tinc­tion between the two, Fou­cault unfolds “power,” as a cat­e­gory of thought, in a way anal­o­gous to Marx’s unfold­ing of the cat­e­gory of “cap­i­tal” in his the­ory of expanded reproduction.“Capital” is invested in means of pro­duc­tion, infra­struc­ture, and the built envi­ron­ment just as “cap­i­tal” is invested in liv­ing labour. With­out either cir­cuit, or depart­ment, “cap­i­tal” can­not real­ize the value crys­tal­ized in com­modi­ties. This dou­ble move­ment is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates cap­i­tal­ism from mere rent extrac­tion; it is what his­tor­i­cally and cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­tin­guishes “rel­a­tive” from “absolute” sur­plus value extrac­tion. It is the source of capital’s peri­odic, and per­haps ter­mi­nal, cri­sis tendencies.

For Fou­cault, “power” is a unity of both power and resis­tance. “Power” sus­tains and guar­an­tees the life of human pop­u­la­tions just as “power” is invested in the orga­ni­za­tion of a fac­tory, the plan for a prison, or the orga­ni­za­tion of city streets accord­ing to a grid.The pro­duc­tive orga­ni­za­tion of human bod­ies and pop­u­la­tions is a tech­nol­ogy, he argues, just as impor­tant to the mode of pro­duc­tion as the machines whose smooth oper­a­tion it allows. He gave this term “power” a polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance out­side the abode of pro­duc­tion, as an alter­na­tive to rep­re­sen­ta­tional the­o­ries of polit­i­cal power, but locates the ori­gins of this “power” in the abode of pro­duc­tion and in cer­tain early mod­ern mil­i­tary inno­va­tions. Accord­ingly, the divi­sions set up by the “power” Fou­cault describes are not reducible to those of class. In the lec­tures from ‘78 he argues that polit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy of secu­rity dis­tin­guishes between “essen­tial” and “non-essential” lev­els of the pop­u­la­tion in order to deter­mine accept­able lev­els of risk. That is, Phys­io­cratic reforms per­tain­ing to grain short­ages were not attempts to elim­i­nate star­va­tion. They were attempts to use mar­ket mech­a­nisms to dis­trib­ute scarcity within iso­lated pock­ets of the pop­u­la­tion, attempts to pro­tect against mass hunger and scarcity which threat­ened polit­i­cal insta­bil­ity. The polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions he iso­lates – per­tain­ing to san­i­ta­tion, hous­ing, epi­demic dis­ease, insur­ance, mass immi­gra­tion, wel­fare, and so on – emerge quite late in the 19th cen­tury, as a result of polit­i­cal reforms and exi­gen­cies that had only just begun in Marx’s time.

2. The ques­tion of pop­u­la­tion. Genealogy’s abil­ity to jux­ta­pose rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent con­junc­tures enables a thought about the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism which sheds light on the present moment in a way that other his­to­ries can­not. The­o­riz­ing the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion caused Fou­cault to revise his ear­lier claims about power; the con­cept of “secu­rity” rep­re­sents a return to polit­i­cal econ­omy and a more care­ful peri­odiza­tion of “dis­ci­pline” as inter­nal to a tran­si­tion to a cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, after which dis­ci­pline is in the ser­vice of more lib­eral arts of gov­ern­ment. Fou­cault locates the epis­temic and polit­i­cal break of moder­nity in the thought of the Phys­iocrats and their his­tor­i­cal role within the French abso­lutist state. In an attempt to think the rad­i­cally incom­men­su­rable, Fou­cault poses the fol­low­ing prob­lem: within a largely back­wards and pop­u­lous region of Europe, in which a set of class rela­tions par­tic­u­lar to the French abso­lutist state fore­stalled the full tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism until the 19th cen­tury, a prop­erly mod­ern polit­i­cal eco­nomic the­ory of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity emerges in the 18th cen­tury due to a suc­ces­sion of demo­graphic crises which directly threat­ened monar­chi­cal power and cre­ated a remark­ably polar­ized polit­i­cal field. How­ever, this new art of eco­nomic gov­ern­ment ‘remained imprisoned…within the forms of the admin­is­tra­tive monar­chy.’37 The pop­u­la­tion, accord­ing to Fou­cault, pro­vides a uni­fy­ing – if not entirely uni­fied – field of prac­tice for the tran­si­tion from an analy­sis of wealth to polit­i­cal econ­omy, from nat­ural his­tory to biol­ogy, from gen­eral gram­mar to philol­ogy.38

I would like to sug­gest that Fou­cault calls this new orga­ni­za­tion of power “secu­rity” because he is his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated at the moment in which the ris­ing post-war demand for hous­ing credit in the United States required the struc­tured financ­ing of mort­gage pools in the 1970s: the secu­ri­ti­za­tion of debt. Such devel­op­ments enabled Fou­cault to ven­ture the hypoth­e­sis that the utopian pro­gramme of neo-liberalism is not “a super mar­ket soci­ety, but an enter­prise soci­ety. “Thus, he con­ceived of this new phase of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, inau­gu­rat­ing our own late cap­i­tal­ist era, in terms of a trans­for­ma­tion in the man­age­ment of polit­i­cal dan­ger and mar­ket risk.39 In Foucault’s final analy­sis, neo-liberalism is not a reac­ti­va­tion of the prac­tice of lais­sez faire, for the state must “inter­vene on soci­ety so that com­pet­i­tive mech­a­nisms can play a reg­u­la­tive role at every moment and every point in soci­ety and by inter­ven­ing in this way its objec­tive will become pos­si­ble… a gen­eral reg­u­la­tion of soci­ety by the mar­ket.”40

How­ever, what does Fou­cault allow us to see about the birth of neolib­er­al­ism that pre­vail­ing accounts of the cri­sis of the 1970s in terms of finan­cial­iza­tion, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, and the con­sol­i­da­tion of class power fail to bring into view?In unequiv­o­cal terms, Fou­cault asserts: “Neo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not mar­ket soci­ety; neo-liberalism is not the Gulag on the insid­i­ous scale of cap­i­tal­ism.”41 For the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, it was the dis­cus­sion of “com­mod­ity fetishism” in Book I of Cap­i­tal, vol­ume 1,and the infa­mous “ten­dency of the rate of profit to fall” from vol­ume 3, which pre­vented them from grasp­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of this new form of gov­ern­men­tal power. In an analy­sis of the Frank­furt School, which could be mobi­lized to crit­i­cize con­tem­po­rary the­o­rists of the grim arcana of “biopower” today, Fou­cault argues that it was Max Weber’s influ­ence that dis­placed Marx’s prob­lem­atic of the con­tra­dic­tory logic of cap­i­tal in 20th cen­tury Ger­many. The prob­lem of “the irra­tional ratio­nal­ity of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety” would – in the wake of Nazism, polit­i­cal exile and the destruc­tion unleashed by the sec­ond world war – moti­vate the Marx­ists of the Frank­furt School and the ordolib­er­als of the Freiburg School to crit­i­cize the irra­tional excesses of cap­i­tal­ism, rather than ana­lyz­ing its for­ward march through inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions and crises. Fou­cault con­cludes that, for both schools, Nazism rep­re­sented “the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal ‘Road to Dam­as­cus’… the field of adver­sity that they would have to define and cross in order to reach their objec­tive.” As for the polit­i­cal out­come: “his­tory had it that in 1968 the last dis­ci­ples of the Frank­furt School clashed with the police of a gov­ern­ment inspired by the Freiburg School, thus find­ing them­selves on oppo­site sides of the bar­ri­cades.”42 Neo-liberalism and its pro­po­nents seem to have emerged – from the bar­ri­cades and occu­pa­tions in Berke­ley, Paris or Frank­furt – the vic­tor of this his­toric clash of forces.

In Foucault’s view, actu­ally exist­ing social­ism rep­re­sented a hyper­tro­phied ratio­nal­iza­tion of exist­ing arts of government.It had pro­posed strong eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal par­a­digms but failed to pro­vide a “rea­son­able and cal­cu­la­ble mea­sure of the extent, modes and objec­tives of gov­ern­men­tal action.”In the absence of a gov­ern­men­tal art of its own, Fou­cault argues, social­ism was forced by its his­tor­i­cal strug­gles to con­nect up with lib­er­al­ism, on the one hand – as a “cor­rec­tive and a pal­lia­tive to inter­nal dan­gers” – or to a large admin­is­tra­tive appa­ra­tus and police state, as in the Soviet Union, on the other.43

3. The ques­tion of hys­ter­i­cal dis­course. Fou­cault refused hys­ter­i­cal discourse.He said it was sim­plis­tic, used by reac­tionar­ies, dem­a­gogues, and racists, and obscured the impor­tant his­tor­i­cal ques­tions. In con­fronting a car­i­ca­ture of his own thought, Fou­cault had to appeal to Marx. This moment in “Mesh of Power” epit­o­mizes Foucault’s intel­lec­tual tra­jec­tory after the cri­sis of 1976. Return­ing to Marx was far more cru­cial dur­ing a reac­tionary period than dur­ing one of rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval.

Like Engels at the close of the 19th cen­tury, Fou­cault spent his final years con­tem­plat­ing early Chris­t­ian move­ments and their prac­tices of free love.44 Foucault’s response to talk of bath­house clo­sures in New York, San Fran­cisco, and Mon­tréal was a prin­ci­pled stance rather than the hys­ter­ics that char­ac­ter­ized the main­stream gay movement’s responses. In an inter­view with Gai pied (Gay Foot) from 1982, Fou­cault did not require a the­ory of “het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity” to oppose gay bath­house clo­sures. It was sim­ply a mat­ter of oppos­ing this exten­sion of police power on principle:

it is nec­es­sary to be intran­si­gent, we can­not make a com­pro­mise between tol­er­ance and intol­er­ance, we can­not but be on the side of tol­er­ance. It isn’t a mat­ter of search­ing for an equi­lib­rium between the per­se­cu­tor and per­se­cuted. We can­not give our­selves the objec­tive of win­ning mil­lime­ter by mil­lime­ter. On this issue of the rela­tion between police and sex­ual plea­sure, it’s nec­es­sary to go the dis­tance and take prin­ci­pled posi­tions.45

A Social­ist Art of Government

Fou­cault appro­pri­ately con­sid­ered the “utopian dream” of neolib­er­al­ism to be an “enter­prise soci­ety,” a soci­ety which treats human life and its risks as income streams. It encour­ages own­er­ship and guar­an­tees a min­i­mum social safety net in order to pre­vent the for­ma­tion of a class in open rebel­lion against their tech­no­cratic mas­ters. Where these soft touches do not work, police power is deployed. Fou­cault iden­ti­fies the ide­o­log­i­cal basis of this polit­i­cal eco­nomic sys­tem as a “cul­ture of dan­ger,” a dark glamor in which the risks of this sys­tem pro­vide occa­sion for a mor­al­iz­ing dis­course. This is the stuff of the 24-hour news cycle and Andy Warhol’s “super­stars.” We are now observ­ing this utopian dream come to grief on its own con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity: the defeat of class strug­gles of the 1970s and dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of the West have cre­ated a pop­u­la­tion prob­lem inter­nal to advanced cap­i­tal­ist states anal­o­gous to that of the sur­plus human­ity in devel­op­ing coun­tries.46 This is the polit­i­cal hori­zon of the Occupy move­ment, and its pro­fessed sol­i­dar­ity with events in Tunis and Egypt is not merely hubris. The Left is once again caught in a tac­ti­cal stran­gle­hold, forced to defend the most mod­est of social safety nets – pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, wel­fare, pen­sions etc. – against neolib­eral shock therapy.

By return­ing to Marx’s prob­lem­atic of the pop­u­la­tion as a cen­tral con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal, Fou­cault pro­vides insights into our polit­i­cal moment. What hap­pens to power when human life becomes super­flu­ous to the mode of pro­duc­tion? The lessons Fou­cault derives from the expe­ri­ence of the 1970s sug­gest that such ques­tions will be decided by a strug­gle, but we need more than just strug­gle to chal­lenge neolib­er­al­ism. We need a new art of gov­ern­ment. The con­clu­sion to the above men­tioned lec­ture from 1979 is a chal­lenge to the his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion: “the impor­tance of the text in social­ism is com­men­su­rate with the lacuna con­sti­tuted by the absence of a social­ist art of government.”Foucault then asks, “What gov­ern­men­tal­ity is pos­si­ble as a strictly, intrin­si­cally, and autonomously social­ist gov­ern­men­tal­ity?” Doubt­ing that a social­ist art of gov­ern­ment can be found in the his­tory of social­ism or its texts, Fou­cault con­cludes: “It must be invented.”47

  • 1. Michel Fou­cault, “Chronol­ogy,” Dits et écrits I, 1954-1975, eds. Daniel Defert, François Ewald (Paris: Jacques Lagrange, 2001), 42. Trans­la­tions from French are mine unless oth­er­wise noted.
  • 2. Wal­ter Ben­jamin, “On the Con­cept of His­tory,” (1940).

Issue 3: Workers’ Inquiry

Workers’ inquiry: a genealogy

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's exhaustive look at 'workers' inquiries' and how they were practiced and theorized by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme Ou Barbarie and operaismo groups.

Exact and Pos­i­tive Knowl­edge: Marx’s Questionnaire

In 1880, La Revue social­iste asked an aging Karl Marx to draft a ques­tion­naire to be cir­cu­lated among the French work­ing class. Called “A Work­ers’ Inquiry,” it was a list of exactly 101 detailed ques­tions, inquir­ing about every­thing from meal times to wages to lodg­ing.1 On a closer look, there seems to be a pro­gres­sion in the line of ques­tion­ing. The first quar­ter or so ask seem­ingly dis­in­ter­ested ques­tions about the trade, the com­po­si­tion of the work­force employed at the firm, and the gen­eral con­di­tions of the shop, while the final quar­ter gen­er­ally shifts to more explic­itly polit­i­cal ques­tions about oppres­sion, “resis­tance asso­ci­a­tions,” and strikes.

The ques­tion­naire began with a few prefa­tory reflec­tions on the project as a whole. These fif­teen or so lines basi­cally amounted to a sin­gle prin­ci­ple: learn­ing from the work­ing class itself. Only the work­ing class could pro­vide mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion on its own exis­tence, just as only the work­ing class itself could build the new world. But behind this sim­ple call lay a num­ber of com­plex moti­va­tions, objec­tives, and inten­tions, mak­ing work­ers’ inquiry – this seem­ingly mod­est desire to learn from the work­ers – a highly ambigu­ous, mul­ti­fac­eted, and inde­ter­mi­nate project from the very start.

At its most rudi­men­tary level, work­ers’ inquiry was to be the empir­i­cal study of work­ers, a com­monly neglected object of inves­ti­ga­tion at the time. “Not a sin­gle gov­ern­ment, whether monar­chy or bour­geois repub­lic, has yet ven­tured to under­take a seri­ous inquiry into the posi­tion of the French work­ing class,” Marx lamented. “But what a num­ber of inves­ti­ga­tions have been under­taken into crises – agri­cul­tural, finan­cial, indus­trial, com­mer­cial, political!”

Since these other forms of inves­ti­ga­tion – like those end­less gov­ern­ment inquiries into this or that cri­sis – sim­ply could not pro­duce any real knowl­edge of the work­ing class, some new form of inves­ti­ga­tion had to be devel­oped. Its objec­tive, as those hun­dred ques­tions reveal, would be to amass as much fac­tual mate­r­ial about work­ers as pos­si­ble. The goal, Marx wrote, should be to acquire “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.”

Of course, even in Marx’s time, health inspec­tors and oth­ers had already begun to under­take this kind of inves­ti­ga­tion into the world of the work­ing class. But not only were these offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tions unsys­tem­atic and par­tial, they treated work­ers as mere objects of study, in the man­ner of the soil and seeds of those well-investigated agri­cul­tural crises. What set worker’s inquiry apart from these other empir­i­cal stud­ies was the belief that the work­ing class itself knew more about cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion than any­one else. It is the “work­ers in town and coun­try,” Marx thought, who “alone can describe with full knowl­edge the mis­for­tunes from which they suffer.”

With this brief inter­ven­tion, Marx estab­lished a fun­da­men­tal epis­te­mo­log­i­cal chal­lenge. What was the rela­tion­ship between the work­ers’ knowl­edge of their exploita­tion, and the sci­en­tific analy­sis of the “laws of motion” of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety? In Cap­i­tal, he devoted many pages to doc­u­ment­ing the labor process, yet this seemed to be part of a log­i­cal expo­si­tion which began with the crit­i­cal expo­si­tion of value, an abstract cat­e­gory of bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­omy. He nev­er­the­less main­tained in his 1873 after­word that “In so far as such a cri­tique rep­re­sents a class, it can only rep­re­sent the class whose his­tor­i­cal task is the over­throw of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the final abo­li­tion of all classes – the pro­le­tariat.”2 Louis Althusser, in his famous Pref­ace to the French trans­la­tion, sug­gested that this meant that Cap­i­tal could only be under­stood from a specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian view­point, since that is “the only view­point which makes vis­i­ble the real­ity of the exploita­tion of wage labour power, which con­sti­tutes the whole of cap­i­tal­ism.”3 Yet Marx’s own view remains unclear. Was work­ers’ inquiry a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian view­point? Was it sim­ply the work­ers’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in gen­er­at­ing a uni­ver­sal knowledge?

What is abun­dantly clear is that Marx had a high esti­ma­tion of the autonomous activ­ity of the work­ing class. Not only would work­ers pro­vide knowl­edge about the nature of cap­i­tal­ism, they would be the only ones who could over­throw it: only the work­ers in town and coun­try, “and not sav­iors sent by prov­i­dence, can ener­get­i­cally apply the heal­ing reme­dies for the social ills which they are prey.” This prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry, then, implied a cer­tain con­nec­tion between pro­le­tar­ian knowl­edge and pro­le­tar­ian pol­i­tics. Social­ists would begin by learn­ing from the work­ing class about its own mate­r­ial con­di­tions. Only then would they be able to artic­u­late strate­gies, com­pose the­o­ries, and draft pro­grams. Inquiry would there­fore be the nec­es­sary first step in artic­u­lat­ing a his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate social­ist project.

The prac­tice of dis­sem­i­nat­ing the inquiry also rep­re­sented a step towards orga­niz­ing this project, by estab­lish­ing direct links with work­ers. “It is not essen­tial to reply to every ques­tion,” Marx wrote. “The name of the work­ing man or woman who is reply­ing will not be pub­lished with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion but the name and address should be given so that if nec­es­sary we can send com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” For some, this attempt to forge real con­tacts with the work­ers was in fact a gen­uine inten­tion of the project.

Of course, Marx men­tions noth­ing about build­ing orga­ni­za­tions in this short arti­cle. How­ever, he would later indi­cate that research and orga­ni­za­tion had a close rela­tion­ship. In 1881, just a year after pen­ning this ques­tion­naire, Marx received a let­ter from a young social­ist who wanted to know what he thought about the recent calls to refound the Inter­na­tional Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion. Marx revealed that he was opposed to this project. The “crit­i­cal junc­ture” for such an asso­ci­a­tion had not arrived, and attempt­ing to form one would be “not merely use­less but harm­ful,” since it would not be “related to the imme­di­ate given con­di­tions in this or that par­tic­u­lar nation.”4

So any orga­ni­za­tion had to be tied to con­crete his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. We can con­clude from Marx’s enthu­si­as­tic response to La Revue social­iste that he granted a strate­gic role to research; in this spe­cific con­junc­ture, inquiry was a more appro­pri­ate mea­sure than launch­ing an orga­ni­za­tion, and was per­haps even its precondition.

Marx died a few years after this first stab at inquiry, never receiv­ing a sin­gle response. But the project would have a remark­able after­life in the fol­low­ing cen­tury. As we pull away from Marx’s orig­i­nal blue­print to sur­vey the much longer his­tory of work­ers’ inquiry, it is hard not to notice the remark­able insta­bil­ity of this prac­tice. Though nearly every exam­ple touches the coor­di­nates first devel­oped by Marx, inquiry has been pol­y­semic and con­tra­dic­tory. This intro­duc­tion will sur­vey its devel­op­ment as a way of inves­ti­gat­ing its under­ly­ing questions.

Rais­ing Con­scious­ness: The Johnson-Forest Tendency

While fig­ures like Pierre Nav­ille and Simone Weil had ear­lier pub­lished first­hand accounts of fac­tory life, Marx’s project was only truly rein­car­nated in 1947, when the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency released a short pam­phlet called The Amer­i­can Worker. Named after the pseu­do­nyms of its two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists, CLR James (J.R. John­son), the Trinida­dian author of The Black Jacobins, and Raya Dunayevskaya (Fred­die For­est), Leon Trotsky’s one­time assis­tant, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency first emerged in 1941 as an oppo­si­tional cur­rent within the Trot­sky­ist Work­ers’ Party. In 1947, the year they spon­sored their first inquiry, this mar­ginal though respected cur­rent left the WP over what was then known as the “Negro Ques­tion.” While the Work­ers’ Party argued for a sin­gle, broad, mul­tira­cial move­ment orga­nized under the slo­gan “Black and White, Unite and Fight,” the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency coun­tered that the black com­mu­nity had its own spe­cific needs, which could not be peremp­to­rily sub­sumed under such a homog­e­niz­ing move­ment, and along with other oppressed minori­ties should strug­gle for its own auton­omy.5

In 1951, after break­ing from Trot­sky­ism alto­gether, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency formed Cor­re­spon­dence, with a news­pa­per of the same name.6 Cor­re­spon­dence, whose first issue was released that Novem­ber, was to be a new kind of paper. Prin­ci­pally writ­ten, edited, and dis­trib­uted by work­ers them­selves, it was intended to serve as a forum in which work­ers could share their own expe­ri­ences. Reflect­ing the Tendency’s con­tin­ued empha­sis on the pri­macy of autonomous needs, each issue was delib­er­ately divided into four sec­tions – for fac­tory work­ers, blacks, youth, and women – so that each sec­tor of the broader work­ing class would have its own inde­pen­dent space to dis­cuss what con­cerned them most. The hope was that in writ­ing about their lives, work­ers would come to see that their prob­lems were not per­sonal, but social. A 1955 edi­to­r­ial titled “Gripes and Griev­ances” stated the pur­pose of the paper: “When mil­lions of work­ers are express­ing the same gripe about their job, the fore­man, the union, and the com­pany, it is no longer a gripe, it becomes a social prob­lem. That gripe or griev­ance no longer affects just this or that indi­vid­ual, it affects all of soci­ety.”7 The objec­tive of the paper, then, was to make peo­ple real­ize the uni­ver­sal­ity of their seem­ingly par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences, by pro­vid­ing a space where they could be dis­sem­i­nated. Draw­ing an anal­ogy to polio, which, they claimed, was once con­sid­ered a per­sonal prob­lem before being accepted as a social con­cern, the edi­tors argued that the whole point of Cor­re­spon­dence was to change pub­lic atti­tudes on deci­sive ques­tions. The goal of the work­ers’ paper, to put it another way, was to raise consciousness.

This news­pa­per was in many ways a log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of the Tendency’s ear­lier efforts at inquiry. The first and per­haps most famous of these was The Amer­i­can Worker. Grace Lee Boggs, a co-author of the pam­phlet, recalls that it first began as a diary. When Phil Singer, an auto worker employed in a New Jer­sey GM plant, began to dis­cuss the frus­tra­tions of the rank and file at the fac­tory, CLR James sug­gested that he write his thoughts down in a diary.8 Sec­tions of it were later assem­bled into a coher­ent piece, and paired with a the­o­ret­i­cal essay by Grace Lee Boggs. The first part of the pam­phlet, now attrib­uted to Paul Romano, Singer’s pseu­do­nym, became a kind of self-reflexive ethno­graphic inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions of pro­le­tar­ian life in post­war Amer­ica. The sec­ond part, attrib­uted to Ria Stone, Boggs’s party name, con­sciously drew on the con­crete expe­ri­ences doc­u­mented in the first part in order to the­o­rize the con­tent of social­ism in a world changed by automa­tion, the assem­bly line, and semi-skilled labor.

When Social­isme ou Bar­barie later trans­lated the pam­phlet into French, they called it the “first of its genre.”9 A worker was describ­ing, in his own voice and explic­itly for other work­ers, his con­di­tions of exploita­tion in a way that the­o­rized the pos­si­bil­ity of its strate­gic over­throw.10 Singer’s account rep­re­sented both research into the changes in the labor process, as well as a polit­i­cal prac­tice aimed at rais­ing the con­scious­ness of his co-workers. He steadily moved from sta­tic descrip­tions of exploita­tion in the fac­tory to a dynamic con­sid­er­a­tion of the new forms of strug­gle that had emerged out of those forms of exploita­tion. Sur­vey­ing the con­tra­dic­tions in the work­place, the var­i­ous points of con­tes­ta­tion, and signs of pro­le­tar­ian dis­gust with man­age­ment, bureau­cracy, and even unions, Singer pointed to the wild­cat strike, with work­ers’ self-management as its con­tent, as the new form of strug­gle in the post­war period.

While Phil Singer pro­vided the first exam­ple of this new kind of work­ers’ inquiry, Grace Lee Boggs laid out the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic. She drew heav­ily on a pas­sage from Cap­i­tal that described how the “par­tially devel­oped indi­vid­ual,” who was restricted to “one spe­cial­ized social func­tion,” had to be replaced in large-scale indus­try by the “totally devel­oped indi­vid­ual” who could adapt to vary­ing forms of labor.11 Read­ing this in light of Marx’s ear­lier works, prin­ci­pally the Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts of 1844, which Boggs her­self was the first to trans­late into Eng­lish, she took this to mean that mod­ern indus­try in post­war Amer­ica had now real­ized the com­plete alien­ation of human nature.

Accord­ing to Boggs, cap­i­tal­ism was to be under­stood as the pro­gres­sive alien­ation of humanity’s nat­ural pow­ers into the things it pro­duces. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, this process will reach a point where all of human­ity, all of its social essence, has been fully alien­ated into the means of pro­duc­tion. But this thor­ough­go­ing dehu­man­iza­tion of the indi­vi­ual, she argues, is at the same time the poten­tial human­iza­tion of the world in its entirety. It is at that point that the objec­tive con­di­tions will finally be ripe to reclaim those pow­ers, recover human essence, and defin­i­tively recon­sti­tute the indi­vid­ual as a uni­ver­sal being. In her words, “Abstract labor reaches its most inhu­man depths in machine pro­duc­tion. But at the same time, it is only machine pro­duc­tion which lays the basis for the fullest human devel­op­ment of con­crete labor.”12

“The essen­tial con­tent of pro­duc­tive activ­ity today is the coop­er­a­tive form of the labor process,” Boggs con­cluded. In “the trans­for­ma­tion of the instru­ments of labor into instru­ments of labor only usable in com­mon” and “the economis­ing of all means of pro­duc­tion by their use as the means of pro­duc­tion of com­bined, social­ized labor,” cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion had reached the point where it was now implic­itly already social­ist. How­ever, the real­iza­tion of this implicit social­ism was blocked:

The bour­geoisie main­tains a fet­ter on this essen­tially social activ­ity by iso­lat­ing indi­vid­u­als from one another through com­pe­ti­tion, by sep­a­rat­ing the intel­lec­tual pow­ers of pro­duc­tion from the man­ual labor, by sup­press­ing the cre­ative orga­ni­za­tional tal­ents of the broad masses, by divid­ing the world up into spheres of influence.

This con­flict between the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety and the bour­geois fet­ters pre­vent­ing its emer­gence is part of the daily expe­ri­ence of every worker.”13

Inter­est­ingly, this con­cept had emerged in a pam­phlet that James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs wrote the same year, with the title The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety – a polemic against Trot­sky­ists who did not share their view that the USSR rep­re­sented a new form of cap­i­tal­ism. The pam­phlet elab­o­rates on some of the the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions of The Amer­i­can Worker, in which Boggs had defended “the dis­tinc­tion between abstract labor for value and con­crete labor for human needs.” For Boggs, Marx’s def­i­n­i­tion of “value pro­duc­tion” was “pro­duc­tion which expanded itself through degra­da­tion and dehu­man­iza­tion of the worker to a frag­ment of a man,” which in its use of machin­ery “degrades to abstract labor the liv­ing worker which it employs.” Con­crete labor was instead directed towards needs, “the labor in which man real­izes his basic human need for exer­cis­ing his nat­ural and acquired pow­ers.”14

In The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, the authors argued that value pro­duc­tion was clearly at work in Russ­ian “state cap­i­tal­ism,” just as it was in the United States, and they elab­o­rated on the “dual char­ac­ter” of labor Boggs had described in the other pamphlet:

Labor’s fun­da­men­tal, its eter­nally nec­es­sary func­tion in all soci­eties, past, present and future, was to cre­ate use-values. Into this organic func­tion of all labor, cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion imposed the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­duc­ing value, and more par­tic­u­larly surplus-value. Within this con­tra­dic­tion is con­tained the neces­sity for the divi­sion of soci­ety into direct pro­duc­ers (work­ers) and rulers of soci­ety, into man­ual and intel­lec­tual laborers.

The man­age­r­ial rev­o­lu­tion, in this con­cep­tion, was sim­ply an expres­sion of value pro­duc­tion and the class divi­sion between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor. If this class divi­sion and this kind of alien­at­ing labor process could be observed in Rus­sia, there was only one con­clu­sion: the state bureau­cracy extracted sur­plus value from Russ­ian work­ers, and was in fact a cap­i­tal­ist class.

The pro­le­tariat, they went on to argue, had been dis­abused of all the illu­sions of bureau­cratic van­guards, which had sim­ply insti­tuted a new form of cap­i­tal­ism, and reformism, which lim­ited itself to con­test­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of surplus-value. Now the pro­le­tariat had “drawn the ulti­mate con­clu­sion”: “The revolt is against value pro­duc­tion itself.” The invad­ing social­ist soci­ety, for James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs, could be observed in this real­iza­tion.15

The polit­i­cal moti­va­tion of this the­ory may have been under­stand­able, but it led the group to use Marx’s cat­e­gories in a way that dis­solved their his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity. Two decades ear­lier I.I. Rubin, at the close of a period of rel­a­tively free debate in the Soviet Union, had explained in a lec­ture at the Insti­tute for Eco­nom­ics in Moscow that a “con­cept of labour which lacks all the fea­tures which are char­ac­ter­is­tic of its social organ­i­sa­tion in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, can­not lead to the con­clu­sion which we seek from the Marx­ian stand­point.” In his elab­o­ra­tion of Marx’s con­cepts Rubin asked directly whether the value-form could be observed in a planned econ­omy, in which some social organ had to equate labor which pro­duced dif­fer­ent things and was under­taken by dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als. While this social equa­tion was often described as “abstrac­tion” in some gen­eral sense, Rubin dis­tin­guished it from Marx’s con­cept of abstract labor. In all his­tor­i­cal epochs, Rubin con­ceded, human beings have engaged in a phys­i­o­log­i­cal expen­di­ture of effort to repro­duce their con­di­tions of exis­tence. But Marx’s value the­ory set out to explain cer­tain his­tor­i­cally spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ist commodity-producing soci­eties. In such soci­eties the labor of indi­vid­u­als, as con­crete labor which pro­duces use-values, is not “directly reg­u­lated by the soci­ety” – in con­trast to a soci­ety in which social equa­tion is done on the basis of the planned allo­ca­tion of those use-values.16

In commodity-producing soci­eties, labor is only socially equated when the prod­ucts of indi­vid­ual labor­ers are “assim­i­lated with the prod­ucts of all the other com­mod­ity pro­duc­ers, and the labour of a spe­cific indi­vid­ual is thus assim­i­lated with the labour of all the other mem­bers of the soci­ety and all the oth­ers kinds of labour.” And cru­cially, this social equa­tion only hap­pens “through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour”; labor “only takes the form of abstract labour, and the prod­ucts of labour the form of val­ues, to the extent that the pro­duc­tion process assumes the social form of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, i.e. pro­duc­tion based on exchange.” When com­mod­ity own­ers in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties engage in pro­duc­tion, they do so seek­ing to “trans­form their prod­uct into money and thus also trans­form their pri­vate and con­crete labour into social and abstract labour,” since they depend on the mar­ket for their con­di­tions of exis­tence. It is through the medi­a­tion of the mar­ket that these pri­vate labor expen­di­tures take on a social form.17

From the van­tage point of Rubin’s inter­ven­tion, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had ended up align­ing itself with those Soviet econ­o­mists who believed that value was a tran­shis­tor­i­cal cat­e­gory, reducible to the social equa­tion of labor that would exist in any soci­ety and nec­es­sar­ily take the same form in social­ist plan­ning as it did in a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. Their attempt to show that the USSR, despite its plan­ning of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, com­peted on the world mar­ket and there­fore had the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a huge cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, sim­ply dodged the ques­tion of the exchange of the prod­ucts of labor as an expres­sion of the mar­ket depen­dence of individuals.

Of course, Rubin did not address the ques­tion of whether the plan­ning organ of a social­ist soci­ety was a party bureau­cracy, a work­ers’ coun­cil, or any­thing else. While this dis­tinc­tion would cer­tainly be of polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, it has no bear­ing on the ques­tions of abstract labor and value. In its under­stand­able drive to crit­i­cize the oppres­sive char­ac­ter of work in the USSR, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had lost grip on its own crit­i­cal con­cepts, and above all, by reduc­ing the value-form to alien­ation in the labor-process, com­pletely mud­dled the dis­tinc­tion between abstract and con­crete labor. In this regard inquiry had a tense rela­tion­ship to Marx­ist the­ory; shift­ing towards the doc­u­men­ta­tion of work­ers’ expe­ri­ence, the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the shop floor, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency accepted and inverted the ortho­dox eco­nomic world­view of their adver­saries, leav­ing it more or less intact.

