Issue 4: The State

Commune, Party, State

As it forces the matter of the political form of the people, the Paris Commune serves as a key reference point in Marxist discussions of the state. What form does the people’s self-government take? Insofar as the people precede the state, analysis of the Commune event necessarily opens up to the people’s subjectification and to the political process of which the people are the subject. And insofar as the people politicized are people divided, a part of a constitutively open and incomplete set, the place from which the people are understood is necessarily partisan. The question of the party precedes the question of the state. Until we pose the party as a possibility, discussions of the state—of whether or not we should target or seize the state—are nothing more than fantasies that cloak failure as a choice: it’s not that we couldn’t take power; we just didn’t want to.

Crowd and People

A feature of every discussion of the Paris Commune is the crowd, the people, the working class, the shocking presence of those who have been excluded from politics now in its place and the confounding of politics that results. In the Commune event, crowd and Commune overlap in an expression of the desire of the people. Interpretations of the Commune read this desire, making claims about who the people are and what it is that they want.

It’s not quite right to say that what the people wanted was the Commune: prior to March 18, 1871 clubs and associations throughout Paris had repeatedly called for elections to a new Commune. People had rioted. But the protests and dissent hadn’t yet broken the connection with the National Government. That didn’t happen until the National Government attempted to disarm the Paris National Guard and the crowd emerged to stop it. In the wake of this rupture, advocates for a new municipal government, a Commune, present the Commune as answer and object, answer to the question of the political form for Paris (and perhaps all of France) and object of the desire of the people. The people are an effect of the positing of the object of their desire. They don’t precede it. What precedes it is the crowd.

After March 18th, there would be argument over who the Commune is—the working class in power?—and what it wants, but no one will dispute the fact that the situation had turned on the actuality of an insistence and a desire. The crowd forced an opening, an interruption that changed the political setting. It ruptured suppositions of order, inciting thereby attempts to expand, enclose, and target the unleashed intensities in one direction rather than another.

That the March 18th crowd event was followed by the Commune does not mean that the crowd created the Commune or that the Commune was an expression of the constituent power of the people expressed by the crowd. The Commune form preceded the event. It was an already existent political possibility, attempted yet thwarted in revolts in October and January.1 Throughout the fall and winter of 1870-1871, militants organized as vigilance committees in the districts of Paris collected and distributed information, debated proposals, and planned demonstrations. Yet when in their attempts to establish the Commune they pushed for revolt, the people weren’t with them. In the elections following the October 31st march on the Hotel de Ville, over 322,000 Parisians voted in support of the National Government. 54,000 voted against.2 In January, only a few hundred people responded to the “red poster” calling for insurrection that was distributed by the delegation of the Twenty Districts, which “saw itself as the Commune to be constituted.”3 Later that month, even as thousands were dying from the Prussian siege, only a few insurgents showed up for a new insurrection planned for January 22. The insurrection was brutally suppressed, and the National Government cracked down on clubs, public meetings, and newspapers. The national elections held in February, however, made it clear that while the majority of the French countryside supported monarchy, the cities favored a republic. Resulting anxiety over the restoration of a monarchy, the convening of the National Assembly in Bordeaux, the Assembly’s failure to pay the National Guard in Paris, and the exodus of the bourgeoisie, not to mention the ongoing destitution of the people because of the siege, produced conditions more auspicious for an uprising. The previous efforts on behalf of the Commune established in advance the idea of what an uprising would produce even as they couldn’t in themselves produce it. Commune could name a division, “the direct antithesis to the empire,” in Marx’s words.4 Yet until the crowd created the opening for it, it was just this “vague aspiration” denoting a fundamental opposition. As antithesis and aspiration, the Commune form preceded its arrival.

The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning. It has been offered as a figure for republicanism, patriotic nationalism, federalism, centralism, communism, socialism, anarchism, even secessionism. Marx views the multiplicity of its interpretations, “and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favor,” as indicative of the thorough expansiveness of the Commune form.5 This same excess can also be read as a lack, as the gap of the political. For example, although Charles Beslay’s opening speech depicted the Commune as a municipal government concentrating on local matters, its decrees quickly encompassed national affairs. As Prosper Olivier Lissagaray observes in his definitive account, it was, “Commune in the morning, Constituent Assembly in the evening.”6 Contention over the political form of the Commune is inseparable from, indicative of, the Commune event.7

Consider reception of the Commune in the United States. It was configured through the politics of Reconstruction.8 Some in the North saw Paris as wrongfully seceding from France, just as the Southern states wrongly left the Union. Commune and Confederacy both rejected legitimate centralized government. Others in the North, increasingly mistrustful of popular sovereignty, used the Commune as an emblem of the failure of Reconstruction. An editor of the Nation railed against the “Socialism in South Carolina” that came from “allowing incompetent black men to govern and vote.”9 As he saw it, neither Paris nor the South had the political capacity to govern itself. Some Southerners embraced the parallel between Paris and the Confederacy, particularly the revolt against a repressive governmental authority. Weirdly, a former vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who became a member of Congress from Georgia after the war, identified himself as a communist in 1880. For Stephens, to be a communist means to favor home rule, the sovereignty of the local government.10. He explicitly rejects the abolition of private property, capturing communist desire in a racist ressentiment that substitutes for and attempts to displace class struggle.

Marx suggests that the Paris Commune provided a glimpse of a solution to the problem of the political form of the people. While all previous forms of government had been repressive, the Commune was a “thoroughly expansive political form.”11. Marx’s rhetoric is stirring, polemically suited to struggle over the meaning of the Commune. “Commune” named an aspiration and antagonism; it designated the alternative to the empire. Within the ongoing struggle over the positive realization of that alternative, Marx prioritizes one among the multiple interests that could see itself in the Commune form, presenting the Commune “essentially” as the political form “under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” Analytically, Marx’s account is less satisfying insofar as it is equates proletarian self-government with a federal system composed of local communes, district assemblies (composed of delegates elected from the communes), and a National Delegation of deputies sent from these assemblies to Paris. That this arrangement presented itself does not make it uniquely suited for the emancipation of labor (distributed and federal political arrangements have served bourgeois and imperial power quite well). It was the break, the disruption, and the positing of a new arrangement for governance that matters. Moreover, Marx himself acknowledges that in Commune’s governing schema rural producers were brought under the lead of the towns; it didn’t eliminate repression. To the extent that Commune names a governing body, apparatus, or schema, one containing an arrangement of offices, the rules for their maintenance and distribution, as well as of a set of dictates connecting this arrangement to the people it would govern, Commune institutionalizes some possibilities and excludes others. Marx treats the coherence it inscribed as a partisan subjectification, an event in the political expression of the working class.

In the different accounts of the Paris Commune, the referent of “Commune” is unstable. It shifts from all of Paris, to the people of Paris who voted representatives to the Commune, to the working class, to those elected to the Commune, to those who served in it, even to particular sets of voices in the Council. While a politics can and should be traced in these shifts, for this movement is nothing but the expression and enclosure of a political subject, we might also note that the fact of shifting indexes an irreducible feature of the people as non-all, non-totalizable, and never fully present to itself. It is only present as few, some, or many. The substitutionism about which Trotsky warned is not a danger particular to communist or working class parties. It’s an unavoidable condition of any popular politics with emancipatory egalitarian ends. Neither people nor class (nor movement or mass) exists as a unity; every attempt to invoke, create, or speak in behalf of such a unity comes up against an ineliminable, constitutive, division.

Instead of solving a political problem, the Commune poses one: the sovereignty of the people. Is it possible and what forms can it take? The non-all character of the people has been a consistent sticking point in democratic theory. If the people are not a unity, how can they rule themselves? How can they speak or legislate? And how do we know? The theoretical discussions take place under various headings—foundings, constituent power, and the possibility of bringing something new into being. Taking the place of the mythic social contract, the power of the people to make their own history comes up against its grounding in what cannot be other than a crime against the prior order. Marxist theory makes the prior order itself the crime. The revolutionary class gives its ideas “the form of universality” and represents these ideas “as the only rational, universally valid ones.” Marx explains, “The class making revolution emerges at the outset simply because it is opposed to a class not as a class but as a representative of the whole of society.”12 This is the sense in which class struggle is a political struggle. Rather than determined within the economic conditions in which class confronts class as two distinct forces with particular interests, the class making revolution represents its interests as general over and against the particular will of the oppressing class. More precisely, class partisans and allies struggle to present the real of the crowd’s destructive interruption as expressions of the desire of the people.

Marx premises the revolutionary break within existing conditions of production; nevertheless, Marxist theory doesn’t escape the problem of the people. Whether as the limits of working class struggle in trade union consciousness, the failure of the masses to revolt, or the betrayal of elitist, authoritarian vanguard parties, Marxist theory and communist movement run up against the disorganized, disagreeable, divided people. The people resist and evade the very forms on which their political subjectivity depends. When it appears, which isn’t often, the movement for the majority isn’t necessarily in the immediate interest of the majority. Since they can never be fully present, no revolution or revolutionary movement can actually be that of the people. It will always entail the imposition of the ideas of some upon the many.

The Commune gives form to the break with the National Government effected by the crowd even as the people’s elusive desire propels a new subjective process, that is to say, a process of inserting the people into history as an active subject and re-reading history in terms of the actions of this subject.13 Interpretations of the Commune thus grapple with how to understand the power of the people. Marx suggests as much in the letter to Kugelmann that Lenin cites in The State and Revolution: heroic party comrades in Paris are attempting “real people’s revolution.”14The multiple, opposing treatments of the Commune are not just indications of an expansive political form. That is to say, they are not simply reflections of specific features of institutional design. Rather, they underscore the irreducibility of the gap between the people and their political forms, the gap constitutive of the people’s subjectivity. Badiou writes, “The subject glides between the successive partial representations of that whose radical lack institutes it as articulated desire.”15 Badiou is glossing Lacan. What I find suggestive is the possibility of seeing in the partial representations of the Commune traces of the people as a political subject. The point here is not to celebrate multiplicity or indeterminacy. It is to see in the overlap of the Commune form and the crowd event the specificity of an emancipatory egalitarian politics. Because it is a form for the expression of the people’s desire the Commune is necessarily lacking.

Subjectivization and Subjective Process

In Theory of the Subject, a book that grew out of a seminar given from 1975 to 1979, Alain Badiou says that the Marxist tradition has given us two assessments of the Paris Commune. The first, from Marx, objectively considers the Commune in terms of the political goals of the working class with regard to the state. The proletariat has to smash the old state machinery and build new organs of political power. It has to take a place and exert force. How exactly force is concentrated, Marx neglects to explain. The second assessment of the Commune, from Lenin, takes up this concentration. Lenin brings out the subjective aspect of force. Reading What is to Be Done? for its “silent assessment” of the Commune, Badiou tells us that Lenin draws four consequences from the Commune’s defeat: “it is necessary to practice Marxist politics, and not some local romantic revolt”; “it is necessary to have some overall view of things … and not be fragmented into the federalism of struggles”; “it is necessary to forge an alliance with the rural masses”; and, “it is necessary to break the counter-revolution through an uninterrupted, militarily offensive, centralized process.”16 Lenin conceives the party by inferring a certain kind of subjective force from the Commune. In other words, he reads the Commune as an effect or consequence of a political subject and builds his idea of the party from this reading. The party is an “operator of concentration” of the four consequences, “the system of practical possibility for the assessment of the Commune.” The party provides the vehicle enabling assessment of the Commune even as it is an effect of this very assessment. Or, the place from which the Commune is assessed itself results from the Commune.

Badiou uses Lacan’s notion of the real to express the function of the Commune for Marxists. More than an historical event or political institution, the Commune serves as a concept that enables us “to think the relation of the political subject to the real.” Badiou writes, “The Marxist status of the revolutions is their having-taken-place, which is the real on the basis of which a political subject pronounces itself in the present.” The crowd rupture can be the exciting cause of a political subject, but its pronouncement or appearance as such a cause is a separate, analytically distinct, move. The crowd rupture has to be politicized, tied to a subject. The crowd provides a material opportunity for the expression of a political subject, a moment that has happened and the happening of which can be attributed to the workings of this political subject.

That’s not all. The political subject is more than the combination of event and interpretation. Badiou demonstrates that the Marxist approach remains incomplete. How event and interpretation are combined matters if an event is to be the cause of a subject. The real of the Commune event consisted in its rupture with the state, both the official state and the Marxist conception of the state. Confronted with the event, Marx was surprised. He had to change his thinking. Badiou writes, “It is by putting into effect a point of the impossible in this theory that it reveals its status as real, so that Marx, who logically disapproves of the triggering of the insurrection can only encounter in it the vanishing Parisian masses. Whence the obligation, to which he remains faithful, of being wholly on the side of that of which he disapproves in theory, so as to find the new and retroactive concept of his practical approval.”17 The people as a collective subject appeared through the disruption of the crowd insofar as there was something about the insurrection that was unimaginable prior to its enactment. The impossible happened, compelling Marx to take a stand: whose side was he on? Here was the unpredictability of an exciting cause, the people forcing a change of theory and practice. Riotous crowd, available political form, force of the impossible: the political subject impresses itself at the effervescent site of their convergence. Marx responds to this appearance of the people with fidelity. As he says in his letter to Kugelmann, no matter the Commune’s multiple tactical and policy errors, “the present rising in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection in Paris.”18.

Marx nevertheless criticizes the Commune in this same letter. After praising the elasticity, historical initiative, and sacrifice of the Parisians, he chides them, first, for missing the right moment when they failed to march on Versailles. He faults them, second, for eliminating the Central Committee of the National Guard and holding elections to institute the Commune.

The order Marx lists his criticisms is odd, seemingly backwards in that the first is a consequence of the second; the second happened first. Badiou, drawing from Lacan’s discussion of anticipation and certainty in “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty,” explains why it is not. Marx is using Versailles’s reaction (or what he imagines Versailles’s reaction would have been) to register the Commune event. Versailles’s reaction validates the hasty or anticipatory move that created the Commune. A subject had acted and Versailles had no choice but to respond. Badiou writes:

Marx judges the Commune to be precipitated—subjectivizing in its political haste—and blames it for not marching onto Versailles. But this is in order to indicate retroactively the nature of the certainty (of victory) of which this haste itself could be the bearer, insofar as it could be deciphered in the other: in the initial disorder and surprise of the inhabitants of Versailles, and in the possibility of changing the lack into reason by a second haste, that of the military offensive against Versailles. The latter would then be finally caught up in the subjective process, that is to say, in a consequent political direction, which is the only validation of the vanishing algebra of the Parisian masses into a consistent subject.

In subjectivization, certainty is anticipated.

In the subjective process, consistency is retroactive.

To put into consistency the haste of the cause: therein lies the whole enigma of the subject.19

Understanding an event as the effect of a political subject the political subject requires conjoining two operations: subjectivization and the subjective process. We will win. We will be shown to have been right. The certainty of the political subject is too soon, an anticipation of results it cannot guarantee but pursues nonetheless. Precipitous certainty, we might say, is another term for political will. Rather than an amorphous combination of multiple possibilities, which is just a description of a manifold, the subject is a direction that cuts through this manifold. The other provides evidence of this direction. The response of the other, its disorder and surprise, indicates the presence of a subject. The other’s response reads the disorder as an effect of a subject, attributing to this subject a consistency of action, purpose, and will. That the other can do nothing but respond, that it cannot proceed as it had, that it pushed, affected, is the work of the subject.

Each operation, subjectivization and subjective process, involves political struggle. Militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards try to set things in motion. They produce actions. They try to bring people out, get them to feel their collective power, and incite them to use it. They are alert to possibilities, to protests that may become ruptures. And, consequent to the gap of a disruption, militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards work to render the disruption as an effect of a subject. They fight on the terrain of the other, endeavoring to insure that the gap remains and to give this gap meaning and direction, to make it consistent. Enemies fight back. They may deny that a disruption occurred: nothing significant happened; the demonstration or event was within the field demarcated by capital and state, part of business as usual, an expected and permitted protest, child-friendly and within the demarcated free-speech zone. They may deny that the disruption was the effect of a subject: it was hooligans; it was a motley and contingent array of disparate voices (here empirical sociological data that identifies and fragments crowd elements comes in handy). They may attribute the disruption to the wrong subject, another state, class, or agency. For the militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards, establishing the collectivity as the subject of a politics, inscribing it in a process and rendering it consistent, politicizes the rupture.

Subjectification and the subjective process are connected by an anticipation and a lag. To disrupt and surprise, subjectification has to come too soon. It can’t be predicted, expected, or natural, for that would mean that it remained within the order of things. Rather than the advent of a new subject, “it” wouldn’t have appeared at all. Correlative to anticipation is a lag, a gap between a move that may or may not disrupt and the disruption as it registers in the other. The lag means that effects seem to precede their causes; only after an effect registers is its cause brought into consistency with it.

Badiou associates four “categories of the subject-effect” with subjectification and the subjective process. Anxiety and courage respond to the gap of anticipation. The former wants to fill in the void in the old order, to restore things to their proper place, to put the law back where it belongs. The latter wants to extend the hole, to force it forward in the direction of justice. Courage leaves behind (and no longer feels) the former sense of proper place. It looks ahead to the building of something new. Correlative to anxiety and courage, then, are super-ego and justice, which are themselves effects of the subjective process, reactions to the rupture of anticipation.

That perspective which gives body to the political subject is the party. Marx describes the Commune as a glorious achievement of “our party.” This is not a descriptive empirical claim regarding membership in a political organization. It is the point from which he responds to the subjectification effected by the Commune event, positioning it within a process oriented to justice.

Politicizing the people

Thirty years subsequent to his analysis of Commune, subject, and party, Badiou revises his analysis. In an essay included in The Communist Hypothesis (a slightly revised version of material presented in The Logics of Worlds), Badiou presents the Marxist discussion of the Commune in terms of the state. Rather than reading the party as the subject support of a politics, he figures it as the realization of the ambiguity of the Marxist account of the Commune.20 On the one hand, the Commune is a clear advance in proletarian struggle insofar as it smashes the machinery of the state. On the other, it ultimately fails because it smashed the machinery of the state—it’s unorganized, incapable of decision, unable to defend itself. To resolve these problems, the party takes a statist form. It is a vehicle of destruction and reconstitution, but reconstitution within the constraints given by the state.

Badiou’s rejection of party and state is familiar. Bruno Bosteels and Slavoj Zizek compellingly demonstrate the political inadequacy of this rejection. Arguing for the actualization and organization of communism in real movement, Bosteels criticizes the leftist idealism of the later Badiou’s emphasis on the pure Idea.21 Zizek likewise rejects the alternative of seizing or abandoning the state as a false one: the real challenge is transforming the state itself.22 I agree with Bosteels and Zizek. I want to add, moreover, that for us to focus on the state now is to short-circuit the discussion that matters. The left in the US, UK, and EU—not to mention communists—barely registers as a political force of any kind whatsoever. To worry about our seizing the state, then, is a joke, fantasy, and distraction from the task at hand. Rather than a concentration of political will, communist possibility remains diffuse, dispersed in the multitudinous politics of issues, identities, and moments of action that have yet to consolidate in the collective power of the divided people. What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of such a communist will.

In his effort to reduce the Marxist discussion of the Commune to the problem of the party-state, Badiou neglects the more fundamental question posed by the Commune, namely, that of the relation of the party to the people, the collective political subject. The Commune is less the form of a state than it is the form of a break with a previous state, both the state as in the National Government and the state of political incapacity associated with the workers, as Badiou himself emphasizes in the later work. As such a break, it opens up and disorders. The people are disassembled, suggestible, strong, and mobile as crowds. It is a mistake, then, to reduce the Commune to a state form and the Marxist tradition to commentary on and reaction to this state form. Badiou seems to have fallen prey to the fatalism his younger self criticizes—parties will be parties; “we will always be fucked over.”23 Particularly now, in the wake of the collapse of the socialist party-states and the generalized disarray of the left of the global north, the consolidated state power of a communist party state, should not be our concern. More pressing is the necessity of building collective power – the very problem facing the Commune that the party attempts to solve.

Marx himself analyzes the Commune in terms of the subjectification of the people. In the letter to Kugelmann, Marx treats the Parisians, the people of Paris, as “our heroic Party comrades.” Their advances are teaching new lessons in political struggle, namely, that smashing the bureaucratic-military machine is essential “for every people’s revolution on the Continent.”24 In The Civil War in France, as he presents the Commune as the “direct anti-thesis to the empire,” Marx describes it as the positive form of a republic in which class rule itself is superseded. He draws out the politics of constituting the people under the leadership of the working class, noting the replacing of the standing army by the armed people, the establishing of universal suffrage, the opening of education open to all, and, of course, the replacing of the parasitic excrescence of the old state organization with the self-government of the producers. Marx writes, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.”

The people “storming heaven” don’t preexist the revolutionary event of the Commune. The Commune produces them as its cause. The middle class, which had helped put down the workers’ insurrection of June 1848, finds itself enrolling “under the colors of the Commune and defending it against the willful misconstructions of Thiers.” Marx explains this support as resulting from the Commune’s abolition of interest on debts and extension of time for repayment. The peasantry had Louis Bonaparte, but this support started to break down under the Second Empire. Were it not for the blockade around Paris, Marx argues, the French peasantry would have had to recognize that the Commune was its only hope, its only source of release from blood tax, gendarme, and priest. Again, the temporality is important: the peasantry “would have had,” had the Commune process been able to continue, a process that Marx presents as the subjectification of the people as party.

In his discussion of the Commune, Lenin takes up a similar problematic of people and party. State and Revolution observes that the idea of “a people’s revolution seems strange coming from Marx.”25 Lenin, however, thinks this idea is crucial—and crucial to understanding the role of the party—insofar as it points to the active and independent activity of the majority, “the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation,” imprinting the revolution with their own demands. Because in 1871 the proletariat was not a majority anywhere in Europe, a “people’s revolution” had also to embrace the peasants. Lenin writes, “These two classes then constituted the ‘people’. These two classes are united by the fact that the “bureaucratic-military state machine” oppresses, crushes, exploits them.” For Lenin, where the Commune fails and where its failure impresses itself on (en-forms) the party is in the constitution of the people, that is, in actually producing the alliance between peasants and proletariat necessary for revolution. Lenin commends Marx for seeing that, insofar as the “smashing of the state machine was required by the interests of both the peasants and the workers,” it united them and placed before them a common task. Smashing the state, or eliminating a “special force” of oppression, requires that the majority (workers and peasants) suppress the minority (the bourgeoisie), which means that the majority have to be organized to carry this out. This is the role of the party: concentrating and directing the energies of the people. The party shapes and intensifies the people’s practical struggles.

Given Lenin’s interests in establishing the revolutionary action of the Russian working class within the historical trajectory of proletarian struggle, that he highlights the idea of a people’s revolution isn’t surprising. The parallel with the Commune helps him here, providing a form by which to understand the Russian 1905 revolution. In an earlier text, “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” published in 1906, he looks more closely at the revolutionary events in Moscow in December 1905.26 And while he does not look specifically at the Commune, he does highlight the action of the crowd, seeing in the crowd the march of practice ahead of theory, or, the anticipation effect of the subject.

For Lenin, the December movement in Moscow demonstrates that the general strike, as a predominant mode of struggle, is outmoded: “the movement is breaking out of these narrow bounds with elemental and irresistible force and giving rise to the highest form of struggle—an uprising.” He argues that even as the unions and revolutionary parties “intuitively felt” that the strike they called for December 7 should grow into an uprising, they weren’t prepared for this; they spoke of it as something remote. At the same time, a general strike was already contained within the parameters of the expected. The government was ready for the strike, organizing its counter-measures accordingly. These counter-revolutionary measures on the part of the government pushed the masses of people to insurrection. As the government escalated its repression, “the unorganized street crowds, quite spontaneously and hesitatingly, set up the first barricade.” Lenin traces the move from strike, to isolated barricades, to the “mass erection of barricades and street fighting against the troops.” At each point, the revolutionary movement compels the reaction to further violence, further attack, further extension and exhaustion of its troops. The workers demand more resolute action: “what is to be done next?” The Social Democratic leaders are left behind, perhaps because they are still arguing over what is to be done even as the revolutionary masses have already destroyed the previous setting of action and are rapidly creating a new one.

Lenin’s excoriating critique of Plekhanov puts “into consistency the haste of the cause,” that is, it retroactively assigns consistency to the revolutionary workers in anticipation of the certainty of their ultimate victory. Lenin writes:

Thus, nothing could be more short-sighted than Plekhanov’s view, seized upon by all the opportunists, that the strike was untimely and should not have been started, and that “they should not have taken to arms.” On the contrary, we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary. And now we must at last openly and publicly admit that political strikes are inadequate; we must carry on the widest agitation among the masses in favour of an armed uprising and make no attempt to obscure this question by talk about “preliminary stages,” or to befog it in any way.

Plekhanov failed to respond to the masses as subject; he failed to note how their haste brought into being another phase of political conflict. What if the party had not lagged behind the workers? As he makes the party the subject support of the revolutionary people, Lenin makes it responsive to the lessons they teach.

In a passage evocative of descriptions of the March 18, 1871 crowd event that made way for the Commune, Lenin praises the crowd:

In the December days, the Moscow proletariat taught us magnificent lessons in ideologically “winning over” the troops, as, for example, on December 8 in Strastnaya Square, when the crowd surrounded the Cossacks, mingled and fraternised with them, and persuaded them to turn back. Or on December 10, in Presnya District, when two working girls, carrying a red flag in a crowd of 10,000 people, rushed out to meet the Cossacks crying: “Kill us! We will not surrender the flag alive!” And the Cossacks were disconcerted and galloped away, amidst the shouts from the crowd: “Hurrah for the Cossacks!”

The party is the bearer of the lessons of the uprising. It is both the perspective from which the uprising is assessed and itself as an organization capable of learning and responding an effect of the uprising. The party learns from the subject it supports – and that it is the support of this subject is clear insofar as the subject necessarily exceeds it. Whether posed as crowd or Commune, the political form of the party cannot be reduced to a problem of the state. It must also be thought in terms of the collective subject of politics, to the subjectification of the people and their process as the subject of a politics.

In his classic account of the Commune, the French journalist and revolutionary socialist Lissagaray likewise links crowd and party such that movements in the street are legible as the actions of a subject. He describes the weeks and months prior to the Paris Commune—the defeats in the war with Prussia, negotiations toward surrender, substitution of plebiscite (an up or down vote of confidence in the provisional government) for elections, and increase of political clubs in working class areas of the city. As he does so, Lissagaray attends to poor, the working men, and the faithful children of 1789, young men from the bourgeoisie who “have gone over to the people.” In 1863, he tells us, these people scandalously affirm themselves as a class. In 1867, their demonstrations in the streets are the “appearance of a revolutionary socialist party” (which will be asserted more directly in a resolution adopted by a meeting of the vigilance committees in February 1871).27 In 1870, they alone in a paralyzed summer exhibit political courage. Yet this class, this party (Lissagaray doesn’t think it necessary to make distinctions here, implying, perhaps, the open, changing, and interconnected dimensions of each), remains unable to direct the energies of the crowd. They may be a “party of action,” but they are in a “chaotic state,” criss-crossed by different currents (and, again, “party” here suggests a collective that is part of a changing situation).28 So even as the crowd riots against the armistice, the people nonetheless endorse the government in the plebiscite that follows: 558,000 yes and 62,000 no.29 Lissagaray explains that this happened because those who were “clear-sighted, prompt, and energetic” were wanting in “cadres, in method, in organizers.”30 Jacobins like Blanqui “lived in an exclusive circle of friends.” Still other potential leaders “carefully kept aloof from working men.” Even the Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements, while “daring, eloquent” treated “everything by manifestos” and so remained “only a center of emotions, not of direction.”31

Lissagaray establishes the setting of the Commune in the challenge of responding to the opening the active crowd produces, in the consequences of the gap effected by the crowd for organizing the people. At stake is not the specificity of a form of government, municipal or national. Nor is it a matter of the legitimacy of elections, representatives, or decisions. Instead it concerns the movement from class, to people, to party, the movement at stake in politicization. The stakes of this movement, moreover, are not those of substitution, vanguardism, or domination—they are arrangements of intensity, courage, and will. The relation of the people to the party is a question of organization in the context of those who might steer the people against themselves, making them a means of a revolution not their own. Lissagaray suggests that a class enters politics as a scandal, a scandalous insistence on equality. When this insistence makes itself felt on the streets, a revolutionary socialist party appears, a party characterized by action, even by a concentration of emotions. But action and emotion, subjective capacity, aren’t enough. The capacity, to persist as the capacity of a subject, has to be organized, incorporated, into a form. Thus, the problem of the party is organizing the people in one direction rather than another, but always retroactively.

Crisis and Strategy: On Daniel Bensaïd’s “The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin”

The English translation of Daniel Bensaïd’s autobiography, Une lente impatience, is a welcome event in the Anglophone Marxist world.1 Not only does it contain a rich history of some of the most decisive moments for the French Left from the ’60s to the present, it also deepens our understanding of the heterodox sources that coexisted within Bensaïd’s unique form of Marxism. Two key chapters contribute to this theoretical approfondissement: “A Thousand (and One) Marxisms” and “Thinking the Crisis.” The former is a winding, wide-ranging intellectual mini-history of the various currents of Marxism that have been an influence on his own work, from the critical, historicist Marxisms of Lukács and Gramsci in the face of Second International orthodoxy, to the the analytical Marxist and post-workerist schools.2 Bensaïd stresses that each generation must face its own “crisis” of Marxism, thus sweeping away any “myth of a homogeneous doctrine”; it is a critical theory inseparable from social struggles and practices, and “inseparable from the history of its receptions.” From this perspective there is always a capacity for Marxism to begin anew, something that needed to be urgently reiterated and emphasized in the post-’89 conjuncture. This way of approaching the history of Marxism as an “open dogmatism” is familiar to anyone who has read Marx for Our Times, his most substantial and extensive theoretical statement.3

The latter chapter, however, reveals a side of Bensaïd that is less well-known to readers outside of France. This is a retrospective look at his memoire de maîtrise (master’s thesis) written under the supervision of Henri Lefebvre, entitled “The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin.” Parts of the thesis were recycled for a famous article in Partisans from 1968, co-written with Samy Naïr.4 With the recent launch of Le site de Daniel Bensaïd, the majority of Bensaïd’s writings are now available, including the complete version of this fascinating thesis. With an impressive range of sources and an auspicious analytic and intellectual prowess on display (coupled with a deep knowledge of Lenin’s Collected Works), Bensaïd seeks in this text to theoretically clarify the concept of crisis in Lenin and the broader Marxist tradition. While the marks of the then-current Parisian scholarly field are evident in the more Althusserian aspects of the text, it is also true that the themes he encounters here would, as Sebastian Budgen notes, “continue to goad him for the next 40 years.”5 These included the recurrent dialectical oppositions between subjectivity and objectivity, structure and event, and crisis and strategy; Bensaïd constantly, and from many different angles, tried to set these philosophical dualisms in motion through a politically charged optic. It becomes readily apparent, from even a cursory perusal of his later texts (not only on Lenin, but also his writings in La discordance des temps and Marx for Our Times) that these are concerns that stayed with him, as direct sections of the thesis will appear in his rightly praised article from the Lenin Reloaded collection.6 This an opportune moment, then – un moment propice, in Bensaïd’s evocative vocabulary – to reconsider the impact of this thesis on his career, with his critical recollections serving as our guide. This is not meant to serve as an exhaustive overview, as his corpus demands a more patient and thorough reading, but is instead intended as a brief inquiry into the reading of Lenin that this particular work opens up for us, and the ways in which the problems evident in this very early text have a continuing actuality for contemporary Marxism.7

The first question we may pose is a common problematic that can be found in previous pages of Viewpoint: what kind of Lenin does Bensaïd give us?8 How does Lenin’s understanding of the relation between theory and practice, organizational form and class struggle, state power and ultimately, the revolutionary crisis, bear on present struggles? As we will see, Henri Lefebvre’s “unfortunately neglected” book on Lenin was a major influence on Bensaïd’s own reading, primarily in its comprehensive and careful reconstruction of the connection between Lenin’s contributions to historical materialism and his advancement of a distinctly Marxist political theory, comprising both a theory of the state and revolutionary political action. Bensaïd’s text here and his later work will bear the traces of Lefebvre’s interpretation, but we will also encounter an even more intriguing and innovative fusion of these two facets of Leninism which, in an untimely fashion, endeavors to think politics both as an art of scanning historical possibilities and as a surveying of situated conflicts for moments of strategic intervention.

The second issue concerns the qualification of a revolutionary crisis being restricted to the status of a notion, not a concept. This separation is connected to the distinct difference drawn between a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary crisis. With the latter problem, there is a clear reference to the French historical epistemological tradition in Bensaïd’s analysis of how Lenin tried, and ultimately failed, to truly “establish [fonder] a concept,” understood as a definition that can hold up to the modalities of history, theory, and politics.9 There could not be, in other words, a truly scientific concept of the “revolutionary crisis” in the Althusserian sense, since its predicative characteristics necessarily had to pass through the test of practice: therefore, it could not escape the trappings of ideology and remained at the level of the notion. This line of questioning, then, involves a strict delineation between the subjective and objective aspects of a crisis (between what can be described and what has to to be accomplished through practice) through a methodological lens that is tainted by an “ultra-Bolshevism” inspired by Lukàcs circa History and Class Consciousness, with the subjective factor – or revolutionary party – as the nodal point of differentiation and decisive element. Ultimately, I will look to Bensaïd’s later writings to answer this question of the demarcation between a revolutionary situation and crisis, or notion and concept: there, he notes that possible resolution of this problem can come from seeing “crisis” as a “strategic concept,” a concept that has political implications relative to its historical and theoretical efficacy.

Lenin and Political Strategy

If we we want to gain an understanding of the basic ideas underlying Bensaïd’s dense text, it is useful to start with the “unjustly forgotten” book his thesis supervisor devoted to Lenin’s thought, La pensée de Lenine, from 1957.10 There Lefebvre embarks on an ambitious attempt to synthesize all the periods of Lenin’s thought, an approach that finds definite echoes in Bensaïd’s own panoramic view that connects “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are” to the “April Theses,” within a coherent theoretical and practical narrative. There are three features of Lefebvre’s account in particular that I want to highlight for their importance to Bensaïd: first, the consideration of Lenin’s rigorous investigation into the expansion of capitalism in the Russian countryside and the drawing out of its strategic and political implications; second, the role of the party as the principal “subjective factor” in the class struggle; third, and most significantly, the attention given to the notion of revolutionary crisis as the moment where the political, economic, and social contradictions engendered by capitalism fuse and condense to produce a conjuncture where true change is possible, when it becomes possible “to sketch the outline of another mode of production.”11 We can take these features in turn.

Lefebvre links Lenin’s body of thought as a whole to his initial investigation into the conditions of the development of the Russian proletariat: “What has Lenin contributed? A theoretical analysis of the totality [ensemble] of Russian society and its historical development – a new analysis that led him to a new analysis of the global situation itself.”12 Lenin’s Marxist stance in theory and politics – what Gramsci would call his methodological criterion – allowed him to grasp historical and societal development in all its contradictory reality. Lefebvre continues: “it was necessary to find a revolutionary formula specifically adapted … to Russian conditions, adapted to the backward countries that are predominantly agricultural.” But this agricultural basis does not diminish the role of the proletariat: “the revolution forming in Russia – and in Asia and other continents – will have Marxism as a guide, the proletariat as the leading force.”13 From his detailed study of the ongoing introduction of capitalist social relations into Russian agriculture, Lenin ensures that this thesis – “the capitalist mode of production becoming increasingly dominant in Russia” – is the focal point for his political strategy, stressing the leading hegemonic role of the proletariat in the coming revolution.14 While there is clearly (as will be shown below) a complex interplay between rupture and continuity in Lenin’s thought—chiefly based around the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse of the Second International, as well as his close reading of Hegel’s Logic15—Bensaïd will maintain even in his later work that this “foundational work of his youth… will put in place the problematic that subsequently allows him to make theoretical corrections and strategic adjustments.”16 This provides an initial yet cohesive framework that can be bent and shaped in light of the shifting terrain of conflict, as will become evident in the particular shifts that took place in Lenin’s political vocabulary and focus from 1905 to 1917.

There is a persistent emphasis, then, on the fact that political theory and practice follows from and is bound up with inquiry into actual historical developments: Lenin’s early work could be seen as a “theoretical summing up,” to use Lenin’s terms in State and Revolution, that can be referred back to for direction in future struggles.17 For Bensaïd, these early theoretical and scientific works provide a “confrontational clarity” and coherence to all of Lenin’s political interventions, from his polemical texts against the Populists, his debates within the RSDLP, and (most importantly) his conjunctural analyses of 1917. Lenin transposed, in other words, Marxist theory to a certain set of unique conditions, conditions which in turn delimited or made clear certain tactical and strategic choices. Lefebvre sees this as Lenin’s fundamental deepening or elaboration upon Marx and Engels’s own revolutionary thought; the most effective consequences of this transposition are reflected in the novelty of Lenin’s political theory, and the conceptual apparatus that is thereby established. The crucial fifth chapter of Lefebvre’s book – “Lenin’s Political Thought” – has two passages from Lenin that will serve a critical function both in Bensaïd’s mémoire de maîtrise and his later work: first, from 1917, that “the key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power;” and second, from 1920: “politics is more like algebra than like elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher rather than elementary mathematics.”18 The question of state power will always be in play when politics is involved, this is a matter of course; yet the second quotation is connected to the first, and helps to explain its deeper meaning. Politics has its own logic that is irreducible to the social order, i.e. the social relations of capitalism; Marxist politics cannot be imagined as a form of sociologism.19

For Lenin, the confusion between the political subject and the social subject – party and class – can only lead to a “disorganizing” confusion that can considerably hamper the impact of short- or long-term political strategies. There is an undoubtedly a connection between the two orders; but, as Lefebvre notes, “the perpetual relations between these two elements is also perpetually changing.” Politics reveals certain “becomings, possibilities.”20 Bensaïd will describe it in terms of “a permanent game of displacements and condensations,” whereby “social reality is manifested in political language.”21 This refraction causes the central antagonism of capitalist social reality, between capital and labor, to appear in more complex, convoluted form, thus requiring an expanded conception of political practice to navigate through these historically specific articulations. This point was also made quite forcefully by Trotsky in “Class, Party, and the Leadership,” where he polemicizes against determinist explanations of revolutionary politics. He notes that “History is a process of the class struggle,” but it also remains the case that “classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously,” as “in the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations.”22 Politics, and a form of politics based on revolutionary Marxist principles in particular, is to be conceived as a “strategic art,” traversing the interacting and shifting variables of a volatile situation. In turn, it also requires a theoretical understanding of the revolutionary political subject and the objective conditions in which it finds itself that goes beyond any and all simplifying or reductive (sociological) gestures:

The force of Lenin’s thought lies in the fact that he knew to establish, through the theory of the party, the specificity of politics as seen from the viewpoint of the working-class. His theory of organization (the party) is at the center of a conceptual network which structures this new understanding of the political field: class consciousness, relation of forces, alliances, moment (revolutionary crisis). It is with Lenin that time, duration, irrupts into politics, giving it a strategic formulation. The proletarian struggle is no longer a pilgrimage [pèlerinage] to the horizon of history, or an abstract dialectic of means and ends; rather, it is a rhythmic battle where, for the first time, there is a tactic (initiative, decision) that is not a empirical fragment the battle, but the permanent actualization of a plan, the translation of a project and a will. It is thus with Lenin that Marxism makes a real step forward in terms of political theory.23

Two concepts are crucial to this reading: on the one hand, the formation of the revolutionary party and its implementation of tactics and strategy based on the historical development and activity of the proletariat and its class allies; on the other, the objective conditions, or situational elements, of a revolutionary crisis. Once again, these concepts are of great significance for Lefebvre’s earlier study. The revolutionary party, as described in What is to be Done?, “realizes concretely, practically, the fusion of thought and action, socialism and the workers’ movement, knowledge and the mass movement.”24 The revolutionary crisis is the necessary condition for this practical realization. The crisis is the moment where the subjective and objective conditions fuse together and reciprocally condition each other, where a potentially revolutionary situation is altered and transformed by the subject which traverses it. In Lefebvre’s words, it is a “total crisis, shaking the existing society from the base to the superstructures, from the social relations of production to ideologies and juridical institutions … it is as much a crisis of daily life as it is of politics.” In brief: “no revolution without a revolutionary crisis.”25

As parenthetically noted above, the traumatic shock of the almost unanimous support given by the European Social-Democratic parties for war credits in 1914 allowed Lenin to modify as well as systematize his conceptual and practical understandings of revolutionary situations and revolutionary crises in “The Collapse of the Second International.” The revolutionary crisis became essential to his overall strategic approach, highlighting the break between Lenin’s outlook and the majority opportunist orientation of the Second International. Above all, the consideration of the “factors” that are at work within a revolutionary situation implies a reworking of the role of the party, from a pedagogical role to “a conscious project, a force capable of initiative – of decision.”26 Instead of an educative party that mainly has a clarifying task, the party becomes a “strategic operator” that is ready not only to reflect upon but also make tactical choices depending on the current relation of forces within the political struggle. And without a notion of crisis, the “taking of power by the proletariat… becomes strictly unthinkable… all avoidance of the revolutionary crisis leads sooner or later to the replacement of the perspective of revolution by a gradual and electoral process of partial conquests, substituting the movement for the goal.”27 The crisis, understood as the theoretical and practical lens through which to view political struggle, breaks up the continuity of revolutionary strategies based on economistic themes of development and growth, and keeps the question of working-class emancipation as the end goal. Revolutionary strategy now articulated a plurality of times and spaces through the analysis of concrete, conflictual situations and precise evaluations of the national and international class struggles that did not accord to any form of historical rationality, thus “combining history and event, act and process, the taking of power and the ‘revolution in permanence.’” Bensaïd will come back to this question of the crisis as a “discontinuity within continuity” in his thesis.

This emphasis on the theoretical centrality of revolutionary crisis is perhaps the most noteworthy upshot of Bensaïd’s continual engagements with Lenin’s thought, as he takes Lefebvre’s short mention of the notion’s importance to a much more rigorous level. This is clear in his balance-sheet of the events of May, Mai 1968: Une répétition générale [May 1968: A Dress Rehearsal], co-written with Alain Krivine right before the completion of the master’s thesis.28 This work contains the essentials of Bensaïd’s outline of the elements of a revolutionary crisis, as the authors analyze Mai ‘68 as an “objectively” revolutionary situation that fatally lacked a political subject to work towards its resolution–thus remaining at a “pre-revolutionary” level. The inexistence of “the subjective conditions of revolution in May,” the lack of a “sufficiently organized and politically educated political force” that could take up the project of overthrowing bourgeois power and radical social transformation, meant that there could not even be discussion of a “situation that was ¾ths revolutionary.”29 Revolution, on this view, is not a matter of percentages. Bensaïd’s reading of Lenin will stress the “interdependence” of the elements of revolutionary crises: but it is precisely this interdependence or reciprocity of conditions (i.e., subjective and objective) that make the formation of a concept of revolutionary crisis so difficult.

Lenin in the Crisis

In his thesis, Bensaïd takes the schema from “The Collapse of the Second International” as his starting point. First, he delineates the criteria that Lenin describes as essential for a revolutionary situation to take place: when there is a crisis in the policies of the ruling class; when class exploitation has grown more and more; when class struggle has become more antagonistic. But there is always a deciding factor, the subjective factor of the party and the actions of the masses in their ability to take power. As he argues, “the nodal point of the crisis is no longer located in one particular objective element, but is transferred within the organization-subject which combines and incorporates them.”30 From this basic point, common to both Lenin and Trotsky, he then complicates his analysis. There is an acknowledgement very early on in the text that there is no satisfactory construction of the “concept” of revolutionary crisis in Lenin’s work; and yet, it still serves as a singular term, one in which all of the key terms of Lenin’s political theory – many of which probably reach a higher degree of scientificity and thus conceptuality – seem to merge and interact. He sets up these basic groupings, or parallel syllogisms, modeled after the Hegelian syllogisms of existence, whereby the “singular serves as the mediation between the particular and the universal”:31

Social Formation Revolutionary Crisis Mode of Production
Subservient Spontaneity Organization – Party Class
Ideology Theory Truth

The first vertical column (social formation, spontaneity, ideology) corresponds to the particular, the middle column (revolutionary crisis, party, theory) corresponds to the singular, and the last column (truth, class, mode of production) represents the universal, or the basic concepts of historical materialism. It is the dialectical interaction of the first and third columns with the middle (singular) terms that specifically provides the historical conjuncture of a revolutionary event, with the last column reduced to, or condensed into, their most acute and antagonistic forms. So, while the revolutionary crisis can only be the crisis of a determinant social formation with all its contradictory and overlapping realities, it still lays bare the antagonistic relation between the working-class and the bourgeoisie, marking the “determinate unity of the extremes.”32 The party is what allows, in the best Lukácsian fashion, for the passage from the proletariat as the theoretical subject of the revolution to its role as the political revolutionary subject. More ambiguously, the crisis is what allows for the intersection of truth and ideology to be measured through revolutionary theory, that is, Marxism. It is through the crisis that theory can take on a practical role. As he writes later, the crisis is the moment where theory can be transformed into strategy, touching upon practice. It is, in an interesting turn of phrase, the “truth-operator of an event,” mediating and suturing the hole between continuity and discontinuity, diachrony and synchrony. A revolutionary crisis, then, constitutes a “test of truth” for these different groupings: for the social formation, by heightening the contradictions between the antagonistic classes of the capitalist mode of production; for the party-organization in that it must “take on the state” through its leadership of the proletariat, while also fighting opportunistic and reformist deviations with its own ranks; and finally for theory in that it allows for, in a historically determinant and differential manner, a “reconnection” of truth (historical materialism) and ideology (class struggle or political practice).

However, Bensaïd performs some audacious theoretical leaps to keep this intricate structure intact, not all of them effective: drawing on Freud and Lacan, linguistics (Greimas and Guillaume), as well as Lukács, Poulantzas, Bachelard, and Sartre, he tries to hold the dialectical articulation of the three groupings together. It is clear that they do not always work, and he would later disavow this theoretical structure as inevitably leading to a form of “ultra-Bolshevism” and blind voluntarism. No matter how differential or non-linear he tries to make the gap between the theoretical subject of revolution (the proletariat) as compared to its historically concrete political subject in the party, there is always an inevitable conflation of party and class within this framework. This tendency to absorb the class into the party was driven in a certain sense by the very concept of revolutionary crisis, through which one could “reconcile, in a kind of historical epiphany, the practical subject and its theoretical phantom.”33 Bensaïd was deeply critical of this “Hegelian metaphysics,” but also saw it as a product of a particular practical-theoretical milieu:

the very choice of such a theme was clearly a critique of the structuralist ideology that was tendentially dominant (at the university at least), whose ultimate consequence could be to render the very idea of revolution unthinkable. In other words: against the ventriloquist structures, everything for the subject!34

In later works, most evidently Marx for Our Times, Bensaïd would try and rethink this linked problematic of party and class, subject and object, and ultimately, the in-itself/for-itself division in more materialist and anti-historicist terms. Put otherwise, it will be his reconception of time, and its relation to politics, that will allow Bensaïd to overcome the Lukácsian problematic. The concept of the discordance of different times within the present opens up a radical critique of historical progress and the “homogeneous, empty time” that is seen as inhabiting much of the previous Marxist political tradition.35 The consequences of such a critique of historical reason for political action are evident in Marx for Our Times:

Object and subject, being and essence are bound up with one another in the development of classes. In the dynamic of class relations, the subjectivity of consciousness cannot arbitrarily emancipate itself from the structure, any more than the objectivity of being can be passively detached from consciousness. This problematic is opposed to any mechanical conception of a necessary transition from the in-itself to the for-itself, from the unconscious to the conscious, from the pre-conscious social to the conscious political, with time acting as a neutral go-between. Class consciousness and unconsciousness are intertwined in a perverse embrace, and both are consistently mistaken.36

This leads Bensaïd to posit a conception of politics based upon the uncertainties and uneven development of struggle, and most importantly, the unpredictable bifurcations of historical possibility. This is a domain that can only be charted through a form of strategic reason, “based on the interaction between theory and practical experimentation”; this idea of strategy, and the revolutionary crisis as fundamentally a strategic concept—the qualifier is absolutely essential, as it signals a political importance—is the key breakthrough Bensaïd retains from this early text.37

This returns us to to one of our guiding questions – why the insistence in this text that the revolutionary crisis was not a concept, but a notion? It is because it necessarily breaks down at the threshold of practice.38 This is a point that is reminiscent of Lenin’s explanation in the Postface of State and Revolution for the incompleteness of the text: “I was ‘interrupted’ by a political crisis – the eve of the October Revolution of 1917.”39 Revolutionary crises find their resolution and completion through a subjective intervention: it is a concept with a necessarily practical referent, a concept that is necessarily encountered on the concrete terrain of history and politics. For the Althusserianism dominant during the immediate period, Marxism was based on an epistemology of the concept, and reliant on the autonomous production of theoretical practice. There could be no subject of a science. As is well known, high-Althusserianism encountered real and unresolvable difficulties after May ‘68; it is clear that Bensaïd had already observed these and taken them into account (he maintained a critical, if appreciative, distance from Althusser throughout his career).40 The fact that a revolutionary crisis can only rise to the level of a notion – and not the “purity of the concept” – is surely attributable to the impure imprint left by one of its conditions, the revolutionary organization or subject.41 This means that instead of a concept fashioned from the concrete-in-thought, the development and efficacy of the notion of revolutionary crisis indicated a shift from theory to strategy: “the crisis then appears as the moment of rupture at which theory be transformed into the art of conflict.”42

Strategic Questions

In some of his later articles, and in the context of his own work as a militant within the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, Bensaïd deepens this shift from theory to politics—the latter informed by strategy, with an emphasis on the importance of strategic hypotheses. These mediate the exigencies of struggle and a critical understanding of previous revolutionary experiences:

We have insisted on the role of the “subjective factor” as against both the spontaneist view of the revolutionary process and the structuralist immobilism of the 1960s. Our insistence is not on a “model” but on what we have called “strategic hypotheses.” Models are something to be copied; they are instructions for use. A hypothesis is a guide to action that starts from past experience but is open and can be modified in the light of new experience or unexpected circumstances. Our concern therefore is not to speculate but to see what we can take from past experience, the only material at our disposal. But we always have to recognise that it is necessarily poorer than the present and the future if revolutionaries are to avoid the risk of doing what the generals are said to do – always fight the last war.43

From this passage we can see how the question of strategy is implicated both in the Leninist notion of revolutionary crisis and its theoretical-practical implications (the crisis transforms the place or role of theory and the party), as well as Bensaïd’s own understanding of historical time that stresses the “primacy of politics over history.”44 In a way, this is an example of Bensaïd’s heterodox historical materialism, what could be described as “the concrete analysis of historical possibility” that combines historical reflection with strategic foresight and tactical creativity.45 Revolutionary politics must have a conception of how ruptural events are historically determined. Today, when it seems that we can’t get away from the word “crisis,” this combination or merger of perspectives is more relevant than ever. Bensaïd’s Lenin invites us to ask ourselves: what is a crisis, how do we think its emergence, and what do we do about it? For what are we to do when the real crisis happens?

Disrupting distribution: subversion, the social factory, and the "state" of supply chains

Article about the global logistics industry, and the possibilities for disrupting supply chains.

The State of Supply Chains

We have entered a time of logistics space. Contemporary capitalism is organized as a dispersed but coordinated system, where commodities are manufactured across vast distances, multiple national borders, and complex social and technological infrastructures. Geopolitical economies that were previously governed largely at the national scale – even though as part of a global system of trading nation states – have been reordered into transnational circulatory systems. The global circulation of stuff is organized around the standard shipping container and the intermodal infrastructures that support its mobility across rail, road, and especially sea. Ninety percent of the world’s commodities move through maritime space, much of it in the form of containers. Like giant Lego blocks, these boxes move in vast and growing quantities, eliminating much of the human labor of distribution. Thomas Reifer goes as far as to suggest that if Marx were with us today, he would begin his analysis with the container in place of the commodity.1

Yet it is not simply the shipping container, but the modern supply chain that is carving contours of contemporary capitalism. Anna Tsing posits the rise of what she calls, “supply chain capitalism,” helpful for its emphasis on difference within structure2. She is unequivocal about the large scale of supply chains, but without sidelining the diversity of forms and experiences across space. For Tsing, “diversity forms a part of the structure of capitalism rather than an inessential appendage.”3 Difference is not only a central element of supply chains; it is through the exploitation of difference as well as its production that supply chains are consolidated. Supply chain capitalism is in effect the socio-spatial ordering of difference and unevenness at a global scale, governed through geoeconomic as much as geopolitical logics. This ordering is the domain of an understudied field that presents itself as technical and apolitical, despite its vital role in global geopolitical economy. Even the World Bank now asserts, “a competitive network of global logistics is the backbone of international trade.”4

If contemporary capitalism assumes the form of the supply chain, it is ordered by the logics of the “revolution in logistics.” This revolution transformed geographies of trade, not simply by coordinating the movement of production to new and distant places. Rather, production itself was systematized, disaggregated into component parts and distributed into complex spatial arrangements. The supply chain now supersedes the factory, which is “stretched” across a highly uneven economic and political geography. In a sense, the vast logistical network is today’s factory, and it is often repeated in the world of business management that competition today takes place on the basis of supply chains not individual firms.

Explicit “securitization” of supply chains is recent, but the entanglement of military and civilian forms is far from new. While Tsing’s is a useful way of conceptualizing contemporary capitalism – a much more material way of saying “globalization” – it tends to civilianize the field and underplay the central role of martial violence. The civilianized story of supply chain capitalism is called into question historically by scholars like Erica Schoenberger, who has argued that the rise of capitalism relied on the logistics of early modern warfare.5 Logistics had a long life as a military art before being imported into the business world in the twentieth century. As I explore in The Deadly Life of Logistics, the revolution in logistics that gave rise to a corporate management science in the post-WWII period was centrally about the mobility of calculation across military and corporate worlds – a public-private partnership that has only intensified recently.

Over the last decade, supply chains have been securitized such that disruption is managed as a security threat and policed by public and private military and civilian forces. Only a few years ago, the imperatives of national security were understood as an obstacle to trade. Security experts bemoaned what was understood as an inherent contradiction between the transnational flows of trade and the national imperatives of border security. In 2002, The Economist could exclaim that there is “a tension between the needs of international security and those of global trade.”6 Only a decade later, with the launch of the US Global Supply Chain Security Strategy, US President Obama could assert the profound compatibility of trade and security. This was a result of a rapid and extensive recasting of logics of national security in terms of how security is conceptualized, designed, and operationalized on the ground. In 2013, the World Economic Forum’s survey on “supply chain resilience” reported, “security measures and supply chain systems are increasingly co-designed to facilitate rather than disrupt trade.”7 They specifically identify the impact of the US Global Supply Chain Security Strategy in catalyzing this gestalt shift, amidst a plethora of policies and regulations implemented at multiple scales over the last decade that could now be said to constitute a global architecture of security.