And by accept­ing the tran­shis­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of the cat­e­gories of labor and value, social­ism itself took on tran­shis­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. It was a telos already con­tained in the ori­gin, in human nature which alien­ated itself in machin­ery. The task of social­ists was to uncover it by cast­ing aside the cap­i­tal­ist fet­ters. Accord­ing to this view, social­ism would not have to be con­structed; it would have to be real­ized. We can iden­tify a kind of dou­ble mean­ing to this term: on the one hand, social­ism as an inher­ent ten­dency would have to be made “real,” or actual, and on the other hand, social­ism could be actu­al­ized only when those work­ers cur­rently engaged in these embry­onic social­ist rela­tions grad­u­ally came to rec­og­nize, or “real­ize,” that social­ism already con­sti­tuted the very essence of post­war capitalism.

This con­cep­tion of social­ism was a com­men­tary on Singer’s expe­ri­ences inso­far as work­ers’ inquiry was the means of this real­iza­tion. It was through inquiry that work­ers would come to “real­ize” that social­ism was already there, hid­den in their every­day lives, wait­ing to burst forth. In cir­cu­lat­ing these inquiries, other work­ers with sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences would come to the same real­iza­tion, spark­ing a dia­logue over their uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ences. In this way the work­ers would become con­scious of them­selves as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class. The prin­ci­pal task of the orga­ni­za­tion, first as the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and then as Cor­re­spon­dence, would be to facil­i­tate this coming-to-consciousness by cre­at­ing a space where con­nec­tions or “cor­re­spon­dences” between dif­fer­ent work­ers could be made.

Inquiry, then, was the cor­ner­stone of this project. Grace Lee Boggs had the­o­rized it, and Phil Singer had pro­vided the first con­crete exam­ple. The Amer­i­can Worker would there­fore emerge as a kind of par­a­digm. In 1952 Si Owens pub­lished Indig­nant Heart: A Black Worker’s Jour­nal, under the pseu­do­nym of Matthew Ward. It was much longer, in fact prac­ti­cally a book, and was explic­itly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. It told the story of how a young black worker moved from the cot­ton fields of Ten­nessee to the auto­mo­bile plants of Detroit and became a mil­i­tant, a rad­i­cal force within the United Auto­mo­bile Work­ers of Amer­ica. In 1953 “Arthur Bau­man,” the pseu­do­nym of an anony­mous stu­dent, recounted his story to Paul Wal­lis in what would become Artie Cuts Out, a nar­ra­tive, again in the style of Singer’s The Amer­i­can Worker, about high school stu­dents in New York. Also that year, Correspondence’s best­selling pam­phlet, A Woman’s Place by Marie Brant (Selma James) and Ellen San­tori (Filom­ena D’Addario), made its first appear­ance. What Singer did for fac­tory work­ers, Owens for black work­ers, and Bau­man for the youth, James and D’Addario sought to do for house­wives. A Woman’s Place dis­cussed the role of house­work, the value of repro­duc­tive labor, and the orga­ni­za­tions autonomously invented by women in the course of their struggle.

Fol­low­ing Singer’s model and Boggs’s the­o­ret­i­cal frame, all of them drew on the every­day expe­ri­ences of the author in order to rig­or­ously inves­ti­gate the social con­di­tions of a par­tic­u­lar class fig­ure; they then used that inquiry to the­o­rize how that frag­mented social group might come together as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal sub­ject. The objec­tive in all of these – as it would later be for the Cor­re­spon­dence news­pa­per – was to show how seem­ingly per­sonal expe­ri­ences were actu­ally social. The under­ly­ing assump­tion of these inquiries was that what one par­tic­u­lar worker felt some­where is very sim­i­lar to what another might feel else­where, and that these shared expe­ri­ences, these com­mon ways of liv­ing, can pro­vide the ground­work for col­lec­tive action.18

Of course, it should be noted that nei­ther The Amer­i­can Worker nor any of these other texts ever called itself a work­ers’ inquiry. Indeed, they could just be called worker nar­ra­tives, or per­haps even tes­ti­monies.19But they should all still be seen as rep­re­sent­ing an iter­a­tion, or at least a vari­a­tion, of the project Marx laid out in 1880. The Ten­dency was quite famil­iar with Marx’s 1880 arti­cle.20 Boggs had read it, and made an explicit ref­er­ence to it in a foot­note in her sec­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker.21 And despite sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences, these inquiries, espe­cially The Amer­i­can Worker, repro­duced many of the inten­tions, moti­va­tions, and objec­tives of Marx’s orig­i­nal project. In fact, read­ing Marx’s ques­tions along­side The Amer­i­can Worker, it seems as though Singer had pro­vided Marx with the first, com­pre­hen­sive response to his ques­tion­naire – it was just sev­eral decades late.

But Singer’s response took a form that Marx did not antic­i­pate. Marx imag­ined that work­ers would offer line-by-line answers to his ques­tion­naire. “In replies,” he made sure to spec­ify, “the num­ber of the cor­re­spond­ing ques­tion should be given.” Singer, how­ever, did not pro­duce a neat list of bul­leted responses; he crafted these raw answers into a lit­er­ary nar­ra­tive. This was per­haps the most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of all the inquiries spon­sored by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency – and per­haps one of the main rea­sons why they were never for­mally called “work­ers’ inquiries.” Work­ers’ inquiry, in this vari­a­tion, was specif­i­cally a sub­jec­tive nar­ra­tive account, not a response to a questionnaire.

This inno­va­tion in the genre of inquiry, how­ever, ampli­fied ten­sions already embed­ded in the orig­i­nal project. On the one hand, the nar­ra­tive form worked to advance inquiry as a form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity. Although Marx made it clear that knowl­edge of the work­ing class could only be pro­duced by work­ers them­selves, his orig­i­nal project seemed to fore­close the space for any kind of cre­ative expres­sion, demand­ing mechan­i­cal answers to pre­fab­ri­cated ques­tions. Singer’s nar­ra­tive model allowed work­ers to raise their own unique voice, express them­selves in their own lan­guage, with their own idioms, ideas, and feel­ings, and even pose their own questions.

On the other hand, although priv­i­leg­ing the nar­ra­tive form might have ampli­fied the power of work­ers’ inquiry as a means of self-activity, it had the poten­tial to under­mine another of aspect of that project, what Marx called the acqui­si­tion of “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions” of the work­ing class. The open­ness of the nar­ra­tive form exag­ger­ates a ten­dency to slip from mea­sured gen­er­al­iza­tion to unten­able over­gen­er­al­iza­tion. By try­ing to fuse his sub­jec­tiv­ity with that of the rank and file as a whole, Singer ends up attempt­ing to legit­imize him­self as a reli­able mouth­piece for all the work­ers in his fac­tory: “Their feel­ings, anx­i­eties, exhil­a­ra­tion, bore­dom, exhaus­tion, anger, have all been mine to one extent or another.”22 But as the text pro­ceeds, Singer qui­etly goes from “their feel­ings are mine” to “my feel­ings are theirs,” lead­ing the reader to believe that Singer’s per­sonal expe­ri­ences, desires, and opin­ions are actu­ally those of the GM rank and file itself – if not those of the entire Amer­i­can work­ing class. His expe­ri­ences, or those of some work­ers at his par­tic­u­lar plant, are pre­sented as the expe­ri­ences of all work­ers everywhere.

Allegedly com­mon daily expe­ri­ences are then gen­er­al­ized to uni­ver­sal polit­i­cal atti­tudes: “The work­ers feel that strikes merely for wages do not get them any­where.”23 This is a prob­lem shared by all the nar­ra­tive accounts, since they all repli­cate Singer’s model. In A Woman’s Place, for exam­ple, Selma James wrote, “The co-authors of this book­let have seen this in their own lives and in the lives of the women they know. They have writ­ten this down as a begin­ning of the expres­sion of what the aver­age woman feels, thinks, and lives.” One first won­ders whether there is such a thing as an “aver­age woman,” free from the com­pli­cat­ing dimen­sions of region, class, race, sex­u­al­ity, and so forth; but even if this uneasi­ness is set aside, one is still left to ask whether James’s own unique expe­ri­ences are enough to access “the aver­age.” In fact, James intro­duces another inno­va­tion that extends the reach of her gen­er­al­iza­tions. Her inquiry begins in the third per­son, but after only a few pages abruptly shifts to the sec­ond per­son. The pat­tern quickly repeats itself: “Every­thing a house­wife does, she does alone. All the work in the house is for you to do by your­self.”24

This kind of homog­e­niza­tion sup­ports, and is in fact sup­ported by, a decon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of expe­ri­ence. Nearly all of these inquiries, with the slight excep­tion of Indig­nant Heart, go to great lengths to detach their nar­ra­tive from a spe­cific local­ity. There is noth­ing in The Amer­i­can Worker reveal­ing where Singer actu­ally works; the same goes for A Woman’s Place.25 If one of the pri­mary objec­tives of work­ers’ inquiry is to rig­or­ously study the con­di­tions of exploita­tion at spe­cific points of pro­duc­tion, to pro­duce a pos­i­tive and exact knowl­edge of the work­ing class, it must spec­ify the bound­aries of its inves­ti­ga­tion. Though fac­to­ries in post­war Amer­ica might have had some com­mon­al­i­ties, they were wildly dif­fer­ent, each with its dis­tinct con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, power rela­tions, and demographics.

A closely related prob­lem is the delib­er­ate mod­i­fi­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion, in a way that often alters the mean­ing of the accounts. One imme­di­ate exam­ple results from the use of pseu­do­nyms. Nearly every­one in the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had one, and most had sev­eral; in fact, there were so many fake names in cir­cu­la­tion, Boggs recalled that there were times when they them­selves didn’t even know who was who.26 This was partly a holdover from Trot­sky­ist prac­tices, but more seri­ously a secu­rity mea­sure against McCarthy­ism; at one point Cor­re­spon­dence had as many as 75 infil­tra­tors, and CLR James would later be deported because of his activ­i­ties with the group.27

But despite the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the prac­tice of assum­ing pseu­do­nyms, they pro­vided a cover for ambigu­ous author­ship. A Woman’s Place was signed by two women, both under pseu­do­nyms, but was actu­ally writ­ten only by Selma James. As James later recalled, she wrote the book by jot­ting down ideas on scraps of paper, then drop­ping them into a slit made in the top of a shoe box. She later sat down and pieced together the ideas into a draft. After she shared the draft with the group and her neigh­bors, and made some revi­sions, CLR James told her to include Filom­ena D’Addario’s sig­na­ture so that the lat­ter could speak about it to the pub­lic with some legit­i­macy.28 It turns out that a piece which claims to have been writ­ten by two women, and in fact tries to con­vince its read­ers that it was con­structed from the expe­ri­ences of two dif­fer­ent women, was actu­ally writ­ten by one.

But the most seri­ous trou­ble is in Indig­nant Heart. Of all the accounts, this is the only one to give pre­cise details about places, and so, at first glance, seems to break with the model devel­oped by Singer. In actual fact, how­ever, though the book is largely accu­rate regard­ing Owens’ later life in the North, it delib­er­ately dis­torts his place of birth, set­ting his child­hood in south­east Ten­nessee rather than in Lown­des County, Alabama. In the 1978 reprint, which included a sec­ond part pick­ing up where the orig­i­nal 1952 text left off, Owens jus­ti­fied this by remind­ing his read­ers of the “vicious McCarthyite witch hunt,” adding that “few who did not go through that expe­ri­ence of national repres­sion of ideas can fully under­stand the truly total­i­tar­ian nature of McCarthy­ism and the ter­ror it pro­duced.”29 Less con­vinc­ing, how­ever, is his claim that these changes “do not take any­thing away from the truth of the expe­ri­ences described,” and that what he wrote about his early years “could be true of almost all Blacks” liv­ing in the South­ern United States.30

In other words, the rewrit­ing of the facts is ratio­nal­ized by the assump­tion of a homo­ge­neous and uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence. But Alabama is not Ten­nessee, and such a dras­tic move com­pro­mises the sci­en­tific char­ac­ter of the piece; it becomes more like his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and less a con­crete inquiry into spe­cific con­di­tions of exploita­tion. An inquiry into the world of the work­ing class threat­ens to degen­er­ate into a kind of travel diary; close, metic­u­lous, mil­i­tant inves­ti­ga­tion tends to be replaced with enter­tain­ing sto­ries about the mys­tery, exoti­cism, and strange­ness of an unknown world.

Per­haps even more trou­bling, Si Owens did not actu­ally write Indig­nant Heart. Con­stance Webb, another mem­ber of the group, and James’s one­time lover, did. Cor­re­spon­dence cham­pi­oned a prac­tice which Dunayevskaya later called “the full foun­tain pen” method – though it is per­haps bet­ter known as amanu­en­sis. Intel­lec­tu­als would be paired with work­ers who might be uncom­fort­able writ­ing their expe­ri­ences; they would lis­ten as the work­ers recounted their story, write them down on their behalf, and then have these work­ers revise the writ­ten doc­u­ments as they saw fit. It was Webb, then, who recorded the story, made revi­sions, edited the drafts, and pieced it all together into a coher­ent whole.31 It was in many ways just as much her book.

But the lead­er­ship, in this case largely Dunayevskaya, and not the authors, decided how the book should appear. Dunayevskaya insisted that it be called Indig­nant Heart, after a quo­ta­tion by Wen­dell Phillips, over the protest of both Owens and Webb; and, even more seri­ously, she decided to pub­lish it all under the sin­gle name of Matthew Ward.32 In an odd way, Cor­re­spon­dence had delib­er­ately effaced its con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it appear as though a sin­gle author had writ­ten the book by him­self, which was far from true. Yet one of orig­i­nal aims of Correspondence’s inquiries had been to hon­estly rec­on­cile the ten­sions between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers. Why hes­i­tate in admit­ting that Indig­nant Heart had been, at its very core, a work of col­lab­o­ra­tion? Why go to such lengths to make the text look like an exam­ple of raw pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, rather than a medi­ated production?

Finally, all these inquiries imbri­cate the descrip­tive with the pre­scrip­tive. They draw lim­ited con­clu­sions based on the analy­sis of observ­able phe­nom­ena while simul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing declar­a­tive state­ments about what real­ity should actu­ally look like. The trend was first set by Singer, who con­cluded the first part of The Amer­i­can Worker by announc­ing that the work­ers’ frus­tra­tion with the incen­tive sys­tem amounted to “no less than say­ing that the exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions must be over­thrown.”33 In the same way, James ends her own inquiry, “Women are find­ing more and more that there is no way out but a com­plete change. But one thing is already clear. Things can’t go on the way they are. Every woman knows that.”34 Surely not all women actu­ally thought this in 1953. And surely James knew this, just as Singer was well aware that most work­ers did not want to over­throw exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions. These state­ments can only really be under­stood as per­for­ma­tive – not descrip­tions of exist­ing sit­u­a­tion, but declar­a­tive moves seek­ing to trans­form what the text has already described. For a tra­di­tion which grounded itself in the rais­ing of con­scious­ness, these state­ments about the con­scious­ness of work­ers, dis­sem­i­nated to those work­ers them­selves, sought to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Though all four of these inquires cer­tainly engage in sci­en­tific analy­sis, tak­ing note of new forms of pro­duc­tion, exploita­tion, and resis­tance, these obser­va­tions only seem to serve as the lit­er­ary back­ground for an unfold­ing nar­ra­tive, rather than serv­ing as inci­sive obser­va­tions into a par­tic­u­lar point of pro­duc­tion. All the ten­sions explored above work to seri­ously dimin­ish the spe­cific research value of these texts. But it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that they only become prob­lems if one con­tin­ues to pri­or­i­tize the research func­tion of work­ers’ inquiry. If, how­ever, the objec­tive is to build class con­scious­ness, then the dis­tor­tions of the nar­ra­tive form are not prob­lems at all. They might actu­ally be quite nec­es­sary. With these nar­ra­tives, the ten­sion in Marx’s work­ers’ inquiry – between a research tool on the one hand, and a form of agi­ta­tion on the other – is largely resolved by sub­or­di­nat­ing the for­mer to the lat­ter, trans­form­ing inquiry into a means to the end of consciousness-building.

Build­ing the Cir­cuit: Social­isme ou Barbarie

These Amer­i­can exper­i­ments in work­ers’ inquiry res­onated quite broadly, becom­ing an explicit ref­er­ence point for one French group in par­tic­u­lar. Social­isme ou Bar­barie fol­lowed a remark­ably sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory to that of its Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents – the two groups were in con­tact, shar­ing their dis­cov­er­ies, trans­lat­ing each other’s work, and even co-authoring a book at one point. It began as the “Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency,” an inter­nal cur­rent within the French sec­tion of the Trot­sky­ist Fourth Inter­na­tional, named after the pseu­do­nyms of its prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis (Pierre Chaulieu) and Claude Lefort (Claude Mon­tal). Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency in the United States, the Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency soon found itself opposed to the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment, prompt­ing a split in late 1948. About twenty mil­i­tants left to form a new orga­ni­za­tion, Social­isme ou Bar­barie, with a new jour­nal of the same name. The first issue was released in March of the fol­low­ing year.35

Like Cor­re­spon­dence, Social­isme ou Bar­barie placed a great deal of empha­sis on the notion of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. For both these groups, social­ist the­ory and strat­egy, even the very con­tent of social­ist project itself, could only be derived from the every­day expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. Daniel Blan­chard, a for­mer mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, has reflected on the organization’s con­cep­tion of a social­ist soci­ety: it would be “not the result of either utopian dream­ing, or of an alleged sci­ence of his­tory, but of the cre­ations of the work­ers move­ment. The pro­le­tariat is, by its prac­tice, the per­pet­ual inven­tor of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory and the task of the intel­lec­tu­als is lim­ited to syn­the­siz­ing and sys­tem­atiz­ing it.“36

In this regard Social­isme ou Bar­barie con­tested the French Com­mu­nist Party (PCF) which held that social­ism had to be brought to the work­ing class from the out­side. For both Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, on the other hand social­ism actu­ally came from within every­day pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. But these groups agreed that work­ers are largely social­ized by cap­i­tal­ism, and there­fore still marked by cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy, at least to some degree. Since almost no one was free of cap­i­tal­ist think­ing, social­ist con­scious­ness would not spon­ta­neously burst forth, even though it was always lurk­ing below. Cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy still had to be com­bated; and some other mech­a­nism was required to allow this latent con­scious­ness to appear.

That mech­a­nism was work­ers’ inquiry. So while the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency was the first to recode work­ers’ inquiry in the form of the worker nar­ra­tive, Social­isme ou Bar­barie explained why: the worker nar­ra­tive could express the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence in such a way as to make its embed­ded social­ist con­tent appear.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie adopted this spe­cific form of work­ers’ inquiry – inquiry as nar­ra­tive account – from Cor­re­spon­dence almost ready­made. The group set about trans­lat­ing The Amer­i­can Worker, which appeared seri­ally in the first eight issues of its homony­mously titled jour­nal. These mil­i­tants hailed the pam­phlet as a new, rev­o­lu­tion­ary kind of writ­ing; Philippe Guil­laume intro­duced it with the dec­la­ra­tion that “the name Romano will stay in the his­tory of pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture, and that it will even sig­nify a turn­ing point in this his­tory.”37

Work­ers’ inquiry, in this early French con­text, there­fore took on roughly the same form that it did with the Amer­i­cans, with The Amer­i­can Worker again set­ting the par­a­digm. It not only formed the empir­i­cal ground for Claude Lefort’s “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Social­isme ou Barbarie’s most seri­ous the­o­riza­tion of inquiry, but would also spawn a num­ber French inquiries mod­eled on Singer’s account. The first came in 1952, when Georges Vivier, a young worker at Chaus­son, began a series on pro­le­tar­ian life titled “La vie en usine” (Life in the Fac­tory). The most famous of these nar­ra­tives, how­ever, were the diaries of Daniel Mothé, the nom de guerre of Jacques Gau­trat, a machin­ist at Renault-Billancourt.38 His writ­ings, which first appeared in the pages of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, attracted so much atten­tion that an edited ver­sion was soon pub­lished by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1959 under the title Jour­nal d’un ouvrier 1956-1958 (Jour­nal of a Worker). It was received well enough to prompt the pub­li­ca­tion of a sec­ond diary, called Mil­i­tant chez Renault (Mil­i­tant at Renault), by Les Éditions du Seuil in 1965.

There would be a sec­ond moment in this transna­tional cir­cu­la­tion. By the time Cor­re­spon­dence split from the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment to become its own dis­tinct entity, the group decided to fur­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ize the form of work­ers’ inquiry: worker nar­ra­tives became a work­ers’ paper. The work­ers’ paper was to be a more dynamic form of inquiry, where dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class could not only share their expe­ri­ences with sim­i­lar kinds of work­ers, but could in fact exchange those expe­ri­ences with each other through let­ters to the editors.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie cer­tainly had some reser­va­tions about the the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions under­pin­ning the Cor­re­spon­dence project, but the group was suf­fi­ciently inspired by the model of the work­ers’ paper to spon­sor one of its own in France. Just as The Amer­i­can Worker had cre­ated a new genre of writ­ing, so too, they believed, did Cor­re­spon­dence stand for an entirely new kind of pub­li­ca­tion. “It rep­re­sents a pro­foundly orig­i­nal effort to cre­ate a jour­nal for the most part writ­ten by work­ers to speak with work­ers from the work­ers’ view­point,” they wrote in 1954. “It must sim­ply be acknowl­edged that Cor­re­spon­dence rep­re­sents a new type of jour­nal and that it opens a new period in rev­o­lu­tion­ary worker jour­nal­ism.”39 So just as Social­isme ou Bar­barie was inspired by The Amer­i­can Worker to spon­sor its own worker nar­ra­tives, so too was it prompted to sup­port the for­ma­tion of a work­ers paper along the same lines as Cor­re­spon­dence.

But although both groups used the work­ers’ nar­ra­tive and the work­ers’ paper as a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, there was still at least one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. For Cor­re­spon­dence, social­ism already existed embry­on­i­cally in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, which sim­ply had to be expressed and shared with other work­ers. It was enough to pro­vide a forum in which to cir­cu­late these expe­ri­ences; the “invad­ing social­ist soci­ety” would emerge on its own.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained skep­ti­cal. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis would com­ment many years later, if “you talk about the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety,” then you “keep the apoc­a­lyp­tic, mes­sianic streak; the idea that there is a def­i­nite end to the road, and unless every­thing blows up we are going there and we are bound to end there, which is not true.”40 For Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the devel­op­ment of social­ism was not an irre­sistible force, but the very ques­tion to be answered. While there were cer­tain ele­ments, rudi­men­tary, inchoate, frag­mented, that could be found in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, they could not be acti­vated sim­ply through writ­ing, or even the shar­ing of that writ­ing with other work­ers. Some in Social­isme ou Bar­barie even believed that these ele­ments could not be prop­erly artic­u­lated into a coher­ent social­ist project until they had been reworked through theory.

So the buried ele­ments recov­ered by inquiry had to be politi­cized before social­ism could see the light of day. These dif­fer­ences imme­di­ately put into ques­tion the poten­tial func­tion of mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als. For Cor­re­spon­dence, the role of intel­lec­tu­als was ambigu­ous. Their goal was to pro­vide the space for worker expe­ri­ences to be shared, even if this resulted in a poten­tial ven­tril­o­quism, as in the case of Con­stance Webb and Si Owens. As a 1955 edi­to­r­ial called “Must Serve Work­ers” put it, “The pri­mary task of any indi­vid­ual who comes to a work­ing class move­ment from another class is to put behind him his past and com­pletely iden­tify and adapt him­self to the work­ing class… The func­tion of the intel­lec­tual is to aid the move­ment, to place his intel­lec­tual accom­plish­ment at the dis­posal of the work­ers.”41

Indeed, the very struc­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion was deter­mined by this belief. Grace Lee Boggs later recalled in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy that the group tried to ground itself on Lenin’s notion that the best way to com­bat the bureau­cracy of the “first layer” of intel­lec­tu­als was to develop the “third layer” of the work­ers.42 Cor­re­spon­dence divided itself into three lay­ers: “real work­ers” in the first, “intel­lec­tu­als” who were now employed in jobs tra­di­tion­ally done by “work­ers” in the sec­ond, and the “real intel­lec­tu­als” in the third. As an evi­dently dis­grun­tled for­mer mem­ber recalled:

The real pro­le­tar­i­ans were put in the first layer, peo­ple of mixed sta­tus, like house­wives, in the sec­ond, and the intel­lec­tu­als were put in the third. Our meet­ings con­sisted of the now highly pres­tige­ful first layer spout­ing off, usu­ally in a ran­dom, inar­tic­u­late way, about what they thought about every­thing under the sun. The rest of us, espe­cially we intel­lec­tu­als in the third layer, were told to lis­ten.43

In con­trast to this, Social­isme ou Bar­barie claimed that worker expe­ri­ences had to be inter­preted and devel­oped, and this opened up space for a dif­fer­ent role for intel­lec­tu­als. The larger space that Social­isme ou Bar­barie accorded to the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion forced it to more directly, and per­haps more con­tentiously, inter­ro­gate the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, espe­cially as it related to the prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry.

But to under­stand the prob­lems raised by the work­ers’ paper, we have to go back to 1952 and an unsigned arti­cle by Claude Lefort titled “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”44 Hid­den within their daily expe­ri­ences, Lefort claimed, lay basic, per­haps even uni­ver­sal, pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes: “Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory.”45 To access these atti­tudes, which for Lefort formed the very ground of the social­ist project, mil­i­tants had to col­lect accounts of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. Indeed, learn­ing about the expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class, and inquir­ing into its daily life, had to be a fun­da­men­tal aspect of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions. “Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers,” he announced, “and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence.”46

Since those atti­tudes, how­ever, remain latent, and because they are nec­es­sar­ily par­tial, tes­ti­monies must not only be col­lected, but actu­ally inter­preted. And therein lay the real prob­lem: who had the right to inter­pret these accounts? Lefort con­cluded his pro­gram­matic essay with exactly this ques­tion, which he answered with another:

Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence?47

For the moment, these ques­tions were not so press­ing, since Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained on the mar­gins, and inquiry on the scale imag­ined by Lefort a mere pro­posal. But they became a prac­ti­cal con­cern in May 1954, when a work­ers’ paper actu­ally emerged in France. It all began at Renault-Billancourt, an auto­mo­bile plant in the sub­urbs of Paris. A mon­ster of a fac­tory, employ­ing some 30,000 work­ers, it was also a leg­endary site of pro­le­tar­ian mil­i­tancy, and widely con­sid­ered a Com­mu­nist strong­hold. But by the 1950s, the Party slowly began to lose its grip, increas­ingly com­ing under fire from more rad­i­cal ele­ments, like the Trot­sky­ists. It was in this con­text that, in April 1954, a break­through arrived when a few work­ers from one of the fac­tory shops cir­cu­lated a leaflet on wage lev­els. It was warmly received by other work­ers, and, encour­aged by this enthu­si­as­tic recep­tion, a few work­ers decided to launch an inde­pen­dent, clan­des­tine, monthly paper called Tri­bune Ouvrière.48

“What we want,” announced the first issue of the work­ers paper, posi­tion­ing itself against both the Renault man­age­ment and the PCF lead­er­ship, “is to end the tute­lage that the so-called work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions have exer­cised over us for many years. We want all prob­lems con­cern­ing the work­ing class to be debated by the work­ers them­selves… What we sug­gest is to make of this paper a tri­bune in which we ask you to par­tic­i­pate. We would like this paper to reflect the lives and opin­ions of work­ers. It’s up to you to make this hap­pen.”49

Social­isme ou Bar­barie quickly sup­ported the paper, offer­ing it finan­cial back­ing, help­ing to dis­trib­ute it, and even pub­lish­ing extracts of the paper in its own review. But the exact rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions – the one a clan­des­tine paper writ­ten, edited, and man­aged by fac­tory work­ers, the other a the­o­ret­i­cal jour­nal almost entirely pro­duced by intel­lec­tu­als – was ambigu­ous, and, at times highly divi­sive. Some saw the work­ers’ paper as an inde­pen­dent venue for the raw voice of the work­ing class, what­ever it might have to say, and there­fore only loosely allied with the the­o­ret­i­cal project car­ried out by Social­isme ou Bar­barie; oth­ers wanted to for­mally inte­grate it with Social­isme ou Bar­barie, hop­ing the work­ers’ paper could intro­duce the rig­or­ous ideas of the group to a broader pro­le­tar­ian audience.

In 1955, Tri­bune Ouvrière began run­ning into dif­fi­cul­ties. The col­lec­tive had not really grown, work­ers by and large seemed indif­fer­ent to the paper, and the edi­to­r­ial board remained tiny, with no more than per­haps 15 work­ers. Part of this gen­eral lack of inter­est stemmed from logis­ti­cal chal­lenges. The edi­to­r­ial team had min­i­mal fund­ing, and couldn’t afford to charge high prices, since none of the work­ers would buy an expen­sive paper. It was also very dif­fi­cult to dis­trib­ute. As a clan­des­tine paper, it could only be cir­cu­lated from hand to hand. And its meet­ings could not be orga­nized out in the open, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to estab­lish long-term rela­tions with inter­ested readers.

But there were also other, per­haps more fun­da­men­tal prob­lems at play. Daniel Mothé used the oppor­tu­nity to write a pro­gram­matic piece on the mean­ing of the work­ers’ paper, spend­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the arti­cle dis­cussing the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als. It should be noted at the out­set that Mothé was not really a “neu­tral” observer. The only one to have a foot in both orga­ni­za­tions, Mothé was one of the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors behind the paper as well as mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie since 1952 – he there­fore had a vested inter­est in “solv­ing” the vexed rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions.50 It’s highly sig­nif­i­cant, more­over, that Mothé pub­lished his long piece about Tri­bune Ouvrière in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

In con­trast to Cor­re­spon­dence, which he directly men­tioned in his piece, Mothé argued that a work­ers’ paper, though entirely writ­ten by work­ers them­selves, still had to par­tic­i­pate in some kind of dia­logue with mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als – in fact, this had to be its pri­mary func­tion. For Mothé there is a clear divi­sion of labor, deter­mined by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion itself, which can­not be will­fully ignored. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics has to take account of this divi­sion, rather than wish it away. Mothé builds on this obser­va­tion to con­struct a dichotomy between two ideal types: the worker on the one hand, and the mil­i­tant intel­lec­tual on the other. They are pri­mar­ily dis­tin­guished, he says, by their train­ing, sug­gest­ing that “if the for­ma­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is a for­ma­tion that is almost exclu­sively intel­lec­tual,” espe­cially dur­ing a period in which “rev­o­lu­tion­ary minori­ties” have been uprooted from the work­ing class, the “polit­i­cal for­ma­tion of work­ers is, on the con­trary, almost exclu­sively prac­ti­cal.” This prac­ti­cal for­ma­tion was both acquired in the expe­ri­ence of strug­gle and became the basis of new meth­ods of strug­gle. The key prob­lem is to find a way to link these two dis­tinct poles, to cre­ate a form that can fuse the “imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of the work­ers and the the­o­ret­i­cal expe­ri­ence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.”51

Mothé argued that each pole had to play a unique func­tion that was nev­er­the­less depen­dent on the other. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant artic­u­lates rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, imparts that the­ory to the work­ing class, and com­bats false ideas.52 The “essen­tial ele­ments” of that the­ory, how­ever, are them­selves drawn from the lived expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. They form a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship: “In this sense, if the work­ing class needs the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion to the­o­rize its expe­ri­ence, the orga­ni­za­tion needs the work­ing class in order to draw on this expe­ri­ence. This process of osmo­sis has a deci­sive impor­tance.”53

The key­stone of this rela­tion, Mothé argued, is pre­cisely the work­ers’ news­pa­per. The real func­tion of the work­ers’ paper is to medi­ate between these two poles. It is the means through which work­ers can express their every­day expe­ri­ences, which can then be the­o­rized by rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants. Mil­i­tants can then read these accounts, sift through them for latent polit­i­cal ten­den­cies, and work their rudi­men­tary insights into rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. At the same time, one assumes, the paper can serve as the vehi­cle through which these newly devel­oped the­o­ries will then be trans­mit­ted back to the work­ing class.

Mothé’s model, how­ever, posed as many ques­tions as it answered. To begin with, there was the impre­cise notion of expe­ri­ence, and the ques­tion­able assump­tion that, at base, all pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences artic­u­lated a set of uni­ver­sal atti­tudes. The Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Claude Lefort both shared this sup­po­si­tion. Indeed, in “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Lefort went so far as to write:

Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alienation.

Even if one lim­its the work­ing class to fac­tory work­ers, which Lefort seemed to do, such a claim reduces the het­ero­gene­ity of the work­ing class to a shared human essence: work­ers are every­where the same because they have all alien­ated their uni­ver­sal cre­ative pow­ers into the things they pro­duce. But such a con­cep­tion pre­vents us from grasp­ing the many forms that labor-power assumes, the plu­ral­ity of ways it is put to work, and the diverse processes through which it is exploited.

All this leads one to won­der who these “work­ers” Mothé keeps talk­ing about really are. If rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants must draw on pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, do these include those of house­wives and farm­work­ers? Must rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants draw on all these expe­ri­ences, or is the expe­ri­ence of only one sec­tor suf­fi­cient, and if so, which will speak for all the rest? Mothé’s unsta­ble ter­mi­nol­ogy exposes his pref­er­ence. The piece begins by draw­ing a dis­tinc­tion between “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “work­ers,” but Mothé soon speaks of “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “van­guard work­ers.” The slip sig­nals his pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of one kind of worker over the oth­ers. Indeed, for Mothé, as with most Social­isme ou Bar­barie, when they spoke of the work­ing class, they really meant the indus­trial work­ing class, par­tic­u­larly at the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries; but even more specif­i­cally, their ideal fig­ure, their con­structed van­guard, was semi-skilled labor­ers. It is impor­tant to observe that while Social­isme ou Bar­barie sought to bypass the whole notion of the van­guard party by going directly to the work­ing class, even its most “anar­chis­tic” ele­ments, like Lefort, remained encased in the gen­eral prob­lem­atic of van­guardism: the van­guard ele­ment was no longer out­side the class, but within it.

Mothé added a fur­ther qual­i­fi­ca­tion to this reduc­tion. The worker must not only be the most polit­i­cally con­scious of his class, but must also be capa­ble of express­ing his expe­ri­ences in such a way that they could be the­o­rized. This required not only a high degree of gen­eral lit­er­acy, as well as a fair share of con­fi­dence, but also some flu­ency in a more chal­leng­ing polit­i­cal lex­i­con. “In this sense,” Mothé clar­i­fied, “those work­ers most suit­able for writ­ing will be those who are at the same time the most con­scious, the most edu­cated but also those who will be the most rid of bour­geois or Stal­in­ist ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ence.”54 So Mothé wanted a worker who could not only reflect on his sit­u­a­tion and tran­scribe it into a nar­ra­tive that mim­ic­ked the nat­ural oral cul­ture of the aver­age worker, but who would also be free of all non-revolutionary ide­ol­ogy. It’s no sur­prise then, that Mothé, and much of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, only found one worker who fit the bill: Daniel Mothé him­self.55

The synec­dochic sub­sti­tu­tion of a sin­gle polit­i­cally con­scious male fac­tory worker for the work­ing class as a whole marks a sig­nif­i­cant step back from the posi­tions devel­oped by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and later Cor­re­spon­dence, which had iden­ti­fied at least four dis­tinct seg­ments of the work­ing class: indus­trial work­ers, blacks, women, and youth.

Per­haps the shaki­est part of Mothé’s model, how­ever, had to do not so much with the first step in this process – from work­ers to intel­lec­tu­als – but the sec­ond, from intel­lec­tu­als to work­ers. Mothé spent a great deal of time dis­cussing the first process, but very lit­tle on the sec­ond. This was largely because this sec­ond process proved to be con­tentious among both the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie as well as the fac­tory work­ers who formed the edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière.56

Some were strongly sup­port­ive of “return­ing” social­ist ideas to the work­ing class. Cas­to­ri­adis was the first to argue, as early as June 1956, that the group had to cre­ate a sep­a­rate “work­ers’ paper” aimed explic­itly at the work­ing class, not just in Paris, but all of France. It was imper­a­tive, he thought, to intro­duce more work­ers to Social­isme ou Barbarie’s the­o­ret­i­cal work, and to sharpen the the­ory itself, since the need to engage with a broader audi­ence, and there­fore write more acces­si­bly, would push the mil­i­tants to work in a more “con­crete” way, avoid­ing abstrac­tions and pay­ing greater atten­tion to devel­op­ments in the class struggle.

This pro­posal was rejected. Some, like Mothé, accepted Cas­to­ri­adis’ the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion whole­heart­edly, and agreed with the neces­sity of such paper, but felt it was imprac­ti­cal due to the lack of resources, and the fact that the paper prob­a­bly would not find a ready audi­ence, given that it did not already enjoy strong links with the wider work­ing class in France. More­over, Mothé had seen first­hand, through his work with Tri­bune Ouvrière, just how dif­fi­cult it was to oper­ate a “work­ers’ jour­nal” in even one fac­tory, let alone all of France, as Cas­to­ri­adis hoped.

Oth­ers, like Henri Simon and Claude Lefort, opposed the paper on the­o­ret­i­cal grounds, high­light­ing once again a major divi­sion over the vexed “orga­ni­za­tion ques­tion.” Simon asked to what extent the paper would actu­ally be a work­ers’ paper if it were forcibly repur­posed to trans­mit rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to work­ers.57 How would this be any dif­fer­ent from the other “worker” news­pa­pers, such as those spon­sored by the PCF, which they so harshly criticized?

In a sim­i­lar vein Lefort, who had always opposed the impo­si­tion of any kind of “direc­tion” onto the autonomous move­ments of the work­ing class, decried Castoriadis’s pro­posed paper as “an oper­a­tion from above.” As he put it, “Chaulieu has decided to have this paper at any cost, even though there is no working-class pub­lic in which to dif­fuse it, and even fewer work­ers to actively take part in it.”58 To be sure, Lefort was never opposed to the notion of a work­ers’ paper, not even to orga­ni­za­tion or the­ory as such. But his con­vic­tion that every­thing had to flow organ­i­cally from the work­ing class itself trans­lated into a deep sus­pi­cion of pro­grams: what­ever the inten­tions behind the draft­ing of such a doc­u­ment, and even if it were elab­o­rated in ref­er­ence to the class, a pro­gram would always end up ossi­fy­ing into an exte­rior form, ulti­mately strait­jack­et­ing working-class spon­tane­ity. Such a stance, which implied an extremely cir­cum­scribed role for mil­i­tants, was anti­thet­i­cal to Cas­to­ri­adis’ posi­tion, already reveal­ing an irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ence between the two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists behind the jour­nal. And it was pre­cisely work­ers’ inquiry, in the form of the paper, that revealed it most strik­ingly. Though both ral­lied around work­ers’ inquiry, each had a very dif­fer­ent objec­tive in mind. For Lefort, the object of inquiry was uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes; for Cas­to­ri­adis, it was the rudi­men­tary con­tent of the social­ist program.

Although the pro­posal was defeated, the mat­ter exploded into full view again in 1958. De Gaulle’s coup cre­ated an entirely new sit­u­a­tion. The estab­lished Left seemed par­a­lyzed, a wave of new recruits flooded into Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and many, led by Cas­to­ri­adis, believed the time had finally come to trans­form the group into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion, com­plete with a line, and a pop­u­lar paper like the one he had pro­posed back in 1956.59 A split took shape along the old fault lines, and in Sep­tem­ber, the minor­ity, led by Lefort and Simon, left to form Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières (Worker Infor­ma­tion and Con­nec­tions, ILO).60

One of the very first actions of this rein­vented Social­isme ou Bar­barie was to cre­ate a new paper, Pou­voir Ouvrier, in Decem­ber of that year. The form of the paper reflected Mothé and Castoriadis’s goals, ini­tially divided into two sec­tions: a polit­i­cal one, which pub­lished sim­pli­fied ver­sions of the the­o­ries devel­oped in its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, and another, titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” (loosely, The Work­ers’ Turn to Speak), which pub­lished worker tes­ti­monies in the tra­di­tion of Paul Romano.

Argu­ing for the strate­gic neces­sity of the paper, Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated his con­cep­tion of the rela­tion­ship of the intel­lec­tual and the worker in “Pro­le­tariat and Orga­ni­za­tion, Part 1,” writ­ten in the sum­mer of 1958 as the split with Lefort’s fac­tion was tak­ing place. While Mothé’s model of the paper had been some­thing like a trans­mis­sion belt, mov­ing for­ward then back­wards between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, as if at the flip of a switch, in this text Cas­to­ri­adis pro­vides a more dynamic image, more like a cir­cuit. Mil­i­tants do not sim­ply dis­sem­i­nate their the­o­ries among work­ers in order to con­vert them to social­ism, they sub­mit their the­o­ries for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory will “have no value, no con­sis­tency with what it else­where pro­claims to be its essen­tial prin­ci­ples,” Cas­to­ri­adis argued, “unless it is con­stantly being replen­ished, in prac­tice, by the expe­ri­ence of the work­ers as it takes shape in their day-to-day lives;” it was this process which would allow the work­ers to “edu­cate the edu­ca­tor.”61 This meant that Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which had hith­erto been an exceed­ingly “intel­lec­tual” review, had to rethink its prac­tice. “The task the orga­ni­za­tion is up against in this sphere,” he con­tin­ued, “is to merge intel­lec­tu­als with work­ers as work­ers as it is elab­o­rat­ing its views. This means that the ques­tions asked, and the meth­ods for dis­cussing and work­ing out these prob­lems, must be changed so that it will be pos­si­ble for the worker to take part.” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory had to be more acces­si­ble, the orga­ni­za­tion had to become more dis­ci­plined, and its com­po­si­tion had to change:

Only an orga­ni­za­tion formed as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tion, in which work­ers numer­i­cally pre­dom­i­nate and dom­i­nate it on fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, and which cre­ates broad avenues of exchange with the pro­le­tariat, thus allow­ing it to draw upon the widest pos­si­ble expe­ri­ence of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety – only an orga­ni­za­tion of this kind can pro­duce a the­ory that will be any­thing other than the iso­lated work of specialists.

Like Mothé, he argued that mil­i­tants had to “extract the social­ist con­tent in what is con­stantly being cre­ated by the pro­le­tariat (whether it is a mat­ter of a strike or of a rev­o­lu­tion), for­mu­late it coher­ently, prop­a­gate it, and show its uni­ver­sal import.”62 The­ory must flow from the “his­toric as well as day-to-day expe­ri­ence and action of the pro­le­tariat,” and even “eco­nomic the­ory has to be recon­structed around what is con­tained in embryo in the ten­dency of work­ers toward equal­ity in pay; the entire the­ory of pro­duc­tion around the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers in the fac­tory; all of polit­i­cal the­ory around the prin­ci­ples embod­ied in the sovi­ets and the coun­cils.” But then it would be up to mil­i­tants to extract “what is uni­ver­sally valid in the expe­ri­ence of the pro­le­tariat,” work this up into a gen­eral “social­ist out­look,” then prop­a­gate this out­look among the work­ers whose expe­ri­ences served as its very con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity (214).

Cas­to­ri­adis had attempted pre­cisely this in the third part of his “On the Con­tent of Social­ism,” also in 1958. After crit­i­ciz­ing the bureau­cratic Bol­she­vik expe­ri­ence and then imag­in­ing a coun­cilist man­age­ment of soci­ety in parts one and two, he turned in the last part to the analy­sis of the labor process at the level of the enter­prise. The con­tent of social­ism is the “priv­i­leged cen­ter, the focal point” with­out which there is only “mere empir­i­cal soci­ol­ogy.” The con­tent of social­ism could only be demon­strated in the “proletariat’s strug­gle against alien­ation” (156).

The main con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, lay in the def­i­n­i­tion of the exchange of labor-power, under­stood as the ten­sion between the “human time” of the laborer and the ratio­nal­iza­tion imposed by man­age­ment. There can only be a tem­po­rary bal­ance of forces between the two, the worker resign­ing to a com­pro­mise estab­lish­ing a cer­tain pace of work, which must be dis­solved and rein­vented when the man­u­fac­tur­ing process is trans­formed by new machin­ery. Taylorism’s func­tion was to reduce the het­ero­gene­ity of human time to the “‘one best way’ to accom­plish each oper­a­tion,” stan­dard­iz­ing the pro­ce­dures of work and deter­min­ing an aver­age out­put against which wages could be deter­mined – management’s attempt to the elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of wage con­flicts (159-60).

But Taylorism’s “one best way” could not pos­si­bly account for the real­ity of the work process, under­taken by indi­vid­u­als with mul­ti­plic­i­ties of “best ways” – with their own ges­tures and move­ments, their their own forms of adap­ta­tion to their tools, their own rhythms of exe­cu­tion. The col­lec­tiv­ity of indi­vid­u­als on the shop floor would have to under­take its own form of “spon­ta­neous asso­ci­a­tion” against the ratio­nal­iza­tion of man­age­ment, even to ful­fill management’s goals (163).

Here the con­cept of the “ele­men­tary group,” the “liv­ing nuclei of pro­duc­tive activ­ity,” drawn from The Amer­i­can Worker and the jour­nals of Mothé as much as from indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, became deci­sive (170).63 Each enter­prise, Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, had a ” dou­ble struc­ture,” its “for­mal orga­ni­za­tion” rep­re­sented in charts and dia­grams, and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion, “whose activ­i­ties are car­ried out and sup­ported by indi­vid­u­als and groups at all lev­els of the hier­ar­chi­cal pyra­mid accord­ing to the require­ments of their work, the imper­a­tives of pro­duc­tive effi­ciency, and the neces­si­ties of their strug­gle against exploita­tion” (170). The dis­tinc­tion between the two was not merely a ques­tion of “the­ory ver­sus prac­tice,” of an illu­sory boss’s ide­ol­ogy against the messy real­ity of the shop floor, as some lib­eral soci­ol­o­gists would have it. It rep­re­sented the real strug­gle by which man­age­ment attempted to encom­pass the entire pro­duc­tion process.

Against the “sep­a­rate man­age­ment [direc­tion]” of the bureau­cracy, the ele­men­tary group con­sti­tuted “the man­age­ment [ges­tion] of their own activ­ity” (169-70, 171). The oppo­si­tion between the two, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, was the real char­ac­ter of class strug­gle, the for­mal orga­ni­za­tion coin­cid­ing with the “man­age­r­ial stra­tum” and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing “a dif­fer­ent mode of oper­a­tion of the enter­prise, cen­tered around the real sit­u­a­tion of the exe­cu­tants.” This strug­gle between “direc­tors and exe­cu­tants” char­ac­ter­ized the cap­i­tal­ist work­place, begin­ning at the level of the ele­men­tary group and extend­ing across the whole enter­prise. Since the “posi­tion of each ele­men­tary group is essen­tially iden­ti­cal to that of the oth­ers,” the coop­er­a­tion between the groups leads them “to merge in a class, the class of exe­cu­tants, defined by a com­mu­nity of sit­u­a­tion, func­tion, inter­ests, atti­tude, men­tal­ity” (171).

If indus­trial soci­ol­ogy from management’s per­spec­tive was unable to rec­og­nize this class divi­sion in the work­place, and there­fore got lost in the­o­ret­i­cal abstrac­tion, the same went for Marx­ists whose con­cept of class did not begin with “the basic artic­u­la­tions within the enter­prise and among the human groups within the enter­prise.” Their ide­ol­ogy blocked them from “see­ing the proletariat’s vital process of class for­ma­tion, of self-creation as the out­come of a per­ma­nent strug­gle that begins within pro­duc­tion” (172).

This ide­ol­ogy had direct polit­i­cal con­se­quences. For Cas­to­ri­adis, even wage demands were nascent expres­sions of the strug­gle by which the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of the exe­cu­tants tended towards an attack on the cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion. If Marx­ist par­ties and unions attempted to restrict the con­tent of these strug­gles to the bureau­cratic man­age­ment of income redis­tri­b­u­tion, this could only rein­force the directors/executants divi­sion. “To the abstract con­cept of the pro­le­tariat cor­re­sponds the abstract con­cept of social­ism as nation­al­iza­tion and plan­ning,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “whose sole con­crete con­tent ulti­mately is revealed to be the total­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this abstrac­tion – of the bureau­cratic party.” For the work­ers’ strug­gle to truly real­ize itself, it would have to go fur­ther towards the work­ers’ self-management of pro­duc­tion (172).

With­out this thor­ough­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety, cap­i­tal­ism would con­tinue on its cur­rent course, with the “tremen­dous waste” gen­er­ated by its irra­tional pro­duc­tion process. Each enter­prise unsteadily tried to bal­ance between the decom­po­si­tion of exe­cu­tants into atom­ized indi­vid­u­als, and their rein­te­gra­tion into new uni­fied wholes cor­re­spond­ing to a newly ratio­nal­ized pro­duc­tion process (172-3). But the man­age­r­ial plan is inevitably unable to estab­lish a hier­ar­chy of tasks that reflects the real require­ments of pro­duc­tion – while man­age­ment is unaware of the real­ity of the process on the shop floor, the exe­cu­tant is sep­a­rated from the plan and unin­ter­ested in the results, prone to tak­ing short­cuts (175). Only “the prac­tice, the inven­tion, the cre­ativ­ity of the mass of exe­cu­tants,” the col­lec­tiv­ity of the ele­men­tary group, can fill the gaps in management’s pro­duc­tion direc­tives (176).

But despite Castoriadis’s affir­ma­tion of the cre­ativ­ity of the exe­cu­tants in the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties, their role in the pro­duc­tion of the­ory was pre­cip­i­tously declin­ing. As Simon, Lefort, and oth­ers had feared, the work­ers’ nar­ra­tives increas­ingly became a mere orna­ment in Pou­voir Ouvrier. Con­firm­ing this wor­ri­some trend, in Novem­ber of 1959 the group voted to shift the empha­sis of the jour­nal even more towards the “polit­i­cal” sec­tion. By the spring of 1961 the sep­a­rate sec­tion titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” had van­ished com­pletely.64 The paper there­fore ended up only ful­fill­ing the sec­ond func­tion out­lined by Mothé – trans­mit­ting rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to the work­ing class. But with­out the first func­tion – express­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences – Pou­voir Ouvrier sim­ply became another van­guardist pub­li­ca­tion, indis­tin­guish­able from the var­i­ous papers Mothé had orig­i­nally criticized.

To be fair, it seems that the dis­ap­pear­ance of “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” was in large part the result of a lack of worker nar­ra­tives. Indeed, this prob­lem cut across the splits in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. What­ever the dif­fer­ences between Lefort’s, Mothé’s, and Pou­voir Ouvrier’s con­cep­tions of inquiry and the rela­tion between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, all were depen­dent on a steady stream of worker accounts. But to their cha­grin, they found that work­ers’ sim­ply did not want to write.65

It’s sig­nif­i­cant here that all of these mod­els imag­ined work­ers’ inquiry in the same way: not the ques­tion­naire, as Marx sug­gested, but the writ­ten tes­ti­mony ini­ti­ated by Romano. Lefort had gone as far as to explic­itly crit­i­cize the “statistically-based” strat­egy of work­ers pos­ing “thou­sands of ques­tions” to each other, since these would result in mere numer­i­cal cor­re­la­tions and would be unable to bring out the “sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing” of “con­crete indi­vid­u­als.” Even worse, a “ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had.”66 But it is hard not to won­der if the dearth of worker responses has to do with this spe­cific form of inquiry. Though worker nar­ra­tives might allow work­ers to express them­selves more organ­i­cally, they are nonethe­less much more dif­fi­cult to com­pose than respond­ing to a questionnaire.

Just as Pou­voir Ouvrier saw itself mov­ing away from its orig­i­nal goals, Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières also ran into some dif­fi­cul­ties. Unlike the major­ity of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which asserted the neces­sity of a for­mal party, com­plete with a kind of cen­tral com­mit­tee, the ILO minor­ity had advo­cated a more decen­tral­ized struc­ture, based on autonomous worker cells, where every­thing could be openly dis­cussed. The core of the group would be these cells, based in var­i­ous firms, and the role of ILO would not be to dis­sem­i­nate ideas from above, as Pou­voir Ouvrier would soon do, but to cir­cu­late expe­ri­ences, infor­ma­tion, and ideas between these var­i­ous cells. It was to be some­thing of a net­work, pro­vid­ing links between dif­fer­ent work­ers, very much along the lines of Cor­re­spon­dence. Whereas Pou­voir Ouvrier wanted to prop­a­gate the social­ist project among work­ers, ILO, Lefort later recalled, aimed to “dis­trib­ute a bul­letin as unpro­gram­matic as pos­si­ble attempt­ing pri­mar­ily to give work­ers a voice and to aid in coor­di­nat­ing expe­ri­ences in indus­try – that is, those expe­ri­ences result­ing from attempts at autonomous strug­gle.”67

It should be noted that the minor­ity which split off to form ILO was less united by a com­mon per­spec­tive than by its gen­eral oppo­si­tion to the major­ity that pushed for a party. It’s there­fore unsur­pris­ing that this new group of about twenty would soon run into its own inter­nal dif­fer­ences. A fis­sure began to appear between the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors of the group: Lefort, who wished to com­bine the authen­tic­ity of the work­ers’ voice with some kind of the­ory, felt that Simon not only wanted to aban­don all signs of direc­tion, ori­en­ta­tion, and party line, but even inter­pre­ta­tion and the­ory as such. He would later reflect:

The essen­tial thing was that these peo­ple speak of their expe­ri­ence in every­day life. In a sense [Simon] was absolutely cor­rect. We all thought that there was an evil spell of The­ory detached from, and designed to mask, expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness. But it was still a mat­ter of expe­ri­ence as actual expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness, not banal­ity. Expe­ri­ence is not raw; it always implies an ele­ment of inter­pre­ta­tion and opens itself to dis­cus­sion. Speech in every­day life tac­itly or explic­itly refuses another speech and solic­its a response. For Simon, the speech of the exploited, who­ever he might be, what­ever he might say, was in essence good. He knew like all of us that the dom­i­nant bour­geois or demo­c­ra­tic dis­course weighs heav­ily on the speech of the exploited. This knowl­edge did not weaken his con­vic­tion. The speech of the exploited was suf­fi­cient unto itself. Essen­tially, he said that a per­son speaks about what he sees and feels; we have only to lis­ten to him, or bet­ter yet record his remarks in our bul­letin, which is our rai­son d’être.68

Lefort, who left the group in 1960 (prompt­ing them to rename them­selves Infor­ma­tions et Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières, ICO), argued that no mat­ter what, some kind of inter­pre­ta­tion will always slip into inquiry, even if only in the selec­tion of texts, the order in which they would be pub­lished, and so forth. To deny this was to deceive oneself.

In other words, the orig­i­nal project of work­ers’ inquiry broke down on both sides. Pou­voir Ouvrier became another van­guardist jour­nal, indis­tin­guish­able from a Trot­sky­ist paper, try­ing to edu­cate the work­ing class through sim­pli­fied ren­di­tions of eso­teric the­o­ries devel­oped with­out ref­er­ence to the con­crete expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. On the other, ICO tricked itself into ignor­ing the role of intel­lec­tu­als, only to find itself immo­bi­lized, chas­ing after some pure pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence untar­nished by the­o­ret­i­cal interpretation.

As for Cas­to­ri­adis, he broke with his own group in 1962. His reflec­tions on these debates had pro­duced an even more dras­tic effect: Cas­to­ri­adis had come to the con­clu­sion that Marx­ism as a the­ory had been defin­i­tively dis­proved. “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” first writ­ten between 1959 and 1961, had been pub­lished before he left with the dis­claimer that its “ideas are not nec­es­sar­ily shared by the entire Social­isme ou Bar­barie group” (226). Draw­ing on his day job as pro­fes­sional econ­o­mist for the OECD, Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a dev­as­tat­ing bal­ance sheet for Marx­ist the­ory. In the con­text of the post­war boom, Marx­ists were con­tin­u­ing to claim that cap­i­tal­ism, through struc­tural unem­ploy­ment and the increase in the rate of exploita­tion, was impov­er­ish­ing and pau­per­iz­ing the worker. But in real­ity, the sys­tem had yielded full employ­ment and wages were grow­ing more rapidly than ever, lead­ing to a mas­sive expan­sion of con­sump­tion which both pro­vided a steady source of effec­tive demand and rep­re­sented a major rise in the stan­dard of liv­ing of the work­ing class. Marx­ist mil­i­tants had exposed them­selves as worse than use­less; unions had become “cogs in the sys­tem” which “nego­ti­ate the work­ers’ docil­ity in return for higher wages,” while pol­i­tics “takes place exclu­sively among spe­cial­ists,” the sup­posed work­ers’ par­ties dom­i­nated by bureau­crats (227).

As Lefort him­self had sug­gested, the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence that Social­isme ou Barbarie’s inquires had attempted to reach would have to be coun­ter­posed to the rigid deter­mi­na­tion of eco­nomic laws. “For tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “the ‘objec­tive’ con­tra­dic­tions of cap­i­tal­ism were essen­tially eco­nomic ones, and the system’s rad­i­cal inabil­ity to sat­isfy the work­ing class’s eco­nomic demands made these the motive force of class strug­gle.” But under­ly­ing this premise was an “objec­tivist and mech­a­nis­tic” fal­lacy which rein­forc­ing the notion that spe­cial­ists and bureau­crats who could under­stand history’s “objec­tive laws” would be respon­si­ble for the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and the “elim­i­na­tion of pri­vate prop­erty and the mar­ket.” Stuck within this fal­lacy, tra­di­tional Marx­ists could not even explain their own fix­a­tions; they failed to grasp that wages had increased because they were actu­ally deter­mined by class strug­gle, and the demands put forth by wage strug­gles could be met as long as they did not exceed pro­duc­tiv­ity increases (227).

Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, Cas­to­ri­adis argued that the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism had to be located in “pro­duc­tion and work,” and specif­i­cally in terms of the “alien­ation expe­ri­enced by every worker.” But unlike his stal­wart Marx­ist pre­de­ces­sors, Cas­to­ri­adis rec­og­nized that this the­ory was incom­pat­i­ble with the lan­guage of value, and rejected “eco­nomic” def­i­n­i­tions of class. The oppo­si­tion between direc­tors and exe­cu­tants thor­oughly replaced the one between own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion to non-owners. This had major impli­ca­tions for the view of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment itself: the “ideal ten­dency” of “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism” would be “the con­sti­tu­tion of a totally hier­ar­chized soci­ety in con­tin­u­ous expan­sion where people’s increas­ing alien­ation in their work would be com­pen­sated by a ‘ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing’ and where all ini­tia­tive would be given over to orga­niz­ers” (229). This project, how­ever, was prone to the con­tra­dic­tion of bureau­cratic ratio­nal­ity, “capitalism’s need to reduce work­ers to the role of mere exe­cu­tants and the inabil­ity of this sys­tem to func­tion if it suc­ceeded in achiev­ing this required objec­tive.” The con­tra­dic­tion, then, was that “cap­i­tal­ism needs to real­ize simul­ta­ne­ously the par­tic­i­pa­tion and exclu­sion of the work­ers in the pro­duc­tion process” (228). This inher­ent ten­dency of cap­i­tal­ism could “never com­pletely pre­vail,” since “cap­i­tal­ism can­not exist with­out the pro­le­tariat,” and the proletariat’s con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to change the labor process and the stan­dard of liv­ing played a fun­da­men­tal role in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment: “The extrac­tion of ‘use value from labor power’ is not a tech­ni­cal oper­a­tion; it is a process of bit­ter strug­gle in which half the time, so to speak, the cap­i­tal­ists turn out to be losers” (248).

The expe­ri­ence of this strug­gle, and the inad­e­quacy of reformism within it, had shorn the exe­cu­tants of any delu­sional faith in “objec­tive” con­tra­dic­tions as the guar­an­tee of bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions. Now the pro­le­tariat could finally rec­og­nize that the true rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon was “work­ers’ man­age­ment and the over­com­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist val­ues of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion” (230).

In other words, the demands of this move­ment would not be at the level of wages, which rep­re­sented the alien­ated sub­sti­tute for a moti­va­tion dri­ven by cre­ative work. The source of moti­va­tion required for social cohe­sion no longer lay in “sig­ni­fy­ing” activ­i­ties, but solely in the pur­suit of income. Even the clas­si­cal careerist goal of pro­mo­tion in the hier­ar­chy of the bureau­cracy ulti­mately led to higher income (276). But since per­sonal income can­not lead to accu­mu­la­tion – it can­not make a worker a cap­i­tal­ist – “income there­fore only has mean­ing through the con­sump­tion it allows.” Since con­sump­tion could not rest solely on exist­ing needs, which were “at the point of sat­u­ra­tion, due to con­stant rises in income,” cap­i­tal­ists had to gen­er­ate new needs through the intro­duc­tion of new com­modi­ties, and the alien­ated cul­ture of adver­tis­ing which embed­ded them in every­day life (277).

Yet the increase in out­put which was required for a con­stantly ris­ing level of con­sump­tion could only be ensured through the automa­tion of pro­duc­tion, capitalism’s attempt at “the rad­i­cal abo­li­tion of its labor rela­tion prob­lems by abol­ish­ing the worker” (283). And this is the con­text in which the “wage rela­tion becomes an intrin­si­cally con­tra­dic­tory rela­tion,” since a rapidly devel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, as opposed to the sta­tic tech­nol­ogy of pre­vi­ous soci­eties, pre­vented man­age­ment from set­tling on any per­ma­nent means for the “sta­bi­liza­tion of class rela­tions in the work­place,” and pre­vented “tech­ni­cal knowl­edge from becom­ing crys­tal­lized for­ever in a spe­cific cat­e­gory of the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion” (260). The whole his­tory of class strug­gle within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion could be under­stood in these terms. The intro­duc­tion of machin­ery in the early 19th cen­tury was met with the pri­mor­dial acts of indus­trial sab­o­tage. Despite the defeat of its Lud­dite begin­nings, the work­ers’ strug­gle con­tin­ued within the fac­tory, lead­ing to the intro­duc­tion of piece­work, wages based on out­put. Now that “norms” of pro­duc­tion were the pri­mary line of strug­gle, cap­i­tal­ism fought back with the Tay­lorist sci­en­tific man­age­ment of norms. The work­ers’ resis­tance to man­age­ment yielded the ide­o­log­i­cal responses of indus­trial psy­chol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy, with their goals of “inte­grat­ing” work­ers into alien­ated work­places. But it was impos­si­ble, even by these mea­sures, to sup­press the fun­da­men­tal antag­o­nism of work­ers towards the pro­duc­tion process – in fact, in the most advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, with the high­est wages and the most “mod­ern” method of pro­duc­tion and man­age­ment, the “daily con­flict at the point of pro­duc­tion reaches incred­i­ble pro­por­tions” (264).

Accord­ing to Cas­to­ri­adis, the tra­di­tional Marx­ist con­cep­tion was unable to com­pre­hend this his­tor­i­cal process. For Marx­ism, “cap­i­tal­ists them­selves do not act – they are ‘acted upon’ by eco­nomic motives that deter­mine them just as grav­i­ta­tion gov­erns the move­ment of bod­ies” (262). But his­tory proved that the rul­ing class adapted its strate­gies accord­ing to its sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of class strug­gle, learn­ing that wages can buy the work­ers’ docil­ity, that state inter­ven­tion can sta­bi­lize the econ­omy, and that full employ­ment can pre­vent the rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval which would result from a rep­e­ti­tion of 1929 (269-70).

So the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­tique of soci­ety had to shed the dis­trac­tion of the objec­tivist the­ory and directly denounce the irra­tional and inhu­man results of bureau­cratic man­age­ment and alien­ated work. And cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment had ren­dered the over­com­ing of alien­ation defin­i­tively pos­si­ble, since at the tech­ni­cal level “the entire plan­ning bureau­cracy already can be replaced by elec­tronic cal­cu­la­tors,” and on the social level the irra­tional­ity of the bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety had been com­pletely unveiled (299).

Just as Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a bal­ance sheet of “tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” we can now eval­u­ate this par­tic­u­lar moment of rup­ture. The new the­ory of class was expe­di­ent for an analy­sis of the planned econ­omy of the Soviet Union as “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism,” for­mu­lated in dia­logue with the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency. Cas­to­ri­adis rad­i­cal­ized their claim that cap­i­tal­ism emerged from rela­tions on the shop floor, rather than own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion.69 The ratio­nal ker­nel of this the­ory was clear: the process which began with the Bol­she­vik enthu­si­asm for Taylorism, the adop­tion by the Russ­ian bureau­cracy of forms of orga­ni­za­tion of the labor process pio­neered by cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment and soci­ol­ogy, shat­tered the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. The advance­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces, whether they were pri­vately or pub­licly owned, had become an ele­ment of the ratio­nal­ity which gov­erned ever more com­plex forms of social stratification.

How­ever, Castoriadis’s new the­ory was sub­ject to the same blindspots as his pre­de­ces­sors, unable to explain class rela­tions in their unity with exchange rela­tions. The ques­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment itself poses fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about his analy­sis. While Cas­to­ri­adis cor­rectly crit­i­cized the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces with the polit­i­cal project of social­ism, he did not explain how this process was sit­u­ated within the social rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ism. Tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was an expres­sion of the ratio­nal­ity of man­age­ment; while Cas­to­ri­adis bril­liantly out­lined the con­tra­dic­tions of this ratio­nal­ity at the level of the enter­prise, the under­ly­ing system-wide ques­tions of Marx’s analy­sis, to which each vol­ume of Cap­i­tal had been devoted, were now left unan­swered. If tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is a waste­ful process, why does a profit-seeking enter­prise under­take it? How is it able to make large expen­di­tures in fixed cap­i­tal, in expen­sive machin­ery, and con­tinue to repro­duce its ongo­ing con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion? In Castoriadis’s analy­sis, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is prac­ti­cally the result of a lack of moti­va­tion, which can only be over­come through the expan­sion in con­sump­tion that is enabled by tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment and its aug­men­ta­tion of out­put. We now lack the the­o­ret­i­cal resources to under­stand why pro­duc­tion has become the end of human exis­tence, or what “max­i­mum pro­duc­tion” would mean – as though the capitalist’s goal were to own more things rather than to make more profits.

Just as fun­da­men­tal was the ques­tion of this system’s basic pre­con­di­tions. While Cas­to­ri­adis explained cap­i­tal­ism as the fullest expres­sion of alien­ation and reifi­ca­tion, it was by no means clear how these phe­nom­ena were spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ism, and what they had to do with the eco­nomic dynam­ics he was so quick to dis­miss. Under­ly­ing management’s attempt to direct labor-power towards the max­i­mum pos­si­ble out­put was the fact that cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment was com­pelled to exploit labor-power to the most prof­itable extent – and that work­ers were equally com­pelled to sell their labor-power in exchange for a wage. What accounted for this compulsion?

If these ques­tions were some­how incom­pat­i­ble with the analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, this would not only inval­i­date Marx­ism – it would make the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the enter­prise inex­plic­a­ble. But by start­ing from inquiries into the trans­for­ma­tion of the labor process, and shift­ing to a his­tor­i­cal account of the logic of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Social­isme ou Bar­barie had served as an indis­pens­able foundation.