Countless critical security scholars have highlighted the rise of a shifting cartography of security that is no longer anchored in national territoriality. Marc Duffield maps a geography of imperialism defined by “nodal bunkers, linked by secure corridors and formed into defended archipelagos of privileged circulation.” Duffield emphasizes the ways in which “secure corridors” delineate “global camps” offering a networked map of the world that is also a map of logistics space, without calling it such.8 Martin Coward insists that critical infrastructure – long the target of warring states – has become profoundly constitutive of the contemporary global city.9 Warfare today, following the geography of circulatory systems, is defined by its urban and transnational cartography. But it is logistics that perhaps most clearly maps the geography of imperialism today. It is no accident that the supply chain of contemporary capitalism resonates so clearly with the supply line of the colonial frontier. It is not only striking but diagnostic that old enemies of empire – “Indians” and “pirates” – are among the groups that pose the biggest threats to the “security of supply chains” today.

Disruption as Threat and Tactic

If the supply chain stretches the factory across the corridors, nodes, and seams of logistics space, it is a system that is extremely vulnerable to disruption. Far from a mark of its strength, the securitization of logistics marks its vulnerability. It is precisely because of the potency of disruption that we have seen the assembly of this new architecture of security. The World Economic Forum highlights how the very material form of supply chains – the distributed nature of distribution networks – means that disruption can easily become systemic. They explain, “systemic risks are created or magnified by the way supply chain systems are configured… In today’s globalized and interconnected world, any major disruption… has the potential to cascade through supply chains and permeate other systems.” Using a database created by the US National Counterterrorism Center, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) tracks more then 68,000 incidents worldwide from its founding in January 2004 through April 2010.10 They report on the steady increase in supply chain attacks, which reached 3,299 in 2010, despite post-2001 securitization. The Panalpina study has been tracking global logistics outsourcing for the past 17 years.11 In their 2013 3PL Logistics Study they assert, “Economic losses from supply chain disruptions increased 465% from 2009 to 2011, reaching a staggering $350 billion.” The salience of disruption in key nodes and chokepoints of circulatory systems in an era of just-in-time logistics is heightened, and yet disruption has long been a powerful tactic of social movements of different stripes.

There is precedent for the contemporary power of disruption across vastly uneven imperial networks. Strikes, blockades, and occupations clearly all have long histories. In their prescient engagement with the “many-headed hydra” of the early Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker investigate the geographies of exploitation, dispossession, and circulation that not only made imperial rule possible but which also brought disparate groups into relation – sometimes intimately and sometimes instrumentally.12 They describe the unlikely ways in which these imperial cartographies also provided a skeleton for the emergence of a surprising flesh of connections across vast spatial networks. Precisely because the organized violence of empire threw spatially dispersed social orders into heterogeneous relations of rule – through exploitation, slavery, incarceration, and colonization, for instance – it also brought oppressed peoples into relation differently. Without guarantee or even intentionality, these relations could at times produce creative solidarities. “Sailors, pilots, felons, lovers, translators, musicians, mobile workers of all kinds made new and unexpected connections,” they write, “which variously appeared to be accidental, contingent, transient, even miraculous.” Connections forged through the violent infrastructures of relations of rule may become the connective tissues of alternative futurities, when occupied differently.

These lessons are instructive and help focus our attention on the widespread resistance that characterizes our era of supply chain capitalism. Reading Linebaugh and Rediker raises the question of the constitution of today’s hydra. Social and labor movements are acting in ways that exploit the specific vulnerabilities of logistics systems – occupying strategic sites in the infrastructures of circulation, as well as organizing creative coalitions across diverse social and spatial locations. One of the most potent forms of disruption to supply chains comes from logistics workers. As Jo Anne Wypijewski asserted at a longshore workers convention in 2010, “The people who move the world can also stop it.”13 And indeed they do. Supply chain security managers repeatedly highlight labor and industrial disputes as the top sources of disruption. These are often assessed interchangeably with disruptions caused by acts of terrorism. For instance, PwC outlines how labor actions in supply chain chokepoints provide a useful proxy for the effects of terror. They use a 2002 lockout in West Coast US ports with its estimated costs of $1 billion per day as a proxy for the impacts of terror attacks in key logistics hubs. As I have detailed elsewhere, logistics workers are also subject to exceptional security measures aimed to pre-empt disruption in ports and transport corridors.14

Over the last decade, there has been a surge of labor actions targeting transportation networks around the world. From Busan15 to Shezhen,16 Chittagong,17 Sokhna,18 Johannesburg,19 Piraeus, Tangiers,20 the Panama Canal,21 and across the West Coast of North and South America,22 workers are taking action at inland and maritime ports, and within massive logistics companies like DHL, DP World, Fed-Ex, Amazon, and Walmart. It is the supply chain itself – its spaces, infrastructures, and flows – that unites these actions. State and corporate efforts to make supply chains more “efficient” through privatization of infrastructure and employment, the gutting of conditions of work, and the increasing securitization of management are also common provocations. It is precisely to fight these sorts of developments that organizations like the International Transport Federation (ITF) and Union Network International (UNI) have been supporting transnational organizing and bargaining efforts like their “Global Delivery” campaign. The campaign works for rights and standards for all workers, “regardless of country or employment status,” by connecting activists within multinational logistics companies.23

While the logistics system is distributed, it is also highly uneven; some nodes and networks are more critical in terms of global circulation then others, meaning some nodes are also more vulnerable than others. As one conservative media outlet analyzing the power of West Coast dockworkers in the United Stated suggests, “The modern, just-in-time global economy is often analyzed as a threat to workers because fluid international markets mean that jobs can be outsourced anywhere. Overlooked is the fact that when companies depend upon international logistics, they are at the mercy of workers who run the cargo network.” Stephen Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, outlines the role of logistics as the critical infrastructure for contemporary capitalism. “This is not just another industry like aluminum or tires, or even automobiles,” he suggests, “It’s more like utilities. This affects the whole economy very broadly and very quickly.”24 Describing the complex organization of supply chain capitalism, Cohen explains, “At some point you start running out of parts, and the factory stops, and the factory that relies on that factory for components stops, and you have a chain reaction that’s really rather a nightmare.” It is not just cargo workers in general that are identified in the article, but the ILWU specifically, “which represents 25,000 dockworkers at 29 Pacific coast ports, [and] is simultaneously the most politically radical, materially comfortable and economically significant group of US workers.” Indeed, the ILWU is exceptional within the US labor movement more broadly, with a strong tradition of internationalism, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-apartheid organizing, initiatives on gender equity, and for the rights of undocumented workers. They have not only taken powerful stands against the national security state and the speeding up of global trade, which have seen them branded a threat to US national security and subject to the use of the Taft-Hartley Act; they have also taken a lead in organizing across supply chains.

Labor actions are of undoubted significance to the flows of global trade, but so are the protests of many other groups whose lands and livelihoods stand in the path of logistics space. In fact, one of the best maps of the resistance of diverse groups that disrupt logistics space are supply chain security reports and policies themselves, which in addition to “industrial disruption,” alternately cite “pirates,” “terrorists,” “indigenous blockades” and the generic “political disruption” as key risks. Supply chain security documents offer valuable inventories of old and new enemies of empire. In the first ever textbooks on the topic of supply chain security, two entire chapters are devoted to the “threat of piracy” focusing on the Gulf of Aden and the so-called “crisis of the Somali Pirate.” As one author explains, “waters off the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia have proved to be a dangerous area that threatens the shipping industry with the offense of piracy.”25 This is despite the fact that so-called Somali pirates have organized in response to the patent disregard for anything approaching international law by individual nations, the EU and the UN in toxic waste dumping and direct military aggression in Somalia. In fact, I suggest that it is in the violent experiments being conducted in the Gulf of Aden under the banner of the crisis of Somali piracy that important new spatial logics of imperialism are being coded in international law.26

According to the Panalpina report, topping the list of “global risks with the potential to cause system-wide disruptions” are “natural disasters and extreme weather” and “conflict and political unrest.” The report cites the Icelandic Volcano eruption, the “Arab Spring” and “the on-going social turmoil in Europe and South Africa, which led respectively to oil price increases and labour strikes” as the most disruptive events of 2011. The “Arab Spring” is not typically thought about in the context of supply chains, but it is especially difficult to overlook the ever-present politics of the Suez Canal – one of the most important spaces in the global architecture of trade flow. Canal and dockworkers were critical in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; on February 8, 2011, more then six thousand Suez Canal workers at five service companies initiated a wildcat strike in the cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia. Dock workers followed suit, stopping work at the key port of Ain Al Sokhna, disrupting Egypt’s vital sea links.

Jumping far across space but not time, we could also look to Occupy Oakland in California, where the movement demonstrated some of its most aggressive and sustained analysis and action, and here the port was central. Oakland’s Occupy movement builds on long traditions of radical organizing around a variety of issues, most notably antiracist and labor organizing. Referring to the Oakland port as “Wall Street on Water” in 2011, organizers drew connections between the dramatic decline of the city and the booming prosperity of the port. With the city facing economic crisis, the port was bankrolling revenues of $27 billion per year while operating rent-free on public lands. The city’s financial crisis (acute enough to provoke the closure of public schools) was in part a result of Goldman Sachs’s predatory lending in financing Oakland’s debts. Occupiers drew many lines of connection between finance capital and commodity circulation, one of the most direct connections being Goldman Sachs’s majority ownership of global shipping company SSA Marine, one of the main port operators in Oakland. It was, furthermore, right around this time that the Oakland Army Base (OAB) – once the world’s largest military port complex – was preparing to transform into “a world-class trade and logistics center.”27 The project is led by ProLogis – the world’s largest owner, manager, and developer of distribution facilities. Plans for “Oakland Global” – the military base-cum-logistics facility’s new identity – were solidified when ProLogis and partners were promised hundreds of millions in grants from city, state, and federal government.

The “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” movements ignited in 2011, with “Idle No More” following closely in 2012. This grassroots movement galvanized a renewed energy of organizing and claims-making in indigenous communities, first in Canada, and then across the settler colonial world. And indeed, this activism has often assumed the form of blockades of rail and highway corridors, making indigenous resistance a key concern for corporate and state security managers north of the 49th parallel. Groves and Lukacs,28 Pasternak,29 and Dafnos’s30 work on the securitization of indigenous resistance exposes the surveillance of indigenous movements by the Canadian state, working in concert with extractive and logistics industries. Of particular concern to this public-private security partnership are the “coordinated efforts of First Nations across the country” and the “economic cost of even a few hours of such coordinated efforts.” Pasternak also highlights a third concern that haunts state and corporate joint efforts at securitization, “that solidarity and coordination between non-natives and Indigenous peoples will encourage the movement to build.”31

Disrupting Futurity

Dismissive accounts of any of these efforts abound that diagnose them as momentary, isolated, or failed. Yet, the supply chain security world refrains from such confident assertions and instead works to secure their failed futurity. No doubt, these movements have encountered limits and obstacles of all kinds, but we might consider them differently to appreciate their enormous potential. In place of a simple assessment of their individual impact in a moment, we might consider their cultivation of networks of resistance that take shape through the geographies of supply chains they seek to contest. Both the networked space and networked relations of supply chain capitalism can be occupied and activated differently. As Linebaugh and Rediker highlight historically, and as Pasternak shows in the present, one of the greatest fears of state and corporate security experts is the aligning of forces across movements. Indeed, a fascinating world of collaboration is underway which can constitute these socio-spatial alternatives. Elaborating on these forms requires engagement with the questions of both disruption and futurity, an engagement that I can only briefly hint at here.

In the world of organized labor, inspiring coalitions are emerging specifically to tackle the challenges of supply chain capitalism, coalitions which themselves are organized along supply chains. A key organizing challenge, and also a mark of their creativity and strength, is the dramatically uneven relations of power along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and status that make workers of the world as different as they are alike. One impressive example of these efforts is the work of the American labor movement forging coalition with Iraqi Dock and Oil workers. This 2008 action marked the first time ever that an American union has struck against a US war. The union rank and file defied the rulings of an arbitrator, who twice ordered them to go to work. The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) declared the May 1 port shutdown an “illegal strike.” The action was felt all the way to Iraq, where workers from the General Union of Port Workers in two ports stopped work in solidarity with the ILWU for an hour. A May Day message from the General Union of Port Workers in Iraq to the “brothers and sisters of the ILWU” acknowledged the organizing and solidarity.

Logistics labor has also been active in organizing efforts with other social movements. Some of the best known and most interesting initiatives have seen ILWU collaborate with various Occupy sites around ports. It would be easy to oversimplify complex conversations, but at stake are the distinct interests, experiences, and desires emanating from very different movements – neither of which are anything like internally homogenous. On the one hand, organized labor has decades of experience in movement building, but also relative material comfort, and a stake in the very logistics system to be disrupted. On the other hand, the often younger and less resourced activists are typically also less experienced working in the very kinds of complex coalitions they aimed to build. In telling me about the “failed effort” at a coordinated action in 2011, one ILWU member from Vancouver who acted informally as an intermediary between these movements because of their extensive activist work in the ILWU, the broader labor movement, and feminist, queer, and anti-racist organizing, outlined for me how these different class positionalities and organizing styles, combined with a limited political education around racism, colonialism, and sexism among the largely younger “occupiers,” helped to dissolve that coalition. However, when questioned further about the outcomes of those efforts, they also discussed the lasting effects of these events in terms of coalition building. In fact, they described lasting initiatives around anti-oppression training and education across generations of activists. This lively and intensive organizing work is an achievement in itself while also heralding alternative possibilities for more meaningful action and collaboration in the future. And indeed, we are seeing important organizing work in many of these same ports in response to the summer 2014 assault on Gaza in the “Block the Boat” movement that has been especially active in the port of Oakland, disrupting the Israeli shipping line Zim and preventing it from unloading in August 2014.32 Describing the initiative as “raising the bar” on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement by engaging in direct economic disruption, the “Block the Boat” movement understands its work as profoundly coalitional:

We have learned from the freedom fighters that ended apartheid in South Africa. We are committed to the values of worker solidarity and the legacy of ILWU who have always waged struggles for justice from the memories of Bloody Thursday to their solidarity with the anti apartheid movement in South Africa in 1984. We are inspired by the resistance to state violence by our brothers and sisters from Ferguson to Oakland. And from the ports of Long Beach, Tampa, New York, New Orleans, Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma and Oakland, we are holding the US government accountable for its role in making Israel possible.33

Occupy has been in a host of creative conversations that rarely make it to mainstream media. Indeed, across its diverse local iterations, the movement encountered extensive critique about racism, sexism, and especially colonialism in its conceptual and practical efforts, signaled immediately by the frame of “occupying” occupied lands. The New York movement engaged in dialogue with groups like “Take Back the Land” – a group of organizers of color involved in reclaiming foreclosed homes in US cities, who work in solidarity with US indigenous groups.34 And on the anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, it was the Sylvia Rivera Project that led a teach-in on the site; transgender activists made powerful statements that connected contemporary economic, racial and gender oppression to the histories of settler colonialism and the slave trade in that same area of lower Manhattan. And indeed, the work of Occupy NY increasingly became tied to the longer-term labors of environmental justice initiatives in post-Sandy relief efforts. “Occupy Sandy” turned its attention to the work of community organizing in low income racialized neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Far Rockaways, Queens. In highlighting alternative trajectories and the people who have labored towards their potential I do not intend to minimize the problems of the politics of “occupation” or the specific struggles between different movements. Rather, recalling these efforts and labors of transformation marks the work of indigenous and antiracist activists who devoted their time, skill, and spirit to these conversations.35

Perhaps more than any other, it is Idle No More that has demonstrated an incredible flair for creative translocal coalition. Idle No More has inspired and connected to anti-pipeline activists in Houston, Palestinian activists in the occupied territories, LGBTQI organizing, and migrant solidarity activists in many places, and has provoked increasing settler solidarity in many forms. Indeed, the Idle No More movement website makes these coalitional politics a cornerstone of the movement by highlighting efforts to engage the “contemporary context of colonialism, and provide an analysis of the interconnections of race, gender, sexuality, class and other identity constructions in ongoing oppression,” and explicitly invites “everyone to join in this movement.”36

I call these coalitions “queer,” intending a playful reference to the seemingly strange nature of the alliances borne out of supply chain capitalism, but also to gesture at the actual LGBTQ organizing and theorizing that has been so lively within many of these movements, and which has engaged the politics of alliance so centrally. Cathy Cohen has made powerful claims about the necessity of coalition in queer politics, arguing that the promise of queerness is a politics in which, “one’s relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades.” For Cohen, nonnormative and marginalized political position is the basis for “progressive transformative coalition work.”37 In a conversation about queer-Palestinian solidarity work, Judith Butler suggests: “I think acting in coalitions means finding a way to struggle with other groups where some disagreements and antagonisms remain in play. I am not sure all disagreements need to be solved before we agree to enter a coalition.”38 Butler frames this approach to coalition not as a liberal choice, but as a political necessity. “Some of us are ‘coalitional subjects’ without any choice, and other times we work with people with whom we disagree because certain notions of political equality and justice bring us together.” Conversations within and between movements are often aimed specifically at developing more sophisticated analysis of how differently located peoples experience and engage violence and envision possibilities for alternative futures, and this is key to the work of transforming systems of oppression. It is telling that for Butler, “it is only after people have worked with one another that those antagonisms become less defining or important.” There is further an intimacy between questions of queerness and those of futurity, taken up most artfully by the late Jose Muñoz. Queerness, he asserts, “is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality of concrete possibility for another world.” Queerness brings the future into the present as a deliberate object of scrutiny and action for transformative politics, and a conceptual focus on futurity works in coalition with the kind of movement building work highlighted above. Muñoz writes, “we must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”39 Queer coalition insists that alternative futurity is ripe for cultivation in our violent present.

It is perhaps in transformative alliance that works from and through difference, and which insists that subjects and groups might change, that meaningful “disruption” occurs. The common sense notion of disruption equates it with the act or effect of disabling something, in this case material circulation. In this conception, to disrupt is to stop the normal workings of things for some period of time or in some space. No doubt this is an important way of conceiving disruption, and acts of this kind can produce the kinds of effects detailed above. Yet there are other ways of conceptualizing disruption that have more productive connotations. Disruption can also signal a creative destruction that brings new possibilities into the world, as old or normative ways are brought to a halt. This is, in fact, a dictionary definition of the term. Indeed, as Toscano insists, “it is also possible, and indeed necessary, to think of logistics not just as the site of interruption, but as the stake of enduring and articulated struggles.”40 A vision of today’s many headed hydra as coalition on these terms responds directly to Tsing’s arguments about supply chain capitalism as a structure assembled through difference.

If logistics is essentially about networks that provision and sustain both human life and the non-human animals, machines, and infrastructures that constitute our ecologies, then it is in fact not a practice, industry, or assemblage that could ever be ceded to the corporate and military worlds that today work and fight under its banner. Provisioning and sustaining are also the labors of social reproduction that gendered and racialized peoples and social movements have always done. Alongside its military and corporate forms – in fact, provoked directly by these – we can see explicit take-up of logistics by disruptive movements in an alternative register. Now a critical element of social movements from social forums to the Occupy movement, logistics is also a field that activists are actively exploring investing in further for the future.41 Logistics is not only the calculative technologies and material infrastructures that order the global social factory. Today, logistics also renders a complex network of coalitions through which disrupted futures of distribution are assembled.

Europe Forged in Crisis: The Emergence and Development of the EU

“Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” – Jean Monnet

These are turbulent but confusing times in Europe. The Great Recession has taken a serious toll. In Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain (the PIIGS), intervention by the EU in domestic policy seems unprecedented. Portugal, Ireland, and Greece were forced by financial markets into bailout agreements with the “Troika.”1 In Italy, under the watchful eyes of Europe, the unelected technocratic government of Mario Monti replaced the elected government of Silvio Berlusconi – and not a single member of this new technocratic government was elected. Spain negotiated with the Troika, but was saved by changes in the financial markets.

The EU’s intervention has not been restricted to the so-called European periphery. In the Netherlands, the government fell in 2012 under pressure from the European Commission to implement major spending cuts. The subsequent government did as it was told. In France, in the summer of 2014, the Prime Minister presented the resignation of the entire government to the president, in protest over the implementation of the austerity programme demanded by the EU.

The political reaction has been fierce, with demonstrations, riots, and occupations a frequent occurrence across Europe. There has also been an electoral backlash. In the UK, France, and Denmark, the far right topped the polls in the 2014 European Parliament elections, while in Italy, the Five Star Movement led by the clownish Beppe Grillo came second. Across Europe few governments now last more than one term. Jean Claude Junker, then Luxembourg’s Prime Minister and now the incoming President of the European Commission, lamented: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” But the story can be told equally well in reverse: we all oppose what you’re doing, but even when we elect someone different it keeps being done.

This phenomenon whereby policies are decided by Europe, implemented nationally, and contested helplessly is not as new as it may seem. We need only think of the Juppe plan in France in 1994, which led to France’s largest strike wave since 1968. This was just an early example of a government implementing hated policies in order to meet an EU target. What is new is that with the current crisis, this is not happening in one or two countries but across the EU simultaneously.

Although the EU is not new, and its role in determining the economic and political development of Europe is both substantial and well established, critical analysis of the EU is sorely lacking. Most of what is written on the EU is uncritically liberal and focuses on diplomatic and legislative detail.2 What little critical literature exists often simply interprets the EU in terms of the function it plays for neoliberal globalization. At one extreme, it is portrayed as a transnational capitalist conspiracy, while at the other extreme the critique is limited to identifying the wrong policies: too much liberalization, privatization, etc.3 When analyses of the EU go from what it does to the larger questions of what it is and why it exists, analysis often becomes completely un-rooted. We see nonsense claims about the idea of a united Europe across time, sometimes extending to hagiographic accounts about the founding fathers of Europe.4 At times it is truly absurd: Europe is a bastion of social democratic anti-imperialist capitalism in distinction to the USA.5 Other times more intriguing claims are made, such as the argument that the EU is a neo-medieval state like the Holy Roman Empire!6

Curiously the question of whether the EU is a state or not and, if so, what kind of state is it, rarely connects the development of the EU polity with what has been at its core: economic integration. The state is treated as though its existence and form can and should be understood separately to the question of the economic reproduction of society.

Instead, I will try to address the emergence and development of the EU as a new political form by focusing on the underlying process of economic integration: why was economic integration needed and why did its establishment involve the creation of the EU? Pursuing this question will allow us better understand what the EU is in relation to the state, how it developed, and what it does.

European integration should not be understood as a steady and continuous progress towards “ever closer union.” Rather, we need to understand the development of the EU as an iterated process of dealing with crises of capitalist reproduction that arise from working class power and the threat of working class autonomy. This iterated process can be seen then as having two waves, the first one emerging in the late ’40s and ’50s, the second emerging in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and continuing to develop ever since.7

I: Economic Regulation and State Form

In order to root my analysis of the relation between the form of political institutions (the EU and the national state) and the economy, I want to begin this article with a brief theoretical consideration of this issue. I would like to step back from Europe and discuss the nature of the state and its relation to economic regulation over a much longer time frame. I draw substantially here on both, what Benno Teschke has called the “theory of social property relations”8 and on the state derivation debate in the 1960s and 70s.9

The question always facing materialist social analysis is: “how does a society reproduce itself?” The answer to this question differs across history, but in every society central to the question of how a society reproduces itself is the question of the extraction of surplus labor.10

In pre-capitalist forms of society the extraction of social surplus occurs primarily under threat of direct violence.11 For example, a peasant worked a corvée for their lord because that lord could directly threaten violence on the peasant. Importantly, here both economic power (the power to buy, sell and exploit) and political power (the control of violence) are united in the one person, the lord, whereas under contemporary liberal capitalist society these powers are separated. With the separation of economic and political power, the exploiting subject that extracts surplus labor no longer directly or personally holds the threat of violence. Under capitalism, this exploiting subject, i.e. the capitalist, is the subject of a logic of accumulation through exploitation independent of the use of violence, but which requires a form of violence equally independent from the process of exploitation. This mutual requirement of independence is symbiotic. Neither the economic nor the political can exist or be understood independently of the other, despite their necessary mutual independence.

This independent process of exploitation occurs through a seemingly non-violent form of legal contracting. This free contracting involves the capitalist paying the worker the value of their labor-power, which is less than the value of the goods they produce. However, despite the apparent political neutrality of this contract, workers engage in it is because they lack independent access to the means of production. Therefore, they are incapable of satisfying their own needs and desires except by selling their labor-power to an employer. This of course raises the question: “why do workers not have access to the means of production?” The well-rehearsed answer is that the means of production are the private property of the capitalist, and this private property is publicly enforced through the public power of state violence. This returns us to the bifurcation of social power into private, economic power to contract and public, political power to enforce contracts. The economic power to buy, sell and, most importantly, to exploit, and the political power to enforce, are separated under capitalism. Through the separation of the political power of enforcement, economic power takes on a natural semblance devoid of force. The violence that is involved in ensuring the operation of capitalist processes of exploitation is separated into the sphere of the state.

The fundamental characteristic of this separate political sphere of the state is its control of violence. But what this violence is there for is to ensure the operation of capitalism. It is to ensure that seemingly neutral property rights exist. These property rights are ensured through the creation of laws and regulations regarding the operation of these property rights and through the use of violence to maintain the operation of these laws and regulations. However, as this political sphere is where laws and regulations are decided, they are also where these property relations can be contested and feasibly changed.12 The state is therefore simultaneously the institution through which the legal framework of capitalist reproduction is put in place, the violent organization that enforces that framework, and the institution through which antagonism to capitalist reproduction can be mediated. The state mediates class antagonism by being the institution that implements the legal framework through which class relations are maintained. To reiterate, we can point to three aspects of the state, firstly, a legal framework for exploitation to occur, secondly, a medium for the mediation of class antagonism, and finally, a means through which these property relations are violently imposed and maintained.

This framework will help us understand the changing nature of the state in the twentieth century, with the increasing incorporation and mediation of class conflict within the state. And it will help frame the fundamental argument of this article: that the development of the EU needs to be understood as a bifurcation of the state, where the regulation of capitalist reproduction takes place at a European level, while the mediation of class antagonism and the enforcement of these regulations remains at a national level.

II: The creation of the EEC (1914-1957)

The Crisis of the Interwar Period

By 1945 Europe had experienced over 30 years of chaos. Beginning in 1914, the continent had seen over 10 years of war, and 70 million deaths. The 21 interwar years were marked by permanent volatility, with extreme economic and political crises. It was from this chaos, and more specifically the crisis of the postwar years, that European integration was born.

World War I marked the end of the long period of peace, liberalism, free trade, and unprecedented economic growth that defined 19th century Europe. There were therefore repeated attempts after the war to return to the 19th century order. But they all failed, and the economy slumped. Growth of GDP per capita in Western Europe between 1913-1950 was 0.8% per annum, lower than any period between 1820 and 2000.

Table 1: Growth of real GDP per capita, 1820-2000 (Average annual compound growth rate)

1820-1870 1870-1913 1913-1950 1950-1973 1973-2000
Austria 0,7 1,5 0,2 4,9 2,2
Belgium 1,4 1,0 0,7 3,5 2,0
Denmark 0,9 1,6 1,6 3,1 1,9
Finland 0,8 1,4 1,9 4,3 2,2
France 0,8 1,5 1,1 4,0 1,7
Germany 1,1 1,6 0,3 5,0 1,6
Italy 0,6 1,3 0,8 5,0 2,1
Netherlands 1,1 0,9 1,1 3,4 1,9
Norway 0,5 1,3 2,1 3,2 2,9
Sweden 0,7 1,5 2,1 3,1 1,5
Switzerland NA 1,5 2,1 3,1 0,7
UK 1,2 1,0 0,8 2,5 1,9
Regional Average 1,0 1,3 0,8 4,0 1,8
Source: Barry Eichengreen, The European economy since 1945, 17.

In addition to economic failure, the period was one of extreme political volatility. Immediately after the war there was the revolutionary wave, which in many ways continues to define the ideational identity of the radical left. This wave coincided with the expansion of suffrage, the rise of mass parties and mass unions, increased democratization of the state, and the politicization of the economy. In Russia this revolutionary movement took state power, while in Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece, and Portugal the fascist counterrevolution took state power. In other countries the high levels of class conflict lead to the creation of some form of democratic corporatism: the Basic Agreement in Norway (1935), the Peace Agreement in Switzerland (1937), and the Basic Agreement in Sweden (1938).

As World War II approached it was widely expected that the crisis of the interwar years would continue unless there was some final resolution. For the Axis powers this solution was the victory of the Third Reich. But others had different hopes. On the Left, many believed that World War II would end with a revolutionary wave greater than that at the end of World War I. Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International with the explicit aim of acting act as the “head of the revolutionary tide” which would inevitably follow the war.13 For leaders of the allied nations, it was equally clear that postwar reconstruction could not follow the same path as after World War I.

In August 1941, Winston Churchill sailed to Newfoundland to meet with President Roosevelt to agree on the “Atlantic Charter,” an eight-point plan for postwar reconstruction. At the center of this plan was a clear commitment to lower trade barriers and to the rather social democratic goal of bringing “about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security… and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”14 While the sincerity of this commitment can easily be questioned, it is clear that a lesson had been learnt from the interwar crisis and the postwar period would be different.

Postwar Settlement

After World War II, Trotsky’s anticipated revolution never happened. As can be seen from Table 2, the years from 1946 to 50 experienced far less labor unrest than those immediately following WWI. This does not mean there were no revolutionary pressures. Across Europe communist parties were growing rapidly, and in some countries were winning elections. But instead of leading to socialism, Europe saw the creation of what has been called the postwar settlement.

Table 2. Strike Activity (Annual days lost per 100 workers)

France Germany Italy UK
1919-24 120 191 149 233
1946-50 87 4 145 10
1953-61 41 7 64 28
1962-66 32 3 134 23
1967-71 350 8 161 60
1972-76 34 3 200 97
1977-81 23 8 151 112
1982-87 13 9 93 88
Source: 1919-1924 & 1946-1950: Andrea Boltho “Reconstruction after Two World Wars: Why the Differences?” Journal of European Economic History 30 no. 2 (2001), 429–456. 1953-1987: Philip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn, John Harrison, Capitalism since 1945, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991). Note that the figures do not measure exactly the same thing. Boltho’s figure measure “man-days lost” per 100 non-agricultural wage earners. Armstrong et al measure workers in industry and transport.

This postwar settlement resulted in the rise of the welfare state, full employment, and the incorporation of workers’ organizations into the management of capitalist development. It also saw an unprecedented economic boom and a massive increase in international trade.

The growth boom is remembered well across the Western world. In almost every country the thirty year period after 1945 has a unique name emphasising its novelty: Les Trente Glorieuses (France), Wirtschaftswunder (Germany), Rekordåren (Sweden), the “Economic Miracle” (Italy, Japan and Greece) or simply the “Golden Age” (United States and UK). As Table 1 shows, growth in Western Europe in this period was around 4% per annum, the highest growth ever recorded for Western Europe and startlingly higher than the 0.8% growth in the interwar period.

The boom in international trade, while not as well remembered, is even more dramatic. As can be seen in Table 3, while during the interwar years exports declined, the postwar years saw a massive increase in international trade.

Table 3. Growth in Volume of Merchandise Exports (Annual average compound growth rates)

1870–1913 1913–1950 1950–1973 1973–1998
Western Europe 3,24 –0.14 8,38 4,79
Source: Angus Maddison, The world economy, (Paris, France: OECD, 2006), 127.

The postwar growth boom was driven both by this increase in international trade and by a significant increase in investment.

Central to this growth in investment were the institutions created as part of the postwar settlement. These “institutions solved commitment and coordination problems in whose presence neither wage moderation nor the expansion of international trade could have taken place.”15 Under these institutions workers moderated their wage claims, making profits available to capitalists to reinvest. Capitalists restrained dividend payouts in order to reinvest. Investing in modernization and expansion of productive capacity stimulated growth and increased the future income of both workers and capital owners.

The benefit for employers was that the threat of an insurgent working class was avoided; for the organized working class, it was a seat at the table, which facilitated the other aspects of the postwar settlement – it enabled the creation of the welfare state and the oversight of rising living standards and full employment.

However, the postwar settlement went further than the conflict between labor and capital. The instability of the interwar years was not only created by working class militancy. In Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and elsewhere the far right had come to power on the basis of a popular movement dependent on the support of disgruntled nationalist farmers.16 During the great depression, agriculture was hit badly, resulting in growing demands for autarky and the protection of agricultural producers from the world market. The solution to these issues in the postwar period was the creation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Before getting to CAP, we need to look at the emergence of the European Economic Community (EEC).

The Birth of Europe?

The standard political narrative regarding the EU is to pose the alternative as being either for Europe or for national sovereignty. The appeal of national sovereignty here is obvious both to the Left and Right. For the Right national sovereignty means the collective nation walking its own path, and for the Left it means people democratically determining their own social development. The postwar period was an era whereby national peoples were able to determine their own domestic policies in a highly democratic and free manner that was unprecedented. Today both the Left and Right recall this period wistfully.

A seeming paradox here is that this emergence of popular sovereignty went hand in hand with the development of a level of supranational governance that had never been seen before. Internationally, this was represented by the creation of the IMF, GATT, and World Bank. But this development was even more extreme in Europe, where a vast array of new institutions emerged: the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), which exists today as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the Western European Union (WEU), the European Payments Union (EPU), and of course the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC). Between them, these organizations marked a new phase in the political organization of the European economy.

In order to disentangle the paradox of a simultaneous increase in national democratic sovereignty with the increase in European supranational governance, it is necessary to depart with some of the mythology surrounding the birth of the European Union.

A frequent story often told is that the early development of the EU was driven by a noble few or a sinister cabal, depending on the political perspective. But regardless of the perspective, the names are generally the same. At the front is the French civil servant Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, the Luxembourg-born French Prime Minister (1947-1948). The supporting cast is provided by Altiero Spinelli, the Italian author of the Ventotene Manifesto; Paul-Henri Spaak, Prime Minister of Belgium (1947-49); Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of Germany (1949-1963); and Walter Hallstein, a German civil servant who became the first president of the Commission of the European Economic Community (1958-1967).17

The legend is that a few people determined to establish peace across the continent, and convinced of the need for a European Federation, set about establishing a European state bit by bit. The first step in reaching this high and noble ideal was an agreement on coal and steel, and the rest naturally followed.

Indeed the Treaty of Paris and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) is a rather odd moment of international diplomacy. It emerged as a proposal from the rather grandiose “Schuman Declaration,” made by the then French Foreign Minister on May 9, 1950, which gave “world peace” as its aim, and “a united Europe” as its interim objective, but settled for “the pooling of coal and steel production… as a first step.”18

In addition to these overflowing statements, the treaty overflowed with institutions. To administer a common market in coal and steel, it created in embryo the institutions of the modern EU: a High Authority (the precursor of the European Commission), a Common Assembly (the precursor of the European Parliament), a Council of Ministers (the precursor of the Council of Ministers), and a Court of Justice (the precursor of the Court of Justice of the EU).

In order to understand why the European federalists came to found the ECSC, the important issue is less their federalist ambitions, but rather the actual issue of European coal and steel production.

The coal and steel heartlands of continental Europe encompassed the borderlands of Germany, Luxembourg, France, and southeast Belgium. It had been at the centre of all recent western European military conflicts, as well as being both economically important and potentially highly economically integrated. It was a region both where the breakdown of international trade mattered greatly and where the industrial working class was at its strongest.

The question, therefore, was how to manage the transition to a liberal market economy while avoiding social conflicts that might arise from that transition. The content of the Treaty of Paris is therefore focused heavily on the social difficulties in managing the transition to an integrated coal and steel market. It is striking from any brief perusal of Title III of the Treaty, the section which deals with the coal and steel industries, how much of it is focussed on matters such as “the possibilities of reemployment… of workers set at liberty by the evolution of the market or by technical transformations” or “the appraisal of the possibilities of improving the living and working conditions of the labor force… and of the risks which menace such living conditions.”19

Alan Milward supports this understanding when, in his detailed discussion of the social dynamics behind Belgian participation in the ECSC, he writes “The Treaty of Paris can be understood not just as the diplomatic substitute for a peace treaty, but also as the moment when Belgium formally entered the mixed economy… It ratified the shift to public responsibility in management, to the incorporation of the labor force into that responsibility, and to the commitment of the state to welfare and employment.”20

However, the importance of the ECSC should not be overstated – although it often is. The ECSC was important in primarily two ways, firstly, it was an early step in the direction of the creation of the common market; secondly, it created the institutions of the EEC. However, the ambition of an integrated European economy was not realized with the ECSC. In fact, the ECSC was really only a very small step in that direction.21

The first major step in the creation of the EU was not the Treaty of Paris or the ECSC; it was the creation of the EEC with the Treaty of Rome. Today the Treaty that started as the Treaty of Rome constitutes roughly three quarters of the “constitution” of the EU.22

International Trade and Social Protection: The Creation of the EEC

As we have already emphasized, central to the postwar boom was the growth in postwar trade (see Table 3). In Europe this was enabled by the creation of the Common Market with the Treaty of Rome.23 The Common Market entailed a customs union — no internal tariffs or trade barriers. It was to be administered through the European Economic Community (EEC), which inherited the ECSC institutions.

From the Treaty of Rome onwards the EEC was to present a single economic tariff and customs bloc to the rest of the world, while internally trade would be free.

But why was the creation of the EEC necessary? In the late 19th century, tariff barriers were radically reduced across the Western world and a Commission, an Assembly, a Council of Ministers, and a Court of Justice weren’t necessary. Through the wonders of the “most favoured nation” clause, economic integration appeared to develop naturally.

However, after World War I, things were different. With the rise of democracy and the organized working class in the first half of the twentieth century, the separation between liberal politics and the liberal economy were threatened. The economy was politicized. In the interwar period there was no successful resolution of this problem.

After World War II, the problem was resolved through the incorporation of the organized working class into capitalist governance. This entailed both an expansion of the state into new spheres of socioeconomic life as well as its increased democratic administration.

Therefore the integration of European trade after the war required not only the reduction of barriers, but also the means through which the reduction of these barriers could take place without threatening the living standards of European citizens.24

We can see this clearly in the negotiations leading up to the creation of the EEC. Central to these negotiations were concerns regarding issues such as wage rates, differences in holidays, and the fact that working hours in the French automobile industry were 40 hours per week, while they were 48 in Germany. Even the question of equal pay for women was on the agenda.

Here, we can finally return to the issue raised earlier regarding farmers. The Treaty of Rome included a commitment to the creation of a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Whilst the signatories of the Treaty did surely not anticipate the current size of the CAP in 1957, it serves as another example of creating a means through which citizens could be protected by the state from the disruption and threat of free and open markets. This kind of defensive mechanism defines what is novel about the approach to the reduction of trade barriers brought about by the Treaty of Rome.25

The creation of the EEC brought about the reduction of trade barriers, the expansion of trade within Europe and thereby contributed to growth and capitalist development. The creation of this supranational organization created a new means through which the rules of economic life could be set. It thereby increased the power of national states to set these rules and facilitated the increased democratic administration of economic life.

It can now be seen how opposing national sovereignty to European governance makes little sense. Rather than threatening the power of the state, the EEC was created as a means through which the power of the state could be preserved and enhanced.

III: From Consensus to Crisis (1957-1984)

The establishment of the EEC ushered in the first wave of European Integration, after which little changed for nearly 30 years. Indeed, it was not until the mid-1980s that the process of European Integration was renewed.

But this is not at all to say that nothing was happening. Indeed, one can retrospectively discern three very important developments. First, expansion; second, the flurry of failed proposals; and finally, the early moves towards monetary union.

Perhaps the most major change in the EEC between 1957 and 1986 was its expansion. First the UK, Ireland, and Denmark joined (1973). They were followed later by the recently democratized Greece (1981), Spain and Portugal (1986).26

The second development was the flurry of failed reforms. Amongst these, there were proposals for a common currency (see the Werner report27), proposals for a massive expansion in Europe’s fiscal capabilities (see the MacDougall report28), and proposals for developing a European social democracy (see the Social Action Programme arising from the Paris summit29). However despite these debates, processes, reports and agreements, very little of these proposals actually materialized, and they are therefore of limited interest and importance.

The one major development that did take place was the response of EEC states to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system. First, there was the “snake in the tunnel,” then simply “the snake”. This was followed by the European Monetary System, which lasted the early 1990s. I will cover these in some more depth below. But first, it is worth considering why these developments happened at all.

The Postwar Settlement becomes Unsettled

As described above the postwar settlement was a fundamentally unstable arrangement, under which the working class agreed to moderate wage demands and the capitalist class agreed to invest the surplus profits generated by this wage restraint. The result was an unusually high level of investment in the postwar period (See Chart 2). This arrangement was managed through the expansion and integration of working class organizations into capitalist governance. The instability arose from the fact that at any point there were gains to be made from abandoning this agreement. There was an additional problem; the integration of the working class into capitalist governance was brought about partially as a means of avoiding revolutionary conflict. In other words, in order to avoid the threat of working-class organizations seizing power and expropriating the capitalist class, these organizations were integrated into the management of capitalist development. However, this integration brought about a dramatic increase in the size and power of workers organizations, both as integrated bodies and, potentially, as independent actors. For those who believed in the potential of revolutionary action, the opportunities for the revolutionary activity of the working class were not dwindling, but rather growing.

Increasingly, the problem for the revolutionary elements in the workers’ movement was not organization; it was the bureaucratic leadership of the workers’ movement, which had become integrated into capitalist management. This problem was expressed differently by different sectors of the newly emerging New Left, perhaps most clearly in Trotskyism: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”30 But similar sentiments can be seen in Maoism, anarchism, and the general rise of anti-authoritarian movements, in which notions of self-management and self-managed autonomous struggles became paramount.

Extricating the exact causal relationship is difficult, but by the late 1960s, strikes were increasing, profit rates were decreasing, and the investment rate began its decline.

In France, days lost to strikes more than doubled. In 1962-1966, annual days lost were 32 per 100 workers; between 1967-1971 it was 350 days lost to strikes per annum. This figure was of course largely driven by the revolutionary crisis of May 1968. In the UK, the figure also more than doubled. It climbed from 23 in 1962-1966, to 60 in 1967-71. However, in the UK the number of strikes continued to rise throughout the 1970s, and only began to fall after the election of Thatcher. In Italy, the workers’ movement was in the 1970s perhaps the most militant of anywhere in Europe, and the days lost to strikes nearly quadrupled, from 64 annual days per 100 workers in 1953-61 up to 200 days in 1972-1976 (see Table 2).

oisin chart 1
Source: Phillip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn, John Harrison, Capitalism since 1945, 352.
Profit rates went in the opposite direction, as can be seen in Chart 1. Here we see the weighted average net manufacturing and business profit rates for France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. As can be seen the net manufacturing profit rate decreased from 24.3% in 1955 to a low of 8.8% in 1975.31

By the late 1960s, the investment rate had also started to decline. As can be seen in Chart 2, in Germany it fell from 37% of GDP in 1965 to less than 27% in 1975. In the UK and France, the postwar rise in the investment rate came to an end.32

oisin chart 2
Source: Penn World Tables 8.0
Not only was there a crisis in the private sector, but the postwar state continued to expand in order to meet rising demands for the universal provision of social services. As can be seen from Table 4, the size of the government sector in Western European economies had been increasing throughout the twentieth century, and by the mid-1970s there was little sign this trend would be coming to an end.

Table 4. Total Government Expenditure as Per Cent of GDP at Current Prices, 1913–1999

1913 1938 1950 1973 1999
France 8,9 23,2 27,6 38,8 52,4
Germany 17,7 42,4 30,4 42 47,6
Netherlands 8.2a 21,7 26,8 45,5 43,8
United Kingdom 13,3 28,8 34,2 41,5 39,7
Arithmetic Average 12 29 29,8 42 45,9
Source: Angus Maddison, The world economy, 135.

a. 1910

However, despite the significant rise in social spending during this period, social conflict did not abate, and the legitimacy of the existing political order was being increasingly undermined.

A telling example was in Britain, where, in 1973, industrial action by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had reduced the supply of electricity to the point where the Conservative government was forced to declare a three-day-week. But public support was largely behind the miners. The Prime Minister sought a mandate to take on miners and called a snap election under the slogan “Who governs Britain?” – the government or the labor movement. The Conservatives got their answer when they were kicked out of office, and the Labor Party was voted in.

The reaction to the crisis of the late ’60s and ’70s was largely to concede to the demands of the movement. Wages went up, profit shares went down, government expenditure increased, and the doors were open to the social movement to come inside and share power. In brief, the postwar solution was extended. Rather than aiming to suppress the movement, it was thought that a demobilizing democratic resolution was possible.

This enables us to understand the flurry of well-meaning and often ambitious proposals that developed at a European level in this period, such as the aforementioned MacDougall report, which proposed to massively increase Europe’s spending power and move some fiscal decision-making to a European level. It also helps us understand the Social Action Programme, which emerged from the 1972 Paris summit, and began that ephemeral dream of the European liberal Left: “Social Europe.” The political space from which these proposals arose was a crisis whereby the trajectory of postwar development was breaking down and generating a desire for new solutions. But none of these projects ever had any real legs. The reason for this is equally obvious – they could not solve the problems that existed within the nation states of Europe.

The only proposal that did get some real traction was the one that was at first merely intended to solve a problem arising from America.

The Breakdown of Bretton Woods

It is widely believed that a major contributing factor to the economic chaos of the interwar period was the gold standard. This operated through the declared commitment to maintain convertibility of currency into a specified amount of gold. Thereby all currencies were fixed in value against a homogenous internationally tradable commodity. In order to maintain gold convertibility, countries needed to pursue a set of economic policies to avoid balance of payments problems and maintain their gold reserves. This could involve cutting wages and government spending, regardless of the effect this might have on the country’s wider economic health, the living standards of its citizens, or its political stability. Accordingly, this led to many problems in the interwar period.

Therefore, in 1944 an agreement was reached that the postwar monetary system would be much more flexible. It was agreed that the US dollar would be convertible into gold, and every other currency would be convertible into dollars. This allowed for adjustments to a country’s exchange rate. For example, if workers in a country brought about wage increases and thereby made that country’s exports uncompetitive, it would be possible to adjust the exchange rate so that the value of the national currency would be worth less in dollar terms, reversing some of the negative effect that this wage increase might have.

By 1971, almost all of America’s main competitors had devalued against the dollar on a number of occasions, and as wage demands, the cost of social services, and the cost of the war in Vietnam rose, America found itself in a situation where it had a growing balance of payments problem and an overvalued currency. The solution was obvious, and the US ended dollar-gold convertibility. The stated intention was to devalue the dollar but maintain the system more or less unchanged. And indeed, a few short months later, the “Smithsonian Agreement” was signed, which largely returned the system to how it operated before. One significant change, however, was that currencies were now allowed to fluctuate against the dollar more than previously. Under the new Smithsonian Agreement, countries could fluctuate ±2.25% against the dollar. However, this meant that in the EEC, currencies would now be able to fluctuate much more against one another.33

The response to this drew on the Werner Report (1970), which laid out a plan for creating a single European currency. The EEC countries agreed to allow their currencies fluctuate by only ±2.25% against one another. This framework, whereby European currencies fluctuated within a smaller band than the band for fluctuation faced by other countries, was called “the snake in the tunnel.” However, very shortly after the signing of the Smithsonian Agreement, its “tunnel” fell apart and the international monetary system moved to free floating exchange rates. In Europe, however, the snake persisted without the tunnel. But even this was only of limited success, and through the 1970s countries entered and exited the snake depending on their domestic economic situation. In 1979, therefore, the European Monetary System was created, which operated on more or less the same principle, only in a more structured manner.

Despite this important change, looking at the long period between the Treaty of Rome (1957) and the Maastricht Treaty (1992), we can see relatively few developments. It is therefore useful to consider European Integration as occurring in two waves. The first was established by the Treaty of Rome, was centered on the common market, and lasted until the mid-80s. The second was established by the Maastricht Treaty and lasts to this day. This second wave was centered on the single market and the common currency, whose early moments I have just described. However, before we consider the development of this second wave from 1992 onwards, it is worth considering the situation in Europe in the 1980s that it developed in response to.

The Delayed Resolution of the Crisis

By the late 1970s the crisis that had emerged in the mid-60s was still not resolved. Profit rates were continuing their decline and had not recovered (See Chart 2). Investment rates had fallen substantially (See Chart 1). Growth rates were substantially lower than what they had been during the 1945-1975 period. In addition, the re-emergence of unemployment became a major social problem. This was in fact a very significant change, since full employment had been the norm across Western Europe for the entire 1945-1973 period (see Table 5).

Table 5: Level of Unemployment (% of labour force)

1950–73 1974–83 1984–93 1994–98 2000 2004 2008 2012 2014
Belgium 3 8,2 8,8 9,7 7,5 8,7 7,2 7,2 8,5
Finland 1,7 4,7 6,9 14,2 10,0 9,0 6,4 7,5 8,4
France 2 5,7 10 12,1 10,4 9,0 7,3 9,4 10,2
Germany 2,5 4,1 6,2 9 8,2 9,9 8,1 5,6 5,2
Italy 5,5 7,2 9,3 11,9 10,6 8,2 6,4 9,5 12,6
Netherlands 2,2 7,3 7,3 5,9 3,3 4,8 3,2 5,0 7,1
Norway 1,9 2,1 4,1 4,6 3,4 4,2 2,4 3,2 3,5
Sweden 1,8 2,3 3,4 9,2 6,2 7,0 6,0 7,9 8,2
United Kingdom 2,8 7 9,7 8 5,7 4,7 5,1 8,2 6,8
Ireland n.a. 8,8 15,6 11,2 4,8 4,9 5,0 15,0 12,1
Spain 2,9 9,1 19,4 21,8 12,7 11,3 9,0 23,2 25,5
Average 2,4 6,0 9,2 10,7 7,5 7,4 6,0 9,2 9,8
Source: 1950-1998: Angus Maddison, The world economy, 134. 2000-2014: January data from Eurostat.

And society was still politically highly unstable. In Italy, the very high level of industrial activity continued, albeit with greater desperation. This hopelessness saw the beginning of the “Years of Lead,” which perhaps reached its peak with the kidnapping and execution of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse in 1978. Such violence was not limited to Italy. Germany witnessed left-wing guerrilla activity during this period as well, with such groups as the Rote Armee Fraktion, Rote Zellen, Rote Zora and the June 2 Movement. The UK experienced left-wing armed activity in the north of Ireland and, in Britain, there was a persistent increase in strike activity.

Indeed, the British winter of 1978-1979 was rocked by a strike wave that is remembered as the “Winter of Discontent.” This strike wave was both felt and visible across the UK. The fact that the winter was one of the coldest on record did not improve things. City centers filled with uncollected trash. Infamously, in Liverpool, the city was forced to hire an empty factory to store corpses as the gravediggers struck. The UK had to go to the IMF for a £2.3bn loan. By the time an election was called in 1979, the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher won.

Thatcher famously used her mandate to take on the British labor movement piece by piece, until what was once one of the strongest and most militant labor movements in Europe was destroyed. Today in Britain unions scarcely exist outside the public sector, and strikes are a minor issue economically and politically.

Although the social movement of the 1960s and 1970s were filled with hope, by the late 1970s the movement had reached an impasse. It could continue to force the state to increase its social spending, but it was unclear how to fund it. Equally, it could continue to increase wage demands, but it was clear that this was reducing profit opportunities and damaging the economy. The next step seemed unclear, and many believed the moment for a break with capitalism had passed.34 As these hopes faded, the emerging voices from the Right for a return to pre-war liberalism began to gain favor.

Of course, the Left did not simply abandon its project, and the debates of this period remain of real interest.35 And although across Europe the labor movement was suffering defeats: the mass arrests in Italy 1979-1981,36 the defeat at FIAT Mirafiori (1980),37 the UK Miners’ Strike (1984), Wapping (1986), etc. There were other attempts to find another route for the Left. Perhaps the most successful was François Mitterrand’s electoral victory in France in May 1981. This brought together much of the Left, many of the militants of 1968, along with many of the political refugees fleeing persecution in Italy. Mitterrand was elected on a radical platform named the “110 Propositions for France.” This involved a major push further towards more social control of the economy. There were several nationalizations and the minimum wage, statutory holidays, pensions, health insurance for the unemployed, social housing, family allowances, taxes on wealth, were all increased, while simultaneously the workweek was reduced. However, as this happened, capital began to leave the country. With inflation continuing to rise, France faced a persistent and serious balance of payments problem. The franc was devalued in October 1981, again in June 1982, and yet again in March 1983! Ultimately, Mitterrand was forced to abandon his left-wing economic policy and launched the “Franc Fort” (Strong Franc) policy. This involved a major shift to austerity, and in many ways the end of postwar social democracy. From this point on across Europe, the parties of the Left reoriented themselves towards a pro-market, neoliberal approach to the economy.


Despite the appearance of neoliberalism as an intellectual movement, it is important to treat it as neither a purely intellectual phenomenon nor as a return to normal. Neoliberalism emerged as a response to the prolonged political instability and economic downturn of the 1965-1985 period. While the prolonged political instability is often underplayed and reduced to the momentary madness of May 1968, the economic downturn is often overplayed. By almost any measure, European economies were doing better in the 1970s than at any point since. The growth rate was higher, the investment rate was higher, the unemployment rate was lower and inequality was lower. Compared to the economic situation in the 70s, the only clear improvement for workers today is that inflation has stabilized at a low level. However, low inflation primarily benefits creditors and capital owners. Other changes also benefit capitalists. Strikes have gone down dramatically. Tax rates have stabilized and the growth of the public sector has been more or less halted (although contrary what much of the left might say, it has not reversed) (see Table 4). And, by most measures, the profit rate has risen again.

Presumably in 1975 it was possible for Europe to continue to develop away from capitalism and place the economy under increasing democratic control. Whether this might have been achieved through socialist revolution, autonomous action, or legislation, is unknown to us because, of course, it never happened.

In the Western European countries where revolutions did happen,38 despite their revolutionary commitments, these societies quickly entered the Western liberal order. The high points of workers’ autonomy in Italy and the UK were crushed, and the more nebulous forms of autonomy among squatters and environmentalists in Northern Europe were gradually hacked away at, so that little remains but some interesting concert venues and the embarrassment of the Green parties. Where legislative reform was attempted, most significantly in France under Mitterrand, the renewed freedom of capital to flow across borders brought about rapid balance of payments problems, forcing the reforms to be abandoned.