Sci­ence and Strat­egy: Operaismo

The influ­ence of Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, Mothé and oth­ers from Social­isme ou Bar­barie was quite appar­ent in the Italy of the early 1960s. Toni Negri, for instance, recalls how Social­isme ou Bar­barie, “the jour­nal that Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis and Claude Lefort pub­lished in Paris,” became “my daily bread in that period.”70

Direct links, in fact, had already been estab­lished. In 1954 Danilo Mon­taldi, who had ear­lier been expelled from the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), trans­lated “The Amer­i­can Worker,” not from the orig­i­nal Eng­lish, but from the French trans­la­tions that appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. He trav­eled to Paris that year, meet­ing the mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie and ini­ti­at­ing an exchange with none other than Daniel Mothé, whose diary he would later trans­late into Ital­ian. Mon­taldi would main­tain these con­nec­tions, return­ing to Paris in 1957, and again in 1960, to strengthen ties with Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, and Edgar Morin, among oth­ers.71

Mon­taldi not only played an indis­pens­able role in the trans­mis­sion of the ideas of Social­isme ou Bar­barie into the Ital­ian con­text, he put them into prac­tice, con­duct­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry. These prac­ti­cally unprece­dented inves­ti­ga­tions, which relied on a plu­ral­ity of meth­ods, from nar­ra­tive to soci­o­log­i­cal inquiry to oral his­tory, resulted in a series of highly influ­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions: “Milan, Korea,” an inquiry into south­ern immi­grants liv­ing in Milan, Auto­bi­ografie della leg­gera, and finally Mil­i­tanti politici di base.

Mon­taldi pro­posed an entirely dif­fer­ent way of see­ing things. The objec­tive of inquiry was to uncover the every­day strug­gles of the work­ing class, inde­pen­dently of all the offi­cial insti­tu­tions that claimed to rep­re­sent it. Yet as Ser­gio Bologna recalls, Montaldi’s care­ful his­to­ries rejected myth­i­cal trib­utes to spon­tane­ity, opt­ing instead for rich descrip­tions of “microsys­tems of strug­gle,” the polit­i­cal cul­tures of resis­tance that made seem­ingly spon­ta­neous move­ments pos­si­ble.72 This new focus on buried net­works and obscured his­to­ries would have tremen­dous ramifications.

In addi­tion to his own inves­ti­ga­tions, Mon­taldi orga­nized a group in Cre­mona called Gruppo di Unità Pro­le­taria. Last­ing from 1957-1962, it brought together a num­ber of young mil­i­tants, all united by their desire to dis­cover the work­ing class as it really was, beyond the frigid world of party cards. One of these young mil­i­tants was Romano Alquati.

Alquati, trained as a soci­ol­o­gist, would be a piv­otal fig­ure in the for­ma­tion of the jour­nal Quaderni Rossi, the ini­tial encounter of het­ero­dox mil­i­tants from the Ital­ian Social­ist Party and the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party which would found operaismo, or “work­erism.” Quaderni Rossi began with a debate over soci­ol­ogy, whose use by the bosses had yielded new forms of labor man­age­ment and dis­ci­pline, but had also gen­er­ated invalu­able infor­ma­tion about the labor process. While a crit­i­cal Marx­ist appro­pri­a­tion of soci­ol­ogy was on the agenda, its rela­tion to Montaldi’s work­ers’ inquiry was not entirely clear. Some in Quaderni Rossi – the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion sur­round­ing Vit­to­rio Rieser – believed that this new sci­ence, though asso­ci­ated with bour­geois aca­d­e­mics, could be used as a basis for the renewal of the insti­tu­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment. Oth­ers, includ­ing Alquati, felt soci­ol­ogy could only be, at best, an ini­tial step towards a specif­i­cally mil­i­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion between researchers and work­ers, a new form of knowl­edge which would be char­ac­ter­ized as “core­search.”73

Alquati’s inquiries would prove to be fun­da­men­tal in the devel­op­ment of workerism’s eco­nomic analy­sis. Steve Wright has bril­liantly traced the break which can be observed between Alquati’s “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” a study of FIAT pub­lished in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi in 1961, and the 1962 study of Olivetti. In the first text, along with the two oth­ers pub­lished that year on FIAT, Alquati oper­ates, inter­est­ingly enough, within the prob­lem­atic estab­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.74 The “new forces” at FIAT were the younger gen­er­a­tion, brought in to work the recently installed machin­ery that had deskilled more expe­ri­enced pro­fes­sional work­ers. Man­age­ment imposed hier­ar­chies within the work­force – a divi­sion of labor sep­a­rat­ing tech­ni­cians and skilled work­ers from the major­ity, along with divi­sive pay scales. But this process of ratio­nal­iza­tion was sub­ject to the con­tra­dic­tory irra­tional­ity Cas­to­ri­adis had described; and it gave rise to forms of “invis­i­ble orga­ni­za­tion” result­ing from the fact that man­age­ment was con­strained to give exe­cu­tants respon­si­bil­ity while at the same time try­ing to repress their con­trol. Alquati also drew polit­i­cal con­clu­sions rem­i­nis­cent of his French pre­cur­sors: the work­ers were uncon­vinced by the reformism of the offi­cial work­ers’ move­ment, and instead expressed inter­est in work­ers’ man­age­ment, in an end to the alien­at­ing process of work.

Along­side Alquati’s text in the inau­gural issue of Quaderni Rossi, Ranziero Panzieri, the founder of the review, pub­lished a highly influ­en­tial arti­cle called “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery: Marx Against the Objec­tivists.” Writ­ten after Alquati’s “Report,” it reflected on the themes raised by Alquati, refer­ring through­out to the work­ers “stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi,” while push­ing towards a new frame­work. Panzieri, who had not only writ­ten the intro­duc­tion to the Ital­ian edi­tion of Mothé’s diary, but was also the Ital­ian trans­la­tor of the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, was not pre­pared to drop Marx’s lan­guage in favor of that of direc­tors and executants:

the worker, as owner and seller of his labour-power, enters into rela­tion with cap­i­tal only as an indi­vid­ual; coop­er­a­tion, the mutual rela­tion­ship between work­ers, only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to them­selves. On enter­ing the labour process they are incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal.75

For Panzieri, the means by which this incor­po­ra­tion took place was machin­ery, in the pas­sage from man­u­fac­ture to the devel­oped level of large-scale indus­try. Cit­ing Marx’s remark that in the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory, “the automa­ton itself is the sub­ject, and the work­ers are merely con­scious organs,” Panzieri’s tar­get was the labor bureaucracy’s enthu­si­asm for tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment.76 Accord­ing to this ortho­dox posi­tion, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment rep­re­sented a tran­shis­tor­i­cal force, deter­min­ing the pro­gres­sive move­ment through modes of pro­duc­tion. To drive down the Ital­ian road to social­ism, the Ital­ian worker would have to sub­mit to the automa­tons in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries.77

It is sig­nif­i­cant that while Panzieri made many of the same his­tor­i­cal obser­va­tions as Cas­to­ri­adis, he defended them as dis­cov­er­ies inter­nal to Marx’s the­ory. The same went for the ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing. Accord­ing to Panzieri, “Marx fore­saw an increase not just of the nom­i­nal but also of the real wage”: “the more the growth of cap­i­tal is rapid, the more the mate­r­ial sit­u­a­tion of the working-class improves. And the more the wage is linked to the growth of cap­i­tal, the more direct becomes labour’s depen­dence upon cap­i­tal.“78 For this rea­son, though now in agree­ment with Cas­to­ri­adis, Panzieri con­sid­ered wage strug­gles a func­tion of the unions’ bureau­cratic incor­po­ra­tion of labor into cap­i­tal; only by directly attack­ing capital’s con­trol and replac­ing it with work­ers’ con­trol could tech­no­log­i­cal ratio­nal­ity be sub­jected to “the social­ist use of machines.” Indeed, for Panzieri, Quaderni Rossi’s inquiries showed that the work­ers were already com­ing to this view. How­ever, he still warned against draw­ing any directly polit­i­cal con­clu­sions: “The ‘new’ working-class demands which char­ac­ter­ize trade-union strug­gles (stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi) do not directly fur­nish a rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal con­tent, nor do they imply an auto­matic devel­op­ment in that direction.”

When Alquati’s own inves­ti­ga­tions turned from FIAT to Olivetti – from a fac­tory that made cars to one that made cal­cu­la­tors and type­writ­ers – he was able to draw on and build upon Panzieri’s analy­sis of tech­nol­ogy. In the title “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” Alquati defin­i­tively brought the dis­course of work­ers’ inquiry back into the lan­guage of Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, and implic­itly sug­gested a new con­cept: class composition.

While the seeds of class com­po­si­tion can be already observed in the “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” inso­far as Alquati attempted to describe the mate­r­ial exis­tence of the work­ing class, its behav­iors and forms of inter­ac­tions and orga­ni­za­tion, the ear­lier inquiry had treated machin­ery purely as a means by which direc­tors reduced work­ers to exe­cu­tants. Deskilling was sim­ply a way to break the will of the exe­cu­tants, and new machin­ery an instru­ment in this process. Now, in the inquiry at Olivetti, the increas­ing organic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal was seen from the working-class view­point as the recom­po­si­tion of labor-power, the trans­for­ma­tion of the very forms of worker coop­er­a­tion. Tech­nol­ogy, in this sense, rep­re­sented the field in which the social rela­tions of class were embed­ded, but as part of a dynamic process in which the con­flict between the extrac­tion of sur­plus value and work­ers’ insub­or­di­na­tion shaped the process of pro­duc­tion. Direc­tors were not mere par­a­sites; while it was true that exe­cu­tants infor­mally orga­nized their con­crete labor, the func­tion of man­age­ment was to plan and coor­di­nate this labor within the val­oriza­tion process. Work­ers’ strug­gles would have to artic­u­late forms of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that responded to this tech­no­log­i­cal recom­po­si­tion, and in this con­text self-management would no longer be ade­quate – except as the work­ers’ self-management of the strug­gle against the cap­i­tal relation.

If these inquiries resulted in the begin­nings of a new sci­en­tific prob­lem­atic, and an enthu­si­as­tic embrace of new forces, then inquiry turned out to be more polit­i­cally divi­sive than the par­tic­i­pants had real­ized. After the riots of Piazza Statuto in 1962, when work­ers attacked the offices of the Unione Ital­iana del Lavoro (UIL) in Turin, Quaderni Rossi would be torn apart by inter­nal dis­agree­ments.79 While Tronti, Alquati, Negri, and oth­ers believed that this rep­re­sented a new phase of the class strug­gle, an oppor­tu­nity to break with the increas­ingly unten­able strat­egy of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the unions, Panzieri saw it as a polit­i­cal impasse. Uncon­vinced that autonomous work­ers’ strug­gles could advance a last­ing orga­ni­za­tional form – even if the form of the unions had been exhausted – Panzieri thought that a renewed empha­sis on inquiry and soci­o­log­i­cal research would be required before any move­ment could emerge.

This polit­i­cal dif­fer­ence was, sig­nif­i­cantly, also a the­o­ret­i­cal one. At an edi­to­r­ial meet­ing at the end of 1963, Panzieri remarked that an essay of Tronti’s was

for me a fas­ci­nat­ing resume of a whole series of errors that the work­ers’ Left can com­mit in this moment. It is fas­ci­nat­ing because it is very Hegelian, in the orig­i­nal sense, as a new way of re-living a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. It is pre­cisely a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory of the work­ing class. One speaks, for exam­ple, of the party, but in that con­text the con­cept of the party can­not be deduced or forced in; one can only deduce the self-organisation of the class at the level of neo-capitalism.80

In Jan­u­ary of the fol­low­ing year, this essay would launch the new jour­nal Classe Operaia, formed by Tronti’s fac­tion. His con­tro­ver­sial essay would famously announce, in the lines which have now become the inescapable catch­phrase of work­erism: “We too have worked with a con­cept that puts cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment first, and work­ers sec­ond. This is a mis­take. And now we have to turn the prob­lem on its head, reverse the polar­ity, and start again from the begin­ning: and the begin­ning is the class strug­gle of the work­ing class.”81

In the fall of that year, the last of his life, Panzieri spoke at a Turin sem­i­nar called “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” along­side the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion that had remained with Quaderni Rossi. Here he argued for “the use of soci­o­log­i­cal tools for the polit­i­cal aims of the work­ing class,” and in doing so pre­sented a kind of coun­ter­point to “Lenin in Eng­land.” In his inter­ven­tion, pub­lished the fol­low­ing year in Quaderni Rossi, Panzieri defended the anti-historicist char­ac­ter of inquiry, claim­ing that Marx’s Cap­i­tal itself had the fea­tures of a soci­o­log­i­cal analysis:

In Marx’s Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts and other early writ­ings the point of com­par­i­son is alien­ated being (“the worker suf­fers in his very exis­tence, the cap­i­tal­ist in the profit on his dead mam­mon”) and the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy is linked to a his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of human­ity and his­tory. How­ever, Marx’s Cap­i­tal aban­dons this meta­phys­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal out­look and the later cri­tique is lev­elled exclu­sively at a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion that is cap­i­tal­ism, with­out claim­ing to be a uni­ver­sal anti-critique of the one-sidedness of bour­geois polit­i­cal economy.

Work­ers’ inquiry as a sci­en­tific prac­tice had to be elab­o­rated on this basis – by advanc­ing its own one-sidedness in response. For Panzieri, Marx­ist soci­ol­ogy “refuses to iden­tify the work­ing class with the move­ment of cap­i­tal and claims that it is impos­si­ble to auto­mat­i­cally trace a study of the work­ing class back to the move­ment of cap­i­tal.”82

But what was the mean­ing of this one-sidedness? Panzieri had indi­cated his dis­taste for Tronti’s grandiose inver­sion, and this was indeed a per­ti­nent crit­i­cism, pre­sag­ing the increas­ing dis­tance of work­erist the­ory from the con­crete prac­tice of inquiry over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. How­ever, Panzieri was unable to pro­pose a new polit­i­cal approach; while he had tied the prac­tice of inquiry to a Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, he was unable to bring this the­ory to bear on the real polit­i­cal activ­ity that was begin­ning to emerge, and which would char­ac­ter­ize over a decade of class strug­gle to fol­low. Recently Tronti has reflected on this split:

Panzieri accused me of “Hegelian­ism,” of “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory.” This read­ing, and the accu­sa­tion that under­lies it, will often return; after all, Hegelian­ism was a real fac­tor, it was effec­tively there, always had been; while this idea of a “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” absolutely did not… Ours was not a the­ory that imposed itself from out­side on real data, but the oppo­site: that is, the attempt to recover those real data, giv­ing them mean­ing within a the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.83

Indeed, work­erism would, for its entire his­tory, be tor­tured by the ten­sion between “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” and “real data”; this lives on in today’s “post-workerism.” But these are the risks taken by those whose eyes are on the “the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.” It is impor­tant to note that Alquati, who did not share Panzieri’s views on the incom­pat­i­bil­ity of research and insur­rec­tion, split from Quaderni Rossi and joined Classe Operaia. His con­cep­tion of inquiry was a mil­i­tant and polit­i­cal one.

For this rea­son Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal syn­the­sis, in his 1965 essay “Marx, Labor-Power, Work­ing Class,” has to be reex­plored. This essay makes up the bulk of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal (1966), with only a cou­ple con­clud­ing sec­tions trans­lated into Eng­lish. Unlike the rest of the book, which con­sists of arti­cles writ­ten for Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, this hith­erto unpub­lished essay is a long and con­tin­u­ous argu­ment, devel­oped on the basis of Tronti’s Marx­ol­ogy and his­tor­i­cal analy­sis. While this leads us to a cer­tain digres­sion, we believe it is the indis­pens­able basis for redis­cov­er­ing the the­ory of class com­po­si­tion that Alquati’s prac­tice of inquiry sug­gested, while also devel­op­ing this the­ory in a way that takes Panzieri’s warn­ing seriously.

Though Tronti’s clas­si­cal work­erist inver­sion is widely known and cited, less is known about the process of the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion that led to it. Through­out Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the pri­macy of work­ers’ strug­gle is described as a strate­gic rever­sal which attempts to iden­tify and advance the polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, with the expe­ri­ence of 1848 and the polit­i­cal writ­ings pre­ced­ing the sci­en­tific eco­nomic analy­sis.84 In a sense, this rep­re­sented a new object of inquiry. No longer was the goal, as it was for the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency or Social­isme ou Bar­barie, to dis­cover uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes, or even the con­tent of social­ism, but to access a specif­i­cally polit­i­cal logic which emerged from the working-class view­point – a con­se­quence of the dif­fi­cult rela­tion between strat­egy and sci­ence rep­re­sented by Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal practice.

Despite what seems to be an affir­ma­tion of some pur­ported working-class iden­tity, Tronti did not seek to defend, in the man­ner of the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the dig­nity of labor. On the con­trary, the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the “refusal of work” meant return­ing to Marx’s own cri­tique of the ide­ol­ogy of the work­ers’ move­ment: “When Marx refused the idea of labor as the source of wealth and took up a con­cept of labor as the mea­sure of value, social­ist ide­ol­ogy was beaten for good, and working-class sci­ence was born. It’s no acci­dent that this is still the choice” (222).85

Marx had tire­lessly repeated that “labor is pre­sup­posed by cap­i­tal and at the same time pre­sup­poses it in its turn” – in other words, the owner of cap­i­tal pre­sup­poses labor-power, while labor-power pre­sup­poses the con­di­tions of labor. On its own, Tronti wrote, “labor cre­ates noth­ing, nei­ther value nor cap­i­tal, and con­se­quently it can­not demand from any­one the resti­tu­tion of the full fruit of what ‘it has cre­ated’” (222). But since social­ist ide­ol­ogy had extended to new the­o­ries of labor and class, it would be nec­es­sary to “clear the field of every tech­no­log­i­cal illu­sion” which tried to “reduce the pro­duc­tive process to the labor process, to a rela­tion of the laborer to the instru­ment as such of his labor, as though it were an eter­nal rela­tion of man with an evil gift of nature.” Just as treach­er­ous was “the trap of the processes of reifi­ca­tion,” which started with the “ide­o­log­i­cal lament” of machinery’s mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the worker and quickly moved to pro­pose “the mys­ti­cal cure for the class con­scious­ness of this worker, as if it were the search for the lost soul of mod­ern man” (203).

Instead, rec­og­niz­ing that the “work­ing class is the point of his­tor­i­cal depar­ture for the birth and growth of cap­i­tal­ism,” Marx’s path was to “start from cap­i­tal to arrive at log­i­cally under­stand­ing the work­ing class” (230). Con­se­quently, it was nec­es­sary to affirm that the cap­i­tal­ist view­point could attain the sta­tus of sci­ence. In fact, cap­i­tal­ist sci­ence would be supe­rior to social­ist ide­olo­gies, which were still trapped in the view that “only the work­ing class, in par­tic­u­lar in the per­sona of its rep­re­sen­ta­tive offi­cials, is the repos­i­tory of real sci­ence (of real his­tory etc.), and that this is the sci­ence of every­thing, the gen­eral social sci­ence also valid for cap­i­tal.” It would be bet­ter to rec­og­nize that “in the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the pro­duc­tive process of a large fac­tory, there is at least as much sci­en­tific knowl­edge as in the Smithian dis­cov­ery of pro­duc­tive labor that is exchanged for cap­i­tal” (172). To want to know more about cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point “than the cap­i­tal­ists them­selves” was a “pious illu­sion,” and “every form of work­ers’ man­age­ment of cap­i­tal proves to be nec­es­sar­ily imper­fect with rela­tion to a directly cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment.” The work­ers’ path was not a per­fected man­age­ment, but destruc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism by rev­o­lu­tion. “So from the view­point of the cap­i­tal­ists,” Tronti argued, “it is com­pletely cor­rect to study the work­ing class; only they are capa­ble of study­ing it cor­rectly. But the ide­o­log­i­cal smog of indus­trial soci­ol­ogy will not suc­ceed in can­celling the death sen­tence that it rep­re­sents for them” (230).

In this regard research from the working-class view­point would be dis­tinct from cap­i­tal­ist soci­ol­ogy, since its find­ings would be ori­ented towards the orga­ni­za­tion of this destruc­tion. This indi­cates the ques­tion of “polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion”; as Tronti wrote, “the the­o­ret­i­cal research we have con­ducted on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, work­ing class, becomes noth­ing more than an exer­cise on the path to the prac­ti­cal dis­cov­ery of a con­quest of orga­ni­za­tion” (259). This spe­cific line of research, which emerges from work­ers’ inquiry and, in the his­tory of work­erism, some­times strays quite far from it, requires a sep­a­rate inves­ti­ga­tion. For the time being, we will dwell on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, and work­ing class, inso­far as they com­ple­ment and sys­tem­atize the find­ings of work­ers’ inquiry and the cat­e­gory of class composition.

Before even ask­ing what it means to say that the work­ing class dri­ves cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, we have to ask what it means to say class, and indeed this is the absolutely cen­tral ques­tion of Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion. For Tronti the the­ory of class can­not be restricted to the point of pro­duc­tion, and does not even nec­es­sar­ily begin there. Its expo­si­tion begins with Marx’s point in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal: “The class rela­tion between cap­i­tal­ist and wage-labourer is thus already present, already pre­sup­posed, the moment that the two con­front each other in the act M-L (L-M from the side of the worker).”86 Indeed, Tronti will affirm that “for Marx it is beyond doubt that the class-relation already exists in-itself [an sich] in the act of cir­cu­la­tion. It is pre­cisely this which reveals, which brings out, the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion dur­ing the production-process” (149).87

His analy­sis pur­sues the lines of Marx which follow:

Money can be spent in this form only because labour-power is found in a state of sep­a­ra­tion from its means of pro­duc­tion (includ­ing the means of sub­sis­tence as means of pro­duc­tion of labour-power itself); and because this sep­a­ra­tion is abol­ished only through the sale of labour-power to the owner of the means of pro­duc­tion, a sale which sig­ni­fies that the buyer is now in con­trol of the con­tin­u­ous flow of labour-power, a flow which by no means has to stop when the amount of labor nec­es­sary to repro­duce the price of labour-power has been per­formed. The cap­i­tal rela­tion arises only in the pro­duc­tion process because it exists implic­itly in the act of cir­cu­la­tion, in the basi­cally dif­fer­ent eco­nomic con­di­tions in which buyer and seller con­front one another, in their class rela­tion.88

What can it mean that a the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion so known for its focus on the point of pro­duc­tion starts with a the­ory not only of value, but of class, that is cen­tered on exchange? Hel­mut Reichelt has com­mented on the choice faced for eco­nomic form-analysis between, on the one hand, labor as a “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” which presents “sub­stan­tialised abstract human labour as the sub­stance of value”; and on the other hand, an account of the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist social processes which con­sti­tute the “valid­ity [Gel­tung]” of human activ­ity as abstract labor, and the nat­ural form of prod­ucts as val­ues – in other words, the deter­mi­na­tion of what is counted as labor in exchange.89 For Reichelt this is the basis of Marx’s advanced the­ory of value, and we can also observe Tronti fol­low­ing this thread: “Con­crete labor real­izes itself in the infi­nite vari­ety of its use val­ues; abstract labor real­izes itself in the equal­ity of com­modi­ties as gen­eral equiv­a­lents” (124).

In an adven­tur­ous recon­quer­ing of Marx’s 1844 Man­u­scripts, against their human­ist appro­pri­a­tion, Tronti argued that Marx’s early writ­ings on alien­ation rep­re­sented an ini­tial and incom­plete the­ory of abstract labor, aris­ing from the sep­a­ra­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of pri­vate prop­erty.90 But this account would only be truly devel­oped in Cap­i­tal. While for Cas­to­ri­adis Cap­i­tal amounted to lit­tle more than eco­nomic objec­tivism, it raised the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the com­men­su­ra­bil­ity assumed in exchange – which, as Reichelt points out, is cen­tral to the “dou­ble char­ac­ter” of “the wealth of bour­geois soci­ety”: “a mass of a mul­ti­tude of use-values that as homoge­nous abstract quan­ti­ties can at the same time be aggre­gated into a social prod­uct.“91 The value rela­tion is meant to explain the form of “equal valid­ity” which allows dif­fer­ent prod­ucts to be ren­dered equiv­a­lent in exchange.92

A the­ory of class rela­tions spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, then, can­not neglect to explain how the abil­ity to work can pos­si­bly be part of a sys­tem of exchange: how labor-power can be exchanged for a wage, inserted into a sys­tem of cir­cu­la­tion in which com­modi­ties are ren­dered equiv­a­lent accord­ing to their val­ues. But this ques­tion can only be answered within the con­text of a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis which opens onto the def­i­n­i­tion of class. Abstract labor is con­sti­tuted in exchange, but the typ­i­cal exchange of cap­i­tal­ism is money/labor-power; so how does this con­sti­tu­tive class rela­tion arise, in which own­ers of money and own­ers of labor-power con­front each other on the mar­ket, and what is its rela­tion to the process of cap­i­tal­ist development?

For both Lefort and Cas­to­ri­adis, rely­ing on the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, capitalism’s pre­con­di­tion was the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion. For Lefort, the bour­geoisie had to be under­stood as con­sti­tut­ing “a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture” which had “com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons”; the pro­le­tariat, on the other hand, reduced to its atom­ized eco­nomic func­tions, would have to unify itself through its strug­gle against the bour­geoisie.93 Cap­i­tal­ism rep­re­sented the reshap­ing of soci­ety accord­ing to the bourgeoisie’s col­lec­tive interest.

For Tronti, start­ing from the forms of gen­er­al­ized exchange­abil­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism, such an account of the bour­geoisie was sim­ply impos­si­ble. For a sys­tem in which the typ­i­cal, defin­ing exchange was money/labor-power, the start­ing premise had to be the con­sti­tu­tion of a class with noth­ing to sell but labor-power, the free laborer con­strained eco­nom­i­cally but not legally to sell labor-power in exchange for a wage. This, for Tronti, was the con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat: “the prop­erly his­tor­i­cal pas­sage from labor to labor-power, that is from labor as slav­ery and ser­vice to labor-power as the sole com­mod­ity able to sub­mit wealth to value, able to val­orize wealth and thereby pro­duce cap­i­tal” (139). But the pro­le­tariat had to enter into exchange not with a class, but with indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, whose only “col­lec­tive” inter­est was their shared drive to com­pete with each other:

The his­tor­i­cal point of depar­ture sees in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety the work­ers on one side and the cap­i­tal­ist on the other. Here again is one of the facts which imposes itself with the vio­lence of its sim­plic­ity. His­tor­i­cally we can speak of an indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist: this is the socially deter­mined fig­ure which pre­sides over the con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. As such, at least in the clas­si­cal devel­op­ment of the sys­tem, this his­tor­i­cal fig­ure does not dis­ap­pear, it is not sup­pressed or extin­guished, but only orga­nizes itself col­lec­tively, social­iz­ing itself so to speak in cap­i­tal, pre­cisely as the class rela­tion. On the other hand we can­not speak of the iso­lated worker at any his­tor­i­cal moment. In its mate­r­ial, socially deter­mined fig­ure, the worker is from his birth col­lec­tively orga­nized. From the begin­ning the work­ers, as exchange val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist, come forth in the plural: the worker in the sin­gu­lar does not exist (232-3).

In this regard the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist per­sists, and con­tin­ues to engage in the mar­ket exchange which char­ac­ter­izes cap­i­tal­ism. But the cap­i­tal­ist class is “always some­thing else more or less than a social class. Some­thing less, since direct eco­nomic inter­est has not ceased and per­haps will not cease to present itself as divided on the cap­i­tal­ist side. Some­thing more, because the polit­i­cal power of cap­i­tal now extends its appa­ra­tus of con­trol, dom­i­na­tion, and repres­sion beyond the tra­di­tional forms taken by the State, to invest the whole struc­ture of the new soci­ety” (233).

Once labor-power is exchanged for the wage, Tronti argues, intro­duc­ing a ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion into Marx’s cat­e­gories, the pro­le­tariat is recom­posed as work­ing class: as labor-power which is coop­er­a­tive, col­lec­tive within the labor-process. This ongo­ing process of social­iza­tion of labor is the first source of rel­a­tive sur­plus value; it will later require tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment for its fur­ther growth. Here Tronti devel­ops the point implic­itly sug­gested by Panzieri; but while the lat­ter started with the indi­vid­ual worker whose labor-power was inte­grated into the fac­tory plan, Tronti iden­ti­fies a process of class recom­po­si­tion.94 Between the pro­le­tariat and the work­ing class Tronti sees “the same his­tor­i­cal suc­ces­sion and the same log­i­cal dif­fer­ence as that which we have already found between the seller of labor-power and the pro­ducer of sur­plus value” (161).

The strug­gle for a nor­mal work­ing day, for Marx so fun­da­men­tal in the log­i­cal expo­si­tion of rel­a­tive sur­plus value, man­i­fests the class strug­gle in terms which also framed the pro­le­tariat: the strug­gle to reduce a het­ero­ge­neous mass to the com­mod­ity labor-power, and the refusal to be reduced to it. This refusal is what dri­ves cap­i­tal to act in its col­lec­tive inter­est; in this strug­gle cap­i­tal con­sti­tutes itself polit­i­cally as a class, which became an absolute imper­a­tive in the moment of 1848. Marx’s writ­ings on 1848 show “the encounter and the super­im­po­si­tion of the abstract con­cept of labor with the con­crete real­ity of the worker.” At this point, Marx could sup­ple­ment his ear­lier, intu­itive reflec­tions on abstract labor with dis­cov­ery of the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tics of the labor-power com­mod­ity: “the labor-power com­mod­ity as work­ing class” (161).

It was not enough, how­ever, to con­clude that waged work­ers first con­sti­tuted them­selves as a class when they became sell­ers of labor-power and were thus incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal. It was imper­a­tive not to “fix the con­cept of the work­ing class in one unique and defin­i­tive form, with­out devel­op­ment, with­out his­tory.” Just as the “inter­nal his­tory of cap­i­tal” had to include “the spe­cific analy­sis of the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions assumed by cap­i­tal in the course of its devel­op­ment,” against the easy tran­shis­tor­i­cal assump­tions of a “his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist” tele­ol­ogy, an “inter­nal his­tory of the work­ing class” would have to be “recon­struct the moments of its for­ma­tion, the changes in its com­po­si­tion, the devel­op­ment of its orga­ni­za­tion accord­ing to the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions suc­ces­sively assumed by labor-power as pro­duc­tive force of cap­i­tal, and accord­ing to the expe­ri­ences of dif­fer­ent strug­gles, recur­ring and always renewed, with which the mass of work­ers equip them­selves as the sole adver­sary of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety” (149).

And indeed this account of the dynamic his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and recon­sti­tu­tion of labor-power was required by the social rela­tion of sur­plus value, and the unity of cir­cu­la­tion with the process of pro­duc­tion: “The his­tory of diverse modes in which pro­duc­tive labor is extracted from the worker, that is, the his­tory of dif­fer­ent forms of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value, is the story of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point” (170). This is pre­cisely because of the twofold char­ac­ter of labor, Marx’s most trea­sured dis­cov­ery, in which both aspects were deci­sive. While one could not derive the abstract char­ac­ter of labor from the level of use-value and con­crete labor – that is, this was not a mat­ter of abstrac­tion as a psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of fac­tory time-management – the val­oriza­tion of value could not take place with­out the use-value of labor-power:

labor, the uti­liza­tion of labor-power, is work­ers’ labor, a con­crete deploy­ment, a con­cretiza­tion of abstract labor – abstract labor which finds itself already in its turn reduced to the rank of com­mod­ity, and which real­izes its value in the wage. There­fore the step where abstract labor over­turns itself and takes the con­crete form of the worker, is the process of con­sump­tion of labor-power, the moment where it becomes in action what it was only in poten­tial, the step of the real­iza­tion of the use-value of labor-power, if we may. What was already present in the oper­a­tion sale/purchase as a class rela­tion pure and sim­ple, ele­men­tary and gen­eral, has defin­i­tively acquired from this point on its spe­cific, com­plex, and total char­ac­ter (166).

This com­plex and total char­ac­ter is implied by the coop­er­a­tive and col­lec­tive form of the work­ing class. Unless indi­vid­ual labor-powers are brought into asso­ci­a­tion, they can­not “make valid [far valere], on a social scale, the spe­cial char­ac­ter of the labor-power com­mod­ity in gen­eral, that is to say can­not make abstract labor con­crete, can­not real­ize the use-value of labor-power, whose actual con­sump­tion is the secret of the process of val­oriza­tion of value, as a process of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value and there­fore of cap­i­tal” (205).

Within this process we can glimpse the the­o­ret­i­cal loca­tion of the con­cept of class com­po­si­tion: “The sale of labor-power thus pro­vides the first ele­men­tary stage, the sim­plest, of a com­po­si­tion into a class of waged work­ers: it is for this rea­son that a social mass con­strained to sell its labor-power remains the gen­eral form of the work­ing class” (149). But this remains an ele­men­tary stage, since as Marx con­cluded in his chap­ter on the work­ing day, “our worker emerges from the process of pro­duc­tion look­ing dif­fer­ent from when he entered it”; enter­ing as seller of labor power (“one owner against another owner”), the worker leaves know­ing that the pro­duc­tion process is a rela­tion of force, and that for pro­tec­tion “the work­ers have to put their heads together and, as a class, com­pel the pass­ing of a law, an all-powerful social bar­rier by which they can be pre­vented from sell­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies into slav­ery and death by vol­un­tary con­tract with cap­i­tal.”95 For Tronti this dif­fer­ence is “a polit­i­cal leap”: “It is the leap that the pas­sage through pro­duc­tion pro­vokes in what we can call the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class or even the com­po­si­tion of the class of work­ers” (202).

We are now in a posi­tion to under­stand why the working-class strug­gle, for Tronti, comes first in the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment has to be under­stood as a process of exchange in which the val­oriza­tion of value is dri­ven by the sale and pur­chase of labor-power. It is only in the social­iza­tion of labor-power within the labor process that pro­le­tar­i­ans take the asso­ci­ated form of work­ing class, in the real­iza­tion of the use-value of their labor-power by the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist. And only the resis­tance of their reduc­tion to the labor-power com­mod­ity can com­pel indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, who com­pete on the mar­ket, to form a cohe­sive class:

The par­tic­u­lar­ity of labor-power as a com­mod­ity faced with other com­modi­ties coin­cides there­fore with the specif­i­cally working-class char­ac­ter that the pro­duc­tion process of cap­i­tal takes on; and, inside of this, with the con­cen­tra­tion of a working-class ini­tia­tive in the class rela­tion, that leads to a leap in the devel­op­ment of the work­ing class and to the sub­se­quent birth of a class of cap­i­tal­ists (166).

Within the con­text of this broad eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal the­ory, we are in a posi­tion to close the lengthy digres­sion and return to work­ers’ inquiry. Workerism’s sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery was to push the prac­tice of inquiry away from the human­ist prob­lem­atic of expe­ri­ence towards a value the­ory which was able to rein­ter­pret Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy and put it to use. It implied a polit­i­cal prac­tice which affirmed shop floor pas­siv­ity and wage strug­gles as expres­sions of a nascent power of refusal of work.

We can now under­stand that work­ers’ inquiry was an inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, as the his­tor­i­cal body which, sep­a­rated from the means of sub­sis­tence and reduced to the sale of its labor-power, had to be formed into a social­ized pro­duc­tive force within a process of con­stant expan­sion – the expanded repro­duc­tion of the class itself, and its recom­po­si­tion in ever more tech­no­log­i­cally advanced labor processes.

To close this geneal­ogy we described a sig­nif­i­cant moment of rup­ture, the dis­cov­ery of a con­cept which opens new paths of sci­en­tific and polit­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion. But it was a the­ory which emerged from a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal moment. “We all have to be born some day, some­where,” Althusser remarked, “and begin think­ing and writ­ing in a given world.”96 Tronti began with the hege­mony of the fac­tory to show how the class antag­o­nism could be thought together with capitalism’s laws of motion, in a way that his pre­de­ces­sors had failed to do.97 Yet despite their the­o­ret­i­cal under­de­vel­op­ment, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had under­stood that pro­le­tar­ian life exists beyond the fac­tory, that it encom­passes a child­hood in the cot­ton fields, after­noons in the kitchen. And just as fem­i­nists in Italy would chal­lenge the hege­mony of the fac­tory as a mas­cu­line blindspot, Ital­ian work­erism would also have to respond to changes in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment which they had not pre­dicted: global eco­nomic cri­sis, the restruc­tur­ing of pro­duc­tion, and the decline of fac­tory hege­mony. Attempts to develop this the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic still have to respond to this his­tor­i­cal chal­lenge, and nav­i­gate around Panzieri’s warn­ing – the risk of laps­ing into a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory sup­ported by the ontol­o­giza­tion of labor.

Although the intro­duc­tion of class com­po­si­tion iden­ti­fied cap­i­tal­ism with indus­trial labor, and the social world cre­ated by the post­war boom, at the same time it pro­vided a method which could today be used to trace the con­sti­tu­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of labor-power in the con­text of uneven devel­op­ment and global cri­sis.98 Tronti con­fesses that his and his com­rades’ fix­a­tion on the indus­trial work­ing class now presents itself as an unre­solved prob­lem: “I have come to the con­vic­tion that the work­ing class was the last great his­tor­i­cal form of social aris­toc­racy. It was a minor­ity in the midst of the peo­ple; its strug­gles changed cap­i­tal­ism but did not change the world, and the rea­son for this is pre­cisely what still needs to be under­stood.”99 We sug­gest that inquiry will be the first step in understanding.

Asad Haider is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

Salar Mohandesi is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • 1. Karl Marx, “Enquête ouvrière” and “Work­ers’ Ques­tion­naire” in Marx-Engels Col­lected Works vol. 24. (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1880). The Eng­lish ver­sion at has only 100 ques­tions; this is because Marx asks two sep­a­rate ques­tions about the decrease in wages dur­ing peri­ods of stag­na­tion, and their increase in peri­ods of pros­per­ity (ques­tions 73 and 74), and in this Eng­lish ver­sion the for­mer is omit­ted.
  • 2. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 98.
  • 3. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 65.
  • 4.Marx to Domela Nieuwen­huis In The Hague,” avail­able online at
  • 5. Kent Worces­ter, CLR James: A Polit­i­cal Biog­ra­phy (New York: State Uni­ver­sity of New York Press, 1996), 55-81; Paul Buhle, CLR James: The Artist as Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (New York: Verso, 1988), 66-99.
  • 6. For a brief, but excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the his­tory of the news­pa­per, see “Intro­duc­tion to Part 1” in Pages from a Black Radical’s Note­book: A James Boggs Reader, ed. Stephen M. Ward (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011), 37-41.
  • 7. “Gripes and Griev­ances,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 2 (Jan­u­ary 22, 1955), 4.
  • 8. Grace Lee Boggs, “CLR. James: Orga­niz­ing in the USA, 1938-1953,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 164. Paul Buhle, on the other hand, explictly claims that Grace Lee actu­ally wrote the text, in, Buhle, CLR James, 90.
  • 9. Ph. Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier amer­i­can par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78.
  • 10. It is sig­nif­i­cant that Singer was not address­ing this to phil­an­thropists, bour­geois spe­cial­ists, or even sym­pa­thetic intel­lec­tu­als. This was for work­ers. “I am not writ­ing in order to gain the approval or sym­pa­thy of these intel­lec­tu­als for the work­ers’ actions. I want instead to illus­trate to the work­ers them­selves that some­times when their con­di­tions seem ever­last­ing and hope­less, they are in actu­al­ity reveal­ing by their every-day reac­tions and expres­sions that they are the road to a far-reaching change.” Paul Romano and Ria Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker (New York, 1947), 1.
  • 11. Marx, Cap­i­tal vol. 1, 618; Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 52.
  • 12. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 47-48.
  • 13. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 57.
  • 14. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 15. CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, “World War II and Social Rev­o­lu­tion” in The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, avail­able online at
  • 16. I.I. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s Sys­tem,” Cap­i­tal & Class 2 (1978). See Rubin’s admirably con­cise def­i­n­i­tion: “Abstract labour is the des­ig­na­tion for that part of the total social labour which was equalised in the process of social divi­sion of labour through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour on the mar­ket.”
  • 17. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value.”
  • 18. “The rough draft of this pam­phlet was given to work­ers across the coun­try. Their reac­tion was as one. They were sur­prised and grat­i­fied to see in print the expe­ri­ences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Work­ers arrive home from the fac­tory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the work­ers who read the pam­phlet stayed up well into the night to fin­ish the read­ing once they had started.” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 19. In his intro­duc­tion to the French trans­la­tion of “The Amer­i­can Worker,” Philippe Guil­laume called it “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture.” For more on this, see Stephen Hastings-King, “On Claude Lefort’s ‘Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,’” in this issue.
  • 20. “A Worker’s Inquiry” was first pub­lished in the United States by The New Inter­na­tional in Decem­ber 1938.
  • 21. She wrote: “See, ‘A Work­ers’ Inquiry’ by Karl Marx in which one hun­dred and one ques­tions are asked of the work­ers’ them­selves, deal­ing with every­thing from lava­to­ries, soap, wine, strikes and unions to ‘the gen­eral phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, and moral con­di­tions of life of the work­ing men and women in your trade.’” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 59.
  • 22. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 23. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 12.
  • 24. Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” in The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Lon­don: Falling Wall Press, 1972), 58, 64.
  • 25. It is only Mar­tin Glaberman’s 1972 pref­ace to the pam­phlet which finally reveals that Phil Singer worked at Gen­eral Motors fac­tory in New Jer­sey.
  • 26. Quoted in Rachel Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence: Jour­nal­ism, Anti­com­mu­nism, and Marx­ism in 1950s Detroit,” in Anti­com­mu­nism and the African Amer­i­can Free­dom Move­ment: “Another side of the Story,” ed. Rob­bie Lieber­man and Clarence Lang (New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2009), 146. As if to dra­mat­i­cally con­firm this, Boggs’s own pseu­do­nym, Ria Stone, is often misiden­ti­fied as Raya Dunayevskaya.
  • 27. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 146.
  • 28. Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class – The Per­spec­tive of Win­ning: A Selec­tion of Writ­ings, 1952-2011 (Oak­land: PM Press, 2012), 13-14; Frank Rosen­garten, Urbane Rev­o­lu­tion­ary: CLR. James and the Strug­gle for a New Soci­ety (Mis­sis­sippi: Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi Press, 2008), 89.
  • 29. Charles Denby [Si Owens], Indig­nant Heart: A Black Work­ers’ Jour­nal (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 1978), xi. This edi­tion was attrib­uted to Charles Denby, Owens’s more com­mon pseu­do­nym, and the one he used for most of his arti­cle in Cor­re­spon­dence. It is also sig­nif­i­cant that Owens still wrote under a pseu­do­nym in 1978, even though McCarthy­ism had clearly passed.
  • 30. Denby, Indig­nant Heart, xi.
  • 31. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 123.
  • 32. Con­stance Webb, Not With­out Love: Mem­oirs (Lebanon, NH: Uni­ver­sity Press of New Eng­land, 2003), 266.
  • 33. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 34. James, “A Woman’s Place,” 79.
  • 35. For an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the group in Eng­lish, see Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory vol. 5, no. 1, 1997. Repub­lished at” For a gen­eral his­tory, see Philippe Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”: Un engage­ment poli­tique et intel­lectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre (Paris: Edi­tions Payot Lau­sanne, 1997).
  • 36.From Work­ers’ Auton­omy to Social Auton­omy: An inter­view with Daniel Blan­chard by Amador Fernández-Savater,” avail­able online at
  • 37. Philippe Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier Amer­i­cain par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 38. For more on this fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure, see Stephen Hastings-King’s forth­com­ing book on Social­isme ou Bar­barie.
  • 39. “Un jour­nal ouvrier aux Etats-unis,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie, no. 13 (jan-mars 1954): 82.
  • 40. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “CLR James and the Fate of Marx­ism,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 287.
  • 41. “Work­ers and Intel­lec­tu­als,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 3 (Feb­ru­ary 5, 1955): 4.
  • 42. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing For Change: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998), 67.
  • 43. An anony­mous ex-member of Cor­re­spon­dence quoted in Ivar Oxaal, Black Intel­lec­tu­als Come to Power (Cam­bridge: Schenkman Books, 1968), 78.
  • 44. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of Lefort’s take on this prob­lem, see Stephen Hastings-King, in this issue.
  • 45. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” trans­lated in this issue.
  • 46. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 47. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 48. For a fas­ci­nat­ing account of this paper by a mil­i­tant closely involved in its devel­op­ment, see Henri Simon’s con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 49. “Que voulons-nous?” in Tri­bune Ouvrière no. 1 (mai 1954), reprinted in Social­isme ou Bar­barie nos. 15/16: 74.
  • 50. Mothé was one of the few work­ers in the group, which led many to put him on a kind of pedestal. As Lefort has recalled “Mothé’s pro­pos­als, often very rich but some­times also con­fused, car­ried weight for many because he was sup­posed to ‘rep­re­sent’ Renault. Mothé was con­scious of the role he was led to play and while he took advan­tage of it, he was also exas­per­ated by it. The cli­mate would have been very dif­fer­ent if we had had more work­ers among us.” “An inter­view with Claude Lefort,” Telos 30 (Win­ter 1976-77): 178. This lack of work­ers in the group might have been a rea­son for the short­age of worker nar­ra­tives that con­stantly plagued Social­isme ou Bar­barie. This also marks a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie. The first was over­whelm­ingly working-class. In 1954 it boasted a mem­ber­ship of 75 work­ers and only 5 self-described intel­lec­tu­als; see The Cor­re­spon­dence Book­let (Detroit: Cor­re­spon­dence, 1954), 1. In con­trast, Social­isme ou Barbarie’s mem­ber­ship largely con­sisted of intel­lec­tu­als or stu­dents
  • 51. Daniel Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 17 (juillet-septembre 1955), 30; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 52. Mothé often uses the term “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy” instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory.
  • 53. Note how Mothé sub­sti­tutes “rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion” for “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.” This seems to sug­gest that, accord­ing to this model, the orga­ni­za­tion can be com­posed only by mil­i­tants. This might be a reflec­tion of the sit­u­a­tion Social­isme ou Bar­barie found itself in: a group that hap­pened to be com­posed almost entirely of intel­lec­tu­als is turned into the­o­ret­i­cal type.
  • 54. Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” 47.
  • 55. These strin­gent qual­i­fi­ca­tions exac­er­bated the major prob­lem fac­ing this project: the unwill­ing­ness of most work­ers to write. More on this below.
  • 56. The edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière was already wracked by inter­nal ide­o­log­i­cal dis­putes. Although he sup­ported a closer rela­tion­ship between the two jour­nals, Mothé did not want to turn Tri­bune Ouvrière into a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in other words, he opposed the idea that the jour­nal should com­mu­ni­cate overtly polit­i­cal ideas to the work­ers, and held that it should pri­mar­ily be a space where work­ers could dis­cuss their expe­ri­ences. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 67
  • 57. For more on Henri Simon’s stance on inquiry, the work­ers’ paper, and this broader expe­ri­ence, see his con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 58. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 86.
  • 59. For more on this con­junc­ture, see “Inter­view with Cas­to­ri­adis,” Telos 23 (Spring 1975), 135.
  • 60. For more on this split, Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965).” For a brief analy­sis from the per­spec­tive of a mil­i­tant who was involved, see Henri Simon, “1958-1998: Com­mu­nism in France: Social­isme ou Bar­barie, ICO and Echanges,” avail­able online at
  • 61. Daniel Blan­chard saw a per­fect illus­tra­tion of this in the rela­tion­ship between Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis: “Whereas the Lenin­ist orga­ni­za­tions kept the man­ual and intel­lec­tual work­ers strictly sep­a­rated in spe­cific roles (the lat­ter edu­cat­ing the for­mer in any case), in SouB we devoted spe­cial efforts—which were often unsuccessful—to abol­ish this sep­a­ra­tion. For exam­ple, the rela­tion­ship between Daniel Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis was an inter­est­ing exam­ple of the col­lab­o­ra­tion of a very intel­li­gent worker, as Mothé was, and a the­o­reti­cian like Cas­to­ri­adis. The ideas that Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated helped Mothé to under­stand his own real­ity in the fac­tory. And Mothé was then able to ana­lyze his expe­ri­ence in a very con­crete way that in turn nour­ished the the­o­ret­i­cal labors of Cas­to­ri­adis; Blan­chard, “Auton­omy.” Henri Simon has also com­mented on this pair­ing, but from a more crit­i­cal per­spec­tive: “In Social­isme ou Bar­barie, there was a kind of har­mony [osmose], sym­bio­sis Mothé/Castoriadis. There was almost always placed side by side in Social­isme ou Bar­barie a the­o­ret­i­cal arti­cle by Cas­to­ri­adis and a con­crete arti­cle by Mothé. Mothé saw the fac­tory through the the­o­ret­i­cal lenses of Cas­to­ri­adis”; “Entre­tien d’Henri Simon avec l’Anti-mythes (1974),” avail­able online at
  • 62. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cracy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 213. Fur­ther ref­er­ences to this col­lec­tion are given in the text.
  • 63. For a fas­ci­nat­ing auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account of the phe­nom­e­non, see Stan Weir, “The Infor­mal Work Group” in Rank and File: Per­sonal His­to­ries by Working-Class Orga­niz­ers, ed. Alice and Staughton Lynd, expanded edi­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011).
  • 64. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 120-121.
  • 65. Indeed, it appears that Pou­voir Ouvrier never really learned the lessons of Tri­bune Ouvrière; Cas­to­ri­adis found him­self writ­ing another arti­cle, this time in Pou­voir Ouvrier, in which he tried, yet again, to the­o­rize why work­ers sim­ply were not writ­ing. See Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “What Really Mat­ters” in PSW 2, 223-5.
  • 66. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 67. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 179.
  • 68. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 183.
  • 69. See “The Rela­tions of Pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 1, 1946-1955: From the Cri­tique of Bureau­cracy to the Pos­i­tive Con­tent of Social­ism, trans. and ed. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), and our com­men­tary in “Devi­a­tions, Part 1: The Castoriadis-Pannekoek Exchange.”
  • 70. Cesare Casarino and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2008), 54.
  • 71. Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994).
  • 72. Ser­gio Bologna and Patrick Cun­ing­hame, “For an Analy­sis of Autono­mia – An Inter­view with Ser­gio Bologna,” avail­able online at
  • 73. Mon­taldi him­self had believed that soci­ol­ogy, as Steve Wright recounts, “could help in the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory”; see Storm­ing Heaven: Class Com­po­si­tion and Strug­gle in Ital­ian Auton­o­mist Marx­ism (Lon­don: Pluto Press, 2002), 21-25. On the divi­sion within Quaderni Rossi, see Marta Malo de Molina, “Com­mon Notions, part 1: workers-inquiry, co-research, consciousness-raising,” trans. Mari­bel Casas-Cortés and Sebas­t­ian Cobar­ru­bias of the Notas Rojas Col­lec­tive Chapel Hill, eicp (2006). Finally, for more on core­search or con­ricerca, and the influ­ence of both Mon­taldi and another of Alquati’s pre­cur­sors, Alessan­dro Piz­zorno, see Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Rog­gero, “Con­ricerca as Polit­i­cal Action” in Utopian Ped­a­gogy: Rad­i­cal Exper­i­ments Against Neolib­eral Glob­al­iza­tion, ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (Toronto: Uni­ver­sity of Toronto Press, 2007).
  • 74. See Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 46-58; the texts them­selves are col­lected in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1975): “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove.’ Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961”; “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT”; “Tradizione e rin­no­va­mento alla FIAT-Ferriere.” A par­tial trans­la­tion of the 1962 text, “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” is pre­sented in this issue. For a very per­cep­tive analy­sis of Alquati’s Olivetti text, and the tra­jec­tory of inquiry in gen­eral, see Wild­cat, “The Renascence of Operaismo,” avail­able online at
  • 75. Raniero Panzieri, “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery,” trans. Quintin Hoare, avail­able online at
  • 76. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 544.
  • 77. Since the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the ortho­dox posi­tion was that col­lab­o­ra­tion between the unions, the state, and the employ­ers, rep­re­sented the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion towards plan­ning, and there­fore a step towards social­ism, Panzieri also made the argu­ment that plan­ning rep­re­sented the nec­es­sary social exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism in the fac­tory. “The basic fac­tor in this process is the con­tin­ual growth of con­stant cap­i­tal with respect to vari­able cap­i­tal”; as machines grew more numer­ous than work­ers, cap­i­tal had to exer­cise an “absolute con­trol,” impos­ing its ratio­nal­ity of pro­duc­tion upons work­ers, and through the growth of monop­o­lies extend­ing its plan “from the fac­tory to the mar­ket, to the exter­nal social sphere” (“Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”) This the­sis would be the sub­ject of Panzieri’s last major essay, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning,” in issue 4 of Quaderni Rossi (trans­lated by Julian Bees and avail­able online at In this sense, while Panzieri’s argu­ment rep­re­sented a sophis­ti­cated the­o­ret­i­cal advance and had a worth­while polit­i­cal func­tion, it also con­tained a cer­tain reifi­ca­tion of the fea­tures of post­war cap­i­tal­ism, and lost some of its clar­ity on the nature of cap­i­tal­ist exchange rela­tions. Inter­est­ingly, this essay was fol­lowed in Quaderni Rossi with Marx’s so-called “Frag­ment on Machines” from the Grun­drisse.
  • 78. Panzieri, “Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”
  • 79. See Wild­cat, “Renascence of Operaismo,” for some inter­est­ing com­ments on Piazza Statuto in the con­text of work­ers’ inquiry.
  • 80. Quoted in Robert Lum­ley, “Review Arti­cle: Work­ing Class Auton­omy and the Cri­sis,” Cap­i­tal and Class 12 (Win­ter 1980): 129; also dis­cussed in Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 58-62. Lum­ley con­sid­ers Tronti’s inter­ven­tion to be “a the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal regres­sion”; as we will try to demon­strate below, we dis­agree with this assess­ment
  • 81. Mario Tronti, “Lenin in Eng­land,” avail­able online at
  • 82. Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” trans. Ari­anna Bove, eicp (2006).
  • 83. Tronti, Noi operaisti, quoted in Adelino Zanini, “On the Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Ital­ian Work­erism,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 18 (2010): 60.
  • 84. Mario Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Turin: Ein­audi, 1966), 128, 179, 209-10, 220, 256. Trans­la­tions from this text are ours, with the invalu­able help of Evan Calder Williams, unless oth­er­wise noted. We also prof­itably con­sulted the French trans­la­tion by Yann Moulier-Boutang and Giuseppe Bezza, avail­able online at Fur­ther ref­er­ences to the orig­i­nal Ital­ian are given in the text
  • 85. Here of course Tronti recalls Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme.
  • 86. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1978), 115; Tronti quotes this pas­sage in Operai e cap­i­tale, 144-5.
  • 87. This is also quoted in Zanini, “Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions,” 50. Zanini’s is one of the few texts in Eng­lish which addresses Tronti’s eco­nomic analy­sis.
  • 88. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, 115; sec­ond sen­tence quoted by Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 148-9.
  • 89. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique of Eco­nomic Cat­e­gories,” trans. Werner Strauss and ed. Jim Kin­caid, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 15 (2007): 11. It is worth not­ing that work­erism was not always able to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate between the two; while Reichelt’s “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” refers to the con­cep­tion which under­stands abstract labor as expen­di­ture of phys­i­o­log­i­cal energy, mea­sur­able in calo­ries, work­erism would at times be cap­ti­vated by labor as the “liv­ing, form-giving fire,” which is at times sug­gested in Tronti’s assess­ment of the Grun­drisse as “a more advanced book” than Cap­i­tal. (Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 210; trans­lated in Mur­phy 339). The Grun­drisse played an ambigu­ous role in the his­tory of work­erism, pro­vid­ing new the­o­ret­i­cal ener­gies while also obscur­ing the rup­tures in Marx’s eco­nomic thought. Future research will have to draw these dis­tinc­tions clearly, espe­cially to move beyond the Grun­drisse’s prob­lem­atic of “cap­i­tal in gen­eral”; see Michael Hein­rich, “Cap­i­tal in Gen­eral and the Struc­ture of Marx’s Cap­i­tal,” Cap­i­tal and Class 13:63 (1989).
  • 90. This argu­ment is pre­sented through­out the intro­duc­tion to the essay, pages 123-43, with atten­tion to a range of Marx’s other early man­u­scripts.
  • 91. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Social Real­ity as Appear­ance: Some Notes on Marx’s Con­cep­tion of Real­ity,” trans. Werner Bone­feld, Human Dig­nity, eds. Werner Bone­feld and Kos­mas Psy­cho­pe­dis (Alder­shot: Ash­gate, 2005), 40. Reichelt ends this arti­cle (65) with com­ments on the cat­e­gory of class which, in con­trast to Tronti’s, do not man­age to incor­po­rate Marx’s close atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat, and its recom­po­si­tion in the labor process.
  • 92. Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique,” 22.
  • 93. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence”; see also the some­what dif­fer­ent argu­ment, which refers to waged labor and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment along­side the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, in Cas­to­ri­adis, “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” 259-60.
  • 94. Com­pare to Raniero Panzieri, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning”: “The rela­tion­ship between the work­ers, their coop­er­a­tion, appears only after the sale of their labour-power, which involves the sim­ple rela­tion­ship of indi­vid­ual work­ers to cap­i­tal.” It is worth not­ing that while Panzieri’s 1964 account was based on the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion by plan­ning, Tronti’s descrip­tion of “the plan of cap­i­tal” a year ear­lier in Quaderni Rossi had rep­re­sented it as the high­est level of devel­op­ment of the social­iza­tion of cap­i­tal still medi­ated by com­pe­ti­tion, in the indi­vid­ual capitalist’s pur­suit of prof­its higher than the aver­age: “Indi­vid­ual enter­prises, or entire ‘priv­i­leged’ pro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, along with the propul­sive func­tion of the whole sys­tem, con­stantly tend to break from within the total social cap­i­tal in order to sub­se­quently re-compose it at a higher level. The strug­gle among cap­i­tal­ists con­tin­ues, but now it func­tions directly within the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal.” Plan­ning rep­re­sented the exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism to the state, not a new phase dis­plac­ing com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism: “The anar­chy of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion is not can­celled: it is sim­ply socially orga­nized.” See “Social Cap­i­tal,” avail­able online at, and the orig­i­nal col­lected in Operai e cap­i­tale, 60-85.
  • 95. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 415-6.
  • 96. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: Verso, 1969), 74.
  • 97. Intro­duced in “Fac­tory and Soci­ety” in the sec­ond issue of Quaderni Rossi (1962), col­lected in Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 39-59; see also Ser­gio Bologna, “The Factory-Society Rela­tion­ship as an His­tor­i­cal Cat­e­gory,” avail­able online at (trans­la­tion of “Rap­porto società-fabbrica come cat­e­go­ria stor­ica,” Primo Mag­gio 2, 1974).
  • 98. For an account of the work­erist attempt to develop the the­ory of money and class com­po­si­tion in the con­text of the eco­nomic insta­bil­ity of the early 1970s, see Steve Wright, “Rev­o­lu­tion from Above? Money and Class-Composition in Ital­ian Operaismo” in Karl Heinz-Roth and Mar­cel van der Lin­den, ed., Beyond Marx (Lei­den: Brill, forth­com­ing).
  • 99. Mario Tronti, “Towards a Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Democ­racy,” trans. Alberto Toscano, Cos­mos and His­tory, 5:1 (2009): 74.

The American worker and the Forze Nuove: Turin and Detroit at the twilight of Fordism

Nicola Pizzolato on the commonalities between Detroit and Turin, Italy in the 1960s.

In a 1982 paper pre­sented at MIT, Ital­ian urban­ist Paolo Cec­ca­relli char­ac­ter­ized Detroit and Turin as “città frag­ili” – frag­ile cities. His assess­ment con­trasted starkly with the way the two “motor cities” had been rep­re­sented for most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but it res­onated with his con­tem­po­rary audi­ence. While they were once seen, at the pin­na­cle of their indus­trial devel­op­ment, as the bench­mark for the mod­ern city, Cec­ca­relli argued that Detroit and Turin, were actu­ally exam­ples of how such cities should not be built. In both places, Fordism had sparked rapid and tumul­tous demo­graphic change, first through mass immi­gra­tion, then through emi­gra­tion. This upheaval had not been matched by ade­quate urban plan­ning and gov­er­nance. The ini­tial inor­di­nate growth had gen­er­ated soci­eties divided along fault lines of race, eth­nic­ity, and class. Indus­trial expan­sion had brought a num­ber of social ills, but decen­tral­iza­tion, a har­bin­ger of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, made things worse, leav­ing in its wake a des­o­lated urban land­scape of aban­doned plant com­plexes and dilap­i­dated neigh­bor­hoods (in Detroit), or pau­per­ized and mar­ginal periph­eries and slums (in Turin).1

In depict­ing the his­tory of Detroit and Turin as a cau­tion­ary tale of mod­ern­iza­tion gone awry, Cec­ca­relli neglected to note that Fordism had brought not only an urban cat­a­clysm, but also the oppor­tu­nity for a far-reaching working-class recom­po­si­tion within the indus­trial plants, the rise and fall of social move­ments, and the cre­ation of a cor­pus of social the­ory and mil­i­tant prac­tice related to both. All these top­ics would ben­e­fit from the kind of com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive that Cec­ca­relli applied to urban plan­ning. After all, it had been Merid­ion­ali, south­ern Ital­ians, in Turin, and African-Americans in Detroit (two groups heav­ily rep­re­sented in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of these cities in the 1960s), who had exposed how ‘frag­ile’ the motor cities were.

A num­ber of transna­tional threads con­nected the two cities dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, in par­tic­u­lar in the 1950s and 1960s, two decades cru­cial for the des­tiny of these cities and for the par­a­digm of pro­duc­tion and social orga­ni­za­tion on which they thrived, Fordism. Dur­ing the 1950s and early 1960s, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants out­side the tra­di­tional left devel­oped a cri­tique of the prac­tice and ide­ol­ogy of trade unions and Soviet-inspired com­mu­nist par­ties, and gen­er­ated a new, empir­i­cal way of doc­u­ment­ing and research­ing the working-class that pop­u­lated Turin and Detroit. Ini­tially inde­pen­dent from each other, these mil­i­tants would even­tu­ally sit­u­ate their work within transna­tional con­nec­tions. In the Amer­i­can Motor City, dis­si­dent Marx­ists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya exposed Soviet com­mu­nism as “state cap­i­tal­ism” – a sys­tem which, like its market-driven coun­ter­part, rested on the exploita­tion of work­ers – and at the same time issued a scathing attack on Amer­i­can labor unions. By the early 1950s they had gath­ered in Detroit a small but vocal group of activists and intel­lec­tu­als, under the name of Cor­re­spon­dence; this described both a pub­li­ca­tion and its sup­port­ing activist group, focused on polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion in the fac­to­ries. Correspondence’s vision of class strug­gle with the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of Detroit was grounded in the idea of work­ers’ self-organization out­side the exist­ing labor move­ment. The 1947 pam­phlet The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano (a pseu­do­nym for Phil Singer, a Gen­eral Motors autoworker) and Ria Stone (an alias for Grace Lee, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence) was one of the group’s most influ­en­tial early pub­li­ca­tions. Even though the pam­phlet was penned by these two authors, it was born out of the col­lec­tive dis­cus­sion of the group. Writ­ten just after Amer­i­can trade unions had cur­tailed a period of intense strike activ­ity, The Amer­i­can Worker denounced the adverse effect of union bureau­cracy on the every­day life of work­ers, and on the prospect of working-class strug­gle. It decried the union’s fail­ure to address the issues that mat­tered most to work­ers, such as the speed-up. Romano also touched upon two prin­ci­ples that would become fun­da­men­tal to the new transna­tional approach: the exis­tence of a latent and spon­ta­neous work­ers’ resis­tance to the reg­i­mented life of the fac­tory, irre­spec­tive of any actual union orga­ni­za­tion; and their instinc­tive abil­ity to orga­nize their work in a more humane, but equally effec­tive way: “Many work­ers become angry because of the fact that sug­ges­tions which they put in are ignored. These sug­ges­tions would add to effi­ciency and also increase pro­duc­tion as well as save money. There is a gen­eral ten­dency in all strata of the work­ing class to work in as effi­cient a man­ner as pos­si­ble.” How­ever, the pam­phlet argued, the exploita­tion work­ers were sub­jected to forced them to oppose the man­agers’ efforts, resort­ing in their pent-up frus­tra­tion to jus­ti­fied acts of sab­o­tage and van­dal­ism.2The Amer­i­can Worker’s nov­elty con­sisted in pre­sent­ing, in a worker’s own words, a real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fac­tory work and its reper­cus­sions on the psy­che and polit­i­cal out­look of the worker. The indus­trial worker’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account became a minor genre dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, as Cor­re­spon­dence and other groups tried to inquire into the con­di­tion of work­ers on the basis of their actual expe­ri­ence in the fac­tory – rather than on the basis of a dog­matic truth bequeathed by Marx­ist the­ory. The Amer­i­can Worker was seri­al­ized by the homony­mous pub­li­ca­tion of the French group Social­isme ou Bar­barie and found an echo in another influ­en­tial biog­ra­phy, Jour­nal d’un ouvrier by Daniel Mothé, a worker at Renault’s auto­mo­bile plants. Coop­er­a­tion between mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie in Paris spanned through­out the 1950s, result­ing in the book Fac­ing Real­ity (1958), co-authored by C.L.R. James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Pierre Chaulieu (the cover name for Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie).3 This book built on the com­mon per­spec­tive shared by the groups in Detroit and Paris and char­ac­ter­ized trade unions as the “body­guards of cap­i­tal,’.” Their repres­sive action man­i­fested itself into two ele­ments: the stew­ard sys­tem and the griev­ance pro­ce­dure. Both had orig­i­nally been devised to pro­tect the union and the worker from the whims of man­age­ment, but now they acted as a strait­jacket, restrict­ing work­ers’ capac­ity to orga­nize pro­duc­tion on the shop floor. The stew­ard secured work­ers’ com­pli­ance with the union con­tract, rather than rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in man­age­ment. The griev­ance pro­ce­dure defused con­flict with man­age­ment through an “‘elab­o­rate”’ process that removed con­flict from work­ers’ hands and trans­ferred it to the labor bureau­cracy. Later, observers on the lib­eral Left would uphold the idea that the griev­ance pro­ce­dure was an inef­fec­tive way to solve work­ers’ com­plaints, but the main cri­tique made by James and the other went fur­ther: griev­ance pro­ce­dures gave man­age­ment the power to sched­ule and con­trol the pro­duc­tion flow and the orga­ni­za­tion of work. This crit­i­cism was not totally wholly fair, since the union’s encroach­ment on the shop floor did after all check to some degree the arbi­trary power of man­age­ment, but it also touched a nerve: the UAW had in fact suc­cumbed to the auto man­u­fac­tur­ers’ wish to con­trol and orga­nize the point of pro­duc­tion as they saw fit, even though indi­vid­ual work­ers were now less vul­ner­a­ble to retal­ia­tory lay offs and wage cuts. Fac­ing Real­ity argued that this sys­tem sup­pressed work­ers’ desire for self-organization, which, while not a con­scious pro­gram, but sim­ply some­thing “inher­ent in all their actions and in the dis­cus­sions they hold among them­selves.”’4

In early 1950s Italy, this analy­sis appealed to those left­wing activists who ques­tioned whether the dog­matic Marx­ist nar­ra­tive pro­pounded by the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party really applied to the actual con­di­tions of the Ital­ian work­ing class. By the mid­dle of the decade, the ideas of the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency began to fil­ter through to dis­si­dent Marx­ist cir­cles through the trans­la­tion of Romano’s and Mothé’s work by Danilo Mon­taldi. Mon­taldi was an essay­ist and soci­ol­o­gist who had left the PCI after the war, remain­ing crit­i­cal of the Old Left through­out his life. In his pref­ace to the trans­la­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker, Mon­taldi cel­e­brated the text as a sign that, con­trary to pre­vail­ing assump­tions, the Amer­i­can working-class remained class con­scious and had not fallen for the ide­o­log­i­cal blan­d­ish­ments of cap­i­tal­ism. Mon­taldi described Cor­re­spon­dence as the Amer­i­can “rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard”, a group that under­stood that “the worker is first of all some­one who lives at the point of pro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory before being the mem­ber of a party, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant, or the sub­ject of com­ing social­ist power. It is the pro­duc­tive process that shapes his rejec­tion of exploita­tion and his capac­ity to build a supe­rior type of soci­ety, […] and his class sol­i­dar­ity.” The devel­op­ment of this fun­da­men­tal idea, wrote Mon­taldi, was Correspondence’s cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tem­po­rary rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.5

One of Montaldi’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, Romano Alquati, was greatly inspired by both The Amer­i­can Worker and Mothè’s Jour­nal. They both trav­elled to Paris to meet the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and Alquati orga­nized round­table pre­sen­ta­tions of the Jour­nal in Turin.6 Alquati was in the process of devel­op­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry, close in many ways to that of Cor­re­spon­dence, in which the expe­ri­ence of work­ers con­sti­tuted the basis for the­ory, rather than vice versa.