In short, by the early ’80s the Left was at an impasse while the Right had a clear agenda: liberalize!

Seen from the Right, the problem of the European economy and the reason for the downturn was an over-empowered labor movement and excessive government intervention in the economy. What was necessary therefore was to facilitate the process of private firms competing for profits via the market. By stimulating trade and profit-making, this would lead to increased investment, growth and employment. Central to this process was increasing cross-border European trade.

IV: The Second Wave of European Integration (1984-Today)

The second wave of European integration began with the Single European Act (1986) and was properly established with the Maastricht Treaty (1992). The Maastricht Treaty is perhaps the most significant of all treaties relating to European integration. It created the European Union and along with the Treaty of Rome (1957), the Maastricht Treaty is the basis of one of the two “Treaties” that form the core of the European constitution.39

The core of the establishment of this second wave of European Integration was the creation of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) under Maastricht, which in turn involves two key elements: the creation of the Single Market and the creation of the Euro.

It is worth distinguishing the Single Market from the Common Market. The first was established under the Single European Act (1986), the latter under the Treaty of Rome (1957).

The core of the common market (i.e. the EEC) was, as discussed earlier, the creation of a tariff free area within Europe for the international trade of nationally produced goods. These goods were, even when produced by multinationals, produced within nation states in a manner laid out by national legislation. The logic behind this process was to democratically manage the transition to free trade. This involved the incorporation at the national level of working-class and farmers’ organizations into capitalist management. The aim was to maintain living standards and avoid the chaos of the interwar years, while still getting the benefits of higher levels of trade and market expansion and integration. In other words, the logic was one that saw the postwar maintenance of a market society through the exercise of social control over the market.

The Single European Act is often presented as simply being a part of the further extension of an undetermined process of “ever closer union.” It is often suggested that it was simply a matter of “completing” the common market.40 However, the logic of the creation of the single market was qualitatively different from the creation of the EEC. Whereas the creation of the EEC was embedding the market within wider social controls, the move towards the single market was aimed at making greater aspects of society subject to market control.

The first wave of European integration aimed at empowering both the market and the nation state, by reducing political and social turbulence through the creation of democratic controls over the market economy. The second wave of European Integration, on the other hand, involved reducing political and social turbulence by removing the market from democratic contestation.

The Single European Act, and the Maastricht Treaty which followed, committed Europe not simply to creating a common market free of tariffs for international trade within Europe, it aimed at creating single markets ruled and regulated by a common set of rules and regulations determined at a European level.

The pre-history of the SEA is rather telling about its development. The wordy declarations by heads of states on the need for European unity continued throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. But over time the focus of these announcements, reports, draft treaties and white papers shifted from the ephemeral federalist goal of “political union” to what has always been the core of the European project: economic integration.41

Interestingly, this period of the mid-80s, in particular around the SEA, is perhaps the only point in the history of European integration when the UK plays an agenda-setting role in Europe. Desmond Dinan writes “Mitterrand and Kohl42 had succumbed to Thatcher’s minimalist programme.”43

The core of the SEA was a commitment to implement the 279 proposals in the 1985 Commission White Paper on the Internal Market and create a single market by December 31, 1992. This involved harmonizing economic regulation of a huge number of industries across Europe – thereby the regulation of the internal European market would be fundamentally European, replacing the system of national regulation.

France’s enthusiasm for this process is of interest. As noted above, Mitterrand’s agenda for pushing social democracy forward collapsed in ’83/’84 with the Franc Fort policy. In response to this shift Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the Minister of Industry, resigned and was replaced by Laurent Fabius.44 In his first speech as minister, Fabius announced that “the state does not intend to become a substitute for the role of enterprises and entrepreneurs,” and launched a series of reforms under the motto “Modernize or decline.” It is against this background of the turn to market liberalization, and the notion that France must “adapt itself to the conditions of the new world economy,” that the French government’s attitude to the SEA and Maastricht should be understood. The aim was for France to bind herself to Germany’s strong Deutschemark and to adjust her internal markets by liberalising and internationalising.45


While the Single European Act marked the launch of the second wave of European integration, the Maastricht treaty marked its establishment. At the core of the Maastricht treaty were two core elements: institutional change and economic integration.

The institutional changes brought in by Maastricht were substantial. For one, Maastricht established the European Union. Secondly, it established a new structure of the European Union, which was to last until the passing of the Lisbon Treaty.

The new structure brought together an array of forms of European cooperation that had previously been separate under the common framework of the EU. Part of the logic here was to increase European integration in areas beyond economic integration by tying them institutionally to economic integration. Under Maastricht, the EU was structured around “the three pillars of the EU.” These were the European Community (EC), Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), and Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Intuitively, this maps onto the economy (EC), law (JHA), and foreign affairs (CFSP). The European Community was basically the EEC renamed and was by far the most important pillar of the EU. The other two pillars that were created under Maastricht took over from relatively minor institutions, but it was hoped they would grow in importance. Justice and Home Affairs took over from TREVI, which was little more than a means to facilitate cross-border cooperation in responding to terrorism, in particular the growing number of left-wing armed actions and by Palestinian groups within Europe.46 Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) took over from “European Political Cooperation” – the name given to the then existing institution which aimed to give form to the perennially unrealized dream that one day Europe would have an independent and united foreign policy.47 The competencies of neither the JHA nor the CFSP pillar grew much over time, as decision-making under these pillars was based on consensus. Therefore, many of the responsibilities under the JHA and CFSP pillars were transferred to the EC pillar, to allow for easier decision-making. With the Lisbon Treaty the pillar system was abolished, and the EU was given a single legal personality. Nevertheless, the institutional changes under Maastricht were significant, marking the creation of a single structure in relation to which essentially all future moves to greater European integration would be oriented.

The second major change with the creation of the European Union under Maastricht was the commitment to the creating the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The euro is the central plank of the EMU. Every member of the EU is a signatory to the Maastricht treaty and as such every country, barring two,48 is committed to joining the common currency. However, joining the euro is a three-stage process. First, the country must reach a set of “convergence criteria.” Second, it must join the Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM II).49 The third and final stage is adopting the euro.50

Perhaps as significant as the euro itself was the creation of the system through which countries adopt the currency. There are four convergence criteria. First, there is a tight limit on inflation.51) Second, there is an extremely tight limit on governments fiscally: debt to GDP must not exceed 60% and government deficits must not exceed 3%. Third, exchange rates must be stable with the euro. Finally, the interest rate of 10-year government bonds must be below a certain level.52

With the creation of the “Stability and Growth Pact” in 1996 the two elements of the fiscal convergence criterion – the 60% debt rule and the 3% deficit rule – were made permanent. All countries must, after accession to the euro, remain with their debt at or below 60% and with their deficit at or below 3%. If they do not meet these criteria, they must be on a path towards realizing them.

Thereby all EU countries, with the partial exception of the UK, have committed themselves to having the same regulations for the industries in their economies and having the same macroeconomic situation. Industrial regulation and monetary policy are now decided at a European level, not a national level, while national fiscal policy in the form of expansionary or contractionary policy is simply precluded by European law.

After Maastricht

Since Maastricht the second wave of European integration has not abated. There have been three major changes to the Treaties since Maastricht. First there was the Amsterdam Treaty, which was mainly about two things: the CFSP pillar, and the fact that many center-left governments had been elected and wanted to reform the Maastricht treaty by increasing the power of the European Parliament, and by including some “social” issues in the Treaty.53 Then there was the Nice Treaty, which was primarily about amending the voting arrangements in the EU to allow for the accession of Eastern European countries. Finally, there was the Lisbon Treaty. This was basically the EU Constitution under a different name. It involved a large number of changes including, as mentioned above, the abolition of the pillar system. The main thing the Lisbon Treaty did was push Maastricht further, in terms of turning the European institutions into a single integrated whole. But beyond that the Treaty did not change the direction or speed of European integration dramatically.

In terms of European economic integration things also proceed apace. Building on the success of the regulatory homogenization brought about by the Single European Act, more and more aspects of economic life within the EU are being homogenized. In some areas this is generally welcomed; for example, the creation of a single European telecoms market has resulted in technological improvements and lower roaming charges, although it has also overseen the privatization of telecoms companies. Today it is harder to think of aspects of economic life that are regulated by the national state rather than the EU,54 and the extent of European regulation of markets within Europe is only increasing. For example, today, there is a major drive to move the regulation of all aspects of the finance industry, e-commerce, and patents to a European level. In addition to the ever-increasing competencies of the EU with regards to the regulation of markets, the competence of the EU over national economic policy has also increased.

As mentioned above, the 60% debt rule and the 3% deficit rule were expanded under the Stability and Growth Pact to cover all countries all the time, not just in the period leading up to adopting the euro. However, in 1998 German debt went above the 60% mark, where it has remained since (with the exception of 2001 when it dropped to 59%). Likewise, France went over the 60% limit in 2002 and has remained above it ever since. Therefore, in 2005 the rules were changed to allow for breaches but requiring that countries have a Medium Term Objective (MTO) whereby they would return to the 60% debt, the 3% deficit and a 1% “underlying deficit.” Since the crisis this has been extended further, and now every country must have binding national legislation regarding the 60% debt and the 3% deficit rules.

In addition, the EU has significantly increased it oversight of national economic policy. This began with the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines (BEPGs), which countries had to send to the EU Commission explaining how their economic policy was in line with European objectives. Then in 1998, the European Commission began to issue Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) explaining how countries should improve their policies. In 2000 the ten-year Lisbon Strategy was launched, which aimed to bring European economic and social policy more in line and tried to use the BEPG/CSR framework to achieve that. However, the Lisbon Strategy was not a major success, and was replaced in 2010 by the Europe 2020 strategy.

More significantly, in 2011 a new process known as the European Semester was launched.55 It is a rather complicated process of economic surveillance through which the EU monitors national economic development. It combines and integrates

A reinforced Stability and Growth Pact, with significant sanctions if countries breach the set objectives
A Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure which sets out 10 objectives which a country must achieve
The overview of national budgetary plans by the European Commission
A reinforced process around Country Specific Recommendations
A set of sanctions for countries that are failing to achieve their targets
An annual framework through which this entire process is organised
A framework through which countries that are failing to address their problems are dealt with
In addition to these recent reforms, during the ongoing economic crisis Ireland, Portugal and Greece have been placed in EU/ECB/IMF recovery programmes, which determine economic policy for a few years.56

Having now followed the process of European integration up to the current day, it is now possible to make some general remarks. I have already made a distinction between the first wave and second wave of European integration. The first was an attempt to gain control over the market, in order to both avoid socialist change and facilitate the integration of labor and agricultural interests into capitalist governance. The second wave was qualitatively different. Over the last thirty years, with the second wave of European integration, greater and greater responsibility for economic regulation is being shifted to the European level. This happened in response to the political impasse faced by the Left, and the new political economic situation that had developed by the 1980s. Control over economic regulation was taken out of the hand of democratic national states and transferred to the European Union.

V: The European Union as State Form

This brings us back to the Middle Ages – to what might have seemed the slightly esoteric start to this article. As described above, the emergence of capitalism was characterized by a division of social power into economic power and political power. Economic power is the power to buy and sell, in particular to buy labor-power and sell the commodities produced. Political power, on the other hand, is power over violence. The control over violence implied in political power involves not only the exercise of violence, but also the determination of when and how to exercise that violence. This determination process involves setting down rules, and the contestation of those rules. Less abstractly, it is through the state that laws are made, contested and enacted. These laws create the framework through which social reproduction occurs under capitalism. The state thereby uses its control of violence to determine the framework through which economic life occurs, and acts as a means and forum for the contestation and change of this framework.

We can therefore see how with the postwar settlement, the framework through which economic life occurred was changed by the expansion of state action into aspects of economic life that were previously considered outside the scope of politics.

We can also understand what has happened with European integration. The first wave of European integration was an aspect of the general expansion of state action into previously non-political spheres. The development of the welfare state and the incorporation of the organized working class into capitalist governance at a national level went hand in hand with European integration. The EEC and the organizations that preceded it developed to facilitate the democratic governance and organization of international economic activity. This was the international dimension of the primarily national process of the postwar settlement.

The second wave of European integration is rather different. This too can be understood as the international dimension of a primarily national process. But this national process was a process whereby democratic intervention in the economy was being reduced. However, this did not mean simply deregulation or privatization. In Europe it involved the transfer of power over economic regulation out of the hand of the national state and onto a supranational level. Increasingly, the laws that govern economic activity in the EU are determined at a European level.

While the power of the feudal lord was bifurcated into the economic power of the modern employer and the political power of the modern state, the development of the EU over the last 30 years involves a further bifurcation. The political power of the state involves the creation, contestation, and implementation of the legal framework for economic life and the rise of the EU involves the bifurcation of this political power. The EU now creates the regulations that govern almost all aspects of economic life in Europe. However, both the contestation and implementation of these regulations remains at a national level. This is not sustainable.

Today, the political contestation of economic life, which has been the core of liberal democracies based on universal suffrage, is increasingly impossible. In each national state, governments change, but the policies do not. Policies are not set by national government, but by the EU. But it is not possible to democratically change the government of the EU, or to democratically change the policies it pursues.

This has not only drawn outrage from the European electorate, but also from national governments. In 2012, when Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs directed the Belgian government to cut between €1.2 billion and €2 billion from its budget, a government Minister responded: “Who knows who Olli Rehn is? Who has seen Olli Rehn’s face? Who knows where he comes from and what he’s done? Nobody. Yet he tells us how we should conduct our economic policy.”57

The superficial solution to this “democratic deficit” would be to return to national democracies. This is not an unpopular idea. We see this demand being raised by both the far right and the far left. In France, the quasi-fascist Front National was the largest party in the 2014 European Parliament election winning one in every four votes cast. In the UK the right-populist UK Independence Party also topped the poll. In Italy, the “Five Star Movement” went from nothing to winning 20% of the vote. In social democratic Denmark, the extreme right Danish People’s Party also topped the poll.

However, the superficial, and obviously popular, appeal for a return to national democracy does not correspond with the social possibilities that exist today. I have tried to describe at some length the crisis in response to which the EU and the second wave of European Integration developed. And I have tried to show that the alternative route pursued by the Mitterrand government in France in the early 1980s did not and could not work. In the presence of free capital movement, the kind of policies that Mitterrand pursued will always end with balance of payments crises.

This is not to pose some grim inevitability to the European development, but rather to point to the fact that the scope of change that has occurred over the last 150 years is massive, and that to change the direction of its further development involves more than political ambition or a change in political focus. The postwar settlement happened where there was an imminent threat of socialist revolution and where, due to wartime capital controls, it was very hard for capital flight to occur. We are living in a very different world.

Europe is at an impasse. Economic regulation now takes place at a European level, but the social contestation of economic issues is contained at an impotent national level. It seems most likely that European integration will continue to follow the path mapped out in this article for the foreseeable future. Despite this, one fact remains: all structures of governance rely on the passive consent of the governed. It is hard to see much hope for socialist change in Europe. But it is equally hard to see European’s passive consent lasting indefinitely.

From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide

In February, scenes of protest began filtering out from cities all over Venezuela. Students threw molotov cocktails. Red banners waved in the streets. Barricades, made of old tires, burned high. After two years of intensified global protest from Cairo to Athens to Oakland, these images were somewhat familiar. President Nicolás Maduro had been in office for less than a year following the death of Hugo Chávez, and now the people seemed ready to give their judgment on his tenure. The Venezuelan government’s response appeared to mimic the actions of so many other states under threat; the National Guard faced off with demonstrators in the streets, and police arrested the movement’s most visible promoter for inciting violence.

For some outside observers, this series of events made for easy political positioning in support of the protestors. And it is difficult to blame anyone whose first impulse is sympathy with the streets. Yet most of the protesters, despite the evocative face masks and stone-hurling, are demanding little more than a return of the privileges they held in the pre-Chávez era.1 If the situation in Venezuela is, in fact, different from elsewhere, it is because political content matters: those on the revolutionary Left must reconcile their reflexive sympathies for protest with the fact that, at the moment, Venezuela represents just about the closest thing in the world to really existing socialism.

Of course, the purported political goals of the Venezuelan state do not automatically guarantee it a free pass. But it is difficult to ignore that the current government is the product of a massive and popular two-decade political transformation. Indeed, as people throughout Latin America react to the unsparing neoliberal policies that swept the region in the 1980s and 90s, Venezuela has become the hinge of a much broader leftward turn. This shift has impelled massive political transformations in Venezuela and Bolivia, stirred more moderate resonances in the Southern Cone, and in the cases of Paraguay and Honduras, aroused reactionary coups. As one of the few left political projects of its scale in the post-Soviet era, this Latin American marea rosada, or pink tide, is a material testing ground for the transition from capitalism to something else – leaving open for now the question of whether this something else is communism – and it demands substantive discussion on the Left.

To really grasp what is happening in Venezuela and elsewhere, however, it is important to rethink the concepts through which we approach new political scenarios. In the 20th century, the theme of guerilla warfare dominated the theoretical currents in and about Latin America; Che Guevara’s own work on the subject and Regis Debray’s foco theory of revolution are notable examples. But as cultural studies and international affairs scholar Sophia McClennen has suggested, “the currently existing forms of political activism [in Latin America] have taken on new modes of organization that no longer track to the idealized ideas of indigenous resistance movements and guerilla groups, and they no longer take place wholly within the nation state.”2 In other words, the old theoretical tools and political impulses are inadequate for the new terrain of the Latin American Left—particularly when one considers its entry into the state.

The challenge in assessing Latin America’s 21st century socialism, then, is twofold: first, it is necessary to formulate a conceptual framework that can explain the pink tide’s various processes of state-centered political change. And second, such a framework must serve as a political compass for those of us on the Left who favor the broader goals of the popular marea rosada states, and thus give us criteria by which to make serious political assessments as these projects unfold.

Sixteen years after Hugo Chávez’s election to the Venezuelan presidency, people have already begun to theorize these developments and supercede the guerilla-centered framework of Guevara and Debray. The main currents in this newer vein revolve around the theory of hegemony and the related concept of subalternity. But these ideas, focusing as they do on exclusion from state power, must now too be rethought, or at least relativized. The state itself must now fall at the center of the Left’s political analysis. As John Beverley puts it, “In a situation where, as is the case of several governments of the marea rosada, social movements from the popular-subaltern sectors of society have ‘become the state’… or are bidding to do so, a new way of thinking the relationship between the state and society has become necessary.”3 This new way of thinking the about the state is necessary in order to assess the achievements, weaknesses, and post-capitalist possibilities presented by the pink tide. One potential foundational source of a renewed state theory is a figure who was once central to any Marxist discussion of the political, but who is now rarely mentioned: Nicos Poulantzas. But before turning to Poulantzas, it is useful to examine the contributions and limitations of the theory of hegemony as it has been used to understand Latin American politics.


The theory of hegemony, of course, has a long, multi-threaded history. Though the term itself was important to some early Russian socialist political debates prior to 1917, its more famous conceptualization emerged within Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s attempt to understand the position of Western European workers’ parties in the 1920s and 30s. The increasing popularity of Gramsci’s work over the course of the 20th century meant that hegemony theory soon found resonance outside of “Western Marxism”—the importance of the concepts of hegemony and subalternity for the South Asian subaltern studies school, for instance, is well known. Scholars of Latin American politics and culture within the North American academy, including many who originally hail from Latin America, have also made extensive use of this theoretical complex, and in 1993 the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group (which officially lasted until 2000) was founded on the model of Ranajit Guha and his South Asian colleagues.4

Literary scholar Gareth Williams was one of the latter-day members of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. In his 2002 book The Other Side of the Popular, Williams attempts to push onward with the group’s mission “to recuperate the figure of the subaltern” in order to challenge “elitist forms of conceptualization that have silenced Latin American subalternity within Latin America’s histories of nation formation.”5 He seeks to refine the notion of subalternity so as to unite the “philosophical-deconstructive” meaning of the term, which he associates with Gayatri Spivak, with a more sociological understanding ascribed to Guha.6 In its more “philosophical” role, subalternity “promises to interrupt” dominant political narratives—it is an ontological fragment whose very presence signals the limit of state politics. In its more concrete sociological meaning, on the other hand, it denotes the persistence of a sort of working-class or peasant political sensibility that stands outside, and in antagonism to, elite politics. With these two meanings taken together, Williams explains that “subalternity continues the possibility of, and yet promises to destabilize, hegemony’s often neo-colonial expansion of its universalizing logics… [it] is a limit to constituted power that is potentially constitutive of alternative forms of thinking, reading, and acting.”7 In other words, the oppressed and excluded quarters of society constitute a subaltern difference, which in turn stands in for the political possibility of a different future to come. Thus, politically, Williams’ synthesis means that one should take one’s cues from those outside what Gramsci called the historic bloc in power; philosophically, these outsiders are the bulwark of potential deconstructive difference holding back the totalizing threat of state and capital.

Williams’ argument is a representative example of Latin American Subaltern Studies: he offers some important insights, but he also comes up against characteristic limitations. His definition of subalternity clarifies some of the group’s more ambiguous work by arguing that subalternity cannot be reduced to simple identity politics. And he provides a compelling analysis of the dangers of such an approach by explaining how Latin American states in the mid-20th century used variants of subaltern identity politics in order to solidify the position of national capitalists and forge mass bases for elite political parties.8 Nevertheless, the incorporation of the “philosophical-deconstructive” reading of hegemony and subalternity means that Williams mistakes theoretical concepts for ontological categories—that is, he takes a set of ideas that correspond to a specific political issues and radically over-generalizes them.9 By using hegemon and subaltern as synonyms for “oppressed” and “oppressor,” Williams and other subalternists lose the ability to explain the particular relation that the former set of concepts is meant to illustrate. This mistake obscures the more specific sociological meaning in the work of Gramsci and Guha (relating to class alliances and ideological leadership), and the terms hegemony and subalternity become transhistorical stand-ins for an eternally recurring dynamic of unequal power relations.10

The consequence of philosophizing and generalizing hegemony theory is that as soon as the subaltern strata become hegemonic—which was, of course, the strategic goal underlying Gramsci’s own theory—subalternists run into a political dead end. Their conflation of subalternity and oppression does not permit the possibility that the newly hegemonic classes and groups are still oppressed and exploited. Such a political scenario destabilizes the entire relationship of subalternity and hegemony and should lead to a search for appropriate concepts.

To return to this year’s protests in Venezuela—it would be possible, on a certain view of the scenes there, to project onto protesters the status of a subaltern group, an oppressed minority who is excluded from the hegemonic bloc in power represented by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (a catch-all collection of pro-Chávez parties and movements). Such an assumption (protesters=oppressed=subaltern) might have been a safe bet for the Left in the last quarter century, but this political reduction is untenable in the case of Bolivarian Venezuela. One has to look instead beyond immediate power relations to the underlying social framework. It would be important to note in this case: the history of gentrification in the Venezuelan universities where many protesters came from; the relationship of these anti-Chavista students to the traditional power elite; the nature of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela itself as a state comprising a great number of social organizations that, in another moment, were clearly subaltern.11 In short, to define the relations of power, Left observers need to theorize the political situation in question rather than rely on the categorical oppositions of a social ontology of oppressed and oppressor.

In light of the new success of popular mass movements, some thinkers have begun the necessary reconceptualization. John Beverley sums up the question that I am trying to advance here:

What happens when, as has been the case with some of the governments of the marea rosada in Latin America, subaltern or, to use the expression more in favor today, subaltern-popular social movements originating well outside the parameters of the state and formal politics (including the traditional parties of the Left), have “become the state,” to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s characterization, or have lent themselves to political projects seeking to occupy the state?12

In other words, what happens when the state and subaltern cease to be in opposition? In answering this, Beverley, a founding member of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, abandons his previously strict anti-state orientation. He rightly notes that we cannot approach Latin American politics today within a merely philosophical or deconstructive framework— the pressing weight of political possibility, that is, “the resurgence of an actual political Left in Latin America,” compels us to take a stand beyond solidarity with those who happen to be out of power, and to pay attention instead to the political and social composition of the new left states.13 In doing so, one finds that far from reproducing an infinite alternation of hegemony and subalternity, the marea rosada represents a rarity: the agency of the subaltern passing through the framework of the state. Beverley is an thus an unabashed supporter of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and, despite many acute differences, all other left-leaning political undertakings in the region. Whatever their present weaknesses, he argues,the current state-centered Latin American Left can “keep alive the idea of socialism as the postcapitalist order of things,” and at the same time present the actual “‘transformative’ possibility” that “society itself can be remade in a more redistributive, egalitarian, culturally diverse way.”14

Beverley notes that it is not enough for the Left to simply take over the state; it must transform the state machinery as well. Yet his readiness to indiscriminately endorse any left-leaning state project, as well as his quick condemnation of left endeavors that aim away from state power (namely, the anti-electoral stance of Mexico’s Zapatista National Liberation Army), mean that he does not ask important questions that might help to drive such transformations. The imprudence of this nearly dogmatic support is clear when one considers the history of the Left-in-power, so full of mistakes, betrayals, and tragedies. The troublesome legacies of the German SPD and the USSR parallel the difficulties of Salvador Allende’s aborted term as president of Chile and the missteps of the ongoing Cuban Revolution. Each of these cases is unique, but then, as now, the institutionalized Left had more to gain from questions and challenges than from acritical admiration. It is essential to keep these questions alive: how can the Left consolidate power without falling into authoritarianism? What are the possible pitfalls that might derail a revolutionary project? And beyond abstract ideals, what do we hope that Left-leaning states actually do—and don’t do—in order to open up a set of post-capitalist possibilities?

Jon Beasley-Murray, like Beverley, argues for a renewed attention to the state, but his skepticism about state-centered projects gives his 2010 book Posthegemony a critical edge that Beverley lacks. He advances his argument through a critique of Argentine political philosopher Ernesto Laclau—one the most complex theorists of hegemony, and a waypoint of the theory’s proliferation within both British cultural studies and South Asian subalternist scholarship. A brief reconstruction of Beasley-Murray’s argument will thus illustrate another threshold of the present theoretical conjuncture.

Laclau, for his part, attempts to theorize the articulation of social antagonism through chains of equivalence between social sectors. His version of hegemony theory is meant to explain how a figure like Argentina’s Juan Perón, for instance, came to signify different things for his polarized base of both left and right political groups—an unexpected joining of students and militarists, trade unionists and capitalists.15 Laclau conceives of Perón himself as an empty signifier that took on different valences for each of these different factions. He discursively managed to bring them all together against the common enemy at the core of Peronist discourse, an always-shifting “anti-people” consisting sometimes of communists, at other times imperialists, and yet at other times, the old oligarchy. Conversely, Laclau uses this same logic to explain how excluded subaltern movements begin to make demands on a state, establishing an equivalence between them that can ultimately lead to the creation of a mass counter-hegemonic project.16 Though Laclau’s work is considerably more elaborate than this brief account might suggest, the point is that the concept of hegemony and the logics of equivalence and difference sit at the center of his theoretical world.

But for Beasley-Murray, this emphasis leads Laclau into the same error that I’ve identified in Williams: by ascribing an ontological status to particular concepts, Laclau reduces all of politics to a relation between hegemony and subalternity. Other manifestations of the political are categorically discounted; nothing can be explained except through the play of signifiers and discursive representations. As Beasley-Murray argues, “The basic flaw in hegemony theory is not [as some have suggested] its underestimation of the economy; it is that it substitutes culture for state, ideological representations for institutions, discourse for habit.”17 In other words, questions of representation displace all other mechanisms of power. All of politics becomes a game of who or what can best represent their hegemonic bloc, and the state itself—not to mention the constituents of hegemonic power—receives no theoretical elaboration.

Beasley-Murray, however, does not focus on to the state so as to better support it. Rather, his goal is to understand the way that the state restrains revolutionary potential by harnessing the constituent power of the multitude and stabilizing it in the constituted power of the state and its subject, the people. He thus aligns himself with movements that eschew such capture—again, Mexico’s contemporary Zapatistas come to mind—through the pursuit of autonomy and sporadic insurrection, occupying the boundaries of constituent and constituted power rather than attempting to simply replace one state with another. The real political test of a movement, for Beasley-Murray, is whether transformations manifest themselves in creative forms of collectivity and novel social practices outside the arena of the state.18

As Becquer Seguín points out, if Beverley is not critical enough of the pink tide states, Beasley-Murray’s theoretical positions lead him into an unsatisfying political ambivalence regarding state power itself. At best, his emphasis on insurgency and insurrection leads to the conclusion that the positive power of the state is largely irrelevant. And at worst, this route leads back into the same cul-de-sac as subalternism: an oversimplification of politics in which whatever is against the state is always deserving of political backing.19

While Beverley and Beasley-Murray therefore represent two opposite poles of a theoretical advance beyond hegemony theory and subalternism, neither gives us any political criteria by which assess the various actions and decisions of pink-tide governments. Seguín rightly notes that their accounts “all too quickly support or reject pink tide governments without being able to differentiate among them.”20 He asks instead what it would mean to present a true “left-wing critique” of the pink tide: “Can we critique these governments from within the realm of their theoretical enterprise precisely in order to make them more egalitarian, democratic, multicultural, multiethnic, and the like?”21 In other words, how can we contribute to and learn from the political projects underway while holding onto a Marxist theoretical framework and sharing the stated emancipatory goals of those governments? And how can we gauge the achievements, flaws, and trajectories of these governments without rejecting them or unequivocally backing their every move?


An oft neglected theoretical perspective presents itself as a stepping stone out of the mire: Nicos Poulantzas’ theory of the capitalist state.22 The most intriguing elements of this theory for a left-wing critique of the pink tide are found in State, Power, Socialism, published a year prior to the author’s death in 1979. Part of the difficulty with this text is that, as Stuart Hall noted in a commemorative 1980 article, many of its more exciting insights require further explication.23 Poulantzas opened a path that he himself did not live long enough to walk. Even his most basic insights, however, can shed some light on our central question of how best to evaluate 21st century socialism today. First, with Poulantzas’ concept of state power, it is possible to rethink what it means for a president like Chávez or a movement like Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to “take power.” And with the complementary idea of the institutional materiality of the state , we can reexamine key transitional questions—like the status of the nation, or the social division of labor—in order to grasp how different political changes may deepen the process of socialist construction. Together, these two concepts, state power and institutional materiality, form the nucleus of a general political orientation toward the pink tide.

For Poulantzas, Marx and Engels’ comment in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that the state is the committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie is a starting point, but it is incomplete. It aims at the first concept, state power, without recognizing that the state is “a special apparatus, exhibiting a peculiar material framework that cannot be reduced to given relations of political domination.”24 In other words, the flaw in Marx and Engels’ most commonly cited (but by no means only) formulation on the state is that it fails to specify the shape and role of the state machinery within the broader landscape of bourgeois class rule. Rather than speaking to its institutional materiality, it suggests that it is enough to qualify a state as a bourgeois state in order to understand it.

But even state power is more complex than it appears in the “ruling committee” formulation: important divisions traverse its configuration, meaning that the state cannot be reduced to the expression of a unified class. Class conflict, says Poulantzas, is “inscribed into the institutional structure of the state.”25 This means that, against the notion of class dictatorship emphasized by Lenin, the state is not the product of a victory by one class over another, but is rather itself “a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions.”26 That is to say, the antagonism with which classes encounter each other in the economic realm reproduces itself politically on the terrain—though not only on this this terrain—of the state. Thus, even while a state may be bourgeois in the sense that it ultimately reproduces capitalist relations of production, Poulantzas’ argument suggests that no single class or class fraction can dictate the terms of this reproduction.27 The presence of social and political resistance by exploited classes is registered in the political architecture of bourgeois class domination.

Most basically, one can conceptualize by this the concrete presence of the working classes and other oppressed groups within state institutions. The capitalist state comprises massive numbers of workers whose obedience allow it to operate effectively, or not. In the case of Venezuela, for instance, left organizations have found some success organizing the many working class (and often racialized) members of the military. This class division within the armed forces led to a number of soldier-led rebellions and defections during the armed movements of the Left in the 1960s, and also spawned the clandestine Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement from which Chávez himself emerged.28 The internal divisions in the military also proved important during the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, when number of junior officers decided to turn against the coup-plotters and join the masses of more or less organized workers and Caracas slum-dwellers who crowded the streets to demand his return.29 In short, state power in this context is conditioned by the status of class conflict: the ruling classes cannot simply possess or occupy it as if in separation from the the classes they exploit, since these classes are vital to the operation of the state itself.

Cutting across these class divisions, another set of fissures separates the many institutional components that frame the broader structure of state power. Side-by-side apparatuses with potentially clashing goals—the military, the bureaucracy of this or that department, even individual judges or legislators—engage in a complex, situationally dependent, and ultimately contingent interplay of decisions and priorities.30 These differing priorities may in turn be the manifestation of variable configurations of class contradiction within a given branch or department. Ultimately, says Poulantzas, developing Althusser’s account of the relative autonomy of the state, “the establishment of the State’s policy must be seen as the result of class contradictions inscribed in the very structure of the State.”31 That is, through the interaction of the various departments and branches affected in different ways by class relationships, the state takes on a number of potentially conflictive projects, and cannot therefore be thought as an instrument to be unilaterally directed by a particular class.

Here, Poulantzas’ non-unitary concept of state power provides some insight into the role and limits of charismatic leaders like Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and it can correct some misconceptions arising from an overemphasis on hegemony. If the theory of hegemony can explain how these figures became emblematic of their respective movements through the play of empty signifiers and subaltern demands, the concept of the relatively autonomous and internally divided state shows that the ideological prominence that led to their election does not translate into unfettered political power. The positions of such leaders are always both bolstered by and beholden to the contours of class struggle and the multifarious structures of the capitalist states they inherit. As Beasley-Murray correctly argues, hegemony theory tends toward a fetishization of both state and individual leader that finds its apogee in the ideology of populism. The result is either a hope- or fear-driven assumption (depending on your political position) of instrumentalism: the populist President appears to have complete control of the State. Poulantzas’ conceptualization of relative autonomy precludes such conclusions; “A change in state power,” he writes, “is never enough to transform the materiality of the state apparatus,” rather, “such a transformation depends on a specific kind of operation and action.”32 But what is this “specific kind of operation and action”? And what sort of transformations are we to expect or hope for in any case? To ask this is to bring into view the question of institutional materiality.


While the concept of state power designates how different positions of power are structurally related, institutional materiality designates the specific means and circuits through which these relationships crystallize in capitalism.33 To ask about the specifics of the institutional materiality of the state in a given scenario is to ask: what is the sedimented shape of political bodies and institutions in a given social formation, and by what mechanisms are they linked to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production and the classes that inhere in it? From this perspective, Poulantzas offers further inquiries—what is it about capitalism that has made so prominent the institutions of representative democracy, such as parliaments and legislatures? How might the separation between the governing and the governed be related to the larger division of manual and intellectual labor within capitalism? Why is the individual, and not some other unit, the object of power in such political circumstances? And why, more often than not, has nationality become the de facto binding agent of capitalist states?

Of course, not all of these can be directly addressed here, and the answers may vary in different concrete scenarios. But taken alongside the concept of state power, the concept of institutional materiality can set these questions into motion, so to speak, as questions of transformation—and perhaps even point toward the transition to a new mode of production. In other words, in understanding how the specific shape of the state relates to the distribution of power both within and outside of it, the measures by which that shape can change become clearer.

The transformation of the institutional materiality of the state, however, should be differentiated from minor policy shifts in response to popular demands. This distinction is what separates social democratic welfare states from potentially revolutionary ones. It is the difference between a supposedly socialist state that tries to create objective economic conditions for a perpetually deferred future socialist society, and one that sets itself to, as Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera says, “support as much as possible the deployment of society’s autonomous organizational capacities,” and to invite the masses into the political circuitry of the state.34

Poulantzas approaches this issue in terms of the social division of labor. He argues that the existence of a specific institution charged with social organization ( the state) is an instance of the division between intellectual labor and manual labor at the heart of the broader social division of labor within capitalism.35 This insight opens various options for left political projects. It would be characteristic of social democracy, for instance, to act strictly within the confines of the existing social division of labor, governing with an eye toward the masses, and toward a redistribution of wealth, toward regulating capital, and even taking on a more direct organizational role in some industries by nationalizing them. In contrast, a revolutionary perspective on this point would have to refigure this divide: if the science of government is an intellectual project of capital, then one thing that the institutionalized Left must do, instead of simply governing differently, is open up governing apparatuses to those who were previously excluded from this intellectual work with the hope that the types of knowledge they bring to social organization will displace that of a class trained in reproducing relations of exploitation.

To what extent are pink tide governments and the movements that propel them expanding the possibilities for regular mass engagement with the day-to-day work of governing, usually ceded to technocrats and representatives? How might workers, campesinos, neighborhood organizations, and others execute their own projects with resources that would otherwise travel through the upper echelons of the state? In short, to what extent is the state being restructured so as to encourage and make possible popular participation?

In the case of Bolivarian Venezuela, Article 62 of the 1999 Constitution articulates this goal: “The participation of the people in the formation, execution, and control of public administration is the necessary means to achieve its protagonism and guarantee its complete development, both individual and collective.”36 The state, according to Article 62, is to create conditions favorable to this possibility. A great number of programs have come into existence to this end, including Communal Councils that, as stated in the 2006 law implementing them, “allow the organized people to directly manage public policy and projects oriented toward responding to the needs and aspirations of communities in the construction of a society of equity and social justice.37

Also in the spirit of Article 62 is the a policy of worker-state co-management that actually blurs the lines between the political and the economic by redistributing the intellectual work of social organization across the boundaries of the productive sphere. Inveval, a worker-occupied valve producer in the coastal state of Miranda, is one of the more successful projects of co-management, operating not only under worker control, but in tandem with local community-based participatory structures in order to avoid the capitalist pitfalls that undo the best efforts of many workers’ cooperatives. The balance of worker power, community power and the state at Inveval creates a nexus of transformation in which the top-down social division of labor has no place.38 The realms of production, consumption, and distribution are bound together in a novel reconfiguration of the social division of labor.

Thus, against social democracy, the thing to pay attention to in the marea rosada is not so much a state’s intervention in the economy, as if from the outside, but rather the state’s efforts to transform its own role in the social division division of labor and refigure class relationships that otherwise exclude direct producers from decision-making. The above are just brief examples—deserving of more scrutiny—whose significance becomes intelligible within this Poulantzian theoretical framework. Without then succumbing to an abstract faith in participation, and without confusing these examples for the death throes of capitalism, this perspective illuminates the emphasis on participatory democracy that pervades the discourse of the institutionalized Latin American Left. The standard of this greater participation, from a critical left perspective, must be to leave open the political door to greater transformations down the line. Against economism or revisionism, the pink tide states can only create post-capitalist possibilities by building, as Marta Harnecker says, “spaces of popular protagonism that continue to prepare the popular sectors to exercise power from the simplest level to the most complex.”39

The importance of reflexive political transformation also becomes clear through the example of the nation. Nationalism is, of course, a recurring historical question for the Left, and one with important consequences for any revolutionary approach to politics. With respect to Latin America, John Beverley argues (contra Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) that the nation is still an indispensable political locus: “To construct the politics of the multitude today, under conditions of globalization and in the face of the neoliberal critique and privatization of state functions requires a relegitimization and reterritorialization of the nation-state.”40 In other words, with the apparent fragmentation and weakening of the nation-state vis-á-vis international capital, the Left needs to push back, emphasizing its importance and making it a site of struggle.

Beverley makes a fair point here, but wades into dangerous territory in the process: In the mid-20th century, the consolidation of mestizo national-popular identities throughout Latin America, alongside import-substitution economic models, offered an important way for various national capitals to strengthen themselves and to build corporatist arrangements through unions and political parties. The result of this political project in ostensible defense of the nation was largely a co-optation of fledgling worker’s movements and a refusal to acknowledge the persistence of racism and indigenous oppression.41 And as the wave of right wing dictatorships that followed in the wake of these projects shows, the contradictions within these national coalitions were always resolved in favor of capital.42

Acknowledging this history under the heading of “populist” nationalism however, Beverley hopes for something else:

What might be envisioned in the place of both classical nineteenth-century style nationalism and more recent populist forms of nationalism is a new kind of politics that interpellates “the people” not as a unitary, homogeneously modern subject, but rather in the fashion of [Otto] Bauer’s “communities of will,” as internally fissured, heterogeneous, multiple.43

This general call for pluralism allows Beverley to differentiate his hopes from those of last century’s nation building projects, yet he does not remark on the role of the state in actualizing his ideals, nor on the relationship of different internal fissures—namely class struggle—to nationalism.

Poulantzas can fill in these gaps on the heterogeneity of the nation. Like the state itself, “the modern nation is… the outcome of a relationship of forces between ‘modern’ social classes—one in which the nation is the stake for the various classes.”44 In other words, the fractures and divisions that traverse the state also cut through the nation. This is because, according to Poulantzas, the nation itself is a state project, built and defined through the construction of borders and the shaping of national histories.45 To construct the nation as an “internally fissured, heterogeneous, multiple,” then, is to play upon borders and histories as they relate to existing social divisions. Just as with the division of labor, the point is not to use the existing apparatuses to alleviate the ills of capitalism—for instance by smoothing over class or racial heterogeneity with a new discursive construction. Instead, a refiguration of the nation-state must bring those antagonisms into its very structure in order to open new political possibilities.

If, as Poulantzas says,“the state establishes the modern nation by eliminating other national pasts and turning them into variations on its own history,” then to what extent have the marea rosada states staked a claim for legitimacy by digging up these other pasts? What does it mean for a state to build upon an alternative and potentially divisive conception of subaltern history that explicitly challenges, and does not merely subsume, the historical narration of the dominant national framework? In other words, how do these states set the stage for transformation by bringing different claims to national legitimacy into conflict—in particular, by drawing on hidden discourses that locate the nation not in the past of the colonizers, or even of mestizo unity, but rather, of the oppressed, excluded, and exploited?

In Venezuela, the state’s acknowledgement of social conflict is itself a rebuke to a certain national history which has emphasized the “Venezuelan exception” in the second half of the 20th century. This supposedly exceptional history of Venezuelan unity and stability at a time when other South and Central American countries were divided by political strife was only achieved, in fact, through the strategy of puntofijismo, wherein Venezuela’s three major political parties agreed, following the 1959 introduction of formal democracy, to share power at the expense of both the radical Left and the remnants of the old rightist regime, and to enforce this pact through violent repression and exclusion of anyone who would question it.46 Chávez’s election marked the end of puntofijismo; with the support of the masses, political antagonism, which had erupted more than a few times even under that system, burst out into the open and achieved a presence in the state. The accusations that he was a divisive figure are correct in this respect: Chávez and the movements that brought him to power sought precisely to highlight the already divided status of the Venezuelan nation that had been obscured through 40 years of elite party rule. Thus, by acknowledging the existence of at least two Venezuelan nations, divided by class, the Bolivarian state took a giant forward leap in the founding of a new history and a new Venezuelan nation.

The theory of hegemony can, in part, explain this logic of equivalence wherein the social is split along increasingly clear lines, and one of Laclau’s great contributions is to reveal how these discursive demarcations (e.g., two Venezuelas) emerge. But Poulantzas introduces the question of how the state participates in and solidifies these reconceptualizations of the divided nation—i.e, to what extent these discursive constructions at the level of hegemony translate into changes in the state’s own nation-building role.

The case of Bolivia provides concrete examples of such changes. There, the rise of the Movimiento al Socialismo and the eventual propulsion of Evo Morales to the country’s presidency corresponded to a series of racial and class-based re-identifications of indigenous and national identity.47 MAS began as the “political instrument” of a grassroots coca growers syndicate, but with its 2006 entry into various key positions of state power, the battle it had been waging for social hegemony on the question of the nation—what is the Bolivian nation? what of the other indigenous nations that exist within the Bolivian borders?—entered the terrain of the state under the banner of plurinationalism. The 2009 constitution ended the Republic of Bolivia, a title and form of government predicated on national unity, and created the Plurinational State of Bolivia in its place; representatives from indigenous communities took seats alongside other deputies in the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly. That is to say, Bolivia gave up the very concept of the nation-state, and members of MAS, with massive participatory support, began to restructure both state power and institutional apparatuses on the basis of the Bolivian multitude’s internal divisions of class, race, and nationality.

The point here is not whether one is “for or against” the nation-state as a site of political mobilization—this matter is already settled in the case of the pink tide. One must ask instead how left-leaning governments can use the positive power of the state to transform the shape and content of the nation, even as they rely on it, and consider whether they are creating political space through which constituent power can push social transformation toward a decisive break with the capitalism. What should be clear, more broadly, is that beyond the questions of who is in charge and who they claim to represent stands the pressing matter of how those in power can reconfigure the various parts of the state, its institutional materiality, and change the terms of popular political engagement with an eye toward continuing struggle and future ruptures.


Changes in theoretical practice must match the changes in the political practice of those we support. Though the course of political developments must guide any ongoing analysis of the pink tide, and though hegemony theory has its uses, Poulantzas’ state theory offers a necessary orientation for the current conjuncture.

Once we recognize that state power is a variegated and contradictory phenomenon, and that the task of state power is not simply to “take over” the state machinery, as one takes over the driver’s seat of a vehicle, then the need to deeply reconfigure the already-divided structure of the state becomes obvious. But how can one know when the reconfigurations are moving in the right direction? The guiding question is this: to what extent are purportedly left-leaning states sharpening the divisions that inhere in the state’s institutional materiality? In other words, to what extent are they carrying class struggle into the structure of the state apparatus, not to tame or reconcile it, but to advance, on the political level, the possibility of a rupture with capitalism? Where the mandate of capitalist states is always to accommodate or repress antagonism, the mandate of 21st century socialism must be heighten it and bring it to its political, and not solely economic, conclusions.

The political processes underway across Latin America are something less than communism, but they are something more than reformism. As they move on, however, they have the potential to become either. Their momentum is difficult to gauge; at times it is hard to tell the difference between a genuine opening of a state’s political structure and a cynical attempt to garner popular favor. The proof can only be in concrete transformations. Further elaboration of Poulantzas’ theoretical intervention can, hopefully, serve as a guide for understanding these changes. If we are to be fellow travellers of any political project today, and if critical voices can lend any sort of support to these political projects, then we need to track new developments, to push onward to further political rupture, and to encourage the deepening of the class struggle both outside of state apparatuses and within them.

International solidarity, of course, will not make or break a revolution. But cross-border engagements have been the glue of the worker’s movement since the days of the First International, and the stakes now are as high as ever: for if the pink tide turns red, it may sweep the whole world into uncharted seas.

Hans-Jürgen Krahl: From Critical to Revolutionary Theory

Hans-Jürgen Krahl died in a car crash in 1970, at the age of twenty-seven. By that time he had weathered the rise and decline of the Socialist German Student Union (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or SDS), among whose ranks he was, arguably, both the most sophisticated theorist and, after Rudi Dutschke, the most incendiary orator. The SDS had been founded shortly after World War II as the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Germany. As the latter moved towards the center, however, the SDS radicalized, eventually leading to expulsion from its parent organization in 1961. It would soon become the most important student group in Germany, even as its official policy shifted further towards revolutionary Marxism.1 Krahl’s historical significance lies in the role he played as a leader of the SDS in the few years immediately before and after 1967-68, when the West German student movement reached its highest pitch. Yet his theoretical contributions are by no means inconsiderable – nor, in any case, can they be divorced from the practical political activities with which Krahl was occupied at the same time.

In this sense it may be argued that Krahl brought to a head the distinctive relation between theory and practice that had long been gestating within his milieu. Crucial to the development of the SDS was the attendance of various members, including Krahl, at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. It was here that West German students with little or no personal memory of the Nazi period encountered the early works of Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and others, as well as the still-evolving thought of the Institute’s own faculty. As such the Frankfurt School was a living connection to a Weimar-era left that had been utterly destroyed under Hitler. By the same measure it also demonstrated the existence of a Marxist tradition distinct from that of the neighboring German Democratic Republic. New recruits belonging to the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation, such as Jürgen Habermas and Oskar Negt, further enhanced the Institute’s prestige among would-be anti-authoritarians.

Yet for young radicals the Frankfurt School’s legacy was far from unambiguous. Its protagonists had made various compromises merely to survive the preceding decades of Nazism and Cold War reconsolidation. Notably, both Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the Institute’s leaders, had over the years retreated to positions that came to seem quietist if not openly conservative, at least to students beginning to take cues from the era’s decolonization movements, anti-rearmament campaigns, and protests against the Vietnam War. By the end of the 1960s this led to direct confrontations between Adorno and his own students, most dramatically in January 1969 when Adorno called in the police to break up an occupation of the Institute that had been initiated by Krahl himself. Of the Institute’s prewar cohort only Herbert Marcuse – based at the time in San Diego, rather than West Germany – maintained a consistently revolutionary stance. If, then, the paradigmatic relationship between postwar Germans and their parents was inevitably fractured by the question of complicity with Nazism, by the mid- to late-1960s it appeared that a secondary divide was starting to open between the first and second, or more properly the third, generations of critical theorists.

It was in this context that Krahl made his decisive interventions, both theoretically and practically. He began writing a dissertation under Adorno’s supervision in 1965, at the same time as he was becoming involved in the day-to-day operations of the SDS (he had in fact previously belonged to the political Right). Yet by the time of his former teacher’s death in 1969 he was capable of delivering a biting critique of the “political contradiction of Adorno’s critical theory” – in the guise of an obituary, no less.2 Krahl published little during his lifetime. Other than reading notes for personal use, most of his surviving texts are seminar papers or speeches, or were prepared as discussion material for teach-ins.3 Krahl was nonetheless a distinctive voice in the German New Left’s fractious intellectual culture, the flavor of which one can now gather from the pages of journals such as Das Argument and neue kritik, where immediate strategic and tactical concerns of the day tend to lie in close proximity to theoretical discourse at the highest level of abstraction.

Krahl epitomized this mobility. In his writing, points that at first seem straightforward often lead to intricate theoretical justification, while dryly philological matters take on the texture of everyday struggle. Nowhere is this two-step more striking than in the notorious speech he delivered jointly with Dutschke at an SDS conference in September 1967, in which analysis of recent economic trends quickly leads to a call for the “propaganda of gunfire in the Third World” to be complemented by “the propaganda of the deed in the metropole.”4 The effect can be vertiginous – “like Hegel on acid,” Anders Ramsay has said.5 Whatever the defects of his prose, though, Krahl’s basic impulse is always clear. The Frankfurt School as he knew it had passed down a trove of theoretical tools, but these had become transfixed in a conservative attitude that denied the dialectical mediation of theory and practice. It was Krahl who most insisted on taking up the legacy of critical theory from the perspective of revolutionary theory (against the likes of Habermas, it bears mentioning), that is to say – to quote the essay translated in this issue of Viewpoint – from the perspective of a “doctrine the propositions of which describe society in terms of its revolutionary transformability.” His work is thus an immanent critique and eclipse of the very intellectual tradition in which he was profoundly immersed. This perhaps accounts for the somewhat estranging effect of many of Krahl’s essays. In his collected writings published posthumously as Konstitution und Klassenkampf (Constitution and Class Struggle), it may seem that he is only juggling quotations, or drawing links from one Marxist authority to another, yet his conclusions are always, inevitably, nothing if not radical with respect to any given political conjuncture. Precision and philosophical rigor sometimes give way to polemical effect; on the other hand, concrete analysis often bogs down in obscure jargon. Yet, if this is regrettable, it is also the surest index of the intensity with which Krahl set himself to the work of building a theoretically ambitious post-Frankfurt School Marxism adequate to the upheavals of the few years in which he was writing.

So it is with the text at hand, “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State.” (The German title, slightly different, is “Zur Geschichtsphilosophie des autoritären Staates.”) Krahl’s aim here is to review Marxist theories of the state – specifically, of the authoritarian state during periods of economic crisis – in order to better describe the possibility of revolution in his own moment of the late 1960s. This effort takes the form, notably, of a recovery of Max Horkheimer’s essay on the topic from 1940 – one of the author’s most insistently radical statements, which was read feverishly by anti-authoritarians in the 1960s (much to the older and more conservative Horkheimer’s displeasure). We hope Krahl’s piece will speak for itself, in spite of its difficulties, and hence we will merely gesture at the problems it seeks to address. The following strike us as among the more significant: the changed relation of base and superstructure in late capitalism; the necessity that historical materialism apply its method to itself; the obsolescence of the traditional Marxist critique of voluntarism; the degeneration of Marxist theory following the revolutionary wave of the early twentieth century; and the status of both fascism and the welfare state as intermediaries between capitalism and socialism. The piece covers tremendous ground, then. Not everything is equally well developed. Hence the reader is encouraged to approach this essay in part as a snapshot of Krahl’s thinking caught in midair.

So what exactly is the authoritarian state according to Krahl? We might take a cue here from the author himself and approach the authoritarian state as he did, both theoretically as well as practically, with the aim of grasping how its manifestation shapes the form and horizon of political struggle. While Krahl’s essay makes reference to myriad theorists, two tributaries are essential: Horkheimer’s own thoughts on the authoritarian state, and the theory of monopoly capitalism. For Horkheimer, writing in 1940 in a volume dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin, the authoritarian state could appear in fascism as well as in its supposed alternatives, the capitalist welfare state and, especially, state socialism. What defined it was not its form of appearance, but the drive to subsume the contradictions and crisis tendencies of capitalism to deliberate political control. The authoritarian state’s existence not only intensified and expanded modes of extra-economic coercion, but, by suspending capital’s tendency toward crisis, it also abolished the very conditions on which certain Marxist traditions had thought the possibility for revolt depended. Yet rather than lead to resignation, Horkheimer’s analysis moved him to embrace – however briefly – a revolutionary praxis for which the argument of properly mature conditions hardly applied. In his remarkable essay, we see Horkheimer promote the need for the masses to spontaneously capture the forces of production, bypassing and abandoning the state entirely. “For the revolutionary,” Horkheimer declared boldly, “conditions have always been ripe.”6

Krahl’s description of the authoritarian state is in most ways the application of Horkheimer’s theory to a specific historical situation, defined by what Krahl would describe – informed in the first instance by Lenin’s analysis of imperialism – as the shift from competitive to monopoly capitalism. In contrast to the clear influence of Horkheimer on Krahl’s concept of the authoritarian state – he even bookends the essay with quotations from Horkheimer – the main source for his understanding of monopoly capitalism is not specifically stated; it seems instead an amalgamation of classic works by the likes of Engels, Lenin, and Hilferding molded by the many postwar proponents of the monopoly capitalism thesis. While frequently named in the essay, the term “monopoly capital” is, notably, undefined by Krahl. This is no doubt a reflection of the particular West German radical milieu in and to which Krahl was writing, one that took it for granted that capitalism had entered a new historical stage defined by monopolistic business interests. There were (and continue to be) varied takes on what monopoly capitalism is, but to give a sense of Krahl’s intellectual context we might do well to gloss the influential work of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, whose 1966 book Monopoly Capital left a profound mark on the German New Left’s Marxism.7 According to Baran and Sweezy, the world following the Second World War was dominated by large corporations protected against competition from smaller upstarts by government intervention. In such a landscape, states worked together with enterprises to create sites for absorbing economic surpluses generated during the so-called golden age of capitalism, although these outlets were most often military endeavors and the financial sector. Krahl’s understanding of monopoly capitalism certainly encompassed more than Baran and Sweezy’s book; and given his study of value theory, Krahl likely even took issue with their controversial notion of “economic surplus.” Yet the point to be made here is this: the authoritarian state of interest to Krahl is the state formation proper to monopoly capital. As he explains, the authoritarian state consists of the entire “repressive instrumentarium” necessary “to delay definitive economic collapse and to sabotage the real possibility” that unified struggle by the proletariat could bring an end to capitalism. Ultimately Krahl’s theory of the authoritarian state amounts to less a revision of Horkheimer – or, for that matter, Marxian understandings of the state – than a refusal of past theories of the crisis and collapse of capitalism, as well as what he names in a related essay the “fatal social democratic ideology of the Second International that predicted capitalism would bring socialism into being by natural necessity.”8 Such traditions had lost their luster in the years since the First World War, though certain of their precepts continued to hold sway among the intellectual mentors of the German New Left, many of whom looked askance at the younger generation’s political will and worked intensely to convince them to change course. It is into this discourse that Krahl looked to intervene.