In 1961, Alquati pio­neered this new kind of work­ers’ research at FIAT.7 Two themes ran through Alquati’s report, later pub­lished in Quaderni Rossi: first, the pre-eminence of a new work­ing class at FIAT, dis­il­lu­sioned with the com­pany, but also indif­fer­ent to left-wing unions and par­ties. Alquati con­tro­ver­sially argued that even a large com­pany such as FIAT failed to “inte­grate” work­ers into cap­i­tal­ism and to neu­tralise their rebel­lious­ness: what­ever faith these youth had before enter­ing the fac­tory in the desir­abil­ity of indus­trial work, this was quickly shed after only a few months’ work at the point of pro­duc­tion. Rel­a­tively high wages (for some) and the con­sumerism they enabled did not lessen the effects of alien­ation. Any resur­gence of class strug­gle within the firm would be based upon these forze nuove, as Alquati called them, which included south­ern Ital­ian migrants. Even though the “new forces” lacked class con­scious­ness in a tra­di­tional sense, they spon­ta­neously under­stood the need for “self-determination,” that is, self-organization within the fac­tory.8

Sec­ond, Alquati empha­sized the inabil­ity of the tra­di­tional left to iden­tify and make use of these new trends. The report accused the union and PCI lead­er­ship of focus­ing on loftier polit­i­cal goals, such as legal reform, which did not directly affect fac­tory con­di­tions. The pol­i­tics of the tra­di­tional Left did not mea­sure up to the pol­i­tics of the new work­ing class. Or, con­versely, the new work­ers did not per­ceive their action to be “polit­i­cal” because they asso­ci­ated pol­i­tics with par­ti­san pol­i­tics in Rome. The solu­tion lay in a new “orga­ni­za­tional praxis” through which the new work­ers would be led to ana­lyze their sit­u­a­tion.9 The wave of work­ers’ strug­gles in the Turi­nese fac­to­ries in 1962, lead­ing to the so called “riot of Piazza Statuto” and the events from 1969 onwards, vin­di­cated Alquati’s insight that the work­ing class orga­nized itself in ways that tran­scended the trade union lead­er­ship.10

By the early 1960s, in both Turin and Detroit, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants and rad­i­cal social the­o­rists ana­lyzed a dras­ti­cally recom­posed working-class, whose sig­nif­i­cance escaped the dom­i­nant orga­ni­za­tions of the labor move­ment. This recom­po­si­tion accounts for the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties, as well as impor­tant dif­fer­ences, in the way indus­trial rela­tions broke down in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries, and social protest flared up in Detroit and Turin after 1968. In both cases, a mas­sive wave of migra­tion had fun­da­men­tally changed the demo­graph­ics of the two cities. Ten­sions over com­pe­ti­tion for hous­ing and resources between new­com­ers and natives were com­pounded by eth­nic (and in Detroit, racial) prej­u­dices. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion took a heav­ier toll on African-Americans, since they were vic­tims of a racially seg­mented labor and hous­ing mar­ket, police bru­tal­ity, and none-too-subtle forms of social seg­re­ga­tion. In Turin, Ital­ian south­ern migrants like­wise encoun­tered hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and were con­cen­trated in run-down sec­tions of the city cen­ter, or in build­ing projects in degraded sub­urbs poorly con­nected to the rest of the met­ro­pol­i­tan area. Even though their prob­lems were not exac­er­bated by “race,” south­ern migrants were at the mercy of a dual labor mar­ket, typ­i­cal of Fordism, that allot­ted high-paid steady jobs to natives, and pre­car­i­ous low-wage occu­pa­tions to new­com­ers. Because Turin and Detroit were indus­trial cities, the expe­ri­ence and the stand­ing of south­ern migrants and blacks within the fac­to­ries played a con­sid­er­able role in their over­all posi­tions in the com­mu­nity, in terms of income, polit­i­cal influ­ence, and sym­bolic sta­tus. The par­al­lel tra­jec­to­ries of the two cities were deter­mined by the struc­tural con­fig­u­ra­tion and urban con­cen­tra­tion of the Fordist indus­try par excel­lence: the auto­mo­bile indus­try.

League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Workers.

Working-class unrest in Turin and Detroit shared an impor­tant fea­ture: the activism of social groups occu­py­ing a mar­ginal posi­tion in the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the city. In both cases, the dis­tinct cul­tural back­ground of the “new work­ers” shaped the tac­tics, polit­i­cal lan­guage, and goals of the move­ment. They sub­verted the tra­di­tional class nar­ra­tive of insub­or­di­na­tion against cap­i­tal by ele­vat­ing cul­tural, regional, or racial “dif­fer­ence” to polit­i­cal impor­tance. Amer­i­cans had long asso­ci­ated Euro­pean immi­gra­tion with rad­i­cal­ism, but this argu­ment was not usu­ally applied to inter­nal migra­tion, the kind that brought tens of thou­sands of south­ern blacks to Detroit in the 1940s, 1950s, and also, to a lesser extent, in the 1960s.11 Sim­i­larly, in Italy, after the war few would have imag­ined that south­ern­ers were des­tined to become a major force of polit­i­cal change. On the con­trary, indus­tri­al­ists and union­ists, con­ser­v­a­tives and Com­mu­nists, all expected south­ern migrants to sap working-class consciousness.

My book Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism puts for­ward the argu­ment that in the case of both Detroit and Turin, the expe­ri­ence of mar­gin­al­iza­tion was a key stim­u­lus to action, even when pro­test­ers inter­preted their resis­tance in terms of inter­est cat­e­gories such as race, class, or eth­nic­ity.12 This char­ac­ter­is­tic had been cap­tured by the dis­sent activists that oper­ated in both cities dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, but caught the tra­di­tional labor move­ment by surprise.

The analy­sis of this period of intense social mobi­liza­tion, which takes into account par­al­lel devel­op­ments in dif­fer­ent local set­tings – an analy­sis, that is, which pur­sues sim­i­lar­i­ties and con­nec­tions beyond national bor­ders – high­lights three sig­nif­i­cant themes that enhance our under­stand­ing of this phe­nom­e­non. The first is the direct con­se­quence of the mar­gin­al­iza­tion processes described above. In Detroit and Turin, “mar­ginal” work­ers; that is African-Americans and Merid­ion­ali, who, for a num­ber of rea­sons, had ben­e­fited least from the exist­ing sys­tem of indus­trial rela­tions, and whose path to social inte­gra­tion had been steep and strewn with obsta­cles, were promi­nent in the work­ers’ unrest. In a sense, this is hardly unex­pected for the his­to­rian, yet it did take many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Left by sur­prise. These work­ers were bring­ing into the strug­gle motives, tac­tics, and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties that clashed with the tra­di­tional approach of orga­nized labor – their emer­gence as a class sub­ject changed the work­ing class forever.

The sec­ond theme that res­onates on both sides of the Atlantic was the chal­lenge that work­ers’ mil­i­tancy posed to exist­ing indus­trial rela­tions, in par­tic­u­lar to the link between wages and pro­duc­tiv­ity – a cen­tral pil­lar of Fordism. This had been the result of hard bar­gain­ing and col­lec­tive action, in the Amer­i­can case, and the out­come of FIAT’s attempt to defuse mass union­iza­tion by means of heavy-handed pater­nal­ism, in the Ital­ian case. Work­ers dis­rupted this nexus by turn­ing the shop floor into the key site of indus­trial con­flict. In the auto­mo­bile plants of the late 1960s, work­ers not only took time off work by strik­ing, but blocked pro­duc­tion in a vari­ety of ways with­out renounc­ing their wages. Because Fordist indus­try relied on a highly inte­grated process, these actions dis­rupted not only the depart­ment directly impli­cated, but also all the other depart­ments and plants con­nected to it. The demands that accom­pa­nied these tac­tics were equally dis­rup­tive of the old order, as they rarely focused solely on wage increases, but also tended to involve changes in the orga­ni­za­tion of work, or the bal­ance of author­ity at the point of pro­duc­tion, and safety issues raised by the pro­duc­tion process. In both Detroit and Turin, when the work­force mobi­lized, decision-making shifted away from union and cor­po­rate board­rooms onto the shop floor.

Finally, the third theme implicit in both cases stud­ied here, and no doubt in many oth­ers, is the link between work­ers’ strug­gles and a wider process of social mobi­liza­tion which had “anti­sys­temic” objec­tives (a term used by Arrighi, Waller­stein, and Hop­kins in the con­text of 1968).13 Work­ers hardly needed to be con­vinced by stu­dents of the desir­abil­ity of resist­ing the exhaust­ing demands of the assem­bly line, but the coali­tion with New Left activists mag­ni­fied the effect of the revolt on the shop floor. This period saw the estab­lish­ment of var­i­ous forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents and indus­trial work­ers. Some­times it was spon­ta­neous or unstruc­tured, but more often it occurred within the rad­i­cal groups that agi­tated against cap­i­tal­ism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and oppres­sion, both inside and out­side the fac­tory. Men­tion might here be made of groups such as the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers, Lotta Con­tinua, and Potere Operaio. Work­ers and stu­dents (at any rate those on the Left), shared a youth cul­ture that extolled anti-authoritarianism, forms of par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy – such as gen­eral assem­blies where any­one could take the stage and speak – and dis­rup­tive tac­tics such as unan­nounced sit-ins or occu­pa­tions. These actions often riled labor activists from the Old Left.

Rad­i­cals on both sides of the Atlantic found solace in the idea that a trans­for­ma­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion else­where could abet change in their own region. They engaged in dia­logue – some­times in writ­ing, at other times in per­son – in order to share tac­tics of rebel­lion, to elicit sup­port for their par­tic­u­lar groups, or to refine their analy­sis of the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism. They saw in the autonomously orga­nized work­ing class the engine of rad­i­cal social trans­for­ma­tion. Simul­ta­ne­ous upheaval in Detroit and Turin, and else­where, seemed to sug­gest that at the turn of the 1970s the world was on the point of being fun­da­men­tally trans­formed by social move­ments. Fordism was at the twi­light of its exis­tence, crum­bling under the pres­sure of self-organized protest and with­drawal from work. It was a fun­da­men­tal insight of the social the­ory devel­oped in this period that the protest devel­oped in the fac­to­ries by this new work­ing class ush­ered in an utterly new era of cap­i­tal­ism in the West which could no longer be called Fordist.

Nicola Pizzolato is the author of Challenging Global Capitalism: Labor Migration, Radical Struggle, and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin.

  • 1. Paolo Cec­ca­relli, “Due città frag­ili: Detroit e Torino. Ovvero, come non si dovrebbe costru­ire la città mod­erna” in Il Mulino, 1 (1983).
  • 2. Ibid, 15.
  • 3. Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­ism ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory, 5:1 (1997).
  • 4. CLR James, Grace Lee, and Pierre Chaulieu, Fac­ing Real­ity (1958; Detroit: Bewick Edi­tions, 1974), 21, 27.
  • 5. Pref­ace to L’operaio amer­i­cano in Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994), 501.
  • 6. Romano Alquati, inter­view in Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, Gigi Rog­gero, Futuro Ante­ri­ore. Dai ‘Quaderni Rossi’ ai movi­mento glob­ali: ric­chezze e lim­iti dell’operaiosmo ital­iano (Roma: DeriveAp­prodi, 2002), attached CD-ROM.
  • 7. “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove. Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961” and “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT” in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, (Milano, 1975), 314-341.
  • 8. Alquati, “Relazione sulle “Forze nuove,” 35.
  • 9. “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT,” 63.
  • 10. See Dario Lan­zardo, La riv­olta di Piazza Statuto (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1980); Sante Notar­ni­cola, L’evasione impos­si­bile (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1978), 79-82.
  • 11. For the immigrants-radicals asso­ci­a­tion see John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick, N. J., Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity Press, 1955); see also C. Guerin-Gonzales and C. Strik­w­erda eds., The Pol­i­tics of Immi­grant Work­ers. Labor Activism and Migra­tion in the World Econ­omy Since 1830 (New York, Lon­don: Holmes & Meier, 1993).
  • 12. Nicola Piz­zo­lato, Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism: Labor Migra­tion, Rad­i­cal Strug­gle and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (New York: Pal­grave, 2013).
  • 13. Gio­vanni Arrighi, Ter­ence Hop­kins, Immanuel Waller­stein, Anti­sys­temic Move­ments, (Lon­don: Verso, 1989).

Introduction to L’ouvrier américain (1949)

From Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (1949), the introduction to The American Worker.

The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano
Trans­lated from the American

We present here an unprece­dented doc­u­ment of great value about the lives of Amer­i­can work­ers. This appraisal stems not only from the fact that it defin­i­tively puts paid to both the absurd claim that Amer­i­can work­ers don’t have class con­scious­ness, and the myth of the com­fort and lux­ury of the Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat. This would already be amply suf­fi­cient rea­son to make a point of pub­lish­ing the doc­u­ment by the worker and mil­i­tant rev­o­lu­tion­ary Romano. It is indis­pens­able that a cred­i­ble voice is raised to destroy the barefaced pro­pa­ganda of Hol­ly­wood firms which show us work­ers in bath­rooms, or those of Reader’s Digest which depict at every oppor­tu­nity the ben­e­fits of class collaboration.

The mer­its of this small pam­phlet are much more pro­found. Every worker, regard­less of “his nation­al­ity” of exploita­tion, will find in it the image of his own exis­tence as a pro­le­tar­ian. There are, in fact, deep and con­sis­tent char­ac­ter­is­tics of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence that know nei­ther fron­tiers nor regimes. Fur­ther­more every worker, and this is pre­cisely because it’s the reflec­tion of the exploita­tion “with­out for­mal­i­ties” [sans phrase] that is given to us, will be filled with a bound­less con­fi­dence in the his­toric des­tiny [des­tinées his­toriques] of his class, because he will see there, like the author, that even at the moment when the worker is in the deep­est despair, when his sit­u­a­tion appears to him to be insol­u­ble, his own “every­day reac­tions and expres­sions” reveal that he is on “the road to a far-reaching change…”

The trans­la­tor of this small pam­phlet him­self has worked sev­eral years in the fac­tory. We was struck by the accu­racy and the impor­tant impli­ca­tions of every line. It is impos­si­ble for a worker to remain indif­fer­ent to this read­ing. It is even more impos­si­ble to trans­late such a text in an indif­fer­ent, or even rou­tine, man­ner. At sev­eral junc­tures, it was nec­es­sary to take a con­sid­er­able dis­tance from the let­ter of the Eng­lish text to pro­vide a really faith­ful trans­la­tion. Some Amer­i­can pop­u­lar expres­sions have an exact cor­re­spon­dence in French, but embed­ded in dif­fer­ent imagery. Even in his descrip­tive style, Romano uses a pro­le­tar­ian optic. It was nec­es­sary to find a cor­re­spond­ing style in French, even if it meant stray­ing from the text. Admit­tedly, this trans­la­tion is not ele­gant, but it is the most faith­ful we could have given.

Even more in trans­lat­ing than read­ing one is struck by the con­crete uni­ver­sal­ity of the pro­le­tar­ian con­di­tion, and we hope to have respected this expression.

In our eyes, it is not by acci­dent that such a sam­ple of pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture comes to us from Amer­ica, and it is also not by acci­dent that it is, in some of its deep­est aspects, the first of the genre. One can be cer­tain that the name Romano will stay in the his­tory of pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture, and that it will even sig­nify a turn­ing point in that his­tory. The most indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world, with the most con­cen­trated pro­le­tariat, should give rise to new and orig­i­nal tal­ent. That is a sign of the vigor and the depth of Amer­i­can work­ers’ movement.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

Philippe Guillaume was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Introduction to L’operaio americano (1954)

From Battaglia Comu­nista, a. XV, n. 2 (febbraio-marzo 1954), the introduction to the Italian translation of The American Worker.

The doc­u­ment with which we start off this issue was writ­ten by Paul Romano, an Amer­i­can worker. There exists an Amer­ica that no one talks about, which is to be found beyond the myth of the refrig­er­a­tor, the auto­mo­bile, and the tele­vi­sion, and beyond the myth of afflu­ence for all. It is the Amer­ica of the fac­tory: an unknown Amer­ica whose his­tory is made of strikes, exploita­tion, and pro­le­tar­ian mis­ery. The pro­tag­o­nists of this story are the work­ers, and Paul Romano is a worker who writes about the life of the workers.

It is no coin­ci­dence that such a deeply inter­est­ing doc­u­ment comes from the most highly indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world, to counter the lie that the Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat has no class consciousness.

We know the dif­fi­cul­ties through which the rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard must move in the United States. The group that Paul Romano belongs to was formed within the Amer­i­can Trot­sky­ist orga­ni­za­tion, but split off fol­low­ing a pro­found dis­agree­ment. At the heart of this dis­agree­ment lay the refusal to adhere to the watch­word of “uncon­di­tional defense of the USSR,” which con­sti­tuted the clas­si­cal plat­form of Trot­sky­ism, rep­re­sented in the United States by the Social­ist Work­ers’ Party; the eval­u­a­tion of the USSR as state cap­i­tal­ist; the same analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist sit­u­a­tion as that of the Work­ers’ Party, another wing of Amer­i­can Trot­sky­ism, which did not present any­thing fun­da­men­tally new, while this group stressed the con­cen­tra­tion and sta­ti­za­tion of the econ­omy; and, finally, dif­fer­ences over their polit­i­cal tasks, since the seizure of power by the pro­le­tariat remained fun­da­men­tal to the group that pub­lished “The Amer­i­can Worker” in 1947. Formed in 1950 as an inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion, since Octo­ber 1953 the group has pub­lished a bimonthly news­pa­per, Cor­re­spon­dence, of which ten issues are already out. “The Amer­i­can Worker,” as much as the news­pa­per Cor­re­spon­dence, expresses with great force and pro­fun­dity this idea, prac­ti­cally for­got­ten by the Marx­ist move­ment after the pub­li­ca­tion of the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, that the worker is first of all some­one who lives at the point of pro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory before being the mem­ber of a party, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant, or the sub­ject of com­ing social­ist power; and that it is the pro­duc­tive process that shapes his rejec­tion of exploita­tion and his capac­ity to build a supe­rior type of soci­ety, his class sol­i­dar­ity with other work­ers, and his hatred for exploita­tion and the exploiters, the tra­di­tional bosses of yes­ter­day and the imper­sonal bureau­crats of today and tomor­row. The devel­op­ment of this fun­da­men­tal idea is the prin­ci­pal con­tri­bu­tion of this group to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment of today. But the doc­u­men­tary value of Paul Romano’s book resides also in this: that it reveals the con­di­tions of the work­ers to be uni­ver­sal. For this rea­son, we invite the com­rades, the work­ers, the read­ers to write to Battaglia, to com­pare their own sit­u­a­tions to that of the “Amer­i­can worker,” which is to say, with the worker of all coun­tries – the worker with whom they feel some­thing sim­i­lar and yet see some­thing different.

—Trans­lated by Salar Mohandesi

Danilo Montaldi was an Italian historian and militant.

Workers’ Inquiry in Socialisme ou Barbarie

Henri Simon's account of Socialisme ou Barbarie and its 'worker's papers'.

Before tak­ing up the sub­ject, it is nec­es­sary to point out that Social­isme ou Bar­barie, pri­mar­ily at the impe­tus of Cas­to­ri­adis (alias Chaulieu), went through dif­fer­ent peri­ods, largely cor­re­spond­ing to polit­i­cal analy­ses of the prospects of strug­gle which con­di­tioned the devel­op­ment of the group.

If one can schemat­i­cally dis­tin­guish a Marx­ist period from a non-Marxist period, with the new posi­tions of Cas­to­ri­adis and the split of Pou­voir Ouvrier (Marx­ist ten­dency) in 1963, the pre­ced­ing period, begin­ning in 1949, went through dif­fer­ent approaches in the analy­sis of the eco­nomic, social, and polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion not only in France, but also in the entire world. In these dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions, which are easy to detect in the 40 issues of the review, the ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry was only posed in peri­ods dur­ing which the group affirmed the pri­macy of the class strug­gle. It might be worth recall­ing that the Chaulieu-Montal tendency’s break with the Parti Com­mu­niste Inter­na­tion­al­iste and the Fourth Inter­na­tional hap­pened over the ques­tion of the nature of the USSR; and at the same time, and for sev­eral years, the group essen­tially fixed its atten­tion on the com­ing of the Third World War. But it could show an inter­est in the work­ing class in the form of tes­ti­monies, as is demon­strated by the pub­li­ca­tion, from the first issue of the review, of a trans­la­tion of Paul Romano’s text – The Amer­i­can Worker – and some reports on strikes in both France and abroad. But, then, it was never a ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry and one can­not say that the class strug­gle and an attempt to under­stand the world of the worker were at that time pri­mary con­cerns of the group.

Per­son­ally, I par­tic­i­pated in Social­isme ou Bar­barie from 1952 to 1958. I left Social­isme ou Bar­barie with Claude Lefort (Mon­tal) after an attempt by the major­ity of the group to cre­ate a polit­i­cal party dur­ing the events bound up with the war in Alge­ria and the Gaullist semi-coup. This rup­ture hap­pened over purely orga­ni­za­tion con­sid­er­a­tions that did not directly put into ques­tion the inter­est in the action of the work­ing class. On the con­trary, the major­ity saw in Gaullism a kind of fas­cism (which was an incor­rect analy­sis), and drew the con­clu­sion that we were going to par­tic­i­pate in a work­ers’ revolt, hence the neces­sity of a struc­tured orga­ni­za­tion. This ori­en­ta­tion was, how­ever, in oppo­si­tion to the con­cept of work­ers’ inquiry because the group saw itself, at that time, as a guide, a coor­di­na­tor, a recruiter aim­ing to impose a line rather than draw­ing this line from an analy­sis of work­ers’ behav­ior. I would not know what to say about what really hap­pened after 1958 – because I was no longer a part of it – except to com­ment on the texts pub­lished by the review, or to trust what my con­tacts in the group could tell me.

If the first issues of the review did not have an essen­tial inter­est in hav­ing a deep under­stand­ing of the work­ing class, of the pro­le­tariat in gen­eral and in par­tic­u­lar, the 11th issue of the review, from November-December 1952, did address the ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry in a lead­ing arti­cle (not signed, which leads one to sup­pose that there was a con­sen­sus on this point, or a com­pro­mise) enti­tled “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.” But, if this arti­cle spoke about inquiry, it was not to priv­i­lege this method of under­stand­ing what the pro­le­tariat really is, but, on the con­trary, to rule in favor of these “nar­ra­tive accounts.” It is inter­est­ing to copy this pas­sage, which is the con­clu­sion of a long text on the­o­ret­i­cal developments:

Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. In this issue the reader will find the begin­ning of such a tes­ti­mony, one that leaves aside sev­eral of the points we have out­lined.1 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envi­sioned in this issue. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to impose an exact frame­work. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our expla­na­tions, and if we have pro­duced noth­ing but a ques­tion­naire, then this work would not be valu­able: a ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had. Our research direc­tions would be brought to bear even on nar­ra­tives that we pro­voke: we must be atten­tive to all forms of expres­sion that might advance con­crete analy­sis. As for the rest, the prob­lem is not the form taken by a doc­u­ment, but its inter­pre­ta­tion. Who will work out the rela­tion­ships under­stood as sig­nif­i­cant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence? This prob­lem can­not be resolved arti­fi­cially, par­tic­u­larly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the inter­pre­ta­tion, from wher­ever it comes, will remain con­tem­po­rary with the text being inter­preted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accu­rate by the reader, some­one who is able to find another mean­ing in the mate­ri­als we sub­mit to him. We hope it will be pos­si­ble to con­nect the authors with texts in a col­lec­tive cri­tique of the doc­u­ments. For the moment, our goal is to gather these mate­ri­als: in this, we count on the active sup­port of those sym­pa­thetic with this journal.

All of this talk ends in this deci­sion to put aside work­ers’ inquiry in favor of the first-hand nar­ra­tive of a sin­gle per­son, when one knows what Social­isme ou Bar­barie really was at that time: a core of some dozen mil­i­tants with a few con­tacts in the provinces and review that cir­cu­lated barely more than 200 copies. It was out of the ques­tion, for purely prac­ti­cal rea­sons to start any kind of “work­ers’ inquiry,” even less because only three or four of these par­tic­i­pants were pro­le­tar­i­ans. Did this crit­i­cal rejec­tion not express the con­crete impos­si­bil­ity of real­iz­ing this work, given the size of the group? Or rather, was it not the con­se­quence of a polit­i­cal approach to the ques­tion – that the group had noth­ing to learn from the work­ing class but, on the con­trary, had sev­eral things to teach it? (This con­nects to the posi­tions on the role of the orga­ni­za­tion that exploded in 1958 in the polit­i­cal tur­moil of the war in Alge­ria.) In fact, the review would only include, fol­low­ing The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano men­tioned above, nar­ra­tives from the pro­le­tar­ian mem­bers of the group. There is clear evi­dence that these nar­ra­tives were influ­enced by the polit­i­cal vision of the group; this was par­tic­u­larly true, for exam­ple, with the Mothé’s nar­ra­tives on the Renault Bil­lan­court fac­tory, which were strongly influ­enced by the Cas­to­ri­adis’ positions.

The pub­li­ca­tion of this text on “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence” coin­cided with the devel­op­ment of strug­gle in France, notably the large strikes in 1953 and 1955, up until 1958, when the polit­i­cal prob­lems tied to the war in Alge­ria gained the upper hand over the life of the group, the dis­cus­sions in the group, and the arti­cles in the review, priv­i­leged the work­ers’ strug­gles and the nar­ra­tives in ques­tion, but at no moment did the ques­tion of “work­ers’ inquiry” posed in 1952 reap­pear. On the con­trary, innu­mer­able debates unfolded in the weekly meet­ings on the ques­tion of a work­ers paper. Such a paper existed, clan­des­tinely, Tri­bune Ouvrière, oper­ated by group of work­ers at the Renault fac­tory in Bil­lan­court (a sub­urb of Paris), a few of whom were close to Social­isme ou Bar­barie (one was a member).

To recount the his­tory of Tri­bune Ouvrière, work­ers bul­letin of the Renault fac­tory at Bil­lan­court neces­si­tates retrac­ing the sit­u­a­tion in the fac­tory and the rela­tions of labor in the fif­teen years that fol­lowed the Sec­ond World War. To broadly sum­ma­rize, this fac­tory of about 30,000 work­ers, the “work­ers’ fortress,” as we used it call it at the time, was then dom­i­nated by the CGT, tied closely to the Com­mu­nist Party, and which until 1947, imposed the management’s pro­duc­tion imper­a­tives. It was in line with the national polit­i­cal union for the eco­nomic recon­struc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in France.

The class strug­gle con­tin­ued nonethe­less, and Trot­sky­ist mil­i­tants suc­ceeded in polar­iz­ing oppo­si­tion against this pol­i­tics of class col­lab­o­ra­tion in cer­tain work­shops in the fac­tory, and in unleash­ing in April-May 1947 a wild­cat strike and the cre­ation of a strike com­mit­tee out­side the union. The vio­lent repres­sion of the strike ended with a com­pro­mise (signed by the CGT with­out the pres­ence of the strike com­mit­tee), but had polit­i­cal con­se­quences: the ejec­tion of the Com­mu­nist min­is­ters from the gov­ern­ment (other fac­tors also con­tributed to this ejec­tion: on the one hand, the begin­ning of the cold war and align­ment on the pol­i­tics of the USSR, and on the other hand, the first war in Viet­nam). The end of the strike saw the exclu­sion of the CGT from those sec­tions that had launched the strike, which had to cre­ate a new union, the Renault Demo­c­ra­tic Union (SDR), led by a Trot­sky­ist mil­i­tant, Bois. The exis­tence of this union was very ephemeral because it clashed with both the CGT and the man­age­ment (the legal arrange­ment prac­ti­cally pro­hib­ited it from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any dis­cus­sion in the factory).

A few years later, in 1954, some par­tic­i­pated in the cre­ation of a new oppo­si­tion in the fac­tory, which regrouped, under the impe­tus of a mil­i­tant close to Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Ray­mond (who still refused to par­tic­i­pate in the group), and other mil­i­tants in the fac­tory, an anar­chist, Pier­rot, the Trot­sky­ist Bois, and a mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Mothé. It was in this way that the work­ers bul­letin, Tri­bune Ouvrière, was launched. It was totally clan­des­tine and dis­sem­i­nated secretly in the fac­tory - the CGT’s pres­ence was still so strong that it could oppose any attempt to orga­nize out­side its union con­trol. The true facil­i­ta­tor of this nucleus was Gas­pard, who did not con­tent him­self with ensur­ing the appear­ance and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the bul­letin, but was a true orga­nizer of a real nucleus of nearly 50 work­ers in a col­lec­tive approach that expanded beyond the union into a kind of col­lec­tive life out­side the fac­tory (vaca­tions, cul­tural trips, etc.). I can tes­tify to this since, orga­nizer of an oppo­si­tion core at my com­pany. I occa­sion­ally took part in these “activities.”

There were attempts to turn Tri­bune Ouvrière into the worker bul­letin of Social­isme ou Bar­barie; these dis­cus­sions aimed to define the method of such a bul­letin, which was intended to prop­a­gate the ideas of the group, rather than to pro­mote a deeper under­stand­ing of the pro­le­tariat. After 1958, and the group’s split, such a paper appeared under the title Pou­voir Ouvrier. No longer a mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie after this date, I can only refer to pub­li­ca­tions in order to main­tain that the ques­tion of Work­ers’ Inquiry was never addressed in the group, and even more so that even the worker nar­ra­tives dis­ap­peared [from the review] com­pletely, the group being in large part com­posed of intel­lec­tu­als and stu­dents, and no proletarians.

The debates that, in 1958, led to Social­isme ou Barbarie’s split, were polar­ized around two texts on the role of the orga­ni­za­tion, one com­ing from Cas­to­ri­adis, the other from Lefort. In this lat­ter text one finds a brief ref­er­ence to work­ers inquiry in the con­clu­sion on “mil­i­tant activ­ity” in these terms: “On the other hand, one can begin sev­eral seri­ous analy­ses con­cern­ing the func­tion­ing of our own soci­ety (on the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, the French bureau­cracy, or the union bureau­cracy). One would in this way estab­lish a col­lab­o­ra­tion with fac­tory mil­i­tants in a way that poses in con­crete terms (through inquiries into their life and work expe­ri­ences) the prob­lem of work­ers’ man­age­ment.”2 But even there this remained a purely the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of prac­ti­cal real­iza­tion given the reduced size of the group and, in fact, every­thing would unfold differently.

In a cer­tain way, one can say that this approach to under­stand­ing the pro­le­tar­ian milieu was adopted by those who emerged, after the var­i­ous tur­moils that lasted up until 1962, as the minor­ity that was more or less excluded from Social­isme ou Bar­barie in 1958. It would take too long to explain how, from the autumn of 1958, we con­sti­tuted an “inter-firm group” com­posed solely of pro­le­tar­i­ans, and which began to pub­lish a monthly bul­letin essen­tially repro­duc­ing what the par­tic­i­pants could say about what­ever hap­pened in their fac­tory. This bul­letin ended up call­ing itself Infor­ma­tions Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières (ICO)3 and con­tin­ued under this form until 1968 where, once again, an influx of stu­dents fun­da­men­tally mod­i­fied the orig­i­nal char­ac­ter of the group and the con­tent of the bul­letin. In a cer­tain way this resem­bles work­ers’ inquiry, but it was in no way a response to pre­cise ques­tion­naire, but a nar­ra­tive, even­tu­ally clar­i­fied by ques­tions to other pro­le­tar­i­ans par­tic­i­pat­ing in the meet­ing. I must add that until 1967-1968, when eco­nomic and social devel­op­ment sparked a revival of inter­est in this expe­ri­ence, the mem­ber­ship of ICO never sur­passed more than 30, the bulletin’s cir­cu­la­tion hav­ing finally attained 1000 copies, and that the influ­ence of the group remained neg­li­gi­ble all the same.

Tri­bune Ouvrière dis­ap­peared around 1962-63 because Ray­mond left – and he took with him a cer­tain num­ber of Renault work­ers – to cre­ate a col­lec­tive vaca­tion cen­ter. In the years before 1958 dis­cus­sions went on in Social­isme ou Bar­barie about a “work­ers’ paper” that would express the group’s posi­tion on work­ers’ strug­gles to the work­ers. For some time some in Social­isme ou Bar­barie had thought that Tri­bune Ouvrière would be this work­ers’ paper express­ing the group. But the oppo­si­tion of Ray­mond and the other mem­bers (except Mothé, who pushed for such an inte­gra­tion), nul­li­fied all these efforts. It was then that the major­ity, tak­ing advan­tage of the 1958 split, launched the work­ers’ paper of the group: Pou­voir Ouvrier. It was nei­ther the con­tin­u­a­tion of Tri­bune Ouvrière, which con­tin­ued for some time in its orig­i­nal form, nor some for­mula that cor­re­sponded to it, but the paper of a polit­i­cal group car­ry­ing, in more acces­si­ble lan­guage, the good word to the work­ers: it did not base itself on any con­crete work­ers expe­ri­ence. This was so true that at the time of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s new split in 1963, “Pou­voir Ouvrier” became the name and the polit­i­cal organ of the new group. After 1958 Mothé founded the paper accord­ing to the for­mula he defended in the review, but he quickly aban­doned it to pur­sue a union career in the CFDT.

With Mothé hav­ing become a syn­di­cal­ist, Ray­mond leav­ing for a com­mer­cial career, and Bois, who was the ani­mat­ing spirit behind Voix Ouvrières, launch­ing fac­tory bul­letins that were closely con­trolled by the Trot­sky­ist appa­ra­tus, Tri­bune Ouvrière could dis­ap­pear because the major­ity of those who had directed it were work­ing else­where. Only one of them was left, Pier­rot, still a worker at Renault Bil­lan­court, who joined ICO and became one of its ani­ma­teurs. But one can­not say there was any fil­i­a­tion with Tri­bune Ouvrière, which dis­ap­peared prac­ti­cally the moment when ICO emerged on com­pletely dif­fer­ent bases than any of the groups of bul­letins cited. Prac­ti­cally, all the par­tic­i­pants in ICO were work­ers who, opposed to unions, shared their expe­ri­ence as work­ers, and their expe­ri­ence of the dif­fi­cult strug­gle between the boss’s exploita­tion and the union bureau­cracy; this made for an orig­i­nal con­cep­tion, very dif­fer­ent from both Tri­bune Ouvrière, lim­ited to a sin­gle fac­tory, and Pou­voir Ouvrier, the expres­sion of a polit­i­cal group. ICO con­tin­ued in this form prac­ti­cally until 1968, then every­thing was over­turned in May 68 with an influx of non-workers, and with this influx a muta­tion towards a polit­i­cal group, which, for its part, led to shat­ter­ing of the group around ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. Nei­ther one nor the other of these so-called “work­ers’” bul­letins can serve as mod­els for today because they cor­re­sponded to cer­tain struc­tures of cap­i­tal, to ensu­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, and a cer­tain union pres­ence. A half cen­tury later, many things have changed in this area and few today dis­cuss the “work­ers’ paper.”

ICO dis­ap­peared after 1968 in large part because of pro­found diver­gences over the role of the pro­le­tariat, some fore­see­ing a rise in strug­gles, which would jus­tify a rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive (which led to the reemer­gence of the old debates on the role of orga­ni­za­tions and an irre­ducible cleav­age between the Marx­ist and anar­chist cur­rents); oth­ers think­ing the role of the pro­le­tariat was no longer cen­tral to the prospects of a com­mu­nist trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety. These are the cur­rents that still con­front each other 40 years later, but the least that can be said is that nei­ther one con­cerned itself with really know­ing how pro­le­tar­i­ans live and strug­gle, and their vision of a non-capitalist world. For these cur­rents – even though a whole arse­nal of soci­ol­o­gists and eth­nol­o­gists around the world try to tap into this in order to fur­ther the dom­i­na­tion of the worker how­ever they can, with the sole inter­est of ensur­ing the per­ma­nence of the sys­tem that exploits labor-power – the theme of work­ers’ inquiry is no longer rel­e­vant: for some it is totally use­less, because the work­ers are no longer a deter­min­ing fac­tor; for oth­ers, as in the past, it is a sec­ondary thing, because they still think they have to teach some­thing to work­ers, and not the other way around.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

Henri Simon was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

  • 1. G. Vivier, “La vie en usine,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11.
  • 2. Claude Lefort, Élé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 112.
  • 3. This is some­times writ­ten as Infor­ma­tions et Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières, but we have left Simon’s phras­ing.

Proletarian experience

A 1953 essay by Claude Lefort of Socialisme Ou Barbarie that represents part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957.

There is no phrase from Marx more often repeated: “The his­tory of all soci­eties to date has been the his­tory of class strug­gle.”1 These words have lost none of their explo­sive poten­tial. Peo­ple are con­tin­u­ously pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal com­men­taries, char­la­tans have obscured their mean­ing, replac­ing them with more reas­sur­ing truths. Yet must we still say that his­tory is defined entirely around class strug­gle, that his­tory today is defined entirely by the strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat against the class that exploits it, and that his­tor­i­cal cre­ativ­ity and the cre­ativ­ity of the pro­le­tariat are today one and the same? On these points, there is no ambi­gu­ity in Marx. He wrote: “Of all the instru­ments of pro­duc­tion the great­est pro­duc­tive power is the pro­le­tariat itself.”2 But rather than sub­or­di­nate every­thing to this pro­duc­tive power and inter­pret the devel­op­ment of soci­ety as a whole in terms shaped by that of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary class, pseudo-Marxists of all kinds have tried to base the con­cep­tion of his­tory on less move­able grounds. They have con­verted the the­ory of class strug­gle into a purely eco­nomic sci­ence and claim to have derived its laws in the image of those of clas­si­cal physics, deduc­ing a super­struc­ture and thereby con­flat­ing class com­port­ment3 with ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena. Tak­ing an expres­sion from Cap­i­tal, they say that the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie are “per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of eco­nomic cat­e­gories,” the for­mer of wage labor and the lat­ter of cap­i­tal. The strug­gle between them is the mere reflec­tion of an objec­tive con­flict, the nature of which is tied to a given period as a func­tion of the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces and exist­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. Because this con­flict results from the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces, his­tory is essen­tially reduced to it, and is in the process unwit­tingly trans­formed into a par­tic­u­lar episode in the evo­lu­tion of nature. Simul­ta­ne­ously, the role of class and of human beings is vacated. To be sure, this the­ory does not dis­pense entirely with inter­est in the devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat, but restricts it to objec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics – to exten­sion, den­sity, and con­cen­tra­tion. In the best sce­nario, these char­ac­ter­is­tics are then brought into rela­tion with large-scale pro­le­tar­ian actions. This the­o­ret­i­cal view­point mon­i­tors the nat­ural evo­lu­tion of a pro­le­tariat that it casts as an uncon­scious and undif­fer­en­ti­ated mass. The per­ma­nent strug­gle against exploita­tion, rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions and ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena that accom­pany them, are not the real his­tory of the class. They are mere expres­sions of an eco­nomic function.

Not only did Marx dis­tance him­self from this the­ory, there is an explicit cri­tique of it in the philo­soph­i­cal work of his youth. Accord­ing to Marx, attempts to grasp social devel­op­ment in itself, inde­pen­dently of con­crete human beings and the rela­tions they estab­lish amongst them­selves – be they of coop­er­a­tion or of con­flict – are expres­sions of the alien­ation inher­ent in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Because they are made strangers to their work, because their social sit­u­a­tion is imposed on them inde­pen­dently of their will, peo­ple are inclined to grasp human activ­ity in gen­eral on the model of physics and to grasp soci­ety as a being in-itself.

Marx’s cri­tique did not destroy this ten­dency any more than he elim­i­nated alien­ation by reveal­ing it. On the con­trary, this ten­dency devel­oped out of other aspects of Marx in the form of a so-called eco­nomic mate­ri­al­ism that, with time, came to play a spe­cific role in the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment. Its dupli­ca­tion of the social divi­sion within the pro­le­tariat between the worker elite asso­ci­ated with the intel­li­gentsia and the masses fed into a com­mand ide­ol­ogy the bureau­cratic char­ac­ter of which is fully revealed in Stal­in­ism. By con­vert­ing the pro­le­tariat into a mass gov­erned by laws and its agency into an eco­nomic func­tion, this ten­dency jus­ti­fies the reduc­tion of work­ers to the sta­tus of exe­cu­tants within their own orga­ni­za­tions, which have become instru­ments of worker exploitation.

The pro­le­tariat is the real response to this eco­nomic pseudo-materialism. Its response is elab­o­rated through its prac­ti­cal exis­tence. Any­one who looks at its his­tory can see that the pro­le­tariat has not merely reacted to def­i­nite, exter­nal eco­nomic fac­tors (degree of exploita­tion, stan­dard of liv­ing, mode of con­cen­tra­tion), but that it has really acted. The pro­le­tariat has inter­vened in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary man­ner based not on some schema pro­vided by the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion, but on its total, cumu­la­tive expe­ri­ence. While it would be absurd to inter­pret the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment with­out con­tin­u­ous ref­er­ence to the eco­nomic struc­ture of soci­ety as a whole at the time, to reduce work­ers to that struc­ture is to con­demn one­self to ignore three-quarters of its con­crete class com­port­ment. Who would try to deduce a century’s worth of trans­for­ma­tions in worker men­tal­ités4, meth­ods of strug­gle and forms of orga­ni­za­tion on the basis of purely eco­nomic processes?

Fol­low­ing Marx, it is essen­tial to affirm that the work­ing class is not merely an eco­nomic cat­e­gory, but the “great­est of pro­duc­tive forces.” We must show how this is the case both against crit­ics and mys­ti­fiers and for the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. But we must also rec­og­nize that this topic was only broached in Marx and that its expres­sion through his con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat remained con­cep­tu­ally unclear. He was often con­tent with abstract claims about the role of changes of con­scious­ness in class for­ma­tion with­out explain­ing what they meant. At the same time, in the inter­est of show­ing the neces­sity of fun­da­men­tal rev­o­lu­tion, he often depicted the work­ing class in terms so dark that they lead one to won­der how work­ers could pos­si­bly acquire con­scious­ness of their sit­u­a­tion and their role in the man­age­ment of Human­ity. Marx argues that cap­i­tal­ism has trans­formed the worker into a machine and robbed it of “every human phys­i­cal and moral char­ac­ter­is­tic” and that cap­i­tal­ism has removed from work all sem­blance of “indi­vid­ual inter­ac­tion.” The result has been a “loss of human­ity.” How­ever, accord­ing to Marx, because it is sub­hu­man, because it is totally alien­ated and an accu­mu­la­tion of all social dis­tress, the proletariat’s revolt against its fate can eman­ci­pate all of human­ity. (It requires “a class…for which human­ity is entirely lost and which can only recon­quer itself by con­quer­ing all of human­ity” or “the pro­le­tariat of the present day alone, totally excluded from all per­sonal activ­ity, is able to real­ize its total per­sonal activ­ity and no longer rec­og­nize lim­its on the appro­pri­a­tion of the total­ity of col­lec­tive forces.”5 ). At the same time, it is clear that pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is not a lib­er­a­tory explo­sion fol­lowed by the instant trans­for­ma­tion of all soci­ety (Marx directed much sar­casm at this anar­chist naïveté). Rather, pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is when the exploited class assumes the man­age­ment of all of soci­ety. But how could the pro­le­tariat suc­cess­fully take on the innu­mer­able social, polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural tasks that a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion would bring if the night before it had been rad­i­cally excluded from social life? One response could be: the class under­goes a meta­mor­pho­sis through rev­o­lu­tion. But even as there is an accel­er­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal processes in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, one that upsets exist­ing rela­tions amongst men and estab­lishes com­mu­ni­ca­tion that links each to soci­ety as a whole, phe­nom­ena which are required for the extra­or­di­nary mat­u­ra­tion of the class that rev­o­lu­tion brings, nonethe­less it would be absurd, soci­o­log­i­cally speak­ing, to see the class as born of rev­o­lu­tion. Its mat­u­ra­tion is only pos­si­ble due to prior expe­ri­ence that it inter­prets and puts into a pos­i­tive practice.

Marx’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the total alien­ation of the pro­le­tariat are linked to the idea that the over­throw of the bour­geoisie is the nec­es­sary and suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for the vic­tory of social­ism. In these cases, he is pre­oc­cu­pied with the destruc­tion of the old order and opposes to it com­mu­nist soci­ety, like a pos­i­tive is opposed to a neg­a­tive. These points show that Marx was nec­es­sar­ily depen­dent on a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. The unfold­ing of sub­se­quent decades requires us to think oth­er­wise about the pas­sage from the old order into a post-revolutionary soci­ety. The prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion has become that of the proletariat’s capac­ity to man­age all of soci­ety. This requires us to think about the devel­op­ment of this capac­ity within cap­i­tal­ist society.

There is no lack of indi­ca­tions in Marx of the mate­r­ial that would be required to out­line another con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat. For exam­ple, Marx writes that com­mu­nism is the actual move­ment of over­throw­ing the exist­ing soci­ety that is pre­sup­posed by it. From a cer­tain view­point, this indi­cates con­ti­nu­ities that would link social forces in the exist­ing cap­i­tal­ist stage to the future of human­ity. More explic­itly, Marx high­lights the orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat, which already rep­re­sents the “dis­so­lu­tion of all classes,”6 he says, because, it is not linked to any par­tic­u­lar inter­est, because it absorbs aspects of pre­vi­ous social classes and recom­bines them in a unique man­ner, and because it has no nec­es­sary link with the soil or, by exten­sion, with any nation. What is more, while Marx insists – cor­rectly – on the neg­a­tive, alien­ated char­ac­ter of pro­le­tar­ian work, he also shows that this same sit­u­a­tion puts the pro­le­tariat in a uni­ver­sal sit­u­a­tion because of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment which has enabled an inter­change­abil­ity of tasks and a ratio­nal­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion vir­tu­ally with­out lim­its. This enables us to see the cre­ative func­tion of the pro­le­tariat within Indus­try, which he calls the “open book of human forces.”7 In this, the pro­le­tariat appears, not as sub­hu­man, but as the pro­ducer of social life in its entirety. The pro­le­tariat fab­ri­cates the objects thanks to which human life con­tin­ues in all domains because there is no one who does not owe his con­di­tions of exis­tence to indus­trial pro­duc­tion. If the pro­le­tariat is the uni­ver­sal pro­ducer, it must some­how also be a depos­i­tory of social and cul­tural progress.

In other places, Marx describes the devel­op­ment of the bour­geoisie and pro­le­tariat in much the same terms, as if the classes belong together not only because of their places in pro­duc­tion, but also because of their mode of evo­lu­tion and the rela­tions they estab­lish between peo­ple. For exam­ple, he writes: “The diverse indi­vid­u­als only con­sti­tute a class when they sup­port a strug­gle against another class. The rest of the time, they con­front each other in com­pe­ti­tion. At the same time, the class becomes autonomous rel­a­tive to indi­vid­u­als, so that they find their pre­des­tined con­di­tions of exis­tence.”8 How­ever, when he con­cretely describes the evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie he dif­fer­en­ti­ates them rad­i­cally. Essen­tially, the bour­geoisie com­pose a class because those who con­sti­tute it have a com­mon eco­nomic func­tion. Com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons describe their com­mon con­di­tions of exis­tence for them. Inde­pen­dently of the pol­i­tics each adopts, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture. Their com­mon­al­i­ties of inter­est explain the ease with which the class can develop a spe­cial­ized frac­tion to under­take its pol­i­tics. Bour­geois pol­i­tics are expres­sions and inter­pre­ta­tions of these shared dis­po­si­tions. This char­ac­ter­is­tic of the bour­geoisie is equally evi­dent in the process of its his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment: “Because they were in oppo­si­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions and the divi­sion of labor that resulted from them, the con­di­tions of exis­tence for iso­lated bour­geois became the con­di­tions com­mon to all of them.”9 In other words, the iden­tity of their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion within feu­dal­ism uni­fied them and gave them a class aspect, impos­ing on them from the begin­ning a sim­ple asso­ci­a­tion by resem­blance. This is what Marx means by the expres­sion the run­away serfs were already half-bourgeois. There was no con­ti­nu­ity that linked serf and bour­geois. Rather, the lat­ter sim­ply legal­ized the former’s already-extant mode of life. As a group, the bour­geoisie insin­u­ated itself into feu­dal soci­ety, and its focus was broad­en­ing its own mode of pro­duc­tion. When this mode of pro­duc­tion encoun­tered the lim­its of the exist­ing con­di­tions, there was no con­tra­dic­tion; exist­ing con­di­tions merely impeded its devel­op­ment. Marx does not say, but enables one to say: From the begin­ning the bour­geoisie is what it will become, an exploit­ing class. Of course, it was ini­tially under­priv­i­leged, but it already con­tained within itself all the char­ac­ter­is­tics that its his­tory would sim­ply develop.

The devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Reduced solely to its eco­nomic func­tion, it rep­re­sents a deter­mi­nate social cat­e­gory. But this cat­e­gory does not yet posses a class direc­tion. Its direc­tion [sens de classe] is con­sti­tuted by its orig­i­nal com­port­ment: the strug­gle against all forms of class in the soci­ety which it con­fronts as adver­sar­ial strata. This does not mean that the role of class in pro­duc­tion should be neglected; on the con­trary, we will see that the role work­ers play in soci­ety, and those they will be called upon to play in becom­ing its mas­ters, are directly rooted in their roles as pro­duc­ers. But the essen­tial point is that their role does not give them the abil­ity to act, but only an increas­ingly strong capac­ity to man­age. The bour­geoisie is con­tin­u­ally con­fronted with the results of its work: that is what gives it objec­tiv­ity. The pro­le­tariat is raised up through its work with­out ever being con­cerned with its results. Both the objects it pro­duces and the sequence of oper­a­tions required to pro­duce them are taken from it. While there is a progress in tech­ni­cal skill, this progress will only acquire a value in the future. In the present, it is inscribed in the neg­a­tive image of an exploita­tive soci­ety. (The tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat have no com­mon mea­sure with that of the French pro­le­tariat of 1848, but both the for­mer and the lat­ter are equally with­out eco­nomic power.) It is true that work­ers, like the bour­geoisie, have sim­i­lar inter­ests imposed on them by their com­mon work­ing con­di­tions – for exam­ple, they have an inter­est in full employ­ment and higher wages. But these inter­ests are of a dif­fer­ent order than their most fun­da­men­tal inter­est, which is to not be work­ers. It appears that work­ers seek higher wages in the same way as bour­geois seek prof­its, just as it appears both offer com­modi­ties on the mar­ket – the lat­ter cap­i­tal, the for­mer labor-power. In fact, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes itself through this com­port­ment as author of its class: it builds the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion that is the source of its own social struc­ture. For its part, while the pro­le­tariat seems only to react to con­di­tions that are imposed on it, it is being matured by its exploiters. Even if the work­ers are points of depar­ture for rad­i­cal oppo­si­tion to the sys­tem of exploita­tion itself, they nonethe­less play an inte­gral part in the dialec­tic of cap­i­tal. In con­fronta­tion with the bour­geoisie, the pro­le­tariat only affirms itself as an autonomous class when it con­tests bour­geois power, which is to say its mode of pro­duc­tion, or, more con­cretely, exploita­tion itself. Its rev­o­lu­tion­ary atti­tude con­sti­tutes its class atti­tude. Pro­le­tar­ian class direc­tion is not devel­oped through an accu­mu­la­tion of eco­nomic attrib­utes, but rather through their rad­i­cal denial in order to insti­tute a new social order. From this fol­lows that the pro­le­tariat, unlike the bour­geoisie, can­not cast off their chains as indi­vid­u­als because the ful­fill­ment of their des­tiny can­not be located in what they already vir­tu­ally are, but only through the abo­li­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian con­di­tion itself.10 Marx notes that the bour­geoisie are only of their class as “mem­bers” or as “aver­age” indi­vid­u­als (that is, as pas­sively deter­mined by their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion) while the work­ers, form­ing a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nity,”11 are prop­erly indi­vid­u­als to the extent they dom­i­nate their sit­u­a­tion and imme­di­ate rela­tions to production.

If it is true that no class can ever be reduced solely to an eco­nomic func­tion and that a descrip­tion of con­crete social rela­tions within the bour­geoisie are a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of a com­pre­hen­sion of that class, then it is even more true that the pro­le­tariat requires a spe­cific approach that would enable access to its sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment. Despite some reser­va­tions con­cern­ing what is entailed by this term, it sum­ma­rizes bet­ter than any other the dom­i­nant trait of the pro­le­tariat. The pro­le­tariat is sub­jec­tive to the extent that its com­port­ments are not the sim­ple result of the con­di­tions of its exis­tence: its con­di­tions of exis­tence require of it a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle for trans­for­ma­tion, thus a con­tin­u­ous dis­tance from its imme­di­ate fate. The progress of this strug­gle, sense of dis­tance and the devel­op­ment of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent that enables them com­prise an expe­ri­ence across which the class con­sti­tutes itself.

To para­phrase Marx again, one must avoid above all fix­ing the rela­tion of the pro­le­tariat to the indi­vid­ual as an abstrac­tion. One must search for how its social struc­ture emerges from the sit­u­a­tions of deter­mi­nate indi­vid­u­als because it is true, accord­ing to Marx, that in soci­ety it is the pro­le­tariat which rep­re­sents a for­tiori an emi­nently social force within the present his­tor­i­cal stage as the group which pro­duces col­lec­tive life.

The indi­ca­tions that we find in Marx of an ori­en­ta­tion toward the con­crete analy­sis of the social rela­tions con­sti­tu­tive of the work­ing class have not been devel­oped by the Marx­ist move­ment. The fun­da­men­tal ques­tions for us have not been directly broached – how do men, placed in the con­di­tions of indus­trial work, come to appro­pri­ate that work? how do they build links between spe­cific rela­tions amongst them­selves, and how do they per­ceive and fash­ion rela­tions with the rest of soci­ety? and, in a sin­gu­lar man­ner, how do they com­pose the shared expe­ri­ence which makes of them a his­tor­i­cal force? For the most part they have been left aside in favor of a more abstract con­cep­tion, the object of which is, for exam­ple, cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety (con­sid­ered in its gen­er­al­ity). The forces which com­prise it are placed on the same level. So it was for Lenin, for whom the pro­le­tariat was an entity whose his­tor­i­cal mean­ing had been estab­lished once and for all and which was, with some excep­tions, treated as an adver­sary by virtue of its exter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics. An exces­sive inter­est was accorded to the study of “forces of pro­duc­tion,” which were con­flated with class strug­gle itself, as if the essen­tial prob­lem were to mea­sure the pres­sure that one mass exerted on an oppos­ing mass. For us, this does not at all mean that we reject the objec­tive analy­sis of the struc­ture and insti­tu­tions of the social total­ity, nor do we imag­ine, for exam­ple, that the only true knowl­edge that can be given has to be elab­o­rated by the pro­le­tar­i­ans them­selves as a func­tion of their root­ed­ness in the class. This “work­erist” the­ory of knowl­edge which, it must be said in pass­ing, reduces the work of Marx to noth­ing, must be rejected for two rea­sons: first, because all knowl­edge claims objec­tiv­ity (even as it may be con­scious of being socially and psy­cho­log­i­cally con­di­tioned); sec­ond, because the aspi­ra­tion to prac­ti­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal uni­ver­sal­ity belongs to the very nature of the pro­le­tariat, which would iden­tify itself with soci­ety as a whole. But the fact remains that objec­tive analy­sis, even car­ried out with the great­est rigor, as it was done in Marx’s Cap­i­tal, remains incom­plete because it is con­strained to be only inter­ested in the results of social life or in the fixed forms into which it is inte­grated (for exam­ple tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment or the con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal) and to ignore the human expe­ri­ence that cor­re­sponds to more or less exter­nal mate­r­ial processes (for exam­ple, the rela­tions of men to their work in the steam age or the age of elec­tric­ity, in the age of com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism and in that of state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism). In a sense there is no way to sep­a­rate mate­r­ial forms and human expe­ri­ence because the for­mer is deter­mined by the con­di­tions in which they are made, and these con­di­tions, which are the result of social evo­lu­tion, are the work of human beings. But from a prac­ti­cal view­point, objec­tive analy­sis is sub­or­di­nated to con­crete analy­sis because it is not con­di­tions that are rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but human beings, and the ulti­mate ques­tion is how to know about the ways that human beings appro­pri­ate and trans­form their situation.

The urgency of and inter­est in con­crete analy­sis comes from another direc­tion as well. Hold­ing close to Marx, we have under­lined the role of pro­duc­ers in the social lives of work­ers. It must be said, how­ever, that the same could be said in a gen­eral way of any class that has played any role in the his­tory of work. But the role of the pro­le­tariat in pro­duc­tion is unlike that of any other class from the past. Its role is spe­cific to mod­ern indus­trial soci­ety and can only be indi­rectly com­pared with other social forms which have pre­ceded it. The idea fash­ion­able today amongst many soci­ol­o­gists, for exam­ple, that the most archaic forms of prim­i­tive soci­eties are closer to feu­dal Europe of the Mid­dle Ages than the lat­ter is to the cap­i­tal­ism to which it gave way, does not pay ade­quate atten­tion to the role of classes and their rela­tions. There is a dou­ble rela­tion in any soci­ety, one amongst men and another between men and the objects they trans­form, but with indus­trial soci­ety the sec­ond rela­tion took on a new sig­nif­i­cance. Now there is a sphere of indus­trial pro­duc­tion gov­erned by laws that are to a cer­tain extent autonomous. Of course they are sit­u­ated in a total social sphere because the rela­tions between classes are con­sti­tuted through the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, but not strictly so because the tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments and processes of ratio­nal­iza­tion which have been char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism since its ori­gins have had impacts that go beyond class strug­gle. To take a banal exam­ple, the indus­trial usage of steam or elec­tric­ity entail a series of con­se­quences – on the divi­sion of labor, on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of firms – that are rel­a­tively inde­pen­dent of the gen­eral form of social rela­tions. Of course, ratio­nal­iza­tion and tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment are not real­i­ties in them­selves: there is so lit­tle to them that they can be inter­preted as defenses erected by cap­i­tal­ists whose prof­its are con­tin­u­ously threat­ened by pro­le­tar­ian resis­tance of exploita­tion. Nonethe­less, even if the moti­va­tions of Cap­i­tal are suf­fi­cient to explain these ori­gins, they still can­not account for the con­tent of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. The deeper expla­na­tion for the appar­ent auton­omy in the logic of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is that it is not the work of cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment alone: it is also an expres­sion of pro­le­tar­ian work. The action of the pro­le­tariat, in fact, does not only take the form of a resis­tance (forc­ing employ­ers to con­stantly improve their meth­ods of oper­a­tion), but also of con­tin­u­ous assim­i­la­tion of progress, and even more, active col­lab­o­ra­tion in it. It is because work­ers are able to adapt to the rhythm and form of con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion that this evo­lu­tion has been able to occur. More basi­cally, because work­ers carry within them­selves responses to the myr­iad prob­lems posed within pro­duc­tion in its detail they make pos­si­ble the appear­ance of the sys­tem­atic response that one calls tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. Explicit ratio­nal­iza­tion is the gath­er­ing, inter­pre­ta­tion, and inte­gra­tion from a class per­spec­tive of the mul­ti­ple, dis­persed, frag­mented, and anony­mous inno­va­tions of men engaged in the con­crete processes of production.

From our view­point, this last remark is fun­da­men­tal because it places the empha­sis on expe­ri­ence that unfolds at the point of pro­duc­tion and on the per­cep­tions of work­ers. This does not entail a sep­a­ra­tion of this par­tic­u­lar social rela­tion from those of the global soci­ety that shape it, but rather recog­ni­tion of its speci­ficity. In other words, if we say that indus­trial struc­ture deter­mines social struc­ture, which is the means by which it acquires per­ma­nence, so that any soci­ety – regard­less of the class char­ac­ter­is­tics – mod­els itself on cer­tain of its char­ac­ter­is­tics, then we must under­stand the sit­u­a­tion into which it places those who are inte­grated out of neces­sity – that is, the sit­u­a­tion of the proletariat.

So what is a con­crete analy­sis of the pro­le­tariat? We will try to define it by enu­mer­at­ing some pos­si­bil­i­ties and deter­min­ing their respec­tive interests.

The first approach would be to describe the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in which the class finds itself and the influ­ences that sit­u­a­tion has on its struc­ture. At the limit, it would require a total social and eco­nomic analy­sis. In a more restricted sense, we would want to talk about work­ing con­di­tions and those of the lives of work­ers, the mod­i­fi­ca­tions that have accom­pa­nied its con­cen­tra­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, changes in meth­ods of exploita­tion (inten­sity of work, length of the work day, wages and labor mar­kets and so forth). This is the most objec­tive approach in that it is focused on the appar­ent (but nonethe­less essen­tial) class char­ac­ter­is­tics. Any social group can be stud­ied in this way, and any­one can devote a study to it inde­pen­dently of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­ments what­so­ever.12 There is noth­ing specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian about such work, even as one can say that it is or would be inspired by polit­i­cal forms opposed to the inter­ests of the exploit­ing class.

A sec­ond approach, the inverse of the first, would typ­i­cally be labeled more sub­jec­tive. It would focus on all expres­sions of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness, or on what one ordi­nar­ily refers to as ide­ol­ogy. For exam­ple, prim­i­tive Marx­ism, anar­chism, reformism, Bol­she­vism, and Stal­in­ism rep­re­sent stages in the devel­op­ment of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness. It is impor­tant to under­stand the mean­ing of their suc­ces­sion, to under­stand why large num­bers of work­ers have ral­lied around them at dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal stages and why these forms con­tinue to sig­nify in the present con­text. In other words, it is impor­tant to under­stand what the pro­le­tariat is try­ing to say by way of these inter­me­di­aries. While we make no claim for its orig­i­nal­ity – many exam­ples can be found in Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture (in Lenin’s cri­tiques of anar­chism or reformism, for exam­ple) – this type of analy­sis could be taken quite far: the con­tem­po­rary decline enables an appre­ci­a­tion of the trans­for­ma­tions of doc­trines despite the super­fi­cial appear­ances of con­ti­nu­ities (that of Stal­in­ism from 1928-1952 or that of reformism over the past cen­tury). How­ever, what­ever its inter­est, this approach remains abstract and incom­plete. It remains exter­nal, using infor­ma­tion that can be gath­ered through pub­li­ca­tions (the pro­grams and larger state­ments of the move­ment in which one might be inter­ested) that do not nec­es­sar­ily impose a pro­le­tar­ian view­point. And it allows what is arguably most fun­da­men­tal about worker expe­ri­ence to escape. It is only con­cerned with explicit expe­ri­ence, in what is expressed and put into the form of pro­grams or arti­cles with­out being pre­oc­cu­pied with whether or how these ideas reflect the thoughts and inten­tions of the work­ers in whose name they speak. While there is always a gap that sep­a­rates what is expe­ri­enced from what is elab­o­rated, it acquires a par­tic­u­lar ampli­fi­ca­tion in the case of the pro­le­tariat. This ampli­fi­ca­tion fol­lows from the fact that the work­ing class is not only dom­i­nated, but is also alien­ated, totally excluded from eco­nomic power and by virtue of that excluded from being able to rep­re­sent any sta­tus at all. This does not mean that ide­olo­gies have no rela­tion to the class expe­ri­ence of work­ing peo­ple, but the trans­for­ma­tion into a sys­tem of thought pre­sup­poses a break with and antic­i­pa­tion of that expe­ri­ence which allows non-proletarian fac­tors to exer­cise their influ­ence and make the rela­tion indi­rect. Here we encounter once again the basic dif­fer­ence between the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie noted ear­lier. For the lat­ter, the the­ory of lib­er­al­ism of a given period is a sim­ple ide­al­iza­tion and/or ratio­nal­iza­tion of its inter­ests: the pro­grams of its polit­i­cal par­ties express the sta­tus of cer­tain strata of their orga­ni­za­tions. For the pro­le­tariat, Bol­she­vism, although to some extent a ratio­nal­iza­tion of the worker’s con­di­tion, was also an inter­pre­ta­tion of it elab­o­rated by a frac­tion of the worker avant-garde13 asso­ci­ated with an intel­li­gentsia that was rel­a­tively sep­a­rated from the class. In other words, there are two rea­sons for the defor­ma­tion of worker expres­sion: that it is the work of a minor­ity exter­nal to the real life of the work­ing class or which is con­strained to adopt a rela­tion of exte­ri­or­ity to it; and that it is utopian, not in a pejo­ra­tive sense, but in the sense that it is a project that would estab­lish a sit­u­a­tion all the premises of which are not given in the present. Of course, the var­i­ous ide­olo­gies of the work­ers’ move­ment rep­re­sent cer­tain kinds of rela­tions to work­ers, which the work­ers rec­og­nize as their own, but only rep­re­sent them in a deriv­a­tive form.