Left unstated in the translated portion of this text are the circumstances of its composition, which clarify Krahl’s practical intents for it. The essay was meant to be included in documentation of the “political university” that Frankfurt SDS members had attempted to establish in May of 1968, in the midst of student strikes against passage of the notorious Notstandsgesetze, or emergency laws. These were a major priority of the ruling Grand Coalition between the SPD and the conservative Christian Democrats. They provided for abrogation of basic civil rights in the event of ill-defined states of emergency, and were seen by the German Left as revivals of Nazi-era policies. Despite enormous nationwide street protests and strikes, the laws were passed on May 30 of that year. Failure to sway the course of the legislative process was then an impetus for further radicalization in the New Left milieu and was taken to prove, as Krahl notes in the essay’s preface, here untranslated, that the “dialectic of reform and revolution” had been “historically exhausted.”9 It was the evident paradox of a Social Democratic government pushing through repressive legislation that was presumably the immediate prompt for Krahl’s analysis. But the intervention he sought to make with it targeted an ingrained belief that successful revolutionary action depended on the maturation of proper objective conditions. As the 1960s wore on and the SDS grew increasingly militant, its members were bombarded from all sides by innumerable critiques, the fiercest of which emanated from the halls of the Institute for Social Research itself. It was neither Horkheimer nor Adorno, but a young Jürgen Habermas who distinguished himself as the SDS’s most virulent critic. In a heated debate with Rudi Dutschke in June 1967, Habermas infamously accused the SDS not just of “subjective insolence” in their apparent disregard for the absence of proper conditions for revolutionary struggle, but of “left fascism” as well. It is as a justification for continued and escalated struggle in the face of charges of voluntarism that we might read Krahl’s essay.10 If nothing else, it is a passionate defense of the thesis that the conditions for struggle will always be ripe so long as the “exploitative essence” of the capital relation persists.11

This is the crux of what Krahl’s essay contributes to the theory and praxis of his time. It is a critique of the critiques of voluntarism that faced West Germany’s anti-authoritarian Left. But here we run up against the trickiest aspect of Krahl’s argument. At the time he was writing, critics of the monopoly capitalism thesis, like Paul Mattick, charged its proponents with suggesting that the government intervention made necessary by monopoly capitalism could also make the possibility of abolishing economic crisis and collapse a reality. In his 1966 review of Monopoly Capital, Mattick insisted that even if one were to accept the fleeting actuality of monopoly capitalism, the state that supports it could only be “capable of postponing, but not of abolishing, crisis conditions.”12 Whether Mattick is correct in his accusation that Baran and Sweezy argued state intervention could eliminate the possibility of crisis is certainly beyond the scope of Krahl’s essay. Yet it does force us to ask a question that may nag contemporary readers of “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State”: does Krahl’s description of the authoritarian state take as a premise the possible end of capitalist crisis? Unfortunately, on this topic, the present essay is ambiguous. But keep in mind, the West German recession of 1966, which marked the end of the so-called postwar “Economic Miracle” and reintroduced the country to the vicissitudes of capital accumulation, was still fresh in the memory of the New Left. It was clear to most, Krahl included, that the possibility for economic crisis surely had not passed. And yet Krahl joined the ranks of those who viewed the formation of the Grand Coalition between the SPD and CDU as partly a political response to the return of such economic turbulence. Thus, instead of accepting the authoritarian state as what Krahl describes here as “capital’s political exit from the economic crisis,” we might better grasp it as the “repressive instrumentarium” that allows capital to mediate economic crisis politically.

Over half a decade into the current global crisis – itself the postponed fulfillment of the crisis of the 1970s – evidence of its mediation by the state is everywhere and takes varying forms, from so-called austerity measures to the militarization of police. There is no way to “fix” capital, and there is certainly no fixing it via state intervention. Every measure the state takes to solve the current crisis and prevent its recurrence will only favor capital. As Krahl might have insisted, the only hope we can place in the state is the chance to destroy it. But alas, destroying the state – even the authoritarian state – will never, on its own, bring about the destruction of capital. By the same measure, though, neither will economic crisis automatically lead to the overthrow of capital’s state.

“The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State” ought then to be considered in tandem with Johannes Agnoli’s contemporaneous work on the same topic, some of which is also translated in this issue of Viewpoint: they are joint attempts to advance a theory of the state that does not succumb to one variety or another of Marxist reductionism (the state as either fully autonomous from, or fully subservient to, the interests of capital). As such, the essay can also legitimately be considered part of the prehistory of the 1970s “state derivation debate,” in which context these matters were to be theorized at much greater length. It was precisely to, or against, interventions by Krahl, Agnoli, and their contemporaries around 1968 – in addition to the orthodox theories of the state emanating from both eastern and western Communist Parties – that thinkers such as Claus Offe and Elmar Altvater were to respond a few years later. It is also these slightly later developments that help to fill out what is a missing link in Krahl’s writings on the state. His greatest theoretical legacy, in fact, does not lie in this field at all: it was rather the themes broached in Krahl’s attempts to reconstruct the logic of the commodity and its value-form that were to be taken up in the body of discourses known as the Neue Marx-Lektüre (New Reading of Marx, or NML), value-form theory, and the so-called “capital-logic” school.13 This is in part a matter of convergent evolution rather than direct filiation. Like Krahl, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt (key names in the early history of the NML) had studied with Adorno in Frankfurt; in all three cases, the events of the 1960s stimulated a return to the basics of the Marxist critique of political economy, at the expense of the cultural preoccupations that had dominated much of Adorno’s later work. Their point of departure was therefore similar.

Backhaus and Reichelt, though, have had the luxury of another forty-odd years to further develop the implications of their early insights. Krahl was not so lucky. His untimely death in February of 1970 deprived the SDS of one of its brightest stars. By then, though, the organization was already on its last legs. The era of the K-Groups followed soon thereafter – miniature Marxist-Leninist parties, generally also Maoist in orientation. The “anti-authoritarian” student revolt was then mostly liquidated in favor of supposedly necessary revolutionary discipline. Or else it flipped over into armed struggle, or diffused into the anarchistic Sponti (“Spontaneist”) scene, or into the apolitical counterculture. There was also, of course, what remains today the most lasting political legacy of the German New Left: the “long march through the institutions,” the path of which led directly to founding the Green Party, who, like the SPD before them, would prove their willingness to govern alongside the Christian Democrats. The personnel responsible for these developments had in many cases passed through the SDS orbit. Subsequent contributions to German critical theory also often read like a who’s who of its former activists. But the unity that the group had once provided was irrevocably lost. The SDS itself dissolved barely a month after Krahl’s decease. Though collected and published the next year, his writings of necessity quickly passed into the realm of the merely historical.

He had not been, at any rate, a universally adored figure. The most trenchant critique arrived via tomato: in September of 1968, the feminist Sigrid Rüger landed one on Krahl’s neck at an SDS conference in Frankfurt. Rüger was acting against male dominance within the organization. Ulrike Meinhof soon wrote a column approving the “attack”; it has since been recognized as a foundational moment in German feminism.14 Though it would exceed the scope of this introduction to consider the episode at greater length, perhaps we can at least recommend an aphorism from Marx that Krahl himself was fond enough of quoting – to wit: “The weapon of critique cannot indeed replace the critique of weapons.”

Inside Logistics: Organization, Work, Distinctions

This interview was originally published by Commonware on September 10, 2013.

Commonware: Let us begin with the situation in the logistics industry in Italy. You have highlighted a few times how Italian businesses invest little in innovation, information systems, automatic storage systems and networks, and rely instead on the hyper-exploitation of low-skill labor, or those paid as though they were low-skill even if they have medium or higher levels of education (think of many migrants) – to give a snapshot of the paradigmatic traits of Italian business. How do things stand now in the logistics sector in Italy? What is changing in terms of innovation in this sector?

Sergio Bologna: I do not think that anything has changed, notwithstanding some expansion, in some parts of the country, of warehouses and logistics platforms.1 The expansion is often illusory because it is often a matter of moving from pre-existing locations. In the last three years, logistics companies that had their warehouses outside an interport, or were previously in an interport but left because it was cheaper elsewhere, have transferred to the Bologna and Padua interports, for example.2

Today the prices of warehouses of excellent quality, for sale or rent, are sometimes equal to or even lower than the prices in the less modern warehouses of a few years ago. The crisis is really about the unwillingness of managers or buyers to accept certain prices, and in particular the unwillingness to enter into long-term contracts, so that the owners of the property live with the anxiety of seeing the warehouse empty after a year, forced to go in search of a new tenant. Therefore, the opening of new platforms or new warehouses often coincides with the closing of others, abandoned because they are obsolete. The warehouses of class A, class B, or C correspond to different markets. In addition, you need to keep in mind the different roles of the key figures of this market, in particular the so-called “developers,” who represent a crucial link between landed property or real estate and the actual user, the one who manages the inventory on behalf of the company or on behalf of third parties. In this situation, although the market is not as stable as in certain industrial sectors, it is difficult to imagine that the lessee or purchaser of a warehouse would make the costly investments in advanced technologies – except for some market segments, such as pharmaceuticals and automobile manufacturing, where it is inevitable. So continues the intensive exploitation of the workforce.

Logistics is an industry with a highly complex organization of production and labor. Bearing in mind the extreme differentiation of what we call the logistics system, what are the main forms of labor that keep it running? In which nodes and particular links in the chain is valorization concentrated?

Before we talk about work, you must have a basic idea of ​​which sectors we call logistics. First of all, we should distinguish industrial logistics from distribution logistics. Germany is the world leader, because it has developed industrial logistics to the utmost, with industrial quality standards, thus requiring adequate investment and sophisticated technology. It provides support in the choice of production planning, marketing, and location of production facilities; it provides support in the selection of suppliers, and sometimes get to have its say in the design of the product.

The other thing is distribution logistics, in turn divided into high-end distribution and low-level distribution, which consists essentially in bringing goods to stores according to a logic and parameters set by the owner of the goods or the manufacturer. There may be multi-client distribution companies that have a financial power much higher than that of their clients, and thus are able to organize distribution, with other value-added services attached, in conjunction with the client, and sometimes according to their own criteria. But there are also distribution companies that simply collect the cartons or pallets and deliver them to the point of sale. Logistics can never be understood from outside the warehouse, only by coming inside and looking at the techniques employed, the equipment and the organization of work does one understand if we find ourselves faced with something that belongs to the new economy, in the real sense of the term, or that resembles the sweatshops of Bangladesh.3 There is therefore no organization of standardized labor with specific figures, because every commodity sector has its specificity in industrial logistics, and because in distribution logistics, not all goods are subject to the same treatment (think only of perishable products, the cold chain4 or dangerous and toxic products). Speaking in the generic sense of “logistics” does not lead us anywhere. We have to start with the fundamental distinction between distribution logistics and industrial logistics, we have to identify the different industrial sectors that require a specific logistics, being careful to distinguish the internally organized phases of the cycle and those that are outsourced, assigned through outsourcing to a specialist. Then you have to deal with distribution logistics with its characteristics for specific products, always remembering that the three basic components of a logistics cycle are: the management of orders, warehousing, transportation, with the last two covering at least 50% of the total cost. It should be a labor of in-depth investigation. Out of 40 or 50 logistics companies established in an interport as big as Bologna you can also find 40 or 50 different models.

The last few years, especially the last one, have witnessed in Italy what can be defined as a cycle of struggles of logistics workers, in particular migrants. They fight against the cooperative system,5 which – as you’ve pointed out – constitute a system of blackmail and hyper-exploitation, and are born and die quickly and in a fraudulent way. These cooperatives are often permeated by or use parts of organized crime and the Mafia. What weight do you think these struggles have?

I do not know if you can speak of a cycle of struggles yet. However, they were very important because for the first time they unveiled this sector which is little-known and much discussed (almost always inappropriately). What they have achieved, I don’t know. In some places they haven’t moved anything – with this absurd idolatry of the market elements of incivility have rooted themselves so deeply, even in some unionized quarters, that one part, small I hope, of the diverse world of the counterparty sees the solution only in violent repression. One part, which is the majority, thinks it can get away with declarations of intent, memoranda of understanding and conferences; another side – aware even before the strikes of having taken things too far – sees that it has to change its tune. Unfortunately, the general background conditions are not favorable. The Letta government is a real disaster from this point of view, worse than the Monti-Fornero government, not only because he lives under the blackmail of Berlusconi and is apparently even happy to endure this blackmail, but because in this way he can make reactionary policy, which is now in the Democratic Party’s blood. But why does he continue to think that only flexibility at entry raises employment, repeating the mistake made by all governments from the Treu Law onwards.6 He therefore legitimates the exploitation of the labor force and does not open his mouth on the issue of legality. As for the logistics interests in the governing party, about which he talks plenty, it is clear from the unfortunate choice of the Municipality and the Province of Bologna to sell their controlling interest in the Bologna interport company, a public company that was useful and which will be sold for a pittance to an on-call real estate adventurer. The profits were not reinvested; they preferred to fall back on being indebted to the bank (to make some banker friend happy?). Thus, the interport finds itself with an exposure that eats all the profits, with interest. A clearer display of the ignorance of a local ruling class is hard to find. Therefore, the struggles in this key area will raise the bar, will have to involve the world of transport, will have to create a wide front, otherwise they will end up being crushed.

– Translated by Salar Mohandesi. The trans­la­tor would like to thank Asad Haider, Evan Calder Williams, and Anna Curcio for check­ing the draft.

Lessons for Building a Democratic Workers’ State

The Crisis of Social Democracy

The failure of socialism in the early 20th century is a product of the internal contradictions of bourgeois democracy, which permitted independent working-class organizations on condition that they did not pose a challenge to the capitalist state.1 In this way, the most significant historic fracture on the Left, one which remains with us today, followed the eager embrace of liberal democracy by Second International reformist socialists. The rise of social democracy in Germany dashed any prospect of a transition to working class power in Europe by instead appealing to the base sentiment of nationalism. But even more importantly, the rise of social democracy under capitalism was a declaration of war against the revolutionary Left that advocated a socialist break with capitalism. Social democracy is still more a declaration of war by the leading workers’ organizations of the imperialist countries, as well as their followers, on the oppressed nations of the Third World. From the late nineteenth century and increasingly until today, it is only the unrequited transfer of wealth from the latter to the former that has provided the rising incomes necessary to sustain a mass working class base for social democracy.2

Lenin as intellectual and revolutionary always recognized the state as a coercive apparatus in Tsarist Russia and the capitalist west. Following Marx, Lenin also recognized that socialist revolution would bring about a workers’ state that would maintain power through coercion. Decisively, the socialist state, under attack from national and international capitalists, would operate at the directive of the working class and peasants. Lenin sees the state as permanently repressive. The formation of the workers’ state following the Bolshevik Revolution did not transform the fact that state power remains rooted in class power. By raising an idealistic unobtainable bar for a workers’ state as an idyllic paradise of democracy and equality far above the present bourgeois liberal democracy is sheer fantasy rooted in pretense and chicanery. Georg Lukács underscores the revolutionary nature of the historically grounded state:

Workers’ Soviets as a state apparatus: that is the state as a weapon in the class struggle of a proletariat. Because the proletariat fights against bourgeois class rule and strives to create a classless society, the undialetical and therefore unhistorical and unrevolutionary analysis of opportunism concludes that the proletariat must fight against all class rule; in other words, its own form of domination should under no circumstances be an organ of class rule, of class oppression. Taken abstractly this basic viewpoint is Utopian, for proletarian rule cold never become a reality in this way; taken concretely, however, and applied to the present, it exposes itself as an ideological capitulation to the bourgeoisie.3

Of course, in 1918 the distinction was that the state would operate in the interests of the working class. This did not denote that the state would cease to be a coercive and violent force, even if it would be far less destructive than the bourgeois-liberal state that has operated and continues to operate in the form of a violent dictatorship. The liberal-democratic state is a violent class dictatorship. The targets of this violence and the forms it takes change over time. The maintenance of social peace and inter-class national solidarity in the developed countries has typically come about by displacing violent class antagonisms onto oppressed nations and peoples. Thus, for example, whilst placating the militant (and largely Jim Crow) white working class at home, the Roosevelt presidency of the 1930s stepped up repression of the Puerto Rican independence struggle. As such, the violent class dictatorship of bourgeois society can be seen most clearly in the colonial world. There, as Marx said, is displayed the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” In the same article, he wrote that capitalist progress resembled a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”4

Lenin certainly recognized that the state was an instrument of class power and would be wielded in the interests of the class that seized power. As Lenin states: “The main thing that socialists fail to understand and that constitutes their short-sightedness in matters of theory, their subservience to bourgeois prejudices and their political betrayal of the proletariat is that in capitalist society, whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle intrinsic to that society, there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations.”5 Imperialist capitalism, of course, by displacing class contradictions onto a world scale, allows these dreams to become a reality for a minority of the world’s workers (and, initially, only a minority of the metropolitan workers, too). Further revolutionary workers’ states have not cynically asserted that they were an abstract force for freedom, equality, and a means of guaranteeing social rights, as was the case in every liberal-democratic regime.

Given the failure of European socialist revolutions in the early 20th century, Lenin was most eager to develop the forces of production for the Soviet workers state. To do so also required the domination of the working class. The notion of the state as a transmission belt is a recognition that the seizure of power by workers and peasants would not transform the state straightaway into a socialist paradise.

The act of seizing state power does not alter the landscape and apparatus of the repressive state, which, under workers’ control, represents and defends the class interests of the proletariat; the organized trade unions which formed under liberal democracy must alter their stance to defend the project of socialist transformation in opposition to capital and support of the proletarian state, which at times inevitably will lead to conflict within the labor organization. Lenin makes this patently obvious in in “Role and Functions of the Trade Unions,” upon launching the New Economic Policy in 1922.

The only correct, sound and expedient method of removing friction and of settling disputes between individual contingents of the working class and the organs of the workers’ state is for the trade unions to act as mediators, and through their competent bodies either to enter into negotiations with the competent business organisations on the basis of precise demands and proposals formulated by both sides, or appeal to higher state bodies.6

Marxist currents over the past century have selectively emphasized the Marxist-Leninist vision that they share and discard those doctrinal arguments that may be uncomfortable and do not conveniently fit in to their perspective, rooted in a puerile utopianism. However, a humanitarian and moral Leninist perspective can be drawn from the above passage. To wit: Lenin understands the profound internal divisions within the working class, and the actuality that a parasitic fraction benefits materially from its position in established trade unions under competitive capitalism. Trade unions forged under capitalism are often not engaged in class struggle for systemic change but preoccupied with economism that benefits individual privileged workers over the masses—first against unorganized elements of the class, and then through imperialism and monopoly capitalism.

State Power Today

To understand the relevance of the state power in the contemporary era we are duty-bound to begin by detecting the profound transformations within capitalism over the past 100 years, under which the working classes in the imperial world have gained material advantages through the marginalization and collective exploitation of workers more generally in the Global South. As Ellen Meiksins Wood maintains, state power was and remains crucial to maintaining class power and privilege throughout the history of capitalism,7 a position that is shared by French political economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, who document a class and imperial project under historical capitalism.8 Today more than ever the state exerts power through direct exploitation of workers in the semi-colonial world.

The transformation of the Chinese workers’ state to market socialism is crucial to investigate in this context, as it represents a variation of Lenin’s understanding of developing the forces of production carried to the extreme. The PRC and the Communist Party of China maintain firm control of the organs of all organizational and state power. Workers are subordinated to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a remote trade union organization that claims to represent the interest of organized labor. But we do have a difference: the industrial working class in China is emerging as the majority and is hardly a freeloading class profiteering off the exploitation of lower-wage workers in a dependent state. Concomitantly, Chinese industrial workers maintain state power in the abstract sense and would benefit from organizing a broader class alliance within a mutable and ideologically warped state that is cohering in support of the upper class and foreign capital. Workers are engaged in direct struggle against private, mostly foreign capital devoid of organizational power for their class.

It is fundamental to establish what we mean by the representation of state power. I would argue that the nature and location of state power has not appreciably changed over the last 100 years if understood through the prism of a hierarchical system of states dominated by an imperial core. The former colonial powers continue to dominate the world through international relations established upon superior force and economic dependency. However, state power does vary over time and place, principally according to the dynamic between the political exigencies of class struggle and the economic priorities of its protagonists. Thus, for example, what Bagchi refers to as the developmental state is one in which government policy is designed to promote national economic development.9 The developmental state can, of course, be one in which the national bourgeoisie rules primarily in its own interests, whether by means of parliamentary democracy or right-wing dictatorship (as, for example, in post-war Japan and Rhee’s southern Korea, respectively); one in which the working masses, the peasantry and proletariat, rule (as in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin and China under Mao); or an admixture of the two types (as in the USSR after Stalin and China today). Such states are relatively distinct both from imperialist sates and colonial dependencies. In the early 20th century the United States and a handful of declining European powers dominated the world through the exertion of economic and military force. Today the domination of the US ruling capitalist class is more far-reaching than a century ago, through its increased capacity to demarcate the boundaries of independent state activity and to subordinate the interests of smaller states to its class and geopolitical interests. As imperialism has integrated the world economy even further, any state that threatens to depart from the dominant international neoliberal paradigm is scorned, punished, and excluded from the international system.

The state remains an oppressive instrument today and is controlled by the capitalist class.

Revolutionaries must challenge capital’s control over the state through exposing its sham democratic pretenses that maintain and expand the power of the upper class and under which political competition offers no hope and only misery for the working class. The violent suppression and eradication of political opponents of white supremacy and capitalism in the United States are a testament to the fraudulent nature of alleged “representative” liberal democracy there. We must pursue a revolutionary strategy not just to challenge a rapacious state, but also to forestall the growth of national chauvinism which is emerging due to popular recognition of the failure of electoral systems and the alarming growth of paramilitary police and incarceration systems. The façade of democracy is now exposed to the popular masses at a time when fascist parties are emerging as the only organized political alternative. More likely is a rise of the fascist right, which can manipulate worker interests in Europe and elsewhere far better than liberals and social democrats. Fascism’s appeal to the metropolitan working class in the current crisis stems from its unmitigated promise to maintain and extend existing patterns of labor stratification based on established national and gender hierarchies. Social democratic trade unions and their leaders in settler-colonial states have a history of embracing outright white nationalism and chauvinism when the victims of colonial-capitalist exploitation appear as any form of labor competition amongst them. I would not say that workers whose living standards have always come at the expense of the superexploited and oppressed are being “manipulated” when they are encouraged to join in a renewed drive to plunder them further. Proletarian feminist revolutionary nationalism, by contrast, aims at the expulsion of imperialism from oppressed nation territories by means of creating a worker-led united front of all sections of the oppressed with all patriotic classes. Support for the anti-imperialist struggles of the oppressed nations is a solid foundation for socialist ideology in the current age just as much as it was a century ago. Unfortunately, it faces the same and even greater obstacles now as then. Poulantzas was correct about the necessity of democracy under socialism, but he also did not have a solution to the greater danger of capital and its ability to create the appearance of real power struggles among competitive parties, hypnotize people through the media and disillusion most people who seek to create an equitable democracy.10

A revolutionary stance must first and foremost appear as a political movement that repudiates the existing bourgeois political system and categorically distinguishes the far more exploited workers in the South from those struggling in the North. Occupy gained traction in 2011 amid working class frustration with capitalist domination over state, politics, and society, not just in the West but throughout the world. But the diffuse movements lacked a dialectical historical analysis of class interest in global capitalism and were an expression of disapproval rather than a revolutionary challenge to capitalist hegemony.

Imperialism and the Global South

One hundred and ten years ago, the Industrial Workers of the World formed in strict opposition to the capitalist state. They did not believe in compromising the principles of socialism and believed strongly in a disciplined opposition to capital. The provisional interests of the working class were upheld through tactics. The IWW was a genuinely proletarian party for a time, but the economism of the IWW was responsible for its fatal inability to connect US labor struggles to those of the oppressed internal colonies.

A working class and anti-imperialist party form dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and in opposition to US and western hegemonic power is indispensable. Occupy was right to direct indignation at finance capital, but failed to express its opposition to the capitalist and imperial state as such. A socialist strategy must have at its core taking state power: but to succeed we must challenge the power of imperial states to dictate extractive and unequal policies around the world. We must seek a power bloc that is not the conventional set of left parties, but a bloc of working-class/anti-imperialist forces in the Global South, recognizing class inequality within a divided world system. We also must recognize the sustained importance of imperialism. In the 1970s to 1980s, smug Western Marxists and Eurocommunists all but jettisoned the concept as an applicable means for understanding the reality of class struggles on a global basis. Opposition to capitalism without a grasp of the class divisions that correspond with national boundaries is essential.

Ever since the French Socialists came to power in 1981 it is obvious to us all that the Second International socialism idea of the Left taking power is delusional, even if it provided a momentary period of hope when capital in the modern state was ascendant and the post-war Soviet Union was failing to meet its ideals rooted in building a workers’ state. Socialist praise for the development of civil liberties and human rights in the West is highly insensitive to cultural difference and relevant only to the privileged and a thin layer of the oppressed. We have no examples of successes on the Left in the West that could be sustained for more than a short period of time without a counterattack from capital. The growth of financialization has made it even more difficult to rein in the power of capital in most states. The idea of a power bloc, as in Greece and other regions, is a stimulating undertaking for the Left, but it is also largely bereft of any concrete evidence that it will achieve any gain.

Taking state power is only relevant if seized by socialists in the Third World countries on a regional geographic level. Yes, something like a Soviet Union. In the early 21st century most states can be turned into “failed states” if opposed by capital. Thus. we need to re-imagine taking state power on a much wider level. The axiom of the Cold War era that imperial wars were to be fought over the spoils in the Third World is more prescient today than ever, as class struggles expand in the Global South and the West is extending its exploitation from extractive industries to the production of commodities. The United States is reviving its Cold War stance not in opposition to Russia or other regional states, but out of fear that a working class bloc could form at a time when the West is ever more dependent on both natural resources and commodities produced by workers in the Global South.

This model is analogous to extant socialist states that have asserted the importance of developing the means of production before advancing the class interests. The state becomes essentially the representative of the workers. The question is whether in fact the “communist” State does represent the interests of workers and peasants. This is certainly not the case in China and Vietnam, and other states that are advancing with the patina of “communism.” The Chinese state could crush the “democracy” protests of the educated middle class at Tiananmen Square, and perhaps Hong Kong, but given the nature of state power, this new movement could gain control over the state: a fate much more threatening to The City of London and Wall Street than to Beijing. Thus we could consider the potential of workers’ states to evolve into representatives of the working class, as direct struggles grow at an ever more rapid pace.

Lineaments of the Logistical State

Lineament. noun. GEOLOGY. A linear feature on the earth’s surface, such as a fault.

“State space subordinates both chaos and difference to its implacable logistics.” – Henri Lefebvre, “Space and the State” (1978)

Logistical revolts

Sometimes, we have to look in unlikely places for news that can nourish a radical political imagination.1 World Cargo News, for instance:

According to The Strike Club, the market leader for delay insurance for the maritime trades, the early months of 2013 have been marked by extremely damaging strike action in several countries, which has punished shipowners and charterers even though they are innocent parties. Some of the worst trouble spots in recent weeks have been in South America, particularly Chile, where a three-week strike crippled the country’s key ports, blocking exports of copper, fruit and wood products. Chile’s business leaders estimate the country lost more than US$200M a day due to the conflict. There has also been a miners’ strike in Colombia and it was only this month that US stevedores signed a six-year master contract with employers that removed the strike threat at east and Gulf coast ports. In South East Asia, a port workers’ strike has now dragged on for more than three weeks in Hong Kong, while Greece is currently in the spotlight as the seafarers’ union is threatening strike action in protest at new maritime legislation that, it is claimed, will swell their current high unemployment number. It was against this background that the Strike Club’s directors met in Singapore at the end of last week, where the managers reported higher levels of shore-related claims from a wide range of incidents. These included general strikes, port strikes, strikes by land transport operators, customs and pilots, as well as port closures, blockades by fishermen, physical obstructions and mechanical equipment breakdowns.2

It has long been noted that the apparatuses of control and accumulation that structure the social and material reality of circulation – transport, the energy industry and, after World War Two, “business logistics” as a veritable science of real subsumption – though born to break the bargaining power of transport workers and accumulate profits by annihilating space and depressing wages, have also, especially through their energetic dimensions, created dynamic arenas for class struggle. Tim Mitchell has advanced this argument with great acumen – writing that in the age of coal, workers’ power “derived not just from the organizations they formed, the ideas they began to share on the political alliances that they built, but from the extraordinary quantities of carbon energy that could be used to assemble political agency, by employing the ability to slow, disrupt, or cut off its supply.”3 Interruption here represented a form of power correlated to the energetic vulnerabilities of capital accumulation and political power. The strike and the blockade, control and interruption, were entwined in the history of what, repurposing Mitchell, we could call carbon syndicalism or carbon communism. More recently, struggles at the choke points of a planetary logistical system have led Sergio Bologna to speak of “the multitude of globalization,” designating all of those who work across the supply chain, in the manual and intellectual labour that makes highly complex integrated transnational systems of warehousing, transport, and control possible. It is members of this multitude, clerical workers and truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach,4 crane operators in Hong Kong,5 distribution centre workers for Wal-Mart,6 logistical workers in Northern Italy7, or even air-traffic controllers in Spain8 that have led some to see not a secular vanishing but a shift in the loci of class struggle. This has prodded some to look again at the critical role of antagonism along the conduits of circulation – an abiding feature of the workers’ movement throughout its history – taking into consideration the intensifying significance of logistics to the reproduction of capital, but also its contradictory, uneven relationship to the reproduction of the capital-labor relation.

Can we define or declare a relocation of political and class conflict, in the overdeveloped de-industrializing countries of the “Global North,” from the point of production to the chokepoints of circulation? Is it possible to raise the status of logistical counter-power, in the guise of the blockade, for instance, from that of a tactic to that of a strategy, one that would redefine anti-capitalist and revolutionary action in a context where the appropriation of the means of production is either a distant or an unappealing prospect? In order to begin to approach such challenging issues of theory and practice, I believe it is necessary to consider the centrality of a theory and practice of interruption, targeted at logistical apparatuses, which has become increasingly attractive to anti-systemic militancy – and in a second moment to explore the forms of capitalist and political power that have accompanied the “logistics revolution.”

In this light, I would like to revisit – meaning both to expand and revise – some arguments about the current political significance of logistics that I rehearsed 3 years ago in a brief article for Mute magazine, entitled “Logistics and Opposition.”9 That article tried to identify, picking up on one of the leitmotifs of The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, how an ambient radical preoccupation with events, ruptures, dissensus, was being both concretized and in some ways surpassed by a “spontaneous philosophy of interruption,” or even of sabotage, which saw disruptive actions at the nodes and terminals of circulation (here used loosely to include distribution, transportation, and consumption, but with an emphasis on the logistical) as overtaking workers’ actions at the point of production, the paradigm for nineteenth and twentieth century socialist politics. The Invisible Committee’s stance – which I think faithfully renders a structure of feeling of contemporary radicalism – is nicely encapsulated in the following declaration:

The technical infrastructure of the metropolis is vulnerable: its flows are not merely for the transportation of people and commodities; information and energy circulate by way of wire networks, fibres and channels, which it is possible to attack. To sabotage the social machine with some consequence today means re-conquering and reinventing the means of interrupting its networks. How could a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered useless?10

As suggested by some statements and reflections that accompanied the 2 November 2011 shutdown of the Port of Oakland,11 this could be framed – in that periodizing register so prevalent in contemporary debates – as an epochal transformation in anti-capitalist action, figuratively captured as a move from the strike to the blockade, as well as from workers’ demands centered on their own workplaces to a less regimented convergence of an “extrinsic proletariat” around the interruption of capital flows. If capital not in motion, is (as Marxists and managers concur) no longer capital, then its political immobilization, however fleeting, lends an impact otherwise absent from defensive anti-austerity politics. Motion and mobility, or rather “mobilization,” were the targets of The Invisible Committee’s jeremiads against the depoliticizing despotism of the metropolis, and their wager – common to other strands in contemporary insurrectionary thought – was that the interruption of this spectacular regime of commodity flows may serve as the catalyst for the forging of antagonistic collectivities and forms-of-life: a recasting of the political form of the commune, which traced its arc from the beginning of the age of Empire to the present through the transfiguration of the social spaces and political temporalities of cities such as Paris, Barcelona, Shanghai, Kwangju, mutating in step with economic conjunctures and ideas of politics.

In my Mute article, leaning on Furio Jesi’s remarkable book on the Berlin insurrection of 1919, Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt,12 I suggested that the spatio-temporal imaginary at work here is not one of revolution but of revolt, yet that the revolt imagined in The Coming Insurrection and kindred texts is a different kind of revolt, one aimed not so much at the urbanization of capital, à la David Harvey, but at the all-encompassing integration of production, circulation and distribution in logistical systems through which the supremacy of constant capital prophesied by Marx writes itself on the surface of the earth in forms both titanic and capillary. This is the baleful spatio-energetic complex that Mumford identified when he argued that “processing” had become “the chief form of metropolitan control.”13

Beyond the notion, shared by both the pro- and anti-union left, that attention to logistics lays bare some of capital’s nerve-centers, be they levers for political pressure or sites of negation, I also wanted to speculate about, and partially endorse, a trend in some recent radical thought, to consider the “logistical revolution” as an important site for thinking the “reconfiguration” or “refunctioning” of capitalist social relations of production – efforts towards imagining and practicing non-capitalist uses of quintessential instruments of contemporary capital accumulation. Could the speed, standardization and automation of the container port, or the capacities of Walmart distribution chains, be regarded as possible material bases for alternative, antagonistic organizations of production, circulation and distribution?

My Mute article has been the object of trenchant if comradely critique in a contribution to the journal Endnotes by Jasper Bernes. That piece, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect”14 raises some urgent critical and strategic questions, and I want to take the opportunity to respond to some of its arguments here, since I think they clarify the stakes (as well as the different conceptions) of a politics of circulation. I then want to consider how our conceptions of capital accumulation, the capital-relation, and material flows might determine a certain understanding of tactics of resistance and strategies of antagonism by considering two geographically-inflected ways of approaching these problems – drawn from Marx and Henri Lefebvre – that can help us better to specify what kind of “circulation” is at stake. What emerges from this brief foray into historical materialist geographies of circulation are two corrections to a direct political identification of crisis capitalism with its logistical infrastructure: first, the need to offset a tendency to class logistics and transport on the side of circulation, neglecting Marx’s prescient assertion that locational change could be a commodity on its own right, and that the capitalist transport industry was itself a form of, as it were, directly productive circulation, blurring the boundaries between making and moving15 ; second, now following Lefebvre, a recognition that even or especially in a neoliberal moment, the state has played an absolutely crucial role in the deployment and securitization of logistics, meaning that conflicts at the choke points of circulation are not immediate challenges to value-in-motion, but mediated assaults on capitalist power, in the guise of what Lefebvre depicted in the 1970s as the emergent logistical state.

The reconfiguration thesis: a reply

Bernes’s article takes me to task as a representative of what he calls the “reconfiguration thesis,” a strategic hypothesis which argues that anti-capitalist politics should move beyond a mere negation of capitalist relations, orienting itself instead towards a reckoning with what can be redeployed or refunctioned in the vast, and vastly complex, systems of “dead labor” that capital accumulation has thrown up – systems of which logistics is both an emblem and a vital component. Bernes’s text is an important theoretical balance sheet of the struggles that culminated, for the time being, in the Oakland port blockade, and provides a rich, polemical synthesis of many of their key stakes. For that reason, I hope that engaging with his criticisms can serve to clarify the problems of circulation and logistics that confront present efforts to revive communist theory and practice.

Bernes suggests that I – along with other advocates of the aforementioned thesis, namely Mike Davis16 and Fredric Jameson17 – hold to the argument that “all existing means of production must have some use beyond capital, and that all technological innovation must have, almost categorically, a progressive dimension which is recuperable through a process of ‘determinate negation.’” Though I was purposely bending the stick against a romantic vision of communitarian sabotage,18 I stressed that any “reconfiguration” concerns an evaluation, both practical test and theoretical anticipation, of, as I had said, “what aspects of contemporary capitalism could be refunctioned in the passage to a communist society.” This implies that some (many, even most – the ratio is not decidable a priori) of these aspects could not be refunctioned at all (though they would still need to be somehow dealt with or disposed of). Notwithstanding our strategic differend, or our different intuitions about the leeway for repurposing, I think we broadly agree that the there is no a priori way to simply declare certain features of capitalist production and circulation as allowing for communist uses. The test is a practical and political one. Where we part ways, perhaps, is in the confidence with which Bernes dismisses the potentialities of the assemblages of capitalist accumulation – logistics in primis – which he presents as (to employ Jameson’s terminology) essentially mono-valent, dialectically irrecuperable.

Approaching logistics in a transitional horizon necessarily involves reflecting on how much of the gigantism of the contemporary logistical complex is unthinkable outside of capital’s irrational rationalities – as Sergio Bologna has pointed out in some very interesting “insider” interventions (his “day job” for many years has been as a logistics consultant) on Italian ports: the vast majority of containers travelling east from Europe are full of “shit and air” (waste products and emptiness) and the craze for supercontainers as well as for the building of countless deep ports is comprehensible only in the context of the financialization of maritime assets and the correlated competition between different local authorities for subsidies and capital.19 So speaking of “potentially reconfigurable” devices is, I hope, compatible, with the practical evaluation of what, where and how can any reconfiguration could occur (we could think here of the experience of the Lucas Plan in the UK as a rough precursor for this kind of social practice20 ). As both Bernes’s “communist prospect” and Bologna’s advice to the Italian logistics industry suggest, this would most likely involve smaller ships and fewer ports…

Bernes also suggests that, together with its contribution to the tendential evanescence of an organized working class at the hinges of circulation, the specifically capitalist use-value of logistics – principally its depression of labour costs through a smooth despotism over the international division of labor – means that it cannot be approached by analogy with the factory, traditionally envisaged by the left as the site of workers’ reappropriation and control.

That logistics has been driven by labour arbitrage and class struggle (the latter more in its inaugural moments, I think) is certainly true, but I remain sceptical about some of the conclusions Bernes draws from it, as well as about the assumption that logistics has made possible a linear race to the bottom. Though conditions there are hardly rosy, if we view the logistical revolution say from Shenzen and not Long Beach, the bargaining power as well as wages of some sectors of the Chinese workers have risen.21 Moreover, the complexities of the international division of labour and possibilities of class struggle involved therein are not comprehensible, in my view, through the axis of absolute/relative surplus value alone – as suggested in Bernes’s claim that, inasmuch as the “technological ensemble which logistics superintends is therefore fundamentally different than other ensembles such as the Fordist factory,” focusing on labour arbitrage rather than increased labour productivity, logistics “is absolute surplus value masquerading as relative surplus value.” The passage from craft to industrial (assembly line) production in the earlier twentieth century was also viewed as a devastation of the workplace and associational bargaining power of workers, but it turned out not to be such a univocal process. Here I think Bernes falls into what for me remains a serious shortcoming of so-called communization theory, the positing of a linear periodization of figures of struggle and exploitation (not dissimilar from the periodizing problems of operaismo, with a similar tendency to generalise from “Northern” conditions), and a disregard for the political and economic unevenness of capitalism, which at times ends up generating a baleful materialist teleology. In short, the notion that Chinese industrial strikes are somehow historically residual is as untenable today as the Stalinist notion that agrarian struggles were regressive was in the 1940s.

In the final analysis, I think the economic and political arguments enlisted by Bernes to establish that logistical systems are lacking the “refunctionable” potentialities that were once projected onto the factory are not definitive. In effect, we could see logistics as a crucial component of the materialization of that old Italian workerist thesis, the “social factory.” Leaning on the embryonic theorization of value-production in the transport industry in volume 2 of Capital (on which more below), on the material reality that commodities today are “manufactured across logistics space,”22 as well as on the explicit capitalist strategy behind the rise of logistics in the postwar period – grounded as it is on the idea of a “shift from cost minimization after production to value added across circulatory systems”23 – it seems difficult not to conclude that logistics is only analytically and not actually separable from the production-process nowadays, such that we could really hive-off valorization in the factory (which is a spatially-segregated production unit only in economic abstraction) from valorization at the container terminal. Moreover, as a complex material and social relation of circulation and exploitation, it does not seem to me that logistics is “more” constitutively hostile to workers’ needs than the factory. That said, I think Bernes’s essay is to be commended for delineating some of the formidable problems for political strategy and especially for envisaging transitions out of capitalism that the “logistics revolution” entails.

Bernes, who nicely presents logistics not only as “capital’s art of war” but as its own solution to what Jameson had called the problem of cognitive mapping rejects the idea that some kind of counter-logistics, or more bluntly the collective planning of circulation, could throw up such a map.24 For him:

Because of the uneven distribution of productive means and capitals – not to mention the tendency for geographical specialisation, the concentration of certain lines in certain areas (textiles in Bangladesh, for instance) – the system is not scalable in any way but up. It does not permit partitioning by continent, hemisphere, zone or nation. It must be managed as a totality or not at all. Therefore, nearly all proponents of the reconfiguration thesis assume high-volume and hyper-global distribution in their socialist or communist system, even if the usefulness of such distributions beyond production for profit remain unclear.

The fundamental opacity of logistical systems to workers has been much remarked upon, and it can indeed be seen as one of its broadly political functions. As Allan Sekula noted, those boxes, uncannily proportioned like dollar bills, are also coffins of labor-power.25 Yet, for all of the skepticism towards refunctioning this state of affairs should inspire, we can’t simply infer from these blockages to proletarian knowledge that an emancipatory refunctioning (and therefore profound transformation) of these systems is impossible. One should be wary in any case of treating this primarily as an issue about the mappability of the system for the individual, when it is really a question of devising forms of collective control, which might include – especially at larger scales of social mediation – considerable quotas of opacity. In this regard, short of the unviable idea that a post-capitalist society must be local, and that its politics needs involve the transparency of the small community or commune, I think the world market remains, in however arduous a way, a presupposition (not a framework!) for any transition out of capitalism. Most things of worth and interest are beyond the cognizability of single individuals (scientific developments, cultural traditions, how technology works, what have you) but this only poses a problem as such if we think dis-alienation is a matter of personalization, of making us “at home in the world” (a cast of mind that some recent radical theory shares with the palliative spectacles of ethical consumption it would undoubtedly castigate). I struggle to see why this would either be emancipatory or attractive. I also don’t think that, as Bernes suggests, logistics is a view from nowhere of Capital-as-subject: it is a deeply incoherent, contradictory, conflicted, and competitive domain; a strategic field of fierce competition sitting uneasily with state and security coordination, as well as inevitable processes of standardization. Process mappings, while striving towards homogeneity of spaces and codes, remain strategic weapons in the hands of capitalist agents, not overviews by “capital.” Ideas of full visibility as integral flexibility are part of the ideology (and fantasy) of logistics, which in many ways is just a later iteration of other ideologies of capitalist efficacy: Taylorism, Toyotism, etc. The value-dynamics and spaces of logistics are deeply contradictory, in ways I will explore further below with reference to Lefebvre; they are more likely to be gummed up – for the time being – by internal impasses than by resolute political intervention.

Bernes is rightly wary of those “reconfigurationists” who see the problems of building a post-capitalist society resolved by a digital magic bullet – communist algorithms of distribution and other such hopeful schemes. But faced with such technological fixes, it is worth recalling that26 paucity of solutions has never been an argument for the non-existence of problems. Bernes also takes me to task for asserting, in keeping with some of David Harvey’s observations in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, that social processes and spaces have built-in hierarchies and opacities, and that a sober if intransigent anti-capitalist politics would require, by analogy with Marcuse’s distinction between surplus and necessary repression, to think, practically, through something like “necessary alienation.” What I meant by this was the (perhaps banal) point that the reproduction of social life in general, even outside of the mediation of value, will involve certain asymmetries of authority, partial delegations of control, opacity, and so forth. Post-capitalism, or communism, is not the absence of social form or social synthesis but another form or synthesis, another mode of regulation – as Raymond Williams noted, a more complex one.

Here I think Bernes takes back with one hand what he’s abandoned with the other. On one side, he writes about those who through blockades and communes, “occupations,” may try to undo the rule of capital: “To meet their own needs and the needs of others, these proletarians would have to engage in the production of food and other necessaries, the capacity for which does not exist in most countries.” I agree, and would add, that, as such, there is nothing particularly attractive about the devastation of capitalist everyday life, in all its alienations, in favour of some kind of re-ruralization, where the social form is based on comradeship, friendship, or some kind of band of brothers bond (communism too needs to think through “unsociable sociability”). But then he says that: “The absence of opportunities for ‘reconfiguration’ will mean that in their attempts to break from capitalism proletarians will need to find other ways of meeting their needs.” To which I think a sober material analysis will simply answer: they won’t (even if, which I think would be a big problem, we maintain “needs” as defined in a rather biological way). This entails that in many cases (perhaps most – but again this is not an a priori matter) “delinking” is simply not an option.

The rhetoric of communist abundance has most likely seen its day, but not for that should it be replaced by some kind of communism of penury or emergency – and in this sense I think the “delinking” point is somewhat “terroristic” in form (in the noble sense of a Sartrean terror-fraternity, not of the PATRIOT Act): a communism of survival in a besieged enclave forced by the fact that existing in a global capitalist system involves irrevocable compromises. This other formulation, on the other hand, I find much more plausible, and, strategic differences aside, would endorse: “one might also develop a functional understanding of the infrastructure of capital, such that one then knew which technologies and productive means would be orphaned by a partial or total delinking from planetary flows, which ones might alternately be conserved or converted, and what the major practical and technical questions facing a revolutionary situation might look like.” The “inventory” would certainly be a part of anything I would consider as refunctioning. As would of course the problem of what to do with the unrefunctionable dead labors (both in terms of the social relations they bear, and the material problems they pose, the waste they perpetuate). Planned communist obsolescence perhaps? This too would be the object of some pretty trenchant struggles, for which we have some interesting preludes in the big disputes in the 1920s over whether the urban form as it existed was compatible with communism (here I’m more with Mike Davis than with Amadeo Bordiga’s urban abolitionism in his bracing screed “Space Versus Cement,”27 much as I’m exceedingly fond of the latter).

Bernes, reflecting on the experience of Oakland – which he’s largely right in seeing as a high point of the Occupy moment, transcending a certain fetishism for democratic participation, while rediscovering forms of struggle adequate to our present – puts much emphasis on the blockade, but I have questions as to whether its status as tactic and strategy has been duly clarified here. In particular, I remain unclear about what the criteria of political “efficacy” are in this instance. Presumably, they are not a matter of workplace bargaining power – of the kind recently seen in Long Beach or the Hong Kong container port, or in that sadly missed opportunity that was the Spanish air traffic controllers strike. Is “power” here measured principally by providing an emblem (logistics as a kind of symbolic insurrectional adversary, rather than a lever for traditional workers’ politics), as a point of political condensation? Is it marked by the losses incurred by capital (usually nugatory in the broader scheme, even in strong struggles)? What kind of political spaces and durable organization (in the widest sense of the term) can we see coalescing around the blockade as a form of contemporary struggle?

Social forms of dead labor

As I’ve noted, Bernes’s argument against the presupposition that devices and systems crucial to capital accumulation could be refunctioned in a non-capitalist guise is a healthy reminder of the fact that we’re never dealing with mere materiality or technology, but with certain often invisible social forms that animate given configurations of matter. Yet if we concur that technological contents or forces can’t simply slough off their forms and find themselves happily relocated within other relations of production and reproduction, we should likewise, while remaining cognizant of the material and energetic preconditions for certain forms, not fetishize them. This, it seems to me, is one of the pitfalls of the “interruptive strain” in the politics of circulation – which sees the blockage as a kind of material revelation (this is a problem which haunts The Coming Insurrection much more than Bernes’s essay). In this respect, there is a left version here of the notion of frontstaging the urban backstage which has recently been ably criticized by Stephen Graham28 – where state phobias and practices of disruption (like military strategy of “shutting cities down”) are simply mirrored in activist discourses, where disruption is not sufficiently linked to control.

One of the theoretical limits of the philosophy of interruption, whether spontaneous or reflexive, that marks much contemporary radicalism lies then in its insufficient consideration of the polysemy of “circulation.”29 The hypostasis of the blockade tactic can suggest that all varieties of circulation may be targeted at the “choke points” of logistics. But even if we remain only within the bounds of the Marxian canon, circulation can take an at times bewildering and slippery variety of guises. It can denote flows of material and resources (such as would exist in any mode of production); the sphere of exchange (that domain ruled over by freedom, equality and Bentham, and from which most of our misprisions about liberalism are deemed to derive); it can denote circulating as opposed to fixed capital (meaning the capital consumed in process of production, be it raw materials or the exertion of living labour-power); but it can also mean “capital of circulation,” which takes different guises in its travels through the market – leading to Marx’s crucial reflections on “circulation time,” which the annihilation of space through time is constantly driving to diminish. We can even think of circulation in keeping with the circuits in which Marx maps the formal metamorphosis of value, which are also the sites, at the level of theory, of capital’s contradictions.

In 1928, Isaak Illich Rubin pioneered the discussion of Marx as a thinker of “social form.” Rubin stressed how Marx’s critique of classical political economy hinges on distinguishing between “material categories” concerned with “technical methods and instruments of labour,” on the one hand, and “social forms” concerned with specifically capitalist relations, on the other. The blind spot of political economy is precisely its inability, evidenced by the theory of commodity fetishism, to think about why these particular value-forms are generated in bourgeois society, wrongly supposing that it is in transhistorical “material categories” – a physiological understanding of labor rather than labor-power, exchange separate from capital, and so on – that one can look for the clues to the structure and development of a mode of production.

Contrariwise, it is “the social function which is realized through a thing [that] gives this thing a particular social character, a determined social form, a ‘determination of form’ (Formbestimmtheit), as Marx frequently wrote.”30 Marx’s remonstrations against those political economists who, in Rubin’s terms, cannot see the “social forms” lying “beneath” the “technical functions in the process of material production” are legion. Historical materialism is predicated on the rejection of the spontaneous materialism of the political economists. This is the impetus behind such seemingly anti-materialist declarations as this famous passage from Volume 1 of Capital: “The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition.”31 The critique of “materialism” is also a key methodological postulate in Volume 2, for instance in Marx’s sardonic attempts on those who think that fixed capital, for instance, should be “fixed” in a common-sensically material sense of the term. This is how political economists go astray:

Firstly, certain properties that characterize the means of labour materially are made into direct properties of fixed capital, e.g. physical immobility, such as that of a house. But it is always easy to show that other means of labour, which are also as such fixed capital, ships for example, have the opposite property, i.e. physical mobility. Alternatively, the formal economic characteristic that arises from the circulation of value is confused with a concrete [dinglich] property; as if things, which are never capital at all in themselves, could already in themselves and by nature be capital in a definite form, fixed or circulating.32

What’s more, those ships (say the new mega-containers lumbering their way onto the market and demanding huge outlays of public finances on the construction of the corresponding ports) may themselves be best understood as financial assets and not just physical capitals or commodities. What happens then if we consider the question of circulation less literally? And what would it mean to struggle not simply against material flows but against the social forms that channel them? Can we think of different types of struggle in terms of how they map onto the various meanings of circulation mentioned above?

On the one level, the notion that capital not in motion is no longer capital, or, as Marx rather stunningly puts it, that “continuity is a productive force of labour,” has important political resonances – though these are far more palpable in in the creeping devastation of deindustrialization than in the successful blockade. On the other, the nature of capital is such that the arms race to lessen circulation times by deploying (and securitizing) vast circulatory apparatuses necessarily involves the hypertrophy of constant capital, dwarfing variable capital (proletarians) and revealing potentially paralyzing quanta of fixity as the price for accelerated circulation. I have recently tried to argue, in another piece for Mute, how in the real-estate politics and energetic difficulties plaguing the seemingly ethereal rise of high-frequency trading we could witness such a revenge of matter and space upon financial ideality – a revenge we can only understand in terms of certain social forms that are specifically capitalist.33 In an economic field whose drive to instantaneousness seems to obliterate spatial difference, this corroborates, in the financial arena, a well-known observation from Marx’s Grundrisse:

The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange – the means of communication and transport – become for the costs of circulation. Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.34

For the costs of financial circulation “physical conditions” are paramount – as manifested in the fierce competition over “co-located” server space, proximity to trading venues and access to data, and in related phenomena like the rush to acquire and develop real-estate for data centres. As mentioned above, Marx had already argued in volume 2 of Capital that transport is itself a domain of production, in which the commodity, as he puts it, “is the change of place itself” – revisiting this thesis in the light of financializtion and the logistics revolution makes a politically overdetermined schematism separating production and circulation, the factory and the port, all the more difficult to sustain.

But I have as yet only glancingly dealt with a or perhaps the key player in the politics of circulation: the state. One of the strategic dangers of a politics of interruption is to think of the blockade as a kind of unmediated confrontation with or negation of the social form of value, of capital as a social relation, in which the state is either ignored or reduced to the mesmerizing metonym of the cop. I’d like instead, simply by way of opening up another geographical and materialist avenue of inquiry, to sketch out how the very thinker who pioneered the analysis of the production of space also gave us some tools to think through the imbrication of logistics and the state – something easily verified, for instance, by the strategic panics and confusions regarding how to secure the flows of capital witnessed after 9/11. This is what Deborah Cowen has presented, in her illuminating work on logistics, as the problem of September 12 – the collapse of cargo flow in the wake of that of the World Trade Center, showing the profound tear in the tactics and strategy of the capitalist state, spanning as they do still contradictory spaces.