A third approach would be more specif­i­cally his­tor­i­cal. It would con­sist in research into a con­ti­nu­ity link­ing the great man­i­fes­ta­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment since it came into being, to demon­strate that rev­o­lu­tions and, more gen­er­ally, diverse forms of worker resis­tance and orga­ni­za­tion (asso­ci­a­tions, unions, polit­i­cal par­ties, com­mit­tees formed dur­ing strikes or in the con­text of par­tic­u­lar con­flicts) are part of a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence and to show how this expe­ri­ence is linked to the evo­lu­tion of eco­nomic and polit­i­cal forms within cap­i­tal­ist society.

Finally there is a fourth approach, one that we see as the most con­crete. Rather than exam­in­ing the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat from the out­side, this approach seeks to recon­struct the proletariat’s rela­tions to its work and to soci­ety from the inside and show how its capac­i­ties for inven­tion and power of orga­ni­za­tion man­i­fest in every­day life.

Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion, and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory. By any account, this is the com­port­ment that most com­pletely man­i­fests in their per­son­al­i­ties. At this level, the dis­tinc­tion between sub­jec­tive and objec­tive loses its mean­ing: this com­port­ment includes ide­olo­gies which it con­sti­tutes with a cer­tain degree of ratio­nal­iza­tion, just as it pre­sup­poses eco­nomic con­di­tions. This com­port­ment per­forms their ongo­ing inte­gra­tion and elaboration.

As we have said, such an approach has yet to be really explored. No doubt there are valu­able lessons in the analy­sis of the 19th cen­tury Eng­lish work­ing class from Cap­i­tal; how­ever, to the extent that Marx’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was to describe the work­ing con­di­tions and lives of work­ers, he oper­ated within the first approach out­lined ear­lier. Since Marx, there are only “lit­er­ary” doc­u­ments attempt­ing to describe the worker per­son­al­ity. Over the past few years and pri­mar­ily from the United States, a “worker” soci­ol­ogy has appeared that claims to do con­crete analy­ses of social rela­tions within pro­duc­tion and to iso­late their prac­ti­cal inten­tions. This soci­ol­ogy is the work of man­age­ment. “Enlight­ened” cap­i­tal­ists dis­cov­ered that mate­r­ial ratio­nal­iza­tion had its lim­its, that human-objects had spe­cific reac­tions one had to account for if one wanted to get the most out of them – that is, to get them to sub­mit to the most effi­cient forms of exploita­tion. This admirable dis­cov­ery pressed into ser­vice a Tay­lorized form of human­ism and made lots of money both for pseudo-psychoanalysts, who were called upon to lib­er­ate work­ers from their resent­ment as a harm­ful obsta­cle to pro­duc­tiv­ity, and for pseudo-sociologists, who car­ried out stud­ies of worker atti­tudes toward their work and their com­rades in order to help imple­ment the newest notions of social adap­ta­tion. The mis­for­tune of this soci­ol­ogy is that it can­not get to the pro­le­tar­ian per­son­al­ity by def­i­n­i­tion and is con­demned to remain out­side by virtue of its class per­spec­tive, see­ing noth­ing but the per­son­al­ity of the pro­duc­ing worker, a sim­ple exe­cu­tant irre­ducibly linked to the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of exploita­tion. The con­cepts used in these analy­ses, like social adap­ta­tion, have for work­ers a mean­ing oppo­site to that of the researchers (for the lat­ter, there can only be adap­ta­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions: for work­ers, adap­ta­tion implies a lack of adap­ta­tion for exploita­tion). The results gen­er­ated are worth­less. This fail­ure shows the pre­sup­po­si­tions that would shape a real con­crete analy­sis of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. It is fun­da­men­tal that the work be rec­og­nized by work­ers as a moment of their own expe­ri­ence, an oppor­tu­nity to for­mal­ize, con­dense and con­front types of knowl­edge usu­ally implicit, more “felt” than thought, and frag­men­tary. The dis­tance that sep­a­rates a soci­ol­ogy shaped by rev­o­lu­tion­ary aspi­ra­tions from the indus­trial soci­ol­ogy we have referred to is that which sep­a­rates the work of time-motion men from the col­lec­tive deter­mi­na­tion of pro­duc­tion norms in the con­text of worker man­age­ment. To the work­ers, an indus­trial soci­ol­o­gist looks like a time-motion man try­ing to mea­sure his “psy­cho­log­i­cal dura­tions” and the coop­er­a­tive dimen­sions of his social adap­ta­tion. In con­trast, what we are propos­ing pre­sup­poses that the work­ers are engaged in a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence that would tend to explode the frame­work of exploita­tion itself. The work would only be mean­ing­ful for those who par­tic­i­pate in that expe­ri­ence them­selves. Chief amongst those peo­ple are the workers.

In this respect, the rad­i­cal orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat emerges once again. This class can only be known by itself, on the con­di­tion that whomever inquires about it acknowl­edges the value of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, ori­ents him­self through their sit­u­a­tion and makes his own their social and his­tor­i­cal class hori­zons, and on the con­di­tion that he breaks with the imme­di­ately given, that is, with the frame­work of exploita­tion. This sort of work could go quite oth­er­wise with any other social group. Amer­i­can researchers have stud­ied with con­sid­er­able suc­cess the Mid­west petite bour­geoisie as if they were study­ing the Papou on the island of Alor. What­ever com­plex­i­ties were encoun­tered (we are still dis­cussing the rela­tion of an observer to what is being stud­ied) along with the neces­sity for the ana­lyst to go beyond the sim­ple analy­sis of insti­tu­tions in order to con­sti­tute some­thing of the mean­ings they have for con­crete human beings, it is nonethe­less pos­si­ble to acquire a cer­tain under­stand­ing of the group being stud­ied with­out shar­ing their norms and accept­ing their val­ues. This is because the petit bour­geois, like the Papous, have an objec­tive social exis­tence which, for bet­ter or worse, tends to per­pet­u­ate itself in the same form, one which is solidly linked to con­di­tions in the present. As we have empha­sized through­out, the pro­le­tariat is only defined in appear­ance by its con­di­tion as the col­lec­tiv­ity of exe­cu­tants within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Its actual social life is hid­den: it is at once sym­met­ri­cal with exist­ing con­di­tions and in stark con­tra­dic­tion to the sys­tem that deter­mines those con­di­tions (the sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion itself). This opens onto a role that is dif­fer­ent from that which con­tem­po­rary soci­ety imposes on it at every point.

The con­crete approach that we see as required by the very nature of the pro­le­tariat entails that we col­lect and inter­pret tes­ti­monies writ­ten by work­ers. By tes­ti­monies we mean espe­cially nar­ra­tives that recount indi­vid­ual lives, or, bet­ter, expe­ri­ences in con­tem­po­rary indus­try, made by the inter­ested par­ties that can pro­vide insights into their social lives. Let us indi­cate some of the ques­tions that we think are the most inter­est­ing that can be posed by read­ing these tes­ti­monies, ques­tions which have been shaped in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure by doc­u­ments that already exist14:

We would like to know about a) the rela­tions of a worker to his work – his func­tion within the fac­tory, level of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, and under­stand­ing of the pro­duc­tion process. For exam­ple, does he know where the piece comes from that he works on? His pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence – has he worked in other fac­to­ries, in other branches of indus­trial pro­duc­tion, etc.? His inter­est in pro­duc­tion – what types of ini­tia­tive can he bring to his work, is he curi­ous about tech­ni­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments? Does he have a spon­ta­neous sense of the trans­for­ma­tions that could be brought to the struc­ture of pro­duc­tion and rhythms of work, to the con­text and con­di­tions that shape life in the fac­tory? Does he have in gen­eral a crit­i­cal atti­tude toward man­age­r­ial efforts at ratio­nal­iza­tion? How does he wel­come attempts at modernization?

b) Rela­tions with other work­ers and ele­ments from dif­fer­ent social strata within the enter­prise (dif­fer­ences in atti­tudes toward other work­ers, toward fore­men, man­agers, engi­neers and exec­u­tives), and under­stand­ing of the divi­sion of labor. What do hier­ar­chies of func­tion and wage rep­re­sent? Would he pre­fer to do some of his work at a machine and some in an office? How does he accom­mo­date his role as sim­ple exe­cu­tant? Does he under­stand the social struc­ture in the fac­tory as nec­es­sary or at least as some­thing that “goes with­out say­ing”? Are there ten­den­cies toward co-operation, com­pe­ti­tion or iso­la­tion? Pref­er­ence for work­ing as an indi­vid­ual or in a team? How are rela­tions amongst indi­vid­u­als divided up? Per­sonal rela­tions, the for­ma­tion of small groups and the basis on which they are estab­lished? How impor­tant are these small groups for indi­vid­u­als? If these are dif­fer­ent from social rela­tions that take shape in offices, how are these per­ceived and eval­u­ated? What impor­tance does he attribute to the social phys­iog­nomy of the fac­tory? Does he know about other fac­to­ries and how does he com­pare them? Does he have exact knowl­edge of the wage lev­els attached to other func­tions through­out the enter­prise? Does he com­pare pay stubs with other work­ers? Etc.

c) Life out­side the fac­tory and knowl­edge about what is hap­pen­ing in the wider social world. Impact of life inside the fac­tory on life out­side of it – how his work mate­ri­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally influ­ences his per­sonal and fam­ily life, for exam­ple? Which milieu does he fre­quent out­side the fac­tory? To what extent are these pat­terns imposed on him by his work, or by the neigh­bor­hood in which he lives? What are the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his fam­ily life, rela­tions with his chil­dren and how he edu­cates them, his extra-professional activ­i­ties? How does he occupy his leisure time? Does he have predilec­tions for par­tic­u­lar types of dis­trac­tion? To what extent does he use mass media: books, news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema? What are his atti­tudes about them? What are his tastes… not merely what news­pa­per does he read, but what does he read first? What inter­ests him (accounts of polit­i­cal or social events, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, bour­geois scan­dals)? Etc.

d) Links to prop­erly pro­le­tar­ian his­tory and tra­di­tions: knowl­edge of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and famil­iar­ity with it; par­tic­i­pa­tion in par­tic­u­lar social or polit­i­cal strug­gles and the mem­o­ries they have left with him; knowl­edge of work­ers in other coun­tries; atti­tudes toward the future inde­pen­dently of any par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal esti­ma­tion, etc.

What­ever the inter­est of these ques­tions, it is nonethe­less impor­tant to ask about the weight attrib­uted to indi­vid­ual tes­ti­monies. We know that we will be able to gather a rel­a­tively lim­ited num­ber of texts: on what basis can one gen­er­al­ize from them? A tes­ti­mony is by def­i­n­i­tion par­tic­u­lar: that of a 20- or 50-year-old worker who works in a small plant or large facil­ity, a devel­oped mil­i­tant, some­one with exten­sive trade-union and polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, one with rigid opin­ions with­out ben­e­fit of any par­tic­u­lar train­ing or expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar… with­out resort­ing to arti­fice, how can one dis­count these dif­fer­ences of sit­u­a­tion and derive from such dif­fer­ently moti­vated nar­ra­tives lessons of uni­ver­sal import? On this point, cri­tique is largely jus­ti­fied, and it seems clear that the results it would be pos­si­ble to obtain would nec­es­sar­ily be lim­ited. At the same time, it would be equally arti­fi­cial to deny all value to these texts. First, no mat­ter how sig­nif­i­cant the dif­fer­ences amongst them, all these texts are sit­u­ated within a sin­gle frame: the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat. This allows us to see much more than the speci­ficity of a par­tic­u­lar life in the read­ing of these texts. Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alien­ation. Every worker knows this: it is what enables that sense of famil­iar­ity and com­plic­ity (even when the indi­vid­u­als do not know each other) which is evi­dent at a glance for a bour­geois who finds him­self in a working-class neigh­bor­hood. It is not absurd to look amongst these par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics for those with a more gen­eral sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, given that they all have resem­blances which are suf­fi­cient to dis­tin­guish them from those of any other social group. To this it must be added that this approach to tes­ti­monies would be sus­cep­ti­ble to cri­tique if we were inter­ested in gath­er­ing and cor­re­lat­ing opin­ions because these would nec­es­sar­ily be of a great diver­sity – but as we have said, we are inter­ested in worker atti­tudes. These atti­tudes are some­times expressed in the form of opin­ions, and are often dis­fig­ured by them, but they are in every case deeper and more sim­ple. This would present a con­sid­er­able obsta­cle were we to try to use a lim­ited num­ber of texts to infer the pro­le­tar­ian view of the USSR or of wage hier­ar­chies in gen­eral. But it is a much sim­pler mat­ter to iso­late worker atti­tudes toward bureau­cracy spon­ta­neously devel­oped from inside the pro­duc­tion process. Finally, we should note that no other mode of knowl­edge would allow us to respond to the prob­lems we have posed. Even if we had avail­able the mate­ri­als required for a vast statistically-based inves­ti­ga­tion (the data for which would be gath­ered by numer­ous com­rades who would pose thou­sands of ques­tions to other work­ers in var­i­ous fac­to­ries, given that we have already excluded any inves­ti­ga­tion car­ried out by researchers from out­side the work­ing class), the results would be use­less, because results based on responses gath­ered from anony­mous respon­dents that could only be cor­re­lated numer­i­cally would be with­out inter­est. Only responses attrib­uted to con­crete indi­vid­u­als can be brought into rela­tion with each other; their con­ver­gences and diver­gences enable the iso­la­tion of mean­ing and invoke sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing that can be inter­preted. For all these rea­sons, indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives are invaluable.

This does not mean that we would use this approach to define what the pro­le­tariat is in its real­ity after hav­ing rejected all rep­re­sen­ta­tions that have been made of its sit­u­a­tion as per­ceived through the dis­tort­ing prism of bour­geois soci­ety or the polit­i­cal par­ties that pur­port to speak in its name. A worker tes­ti­mony, no mat­ter how evoca­tive, sym­bolic or spon­ta­neous it may be, remains con­di­tioned by the sit­u­a­tion of its author. We are not refer­ring here to the defor­ma­tions that can arise in the par­tic­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tions given by an author, but rather to those which tes­ti­mony nec­es­sar­ily imposes on the author. To tell a story is not to act within it. Telling a story even entails a break with action in ways that trans­form its mean­ing. For exam­ple, writ­ing an account of a strike is not the same as par­tic­i­pat­ing in that strike sim­ply because as a par­tic­i­pant, one does not yet know the out­come of one’s actions, and the dis­tance entailed by reflec­tion allows for judg­ments about that which, in real time, is not fixed as to mean­ing. In fact, there is in this case some­thing much more than a sep­a­ra­tion of opin­ion: there is a change of atti­tude, that is, a trans­for­ma­tion in the mode of react­ing to sit­u­a­tions in which one finds one­self. In addi­tion, a nar­ra­tive puts the indi­vid­ual in an unnat­u­rally iso­lated posi­tion. Work­ers typ­i­cally act out of sol­i­dar­ity with the other peo­ple who are caught up in the same sit­u­a­tion; with­out even talk­ing about open social strug­gles, there is the ongo­ing every­day strug­gle within the pro­duc­tion process to resist exploita­tion, a strug­gle hid­den but con­tin­u­ous and shared amongst com­rades. The atti­tudes most char­ac­ter­is­tic of a worker toward his work or toward other social strata are not found in him, as would be the case with the bour­geois or the bureau­crat who see their own actions deter­mined by their indi­vid­ual inter­ests. Rather, the worker shares in col­lec­tive responses. The cri­tique of a worker nar­ra­tive must make vis­i­ble within indi­vid­ual responses that aspect which leans on col­lec­tive com­port­ments; how­ever, in the final analy­sis, these reg­is­ters do not entirely over­lap in a nar­ra­tive, with the result that we can only derive an incom­plete knowl­edge from them. To fin­ish – and this cri­tique con­nects back to the first at a deeper level – the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which these nar­ra­tives are pub­lished must be clar­i­fied. There is no eter­nal pro­le­tariat that speaks, but a cer­tain type of worker who occu­pies a def­i­nite his­tor­i­cal posi­tion, sit­u­ated in a time char­ac­ter­ized by a sig­nif­i­cant retreat of worker forces all over the world as the strug­gle between two types of exploita­tive soci­ety lit­tle by lit­tle reduces to silence all other social man­i­fes­ta­tions, as a func­tion of its ten­dency to develop into both an overt con­flict and a bureau­cratic uni­fi­ca­tion of the world. The atti­tude of the pro­le­tariat (even the atti­tude that we are search­ing for which tran­scends to some extent this par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture) is not the same in a period in which the class works with an antic­i­pa­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion in the short term, on the one hand, and one in which it is con­demned to momen­tary con­tem­pla­tion of blocked hori­zons and to main­tain a his­tor­i­cal silence, on the other.

It is enough to say that the approach that we char­ac­ter­ize as con­crete remains abstract in many respects given that the three aspects of the pro­le­tariat (prac­ti­cal, col­lec­tive, his­tor­i­cal) only emerge indi­rectly and are thereby deformed. In fact, the con­crete pro­le­tariat is not an object of knowl­edge: it works, it strug­gles and it trans­forms itself. One can­not catch up with it at the level of the­ory, but only at the level of prac­tice by par­tic­i­pat­ing in its his­tory. But this last remark is abstract because it does not take into account the role of knowl­edge in his­tory itself, as a mode of inte­gra­tion along with work and strug­gle. It is a fact as man­i­fest as oth­ers that work­ers pose ques­tions about their con­di­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for trans­form­ing it. One can only mul­ti­ply the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives, which are nec­es­sar­ily abstract, even at moments of their con­ver­gence, and pos­tu­late that progress in the clar­i­fi­ca­tion of worker expe­ri­ence will advance that expe­ri­ence. So it is not by way of a stan­dard for­mula that we say that the four approaches we crit­i­cized in suc­ces­sion are in fact com­ple­men­tary. This is not to say that their results can be use­fully added together, but rather that their con­ver­gence across dif­fer­ent paths com­mu­ni­cates, in a more or less com­pre­hen­sive man­ner, the same real­ity that we have called pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, for lack of a bet­ter term. For exam­ple, we think that the cri­tique of the evo­lu­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment, of its forms of orga­ni­za­tion and strug­gle, the cri­tique of ide­olo­gies, and the descrip­tion of worker atti­tudes nec­es­sar­ily all con­firm one another. Because the posi­tions that expressed them­selves in sys­tem­atic and ratio­nal ways in the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and the orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments that have fol­lowed one another all coex­ist, in a sense, as the inter­pre­ta­tions and pos­si­ble accom­plish­ments of the pro­le­tariat today. Beneath (so to speak) the reformist, anar­chist, or Stal­in­ist move­ments, there is a pro­jec­tion amongst the work­ers, pro­ceed­ing directly from the rela­tion to pro­duc­tion, a pro­jec­tion con­cern­ing their fate which makes these elab­o­ra­tions pos­si­ble and con­tains them at the same time. There is a sim­i­lar rela­tion to forms of strug­gle that seem to be asso­ci­ated with phases of worker his­tory (1848, 1870 or 1917) but which express types of rela­tions between work­ers that con­tinue to exist and even to man­i­fest them­selves (in the form of a wild­cat strike with­out any orga­ni­za­tion, for exam­ple). This is not to say that the pro­le­tariat con­tains by its nature all the moments of its his­tory and all pos­si­ble ide­o­log­i­cal expres­sions of its con­di­tion. Fol­low­ing on what we have been say­ing, the mate­r­ial and the­o­ret­i­cal evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat has led it to be as it is and the ways in which the past has come to be con­densed in its com­port­ment today have opened whole new fields of pos­si­bil­i­ties and reflec­tions. In ana­lyz­ing worker atti­tudes, what is essen­tial is not to lose sight of the fact that the knowl­edge obtained through it is lim­ited and that, more pro­foundly and com­pre­hen­sively than is the case with other forms of knowl­edge, while this does not under­mine its valid­ity, it must be con­nected back with the work­ers or risk becom­ing unintelligible.

Now that we have enu­mer­ated a series of ques­tions that con­crete analy­sis should enable us to answer or to pose bet­ter, we will turn to how con­crete analy­sis might reor­ga­nize and con­tribute to a deep­en­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, after first for­mu­lat­ing some reser­va­tions. The fol­low­ing seem to us the main prob­lems: (1) Under what form does the worker appro­pri­ate social life? (2) How does the worker inte­grate him­self into his class? That is, what are the rela­tions that unify peo­ple who share this con­di­tion and to what extent do these rela­tions con­sti­tute a delim­ited and sta­ble com­mu­nity in soci­ety? (3) What are his per­cep­tions of other social strata, his com­mu­ni­ca­tion with soci­ety glob­ally, his sen­si­tiv­ity to insti­tu­tions and to events that do not directly con­cern him or his every­day life? (4) In what ways does he sub­mit mate­ri­ally and ide­o­log­i­cally to the pres­sures brought by the dom­i­nant class and what are his ten­den­cies to escape from his own class? (5) Finally, what is his aware­ness of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment? To what extent does he feel inte­grated with the past of the class and what are his capac­i­ties to act with a sense of class tradition?

How could these prob­lems be broached and what would be the inter­est in doing so? Take for exam­ple the appro­pri­a­tion of social life. The ini­tial approach would be to detail the skills and tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the worker: there is no doubt about the need for infor­ma­tion that directly con­cerns his pro­fes­sional apti­tudes. But research should also be done into how tech­ni­cal curios­ity appears out­side of the work­place, in leisure activ­i­ties ( in all the forms of brico­lage, or in the inter­est accorded to sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal pub­li­ca­tions, for exam­ple) and should clar­ify the under­stand­ings of tech­nol­ogy and the indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion of work that the worker has, as well as his aware­ness of every­thing that touches the admin­is­tra­tion of things more gen­er­ally. With­out los­ing inter­est in an eval­u­a­tion of the cul­tural level of the worker (in the nar­row sense that the bour­geoisie typ­i­cally gives the term – extent of lit­er­ary, sci­en­tific and artis­tic knowl­edge), one would describe the field of infor­ma­tion to which he is open: news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema. At the same time, we would want to know whether the pro­le­tar­ian has a spe­cific way of envi­sion­ing events and out­comes and which inter­est him (whether he hears about them in the course of every­day life or reads about them in a news­pa­per, whether these are of a polit­i­cal order or, as the expres­sion goes, enter­tain­ments). The essen­tial would be to deter­mine whether there is a class men­tal­ité and how it dif­fers from a bour­geois mentalité.

We merely pro­vide some indi­ca­tions on this point: devel­op­ing them here would run us ahead of the tes­ti­monies them­selves, and these texts allow not only for an inter­pre­ta­tion but also the recon­sid­er­a­tion of the extent and order of the ques­tions involved in our approach to research. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­est of such research is evi­dent. In short, this would be a way to know whether the pro­le­tariat has or has not sub­mit­ted to the cul­tural dom­i­na­tion of the bour­geoisie and whether its alien­ation has robbed it of an orig­i­nal per­spec­tive on soci­ety. The answer to this ques­tion could either enable one to con­clude that any rev­o­lu­tion is doomed to fail­ure because the over­throw of the State would only bring back a cul­tural hodge­podge of the pre­vi­ous soci­ety, or it could allow one to per­ceive the direc­tion in which a new cul­ture may develop in the scat­tered and often uncon­scious ele­ments that already exist.

Again, we must empha­size, against the all too pre­dictable accu­sa­tions of bad faith, that this inquiry into the social life of the pro­le­tariat will not study the class from the out­side and will not reveal its nature to those who do not know it. It is a response to a series of ques­tions posed explic­itly by the worker avant-garde and implic­itly by the work­ing class more gen­er­ally in a sit­u­a­tion where a series of rev­o­lu­tion­ary defeats and the dom­i­na­tion of a worker bureau­cracy have under­mined the con­fi­dence of the pro­le­tariat in its capac­i­ties for cre­ativ­ity and in its own eman­ci­pa­tion. Still dom­i­nated by the bour­geoisie on this point, work­ers do not believe that they have any knowl­edge of their own. They see them­selves as the pari­ahs of bour­geois culture.

In fact, their cre­ativ­ity is such that there is no need for it to show itself accord­ing to bour­geois norms; their cul­ture does not exist as an order sep­a­rated from their social lives, it does not take the form of the pro­duc­tion of ideas. Pro­le­tar­ian cul­ture exists as a cer­tain power in the orga­ni­za­tion of things and an adap­ta­tion to progress, as a cer­tain under­stand­ing of human rela­tions, a dis­po­si­tion toward social com­mu­nity. As indi­vid­u­als, work­ers have only a con­fused sense of this: because it is impos­si­ble for them to give their cul­ture objec­tive con­tent in a soci­ety based on exploita­tion, they have come to doubt it and to believe in the real­ity of bour­geois cul­ture alone.

Let’s take a sec­ond exam­ple: how to describe the inte­gra­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian into the class? In this case, the ques­tion is know­ing how, within the fac­tory, the worker per­ceives those who share his work, as well as the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all other social strata; of know­ing the nature and mean­ing of the rela­tions he has with his cowork­ers; whether he has dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward work­ers of dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional grades (Pro­fes­sional, O.S., or semi-skilled, and manoeu­vre, or unskilled); whether these rela­tions of cama­raderie extend beyond the fac­tory; whether he tends to seek out work that require coop­er­a­tion. If he has always worked in a fac­tory, in what sit­u­a­tion he began to do so; whether he has con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of doing some­thing dif­fer­ent or whether the chance has ever pre­sented itself to change trades? It would be good to know whether he fre­quents milieus that are not working-class and what he thinks of them, in par­tic­u­lar whether he has inter­ac­tions with the peas­ant milieu and how he eval­u­ates it. It would be nec­es­sary to jux­ta­pose this infor­ma­tion with responses con­cern­ing quite dif­fer­ent top­ics. For exam­ple, one might use the famil­iar­ity of the indi­vid­ual with the tra­di­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment, the acu­ity of mem­o­ries asso­ci­ated with episodes of social strug­gle, the inter­est that he takes in this strug­gle inde­pen­dently of the judg­ment he might make of it (a con­dem­na­tion of a strug­gle inspired by rev­o­lu­tion­ary pes­simism and an enthu­si­as­tic nar­ra­tive of the events of 1936 of 1944 can often be found together). Or one might locate a ten­dency to the his­tory and, more par­tic­u­larly, the future of the pro­le­tariat, not­ing his reac­tions to for­eign pro­le­tar­i­ans, par­tic­u­larly to a rel­a­tively well-off pro­le­tariat like that in the United States. In other words, look for every­thing in the worker’s per­sonal life that might show the effects and sense of belong­ing to the work­ing class and also attempts at escape from from the con­di­tion of being a worker (atti­tudes about chil­dren, the edu­ca­tion they receive and projects ori­ented toward the future are par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant in this respect.)

From a rev­o­lu­tion­ary view­point, this kind of infor­ma­tion would have the inter­est of show­ing the man­ner in which a worker is joined with the class and whether his belong­ing to his group is or is not dif­fer­ent from that of a petit-bourgeois or a bour­geois to his group. Does the worker link his fate to all lev­els of his social exis­tence and, con­sciously or not, to that of his class? Can one con­firm con­cretely clas­sic, but too-often abstract, phrases class con­scious­ness or class atti­tude, and the idea from Marx that, unlike the bour­geois, the pro­le­tar­ian is not only a mem­ber of his class, but an indi­vid­ual within a com­mu­nity and con­scious of only being able to go beyond that by act­ing collectively?

Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. In this issue the reader will find the begin­ning of such a tes­ti­mony, one that leaves aside sev­eral of the points we have out­lined.15 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envi­sioned in this issue. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to impose an exact frame­work. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our expla­na­tions, and if we have pro­duced noth­ing but a ques­tion­naire, then this work would not be valu­able: a ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had. Our research direc­tions would be brought to bear even on nar­ra­tives that we pro­voke: we must be atten­tive to all forms of expres­sion that might advance con­crete analy­sis. As for the rest, the prob­lem is not the form taken by a doc­u­ment, but its inter­pre­ta­tion. Who will work out the rela­tion­ships under­stood as sig­nif­i­cant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence? This prob­lem can­not be resolved arti­fi­cially, par­tic­u­larly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the inter­pre­ta­tion, from wher­ever it comes, will remain con­tem­po­rary with the text being inter­preted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accu­rate by the reader, some­one who is able to find another mean­ing in the mate­ri­als we sub­mit to him. We hope it will be pos­si­ble to con­nect the authors with texts in a col­lec­tive cri­tique of the doc­u­ments. For the moment, our goal is to gather these mate­ri­als: in this, we count on the active sup­port of those sym­pa­thetic with this journal.

—Trans­lated by Stephen Hastings-King

  • 1. Translator’s Note: This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11, dated July, 1952. It was reprinted in the col­lec­tion Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Droz, 1971). A scan of the orig­i­nal can be con­sulted at the Pro­jet de scan­ner­i­sa­tion de la revue Social­isme ou Bar­barie. In com­pos­ing this text, Lefort used L’oeuvre com­pletes de Karl Marx pub­lished in Paris by Alfred Costes between 1948 and 1953. For rea­sons of con­sis­tency in ter­mi­nol­ogy and tone, I have trans­lated quo­ta­tions directly from the French and left the orig­i­nal pag­i­na­tion. Social­isme ou Bar­barie oper­ated in Paris from 1948-1966. This essay is part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957. My thanks to Kelly Grotke.
  • 2. Marx, La mis­ère de la philoso­phie, Costes ed, 135.
  • 3. Translator’s Note: I retain the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal term “com­port­ment” through­out this piece. The term refers to the struc­ture of behav­iors or atti­tudes toward an envi­ron­ment or sit­u­a­tion. It is sym­met­ri­cal with the empha­sis on over­all his­tor­i­cal direc­tion that one encoun­ters in this essay as well.
  • 4. Translator’s Note: I left this in French. It is asso­ci­ated with the Annales School of French his­tory. There is no good Eng­lish equiv­a­lent: I have seen “cog­ni­tive tool­box” used. The term “world­view” used in trans­la­tions of Wil­helm Dilthey’s hermeneu­tics is log­i­cally closer, even as the social-history ori­ented method­olo­gies pio­neered by the Annales School made of men­tal­ité a quite dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory that refers to a more mate­r­ial ori­en­ta­tion toward a historically-specific world.
  • 5. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 242.
  • 6. Cf. The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.
  • 7. Economie poli­tique et Philoso­phie, 34.
  • 8. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 223.
  • 9. Ibid., 229
  • 10. Ibid„ p. 229.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 230.
  • 12. I am think­ing of the work by Georges Duveau, La vie ouvrière sous le Sec­ond Empire (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1946).
  • 13. Trans­la­tor Note: The worker avant-garde is the cen­ter of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s con­struc­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. I kept the term “avant-garde” in favor of “van­guard” – an alter­nate pos­si­bil­ity for ren­der­ing the term in Eng­lish – in order to avoid con­fu­sion with Lenin’s Van­guard Party.
  • 14. Paul Romano, “The Amer­i­can Worker,” trans­lated in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1, and Eric Albert, “Témoignage” in Les Temps Mod­ernes, juil­let 1952.
  • 15. G. Vivier, “La vie en usine” in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11.

On Claude Lefort’s “Proletarian Experience”

An article by Stephen Hastings-King about Social­isme ou Barbarie's worker accounts.

The schema that ordered Social­isme ou Barbarie’s con­cep­tion of rev­o­lu­tion relied upon the close exam­i­na­tion of working-class expe­ri­ence.1 This put the group in little-explored ter­ri­tory. Even though tra­di­tional Marx­ism placed the pro­le­tariat at the con­cep­tual and polit­i­cal cen­ter of its con­cerns, its treat­ment of the work­ing class as the embod­ied expres­sion of abstract eco­nomic forces fore­closed close analy­sis of con­crete rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. It also evac­u­ated ques­tions of how the pro­le­tariat could act as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary agent by con­ceiv­ing of rev­o­lu­tion as a quasi-automatic result of con­tra­dic­tions that played out at the level of “objec­tive forces.”2 French “human sci­ences” had not yet begun pro­duc­ing researchers who took the French work­ing class as a legit­i­mate object of study. Through the 1950s, anthro­pol­ogy was dom­i­nated on the one hand by research on the “exotic,” and on the other by the con­flict between struc­tural anthro­pol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy over which dis­ci­pline “owned” epis­te­mol­ogy.3 Soci­ol­ogy, for the most part, oper­ated in a zone of inquiry that hov­ered between pol­i­tics and the uni­ver­sity. While stu­dents of Georges Fried­man, like Alain Touraine, pro­duced stud­ies of the French work­ing class in modes quite dis­tinct from American-style indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, it was only with the fail­ure of the work­ers to oppose the Gaullist Fifth Repub­lic in 1958 that the aca­d­e­mic discipline—represented notably by Touraine, Serge Mal­let and Michel Crozier—concerned itself with the “fate” of the French work­ing class.4 Only indus­trial rela­tions and indus­trial soci­ol­ogy took the prob­lem of shop-floor expe­ri­ence seri­ously. How­ever, the field was dom­i­nated by Amer­i­can researchers who, in the main, viewed indus­trial con­flict as the social expres­sion of psy­cho­log­i­cal deviance. This epis­te­mo­log­i­cal posi­tion was the direct recod­ing of the polit­i­cal world­view par­tic­u­lar to the Cap­i­tal­ists who employed them.5

Even Marx’s early writ­ings offered lit­tle in the way of a his­tor­i­cally spe­cific approach to working-class expe­ri­ence. Lefort argues that this fol­lows from the dou­ble image of the pro­le­tariat in Marx. The pro­le­tariat is a cre­ation of cap­i­tal­ism, posi­tioned at the lead­ing edge of tech­no­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional devel­op­ment. It oper­ates simul­ta­ne­ously inside the dom­i­nant bour­geois ratio­nal­ity by virtue of its social­iza­tion and out­side by virtue of the expe­ri­ence of the real­ity of exploita­tion that the dom­i­nant ratio­nal­ity