Contradictions in the logistical state35

On the face of it, Henri Lefebvre’s thesis about the emergence of a “state mode of production” (SMP) – as elaborated on the eve of the neoliberal surge in the four volumes of his De l’État (1976-78) – would appear to be a threadbare Marxist anachronism, a belated successor to twentieth-century efforts to think the convergence between liberal-capitalist and state-socialist or fascist political systems – Horkheimer’s authoritarian state, Burnham’s managerial revolution, Rizzi’s bureacuratization of the world, or Debord’s integrated spectacle. Yet I would like to suggest that attending to the French philosopher’s arguments about the spatial contradictions of the modern state can allow us to refine our understanding of the forms of power borne by logistics, the tensions they carry, and how they cannot simply be reduced to a direct expression of Capital.

For Lefebvre, the state is initially identified with a specific production of space, that of the national territory. This state does not have the “chaotic” characteristics of “private space.” Moreover, unlike the nightwatchman state, it is a persistent agent of social reproduction; it “does not intervene in an episodic and circumscribed fashion but ceaselessly, through different organisms and institutions devoted to the management as well as the production of space.”36 This space is both homogeneous – everywhere subject to the same logic – and broken, shattered – by the logics of property, rent, social conflict, and the ensuing fragmentation. The logistical space of the SMP, like capitalist space broadly construed, is homogeneous-broken [homogène-brisé]. Isn’t this a paradox? No, says Lefebvre: “This space is homogeneous because everything in it is equivalent, exchangeable, interchangeable, because it is a space bought and sold and exchange only exists between equivalences and interchangeabilities. This space is broken because it is treated by lots and sections; sold by lots and sections, it is therefore fragmentary.”37

Logistical space, as conceived in Lefebvre’s work of the 1970s, is prolonged by energetic space – beyond its specific economic and political investments in railways, roads and aerial space,38 the state’s relation to the production of energy is intimately linked to the production of a political space, state-space. This space is both a precondition of, and in contradiction with, the fragmented space of capitalist urbanization, and its attendant chaos. In the end, state action does not resolve spatial contradictions, it aggravates them, in the guise of synthesis and regulation. Its need to keep the flows smooth does not undo spatial chaos, or at best replaces it with social void. For Lefebvre, the logistical non-places of late capitalist modernity are thus byproducts of the spatial strategies of the capitalist state:

Wherever the state abolishes chaos, it establishes itself within spaces made fascinating by their social emptiness: a highway interchange or an airport runway, for example, both of which are places of transit and only of transit … Armed with the instrument of logistical space, the State inserts itself between pulverized spaces and spaces that have been reconstructed differentially.39

Space is thus the secret of the state in general and the SMP in particular. Lefebvre presented the space of the SMP as an anti-political space, organized to neutralize “users” (usagers), their movements, and the creation of differential spaces (these are all key themes in Lefebvre’s writings of the 1970s, crystallized especially in the 1971 Le manifeste différentialiste). Two of the key vectors of this antipolitical space, which is the product and precondition of the state mode of production, are its logistical orientation, which reveals it as a space of catastrophe or potential breakdown, and its “visuality,” which transforms space into a spectacle or series of images, in which the body disappears. Nonetheless, Lefebvre still wishes to maintain a dialectical foothold, allowing one to imagine the appropriation of state space for the sake of differential social practices. As he writes, the space of the SMP is “opposed to possible (differential) space and nevertheless leading towards it.”

At different points in his argument, Lefebvre qualifies this new space as phallic, optical, visual, homogeneous and broken, global and fragmentary, “logical-logistical.”40 This is also the space in which capitalism organises its survie, its living-on, its afterlife – through the reproduction of the relations of production. As Lefebvre would write in The Survival of Capitalism: “It is in this dialecticized (conflictual) space that the reproduction of the relations of production takes place. It is this space that reproduction produces, by introducing into it multiple contradictions.”41 The formula “logical-logistical” crops up at different points in Lefebvre’s notoriously sprawling and often slippery texts. In The Production of Space, for instance, he writes that logic and logistics both conceal latent violence.42 De l’État insistently links the two terms together. Without exploring Lefebvre’s complex engagement with logic and language,43 we can note here that logistics designates in these texts not the military or capitalist practice of managing resources and circulation, but a particular, abstract representation of space – one which, however, is dialectically bound-up with spatial and political practices – namely the state’s oversight of stocks and flows – which are, so to speak, concretely logistical.

One possible name for this link between logistical representations and logistical practices is what in The Survival of Capitalism Lefebvre calls aménagement (a term used in urbanism to denote planning or layout). “To the extent that it is represented by naming it aménagement,” he writes, “the production of space is considered logically or logistically.”44 This aménagement is responsible for the reproduction of means of production and of production relations, for organizing the “environment” of firms, for setting out a “puzzle” of cities and regions, for spatially organizing life itself. Elsewhere, Lefebvre refers to this same set of issues under the heading of a “spatiotemporal programming” which requires the knowledge of flows, circulation and terrain.45 Logistics, broadly construed, is a critical field for the reproduction of the relations of production, in which the state intervenes as producer of capitalist space. This logistical imperative – to lay out the space of stocks and flows for the optimal reproduction of capitalist relations – involves the state precisely to the extent that reproduction is not a matter of logic, but of strategy.46

In this regard the “logical-logistical” – as we’ve already noted in our discussion of Bernes – is also a fantasy, albeit a partially realized one, about the possibility to master spatial reproduction for the sake of state and capital.47 Such is the lure of abstraction: if the science of space “is a science of formal space, of a spatial form,” Lefebvre writes, “it implies a rigid logistics, and this science would consist of nothing but the constraints placed on the contents (the people!).” Behind this theoretical and mental abstraction, however, lies the sedimentation of really abstract social practices: “If space has an air of neutrality and indifference with regard to its contents and thus seems to be ‘purely’ formal, the essence of rational abstraction, it is precisely because this space has already been occupied and planned, already the focus of past strategies, of which we cannot always find the traces.”48 “Systems of equivalence take on a sensible existence and are inscribed in space.”49 The persistence of contradictions, which themselves are the product of a logical-logistical imperative, means that the science of space “does not have a logistics of space as its culmination”50 – where logistics entails an all-encompassing intelligibility and control of a homogeneously coded space, from whence the negativity of practices and struggles has been stripped out.

State space is understood as a space of flows and stocks, logistically organized and controlled for political ends; it reorganises social relations of production in function of their spatial support. The state tends to oppose a chaos of fragmentary relations – which it has itself created – with a rationality in which space is the privileged instrument, and in which economics is reconceived spatially (in terms of stocks and flows, but also rents and real estate). As Lefebvre writes: “The state tends to control flows and stocks, assuring their coordination. In the course of this process, which has a threefold aspect – growth, namely increase in the productive forces; urbanization, that is formation of giant units of production and consumption; spatialization – a qualitative leap takes place: the emergence of the SMP (state mode of production).”51 Or, in another illuminating formulation:

In the chaos of relations among individuals, groups, class factions, and classes, the State tends to impose a rationality, its own, that has space as its privileged instrument. The economy is thus recast in spatial terms – flows (of energy, raw materials, labor power, finished goods, trade patterns, etc.) and stocks (of gold and capital, investments, machines, technologies, stable clusters of various jobs, etc.). The State tends to control flows and stocks by ensuring their coordination. … Only the State can control the flows and harmonize them with the fixed demands of the economy (stocks), because the State integrates them into the dominant state it produces.52

Especially as Lefebvre turns to the present, he is sensitive to the state’s contradictory trespassing of confines of the national territory in the process of its mondialisation – a “globalization” which is not, as commonly understood, beyond the state, but rather of the state, in ways that can allow us also to rethink the tendency to take logistics as an instance of the state’s loss of predominance.53 Consider the following:

Through organization and information, there is produced a kind of unification of world space, with strong points (the centres) and weaker and dominated bases (the peripheries). In these latter zones are perpetuated differences that, for better and for worse, resist but do not paralyse the process as a whole. The latter is translated through efficient apparatuses [dispositifs] of control and surveillance, linked to informational machines: satellites, radars, beacons, and grids. In this respect, space has a much stronger connection with the State than territory once had with the nation.54

This spatialization of the state is not just projective, but endogenous. In other words, as the state becomes increasingly occupied by the logistical problems of stocks and flows, we cannot think of it as concentric, centripetal or centrifugal. Though it is inseparable from effects of centring and centrality, it is capable of considerable dissemination and multiplicity, as well as internal contradiction, if not proper difference. In the first volume of De l’État, interestingly in the context of an exploration of the place of “intelligence” in the state mode of production (one resonating in the moment of Assange and Snowden), Lefebvre will posit that the state is not a system with a central nucleus but a hierarchically-ordered network of institutions and organizations intervening at different levels of society, and thus of space.


The foregoing discussion of Lefebvre is but a sketch of a reconstruction, whose aim was merely to complicate the political meanings accorded to logistics in contemporary radical thought and practice. To rethink logistics not just as a spatio-political fix for a potentially stagnating capitalism, but as a contradictory strategy of state power – a task that would obviously require a radical updating and revision of Lefebvre’s unruly intuitions – could help us to move beyond both the naïve perspective of its integral refunctioning as well as the untenable prospect that it will be the privileged site of a revolutionary interruption of value-in-motion. Technology, as a social relation of production, distribution, and circulation, is by no means innocent of capitalist value-imperatives and of the strategic expediencies of exploitation. But neither is the reproduction of the social forms of value endangered by the notion that the interruption of capital’s motion is directly political. Lefebvre’s scattered insights on the logistical and strategic space of the state can help situate the contemporary surge of struggles at the point of circulation within a broader historical and geographic horizon, spurring us to investigate what the state itself has become in the age of the “logistics revolution,” and thus what strategies may be adequate to struggles in and against it.

Materials for a revolutionary theory of the state

“I believe that the status of the state in current thinking on the Left is very problematic,” Stuart Hall wrote in 1984, in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s war on the “enemy within.” He reflected on the legacy of the postwar period, which saw the extension of public services within the context of a vast expansion of the state’s intervention in social life. The ensuing crisis and restructuring of global capitalism was characterized by the strategic use of policing and repression, not to mention global military power – warfare alongside welfare. Hall’s description of the ideological dilemma faced by the Left could, with minor updates in terminology, have been written in today’s United States:

On the one hand, we not only defend the welfare side of the state, we believe it should be massively expanded. And yet, on the other hand, we feel there is something deeply anti-socialist about how this welfare state functions. We know, indeed, that it is experienced by masses of ordinary people, in the very moment that they are benefiting from it, as an intrusive managerial, bureaucratic force in their lives. However, if we go too far down that particular road, whom do we discover keeping us company along the road but – of course – the Thatcherites, the new Right, the free market “hot gospellers,” who seem (whisper it not too loud) to be saying rather similar things about the state. Only they are busy making capital against us on this very point, treating widespread popular dissatisfactions with the modes in which the beneficiary parts of the state function as fuel for an anti-Left, “roll back the state” crusade. And where, to be honest, do we stand on the issue? Are we for “rolling back the state” – including the welfare state? Are we for or against the management of the whole of society by the state? Not for the first time, Thatcherism here catches the Left on the hop – hopping from one uncertain position to the next, unsure of our ground. 1

We now confront an even more drastic expansion of state power. Even the mainstream media documents with trepidation the new technologies of surveillance and the increasing fusion of military and police control, alongside the continuing domestic growth of prisons and the fortification of imperial domination.

The hypertrophy of the state’s repressive dimensions has been matched, however, by an amputation of its welfare functions. The neoliberal restructuring that began in the 1970s is therefore experienced by many on the Left as a loss of the state’s angelic effects, of everything that once emanated from the regulation of finance and the embeddedness of markets. The state, we note forlornly in the age of austerity, is just as much teachers and the post office as it is cops and prisons. “On the hop,” as Hall described, we wonder whether it would not be better to take our distance from the Tea Party, and even the austerians of the Democratic Party and European social democracy, by defending big government from big business. We are unable to find our way out of this bind: fighting some aspects of the state – police violence, a racist judicial system, a surveillance apparatus beyond J. Edgar Hoover’s wildest dreams – while putting everything on the line to preserve others – a failing public education system, besieged social welfare programs, crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile, one of the most precious tenets of our legacy – not the reform, not the infiltration, but the abolition of the state – risks being abandoned to the slogans of an agitated fringe of the Republican Party.

Regrettably, these formulations have also become an obstacle to clarity about contemporary capitalism. Covered up completely is the role of the state in the crisis management that followed the postwar boom, and the character of neoliberalism as a wholly state-driven project – in which the institutional coordination of markets and the penetration of finance into everyday life, both part of the heritage of the New Deal, were profoundly extended and articulated with an open assault on labor. 2

The brutal reality of the neoliberal state, on ample display in economic history, can be documented just as much in the doctrines of its theorists – a kind of unity of neoliberal theory and practice elegantly illustrated by Friedrich Hayek’s admiring visits to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. As both Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas would recognize, in an instance of the underappreciated convergence which began to develop just as their famous debate was peaking in vitriol, Salvador Allende’s defeat had already raised the strategic question of the state – the questions of parliamentary action, the political allegiances of the state personnel, the socialist use of the state apparatus, the relation of state reform to popular movements, and the danger posed by the violence of the Right. 3 The problem of the state was at the very center of both the defeat of the Left and the ascendancy of neoliberalism.

Fortunately, the past few years have seen major shifts in the field of political possibilities. After a long period of decline, a new cycle of struggle seems to have emerged, marked by an upsurge in radical movements facing off against the state. Global mobilizations against repressive immigration laws, police violence, and austerity directly put the question of the state on the table. After all, the struggles for clean water, against racist police, and over the future of public schools are all state issues. But alongside these movements there is also a striking resurgence of socialist electoral parties and programs – from Syriza in Greece, to Podemos in Spain, to Kshama Sawant in Seattle – and much excitement about municipal socialism, popular referendums, and even the prospects of a future third party.

But the relation between these two different political approaches is uncertain. One side of the Left hopes to participate in the state – to push for ameliorative reforms, to restore the forms of public spending that characterized the now-mutilated welfare state, to pressure elected officials and push them to the left, or to themselves be elected into parliament or local government. At the opposite extreme are those who categorically reject the electoral terrain, identifying the primary line of struggle as the confrontation with the police. While the militants denounce those who seek to work within the state as collaborators, decrying any such participation as an irredeemable capitulation to its logic, the pragmatists insist that confrontational politics can only harm the movement, and demonize their ostensible comrades in terms sometimes worse than what you’ll hear from the Right. In the past, socialist movements struggled to articulate these approaches to the state into a coherent front; today, the distance between them has never been greater.

What our situation requires is a serious strategic rethinking of the state. The renewed vigor of electoral struggles on the one hand and militant mobilizations on the other form a vivid landscape of action, a dizzying “diversity of tactics.” But too often the language intellectuals use to theorize these struggles remains locked in obsolete organizational traditions, still fighting the vendettas of previous generations – against anarchism, against Leninism, against Eurocommunism. It is time to give up chasing after ghosts. A renewed theory of the state, the kind of theory that can help us overcome the political ambiguities of the present, will emerge from a space of encounter, from the convergence of perspectives conditioned by distinct sets of struggles from different times and places. This issue of Viewpoint is intended as a contribution to rebuilding such a theory. We have no “line” to propose; instead, we wager that it is precisely through such unexpected combinations and confrontations that a set of historically apposite strategies may begin to emerge.

  • 1. Stuart Hall, “The State – Socialism’s Old Caretaker,” Marxism Today(November 1984); also collected in The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988). See his self-critical reflections on the remainder of this article and the Marxism Today legacy in his interview with Helen Davis, in her Understanding Stuart Hall (London: Sage, 2004), 157-8; and Robin Blackburn’s astute commentary on Hall’s political conjuncture, “Stuart Hall: 1932-2014,” New Left Review 86 (March-April 2014).
  • 2. For noteworthy examples of the extensive literature on the neoliberal state, see Werner Bonefeld, “Free economy and the strong state: Some notes on the state,” Capital & Class 34 (2010); and Martijn Konings, “Neoliberalism and the American State,” Critical Sociology 36:5 (2010).
  • 3. See Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile,” Socialist Register 10 (1973), also collected in Class Power and State Power (London: Verso, 1983); and Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: New Left Books, 1978), 263. In a manuscript currently under preparation, we trace this convergence and try to explain its significance, but the point has already been argued by attentive readers of Miliband and Poulantzas. See Leo Panitch, “The State and the Future of Socialism,” Capital & Class 4:2 (1980); “Ralph Miliband, Socialist Intellectual,” Socialist Register 31 (1995); and “The Impoverishment of State Theory” in Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). With specific reference to their debate, see Bob Jessop, “Dialogue of the Deaf: Some Reflections on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate” inClass, Power and the State in Capitalist Society: Essays on Ralph Miliband, ed. Paul Wetherly, Clyde W. Barrow, and Peter Burnham (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Notes on the Political Over the Longue Durée

“Politics” distinguishes itself from the “political,” which has as a characteristic that of contemplating, alongside the state, other holders [titolari], other subjects of political reality. Here then is a history of these subjects that is anything but over.
— Mario Tronti1

Written towards the end of what we might call the “second period” of Tronti’s reflections, that of the so-called “autonomy of the Political,” sandwiched between the more famous phase of Operaismo and the – almost completely unknown to the Anglophone world – “third period” political theological phase, that of the twilight [tramonto] of the political, the short text translated here will come to many Anglophone readers of Tronti as a surprise. The heretical Marxist, the author of Workers and Capital who analyzed the development and dynamics of the “mass worker” and argued that the working class was the dynamic element of capitalism – within and against – but always shifting capital on (every innovation a failed revolution), and that the political form of capital was determined by the intensity and form of the struggle, now shifts the theoretical framework onto another, much more historical level: the longue durée of the capitalist state from the 16th century.

In the first phase of his work, Tronti confronted the theoretical and political problems that stemmed from the dynamics of industrial capital spreading at breakneck speed throughout the Italian peninsula in the 1950s and ‘60s, neo-capitalism (as it was known at the time), alongside the massive extension and concentration of the working class in terms of condition and unification of desire – and of the need to organize this spontaneity. In the second phase, the international crisis of capital in the late-‘60s and ‘70s revived, for Tronti and others, questions of past capitalist responses to economic and political crisis, bringing the state into relief. As Tronti argues in a number of texts throughout the 1970s, with the crisis of capital of 1929, with the “Great Transformation” discussed so insightfully by Karl Polanyi, capitalism would never be the same again. The role of the state, of politics – of bourgeois politics – would be that of stabilization. So, whereas capitalism is crisis, as so many have argued since Marx’s day, the state is order.2 It is this conjuncture – capitalism and state, crisis and order – that becomes the focus of Tronti’s thought from this period, driven by the concrete shifts on the ground that confronted the working class and its organizations. In the rest of this brief introduction, I shall try to outline the reasons for this shift.


The “very gist, the living soul, of Marxism – a concrete analysis of a concrete situation”3; so why, precisely at this time – that of the crisis of the international capital of the 1970s – does Tronti decide that this “concrete situation” can best be analyzed through a study of the development of the “political” and of the bourgeois state (which are by no means synonymous, as we shall see) since the 16th century? Why is this the period in which Tronti decided to compose his first and only monograph, on Hegel of all people (Hegel Politico, 1975), an edited volume on the English Civil War (Stato e Rivoluzione in Inghilterra, 1977),4 and a subsequent four-volume edited anthology, of excerpts and critical essays on the leading bourgeois theorists from 1500-1800 (Il Politico, 1979-1982 – from which the translation below is drawn)? It should be noted, first of all, that this is by no means all that he worked on during this period – he continued to write on current affairs, such as the relationship that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) should maintain with extra-parliamentary movements and parties, the role of the Christian Democratic Party (DC) in the state-system, as well as more general articles on the nature of the political,5 and studies of more recent phases of capitalist restructuring such as the New Deal and Weimar.6 Alongside the important studies of the contemporary situation, he also sat on the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party during the period of the “Historic Compromise.” Hence, although his work was not restricted to the study of the early history of the bourgeois state, it is clear that during this period, from the mid-1970s till the early ‘80s, much of Tronti’s theoretical work was focused upon the bourgeois state since the 16th century, and that this decision he saw as essential to renewing the theoretical and practical tools of the workers’ movement and its party. Why? What was the question to which this course of study was to provide an answer, the problem to which this would be a solution? And what of these problems, these questions, is alive today after – or within – the Great Recession?

One path towards an answer would lead us through the fraught territory of the “autonomy of the political,” the infamous term first discussed in a lecture in 1972 (published only five years later), and that sparked Tronti’s investigations into the longue durée of the state. Whereas the “autonomy” traced here was developed through an analysis of the structure and function of the state following the Great Crash (but also the transformation of the Soviet State under Lenin was a persistent reference point), we will see that this proved to be just the first step towards a longer analysis of the political in which the bourgeois state – as theorized by Hegel and returning to the fore in the 1930s – was simply the highest or latest incarnation of the political.7

Let us begin, then, by briefly outlining the – frequently misunderstood – problem that Tronti encountered in this period. Doing so will help us understand why the history of the bourgeois state, from its origins in the 16th century, becomes so important for Tronti at this specific historical moment; it will also serve to correct some of the misunderstandings that have bedevilled many subsequent interpretations, standing in the way of an adequate theoretical and practical interpretation of the question of the autonomy of the political.


The first thing to note is that the series of reflections that would converge on the idea of the autonomy of the political, did not come fully formed and, arguably, never did find a definitive formulation.8 The autonomy of the political can be best described as a field of forces, of unresolved tensions that circumscribe a problematic theoretical and practical space that stems from a concrete conjunctural intuition: that once capitalism ceases to be a progressive force, i.e. when it ceases to be able to integrate the working class through a reformist moment of wage increases and heightened consumption (as during the so-called Fordist-compromise), the command of the state by bourgeois parties permits the strategic use of crisis – most notably under Thatcher and Reagan – to restructure the working class, fragmenting and isolating it geographically, sectorially or within the space of production, thereby permitting the process of the reproduction of capital to be re-established on a new and more advanced terrain of integration.9 This intuition of the active role of the state in the reproduction of capitalwould be developed further, in a series of analyses of the relation between economic crisis and the political to an investigation into the history of the bourgeois state since the Great Depression.

The autonomy of the political identifies a phenomenon of the Great Transformation. It accounts for how the bourgeoisie, confronted with economic crisis, used the state to restructure society from above, in tandem with capital. This is a necessity driven by crisis and by the combined and uneven development of capital and of its state, of the mechanisms of the state, sometimes in advance (as during the New Deal), more often retarded with respect to capitalist development (as in the Italy of the 1960s-‘70s); of the different articulations of fractions of capital with one another; and of capital and its state in relation to the level of development of its great antagonist, the working class. The question of the autonomy of the political is the question of the mechanisms at the disposal of capital10 to mediate between, to manage and to coordinate its fragments, its advances and delays, and its antagonist – a function that is initially called upon when the mechanism of development breaks down. The question to which the autonomy of the political is an answer, is not only – as so many left critics have described it, and despite evident ambiguities and rhetorical excesses11 – that of the proper relation of the Party to the class or to the state, or – for that matter – of the class to the state (although it is also this). The problem is not merely that of the correct form of political participation; the problem is also how to count politically within the bourgeois state.12 More specifically, the reality of the 1970s posed a problem with two component parts: given the autonomy of the political – “a fact of capital … I repeat, so that people stop pretending not to understand”13 – how can the workers’ movement make use of this autonomy in order to intervene at the level of the state?

In order to clarify what we mean by this problem with two elements, we can perhaps think of it in analogy with the New Economic Policy. With the Soviet Union coming out of revolution and civil war, the question for Lenin was one of rebuilding the economy and even rebuilding the class subject of the revolution, the working class, decimated by violent conflict and industrial collapse. The NEP was, as Lenin himself conceded, a step back, a “strategical retreat”;14 it was the conscious use of capitalist tools – private ownership of the means of production – for socialist purposes. Capitalism was to be let back in, was to be allowed to grow and, in growing, strengthen, but in so doing it would also rebuild the proletariat that had been “declassed” by the previous period of economic defeat and political and military conflict, and rebuild the productive forces – but this time, it would do so to defend the revolution. The question was: “who will take the lead?” Rereading the Lenin of these years alongside Tronti, the similarities in tone and form are extraordinary:

The whole question is who will take the lead. We must face this issue squarely – who will come out on top? Either the capitalists succeed in organizing first – in which case they will drive out the Communists and that will be the end of it. Or the proletarian state power, with the support of the peasantry, will prove capable of keeping a proper rein on those gentlemen, the capitalists, so as to direct capitalism along state channels and to create a capitalism that will be subordinate to the state and serve the state. (Lenin15)

[We must] elaborate a medium term strategy, that is, to get to the point of being able to lead the process of adjustment of the state machine to the productive machine of capital… it is a case of going so far as to consciously take hold of the process of modernization of the state machinery, to even manage not the reforms in general, as one says in the usual jargon, but in particular that specific reform that is the capitalist reform of the state. (Tronti16)

We can speak, only half in jest, of a New Political Policy, the use of the autonomy of the political, that eminently bourgeois invention brought in most recently to save capital from its crisis (in the ‘20s and ‘30s), in order to advance the workers’ movement. This is the problem and the challenge that Tronti tries to develop in this period.

I do not want to make too much of this analogy,17 but I think it is useful when trying to make sense of the problem and the task Tronti set himself at this time. It was not, therefore, to provide a new, even if heretical Marxist theory of the state – the lack of which was a widespread topic of discussion at this time – that Tronti developed the notion of the autonomy of the political. Instead, this notion served both to make sense of the specific practice of the capitalist state after the Great Transformation and was a call to a pragmatic engagement with those tools in order to bend them to different ends. The autonomy of the political is the subjective stance of the bourgeois state, used to further its interests; Tronti demanded that it should be appropriated by the working class and bent to its interests. So it is not a question of a new Marxist Theory of the State, which had been lacking (although that too); but, crucially, a Marxist Practice of the State is what was called for. Only a thorough understanding of the machinery of state and of the political could enable one to effectively operate it – but a call for an “art of politics, that is, of particular techniques for the conquest and conservation of power,”18 was by no means a ‘“politicist-abstract” departure from the more “political-conjunctural” focus of the militant interventions of the 1960s’ – as the parallel with the NEP makes plain.19 In the final text in the book L’Autonomia del Politico, Tronti writes:

I am struck (given that we are speaking of the subjectivity of the State, [i.e.] of capitalist interests) that to some it has appeared that the properly subjective moment, in particular, that of the working class had disappeared from my discussion. We must certainly correct this impression: in the background of this argument, there is a carefully hidden interlocutor who pulls all the strings of the matter… It is true: every movement in the relationship between capital and power has a class relationship between capital and its antagonist at its origin …20

He goes on to argue with respect to the change in the state-form in the 1930s, much in the same way as does Antonio Negri21 – one of the most fierce adversaries of the notion of the autonomy of the political – that one cannot understand the particular solution given to the Great Crash without the rupture of 1917. That solution – as Tronti argues – is that which leads to the autonomy of the political, of the state as agent called to compensate for the failures of capital, to try to stabilize, re-start, re-model development, and redirecting investment between more or less advanced industrial sectors – in short, to mediate, recompose, decide and to organise the institutionalization of the class compromise that alone could save capitalism from itself and from its great antagonist. For analogous reasons, we can say that Lenin – as well as Roosevelt (in the New Deal) and Keynes – could be said to have understood the historical necessity for the autonomy of the political for the re-establishment of order on a new footing. It is here that we encounter the specificity of the political: the political in its autonomy is a theory of the reproduction of order after crisis and a theory of the means to intervene in the process of the reproduction of order. Both of these operations come under the heading of the “political,” without being reducible to it.22For this reason, Tronti privileges bourgeois theorists (including social democratic ones) who developed a theory and practice of the state to guide the autonomy of the political for the reproduction of capital, in the same way that Lenin turned to “bourgeois specialists” to run the machinery of state and large-scale industry; and it is for this same reason that Marx, who was faced with a liberal state, ceases to be a theoretical and practical reference point for thinking the new political mechanisms for the reproduction of capital.23 The autonomy of the political in the bourgeois state is precisely “in order to be able to intervene” in the reproduction of capitalism after its crisis, to re-establish conditions of development and exploitation. Tronti argued that the mechanisms of its autonomy should instead be grasped by the organization of the working class, “in order to be able to intervene” in the reproduction of capital, after its crisis, to establish conditions for a “new idea of the state,” because “one cannot introduce new masses into an old state.”24 There is no easy way to do this, no easy delegation – whether to party or to class for that matter; each concrete situation calls for a concrete analysis and the flexibility to act on the basis of the results of that analysis. The analysis always starts from the relations of class forces that determines the relative strength of the contenders and, hence, circumscribes the level of autonomy of action. An additional level of autonomy may be given by the relation to the state, to the political form of reproduction. The question is not whether or not the political operates independently of, autonomously from material conditions – it does not; the character and quality of that autonomy is governed, circumscribed by very concrete material conditions. For example, we have already indicated how, though a “great transformation,” the state became a renewed principle of order emerging from a very concrete crisis of reproduction. It did so by reproducing the class relation through, firstly, a class compromise between the two great contending classes the relative strength of which would circumscribe the relative levels of autonomy (in the New Deal / Fordist compromise) and, later, through a careful deployment of crisis, one that re-established the conditions of growth through the intensification of relative and absolute surplus value (shift to floating exchange rates / end of dollar convertibility, oil shocks, Volker shock, war on organized labour, etc.). The question for Tronti was: what are the conditions for achieving a level of autonomy, in practice, that can be exercised in order to intervene within the reproduction of class relations in a form more favorable to the working class. His answer was that it was necessary to understand and to appropriate the bourgeois mechanisms of autonomy experimented in the course of the twentieth century.25


To return, then, to our starting point. Why did Tronti feel the need to spend much of the 1970s, at the same time as that he was arguing for the appropriation – in theory and practice – of the bourgeois autonomy of the Political, i.e. of the mechanisms for the reproduction of capitalism, by the workers’ movement, carrying out an analysis of the political over the longue durée?

The hypothesis is that precisely with the 1930s the return of the political, call it what you will, of the autonomy, of the primacy, of the anticipation of the political, the opening – that is – of a new classical phase of politics is accompanied by a history of the State on the grand scale [in grande], where the origins of modern bourgeois power – unity and concentration, sovereignty and violence, the machine and the prince – are once again decisive. Naturally there are great changes: new paths, ideological apparatuses, grand solutions to mass organization, and the planned control of economic contradictions. But in this phase I would like to underline and hold to the common ground of correspondences and echoes [richiami] between the two periods, that of the origins and that of the great crisis, between the long process of the transition to capitalism and the epoch of the “great transformation.” From here stems the almost obligatory choice of classical political thought, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the terrain of study of living problems and the encounter with the model of political revolution, as the intersection of conditions for the passage to capitalism. At the same time, the setting to work, in practice, of the relationship between the economic crisis and the political exit from the crisis. I do not want to claim that everything holds together. But at a time when the “organic” has become a bad word, to lay claim to the organic nature of a course of study might be useful. Not in order to go against the current but to demonstrate that, in addition to studying, one can also understand.26

What I particularly want to highlight in this rich passage is the clear statement that the political is not the state – it is not only the state, but even precedes it and may – and sometimes does – become concentrated in it.27 This process of the original coming together of the political in the state is what Tronti calls, in an almost identical formulation to that used by Louis Althusser at this time, an “originary accumulation of the political.”28 This is the period of the formation of national states that accompanied but is irreducible to the transition to capitalism. So, while it is clear from the origins of modern politics that politics and the state were thrown together violently in an originary accumulation of the political, in the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we encounter the bourgeois fear of the breaking apart of this unity, when the state loses the monopoly on the political – either to the working class and its organizations (even the reformist ones such as trade unions), to large corporations, to international bodies, or even to markets.29 Carl Schmitt’s sensitivity to the gradual erosion of sovereign authority and the ever-increasing threat of potestas indirecta makes him a privileged interlocutor for Tronti, for while the discussion of the political is one concerning the “complex path of the sometimes contradictory relationship between the political and the state,” Tronti is looking to this relationship of the political to the state so as to take stock, “in Marxist and Leninist terms, of the possibility, the probability of an original way to power.”30


So, have we answered our question? Why did Tronti dedicate so much time in the 1970s to the study of the bourgeois state over the longue durée and concern himself with the transformations of the political over the same period? It is because he contended that it was only a detailed study of the bourgeois state since its origins in the 16th century, which marks the start of an epoch within which we continue to operate, and of the – frequently contradictory – relations between the political and the state over this period, that could provide the workers’ movement with sufficiently sophisticated analytical and practical tools to begin to grasp the mechanisms for the appropriation and the transformation of the state. The 1930s signalled a reprise of the political after a century in which it had, for much of the time, been subordinated to the economic; this came together with a return of the “grande storia” of the state – the conjuncture again of “political maneuvering of the class struggles” through the “political control” over the social, and the “new political management of a new economic cycle;”31 to study this reprise of the origins of bourgeois power, with all the novelties that intervened in the meantime, could provide the working class with analytical and practical tools for the transformation of the state, so that it could truly “count politically.”

I do not believe that we are at the end of the history of the state. The political, the new political subjectivity strikes at it, transforms it, it does not smash it, it does not break it. As we run we will once again feel the bite of the state. We may as well grasp the reins and attempt to tame it.32

What then of today? Today, after the end of the long twentieth century of the European workers’ movement, when once again the state is assailed by numerous, even more powerful potestas indirectae; when the subjectivity of the state seems ever more closely aligned with that of international capital, what can Tronti’s work on the autonomy of the political still teach us? It continues to confirm that this autonomy is indeed “a fact of capital” and that without a workers’ movement capable of appropriating those instruments of the state for itself, the political is forced to migrate to another terrain, one where it may be better served; recognizing, at the same time, that by so doing, it will have left an instrument of inestimable power for the sole use of those whose interests are the reproduction of capital and exploitation. What Tronti allows us to think is the different and changing articulations of the political, of how it can intersect with and be pulled from the state; how it can serve to re-establish order – its function of stabilization within capitalist crisis – as well as the potential for it to be appropriated to reconfigure the reproductive mechanisms for the purposes of other subjectivities and interests, antagonistic to those of capital; but always, within capital, it is the quality of its autonomy that will determine its function and effectiveness in intervening in the process of reproduction. When that autonomy diminishes, or is too clearly subordinated to specific interests, its effectiveness is eroded – think of the Great Recession, of the way that the state has been subordinated not to international capital in general, but to finance capital, eroding both consumption as well as productive investment, rerouting cheap monetary flows into share buy-backs stoking the stock market and real estate bubbles while exacerbating geopolitical and economic instabilities, while evacuating the state of the means to serve further rounds of reproduction and stabilization, leaving capital open to its always threatening crisis and without its principle of order.

The position Tronti leaves us in is perhaps an unsettling one; but he leaves us with a great lucidity about our condition and the analytical tools to begin to think possible new articulations of the political and – perhaps – eventually to avail ourselves of them.

I would like to thank Giorgio Cesarale and Alberto Toscano for their careful reading and perceptive comments to the introduction and translation. Unfortunately, I have not been able to resolve all the issues that they have raised.

Paths of Racism, Flows of Labor: Nation-State Formation, Capitalism and the Metamorphosis of Racism in Italy

The recent European elections in May 2014 were a startling display of the rise of radical racism in Europe. But the triumph of Ukip in the United Kingdom, the Front National and Marine Le Pen in France, and the Golden Dawn in Greece, whose members have been involved in several racist attacks and murders of immigrants and leftists, are merely the more institutional evidence of a deeper trend. In Italy, where I write this text, the European elections led to the victory of the leftist, but strongly neoliberal, Democratic Party (PD), the former PCI. Nevertheless, racism increasingly circulates within the country, perpetrated by the leaders and members of both left- and right-wing parties as well as private citizens.1

During the spring of 2013, Cécile Kyenge, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, became Minister of Integration in the center-left government of Enrico Letta. The first black minister in Italy, Kyenge was targeted by racist attacks from members of the right-wing party Lega Nord, and described by Roberto Calderoli as “an orangutan.” Of course, racist attacks are not limited to verbal harassment. In December 2011, in Florence, a member of an extreme-right racist organization killed two Senegalese vendors, and injured a third, in a local market.2 In metropolitan contexts, such as Milan or Rome, racist assaults against black people are daily occurrences. In 2009, a nineteen-year-old second-generation migrant from Burkina Faso in Milan was killed by two kiosk owners for stealing a packet of biscuits – they ran after him and beat him with an iron bar, yelling, “fuck you, nigger.” We could go on to make a very lengthy list of such incidents, especially if we were to include the daily racism migrant workers face on the job.

As the examples from Italy show, the targets of such racist attacks are mostly immigrants. They are accused of “stealing jobs,” especially – but not only – since the outbreak of the economic crisis. On the institutional level, these “popular” or “daily” racist behaviors have been translated into a very strict control over labor mobility. In 2002, after two decades of mass immigration,3 the latest in a long series of racist laws – known as the Bossi-Fini law, after the two members of parliament who signed it (one from Lega Nord, and the other from Alleanza Nazionale, the successor of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano) – entered into force, fully differentiating between migrants and natives. According to the law, immigrants can reside on national territory only if they hold a formal contract of employment, and they may be jailed on administrative charges, such as not holding a residential permit.4 The common assumption in Italian politics is that these outbreaks of racism are the combined effect of mass migrations and financial crisis: since the crisis has narrowed the labor market, competition between native and immigrant workers has intensified.

But what this interpretation misses is that Italian racism, and European racism in general, is not a transitory or contingent effect of social phenomena such as economic crisis, mass migrations, or right-wing politics; rather, it is linked to the very core of European modernity, at the nexus of the rise of capitalism, the formation of the nation-state, and the colonial project.

In what follows I will discuss Italian and European racial thinking, the roots of which can be traced to the origins of the narrative of modern Europe. Since the mid-19th century, Europe has been characterized by a “double path” of racism, directed against Southerners on the one hand, and the African colonized population on the other. To understand the present, not just the question of racism, but of Europe’s “Southern” problem, and of underdevelopment itself, it will be necessary to consider the metamorphosis of Italian racism through the 20th century, and the shape taken by European racism within the crisis.5 It will be just as important to identify new possible antiracist practices, which can both identify and struggle against the material basis of racism.

The Material Basis of Racism

To reject the assumption that racism is the effect of other social phenomena, an incidental issue in the analysis of society and politics, means identifying it as an enduring factor in the history of modern capitalist societies. I reflect here on racism as a historical fracture in the narrative of European modernity, which has shaped social relations at the local, continental, and transnational level, especially in the organization of the labor market. In this sense, in contrast with the mainstream debate about racism in Europe, I stress the material basis of racism, including race and racialization. I mean by racialization a means for disciplining intersubjective social relationships, or better, for the construction of institutional and non-institutional practices and discourses oriented towards the hierarchical representation of differences, both real and imagined. In this sense, my aim is to start with the histories of economic and cultural processes of essentialization and discrimination against certain social groups, which results in manifestations of material and symbolic violence.

As Frantz Fanon has powerfully pointed out, racism is “the shameless exploitation of one group of men by another” which entails processes of “inferiorization” and the “gigantic work of economic, and even biological, enslavement”;6 that is to say, it is not a constant of the human mind, but a tendency arising within the history of of the system which has imposed white supremacy on the social fabric and in the labor market. Thus, once again in contradistinction to a mainstream European reading of racism as ideological-cultural-ontological-psychological need, as an “ancestral sin” that describes a “deferential racism” or a “racism without race,”7 I focus on the material and structuring nature of racism, placing it at the very center of the constitution of colonial modernity and at the core of the construction and narration of modern nation-states.

In the history of capitalism, from its outset and at all latitudes, class domination has largely been intertwined with and supported by race discourses, assuming different historical inflections, always according to new or contingent political and economical circumstances – or, in Marxian terms, according to the character of the capitalist transition and forms of accumulation. From this perspective – and again against the idea of racism as psychological or ancestral sin – it is possible to analyze the metamorphosis of racism in Italy, considering the different social groups it targets, in order to bring to the fore the system of hierarchies built around and supported by “race management”8 in Europe and Italy. In this sense, as critical race theory has demonstrated, race is not an objective or fixed category, but rather something that “society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.”9 It is a powerful dispositif of social control and the organization and disciplining of living labor, describing an actual “wage of whiteness” – to refer to the classic definition of W.E.B Du Bois – that is constitutive of modern capitalist formations.10

Despite the resistance in the Italian and European debate to discussing “race,”11 to talk distinctly about race means both calling up a whole system of historically constructed inequalities and highlighting the material and structural nature of racism – that is to say, its strong connection to the relations of production and their transformation. However, focusing on the necessary connection between the capitalist use of race and the relations of production does not require a deterministic or economistic point of view. Rather, this focus allows us to rethink the concept of relations of production, starting from the racialization process in order to stress the unavoidable “articulation”12 or “translation”13 of race in capitalist social formations. Following Marx, this means analyzing capital as a social relation, and so insisting on the structures of domination and exploitation which lie within racism, as well as on the experiences that exceed and challenge it. Finally, it should be noted that by emphasizing the necessary connection between racialization and the relations of production, I do not mean to deny that racism and racialization predate capitalism; I only mean to trace the history of capitalism as it has been marked and saturated by race.

The Double Path in Italian Racism

Italian racism, and indeed European racism in general, has followed a “double path”: first, the invention of the “geographically close” Other in the South of the country (strictly intertwined with the racialization of Southern or Mediterranean Europe, a sort of joint-space between Europe and Africa); second, the construction of the colonial Other in Africa. These two process, which led to Italian nation-building and the formation of modern Europe itself, have been bound up with one other, each describing a specific facet of Italian racism.

After its birth as a nation-state in 1861, Italy immediately had to negotiate the narration of its identity at the European level. In fact, in order to enter the ranks of the modern European state, Italy had to shake off the image of a backward, poor, oppressed, and irrational country, deeply ingrained in the cultural taxonomy of modern Europe. Travel literature at the turn of the 19th century largely describes Italy as a country of incredible natural beauty, but one that is economically backward, lagging behind the social and political development of other European countries. The South of the country especially is described as “picturesque” and yet “primitive,” with little sense of morality, dedicated instead to civil inertia.14 It is “a paradise inhabited by devils,” according to the famous definition of Naples attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This image was clearly antithetical to the reputation of Europe for dynamism and technological advancement, represented above all by Great Britain in its transition to capitalism and the first Industrial Revolution.15

In this scenario, the narration of the newborn nation-state found its basis in the idea of the existence of “Two Italies,” coined by the Italian positivist anthropologist Alfredo Niceforo of the Lombrosian School. In the 1890s, Niceforo – providing “scientific” support for the racialization of southern Italians – described the existence of two races in Italy:16 the “Aryan and Caucasian” in the North and a “Negroid” in the South. According to Niceforo, the Italian populations of Germanic descent in the North were “easier to discipline and educate” and “much inclined to the common interest,” while the Latin populations originating in the South were “rebels, undisciplined, and too often averse to education.” Furthermore, just as the “Germans” were “civilians” capable of self-government, the “Latins” were considered less civilized, and, especially, politically immature.17 As a result, the existence of “Two Italies,” each one inhabited by a different racial group, signifies the existence of two different moral and sociopolitical inclinations, where the “Negroid” ancestry of southern Italians becomes the evidence of their inferiority and criminal behaviors, as well as the justification for brutal repression of social uprisings in the South.

Thus, the racialization of southern Italians and the invention of an “accursed race” [razza maledetta] – according to the forceful expression of the Meridionalist Napoleone Colajanni in a 1898 pamphlet strongly critical of the racial theory of the Lombrosian criminal anthropology school – constituted the basis from which the narration of modern Italy was built. On the one hand, the existence of “Two Italies” gave Italian political elites the opportunity to mark a positivist difference between the North and the South of the country, offering a tidy explanation for the internal social and economic gap to other European countries. The South was given the main responsibility for the severe economic crisis affecting Italy in the last decade of the 19th century, covering over the incompetence and irresponsibility of national policy in addressing this issue. On the other hand, “Two Italies” also allowed the construction of a vast supply of cheap (because it was racialized) labor that enabled the economic development of the country. The development of Italian capitalism was the first concrete translation in the local context of the “modern racial capitalism”18 that was developing in the United States and Australia.

Following the coordinates mapped by white supremacy, Southerners, who had been considered lazy and unintelligent because of the presence of “Negro” blood in theirs veins,19 were subjected to harsh forms of exploitation and wage discrimination, becoming cheap labor-power in service of the development of Italian capitalism. This was not much different from what was happening in the United States, where race management, drawing important lessons from the work of Alfredo Niceforo, was producing a real taxonomy of race. According to David Roediger’s analysis of American race management in the early 20th century, German workers (who “embodied strength, doggedness, and thrift”) occupied the highest levels of wage and labor hierarchies, while all other workers gradually found placement in the lower ranks: Italians, especially those from the South (“Italians allegedly excelled with pick and shovel but were unable to assist engineers,” as Roediger records), then Slavs (funneled “into filthy and unhealthy jobs because they were ‘immune’ to dirt”), then Armenians (who “ranked ‘good’ in none of the twenty-two job categories listed and rose to fair only once: wheelbarrow”). At the very bottom were Chinese workers, who were considered biologically ill-equipped with low intelligence.20

The other path of Italian racism, namely the construction of the colonial Other in Africa, took place almost simultaneously with the invention of the “accursed race.” Italy had just been unified for twenty years when, between 1882 and 1885, it gave way to its first colonial experience, once again aiming – among other reasons – to become a member of modern Europe in all respects. In conquering Africa, all the rhetoric used for the racialization of Southern Italians was put to work. Much of positivist anthropology, starting from the assumed inclination to indolence and laziness because of “Negroid” descent, was drawn upon in order to racialize the colonized population in Africa. This was the basis for a correspondence between Southern Italians and Africans. At that time, this correspondence was so strong, as historians of colonial Italy point out, that “when the government began to talk about Africa, the left opposition [which was against the colonial expansion] warned that ‘Italy had Africa at home.’”21

The idea of “Africa at home” played a specific role in the construction of national identity, clearly revealing the Italian aspirations for redemption, which is the possibility of holding a different position in the European context. To become “empire builders” meant that Italy could represent itself as more European, politically stronger and more modern. At the same time, it provided an opportunity to mark a distance between Italians – as white colonizers – and racialized non-Europeans, seizing on the possibility to start a process of “whitening” in order to enter modernity in all respects. What is crucial, however, is that the colonial project expressed the material aspirations for managing the transition to capitalism.

On the one hand, it aimed to manage poverty in the South, and the rising migration away from the South. In a first stage of colonial expansion, many southern Italians moved to Africa, where they became a bit less “black” (or a bit more white) than they were at home. On the other hand, colonial expansion served to organize a colonial labor market in Africa, especially beginning with the process of industrialization in the last decade of the 19th century. From this point on, the Italian colonial expansion in Africa took on a more markedly capitalist nature. And as investments became more massive, colonialist rhetoric took a more aggressive and violent drift, extolling “the superiority of race” over native populations. The production of labor segmentation and hierarchies intensified while journalism put the construction of racial taxonomies to work, such as the following description of the existence of four races in Tripolitania (now western Libya), each one with its own productive location: “Arabs… seem to be created to withstand long labors”; “Blacks… are the best servants”; “Jews [have] a strong disposition to business and commercial banking”; “the Turks… are soldiers, officers and officials.”22

The Metamorphosis of Racism

During the 20th century, Italian racism took on new characteristics, showing the ability to remodel and complexify itself according to the transformation of the mode of production and the new geopolitical context. In the aftermath of the earthquake that was the crisis of 1929, racism, on the entire European level, took on the task of managing new economic and social international arrangements, especially in the relationship between the mother country and the colonies. Such new articulations mainly meant a growing protectionism and a more strict use of colonial resources (raw materials and labor-power), as well as, simultaneously, the reorganization of the international division of labor which had broken down following the collapse of the American stock market. In both cases, the alleged superiority of whiteness was the ground from which the two processes were redesigned. Italy, for its part, took a more precise and aggressive approach, producing a real breakthrough in the race management of the colonial context.

Between 1930 and 1933, 15 concentration camps were set up in the desert region of Sirtica in the middle of the Italian colony in Libya. More than 100,000 Libyan civilians were deported to Sirtica in order to break up the partnership between the civilian population and the insurgents engaged in anti-colonial resistance. More specifically, and what is more relevant for our purposes, this mass deportation can be described as an incredible laboratory of race management. The semi-nomadic farmers, forced to become sedentary, were transformed into a large pool of free labor that provided for both the construction of roads (mainly men) and the preparation of fields (mainly women), both of which largely contributed to the economic output of the colonies.23

However, a stronger process of racialization in the colonies took shape in the aftermath of the proclamation of the empire during the fascist regime in May 1936. The new imperial identity aimed at erasing all traces of the past backwardness and civil inertia in which the country had long been placed, which required marking the differences between Italians and Africans. In support of this project, starting in 1937, two different legal circuits were activated: the metropolitan right and the colonial, both intending to segment and hierarchize labor-power along the color line. In the colonies, the segregation of the African black population was organized around all spheres of life: African black neighborhoods were separated from the Italian white neighborhoods.24 At work, any native employee could be employed in tasks equal to or greater than Italians,25 but native workers earned only one-fifth of the daily wage of an Italian (7 lire vs. 33 lire);26 in the schools for natives (strictly separate from those for Italian whites), the only forms of teaching were oriented around the training of unskilled workers.27

In the homeland, the new imperial identity was structured as a “defense of race,” taking the form of Aryanism, which in 1938 promoted the so-called “racial laws” and the persecution of Jews. On the one hand, these laws – fully in accordance with the functioning of race management and at the very core of the “invention of the white race”28 – were responding to the need to break the bonds of solidarity among workers, facing the real possibility of an explosion of dissent amidst growing uncertainties in the geopolitical context on the eve of the outbreak of the World War II. On the other hand the systematic exclusion of “citizens from the Jewish race” by many working environments, which was a prelude to further persecution such as searches and concentration camps, managed the reorganization of the internal labor market after the 1929 crisis. Starting in the late 1930s, violent propaganda marginalized shops run by Jews; Jews were expelled from the Fascist party, causing a large rise in unemployment.29 As a result of the process of “Aryanization” of the Italian culture, all Jewish scholars and teachers were expelled from schools and universities. Nevertheless, as evidence of the material (rather then psychological) basis of racism, and of race as an actual changeable dispositif for labor hierarchization and social control, in November 1938 an exception was made to the provision preventing Jews from having Italian citizens of the “Aryan race” as servants, allowing for “special reasons of expediency.”30 More than 2,500 “Aryan” workers, mainly women working as servants, were able to return to work.

In the aftermath of World War II and as result of the horrors produced by Nazi and Fascist eugenics, the word “race” become a taboo, disappearing from both the scientific vocabulary and everyday discourse in Europe. Nevertheless, it remained an actual dispositif of segmentation and hierarchization of social relations. Although racism was radically reinterpreted through what has been called the “epistemological turn,” put into motion through UNESCO’s statements ​​on the racial issue in 1950 and 1951, which erased the material and structuring nature of racism, no longer regarding it as system of inequalities (an objective phenomenon), but rather as original “vice” or “injury” (subjective phenomenon),31 race would continue to organize the labor market at the national and continental levels.

The racialization of Italian workers who immigrated to Germany, France, Switzerland, or Belgium ran along very similar lines as the life and work experience of other Italians at the beginning of the century in United States, where they came to be “classified” as “Color: White/Complexion: Dark,”32 and downgraded in labor and wage hierarchies. Similarly, during the aftermath of World War II in Europe, Italian racialized workers were pushed to the low ranks of labor hierarchies, finding very insecure jobs, which resulted in tragic events such as the explosion at the coal mine in Marcinelle, Belgium, in 1956, when over a hundred Italian workers died.

Within the Italian borders the process of reinterpreting racism was translated as the removal of one of the most revolting pages in the history of the country from collective discourses and imaginaries. The new national identity put forth by the partisans of resistance against fascism left no room for such a detestable story, and quickly tried to rid itself of the uncomfortable legacy of racism at home and in the colonies, together with mass murders and atrocities. Nevertheless, race survived, and the Italian post-war reconstruction, and especially the economic boom that followed, could once again benefit from the processes of racialization and race management.

In Italy, the post-war transition highlighted the shift from a still predominantly agricultural economy to a more distinctly industrial one, and showed the revival of myths and representations from the post-unification period, which re-proposed the distinction between ​​a “backward” South assimilated to Africa and a “modern” and “civilized” North holding its place within the European matrix. Through government decisions, all productive activities of the emerging industrial capitalism were placed in the Northwest of the country; in the South, the few industrial complexes were dismantled, while the drastic reduction of arable land produced a surge in unemployment. In the following two decades, the South “offered” more than two million people to the North, who were employed in various capacities of industrial production.

In Northern cities, migrant workers from the South found an uncomfortable social climate marked by misinterpretation and mistrust, with blatant discrimination that made ​​it difficult to even to find a home or access adequate education. Meanwhile, the representation of a southern Otherness, largely circulated through the media, had been mainly articulated around the concepts of poverty, backwardness, and violence.33 Marginalized and subjected to processes of subordination, workers from the South were driven to unskilled jobs, often with irregular administrative positions, and forced to accept shorter labor contracts and very low wages.34 Many of them worked by either piecework or subcontracting in the building industry. Others, especially women, were “illegally” employed in sort of renewed “craft” jobs within the satellite industries.35 And, until 1961, when the law that controlled the internal mobility of labor was repealed, only workers holding the status of “resident” could find work in the industrial plants.

In sum, the racialization of workers from the South had the task of managing the particular phase of capitalist transition, introducing the mechanization of production into Italy. These transformations were increasingly rendering obsolete the figure of the “craft workers,” predominantly from the North, in favor of the introduction of the system of new, generic, and low-skilled labor-power that was the young workers from the South (which we will eventually call “mass worker”).36 Therefore, the construction of race hierarchies aimed both at devaluing the new labor-power that was entering the labor market, and undermining the forms of solidarity among workers that could challenge the recovery of Italian industry. The racialization of southern workers in the aftermath of World War II allowed the creation of a large pool of cheap and docile labor-power that enabled the so-called “Italian miracle.” However, here it should be also noted that at the end of the 1960s, young and low-skilled racialized workers from the South were the main actors of an extraordinary season of labor struggles in Italy, which started a profound process of social transformation, calling into question both labor hierarchies and hierarchies constructed around the Otherness of the South. These struggles demonstrate how the processes of racialization – and therefore racism understood as material and structuring phenomenon – constitute a battleground in which racial hierarchies can be reversed.

Nevertheless, the ability of workers’ struggles in the 1960s and 1970s to challenge racial hierarchies did not mean, of course, the end of racism in Italy. Within the processes of globalization, as the country dealt for the first time with international immigration, racism developed new roots, contributing to the construction of what, following Etienne Balibar, one could define as a “migrant race.”37 In a manner different from other European countries such as England and France, which had experienced a steady stream of migrants from former colonies since the time of decolonization, Italy met its colonial Other at home for the first time only in the late 1980s. Then, the aggressive racism already seen in the African colonies was quickly set ablaze, affecting newcomers especially from North Africa and Eastern Europe (mainly from the former Soviet States after 1989).38

Starting from the end of the 1990s, legislative measures to control and govern global labor mobility were largely responsible for the management of globalization and the increasing mass phenomenon of immigration. Similar to other European countries, the management of labor mobility in Italy has privileged processes of differentiation and selection of migrant workers, “including” rather than “excluding” them, although in a subordinate position. Status with respect to citizenship, the non-recognition of education and degrees, and the often stereotypical interpretation of signs of recognition, such as clothing or language, work as dispositifs of “differential inclusion,”39 continuing to ensure a large supply of low-cost labor. All Italian immigration laws have been shaped and continue to be shaped in this direction, such as the aforementioned Bossi-Fini law that is now fundamental in regulating labor mobility.

Racism and the Crisis

In recent years, the double path of Italian (and European) racism, and their simultaneous operation, has taken on a renewed existence within the economic crisis. On the one hand, the crisis exacerbated the aforementioned racism against international immigrants, which finds its roots in the invention of the colonial Other. On the other hand, it marked an updating of the racism against Southerners that refers to the historical fracture between North and South of Europe. From this latter perspective, one could read the violent rhetoric against “laziness” and “corruption” of southern European countries that is taking form today. Such rhetoric largely contributes to images of marginalization and inferiorization, and discourses about the so-called PIGS, the nasty acronym used to dub Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain the “swine” of Europe, identified as the cause of the Eurozone crisis.40 In this respect, the international press and the gray literature that flanks the European “Troika” insist on identifying the origin of the crisis in some forms of politics and in the functioning of the economy in the countries of the Mediterranean. In this way, a productive North, which is rigorous and sober, is contrasted to the lazy South, which is wasteful and corrupt, exactly as at the beginning of European modernity. In an explicit way, Hans-Jurgen Schlamp wrote in Der Spiegel International: “The true problem of the south isn’t the economic and financial crisis – it’s corruption, waste and nepotism,”41 thereby establishing a linear relationship between the Eurozone crisis and some of the worst features of the functioning of politics and economics in southern Europe. Alongside this production of imaginaries and discourses confirming the myth of white supremacy at the origin of the modern, capitalist, and colonial Europe emerges the idea that the South is always a kind of reverse of capitalist production, showing, today as in the past, a distinction between a North inclined to capitalist ethic and development, and a South undisciplined by this ethic and therefore underdeveloped.

As Luciano Ferrari Bravo usefully pointed out in his analysis of Southern Italy in the 1950s and 1960s, when internal migration was redrawing the social and productive structures, the whole gamble of capitalism has historically run between the concept of development and underdevelopment. Accordingly, in the capitalist narrative, so-called “underdevelopment” does not represent the not yet of development; it is rather a specific function of capitalism itself, “a material and political function of capitalism which, while it is determining itself, gives meaning to the process of capitalist socialization,”42 allowing the reproduction of capitalism itself. From this perspective, the social, economic, and political underdevelopment that is today attributed to Mediterranean Europe, is what makes possible the very existence of the neoliberal European capitalism in crisis. In other words, such underdevelopment represents the space of the capitalist accumulation (just as in Ferrari Bravo’s analysis southern Italy supports the very existence of the growing Italian capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s). The distinction between virtuous economies in northern Europe and weak economies in southern Europe has a specific function in contemporary capitalist valorization: transferring the material and symbolic costs of the crisis to the South, by way of the austerity programs that the European “Troika” have, mostly unilaterally, imposed on the Mediterranean countries.

Within the crisis of Eurozone,43 while a growing share of migrant labor-power has been moved into the most deregulated sectors of production (especially the building industry and agricultural work) and mechanisms of “differential inclusion” – such as the measures for regularizing the residency status of workers, especially women, employed in care and domestic labor, in 2009 – aim to produce new internal fractures, the racialization of southern Europe (and in a microcosmic way, southern Italy) provides the means for interpreting the economic crisis, supporting the reorganization of European (and Italian) governance, and the implementation of austerity policies. In this sense, the renewed rhetoric of “laziness and corruption” used to characterize people living in the South is deployed on the one hand to support and justify the imposition of austerity programs in countries such as Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain, the so-called PIGS, and on the other hand to establish new labor hierarchies for managing the reorganization of the labor market on the national and European level.

From this perspective, and as part of the historical trend of race management that goes hand in hand with the development of capitalism, the South, both in Italy and at the continental European level, emerges once again as a supply of cheap labor. Low-skilled wage labor, such as call centers, are relocating to southern Italy, counting on a two-thirds reduction of wages. At the same time, the South is still feeding important flows of young workers, often highly educated, both towards the North of the country and outside the national border, the predictable outcome of the systematic neglect of universities and research, disinvestment in culture and innovation, and the draconian cuts imposed by the austerity measures.44 In 2012, residents in the Italian South working in the center-North counted almost 140,000 (+4.3%). They were mostly young people under 40, with a medium-high level of education, employed mainly in precarious conditions.45 Fifty thousand have left the country, reversing for the first time in recent years the balance between emigration and immigration in Italy. Again, a large part of them are “qualified youth” who move away, often sponsored by private universities.46 In 2012, Germany, as a real magnet of labor mobility in Europe, accepted 42,000 Italians, with an increase of 40% over the previous year, especially workers in creative and cognitive industries.47

Nevertheless, northern Europe, far from being a happy island, offers newcomers a highly deregulated labor market (characterized by short-term work and very high flexibility) that is crossed by processes of racialization that translate the historical narrative of the intra-European fracture into the present. In this sense, young precarious cognitive workers who leave Italy or other countries in the South and move North live the deskilling and devaluing of their work, not only in terms of a penalty in the possibility of negotiating wages and labor guarantees (as was the case in the early 20th century or in the 1950s and 1960s, although in a different paradigm of production), but especially by dealing directly with precarity, the rising of social insecurity, and the blackmail of the discontinuity of income in an highly deregulated labor-market. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that these young skilled and specialized workers, subject to disqualification and downgrading in wages, protections, and guarantees, are today, together with international migrants, the central target of race management within intra-European labor mobility.

What is at Stake?

With the historical foundation of race management in mind, it follows that struggling against racism cannot be disengaged from the struggle against the capitalist conditions of domination and exploitation. Therein especially lies the importance of understanding racism in its inherently material and structural nature, in order to approach it as a device of social control, segmentation, and hierarchization, instead of an ideological-cultural-ontological-psychological need, or a social pathology. It is only by accepting racism as intimately linked with the system of production and capitalist exploitation that one can imagine and practice an actual way to challenge the social segmentation and hierarchies built around race. If we assume, instead, as the majority of the Italian and European debate does, that racism is a purely psychological practice, the only way to fight it would be through an educational project that has, however, revealed few possibilities for success, given that fact that the least fifty years (starting from the aftermath of World War II and the already mentioned “epistemological turn” of UNESCO) of good intentions and discourses of social justice that actually allowed racism, in its continuous and different forms, to continue to spread.

However, understanding racism within a materialist theory gives us the possibility of challenging it by starting exactly from a questioning of the dispositifs of exploitation and control that are built on the ground of race, that is to say, to challenge the race management that has historically accompanied the capitalist transition and accumulation. It is, in other words, to bring together struggles against racism in the workplace with labor struggles at the level of antiracism.

Today, in Italy, the struggles in the retail logistics industry, in which the workforce is largely composed of migrants, are a nascent way of touching on this.48 In moving the main focus of anti-racist struggle from citizenship to racialized labor, these logistics struggles are producing effective transformations of the labor and life conditions for workers (mainly racialized migrants) in the industry. Therefore, to challenge race hierarchies in the management of retail logistics in Italy has meant a considerable improvement in working conditions, as well as an end to racial blackmail and abuse. At the same time, these struggles, developed within large social networks and involving other figures such as students and precarious workers, political collectives and social centers, are producing forms of cooperation that are delineating new kinds of relationships between native and foreign workers. What is taking shape in the blockades at the retail logistics warehouses is a common plan of struggle, which, by bringing students and temporary workers together with warehouse workers to block the flow of goods, connects these different sectors of struggle. Thus, what is at stake in Italy and Europe within the crisis is this common ground of struggle. The welding together of different figures of labor and the social is literally terrorizing government and capital – it aims to reshape social relationships and challenge the processes of impoverishment and déclassement imposed by the neoliberal capital in crisis.

Primitive Accumulation and the State-Form: National Debt as an Apparatus of Capture

The moment has come to expose capital to the absence of reason, for which capital provides the fullest development: and this moment comes from capital itself, but it is no longer a moment of a “crisis” that can be solved in the course of the process. It is a different kind of moment to which we must give thought.

– J-L. Nancy1

Commencement and Crisis2

In a brief moment of his theoretical work, the great Japanese Marxist critic Tosaka Jun deployed a decisive and crucial phrase, a phrase that I believe concentrates within it the historical conjuncture we have been experiencing on a world-scale in the recent years of crisis: he calls this ultimate crystallization of politics “the facts of the streets” or “the facts on the streets” (gaitō no jijitsu).3 I would like to excessively develop or overwrite – in other words translate – this phrase into a concept in the strong sense, to raise this seemingly marginal choice of words to the level of a principle, and to utilize this principle itself as a lever through which to force into existence a certain theoretical sequence. What Tosaka essentially reminds us of is the literal factuality (or more specifically, in Alain Badiou’s terms, the “veridicity”) of the streets, the “fact” that the streets themselves express the dense sociality that capital’s tendency towards the socialization of labor must necessarily-inevitably produce. In other words, what we have seen in the political energies that have been widely unleashed around the globe in the last year, is that the streets themselves recurrently-continuously testify or bear witness to their own “facts.” These “facts” are precisely the verso or underside of capital’s mapping on a world-scale. Or, to put it in another way, a way that I would like to develop here, “the facts of the streets” is the center of the volatile “absence of reason” or (im)possibility that is always “passing through” in between two polarities of theory that I will call capital’s logical topology and its historical cartography.

The logical topology of capital’s inside is always paradoxically searching for a way to trace out and mirror itself in the historical cartography, always attempting to make itself a world. Since the beginning of the capitalist mode of production, the primary lever through which to force the capture of labor has always been the form of the state amalgamated together with the form of the nation, sutured together in the process of primitive accumulation. Using this building-block, capital tries incessantly-recurrently to translate its logical structure into the territoriality of the earth, to inscribe itself into the actual surface of the world. For this task, an entire sequence of “mechanisms” or “apparatuses” are necessary. But today, the “facts of the streets” are showing us more and more that, as capital’s logical topology oscillates itself into new, hazardous and volatile concentrations of its unstable core, these mechanisms, that for so long had guaranteed or legitimated capital’s forcing of the historical process, are themselves descending-ascending into delirium. The delirious and demented logic of capital today confronts the dignity and refusal that lines the streets. Engels, in his stark and forceful style, reminds us of what is essentially at stake:

The relation of the manufacturer to the worker has nothing human in it; it is purely economic. The manufacturer is ‘Capital,’ the worker is “Labour.” And if the worker will not be forced into this abstraction, if he insists that he is not “Labour,” but a man, who possesses, among other things, the attribute of labour-power, if he takes it into his head that he need not allow himself to be bought and sold in the market as the commodity “Labour,” the bourgeois reason comes to a standstill.4

When the streets erupt against this commodification, and the bourgeois reason is halted, capital must modify its equilibrium, it must determine how this “absence of reason” can be “passed through,” because capital cannot solve the crisis, but merely traverse it without resolving it. But how does this seemingly improbable or excessive (il)logic operate? Here we must literally “go back to the beginning.”

The Erasure of Violence by Means of Violence

Today, the crisis is not simply reducible to the financial crisis, nor can it be said to be a purely political crisis of legitimation of the state apparatus. Rather, the crisis today is one centered on the violent-volatile amalgam between capital’s limits and the limits of the state-form, particularly, the limits of the mechanisms that have allowed this amalgam to primarily organize social relations since the advent of capitalism itself. In order to think the ways in which our moment, and the moment of the advent of industrial capital converge, we have to think the question of the beginning, the origin. This is also a question of crisis as such, of the theory of crisis. Today, there is a constant tendency to see this crisis as an exception, as a permanent state of exception, as a making-permanent of something contingent, and so forth. But this in turn obscures the systematic and cyclical nature of crisis, which occurs only insofar as the systematic order in which it is placed is itself in question. Crisis, it must be said, cannot be simply and easily summed up in its typical underconsumptionist reading and its political consequences. If underconsumption is the motor-force of crisis, it would appear merely as a contingent question of national policy. But the specific nature of capitalist crisis can never be explained on such a basis, precisely because the underconsumptionist explanation treats every crisis as a surprise. But nothing about this crisis is surprising – or rather, if there is a surprising element in our current situation, it is the rebirth of the politicality of the “facts of the streets” that capital has suicidally let loose. Crisis is always a repetition, but a cyclical motion in which difference emerges within this repetition. That is, every time the circle has to be traced back to its starting point or commencement, the tracing itself always exhibits microscopic divergences. These divergences themselves, because they are exposed to the figurative or creative dimension of repetition, always contain within them the possibility for another arrangement: “From time to time the conflict of antagonistic agencies finds vent in crises. The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.”5 But the “disturbed equilibrium” is not itself a state of harmony and peace. Rather, the disturbed equilibrium is an undertaking of “violent eruptions” that have been covered over in new forms, and made to violently erase their own violence. But where does this violence emerge from?

As is well-known, the problem of the “so-called primitive accumulation,” centered in the 24th chapter of the first volume of Capital, originates from Marx’s recognition of the fact that his own analysis of the logical structure of capital requires an endlessly regressing series of presuppositions: the movement of accumulation presupposes the existence of surplus value, surplus value presupposes that capitalist production is already established, the existence of capitalist production presupposes a stock of capital sufficient for the cycle to begin, and so on. Thus he argues, the whole movement requires that we assume what Adam Smith called the “previous accumulation,” a period of accumulation which precedes capitalism’s established functioning, and from which it itself begins to move. But primitive accumulation does not mean a smooth transition that establishes the “good society,” nor the moment when mankind falls from an idyllic state. Rather, it is an irruption of violence, an instant in which what was previously untethered, undefined, and unbound is violently concatenated into a sequence that furnishes the basic material conditions for capitalist production. Thus, in this moment, it is “notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly, force, play the great part.”6 It is not simply that the peasantry is “freed” to become the wage-labor required for the formation and rotation of the circuit of capitalist accumulation, it is also at the same time the inverse: this process also indicates the closure of heterogeneity in order to produce equivalences which can then “encounter” each other: the owner of capital and the owner of labor power.

In this sense, the process of primitive accumulation (which is not a period, but a cyclically reproduced logical moment) describes the installation of “real abstraction” into history, and the fact that this moment is repeating everyday shows us the paradoxical nature of the historical temporality that characterizes capitalist society. More than anything however, we are immediately made aware of the violence of the production of the conditions of possibility for capitalist relations of production, for the “encounter” between buyers and sellers of labor power. Here we are reminded that “there is a primitive accumulation that, far from deriving from the agricultural mode of production, precedes it: as a general rule, there is primitive accumulation whenever an apparatus of capture is mounted, with that very particular kind of violence that creates or contributes to the creation of that which it is directed against, and thus presupposes itself.”7 As Marx incisively pointed out, in capitalist society, which is never at rest, but rather a circuit in constant motion, we must recognize that the “original sin is at work everywhere” (die Erbsünde wirkt überall).8

There is a long debate on the translation of die sogennante ursprungliche Akkumulation as the so-called primitive accumulation. But I would like to give this debate an added dimension: what we must consider today is how the originary accumulation is incorporated into capitalist development as primitive accumulation, as a repetition of the origin that is also concerned with the division or “separation” (Trennung) of historical time between the “primitive” or “backwards” and the “on time” or “normal” course of development. The trick of primitive accumulation is to work on these two dimensions at once, as part of the same social motion, to divide the earth on the basis of “forms” in the same way as the abstraction of the exchange process is divided between “two sides.” In other words, this moment of the beginning, which is cyclically-recursively repeated within the sphere of crisis (and in every capture of the worker’s body to secure the grounds for the labor-power commodity), is repeated in relation to a volatile historical exterior, repeated in terms of the form-determination of the “nation-form” (Balibar) and the “historical and moral factors” for the determination of the value and price of labor power, the “naïve anthropology” (Althusser) that lurks in the interior of capital’s logic. Capital’s schema of the world divided up into “national capitals” is itself profoundly linked to the historical formation of so-called “homo economicus,” in the form of the two figures of exchange, buyers and sellers. In other words, the figure of “Man” – as Deleuze and Guattari importantly point out, this figure of humanism is not simply “white man” (l’homme blanc) but rather “White Man” (L’Homme blanc) – is not an “exteriority” or “cultural supplement” to the economic field: it is rather the presupposition always-already at the very core of the circulation process.

The image of the world that capital presents to itself, by presupposing a certain accomplished history, also presupposes the production of the individuals that would furnish the “needs” upon which “rational” exchange would emerge. But the very production of these individuals itself presupposes the unitary and eternal area, or gradient which could legitimate those individuals as individuals by means of the form of belonging, typically to the nation-state. Thus, the whole circuit constitutes a “vicious circle,” one which never adequately returns to its starting point, because the whole sequence of presupposition forms an abyssal and regressive chain, in which something must always be given: “the homogeneous given space of economic phenomena is thus doubly given by the anthropology which grips it in the vice of origins and ends.”9 The field of “interest,” which is supposed to represent therefore the pure or immediate expression of “need,” separated from any extra-economic coercion, direct violence, and so forth, reveals itself as the ultimate expression of this “vice of origins and ends,” insofar as it must always erase or cover over the production of this figure of “Man” itself. When Marx discusses the figures of the “guardians,” the “bearers” or “owners” of the labor power commodity, he refers to them specifically as “this race of peculiar commodity-owners” (diese Race eigentümlicher Warenbesitzer),10 effectively reminding us that “the schema of the West and the Rest” is co-extensive and co-emergent with the dynamics of capital itself.

In other words, the “naïve anthropology” that is supposedly excluded from the circulation process or the “total material exchange” between “rational” individuals, is in fact located at its very core. Exactly as Deleuze and Guattari point out in their identification of the nation-state as the ultimate model of the capitalist axiomatic, the form of “the nation” is already contained at the very origin of the supposedly “rational” and “universal” process of exchange, a process that acts as if it represents the smooth and perfect circle of pure rationality, but that is permanently suspended between its impossible origin, which it is compelled to cyclically repeat, and its end, which is equally impossible, because it would relativize the circuit of exchange, and expose it to its outside, which it must constantly erase. Thus the social body or socius itself must remain in its state of insanity or “derangement” forever pulled in two directions of the production of subjects. It cannot exit this “deranged form,” but must try perpetually to prove its “universality” simply by oscillating between these two boundaries, two impossibilities: its underlying schema of the world, which “seems absent from the immediate reality of the pheonoma themselves” because it is permanently located in “the interval between origins and ends,” a short-circuit that incessantly reveals to us that “its universality is merely repetition.”11 The paradox of logic and history in the apparatus of capture thus is contained in the following problem: “the mechanism of capture contributes from the outset to the constitution of the aggregate upon which the capture is effectuated” (le mécanisme de capture fait déjà partie de la constitution de l’ensemble sur lequel la capture s’effectue).12 This paradox, however, is “no mystery at all” (pas du tout de mystère), precisely because it is a mechanism or schema that exists out in the open, on the surface of society. The historical accident, the moment of capture for which there was no apparent necessity or pulsion, produces a form of torsion back upon itself. Once capture has been effected, it loops back onto its own contingent origins to once again derive itself, to anticipate and “conjure” itself up as if it were the necessary outcome of its own schema. In other words, the forms of capture, enclosure, and ordering are not simply distinguished by their appearance as always-already prior; more fundamentally, they are distinguished by this paradoxical and demented structure in which the contingent historical event cycles back to itself, once again “discovering” its own hazardous origins, but does so precisely to “recode” its emergence so as to appear as if what ought to be an accident was always in fact a necessary outcome. Thus, the historical accident of primitive accumulation is constantly “becoming what it is” neither through its contingent foundations nor its inner drive to pretend it is necessary; this schema operates precisely by cyclically repeating its origin in capture in order to harness its hazardous flux retrospectively, to conjure itself up as if its origin were a mere testament to its necessary emergence.

In this system of the violence of inclusion, the violence of the schema itself “hides in plain view,” it operates immediately before our eyes, yet “it is very difficult to pinpoint this violence because it always presents itself as preaccomplished.”13 The seeming double-bind contained in the violence of the apparatus of capture might appear to disable any conception of political intervention, to be a closed circle, but we could also say precisely the opposite. In the process of primitive accumulation, “the concept of ‘determined social formation’ has become the concept of ‘class composition’: it restores, in other words, the dynamism of the subject’s action, of the will that structures or destroys the relations of necessity.”14 In other words, paradoxically it is the fact that our forclosure into the social field has taken place that opens the possibilities of politics. We have always-already been included into this systematic expression of capture, but this inescapability of the repetition of the beginning does not mean something disabling.

Capital, as the fundamental concretization of social relations, and therefore as the apex of the social relation’s violent verso, cannot rid itself of this fundamental “condition of violence” (Gewaltverhältnis),15 located in its logical alpha and omega, the labor power commodity, whose “indirect” production is located paradoxically outside commodity relations. An excess of violence is haunting capital’s interior by means of this constantly liminalizing/volatilizing forcible “production” of labor power. Precisely by this excessive violence, capital endangers itself and opens itself up to a whole continent of raw violence, and it is exactly this point that shows us something important in terms of the question of how capital utilizes the “anthropological difference” to effect the “indirect” production of labor power. The primal violence, sustained as a continuum or “status quo,” appears as a smooth state, a cyclical reproduction cycle without edges. But this appearance or semblance of smooth continuity is in fact a product of the working of violence upon itself: the violence of the historical cartography must erase and recode itself by means of violence as the smooth functioning of the logical topology. In other words, when we encounter the basic social scenario of capitalist society, the exchange of a product for money, we are already in a situation in which the raw violence of subjectivation, whereby some absent potentiality within the worker’s body is exchanged as if it is a substance called labor power which can be commodified, is covered over by the form of money, which appears as a smooth container of significations that can serve as a measure of this potentiality. But in order for labor power to be measured and exchanged as money, there must be a repeated doubling of violence. What must remain on the outside of capital as a social relation is paradoxically what must also be simultaneously forced into its inside, perpetually torn between the forms of subjectivation that produce labor power as an inside, and the historical field of reproduction in which the worker’s body is produced on the violent outside of capital.

The National Debt as a Conduit

Every time capital requires the commodification of labor power, it must in effect repeat at the level of the logical topology the process of the transition, the “so-called primitive accumulation.” But the historical process simultaneously forces capital to undertake the transition at a microscopic level, in the form of the shrinking commodity-unit, and therefore in an even more paradoxical form than the historical “beginning.” That is, capital must capitalistically undertake a microscopic version of the transition to capitalism. At the “beginning” capital could rely on direct force, on a structural violence that would enable or set in motion a field of effects that would generate a general order of capture. But how can the transition be undertaken over and over again, in particular after the historical transition is assumed to have already occurred? Marx gave us an essential clue when he reminded us that the so-called primitive accumulation in effect reappears or takes up a second logical position in capital’s interior, in the form of the national debt.

The original sin at the beginning of the capital-relation might as well be understood as an “original debt,” an historical appearance of something given, a gift. The process of primitive accumulation and its historical acts of enclosure cannot simply be understood as an excessive violence that is then superceded by a more “rational” or “decent” and “restrained” order. Rather, what the process of primitive accumulation reminds us of, is the necessity for capital of the given, the form of “supposition” (Setzung) and “presupposition” (Voraussetzung). But how does this originary debt-gift operate? In what sense is this a problem of actuality for us? In this sense, what exactly is the national debt itself?

The national debt is a mechanism. A very special type of mechanism, and one that capital relies on intimately. Uno Kozo gave us a critical clue to this type of mechanism as follows:

Through the law of population, capitalism comes into possession of mechanisms or apparatuses which allow the (im)possibility of the commodification of labor power to pass through (‘muri’ o tôsu kikô). This is precisely the point on which capitalism historically forms itself into a determinate form of society, and further, is what makes it independent in pure-economic terms. Like land, this is a so-called given for capitalism, one that is given from its exterior, but unlike land it can be reproduced, and by means of this reproduction becomes capable of responding to the demands of capital put forward through the specific phenomenon of capitalism called crisis.16

Uno locates this mechanism in the form of the “law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production” (der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise eigentümliches Populationsgesetz),17 a law that is central to the questions of crisis and debt, because it concerns above all the management of personhood, the management of the physical-moral aspects of the material existence of the body, so as to maintain the “rational individual,” the form which would furnish adequate labor power for capitalist production. But this structure of such an apparatus is not limited to the form of population; rather the “law of population” is one moment of the overall taxonomy of these mechanisms for the traversal of the nihil of reason that capitalism necessitates from the outset. If at the beginning, there is a debt or gift, capital cannot ever truly “begin.” That is, it is impossible to “start from the first instance” if the first instance is always-already delayed or deferred by means of something that must be there already. In other words, if capital can only expand on the basis of its originary debt/gift, then capital is permanently or eternally crippled and restrained by the nature of this given element, it can never extract itself from what is given in order to fully realize its image of a circle with neither end nor beginning. In order therefore, to overcome or at least avoid this problem, capital must formulate all sorts of these “apparatuses for the traversal of (im)possibility.” That is, capital must discover ways in which something that should restrain or even expose its limitations can be traversed or passed through. But precisely in constantly requiring mechanisms or apparatuses outside its interior logic, capital demonstrates its relatively volatile functioning, in which precisely its excessive aspects (the reliance on the state, the enforcement of the nation-form, the violence of the exterior allowed into the interior and once more erased as violence by means of violence), its paradoxical and even “demented” aspects, appear as the central principles of its operation. When we confront this “demented” or “deranged” aspect of capital, we are also immediately alerted to the fact that this aspect of capital is also where an immense political breach exists, and it is on this point that we must clarify the current scenario of debt.

Marx recalls this problem for us at an early historical moment, reminding us that the system of national debt was generated in the “forcing-house” (Treibhaus) of the colonial system: thus “National debts, i.e., the alienation of the state (Veräusserung des Staats) – whether despotic, constitutional or republican – marked with its stamp the capitalistic era.”18 In this sense, already we are acquainted with the national debt as the “mark” or “stamp” (Stempel) of the entry into capitalist society on a world-scale, as the initial moment in which the originary accumulation of capital is at one and the same time the formation of the mechanisms that will install a cartography onto the surface of the world.

The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions (Gesamtbesitz) of modern peoples is their national debt. Hence, as a necessary consequence, the modern doctrine that a nation becomes the richer the more deeply it is in debt. Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven. The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers (energischsten Hebel) of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, it endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital, without the necessity of its exposing itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury.19

The logical topology of capital’s origin and maintenance, and the historical cartography of the modern world order, based on the unit of the state, are volatilely amalgamated together in the form of the national debt. But Marx also alerts us to something critically important: here the national debt is not so much a separate motion of violence, but rather one of the most “powerful” or “energetic” “levers” for the continuation or maintenance of primitive accumulation. But why would capital need yet another exteriority? Primitive accumulation itself, its raw violence, its “extra-economic coercion,” is already to an extent exterior to capital. Yet what capital always requires are ways and means of taking the raw violence on which it secretly rests and reinserting this violence into a new modality, in which its violence can appear in another form. This is exactly why the national debt, as a mechanism, allows capital to avoid “exposing itself to troubles and risks.” Marx goes one step further, by connecting the national debt as primitive accumulation to the nation-form itself:

With the national debt arose an international credit system, which often conceals one of the sources (Quellen) of primitive accumulation in this or that people (Volk). […] A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalised blood of children.20

In other words, capital’s enclosure of the earth appears both within and by means of national borders – by extension, Marx essentially reminds us here that the nation-form itself allows for the concealing within an organized and bordered system of entities, of capital’s originary-primitive violence, and yet erases this violence precisely by allowing it to vanish into the nation as an apparatus for the traversal of this gap, “vanishing in its own result, leaving no trace behind.” But this theoretical and historical problem is by no means simply an interesting episode from the past.

Let us recall here a peculiar historical moment characteristic of our current conjuncture. In the German “gutter press” (Bild and the like) in 2010-2011, an entire series of discussions of the Greek national debt (and by extension the ongoing Eurozone crisis) took place. The essence of the national debt was finally blamed on the Greek “national character” (supposedly “lazy,” excessively enjoying holidays, corrupt, incapable of “rational competition,” and so forth).21 This moment of the German-Greek opposition on the question of the national debt exposes to us the recent history of this mechanism. The era of imperialism in the strict sense consisted in the formation of “debt traps” for the peripheral and underdeveloped countries: the central imperialist nations export the domestic surplus to the colonies, the periphery, and so forth, by creating and enforcing demand, maintained by the national debt. Thus the poorer nations end up not only importing from the imperialist nations but also effectively in an endless spiral of debt, a mechanism that then forces the periphery to accept the political and economic directives of the imperialist nations for the plunder and expropriation of raw materials, cheap labor power, border controls, subordination to political regimes, and so forth. Today, this same logic persists. If the old modality of imperialism consists in the macroscopic formation of monopoly capital and super-profits in the peripheral violence, the new modality of imperialism financializes this violence into the miniature and dense concentration of capital’s interior. It is no accident that today we see a “return of the origin,” “a moment when wage constriction is violently manifested, exactly like the 16th century enclosures where access to land as a common good was repressed with the privatization of the land and the putting of wages to the proletariat.”22 This is why we should overlap capital’s historical threshold with the moment we are living through today:

The logic of ‘governing through debt’ has its origin in the fundamental relation between capital and labor. Financial capitalism has globalized imperialism, its modus operandi that operates through the form of ‘debt traps’, both national and private indebtedness, in order to realize and sell the surplus value extracted from living labor. In the imperial schema, debt is the monetary face of surplus value, the universal exploitation of labor power, and constitutes a trap precisely because it prevents living labor from freeing itself from exploitation, from autonomizing the relations of dependency and slavery that are proper to debt.23

The national debt allows the “reckless terrorism” of primitive accumulation to be maintained as if it were absent by redirecting it to the market. The national debt is a mechanism that “conducts” or forces the situation onto a new site of the curve of capitalist development, but it is not a mechanism that “resolves,” it is a mechanism that “defers” or “displaces” the sharpening of political struggles. The national debt therefore is precisely the “dangerous supplement” of capitalism as a historical force: the national debt exposes the fact that capital itself can never resolve the situation that emerges when the relations of production come into conflict with the development of the productive forces. Capital is always trying to create mechanisms that allow it to transcend its own limitations, while simultaneously permitting it to avoid making the political leap past its own boundaries. Yet, this inevitable limit of capital’s self-deployment is paradoxically the source of capital’s own dynamism. Without this tense multiplication of its wounds, capital would never develop – that is, capital requires a certain risk or recklessness, but the more it defers this leap, the more spaces of political intervention are opened up in capital’s austere movement. This movement keeps the elements of primitive accumulation circulating on the surface, a mechanism by which to traverse the impossibility of the commencement as such, precisely by beginning the commencement over and over again. In turn, this element of the national debt returns our focus to the role played by the nation-state in allowing this “first return to origins” – the element of the national is exactly deployed in and within the movement of capture in order to guarantee labor power’s “elasticity” (Elastizität).24 Without the nation, the malleable elememts of labor power cannot be recirculated as if they were directly graspable, by means of the reproduction of the worker’s body on the outside. The nation – the original fictitious “substance” – conjures up its own little images of its pseudo-substantiality precisely in order to then “re-derive” itself from their existence. In this way the elasticity of labor power is simply the microscopic or “micrological” extension of the elasticity of the nation, the form by which capital attempts incessantly to territorializes itself. Labor power’s impossibility is a microscopic image of the gap or chiasmus between the logical and the historical: the historical origin and the logical commencement, and this is the point on which “the insanity of the capitalist mode of conception (die Verrücktheit der kapitalistischen Vorstellungsweise) reaches its climax.”25

Facing the crisis today, the form of the national debt alerts us to a crucial fact: “The crisis is neither an economic nor a political crisis: it is a crisis of the capital relation, a crisis made inevitable by the inherent contradictions of that relation. The crisis inevitably involves a restructuring of the capital relation, a restructuring which necessarily takes on economic and political forms. What is involved on both levels is an assault by capital to maintain the conditions of its own existence.”26 In this sense, the problem of the national debt as a mechanism for the continuation of primitive accumulation within the capital-relation, cannot be solved on the level of the nation-form – we might say polemically that the national debt is in fact the origin of the nation itself. It itself is a technology of drawing a border around the form of the nation, something that cannot be rigorously bordered. The nation itself is a form of credit: it must be traced as if it could be located. But it must be traced by capital itself. Because the nation cannot be bordered in any strict sense, it forces a coherence economically where there cannot be one historically. But because this technology continuously exposes it to the historical exterior, it is therefore always being undermined by its own inability to escape the historical process. At the origin there is already a debt, because something has been presupposed as given, something that utilizes this presupposition as a lever for its own functioning. The illogical logic of capital’s origin or beginning is recoded as the illogical history of the state. This “intercourse” between capital and the state is concentrated or compressed into the insanity of the supposedly rational exchange process, this “Verkehr” at the beginning which appears precisely as “Austausch” in the logical interior. This is exactly what Lenin meant when he famously emphasized that “politics is the concentrated expression of economy.”27

The Facts on the Streets

Today, it behooves us to state the matter clearly and without pretense: capital can only “overcome” its own crises by passing through them without resolving them. And it can only undertake this traversal or passing by placing the burden of violence, suffering, and immiseration onto the backs of the world – the world working class – the facies totius universi, or “face of the entire universe.” Capital itself formulates these apparatuses – the state, the national debt – to overcome or traverse what it cannot solve. Our task lies in the relentless and unending exposure of its raw violence, covered over and hidden by the form of finance. Labor power is an internal outside to capital manifested in its pure outside, the worker’s body. But the body is under the control of the state. Thus, when contemporary global police power is employed against the concrete bodies of the young, the unemployed, the old, the sick, the dropouts, those who are torn between an inability to function in the expected style as the “self-conscious instruments of production” for capital, or to be smoothly integrated into the state’s order, we are witnessing the raw and violent historical exterior’s incapacity to “reset” or “restart” the cyclical return of the origin. In thinking through the contemporary “facts of the streets,” let us pay close attention to a famous passage from Marx:

The specific economic form (Form), in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled (Herrschafts- und Knechtschaftsverhältnis), as it grows directly out of production itself and in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form (Gestalt). It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret (innere Geheimnis), the hidden basis of the entire social structure (verborgene Grundlage der ganzen gesellschaftlichen Konstruktion), and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc., from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances (empirisch gegebenen Umstände).28

These “empirically given circumstances” furnish us with capital’s “factual” limits, limits that are being tested today by a new generation of political upheavals. The tenuous and searching existence of the upsurge in the “facts of the streets” today, under the aspect of the mutations of the state, returns us to the commencement. Not only the commencement of capital, in which the violence of capture must masquerade as the smooth operation of the interior, but also the (re)commencement of politics. This would not seek to produce a “stable” and therefore easily-assumed subject of our moment. Rather, it would assume that, as the “guardians” of labor power, the “bearers” of this fragile and ambiguous commodity, we are incapable of fully “being,” but only a sort of “para-being.” The aleatory or contingent dimension which always enters into the element of “composition” in class struggle is profoundly manifest today. But this aleatory undercurrent is not something that undermines or that holds us back from politics:

“Let us para-be,” that is our war cry.

And better yet: “We are nothing, let us para-be the Whole.”29

The International today, that is “springing out of the ground of modern society”30 is not the old fantasy of the stable subject of the discourse of “civilizational difference,” but rather a fragile hazard that capital itself can no longer effectively police through its external “mechanisms.” This “composition” (in the sense that Negri and others have given to “class composition”) indicates the whole logic by which the mechanisms of capital and the state attempt to effect a specific logic of the social dimension of separation (Trennung), but this “separation” is something profoundly different than the theory of alienation. It shows that where capital has “forced” an amalgam, there is a “slippage” or “décalage.” Where the amalgam seems most perfectly sutured is also where this décalage can be raised as a social antagonism and transformed into a political contradiction. The suicidal nature of the capitalist mode of production is expressed in its need to internalize, to financialize, its violent exterior, to include within its “count” the “uncountable” and savage process of primitive accumulation, recoded as the apparatus of the national debt. The paradox is however that we, the debtors, are transformed into a permanent reserve of debt, yet hold a social power over capital, by occupying the position of the “guardians” (Hütern), the “bearers” (Träger) of labor power, the location of capital’s “original sin,” its primal debt.31 This is the social antagonism that today we find in the streets: when this antagonism is raised to the level of a political contradiction, the groundwork is prepared for a new opening against capital’s supposed indifference to the world.

In the face of this crisis – this repetition of the original debt in the form of the national debt – we have to be able to say bluntly and openly: capital and the state cannot resolve this crisis. They can only formulate mechanisms to traverse its “absence of reason.” These mechanisms of bourgeois insanity can only operate by transferring the violent spasms of crisis onto the back of the working class, the unemployed, the poor and oppressed strata of the world. Increasingly, these “mechanisms” themselves are also failing to support capital’s leap to a new basis of accumulation. The state can only undertake such a leap through the increasing control of the bodies, the “guardians” and “bearers” of labor power, that clash with its logic, that lie just outside its strict sphere on influence. Historically, the state has utilized “apparatuses for the traversal of the nihil of reason” such as the “nation-form” (Balibar) to suture and cover over this incapacity. But today, the nation-form cannot hold back or restrain the fact that “the conditions for the capitalization of surplus value clash increasingly with the conditions for the renewal of the aggregate capital”32 on a world-scale. There is no option today except to emphasize that our only hope lies in precisely these “facts of the streets” that cannot be fully erased from capital’s image of the world. But rather than simply conclude with famous assertion from Marx that communism is the “real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs,” a familiar reference that has been recently revived in a number of discussions,33 we might instead appeal to another moment in The German Ideology that, facing the crisis this time, returns to us today with a vital force:

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact (eine empirische Tatsache) that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity (Tätigkeit) into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them, a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market (in letzter Instanz als Weltmarkt ausweist). But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power will be dissolved. […] Only then will the separate individuals be liberated from the various national and local barriers (nationalen und lokalen Schranken), be brought into practical connection with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy (Genußfähigkeit) this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man).34

This “empirische Tatsache” of the world of capital, linked above to the “empirically given circumstances” within which capital attempts to make its most “fatal leap” between the logical topology and the historical cartography, lays the groundwork of “facticity” or “factuality” in the historical world, the “given” that is implied in this “empirische.” In turn, this “Tatsache” re-emerges paradoxically as the original revolutionary weapon of the people in the form of the “facts of the streets.” These “facts of the streets” that Tosaka alerted us to are at work today in the streets of the historical world, where the demand for a reinvention of socialism – of modes of life beyond the stranglehold of austerity, debt servitude, and an image of social relations found in the “world market” – responds to the original residue or remainder, the “empirical fact” of the originary debt at capital’s origin, which we carry within ourselves, and which can open a new era of affirmative politics and critical thought.

Remarks on Gender

I. Patriarchy and/or Capitalism: Reopening the Debate

It is standard to find references to “patriarchy” and “patriarchal relations” in feminist texts, tracts, or documents.1 Patriarchy is often used to show how gender oppression and inequality are not sporadic or exceptional occurrences. On the contrary, these are issues that traverse all of society, and are fundamentally reproduced through mechanisms that cannot be explained at the individual level.

In short, we often use the term patriarchy to underscore that gender oppression is a phenomenon not reducible to interpersonal relations, but rather has a more societal character and consistency. However, things become a bit more complicated if we want to be more precise about what exactly is meant by “patriarchy” and “patriarchal system.” And this move becomes even more complex when we begin to ask about the precise relationship between patriarchy and capitalism.

The Question

For a brief period, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, the question of the structural relationship between patriarchy and capitalism was the subject of a heated debate among theorists and partisans of a materialist current of thought as well as Marxist-feminists. The fundamental questions which were posed revolved around two axes: 1) is patriarchy an autonomous system in relation to capitalism? 2) is it correct to use the term “patriarchy” to designate gender oppression and inequality?

Although it produced very interesting work, this debate gradually became more and more unfashionable. This occurred in tandem with the retreat of critiques of capitalism, while other currents of feminist thought asserted themselves. These new modes of thought often did not go beyond the liberal horizon of the times – they sometimes essentialized relations between men and women and de-historicized gender, or they avoided questions of capitalism and class – but at the same time, they developed useful concepts for the deconstruction of gender (such as queer theory in the 1990s).

Of course, to go out of fashion does not necessarily mean to disappear. In the past decade, many feminist theorists have continued to work on these questions, at the risk of seeming out of touch with the times, vestiges of a tedious past. They were certainly right to persevere: during a time of economic and social crisis, we are currently bringing partial but much-needed attention back to the structural relation between gender oppression and capitalism.

Over these last few years, empirical analyses or descriptions of phenomena or specific questions have certainly not been lacking, such as the feminization of work; the impact of neoliberal politics on women’s living and workplace conditions; the intersection of gender, racial, and class oppression; or the relation between the different constructions of sexual identity and capitalist regimes of accumulation. However, it is one thing to “describe” a phenomenon or a group of social phenomena, where the link between capitalism and gender oppression is more or less evident. It is another to give a “theoretical” explanation of the reason for this structural relation that can be identified within these phenomena and their mode of functioning. It is therefore crucial to ask if there is an “organizing principle” which explains this link.

In order to be both clear and concise on this point, I will try to summarize the most interesting theses on these matters that have been suggested until now. In the following remarks, I will analyze and question these different theses separately. To uphold a degree of intellectual honesty and to avoid any misunderstandings, I stress that my reconstruction of different points of view is not impartial. My own view is found in the third thesis below.

Three Theses

First Thesis: “Dual or Triple Systems Theory.” We can put the original version of this thesis in the following terms: Gender and sexual relations constitute an autonomous system which combines with capitalism and reshapes class relations, while being at the same time modified by capitalism in a process of reciprocal interaction. The most up-to-date version of this theory includes racial relations, also considered as a system of autonomous social relations interconnected with gender and class relations.

Within materialist feminist circles, these reflections are usually associated with the notion that gender and racial relations are systems of oppression as much as relations of exploitation. In general, these theses have an understanding of class relations as defined solely in economic terms. It is only via the interaction with patriarchy and the system of racial domination that they acquire an extra-economic character as well. A variation of this thesis is to see gender relations as a system of ideological and cultural relations derived from older modes of production and social formations, independent of capitalism. These older relations then interact with capitalist social relations, giving the latter their gendered dimension.

Second Thesis: “Indifferent Capitalism.” Gender oppression and inequality are the remnants of previous social formations and modes of production, when patriarchy directly organized production and determined a strict sexual division of labor. Capitalism is itself indifferent to gender relations and can overcome them to such a degree that patriarchy as a system has been dissolved in the advanced capitalist countries, while family relations have been restructured in quite radical ways. In sum, capitalism has an essentially opportunistic relation with gender inequality: it utilizes what it finds to be beneficial in existing gender relations, and destroys what becomes an obstacle. This view is articulated in various versions. Some claim that within capitalism women have benefited from a degree of emancipation unknown in other kinds of society, and this would demonstrate that capitalism as such is not a structural obstacle to women’s liberation. Others maintain that we should carefully distinguish between the logical and historical levels: logically, capitalism does not specifically need gender inequality, and could get rid of it; historically, things are not so simple.

Third Thesis: The “Unitary Thesis.” According to this theory, in capitalist countries, a patriarchal system that is autonomous from capitalism no longer exists. Patriarchal relations continue to exist, but without being part of a separate system. To deny that patriarchy is an autonomous system under capitalism is not to deny that gender oppression really exists, permeating both social and interpersonal relations. In other words, this thesis does not reduce every aspect of oppression to simply a mechanistic or direct consequence of capitalism, nor does it seek to offer an explanation solely in economic terms.

In short, the unitary theory is not reductionist or economistic, and it does not underestimate the centrality of gender oppression. Proponents of the “unitary theory” disagree with the idea that today patriarchy would be a system of rules and mechanisms that autonomously reproduce themselves. At the same time, they insist on the need to consider capitalism not as a set of purely economic laws, but rather as a complex and articulated social order, an order that at its core consists of relations of exploitation, domination, and alienation.

From this point of view, the task today is to understand how the dynamic of capital accumulation continues to produce, reproduce, transform, and renew hierarchical and oppressive relations, without expressing these mechanisms in strictly economic or automatic terms.

II. One, Two, or Three Systems?

In 1970, Christine Delphy wrote an article called “The Main Enemy,” in which she theorized the existence of a patriarchal mode of production, its relation to, as well as its non-correspondence with, the capitalist mode of production, and the definition of housewives as a class, in the strictly economic sense of the term.

Nine years later, Heidi Hartmann published her own article, “The Unhappy Marriages of Marxism and Feminism,” in which she argued for the thesis that patriarchy and capitalism are two autonomous systems, but also historically interconnected. For Hartmann, capitalist laws of accumulation are indifferent to the sex of labor-power, and if there arises a need for capitalism to create hierarchical relations in the division of labor, racism and patriarchy determine the distribution of the hierarchical positions and the specific way these are utilized.

This thesis eventually took on the name of “Dual Systems Theory.” In her 1990 book Theorizing Patriarchy, Sylvia Walby reformulated the dual systems theory by adding a third, the racial system, and also sought to understand patriarchy as a variable system of social relations composed of six structures: the patriarchal mode of production, patriarchal relations in wage labor and salaried labor, patriarchal relations in the State, male violence, patriarchal relations in the sphere of sexuality, and patriarchal relations in cultural institutions. These six structures reciprocally condition each other while remaining autonomous: they can also be either private or public. More recently, Danièle Kergoat has theorized the “consubstantiality” of patriarchal, race, and class relations; these are three systems of relations based on exploitation and domination which intersect and are of the same substance (exploitation and domination), while being distinct, like the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

This brief survey of authors and essays is only one example of the different ways in which the intersection of the patriarchal system and capitalist system has been theorized, and the ways in which one system is distinguished from the other. There are others, too, but for limits of space I am forced to limit my analysis to these examples, which are among the most clear while remaining the most systematic and complex. As I have already shown, the difficulty with this debate concerns the definition of patriarchy. There is not a uniform definition, but more of a set of propositions, some of which are compatible with each other, while others are contradictory. Since I cannot analyze all of these definitions, I propose, for now, to focus on the concept of the patriarchal system, understood as a system of relations, both material and cultural, of domination and exploitation of women by men. This is a system with its own logic that is at same time malleable to historical changes, in an ongoing relation with capitalism.

Before analyzing the problems presented by this theoretical approach, we should define exploitation and make some distinctions. From the point of view of class relations, exploitation is defined as a process or mechanism of the expropriation of a surplus produced by a producing class for the benefit of another class. This can happen either through automatic mechanisms such as the wage, or the violent expropriation of the others’ labor – this was the case with the corvée, by which the feudal lords constrained the serfs through imposed authority and violent coercion. Capitalist exploitation, in the Marxist sense, is a specific form of exploitation that consists in the extraction of the surplus-value produced by the worker for the benefit of the capitalist. Generally, in order to talk about capitalist exploitation, there must exist generalized commodity production, abstract labor, socially necessary labor time, value, and the wage-form.

I am clearly leaving out other hypotheses, such as those based on the real subsumption of society in its totality, as defended by the workerist and post-workerist traditions. Confronting this view and its consequences for understanding gender relations would take up another article. In loosely defined terms: the extraction of surplus-value for Marx is the secret of capital, in the sense that it constitutes the origin of socially produced wealth and its modes of distribution.

Exploitation as the extraction of surplus-value is not the only form of exploitation within capitalist society: to be simplistic, we can say that an employee in an unproductive sector (in value terms) is also exploited through the extraction of surplus-labor. And the wage-rate, living conditions, and workplace conditions of a shopkeeper can of course be worse than that of a factory worker. In addition, beyond the slightly economistic tendencies of past misunderstandings and debates, it is important to note that from a political point of view, the distinction between productive and unproductive workers (in terms of value or surplus-value production) is practically irrelevant. Strictly speaking, the mechanisms and forms of organization and division of the labor process are much more important.

Let us return now to the dual systems theory and to the problem of patriarchy.

First Problem

If we define patriarchy as a system of exploitation, it logically follows that there is an exploiting group and an exploited group or, better, an expropriating class and an expropriated class. Who makes up these classes? The answers can be: all women and all men, or only some women and some men (in the example cited by Delphy, housewives and the adult male members of their families). If we talk about patriarchy as a system of exploitation in the “public” sphere, the notion can arise in which the State is the exploiter or expropriator. The “workerist feminists” applied the notion of capitalist exploitation to domestic labor, but according to their view, the true expropriator of domestic labor is capital, which would imply that patriarchy is not in fact an autonomous system of exploitation.

In the case of Delphy’s work, the thesis that housewives are a class and their immediate male family members (in particular their husbands) are the exploiting class is not fully articulated, but also taken to its most far-reaching consequences. In logical terms, the consequence of her position would be that the spouse of a migrant worker belongs to the same social class as the wife of a capitalist: they both produce use-values (in one case care work pure and simple, in the other, the work of “representation” of a certain social status, organizing meetings and receptions, for example) and are both in an exploitative relation of a servile nature, that is to say, working in exchange for the financial security provided by their husbands.

In “The Main Enemy,” Delphy insists that being a member of the patriarchal class is a more important fact than being part of the capitalist class. It would follow that the solidarity between the wife of a capitalist and the wife of the migrant worker must take precedence over the class solidarity between the wife of the migrant worker and the other members of her husband’s class (or, and this is more optimism than anything else, it must take precedence over the class solidarity of the wife of the capitalist and her country club friends). In the end, Delphy’s actual political practice stands in contradiction with the logical consequences of her theory, which makes its analytical limits even more apparent.

Furthermore, if we define men and women (in one version or another) as two classes — one the exploiters, the other the exploited — we inevitably come to the conclusion that there is an irreconcilable antagonism between classes whose interests are in reciprocal contradiction. But, if Delphy is wrong, should we then deny that men profit and take advantage of women’s unpaid work? No, because this would be a symmetrical error, unfortunately made by many Marxists who have taken this reasoning to the opposite extreme. It is clearly better and more convenient to have someone cook you a hot meal in the evening than to have to deal with the dishes yourself after a long day of work. It is quite “natural,” then, that men tend to try and hold on to this privilege. In short, it is undeniable that there are relations of domination and social hierarchy based on gender and that men, including those of lower classes, benefit from them.

However, this should not be taken to mean that there is a class antagonism. We could rather make the following hypothesis: in a capitalist society, the complete or partial “privatization” of care work, that is, its concentration within the family (whatever the type of family, and including single-parent households), the lack of large-scale socialization of this care work, through the state or other forms, all this determines the workload that must be maintained within the private sphere, outside of both the market and institutions. The relations of gender oppression and domination determine the mode and scale in which this workload is to be distributed, giving way to an unequal division: women work more while men work less. But there is no appropriation of a “surplus.”

Is there evidence to the contrary? A simple thought experiment will do. A man would lose nothing, in terms of workload, if the distribution of care work were completely socialized instead of being performed by his wife. In structural terms, there would be no antagonistic or irreconcilable interests. Of course, this does not mean that he is conscious of this problem, as it may well be that he is so integrated into sexist culture that he has developed some severe form of narcissism based on his presumed male superiority, which leads him to naturally oppose any attempts to socialize care work, or the emancipation of his wife. The capitalist, on the other hand, has something to lose in the socialization of the means of production; it is not just about his convictions about the way the world works and his place in it, but also the massive profits he happily expropriates from the workers.

Second Problem

The second problem concerns the fact that those who insist that patriarchal relations today make up an independent system within advanced capitalist societies must face the thorny problem of determining its driving force: why does this system continually reproduce itself? Why does it persist? If it is an independent system, the reason must be internal and not external. Capitalism, for example, is a mode of production and a system of social relations, with an identifiable logic: according to Marx, it is a process of the valorization of value. Certainly, to have identified this process as the driving force or motor of capitalism does not say everything that needs to be said about capitalism: this would be analogous to thinking that the explanation of the anatomy of the heart and its functions would suffice to explain the whole anatomy of the human body. Capitalism is an ensemble of complex processes and relations. However, understanding what its heart is and how it works is a fundamental analytic necessity.

Where patriarchal relations play a direct role in the organization of the relations of production (who produces and how, who appropriates, how the reproduction of these conditions of production is organized), identifying the driving force of the patriarchal system is simpler. This is the case with agrarian societies, for example, where the patriarchal family directly forms the unity of the production with the means of subsistence. Yet this is more complicated in capitalist society, where patriarchal relations do not directly organize production, but play a role in the division of labor, and the family is relegated to the private sphere of reproduction.

Faced with this question, either one agrees with Delphy and other materialist feminists in seeing contemporary patriarchy as a specific mode of production, but would then have to face all the challenges I noted above, especially the intractable problem of who, in this conception, would make up the exploiting and exploited classes; or one simply has to abandon the view that patriarchy is a distinct mode of production, at least in the conventional sense of that term.

A hypothesis that has already been suggested in the past is that patriarchy is an independent ideological system, whose motor resides in the process of the production of signifiers and interpretations of the world. But here, we run into other problems: if ideology is the way in which we interpret our conditions of existence and our relations to them, a link must exist between ideology and these social conditions of existence; a link that is definitely not mechanistic, or automatic, or anything like that. But it would still be a matter of a certain form of connection, otherwise we would risk having a fetishistic and ahistorical conception of culture and ideology. Now the idea that the patriarchal system is an ideological system that constantly reproduces itself, despite the incredible changes introduced by capitalism in social life and relations of production these last two centuries, is even less convincing. Another hypothesis could be that the motor is psychological, but this also risks falling into a fetishistic and ahistorical conception of the human psyche.

Last Problem

Let us admit for a moment that patriarchy, racial relations, and capitalism are three independent systems, but also intersect and reciprocally reinforce each other. In this case, the question is of knowing the organizing principle and logic of this “holy alliance.” In Kergoat’s texts, for example, the definition of this relation in consubstantial terms remains a descriptive image, which does not succeed in explaining much. The causes for the intersection between these systems of exploitation and domination remain mysterious, just like with the Holy Trinity!

Despite these problems, the dual or triple systems theories, in their different forms, remain implicit influences in many recent feminist theories. In my opinion, this is because these seem to be the most immediate and intuitive kinds of explanation. In other words, these are explanations that reflect how reality as such is manifested. It is evident that social relations include relations of domination and hierarchy based on gender and race that permeate both the social whole and daily life. The more immediate explanation is that these relations all correspond to specific systems, because this is the way they manifest themselves. However, the most intuitive explanations are not always the most correct.

III. Is It All Capitalism’s Fault?

In the last section, I wrote that the conception of patriarchy as an independent system within capitalist society is the most widespread not only among feminist theorists but also activists. This is because it is an interpretation that reflects reality in the way this appears to us. To speak of modes of appearance does not mean to describe an illusory phenomenon that is to be put in opposition to reality with a capital R. “Appearance” here refers to the specific way in which the relations of alienation and domination produced and reproduced by capital are experienced by people because of their very same logic. As Daniel Bensaïd has remarked, the critique of political economy is first and foremost a critique of economic fetishism and ideology, which forces us to think in the shadow of capital.2 This is not a matter of “false consciousness,” but of a mode of experience determined by capital itself: the fragmentation of our perception of reality. This is a complex discourse, but in order to have an idea of what is to be understood by “a mode of experience determined by capital,” we have to refer, for example, to the section in the first volume of Marx’s Capital on commodity fetishism.

Since our perception is fragmentary and those who have developed an awareness of gender inequality usually experience and perceive it as determined by a logic that is different and separate from that of capital, any denial of the view that patriarchy is an independent system within capitalism inevitably encounters rejections and doubts.

The Transformation of the Family

The most common objection has to do with the historic dimension: how can one affirm that patriarchy is not an independent system when the oppression of women existed before capitalist society? Now, to say that within capitalist society women’s oppression and power relations are a necessary consequence of capitalism, and that these phenomena do not have their own independent and proper logic, is not to support the absurd argument that holds that gender oppression originates with capitalism. What is being defended here is a different argument, tied to the particular characteristics of capitalism. Societies in which capitalism has supplanted the preceding mode of production are characterized by a profound and radical transformation of the family.

The transformation of the family is above all the result of the expropriation of the land, or primitive accumulation, which separated large portions of the population from their means of production and subsistence (the land), provoking on the one hand the disintegration of the patriarchal peasant family, and on the other a historically unprecedented process of urbanization. The result was that the family no longer represented the unity of production with a specific productive role, generally organized through the specific patriarchal relations that prevailed in the previous agrarian society.

This process began at different moments and took different forms in all the countries in which capitalist relations took hold. With the separation between the family and the site of production, the relation between production and reproduction (in the sense of biological, generational, and social reproduction) was also radically transformed.

And here is the point: although the relations of gender domination were maintained, they have, on the other hand, ceased being an independent system following an autonomous logic because of this transformation of the family from a unit of production to private place outside commodity production and the market. Moreover, these relations of domination have undergone a significant transformation.

For example, one of these transformations is tied to a direct link between sexual orientation, reified into an identity, and gender (we can consult on this matter the work of Foucault in The History of Sexuality, works by Judith Butler, or, more recently, the writings of Kevin Floyd and Rosemary Hennessy). While it is certainly true that gender oppression existed well before the advent of capitalism, this does not mean that the forms it takes remained the same afterwards.

Moreover, one could question the idea that gender oppression is a transhistorical fact, an idea defended forcefully by a number of “second wave” feminists but which must be revised in light of recent anthropological research. In fact, not only has the oppression of women not always existed, but it did not exist in various classless societies, where gender oppression was introduced only with colonialism. In order to have a better idea of the link between the class relation and the power relations between genders, we can take the example of slavery in the United States.

Race and Class

In her book Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis highlights the way in which the destruction of the family and all the relations of kinship between African-American slaves, as well as the specific form of slave labor, gave rise to a substantial overturning of gendered power relations between slaves. This does not mean that the female slaves did not undergo a specific form of oppression as women, quite the opposite: they severely suffered, but at the hands of the white slaveowners, not their fellow slaves. In other words, the persistence and articulation of gender relations are linked in complex ways to social conditions, class relations, and relations of production and reproduction. An abstract and transhistorical vision of women’s oppression does not allow for an understanding of these articulations and differences, and therefore cannot explain them.

Persistence of the Domestic Mode of Production

As I wrote above, in the countries where the capitalist mode of production supplanted the preceding mode of production, radically transforming the family and its role, the relations of power between genders ceased to form an independent system. This does not hold for countries with structures of production that are not entirely transformed and that remain on the periphery of the global capitalist economy. Claude Meillassoux documented on this point the persistence of a “domestic mode of production” in many African countries, in which the process of proletarianization (that is, the separation of the peasantry from the land) remained quite limited.3

However, even in places where the domestic mode of production remains in place, it is subjected to intense pressure by the country’s integration into the world capitalist system. The effects of colonialism, imperialism, the pillaging of natural resources on the part of the advanced capitalist countries, the objective pressures of the global market economy, etc., have a significant impact on the social and familial relations which organize the production and distribution of goods, often exacerbating the exploitation of women and gender violence.

A Contradictory Totality

Let’s return now to the advanced capitalist countries. A classic objection to the thesis that patriarchy does not constitute an independent system is that Marxist feminism is fundamentally reductionist. In other words, it tries to reduce the plural complexity of society to mere economic laws without correctly grasping the irreducibility of power relations. This objection would make sense under two conditions: the first would be that capitalism is understood only as a strictly economic process of the extraction of surplus-value, and thus as an ensemble of economic rules that determines this process; the second would be to understand power relations as the mechanistic and automatic result of the process of surplus-value extraction. The truth is that this type of reductionism does not correspond in the least to the richness and complexity of Marx’s thought, and even less to the extraordinary sophistication of a large part of the Marxist theoretical tradition.

As I already said above, to try to explain what capitalist society is only in terms of surplus-value extraction is like trying to explain the anatomy of the human body by explaining only how the heart works.

Capitalism is a versatile, contradictory totality, continually in movement, with relations of exploitation and alienation that are constantly in a process of transformation. Even though Marx attributed an apparently automatic character to the valorization of value in the first volume of Capital – a process in which value is the real subject, while capitalists and individuals are reduced to the role of emissaries or bearers of a structure – “Monsieur le Capital” does not really exist, except as a logical category. It is not until the third volume of Capital that this becomes clear. Capitalism is not a Moloch, a hidden god, a puppeteer or a machine: it is a living totality of social relations, in which class relations trace lines of demarcation and impose constraints that affect all other forms of relations. Among these, we also find power relations connected to gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, and religion, and all are put into the service of the accumulation of capital and its reproduction, but often in varying, unpredictable, and contradictory ways.

Is Capitalism “Indifferent” to the Oppression of Women?

A widely held opinion among Marxist theorists is to consider gender oppression as unnecessary to capitalism. This is not to say that capitalism doesn’t exploit or profit from the forms of gender inequality produced by previous social configurations; it is, however, a contingent and opportunistic relationship. In actuality, capitalism does not really depend on gender oppression, and women have attained an unprecedented level of freedom and emancipation under capitalism in comparison to other historical epochs. In short, there is not an antagonistic relationship between capitalism and the project of women’s liberation.

This point of view has been favorably received among Marxist theorists from many different schools of thought, so it is worthwhile to analyze it. We can use an article written by Ellen Meiksins Wood as a starting point. In her article “Capitalism and Human Emancipation: Race, Gender, and Democracy,” Wood begins by explaining the fundamental differences between capitalism and the modes of production that preceded it. Capitalism has no intrinsic ties to particular identities, inequalities, or extra-economic, political, or juridical differences. Quite the opposite: the extraction of surplus-value takes place in the relations between formally free and equal individuals, without any differences in juridical or political status. Capitalism is thus not structurally disposed to creating gender inequalities, and it even has a natural tendency to put such differences into question and dilute racial and gender identities.

An Internal or an Opportunistic Relationship?

Capitalist development also created the social conditions conducive to the critique of these inequalities, and to the facilitation of social pressure against them. This has no precedent in previous historical epochs; one only needs to think back to Greco-Roman literature in which abolitionist positions are practically absent, despite the universal presence of slavery for productive ends.

At the same time, capitalism tends to use pre-existing differences inherited from previous societies in an opportunistic manner. For example, gender and racial difference are utilized in order to create hierarchies between the more and less advantaged sectors of the exploited class. These hierarchies are passed off as consequences of natural differences, masking their real nature, namely that they are products of the logic of capitalist competition.

This should not be understood as a conscious plan that capitalism follows, but as the convergence of a series of practices and policies which follow from the fact that gender and racial equalities are advantageous from the point of view of the capitalists. Capitalism does indeed instrumentalize gender oppression for its own ends, but it would be able to survive just fine without it. On the other hand, capitalism would not be able to exist without class exploitation.

It is crucial to note that the framework of Wood’s article is a series of basic political questions about the type of extra-economic gains and benefits that can – and cannot – be obtained in a capitalist society. Her starting point is the shift in attention of social struggles from the economic terrain to non-economic questions (racial and gender emancipation, peace, environmental health, citizenship). And there’s the rub. I mention Wood’s framework because on the one hand, her article is based on a sharp separation between the logical structure of capital and its historical dimensions; but, on the other hand, it ends up conflating these very same levels, thus reproducing a classic confusion that is unfortunately common in the work of many Marxist theorists who would subscribe to the theses of Wood’s article.

To put this point more clearly: as soon as we accept this distinction between the logical structure of capital and its historical dimensions, we can then accept the idea that the extraction of surplus-value takes place within the framework of relations between formally free and equal individuals without presupposing differences in juridical and political status. But we can do this only at a very high level of abstraction–that is to say, at the level of the logical structure. From the point of view of concrete history, things change radically. Let’s take this issue point by point.

1. Let’s start from a fact: a capitalist social formation devoid of gender oppression (in its various forms) has never existed. That capitalism was limited to the use of pre-existing inequalities in this process remains debatable: imperialism and colonialism contributed to the introduction of gender hierarchies in societies where they did not exist before, or existed in a much more nuanced way. The process of capitalist accumulation was accompanied by the equally important expropriation of women from different forms of property to which they had access, and professions that they had been able to hold throughout the High Middle Ages; the alternation of processes of the feminization and defeminization of labor contributed to the continual reconfiguration of family relations, creating new forms of oppression based on gender. The advent of the reification of gender identity starting from the end of the 19th century contributed to the reinforcement of a heteronormative matrix that had oppressive consequences for women, but not only them.

Other examples could be cited. To say that women obtained formal freedoms and political rights, until then unimaginable, only under capitalism, because this system had created the social conditions allowing for this process of emancipation, is an argument of questionable validity. One could, in fact, say the exact same thing for the working class as a whole: it is only within capitalism that the conditions were created allowing for the political emancipation of the subaltern strata and that this class became a subject capable of attaining important democratic victories. So what? Would this demonstrate that capitalism could easily do without the exploitation of the working class? I don’t think so. It is better to drop the reference to what women have or have not obtained: if women have obtained something, it is both because they have struggled for it, and because with capitalism, the social conditions have been favorable to the birth of mass social movements and modern politics. But this is true for the working class as well.

2. It is important to distinguish what is functional to capitalism and what is a necessary consequence of it. The two concepts are different. It is perhaps difficult to show at a high level of abstraction that gender oppression is essential to the inner workings of capitalism. It is true that capitalist competition continually creates differences and inequalities, but these inequalities, from an abstract point of view, are not necessarily gender-related. If we were to think of capitalism as “pure,” that is, analyze it on the basis of its essential mechanisms, then maybe Wood would be right. However, this does not prove that capitalism would not necessarily produce, as a result of its concrete functioning, the constant reproduction of gender oppression, often under diverse forms.

3. Lastly, we must return to the distinction between the logical level and the historical level. What is possible from logical viewpoint and what happens at the level of historical processes are two profoundly different things. Capitalism always exists in concrete social formations that each have their own specific history. As I have already said, these social formations are characterized by the constant and pervasive presence of gender oppression. Let us suppose, as a thought experiment, that these hierarchies in the division of labor were based upon other forms of inequality (large and small, old and young, fat and skinny, those who speak an Indo-European language versus those who speak other languages, etc.). Let’s suppose as well that pregnancy and birth are completely mechanized and that the whole sphere of emotional relationships can be commodified and managed by private services… briefly, let’s suppose all of this. Is this a plausible vision from a historical point of view? Can gender oppression be so easily replaced by other types of hierarchical relations, which would appear as natural and be as deeply rooted in the psyche? These scenarios seem legitimately doubtful.

Towards Concrete Historical Analysis

To conclude: in order to respond to the question of whether it is possible for women’s emancipation and liberation to be attained under the capitalist mode of production, we must look for the answer at the level of concrete historical analysis, not at the level of a highly abstract analysis of capital.

It is indeed here where we find not only Wood’s misstep, but also the error of many Marxist theorists who remain fiercely attached to the idea of a hierarchy between (principal) exploitation and (secondary) oppression. If we want to pose the political aspect of this question and also be in a position to respond to it, we must have a historical conception of what capitalism is today and what it has been historically. This is one of the points of departure for a Marxist feminism where the notion of social reproduction occupies a central role.

IV. Rethinking Capital, Rethinking Gender

In the previous section, I tried to clarify the limits of the “fragmented thought” which presents the different types of oppression and domination as each being connected to an autonomous system, without understanding their intrinsic unity. Moreover, I criticized the reading of the relation between capital and gender oppression that relies on what I called an “indifferent capitalism.” It is time now to approach “unitary theory,” as well as the concept of “social reproduction.”

Reconceptualizing Capital

The dualist positions often begin from the idea that the Marxist critique of political economy only analyzes the economic laws of capitalism, through solely economic categories. This approach would be inadequate to understand such complex phenomena as the multiplicity of power relations, or the discursive practices that constitute us as subjects. This is why alternative epistemological approaches are deemed to be more capable of seeing causes that lie outside the domain of economics, and more adequate for understanding the specificity and irreducible nature of these social relations.

This position is shared across a broad spectrum of feminist theorists. Some of them have suggested that we need a “marriage” or eclectic combination between different types of critical analyses, some devoted to the “pure” economic laws of capitalist accumulation, and others addressing other forms of social relations. On the other hand, other theorists have embraced what is called the “linguistic turn” in feminist theory, which separates the critique of gender oppression from the critique of capitalism. In both cases, there is the common assumption that “pure economic laws” exist, independent from specific relations of domination and alienation. It is precisely this assumption that must be critically questioned. For reasons of space, I will limit myself to highlighting two aspects of the Marxian critique of political economy.

1. A relation of exploitation always implies a relation of domination and alienation.

These three aspects are never truly separated in the Marxian critique of political economy. The worker is before everything else a living and thinking body and is submitted to specific forms of discipline that remold her. As Marx writes, the productive process “produces” the worker to the same extent that it reproduces the work-capitalist relation. Since each process of production is always concrete – that is to say, characterized by aspects that are historically and geographically determined – it is possible to conceive of each productive process as being linked to a disciplinary process, which partially constructs the type of subject the worker becomes.

We can say the same thing for the consumption of commodities: as Kevin Floyd has shown in his analysis of the formation of sexual identity, commodity consumption entails a disciplinary aspect and participates in the reification of sexual identity. Consumption thus takes part in the process of subject-formation.

2. For Marx, production and reproduction form an indivisible unity.

In other words, while they are distinct and separate and have specific characteristics, production and reproduction are necessarily combined as concrete moments of an articulated totality. Reproduction is understood here as the process of the reproduction of a society as a whole, or in Althusserian terms, the reproduction of the conditions of production: education, the culture industry, the Church, the police, the army, the healthcare system, science, gender discourses, consumption habits… all these aspects play a crucial role in the reproduction of specific relations of production. Althusser noted in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” that without the reproduction of the conditions of production, a social formation would not be able to hold together for even one year.

It is essential, however, not to understand the relation between production and reproduction in a mechanistic or deterministic manner. In fact, if Marx understands capitalist society as a totality, he nonetheless does not understand it as an “expressive” totality: put otherwise, there is no automatic or direct “reflection” between the different moments of this totality (art, culture, economic structure, etc.), or between one particular moment and the totality as a whole.

At the same time, an analysis of capitalism that does not understand this unity between production and reproduction will fall back into a vulgar materialism or economism, and Marx does not make this mistake. Beyond his political writings, Capital itself is proof of this, for example in the sections on the struggle over the working day or on primitive accumulation. In these passages, one can clearly see that coercion, the active intervention of the State, and class struggle are in fact constitutive components of a relation of exploitation that is not determined by purely economic or mechanical laws.

These observations allow us to highlight how this idea that Marx conceives capitalism solely in economic terms is untenable. This is not to say that there have not been reductionist or vulgar materialist tendencies within the Marxist tradition. This means, however, that these tendencies relied on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Marxian critique of political economy and a fetishization of economic laws, the latter conceived as static things or as abstract structures rather than as forms of activity or human relations.

An alternative, opposed assumption to the separation between the purely economic laws of capitalism and other systems of domination amounts to conceiving the unity between production and reproduction as a direct identity. This point of view characterizes a section of Marxist-feminist thought, in particular the workerist tradition, which insisted on seeing reproductive labor as directly productive of surplus-value, and thus governed by the same laws.

Again, for reasons of space, I will limit myself to the observation that such a point of view returns to a form of reductionism, which obscures the difference between various social relations and does not help us understand the specific characteristics of diverse relations of domination that are not only constantly reproduced but also transformed within each capitalist social formation. Moreover, it does not help us to analyze the specific way in which certain relations of power are located outside of the labor market, while still being indirectly influenced by this market: for example, through different forms of commodity consumption, or through the objective constraints that wage labor (or its equivalent, unemployment) imposes on personal life and interpersonal relationships.

To conclude, I propose to rethink the Marxian critique of capitalism as a critique of an articulated and contradictory totality of relations of exploitation, domination, and alienation.

Social Reproduction and “Unitary Theory”

In light of this methodological clarification, we now have to understand what is meant by “social reproduction” within what is generally called “unitary theory.” The term social reproduction, in the Marxist tradition, usually indicates the process of reproduction of a society in its totality, as already mentioned. In the feminist Marxist tradition, however, social reproduction means something more precise: the maintenance and reproduction of life, at the daily or generational level. In this context, social reproduction designates the way in which the physical, emotional, and mental labor necessary for the production of the population is socially organized: for example, food preparation, youth education, care for the elderly and the sick, as well as questions of housing and all the way to questions of sexuality…

The concept of social reproduction has the advantage of enlarging our vision of what was previously called domestic labor, and which a large part of Marxist-feminism has focused on. In fact, social reproduction includes within its concept a series of social practices and types of labor that go well beyond only domestic labor. It also makes it possible to extend analysis outside the walls of the home, since the labor of social reproduction is not always found in the same forms: what part of the latter comes from the market, the welfare state, and family relations, remains a contingent question that depends on specific historical dynamics and feminist struggles.

The concept of social reproduction, then, allows us to locate more precisely the mobile and porous quality of the walls of the home: in other words, the relation between, on the one hand, domestic life within the home, and the phenomena of commodification, the sexualization of the division of labor, and the policies of the welfare-state on the other. Social reproduction also enables us to more effectively analyze phenomena like the relation between the commodification of care-work and its “racialization” by repressive migration policies, such as those that aim to lower the costs of immigrant labor and force them to accept slave-like working conditions.

Finally, and this is the crucial point, the way social reproduction functions within a given social formation has an intrinsic relation to the way the production and reproduction of societies are organized in their totality, and therefore to class relations. Once again, these relations cannot be conceived as purely accidental and contingent intersections: viewing them through the lens of social reproduction allows us to identify the organizing logic of these intersections without for this reason excluding the role played by struggle, and the existence of contingent phenomena and practices in general.

We must keep in mind that the sphere of social reproduction is also determinant in the formation of subjectivity, and thus relations of power. If we take into account the relations that exist in each capitalist society between social reproduction, the production of the society as a whole, and the relations of production, we can say that these relations of domination and power are not separate structures or levels: they do not intersect in a purely external manner and do not maintain a solely contingent relation with the relations of production.

The multiple relations of power and domination therefore appear as concrete expressions of the articulated and contradictory unity that is capitalist society. This process should not be understood in an automatic or mechanistic manner. As noted before, we must not forget the dimension of human praxis: capitalism is not a machine or automaton but a social relation, and as such, is subject to contingencies, accidents, and conflicts. However, contingencies and conflicts do not rule out the existence of a logic – namely, capitalist accumulation – that imposes objective constraints not only on our praxis or lived experience but also on our ability to produce and articulate relations with others, our place in the world, and our relations with our conditions of existence.

This is exactly what “unitary theory” tries to grasp: to be able to read relations of power based on gender or sexual orientation as concrete moments of that articulated, complex, and contradictory totality that is contemporary capitalism. From this point of view, these concrete moments certainly possess their own specific characteristics, and thus must be analyzed with adequate and specific theoretical tools (from psychoanalysis to literary theory…), but they also maintain an internal relation with this larger totality and with the process of societal reproduction that proceeds according to the logic of capitalist accumulation.

The essential thesis of “unitary theory” is that for Marxist feminism, gender oppression and racial oppression do not correspond to two autonomous systems which have their own particular causes: they have become an integral part of capitalist society through a long historical process that has dissolved preceding forms of social life.

From this point of view, it would be mistaken to see both as mere residues of past social formations that continue to exist within capitalist society for reasons pertaining to their anchoring in the human psyche or in the antagonism between sexed “classes,” etc. This is not to underestimate the psychological dimension of gender and sexual oppression or the contradictions between oppressors and oppressed. It is, however, a matter of identifying the social conditions and framework provided by class relations that impact, reproduce, and influence our perceptions of ourselves and of our relations to others, our behaviors, and our practices.

This framework is the logic of capitalist accumulation, which imposes fundamental limits and constraints on our lived experiences and how we interpret them. The fact that such a large number of feminist theoretical currents over the last few decades have been able to avoid analyzing this process, and the crucial role played by capital in gender oppression in its various forms, attests to the power of capital to co-opt our ideas and influence our modes of thinking.

Rethinking Political Power and Revolutionary Strategy Today

We asked several contributors to write on the theme of the state and revolutionary strategy, for a roundtable discussion revolving around the following prompt:

“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the socialist movement spilled a great deal of ink debating the question of state power. Lenin’s work was perhaps the most influential, but it also provoked a wide range of critical responses, which were arguably equally significant. But whether or not Lenin’s conception of the correct revolutionary stance towards the state was adequate to his own particular historical conjuncture, it is clear that today the reality of state power itself has changed. What is living and what is dead in this theoretical and political legacy? What would a properly revolutionary stance towards state power look like today, and what would be the concrete consequences of this stance for a political strategy? Does the ‘seizure of state power’ still have any meaning? Does the party still have a place in these broader questions?”

This essay is one contribution to the roundtable. Please be sure to read the others: Geoff Eley, Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, Jodi Dean, Nina Power, Immanuel Ness.

The question of political power has returned to the forefront of political and theoretical discussion. This is not a coincidence. The acute economic crisis, its serious social consequences, the open political crisis in certain social formations, and the very sight of the overthrow of governments and regimes under the force of political mobilization – despite, in the case of the Arab Spring, the tragic end of such processes – mean that such questions are again urgent.

This development comes after a long period of retreat, during which it was more than obvious that the forces of capital had the initiative and were hegemonic, even in the form of the neoliberal “passive revolution.”1 During that period, from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 2000s, social movements and the radical Left refrained from confronting the question of political power. It was as if the political limit of radical or emancipatory politics was a politics “at a distance from the State” to borrow Alain Badiou’s expression, namely a politics of movements from below, of putting pressure upon the state, of resisting capitalist reconstruction, of opening cracks, of giving face and voice to the excluded, but not of aspiring to achieve hegemony, seize political power and initiate processes of social transformation. In a certain way, this was exemplified in the whole conception of “changing the world without taking power.”2 However, the very materiality of political power is still with us; it presents an unavoidable terrain of social antagonism, and at the same time an unavoidable question.

The very evolution of the contemporary forms of protest and contestation — and the fact that in most cases, with the exception perhaps of Greece, despite the dynamics from below, political developments from above have remained within the contours of a preexisting political configuration and in most cases have had a more reactionary transformation — means that the question of political power and state power remains a nodal point. I mention Greece as a potential exception, because of the electoral rise of the Left as a political translation of the dynamics of the movement. In this sense, the question that unavoidably emerges is the following: is it possible to have a process of social transformation that could move beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist social relations and forms, without dealing with the question of what social classes retain political – and state – power?

However, this brings forward another important question: what is the relation between social and political power, between social and political relations, forms and antagonisms, and how are what we tend to define as class rule or class power established, secured, and reproduced?

It is interesting here to note that there have been important developments in our understanding of social and political power.

In contrast to a traditional view of the economy as a neutral productive process whose exploitative class character is determined mainly by legal relations of ownership guaranteed by political relations of force, we now have a more complex apprehension of the importance of social relations of production, as complex and overdetermined social, political, and ideological power relations within production, and, at the same time, as social and political matrices for capitalist social forms. In this sense, we now have a much more complex conception of the grounding of political power upon social relations and forms. This has been the main point of most radical currents within Marxism from the 1960s onwards that insisted upon the primacy of the relations of production and the centrality of class antagonism, from the work of Althusser3 to the seminal researches of Bettelheim on the class nature of the USSR,4 through Italian operaismo5 and other Marxist currents.
In contrast to a negative conception of political power as coercion and repression, Foucault’s work has helped us realize the “productive” aspects of the disciplinary or biopolitical functions of the modern capitalist state, and offers important insights into the social and historical processes that subsume population under the norms of capitalist production and create “productive” subjects.6
At the same time, ever since the revolutionary movements in the wake of the October Revolution were confronted with the very complexity of power and hegemony in advanced capitalist social formations, we know that we can treat neither politics (and political apparatuses and institutions) nor ideology (and ideological apparatuses) as mere epiphenomena of the economy or as simple instruments in the hand of the ruling class. In contrast, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and of the integral state offers an ability to apprehend the expansive forms of the capitalist state and the complex interplay of the dispositifs of the hegemonic apparatuses.7
In contrast to any instrumentalist conception of the state, we know from the work of Poulantzas that it is much more productive theoretically and politically to think of the state as a material condensation of social relations of force, as a terrain of struggles traversed by social antagonism.8
At the same time, we live in a period of expansion of state repressive apparatuses, new technologies of surveillance, and new technologies of killing and repressing. In this sense, contemporary state violence is both a determining and overdetermining factor in social and political antagonism, exemplified in the various forms of excessive preemptive and asymmetrical violence by the dominant forces. We are living in a period that is marked by the realization of both how many aspects of the working of the state do not have to do with violence, and by the confrontation of the extreme violence of contemporary capitalist states.

In this sense, it is interesting to go back to the classical definition of smashing the state. We should remember that it was not an easy conception to formulate. On the one hand, it referred to the actual need to capture political and state power and use state coercion in order to expropriate the capitalists of their ownership of means of production, to impose measures of social equality and public provision of services and to initiate a process of social transformation.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.9

At the same time, this use of state coercion was just the beginning of a broader process of social transformation that would lead to a society of full equality, without any form of exploitation and coercion, a stateless and classless society. This is the main point of the Communist Manifesto, but also of most of Marx’s interventions.

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.10

As such, this represents a decisive break with a locus communis of the political philosophy of modernity, namely the position that the guarantor of the just and free society is the state. In contrast, in Marx’s intervention we have the insistence that the state is the problem. At the same it attempts to strike a delicate balance between two conflicting positions: on the one hand, the utopian insistence on an exodus from the state, exemplified in the projects of building socialist communities “outside” existing institutions, and the anarchist insistence on an “instantaneous” abolition of property, exploitation, and any form of state organization; on the other hand, the “reformist,” statist view of the state as an instrument of social rationalization and enhancer of justice, exemplified in nineteenth-century Germany in the personality of Lassalle. This balance was not easy to achieve, and Balibar has commented on Marx and Engels’s inability to write an Anti-Bakunin or Anti-Lassalle.

In my opinion, one does not wonder enough about the fact that such indefatigable polemicists such as Marx and his faithful assistant Engels turned out to be incapable of writing an “Anti-Lassalle” or an “Anti-Bakunin” which would have been practically much more important than an Anti-Dühring or even than the reissue of an Anti-Proudhon … What is Marx’s response when Bakunin systematically associates the totality of Marx’s “scientific socialism” with Lassalle’s “state socialism”? He has no other recourse than to reaffirm the meaning of the Manifesto‘s democratic program, which, as a matter of fact, had allowed Lassalle to proclaim himself in its favor. Conversely, Marx also proclaimed himself, as against Bakunin, in favor of “real anarchism,” which he supposedly discovered and defended “long before him.” The high point of this “response” consists in the affirmation that Marxism and Bakunin’s anarchism are the opposite of each other, which ends up admitting an enormous concession that they are constituted from the same terms.11

Moreover, again as Balibar has stressed, after the experience of the Paris Commune Marx felt compelled to “rectify” the Communist Manifesto12 by insisting that the state apparatus could not be used as it is after the revolution. This implies that the process of transformation, of revolutionizing, of “withering away” of the state starts at the beginning and there can no simple “use” of actually existing apparatuses, since the dominant social relations are inscribed in the very materiality of the state apparatus under capitalism. Balibar summarizes this point in the following manner:

The fact that is revealed here we can express in the following way: the exploiting classes and the exploited class that, for the first time in history and because of its place within production, is in position to take power for itself, cannot exercise their power (and even their absolute power: their “dictatorship”) with the same means and thus in the same form. They cannot not in the sense of a moral impossibility, but of a material impossibility: the machine of the state does not function “on behalf” of the working class; either it does not function at all, or it functions but on behalf of someone else, that can be no other than the class adversary. It is impossible for the proletariat to conquer, then keep and use political power by using an instrument analogous at that which served the dominant classes, or it will lose it necessarily, under one form or the other, “violent” of “peaceful.”13

The question of the materiality of the state and its efficacy came into prominence after the first wave of revolutionary struggles in two crucial ways. On the one hand, it was the question of the complexity of the state in “western formations,” exemplified in the “defeat of the revolution in the West” and the work of Gramsci. The other aspect of course was the evolution of Soviet Union, where, in the name of socialist construction, not only did the state continue to expand but in the end an impressive coercive apparatus was deployed along with a paternalistic version of a “social welfare state.” Moreover, the trademark of communist reformism, but also of post-WWII social democracy, was to view the state as a neutral and even positive apparatus that not only represented the possibility for redistributive politics, but could also be considered an antechamber of socialism (along with the “progressive” development of the productive forces).14

In a curious twist of history, it was the neoliberal counterrevolution with its anti-state rhetoric, evident even today in the almost paranoid character of the Tea Party’s tirades against Obamacare, that led to another wave of “idealization” of the state on the part of many militants. I am not denying, of course, that the defense of welfare, public services, and the redistributive intervention of the state is positive, nor do I deny the urgency of these tasks. What I am trying to highlight is how all these have led to certain retreat of the critique of the state as an integral part of left-wing or communist politics.

In this sense, we need a new critique of the state and a full apprehension of the extent of its workings. To this end, as we have already stressed, both Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the “integral state” and his elaboration of the mechanisms of hegemony, and Michel Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics can be of use. They can help us realize the strategic, relational, and in no sense neutral character of the state. But what about the “positive” aspects of the state that are now under attack by neoliberal fundamentalists? Here a more Poulantzian approach is necessary: if the state represents the material condensation of a balance of class forces, then the positive aspects of the capitalist state cease to be expressions of political and social rationality and instead appear as what they are: the uneven and ever-threatened expressions of the presence of working-class and popular struggles and demands within the state.

However, at the same time we must stress that this does not mean that we can have a process of self-transformation of the state “from within,” based upon the mere efficacy of popular struggles. There is always going to be an aspect “in dominance,” and this is the role of the state in the reproduction of the dominant social relations of exploitation and class domination, and in enhancing capitalist strategies of accumulation. Moreover, even maintaining these positive aspects (such as the public provision of basic goods and services), is far from certain if we take into consideration the widespread use of management techniques coming from the private sector and industry, and the constant pressure of privatization.

Therefore, what is needed is not just to struggle so that hospitals and schools remain a responsibility of the state, but also to struggle to transform them. How can we make them accountable to actual human needs, and not the targets set by the government? What forms of democracy within the workplace must be introduced, forms of democracy that should not limit themselves only to the employees in a particular branch but also the “users” of these services, in an attempt towards self-management and actual collective decision processes? These are important and urgent questions of a directly political nature, which cannot be answered only in theoretical terms but also through actual experimentation within particular historical and political contexts.

At the same time, the problem of the repressive apparatuses of the state remains important. They are the last line of defense against any potential process of social transformation, and we must expect them to act this way. Reducing their size, smashing all parallel structures, and doing away both with the chain of command and their immense material means, imposing forms of democratic social control at all levels, can be steps in this direction.

All these are not just theoretical questions. One of the most interesting aspects of contemporary developments and the combination between economic and political crisis is that the question of a governmental power is again a possibility as a limit case, in “weak links of the chain” such as Greece, where there has been an impressive electoral shift towards the Left.15 Whether this can indeed be part of a revolutionary sequence depends, to a great extent, upon how to deal with the question of the state. The reason is that unless there is a process of actual transformation and, in the last instance, of revolutionizing the state, in the end the political and economic strategies already inscribed in the state will prevail. This has to do not only with the mentalities of civil servants, but also with the material processes within state apparatuses, their degree of transparency but also mystification, and the knowledge processes involved.

But what does it mean today to smash the state? Does this mean the abolition “by decree” of state bureaucracy, specialized coercive apparatuses, the judiciary? And what will they be replaced by? Revolutionary militias, people’s courts and ad hoc collective decisions? In a strange dialectic, the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, one could imagine that for a whole period some form of public authority will remain in place, but it will be “of a completely different type.” This will also include institutions guaranteeing full political rights and a protection against arbitrary decisions. At the same time, forms of a “people in arms” should be put in place in order to implement de facto democratic social control of coercive apparatuses, and the same goes for the combination between progressive legal reform, greater emphasis on participation in the execution of justice, and a new conception of legality based not only upon abstract and universal rules, but also upon the concrete analysis of each case in its peculiarities (a practice common to all forms of popular justice associated with major popular movements).

Here another point must be made. It is an open question whether in advanced capitalist societies with their extended economic, political, and ideological state apparatuses (or “hegemonic apparatuses” of the “integral state”), a “classical” insurrectionary opening of a revolutionary sequence, in the form of an “organic crisis” of the state is possible, or whether a “democratic road” is possible, in the form of hegemonic crisis leading to sharp changes in electoral representation and the achievement of governmental power, as the experience of Bolivia or Venezuela and the electoral dynamics in Greece seem to suggest.

However, this would be an underestimation of the potential of bourgeois counterattack, of segments of the state apparatus that defend the previous social “status quo” and of course of imperialist forces that might want to undermine, sabotage, or even openly oppose any process of social transformation. In this sense, even though the beginning of the process can be democratic, its evolution will not necessarily be “peaceful” and this must be an aspect that no one interested in communist politics should underestimate. In this sense, the question of popular violence, as a democratic, political, non-idealized, non-instrumental, form of violence, remains an integral aspect of revolutionary politics. It is exactly the challenge of what Georges Labica described as the “impossibility of non-violence.”16

This requires a deepening of and experimentation with extended democratic practices. This is in sharp contrast to the suspicion of open democratic practices that plagued the historical communist movement. Democracy means contradictions, differences, struggles, conflicts, not just “voicing of opinions.” This is not only unavoidable, but also positive; it is the only way to deploy an actual “dialectic in action,” to experiment with a different configuration, to make good use of struggles and demands even during “socialist construction.” It is also the only way to actually wage class struggle against all the forms of reemergence of capitalist social forms, practices, norms, and relations, which in most cases take the form of “the most obvious solution.” One might even say that only in the context of socialism, of communist politics, democracy can find its real nature. In a certain sense, capitalism is innately undemocratic, since the democratic impulse, not as the sanitized “deliberation” proscribed by liberalism, but as collective will or social transformation, is an expression of subaltern demands and aspirations. In a way, the syntagm “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms representing both the history of struggles for democratic rights from the part of the subaltern classes and the attempt of the bourgeoisie to establish its hegemony through parliamentary procedures.

Moreover, we have to think of this process in terms of experimentation. This goes both for political and social forms. In this sense, the emergent forms of popular self-organization, of networking, of equal voicing, of open and democratic decision-making and in general all the forms of contemporary “democracy of struggle” should not be seen in an instrumental way as just ways to organize the struggle more efficiently. Occupations of open spaces, with their egalitarian and democratic organization, from Syntagma to Zuccoti Park and Gezi Park, mass assemblies, mass coordinations of broader movement, are also emerging forms of popular power from below, of experimentation with new forms of democracy; they can be considered emerging contemporary forms of dual power. In a similar way, contemporary forms of solidarity, of self-management, of alternative non-commercial networks of distribution, of open access to services, are not only ways to deal with urgent social problems. They are also experimental test sites for new social configurations, for new non-capitalist social relations, based upon the “traces of communism” in contemporary social resistances and collective demands and aspirations. Revolutionary politics is also a learning experience, a process of learning through the experience of struggles. In this sense, “smashing the state” is a process of collective experimentation with new political and social configurations, based upon the experiences of struggles and self-organization which emerge long before the nominal seize of power.

In the long run, this experimentation needs to deal with social relations and forms that can act as terrains of reproduction of capitalist relations of production. One side has to do with the attempt to overcome the compulsion of the market. The market is not just a mechanism of exchange. It is also a form or socialization of private labors and an expression of the reproduction of capitalist forms. Moreover, it is also a powerful ideological mechanism which constantly compels us to treat capitalist social forms as “natural.” The experimentation with non-market forms of coordinating economic practices is therefore an important aspect of any attempt towards socialist transformation. Another side has to do with the social division of labor. An important aspect of the Marxist tradition has been that the transition to communism also entails the abolition of the division of manual and intellectual labor. Moreover, the very experience of class struggles in the USSR and other social formations of “actually existing socialism,” has shown that the reproduction of the capitalist division of labor and workplace hierarchy lead, in the end, to the reproduction of state-capitalist forms of exploitation even under the abolition of private property. This was also the main thrust of the critique of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.17 Therefore, the attempt to socialize knowledge and technical expertise, to offer full access to scientific study and training in all sectors, and to implement forms of democratic decision at all levels of in the workplace still remains some of the most important exigencies of any process of social transformation.

Moreover, only such an attempt towards extensive democratic participation in all levels of social life, including the supposedly closed terrain of the economy, is a necessary step towards overcoming the bourgeois separation of the economic and the political. The division between economic agent and citizen, so fundamental in bourgeois politics, must be superseded in any process of social transformation through a necessary re-politicization of the economy. This is exactly the meaning of a new form of politics, a new political practice, based upon extended democracy in the workplace, new extended forms of participative democracy, forms of representation from the workplace (an important element of the initial soviet voting system), and limits against the creation of a professional political class.

These aspects are important exactly in the attempt to actually smash the state, decrease the need to resort to state coercion, establish democratic decision and self-organization (the very meaning of “free association”) at all levels, and actually create a much more equal and free society. This will be the result of struggles, but also of experiments

In light of the above, we can see that the notion of “dual power”18 acquires a broader significance. It is no longer a question of just a period of organic crisis and catastrophic equilibrium, during which there is an antagonistic coexistence of two competing state forms. Dual power refers to the emergence of new social and political forms. as part of the elevation of struggle and the fight for power and hegemony on the part of an alliance of the subaltern classes. It is not a political “stand-off”; it is a process of intense struggle, but also of learning and experimentation. Moreover, dual power is in fact the best way to describe the actual social and political balance of forces after the seizure of power, especially if we are talking about a potentially “democratic” process. In such a case, we will face the new forms of popular power, self-management, worker’s control, the attempts to institutionalize new social and political arrangements and the continuous resistance of important parts of the state apparatus – along with the attempt from the part of the forces of capital to resist the attacks against capitalist property and capitalist relations of productions.

To put it in Gramscian terms, when we attempt to discuss the question of revolutionary strategy in contemporary terms, we are in fact always facing a combination of war of position and war of maneuver. In fact, a war of position, namely an attempt to construct hegemony, is necessary both before and after the seizure of power. This should not be read as a reference to some “cultural” hegemony or “preparation,” as it was the reformist reading in the 1970s. Rather it refers to this continuous process of struggles, collective experimentation, creation of new forms of popular power and workers’ control. “Smashing the state,” therefore, is not opposed to an attempt to build hegemony; rather, the two are part of the same dialectic of social transformation.

This dialectic of hegemony and the need for a process of cultural revolution can also be seen as the only way to create the ideological and cultural conditions for the necessary politicization of everyday life and socialization of the political process that “smashing the state” and even more “withering away of the state” entails. This requires making people think and act beyond the compulsion of the market, but also beyond relying on an impersonal and benevolent state apparatus. A revolutionary process also entails a new collective ethos of participation and collective responsibility in order to avoid the danger of an alienated relation to social and political processes that can easily lead to the reproduction of capitalist social forms and norms.

All this means that the question of the political program is important, especially in countries such as Greece where the Left is facing the challenge of political power. What is needed is a set of demands that not only bridge the gap between immediate demands and socialist transformation, but actually articulate a narrative of transition, point to the necessary ruptures that can begin a revolutionary process. Such a program cannot be limited to demands for “redistribution”; it must also point to an alternative economic and productive paradigm, include demands for the rupture from processes of internationalization of capital such as the euro, for mass nationalizations of banks and strategic enterprises, for self-management and alternative distribution networks, and suggest a new orientation away from “export-oriented growth” (including seeing service sectors such as tourism in countries such as Greece as “heavy industry”), and consumerism, towards a new hierarchy of economic priorities based upon actual social needs and environmental sustainability.

Therefore, “smashing the state” entails a confrontation with all the major questions of revolutionary strategy and the actual attempt to initiate a process of social transformation; it should be seen as a highly original and open process of social transformation.

A final point refers to the question of political organization. What kind of political organizations do we need in order to be able to attempt such a revolutionary process? The traditional model that viewed, in a schematic and mechanical way, the confrontations with the question of power in terms of a military logic, placing all the emphasis on discipline, is of course inherently inadequate, and moreover runs the risk of imitating the model of the bourgeois state. It is necessary to think that in the struggle for a different society, based upon principles and practices antagonistic to the bourgeois/capitalist logic, we need organizations that reflect the emerging new social forms. In contrast to the traditional view – according to which the exigencies of the struggle and the need for disciplined commitment to the revolutionary process justify limits to intraparty democracy, suppression of free discussion, and rigid hierarchy – we want political organizations that are at the same time laboratories for the collective elaboration of new projects and new mass forms of critical political intellectuality, and experimental sites for new social and political relations. In this sense, they have to be more democratic, more egalitarian, more open than the society around them. Gramsci was one of the first to stress this conception of political organization as laboratory:

One should stress the importance and significance, which, in the modern world, political parties have in the elaboration and diffusion of conceptions of the world, because essentially what they do is to work out the ethics and the politics corresponding to these conceptions and act as it were their historical “laboratory” … The relation between theory and practice becomes even closer the more the conception is vitally and radically innovatory and opposed to old ways of thinking. For this reason one can say that the parties are the elaborators of new integral and all-encompassing intellectualities and the crucibles where the unification of theory and practice understood as real historical process takes place.19

However, this should not be considered an abstract exigency, but as an urgent task which also entails the whole process of reconstructing and reinventing political organizations.20 Contemporary radical political organizations do not reflect only the dynamics of the conjuncture and current struggles; they are also the result of a whole period of crisis and retreat of the communist and revolutionary socialist movement. This is also evident today in the limitations of the main organizational forms suggested: the “horizontal coordination” of movements, which is indispensable in order to create alliances and open spaces of struggle, but at the same time does not aid in the necessary elaboration of political programs, and usually does not permit any discussion of questions of political power and hegemony; the left-wing “electoral front” that usually is based on a minimum program of immediate anti-neoliberal reforms that can easily take the form of a reformist agenda for progressive social democratic governance; the classical model of the revolutionary group or sect (along with the respective international currents) that tend to reproduce fragmentation, sectarianism, and parochial authoritarian version of an “imaginary Lenin.” In contrast, “repeating Lenin” today means thinking in terms of maximum originality, of trying not just to reproduce some model but to create laboratories of new political projects. This can be accomplished neither by simple electoral coalitions nor by an antagonism between groups for “hegemony” within the radical Left. We need democratic political fronts, based upon anti-capitalist programs that can also act as processes that can bring together different currents, experiences in the movement, political sensitivities that can actually act as laboratories of new and antagonistic political projects.

All this should not be seen as the result of our preoccupation with the singular dynamics of the Greek experience, the depth of the crisis and the potential for radical left politics there. A more strategic approach, an attempt to ground our politics in the “traces of communism” of today’s resistances, however minor or small-scale they might seem, a new emphasis on articulating alternative narratives and not just “demands,” an attempt to create fronts and networks that bring together different experiences and currents – all are equally indispensable both in social formations where the Left is facing the challenge of power, and in social formations where the process of reinventing a revolutionary sequence must start again after a period of disintegration.

Rethinking revolutionary strategy is no longer a political and theoretical luxury. The current economic crisis is in fact one of the most important transition periods in the history of capitalism. We are witnessing a new historical cycle of movements, of almost insurrectionary character, and – at the same time and in a dialectical relation of mutual determination – of deep political and in certain cases hegemonic crisis (expressed also in the rise of the far Right). It is important to start thinking in terms of strategy again, if we do not want to miss the opportunities offered. After all, we must never forget that history has more imagination than we do.

Seven theses on workers' control - Raniero Panzieri and Lucio Libertini

1958 article on workers' control, from an autonomist Marxist perspective.

This text was published in February 1958 in issue 2 of Mondo Operaio [Workers’ World], signed Raniero Panzieri and Lucio Libertini. Panzieri, after having been excluded from the leadership of the PSI (Italian Socialist Party) in 1956, became co-editor with Nenni (de facto editor) of the review, transforming it into an extraordinary laboratory of research. This essay forms part of the research carried out by Panzieri from a libertarian perspective and from the left of the double crisis of the workers’ movement; on the one hand the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and on the other the defeat of FIOM [metalworkers’ union] in the big Turin factories, starting with Fiat. This text, which represents a point of synthesis of a series of Panzieri’s elaborations on the theme of workers’ control, opened a passionate debate on the left, as much in the columns of Mondo Operaio as in those of Avanti and Unità. (Paolo Ferrero, Raniero Panzieri: un uomo di frontiera, Milan: Editions Punto Rosso, 2006.)
The demand for workers’ control of the factories is at the center of the “democratic and peaceful road” to socialism. The following theses mean to provide an initial, provisional direction for a wide debate that gathers not only the contributions of politicians and specialists but also and above all the experience of the workers’ movement, which are the only conclusive verification of the elaboration of socialist thought.

1. On the question of the transition from capitalism to socialism

In the workers’ movement there has been for a long time, and in successive periods, a discussion of the question of the modes and temporalities of the transition to socialism. One tendency, which occurred in various forms, believed it was possible to schematize the temporality of this process, as if socialist construction had to be preceded, always and in every case, by the “phase” of construction of bourgeois democracy. In this way the proletariat, where the bourgeoisie has not yet completed its revolution, would come to be assigned the task of conducting its struggle with a delimited end in view: that indeed of constructing or favoring the construction of modes of production and of political forms of a completed bourgeois society. This conception can be defined schematically because it claims to apply in the abstract and without reference to a historical reality, a prefabricated model. If in fact it is true that the reality of political Institutions corresponds, in every epoch, to the economic reality, it is however an error to believe that the economic reality (productive forces and relations of production) develops according to a line that is always gradual, regular, perfectly predictable because divided in precise successive phases, one distinct from the other. It is sufficient, to understand the nature of this error, to reflect on some historical examples. When, at the beginning of the last century, technical progress (invention of the mechanical loom and the steam engine) brought about a qualitative leap in production (industrial revolution) which remained in force, the old forms of production [remained] alongside the new; and in the more economically evolved countries the political struggle had therefore a rather complex character. On one side there was the resistance to the feudal survivals, on the other side the affirmation of the industrial bourgeoisie; and finally, at the same time, the appearance of a new class, the industrial proletariat. In Russia, at the end of the first revolutionary wave (February 1917), after the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy and the monstrous capitalist-feudal system, one part of the Marxist workers’ movement, falling into the same error, maintained that the Russian proletariat had to join forces with the bourgeoisie to realize the necessary “second stage” (bourgeois democracy) of the revolution. As is known, this thesis was defeated by Lenin and the majority of the Russian workers’ movement; in the total collapse of the old system the only real protagonist remained the proletariat, and its problem was not therefore that of creating the typical institutions of the bourgeoisie, but of constructing the institutions of its democracy, of socialist democracy. In China between 1924 and 1928, there was the prevalence in the communist party of those who erroneously wanted to commit the class movement to unconditionally supporting the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek, helping it to realize, after the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and the feudal system, the second stage (bourgeois democracy): they did not account for the inexistence of a Chinese bourgeoisie capable of establishing itself as a “national” class, or for the fact that the immense masses of peasants of this country could struggle only for the cause of their own emancipation, and not in pursuit of abstract and incomprehensible schemes.

These considerations do not lead by any means to exalting an intellectualist revolutionary voluntarism (to affirming, that is, that the revolution can be the fruit of an act of will of a vanguard group), but only to clarifying as, first of all, every political force, rather than chasing prefabricated models, must become aware of its own reality, the always complex and specific field within which it moves. It is social democracy in all its forms which, to cover up its opportunism and justify it ideologically, systematically mixes up the cards on the table and reduces every position consistent with the revolutionary left to that of an intellectualist voluntarism. The historical essence of the social-democratic experience consists moreover in this: in the assigning, with the pretext of the struggle against maximalism, to the proletariat the task of supporting the bourgeoisie or even of replacing it in the construction of bourgeois democracy: and by that very fact it denies the tasks and the revolutionary autonomy of the proletariat, and finishes by assigning to it the position of a subaltern force.

In today’s Italian society the fundamental factor is constituted by the fact that the bourgeoisie has never been, is not, can never be a “national” class; a class thus capable (as happened in England and France) of guaranteeing, albeit in a certain period of time, the development of national society, in its whole. The Italian bourgeoisie arose on a corporate and parasitical basis, namely:

through the formation of individual industrial sectors that did not constitute a national market, but survived on the exploitation of a market of a quasi-colonial kind (the South)
by means of the permanent recourse to the protection and active support of the State
with the alliance with the remains of feudalism (agrarian bloc of the South)
Fascism was the inflamed expression of this contradictory equilibrium, and of the domination, in this form, of the bourgeoisie: it, also through the massive intervention of the totalitarian State in favor of bankrupt private industry (IRI) [Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, fascist bailout in 1933], promoted to the maximum the transformation of determinate industrial sectors into powerful monopolistic structures (Fiat, Montecatini, Edison, etc.). After the collapse of fascism the monopolies found, in the intensification of the relations with American big industry and in the subordination to it, the continuation of their old anti-national policy (Italian big industry is always, in one way or another, cartelized with big international monopolies; one of the cases in which these links have appeared with great evidence was when Fiat, Edison, and Montecatini supported in Italy the campaign for the international oil cartel; and in general the Atlanticism of the parties of the center-right is the expression of links of subordination that we have indicated. The Marshall Plan, expression of American imperialism, was accepted by Italian monopolies before the political parties). Thus is established a situation in which next to the monopolistic areas there coexist large areas of deep depression and backwardness, (many zones in the mountains and hills, the Po delta and, more generally, the South and the islands); the distance between social stratum and social stratum [ceto sociale], between region and region, increases enormously; the traditional imbalances of industrial production grow; the monopolistic bottlenecks tighten (the limitations and distortions, that is, that the power and politics of monopolies oppose the full and balanced development of the productive forces); there is mass unemployment that becomes a permanent element of our economy; the traditional terms of the greatest problem of our socioeconomic structure (the Southern question) are reproduced in an aggravated fashion.

However, it would be a great error to reaffirm the existence of these facts to conceal, as has been done in recent years, the new elements. There is no doubt that, starting above all with 1951-52, in some sectors Italian capitalism was able to take advantage of the favorable international conjuncture and the considerable economic progress: there was thus a phase of expansion (rapid growth of production, growth of income, rapid accumulation of capital and intense boost in fixed capital) that nevertheless, unfolding under the control of the monopolies, remained restricted to their area, and even provoked the aggravation of the fundamental imbalances of the Italian economy.

The contradictory situation, dominated by large areas of depression and the crisis we have described, is not going to improve but worsen, whether because of a possible reversal of the international conjuncture, or a probable growth of technological unemployment, or the negative effects of the Common Market, or finally because the characteristics of the internal Italian market (its narrow-mindedness, its poverty) don’t provide an adequate area to merge with productive capacity and technological maturity, which is further maturing in the monopolistic area.

An analysis of this type does not aim and does not serve naturally to valorize the prospect of a “catastrophic” crisis of capitalism; and moreover a polemic on the terrain of prophecies, and in these terms, would serve only to paralyze and sterilize the action of the class movement. What follows from this analysis is the existence of certain real conditions and the identification of the tendency of development implicit in them; and the conclusion that within the boundaries of these conditions and of this tendency the workers’ movement must act.

In light of these considerations the following theses appear therefore quite abstract and unreal (specifically today in Italy): a) the class movement must substantially limit itself to giving support to the capitalist class (or determinate bourgeois groups) in the construction of a regime of completed bourgeois democracy; b) the class movement must essentially substitute itself for the capitalist class and assume in its own right the task of constructing a regime of completed bourgeois democracy.

Instead the contradictions that sharply tear apart Italian society, the weight that the monopolies have acquired and continually tend more to assume, the contradictions between technological development and the capitalist relations of production, the weakness of the bourgeoisie as a national class, lead the workers’ movement to take on tasks of a different nature; to struggle at the same time for reforms with a bourgeois content and for reforms with a socialist content. On the political level this signifies that the leading force of democratic development in Italy is the working class and under its direction can be realized the only efficient system of alliance, with the intellectuals, with the peasants, with the groups of small and medium bourgeois producers. It is this system of alliances and this kind of leadership that correspond to the real perspective.

2. The democratic road to socialism is the road of workers’ democracy.

It is a false deduction, which emerges from a wrong analysis of the Italian situation, and from a simplistic interpretation of the turning point registered in the theses proclaimed at the 20th conference of the CPSU, to affirm that the Italian road to socialism, democratic and peaceful, coincides with a “parliamentary” road to socialism. The affirmation of the democratic character of socialism is in fact correct, in the sense that it refutes all the old conceptions according to which the transition to socialism is an act of revolutionary voluntarism, and the work of an isolated minority, without the political and economic conditions having matured; it just as much rejects the conception that ties the the transition to socialism to the automatic verification of the “crash” of capitalism. But the democratic road cannot be reduced to an always and necessarily peaceful road, as in the moment when [dal momento che], including in a determinate Country when the conditions for socialism are mature and its forces have attained the majority of the votes, the resistance of the capitalist class and its recourse to violence nevertheless lead to an armed assault, and to the necessity of proletarian violence.

Nevertheless, in Italy today there is a democratic and peaceful perspective for socialism. But those who identify the exclusive (or even just the only significant or characteristic) instrument of the peaceful transition to socialism in Parliament, empty the very notion of the democratic and peaceful road of any real substance. In this way they revive instead the old bourgeois mystifications that present the bourgeois representative State not as it is, as a class State, but as a State above classes; where the Parliament is only the place for the ratification and registration of the relations of force between classes, which develop and are determined outside of it, and the economy remains the sphere in which real relations are produced and is the real source of power.

It is right on the other hand to affirm that the use of the parliamentary institutions is also one of most important tasks laid out for the class movement, and that these very institutions can be transformed (by the pressure exercised from below by the workers’ movement through its new institutions) from the representative seat of merely political, formal leadership, to the expression of substantial political and economic rights at the same time.

3. The proletariat educates itself by constructing its own institutions.

When, in general, the road to socialism is defined as democratic, with the hope of fully guaranteeing the prospects of peaceful transition, the following concept is accordingly and in substance affirmed: that there is continuity in the methods of political struggle before, during, and after the revolutionary leap, and that therefore the institutions of proletarian power must form themselves not only after the revolutionary leap, but in the very course of the whole struggle of the workers’ movement for power. These institutions must arise from the economic sphere, where there is the real source of power, and represent therefore man not only as as citizen but also as producer: and the rights that are determined in these institutions must be political and economic rights at the same time. The real force of the class movement measures itself form the share of power and the capacity to exercise a leading function within the structure of production. The distance that separates the institutions of bourgeois democracy from the institutions of workers’ democracy is qualitatively the same as that which separates bourgeois society divided into classes from socialist society without classes. It is also to ward off the conception, of naive Enlightenment origins, that wants to generically “train” the proletariat for power, disregarding the concrete construction of its institutions. Thus we hear of the “subjective preparation” of the proletariat, of the “education” of the proletariat (and whose turn is it to play the role of educator?); but everybody knows that only those who jump in water learn how to swim (and for this reason, among others, it is best to start by throwing the Enlightened “educator” in the water).

Certainly these things aren’t new. They are the historical experience of the workers’ movement and of Marxism, from the Soviet of 1917 to the Turin movement of factory councils, to the Polish and Yugoslav workers’ councils, to the necessary discussion of the theses of the 20th Congress, that are going to take flesh before our eyes. It is all the more superfluous to have to recall that it is exactly on this issue, in the last years, that the Socialist Party has provided the most original contributions to the entire Italian workers’ movement.

4. On the current conditions of workers’ control.

Today the demand for workers’ control (workers and technicians) is not laid out only in relation with the reasons that have just been explained, but is connected to a series of new conditions which render this demand deeply contemporary and place it at the center of the struggle of the class movement:

The first of these conditions is constituted by the development of the modern factory. On this terrain arises the practice and the ideology of the contemporary monopoly (human relations, scientific organization of labor, etc.), which aims at subordinating in an integral way spirit and body – the laborer to his boss, reducing him to a small cog in the gears of a large machine whose complexity remains unknown to him. The only way of breaking this process of total subjection of the person of the laborer is, aside from the laborer himself, that of first of all becoming conscious of the situation as it is in productive business terms; and to oppose to “business democracy” in the boss’s brand name, and to the mystification of “human relations,” the demand of a conscious role for the laborer in the business complex: the demand of workers’ democracy;
if the organs of political power in the bourgeois State have always remained the “executive committee” of the capitalist class, today we are nevertheless observing an even bigger interpenetration than in the past between the State and the monopolies: whether because the monopoly, according to its internal logic, is led to assume an always greater direct control, or because the economic operations of the monopoly (and in this regard laissez-faire illusions are by now collapsing) demand in increasing ways the aid and friendly intervention of the State. Precisely because, then, the authorities of the economy extend their direct political functions (and behind the facade of the Rule of law increase the real and direct functions of the class State), the workers’ movement is learning the lessons of its adversary, must always shift further its center of struggle onto the terrain of real and designated power. And, for the same reason, the struggle of the class movement for control cannot exhaust itself within the limits of a single firm, but must be connected and extended in all sectors, on all productive fronts. To conceive of the workers’ control as something that could be restricted to a single firm does not only mean “limiting” the demand of control, but emptying it of its real meaning, and causing it to break down on the corporate level;
there is finally a last new condition that is at the roots of the demand for the workers’ control. The development of modern capitalism, on the one hand, and on the other, the development of the socialist forces in the world and the difficult problematic of power, which imposes itself forcefully in the countries in which the class movement has already made its revolution, indicate the importance today of defending and guaranteeing the revolutionary autonomy of the proletariat, whether against the new forms of reformism, or against the bureaucratization of power, that is to say, against reformist bureaucratization and against the conceptions of “leaders” (party-leader, State-leader).
The defense, in this situation, of the revolutionary autonomy of the proletariat, manifests itself in the creation from below, before and after the conquest of power, of institutions of socialist democracy, and in the return of the party to its function as instrument of the political formation of the class movement (instrument, that is, not of a paternalistic leader, from above, but of encouraging and supporting the organizations in which the unity of the class is articulated). The importance now of the autonomy of the Socialist Party in Italy is precisely in this: certainly not in how much it advances or forecasts the scission of the class movement, not in opposing one “leader” to another “leader,” but in the guarantee of the autonomy of the entire workers’ movement from any external, bureaucratic, and paternalistic direction.

Affirming this definitely does not mean that the question of power, the essential condition for the construction of socialism, has been forgotten: but the socialist nature of power is exactly determined by the base of workers’ democracy on which it rests, and that cannot be improvised in the aftermath of the revolutionary “leap” in the relations of production. This is the only serious method, not reformist, of opposing the prospect of bureaucratic socialism (Stalinism).

5. The meaning of class unity is the question of the connection between partial struggles and general ends.

The demand for workers’ control, the problems it raises, the theoretical preparation connected to it implies necessarily the unity of the masses, and the refusal of every rigid party conception that reduces the very thesis of control to a wretched parody. There is no workers’ control without unity of action of all laborers in the same firm, in the same sector, in the entire productive front: a unity that is not mythological or purely an adornment to the propaganda of a party, but a reality that is implemented from below, with laborers becoming conscious of their function in the productive process, and the simultaneous creation of unitary institutions of a new power. It is therefore to reject, in this context, the reduction of the struggles of laborers to a pure instrument of reinforcement of a party or of its more or less clandestine strategy. The question, long debated, of how to connect and harmonize demands and partial, immediate struggles, with general ends, is resolved precisely in affirming the continuity of struggles and of their nature. In effect this connection and this harmonization are impossible, and are an ideological mess, as long as there is still the idea that there is a realm of socialism, a for the time unknowable mystery, that will appear one day as a miraculous dawn to achieve the dreams of man. The ideal of socialism is indeed an ideal that contrasts profoundly and without the possibility of accommodation with capitalist society, but it is an ideal that needs to be made alive day by day, won moment by moment in struggles; that arises and develops insofar as every struggle serves to mature and advance institutions that emerge from below, the nature of which is exactly already the affirmation of socialism.

6. The class movement and economic development.

A conception that is based on workers’ control and on the unity within the struggles of the masses carries with it the rejection of every attitude or orientation which hinges on a catastrophic perspective (automatic collapse of capitalism), and the full and unconditional adherence to a politics of economic development. But this politics of economic development is not an adjustment, a correction of the capitalist course, nor does it consist of an abstract planning that would be proposed to the bourgeois state; it is realized in the struggle of the masses, and manifests itself by gradually breaking the capitalist structure, and from this taking to head a new impulse. When in this sense it is affirmed that the struggles of the proletariat serve to gain day by day new shares of power we should not understand this to mean that the proletariat gains day by day portions of bourgeois power (or of collaboration with bourgeois power) but that day by day it opposes to bourgeois power the demand, the affirmation, and the form of a new power that comes directly, and without proxies, from below.

The working class, slowly, through the struggle for control, becomes the active subject of a new economic politics, takes on for itself the responsibility for a balanced economic development, such that it interrupts the power of monopolies and their consequences: imbalances between region and region, between stratum and stratum, between sector and sector. For this reason, similarly, overturning the contemporary function of public enterprise, transforming it from an element of support and protection for monopolies, into a direct instrument of the industrialization of the South and depressed areas. In practice this makes the politics of economic development into an element of harsh contrast with the monopolies; a contrast that presents itself first and foremost as a conflict between the public sector (allied with the small and medium enterprises) and the sector of big private enterprise. It should also be emphasized that the class movement, carrying forward an equilibrium and adequate process of industrialization does not “substitute” itself for capitalism, nor does it “complete the work,” but joins economic development to the parallel transformation of the relations of production; because, today in Italy, these old, capitalist relations of production are precisely the irreconcilable obstacle for a politics of economic development. Whoever confuses industrialization (growth of accumulation) with the expansion of capitalism (economy of profit), does not only commit a theoretical error but has also not even managed to take note of Italian reality in its most evident terms.

A politics of economic development entrusts to the control of the laborers completely the guarantee of technical development; not only eliminates the practical separation between it and the laborers, but makes the laborers their own most direct bearers and advocates, realizing finally the convergence, at the level of struggle, between workers and technicians.

7. The forms of workers’ control.

The demand for control on the part of laborers is by its nature unitary, and it arises and develops at the level of struggle. In the concrete situation of the class struggle in our Country control does not arise as a generic, programmatic demand, and much less as a demand for legislative formulations on the part of Parliament: preparations and formulas of this kind can only distort the problem of control, even reducing it to a veiled or open formula for collaborationism, or bringing it back in to a framework of a dangerous parliamentary paternalism. By this we certainly don’t mean that it’s a matter of excluding a legislative formulation on workers’ control, but that this cannot be bestowed paternalistically from above, nor can it be achieved just by generic struggles of a parliamentary kind; in this field Parliament can only register, reflect the result of a struggle that takes place in the economic sphere (that is to say essentially of the working class). The question of control advances insofar as the laborers, in the productive structure, unitarily become conscious of their necessity in the productive system, and of the productive reality, and struggle on their own. It is clear moreover, by the things already said, that there is no difference for this theme between state enterprises and private enterprises: the demand for control arises in both sectors on the same level of struggle. On the other hand the demand for control is not the romantic exhumation of a past that never repeats itself in the same form, nor can it be confused with the revindicative functions of determinate union organs (and therefore cannot be confused with an expansion of the power of internal commissions): and this last thing is also true of the workers, in many places, giving this form to demands for control because the internal commissions have remained a symbol of real workers’ unity in places of labor.

Therefore every utopian anticipation must be banned, while it must be emphasized that the forms of control must not be determined by a committee of “specialists,” but rise up only from the concrete experience of laborers. In this sense three points must already be mentioned that come from certain workers’ sectors. The first of them concerns the Conferences of production [Conferenze di produzione] as a concrete form from which it can launch a movement for control. The second refers on the other hand to the demand that the question of control be placed at the center of the general struggle for the recapture of contractual power and the freedom of workers in the factories, and thus for instance, that it be manifested in elected Commissions that would control employment and prevent discrimination. The third, while it emphasizes the needs of linking between various firms, poses the problem of participation in representative territorial democracy to the elaboration of productive programs.

These are very useful points, resulting already from basic experience, to which certainly others will be added: each one of these will be further and more deeply discussed, bearing in mind that the scope of application and of study is primarily the factory, and the best test is the unitary struggle.

State Violence, State Control: Marxist State Theory and the Critique of Political Economy

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a number of movements arose which in different ways, opposed the status quo.1 At the time, many of us in our exuberance thought these events signaled the end – or at least the beginning of the end – of capitalism. Yet from London to Oakland to Madrid to Athens to Cairo, each of these movements were met and outmaneuvered by an institution which was generally neglected in analyses of the final crisis, and the calls to communize everything by abolishing the value-form: the state.

This was doubly surprising, for the crisis was also said to be a crisis of neoliberalism, a new regime of financialized accumulation that had emerged in the 1970s and had transformed capitalist society through what Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner have described as “post-1​970s ​patterns​ of ​institutional​ and​ spatial​ reorganization” consisting in “the tendential ​extension ​of ​market-b​ased​ competition​ and ​commodification​ processes​ into​ previously​ relatively​ insulated ​realms ​of ​social​ life.”2

While many explanations of how and why this process of neoliberalization occurred abound, Philip Mirowski perceptively notes that “many authors of a Marxist bent want to portray neoliberalism as the simple deployment of class power over the unsuspecting masses, but encounter difficulty in specifying the chains of causality stretching from the elusive executive committee of the capitalist class down to the shopper at Wal-Mart.”3 As Mirowski indicates, much of this explanatory gap in prominent “traditional” and “critical” Marxian accounts of neoliberalism thus centers on the lack of sophisticated analyses of the capitalist state.

Chris Harman, for instance, provides a “Classical Marxist” interpretation of the state in Zombie Capitalism.4 For Harman there is little need to consider the structure of the capitalist state, how it relates to the capitalist economy, its peculiar capacities, its means or its ends, or to provide a detailed investigation of how the state participated in regimes of accumulation; for him, the state is a formless instrument of capital, which the ruling class uses to stall the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. In this view, the state’s “autonomy” does not consist in its separation from the capitalist economy or its separated interrelation with it, but in “a limited degree of freedom as to how it enforces the needs of national capital accu­mulation, not in any choice as to whether to enforce these or not.”5 Consequently, a political class is not separated from the capitalist class, nor is it beholden to a particular political rationality implicated in the overall social logic of capital; rather, “state appointees behave as much like capitalists – as living embodiments of capital accumulation at the expense of workers – as do private entrepreneurs, or shareholders.”6 Harman thus argues that the crisis of the 1970s represented “the limits of state capitalism’s ability to maintain accumulation” in the face of this tendency, leading to a new phase of accumulation in which individual states act in the interest of global capital.7 Consequently, Harman’s explanation of neoliberalism treats the capitalist ruling class as the prime mover and the state as its mere instrument, while his definition of neoliberalism is precisely the one that Mirowski criticizes: “Neoliberalism is an ideology primarily used to justify attacks on workers.”8

Despite their opposition to these traditional interpretations of Marx, some of the most prominent proponents of “value-form theory” who address neoliberalism echo Harman’s analysis, albeit in a different register.9 Moishe Postone’s “Theorizing the Contemporary World” parallels Harman by characterizing the historical trajectory of neoliberalism as “the weakening of national, state-centered economic sovereignty and the emergence and consolidation of a neo-liberal global order.”10 Postone’s intervention – which consists of critical remarks on how analyses of neoliberalism by Robert Brenner, David Harvey, and Giovanni Arrighi fail to grasp Marx’s theory of value – makes the case that properly understanding Marx’s theory of value can provide a full picture of the dynamic of capitalist, and thus neoliberal, society. Although Postone remarks in passing that the state should be analyzed as a historically-specific form, he does not say why this is particularly important, how this would change his analysis, or how it relates to his interpretation of Marx’s theory of value. Like Harman but on a different theoretical basis, he ultimately reduces the state to an incidental instantiation of capital.

Taken together, Harman and Postone’s analyses are representative of the type of Marxist theory that has underlaid approaches to the crisis. Unfortunately, they can also be said to represent the general theoretical paucity of state theory in much of the Marxian tradition, where the state is often treated as a formless instrument or a supraindividual form that merely reflects a given characterization of the dynamic of valorization. The explanatory capacities of these approaches are called into question not only by the quashing of these post-crisis movements by the state, but also by the underlying character of the neoliberal project itself, which Mirowski and Peck both show to be a state-driven enterprise that became more extensive in the wake of periodic global economic crises since the 1970s.11

Nonetheless, Mirowski and Peck have their own limitations. They treat neoliberalism as a political project or as a political rationality, but they do not consider how such a political rationality relates to the social logic and corresponding behavioral rationality of capital. This means they do not consider how this perspective could provide a conception of the capitalist state that might help us further understand neoliberalism, the neoliberal state and the neoliberalization of global society in relation to global capitalism.

These omissions not only raise the question of whether the state can be brought back into Marxist accounts of neoliberalism, but if a Marxist theory of the state can be devised that the treats the state as integral to the dynamic of accumulation – in a way that explains the development and pervasiveness of neoliberalism, sets the stage for an understanding of the recent waves of state-backed repression, and in so doing contributes to a more sober analyses of the overcoming of capitalist society. This once again raises the vexed question of the Marxist theory of the capitalist state – is a theory available which can explain the relation between the capitalist state and the capitalist economy, the means and ends of the capitalist state, which overcomes the one-sided approaches of Harman and Postone?

Such a conception would view the state as a historically specific entity, separate from yet interrelated with the capitalist economy, endowed with form-determined capacities that are integral to the process of valorization and social reproduction. Moreover, while these capacities would have certain instrumental uses, their utilization would not be deduced from the direct subordination of the state apparatus or its functionaries to capital or the capitalist class, but from a perspective which shows how the state’s role in this overarching social dynamic instantiates a political rationality that compels such a utilization, in order to reproduce the state and capitalist society. This theory would also seek to explain the nature and the purpose of the capitalist state and its capacities, providing a framework for the analysis of state policies as the instrumentalization of these form-determined abilities. In order to determine the possibility of advancing such a theory, we will start by reviewing important moments in the history of Marxian state theory.

Marx’s theories of the state

As Bob Jessop and others have noted, Marx himself did not present “a definitive analysis” of the capitalist state.12 Instead, a variety of conceptions of the state can be drawn from his work. In early texts such as “On The Jewish Question” (1843) and “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844), written prior to his first engagement with political economy, Marx conceives of the state as the alienated representation of a human community premised on the separation between the state and civil society. Following Marx’s initial criticisms of political economy, The German Ideology (1845) conceives of the state as a class entity that represents particular class interests as universal. However, Marx’s most influential comments on the state in this period are the famous lines from The Communist Manifesto (1848) – “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” – which describe the state as an instrument in the playing out of the history of class struggle.13 Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) provides a more complex analysis of the relationship between the state and class struggle, in his account of the intra-state conflicts between class fractions in Bonaparte’s coup of 1851.

While Jessop and others treat these moments in the development of Marx’s thought as distinct, or even antithetical, Michael Heinrich notes they are also indicative of the period before Marx fully developed his critique of political economy.14 Despite their differences, these “pre-critical” conceptions of the state do not investigate its historically specific form, and thus lack an account of how such a form participates in the peculiar dynamic of capitalist valorization.

Marx had planned to provide such an account as part of his critique of political economy. Unfortunately, it was never completed. Nevertheless, he made scattered references to such a form-analytic conception of the state in Volume 3 of Capital (1863-1883), calling it “the specific political form” that corresponds to the “specific economic form” of capitalist social production. He also noted that such a “specific economic form” grows directly out of the particular manner in which “unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers,” which “determines the relationship of the rulers and the ruled.” The “specific political form” of the state, in other words, is constituted by the historically specific relations of production, possessing a “political relation of sovereignty” that is separate but also embedded in this determinate economic form. Finally, he noted that these forms appeared in “infinite variations and gradations” in different empirical circumstances:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.15

Taken in tandem with the parts of his critique of political economy that Marx did complete, this would imply that the “specific political form” of the capitalist state corresponds to and reacts upon the specific economic form of capitalist social production.

But what is this economic form? For Marx, “capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character.”16 Succinctly put, this definite social production relation is manifested in the social character of a thing because the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an atomized social division of labor in which production occurs for the purpose of exchange. This, in turn, means that some type of general equivalent is necessary to facilitate exchange. Money is this equivalent. But because money is the only equivalent that facilitates exchange, it acquires what Marx refers to as a “social power,” this “thing’s” social character. This also means, as Marx shows in the course of his further presentation in Capital, that since the capitalist mode of production consists in a class antagonism in which a class of workers are compelled, in order to reproduce themselves, to sell their labor-power to a class of capitalists who are then compelled to pump out unpaid surplus-labor in order to sell commodities and valorize capital, that the capitalist process of valorization occurs through the medium of money for the sake of acquiring more money. Money thus becomes the sole aim of production, “the self-sufficient purpose of the sale,” and thus the ends of the process of valorization, which is simultaneously one of reproduction.17 Surplus value, as “the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers” in order to valorize capital, is the means of this process. This “definite social production relation” – the “specific economic form” of capitalism – is thus manifest in money’s social character, which in the process of valorization serves as the subject of a social dynamic that reproduces these relations by determining the actions of capitalists and proletarians.18 It finds its presuppositions in conditions of separation, and is marked by an antagonism of exploitation and domination.

In conjunction with such a conception of this “specific economic form,” Marx’s fragmentary account of the state thus implies that a form-analytic theory of the capitalist state would consist in an explication of a historically specific “political form that corresponds to these peculiarities of the capitalist social form.” It further implies that the relation of sovereignty, which characterizes this “specific” political form, corresponds to the ends of this economic form: the process of valorization, which “determines the actions of the rulers and the ruled.” Such a notion shows that at this stage in his work, Marx does not conceive of the state as a formless entity in a decontexualized history of class struggle, while the reference to its “hidden basis” shows that Marx does not see it as an impersonal form extraneous to it. Rather, it indicates that he conceived of the state as a form-determined instrument in which the specific form of the state and its political relation of sovereignty correspond to and serve the ends of the capitalist process of valorization. This would seem to indicate that the state as a form is separate from, yet also corresponds to, the capitalist economy, and that “the political form” it possesses by virtue of this separation consists in a “relation of sovereignty” in which its form-determined abilities are utilized as instruments by its functionaries, who are compelled to reinforce and react upon the peculiar antagonisms of exploitation, domination, and separation that are the premise and the result of capitalist process of valorization.19

Elements of such a theory can be seen in the instances in Capital where the state is shown to enforce laws on the basis of formal freedom and equality, codifying private property and the sale of labor-power and thus functioning as integral to the process of valorization. It can also be seen to utilize these form-determined capacities in an instrumental manner, in the sections on the length of the working day and primitive accumulation, where the impersonal entity of the state acts as the “concentrated and organised force of society” by implementing the separation of the worker from the means of production and modifying the length of the working day – thus aligning political rationality with the social logic of capital in order to assure valorization and reproduction.20 While the incomplete status of Capital means that Marx never aligned the state with the world market, these comments imply that Marx’s critique of political economy conceives of the state as an entity which is separate yet integral to the capitalist social form; a form-determined instrument for the purpose of perpetuating and extending capitalist social production.21 Yet it is also the case that fragments such as these are few and far between in the extant manuscripts that make up the unfinished project of the critique of political economy.

Classical Marxism

Engels’s transformation of these manuscripts into volumes 2 (1885) and 3 (1894) of Capital provided an invaluable service under impossible conditions. However, the hegemonic logico-historical interpretation he played an essential part in formulating, in conjunction with the reception of the pre-critical Marx and Engel’s own remarks on the state, formed the basis for the most prominent theories of the state in classical Marxism and Western Marxism.22

This is particularly the case for the Classical Marxist theories of the state, which would continue to be of influence in the evolution of “Classical Marxism” in the 20th century: the Social-Democratic and Imperialist theories of the state.23 As Ingo Elbe notes, Engels’s “content-based” conception of the state as “the mere instrument” of the ruling class “paved the way” for these theories.24 The Classical Marxist theory of the state followed a logico-historical reading of Capital and Engels’s notion that the state acted as “real total social capitalist”25 to argue that that the state had been used as an instrument by the ruling class to take “on many of the functions of capital, in the attempt to avert an economic crisis and to stabilise the class struggle,” thus ushering in the new historical stage of monopoly capitalism.26 Although this theory, which is echoed in Harman’s work, can be said to offer an account of the state’s role in accumulation, it lacks a form-analytic dimension. Instead of explaining how the state comes to exist as a separate entity serving the ends of the particular social dynamic of capitalist valorization, a dynamic that compels the actions of the rulers and the ruled, this formless theory conceived of the state as a neutral instrument which was used by the capitalist class to direct the capitalist economy – and which could also be used by proletarians to direct the communist economy.

The Frankfurt School

Despite their mutual animosity, the Althusserian and Hegelian-Marxist strands of Western Marxism both embedded this classical account in more complex social theories. This was notably the case with the theories of the state promulgated by those associated with the Institute for Social Research, which, in spite of their variation, can be seen to have married such an instrumentalist account of the state to an analysis of social institutions, drawing on the Weberian elements of Lukács’s theory of reification.

Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer’s theory of the state-capitalist “Authoritarian State” proposed a particular logico-historical social theory, with a formless conception of the state as a rationalizing instrument. In their analysis of state capitalism, which they posited as the latest stage of capitalism’s historical development, the authoritarian state was said to have taken on the role of total social capital, with the “new ruling class” using the state to “totally administer” society. In Pollock’s succinct summarization, this “new state openly appears as an institution in which all earthly power is embodied and which serves the new ruling class as a tool for its power politics.”27 The new ruling class uses the state to “control everything it wants to” including “the general economic plan” of production and circulation, “foreign policy, rights and duties,” and the “life and death of the individual.”28

While Postone rightly criticizes the “Traditional Marxist” conception of the capitalist economy upon which Pollock and Horkheimer rely, for conceiving of value as a trans-historical mode of market allocation that has been superseded by the state’s management of distribution, his paradigmatic treatment of these figures discounts the more complex theories of the state and the capitalist economy that were formulated by associates of the Frankfurt School.29 Franz Neumann’s account of the Nazism argued, contra Pollock and his analysis of a state-controlled economy, that an ensemble of monopolies had aligned to use the German state as “the power instrument of a new ruling group” in order to institute a “totalitarian form of state capitalism.”30 Marcuse’s notion that the “National Socialist state” was “the government of hypostatized economic, social, and political forces” lies somewhere in between Pollock and Neumann.31 Finally, Adorno’s “Reflections on Class Theory” posits that as a result of the outcome of the dynamism of reified social relations, the state could be used as a rationalizing instrument under the monopoly rule of the capitalist class.32

Aspects of Neumann’s and Adorno’s analysis are brought together in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism. In many ways this often neglected work offers the most complex theoretical and historically-embedded account of the state in this generation of Frankfurt School critical theory.33 Echoing Adorno, Sohn-Rethel conceives of the state on a theoretical level as a rationalizing instrument that enforces capitalist valorization. This is reflected in a historical analysis that supplements Neumann’s account of the German fascism by arguing that a constellation of monopoly forces aligned with the Nazi Party in order to institute a new accumulation regime. In such an accumulation regime, the German fascist state acted as the managerial apparatus of monopoly capital by implementing coercive labour policies that rationalized the valorization of absolute surplus value.34

By providing an account of how a sector of German capital was compelled to enter into an agreement with the Nazi Party in order to utilize the institution of German state to implement and enforce policies that spurred valorization, Sohn-Rethel provides a sophisticated theoretical account of the state as an instrument of rationalization that is utilized in class struggle for the purpose of valorization. He also argues that the class fraction that wields this instrument is compelled by the overarching imperatives of valorization. Yet, despite a deeper socio-theoretical account of the state, Sohn-Rethel’s and other Frankfurtian theories of the state lacked the explanatory dimensions of a form-analytic account. Indeed, this is perhaps why its most influential proponents relied on Weberian notions of rationalized administration to explain the anonymous and impersonal instrumental function of the state, rather than aligning these properties with an account of the capitalist social form of production.


Louis Althusser, like the theorists of the Frankfurt School, also added a sophisticated socio-theoretical dimension to the formless instrumentalist conception of the state. Yet in pointed contrast to the Frankfurt School, the Althusserian theory of the state developed out of Althusser’s reinterpretation of the topology of base and superstructure, which in its classical version held that Marx’s social theory asserted the primacy of economic base, and the subordination of the political-legal and ideological superstructure. Althusser’s notion of the state as an instrument emerged from a multi-level reframing of the relation between base and superstructure, characterized by complex relations of overdetermination, rather than form-analytic social theory.

This was notably the case in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which sought to make the Classical Marxist theory of the state less descriptive and “more precise” by elaborating on the complementary relation of the repressive and ideological functions of state apparatuses in the reproduction of the relations of production.35 Although the majority of this essay focused on how ideological apparatuses contributed to reproduction, Althusser would later fill out and amend his theory of the state in the remarkable “Marx in His Limits.” Like Sohn-Rethel’s contribution, this work offers a sophisticated theoretical formulation of the repressive function of the instrument of the state. It also offers a formulation of the peculiar structure of the state that revises the earlier theoretical architecture of the levels of the base and superstructure, for the more reciprocal notions of separation and interrelation. Finally, it even revises Althusser’s earlier criticisms of fetishism.

These points are brought together in a conception of the state as a repressive instrument by virtue of its structural separation from class struggle:

what makes the state the state… is the fact that the state is made in order to be, as far as possible, separate from class struggle… in order to serve as an instrument in the hands of those who hold power. The fact that the state “is made for this purpose” is inscribed in its structure, in the state hierarchy, and in the obedience (as well as the mandatory reserve) required of all civil servants, whatever their post.36

Consequently, the state is “separate” and “above classes” only in order to ensure that the dominant class can ensure the reproduction of the conditions of domination, with the “ensemble of elements” that make up the state working “together to the same end.” For Althusser, the goal of reproduction “does not consist solely in the reproduction of the conditions of ‘social relations’ and, ultimately, the ‘productive relations’; it also includes the reproduction of the material conditions of the relations of production and exploitation.”37 The emphasis, for Althusser, lay in the way that the state obscured the reality of the class antagonism by virtue of its structural separation from the economy: “the circle of the reproduction of the state in its functions as an instrument for the reproduction of the conditions of production, hence of exploitation, hence of the conditions of existence of the domination of the exploiting class’, constitutes ‘in and of itself’, the supreme objective mystification.”38

Such a theory of the state clearly draws on the late Marx, to conceive of the state as a specific entity that is structurally separate from but still connected to the dynamic of class struggle qua social reproduction. Yet for all of its advances on his earlier account, as with Sohn-Rethel, the structural-instrumental role the state plays in this process of reproduction is not linked to an account of the specific economic form that Marx discloses in his critique of political economy. This diminishes Althusser’s account of how this process of social reproduction comes about through the specific dynamic of the valorization process, thus preventing him from explaining the form-determination of the state’s structural-instrumentality. It is the state theories that came in wake of the “New Reading of Marx” that would emphasize these form-determined elements.

New Readings

What is known as the “New German Reading of Marx” emerged in the 1960s in West Germany. As pioneered by Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, this new reading consisted in a reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of value which brought the form-analytic element of Marx’s critique of political economy to the forefront. Backhaus and Reichelt’s interpretation of this dimension rested on “reconstructing” what they termed the “esoteric” theory of value, which they argued had been obscured in the published volumes of Capital. In contrast to traditional interpretations of Marx’s theory of value, Backhaus and Reichelt argued that this esoteric theory, which centered on their understanding of the dialectic of the value-form, consisted in a supraindividual type of social rationality that compelled individuals on both sides of the class relation.

This conceptual and methodological focus was an influence on the West German “State Derivation Debate,” which took place over the course of the 1970s. The approach that characterizes this debate also echoed, and at a certain point explicitly drew on, the state theory of Soviet legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis. As early as 1923, Pashukanis had criticized Marxist theories that simply focused on the content of the state. In contrast, Pashukanis’s theory focused on why the dominance of the capitalist class takes “on the form of official state domination,” by deriving the form of capitalist law and the capitalist state from commodity production.39 Drawing on a form-analytic interpretation of Marx’s theory of value, he argued that the social relations of capitalist society constitute capitalist laws and a capitalist state which codify and enforce the social form of capitalist social relations as relations between things. For Pashukanis, capitalist law and the capitalist state were thus “forms” logically derived from the commodity-form.

As John Holloway and Sol Picciotto point out, the Derivation Debate emerged in the context of the first significant recession in postwar West Germany; the election of a social-liberal coalition, which posed the issue of reformism; and the eclipse of the student movement.40 These developments called into question Classical Marxist state theories, which held that the state management of the economy would prevent economic crises, and also raised questions about the structure and limits of the capitalist state.

Many aspects of this political context had already been addressed by Johannes Agnoli. Although Agnoli was adamant that the state could not be “derived,” since it was already there, his influential essay in Die Transformation der Demokratie (1967) held that the state’s role in maintaining freedom and equality through law contributed to the reproduction of capitalist society, not only by enforcing property rights, but also by transforming class relations into social relations between abstract and atomized individuals. His idea of “statification,” moreover, also provided a historical account of how the student movement and attempts at reformism were subsumed by these overriding political structures. Agnoli’s work as a whole thus provided an analysis of the capitalist state that focused on how the political capacities of the state ensure the economic processes of valorization and reproduction, and how the structure of the state compels functionaries, no matter what their ostensible “political” orientation, to instrumentalize these capacities.41

These methodological influences and contextual developments can be seen in the work of Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neüsuss, who launched the debate, and can thus be seen to lay out the contours of its approach to Marxist state theory. In opposition to instrumentalist theories, especially those of the Frankfurt School, they stated that “the definition and criticism of state institutions as the instruments of manipulation of the ruling class, does not enable us to discover the limits of that manipulation.”42 Rather, they held that Marxist state theory should provide “a critique of the development of the various functions of the modern state.”43 As a result, mirroring Pashukanis, Müller and Neüsuss argued that these functions “can only be revealed by an analysis which shows in detail the needs for and the limits to state intervention, arising from the contradictions of the capitalist process of production as a labour-process and a valorization-process.”44 The contributions to this debate which followed thus centered on explaining the necessary function of the capitalist state, and its limits, by deriving the form of the state from the dynamic of valorization.

Following John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, we can identify three main approaches to this problematic. The first took issue with theories such as those of Pollock and Horkheimer and argued that the state’s institutional separation from the capitalist economy was key to understanding its role in the valorization process. This approach held that form of the state was necessary for the continued existence of capitalist society, since it stood above the competition of individual capitals in order to assure the system’s reproduction.”45 The second centered on providing a more sophisticated logical derivation of the state form from the order of presentation in Capital, while also establishing its necessity on this basis. This approach systematically derived the necessity and possibility of the state from the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations, in which all members of society, as owners of various sources of revenue, seem to have common interests, thus rendering an autonomous state necessary in order for these common interests to be realized outside of the sphere of competition. The third moved from these forms of appearance to capitalist social relations themselves. In contrast to the first two approaches, which can be seen to establish the necessity of the state as an ex post facto functional supplement to a fully articulated account of the valorization process, Joachim Hirsch’s contribution argued that a “theory of the bourgeois state” is “a matter of defining the bourgeois state as the expression of a specific historical form of class rule and not simply as the bearer of particular social functions.”46 This led Hirsch to derive the “possibility” and “general necessity” of the state from the capital relation, arguing that the particular form of the state abstracted “relations of force from the immediate process of production, thus constituting discrete ‘political’ and ‘economic’ spheres,” which were integral to reproducing this relation.47 In so doing, Hirsch’s “elements of a theory of the bourgeois state” also addressed the shortcomings of the other types of contributions – namely the separation of the state-form from the capital-relation – while also pointing to the importance of analyzing the state and social reproduction in the context of the world market.48

Despite these different points of emphasis, as a whole, the State Derivation Debate thus put forward a theoretical conception of the state that broke with instrumentalist interpretations. The participants convincingly argued against a conception of the state as a formless instrument that directed the economy, to conceive of the state’s impersonal form and separation from the capitalist economy as necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society. This foregrounding of form-determination in state theory was taken up by a number of the German state theories that followed.

The World Market Debate

Drawing on and advancing elements of Hirsch’s work, the German “World Market Debate” revolved around placing a form-analytic conception of the state in the concrete context of the world market. Christel Neusüss’s, Klaus Busch’s, and Claudia von Braunmühl’s contributions to this debate thus drew on Marx’s comments in the Grundrisse that the “tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself,” and developed accounts of how the law of value operated through the world market. In so doing, they relied on the value-theoretic conception of valorization as a process that “imposes a particular logic upon people,” while also echoing insights from the State Derivation Debate that capitalism’s crisis-prone tendencies can only be regulated if “the capitalist state is able to form and survive as a separate and relatively autonomous” entity.49 Yet in contrast to these approaches, the contributions to the World-Market Debate started from the methodological premises of a plurality of states in “multipolar” world capitalism.

Neusüss’s and Busch’s theories attempted to apply their interpretation of Marx’s theory of value to the world market by conceiving of it as a “combination of different nationally delineated spheres.” In contrast to the Derivation Debate, they held that that “an analysis of the world-market motion of capital could not be derived seamlessly from the inner nature of capital,” but had to occur in “modified forms.” Of the two, Neusüss provided a particular focus on the state, as an entity “that rests on a capitalist base, but is also ‘beside and outside it.’” She argued that the state was responsible for creating the “general material preconditions for production” and an “internal sphere of circulation” for national total social capital by enabling primitive accumulation, capitalist legal relations, thus guaranteeing the movement of capital and labor and facilitating the imposition of the law of value.50

Von Braunmühl attacked Neusüss’s and Busch’s ideas of “modified forms,” contending that value always appears in such a manner. She also held that the state could not be regarded as external to value theory:

The form of the bourgeois nation state, of the world market organized as nation states, acquires, as a bounded, legally sovereign centre of a capitalist complex of exchange and production, the function of securing, both inter­nally and externally, the politico-economic power of the bourgeoisies competing in the “international system.” The form, however great its economic significance… is ultimately not com­prehensible without recourse to the political moment of domination which is implicit in the economic relation of force between wage labour and capital, and without reference to the competing claims to rule advanced by rival bearers of authority.51

Von Braunmühl thus argued that the world market was “the appropriate level from which to observe the motion of capital and the effect of the law of value in general,” and that it was not the capitalist state as such that should be conceptualized but “the specific political organisation of the world market in many states.”52 Consequently, in opposition to the Derviation Debate, von Braunmühl made the case that “the form of the state as a political organisation of ‘separate and distinct relations of reproduction’” cannot be “derived from the merely internal dimensions of a commodity-producing class society alone – the role of the state in question in its specific relationship with the world market and with other states must always be included in the analysis from the outset.”53

These premises led von Braunmühl to argue on a theoretical level that the state should be conceived from the perspective of the internal dynamic of national capital and the external one of the world market. The fact of “political and economic rule by internationally competing ruling classes” was achieved through the political functions of a sovereign state, which could secure the necessary conditions within the nation state framework.54

While Nachtway and Brink point to a number of shortcomings in the World-Market Debate, and its premature dissolution, it did point out the importance of conceiving of form-analytic interpretations of the state from the perspective of the world market and a plurality of states, building on dimensions of Marx’s incomplete work and pointing to the shortfalls of deriving the form of capitalist state as such.

Weaving the strands

The Althusserian and critical-Marxian theories that followed took aspects of these German contributions on board, while also trying to integrate them with an account of social struggles. This was particularly the case in the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) debate, in which Open Marxists, such as John Holloway and Simon Clarke, stressed the dimensions of class struggle that were articulated in the internal relation between the state and the economy. It was also the case for other participants, such as Bob Jessop, who followed Poulantzas and integrated elements of the form-analysis into a theory of the state’s relative autonomy, within a broader multi-level social theory. The work of Werner Bonefeld and John Milios can be seen to weave these strands, reuniting Frankfurt School critical theory and Althusserian theory respectively with more complex theories of the state that draw on value-form theory, Pashukanis, Agnoli, the State Derivation Debate and the World Market Debate.

However, these contributions bring us back to the question of neoliberalism. As we have seen, Peck and Mirowski show that neoliberalism was inextricably linked with the state, which is an an explanatory dimension that is absent from prevalent Marxist accounts. Yet at the same time, Mirowski and Peck both refrain from considering what explanatory dimensions a more rigorous Marxian theory of the neoliberal state and neoliberalism would offer: linking neoliberal rationality to the social logic of capital by aligning the strong neoliberal state with the process of valorization. As I show in closing, Bonefeld’s and Milios’s recent writings can be brought together to lay the groundwork for such an explanation, providing a basis for an understanding of the strong capitalist state’s role in the development and continued reproduction of neoliberal capitalism, and of the way that neoliberal rationality corresponds to the political rationality of capitalism.

Neoliberalism and the strong state

Werner Bonefeld’s account of the social constitution of the form of the capitalist state holds that the capitalist economy and the capitalist state are a “contradictory unity” that is created by the “substantive abstraction of class antagonism,” with the capitalist state utilizing its form-determined political capacities to reproduce this class antagonism. The specific antagonism of capitalist class struggle is the “historical result” of primitive accumulation. As a result, the world market is derived from “the contradictory existence of abstract labour as the social form of wealth founded on exploitation,” which in turn determines the form of the state: “the development of the state needs to be seen as one in which the contradictory unity of surplus value production is processed in a political form, as a moment of the same process of class struggle: social reproduction as, and in and against, domination.” Bonefeld argues that this antagonism is also at the heart of “the harmonies of formal equality and formal freedom,” which are in fact systematic with political domination. The form of the state “concentrates the social reality of exploitation in and through the guarantee of formal freedom and formal equality of property rights.” Drawing on Agnoli, Bonefeld also focuses on how these legal and political forms are instrumentalized to assure reproduction. As he sees it, “the political guarantee of the right of property determines the state as a strong state” which “imposes the rationality and equality of the right of property over society in the attempt to contain the social antagonism of capital and labour by the force of law.”55 This theory of the state can thus be seen to align a number of insights from the form-analytic conception of the state with an account of class struggle, in order to understand the strong state as a separate yet interrelated entity, by virtue of the form-determined role it plays in reproducing the capitalist class antagonism.

Bonefeld’s recent work, written following the 2008 crisis, can thus be seen to provide a theoretical rebuttal of analyses of neoliberalism that ignored or diminished the role of the state, by theoretically elaborating how the neoliberal state is exemplary of the form-determined instrumental capacities of the capitalist state. This is a theory of political economy as a political practice, which shows how its “cohesion, organization, integration and reproduction are matters of state.”56 Following Agnoli, Bonefeld succinctly formulates the ends of such a political practice: “crudely put, the purpose of capital is to accumulate extracted surplus value, and the state is the political form of that purpose.” He provides an account of how this purpose is achieved by the instrumentalization of the form-determined capacities of the state for purpose of valorization. As he argues, the state “facilitates the order of economic freedom by means of the force of law-making violence”; sustains the capitalist relations of production and exchange by depoliticizing “socio-economic relations”; guarantees “contractual relations of social interaction”; seeks the further progress of the system of free labor by facilitating the “cheapness of provision”; and extends these relations by “securing free and equal market relations.”57 The “strong state” thus utilizes its form-determined capacities in an instrumental manner, to organize, integrate, sustain, and extend the social relation at the heart of the peculiar dynamic of valorization for the purpose of accumulating surplus value.

Bonefeld also enumerates how the “market-facilitating” coercive force of the strong neoliberal state achieves these ends in the three areas of political-legal form-determined instrumentality outlined above. He argues that capitalist relations have been sustained and extended “over the past 30 years” by “the accumulation of potentially fictitious wealth” – through “the coercive control of labour, from debt bondage to new enclosures,” and from “the deregulation of conditions to the privatization of risk.”58 Thus, in contrast to prevalent characterizations of the neoliberal state as a weak state that is separate from the market, unwilling and unable to guard it, Bonefeld argues: “The conventional view that neoliberalism has to do with the weakening of the state has little, if anything, to do with the neoliberal conception of the free economy.”59 Rather, since “the free market requires the strong, market-facilitating state, but it is also dependent on the state as the coercive force of that freedom,” the “neoliberal demand for the strong state is a demand for the limited state, one that limits itself to the task of making the economy of free labour effective.”60 This means that “the capitalist state is fundamentally a liberal state” and that the neoliberal state is typical of these fundamental qualities, because “the neoliberal state functions as a market facilitating state.”61

The social violence of capital

Like Bonfeld, John Milios also provides a theory of the capitalist state that draws important elements from form-analytic state theory.62 He also aligns these insights with the constitutive social dynamic of class struggle, but he does so from an Althusserian perspective. Although Milios rightly notes that Althusser’s “approach to value theory” was, at best, “ambiguous,” he also identifies several points of compatibility between Althusser’s work and form-analysis:

the predicative and categorical manner in which Althusser declares Marx’s rupture with Political Economy, as well as the basic parameters of his analysis, i.e. his approach to materialist dialectics, the epistemological break, the eccentric conception of social totality, the primacy of class struggle, the relative autonomy and interpenetration of the various practices, point to the theoretical potential implicit in the comprehension of Marx’s monetary theory of value, a key-issue of which is the insistence on the significance of the concept of value-form.63

This approach also draws on Milios’s interpretation of Pashukanis, who provided an account of the “process of simultaneous formation of the interacting elements” of the capitalist mode of production, “comprising among other things the formation of the (bourgeois civil) law and the ideology/philosophy which accompanies it.”64 Following the Althusserian conception of the “primacy of class struggle,” Milios contends that the capitalist mode of production (CMP) is constituted by two contradictions. The “principal contradiction” is the “contradiction” of the relations of production, which “divides society into two fundamental (and unequal) classes: the capitalist and working classes.”65 Yet in the CMP, these “agents of production embody other secondary power relations (contradictions)” because “certain relations of production presuppose the existence of specific legal-political and ideological relations: the so-called superstructure.”66 Therefore, while these “secondary contradictions are not the pure expressions of the principal contradiction,” they are “actually constitute its condition of existence, just as the principal contradiction constitutes their condition of existence.”67 Thus, rather than a one-way determinism, for Milios, the relationship between these contradictions is reciprocal; for, while in the “last instance” the relations of production ultimately “determine the general form of the superstructure,” these secondary determinations also possesses “relative autonomy” and act on the base.68 Consequently, “the (capitalist) mode of production is not exclusively an economic relation. It applies at all levels of society (social instances). It also includes the core of (capitalist) political and ideological relations of power, that is the particular structure of the capitalist state.”69

As a consequence, while Milios derives the state from class struggle, he also draws on accounts for the constitution of the form of the state, as a structural entity that is a separate yet interrelated aspect of the CMP. The “particular structure of the capitalist state” thus consists in “economic and political” powers, all of which possess “impersonal structures that function to ensure the overall preservation and reproduction” of the CMP.70 Since this structure corresponds to class domination, Milios argues, like Bonefeld, that these legal and political capacities are also used as instruments to ensure the preservation and reproduction of the class antagonism: “the state, as the centre for the exercise of capitalist class power, is the mechanism for concentrating the generalized social violence of capital.”71

Following the Althusser of “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Milios argues that this form-determined instrumentalization occurs at two levels. The “economic level” is where “the state makes a decisive contribution to creating the overall material conditions for reproduction of capitalist relations.” It formulates politico-legal policies “for managing the workforce, interventions for an increase in the profitability of aggregate social capital, the national currency and state management of money, the institutional and legal framework safeguarding the “freedom” of the market, mechanisms for disciplining labour power and institutions of social pacification.”72 At the “political and ideological-cultural level,” the state has the important function of legitimating “the exercise of bourgeois political power” – it provides a national framework for the ideology of capitalist power, constituting capital as “socio-national capital.” As a whole, “capitalist exploitation is rendered possible, and appears as a ‘natural order,’ by virtue of the functioning of the state.”73

Mirroring Bonefeld, Milios’s account of the state thus aligns important form-analytic concerns with an account of the constitutive properties of class struggle. In this theorization, the state is not merely instrumental, nor is it simply an autonomous form.74 Rather, for Milios, the capitalist state is, “in reality: the political condensation of class relations of domination, the factor that underwrites the cohesion of capitalist society.”75

Milios provides an account of the neoliberalization of capitalist society that also reflects the “market facilitating” properties of the neoliberal state that Bonefeld identifies. He defines neoliberalism as a “historically specific form of organization of capitalist power on a social-wide scale, wherein governmentality through financial markets acquires a crucial role.”76 This leads Milios to argue that this historically specific organization consisted in the “recomposition” of the CMP, a “reforming all components involved, in a way that secures the reproduction of the dominant (neoliberal) capitalist paradigm.”77 As the mechanism for concentrating the generalized social violence of capital, the capitalist state facilitated this process of neoliberalization.

This is relayed in Milios’s account of the four basic elements of recomposition that constituted the neoliberal model, which the state was instrumental in instituting. The first consisted in repressive methods and monetarist policies that deregulated the job market, boosting unemployment, squeezing wages, and lessening the power of wage-earners. The second, which is linked to the first, entailed outsourcing in order to devalue “non-competitive” capital and further discipline labor. These were complemented by the third, the privatization and recomposition of state activities, which created a “basis for an increase in the debt of households,” generating the potential for debt in other privatized areas. Finally, consent to this model was secured by the possibility of “access to cheap loans” and a variety other financialized entities.78

Consequently, contra Harman and Postone, for Milios, neoliberalization did not erode the state, because it did not diminish its form-determined purpose. Rather, he holds that the capitalist state’s neoliberal recomposition strengthened the state’s ability to facilitate these ends. In neoliberalism, the capitalist state’s organization and reproduction of “the economic and political dominance of capital” is recomposed and extended to the historically specific governmentality of financialization, which has engendered “new kinds of rationality for the promotion of exploitation strategies based on the circuit of capital that presume compliance with the laws of the capitalist system.”79 Neoliberalization has thus led to “embedding” a “particular form of capitalist state power, of class governance, undoubtedly more authoritarian, crude, and violent” in neoliberal valorization and social reproduction.80 We are not far from Bonefeld’s theory of the market-facilitating purpose of the strong neoliberal state.

Vital politics as capitalist rationality

This brings us to the second productive affinity of Bonefeld’s and Milios’s recent work: both align phenomena that Foucauldian analyses of neoliberalism separate from capitalism with their form-analytic interpretations of the strong neoliberal state. They are thus able to conceive of neoliberal rationality as a political rationality of capital. Bonefeld’s work on ordoliberalism81 holds that ordoliberal theory not only exemplifies policies such as the Cameron government’s handling of the 2008 crisis, but that it also captures the “economic rationality of capitalist social relations” manifesting the “theology of capitalism.”82

The key is the emphasis on extending political rule into purportedly private arenas, in order to perpetuate the reproduction of the capital relation. For Bonefeld, “ordoliberal social policy is thus not only a policy towards and of society. It is fundamentally a policy in and through society, governing its mentality from within.”83 Consequently, the strong ordoliberal state “restrains competition and secures the social and ideological preconditions of economic liberty” by developing “the technique of liberal governance as a means of ‘market police.’”84

In Bonefeld’s view, such a technique consists in the moralizing social policy of “vital politics” (Vitalpolitik), which acts a “market-facilitating and -embedding policy, which has to be pursued relentlessly to sustain and maintain the moral sentiments of economic liberty in the face of the destructive sociological and moral effects of free economy.”85 Vital politics thus acts as a “market police” by instrumentalizing social policy in order to “eliminate the proletariat by means of a ‘market-conforming’ social policy,” which facilitates “freedom and responsibility” in a way that transforms “recalcitrant workers into willing entrepreneurs of their own labour power.”86 Ultimately, this “social element of the market economy… connects market freedom with individual responsibility, sets out to reconcile workers with the law of private property, promotes enterprise, and delivers society from proletarianised social structures.”87 In this way, the social policy of vital politics exemplifies the extended political practice of the strong neoliberal state, complementing its coercive use of legal and political policy. Neoliberal rationality is thus the political rationality of capital.

Milios’s account of financialization aims at a parallel explanation. For Milios, financialization does not represent privatization or the rolling back of the state, but an incorporation of “a range of institutions, procedures, reflections, and strategies that make possible the accomplishment (not without contradictions) of fundamental targets in the context of existing social relations.”88 Moreover, in contrast to narratives that interpret financialization as a desperate attempt to forestall the erosion of capital in response to the falling rate of profit, Milios argues that it represents a “strong and deeply established capitalism.”89 This is because Milios controversially contends that financialization is a sui generis form of fictitious capital which produces value, on the basis of his monetary interpretation of Marx’s theory of value.90 He also argues that financialization represents the main instance of the recomposition of the state’s form-determined role. The state embeds itself in this technology of power, which facilitates the market by reproducing the power relations of capitalist society.

For Milios, financial markets thus “have the dual function of assessing and effectively organizing individual economic actors and at the same time promoting a particular form of financing.”91 In so doing, they “monitor and control the terms and reproduction trajectories of the contemporary capitalist relation.”92 His analysis of financialization thus repurposes Foucault’s notions of neoliberal governmentality and biopolitics, in a way that mirrors Bonefeld’s analysis of vital politics – providing an explanation of how financialization serves political ends by consisting in a type of rationality that governs individual behaviour, compelling individuals to act in an entrepreneurial manner that assures the reproduction of the capital relation.93

Milios links these Foucauldian concepts to financialization primarily through an account of the normalization of risk. In his view, not only has risk become a commodified component of neoliberal valorization, as a result of the composition of neoliberal capitalism, but by virtue of these very same factors, it is utilized as a governmental technology of power to assure the reproduction of capital on the world market:

Attaching a risk profile to an agent (a capitalist firm, a state, or a wage earner etc.) means accessing and measuring their ability to conform in a docile manner to roles within a complex world that is underwritten by power relations. Risk calculation involves systemic evaluation on the part of every market participant of the efficiency with which particular targets (norms), as defined by social power relations, have been achieved. Every market participant lives risk as their reality and becomes caught up in a perpetual effort to improve their profile as a competent risk-taker, in this sense conforming to what is required by the “laws” of capitalism.94

This is particularly the case for workers who have been left most vulnerable by the composition of neoliberalism, with their “households… more reliant on risk management for their social reproduction.” Here, in what Milios describes as the “most important moment of financial innovation as a social process,” risk management “shapes and disciplines social behavior under the norms of capital,” making labor “hostage to its own fortune, that is to say, hostage to the demands of capital.”95 Financialization is thus representative of the recomposition of the state, rather than its retreat. As an instance of neoliberal rationality it serves the political purpose of reproducing neoliberal capitalism.


Since the capitalist state is a strong state, and the neoliberal state is a capitalist state, the neoliberal state is a strong state that has used its form-determined political capacities in an instrumental manner for the purpose of instituting the neoliberal regime of surplus value extraction, in order to guarantee the perpetuation of the capital relation. Rather than the erosion of the state, it is these state capacities that drove the neoliberalization of society, and have perpetuated it in its strengthened and recomposed form – in which even financialization is a form of governmentality. The neoliberal state exemplifies Marx’s account of the political purpose of the capitalist state, and the ordoliberal social policy of vital politics is paradigmatic of capitalist political rationality.

Taken together, these accounts align neoliberal rationality with the social rationality of capital. By conceiving of the neoliberal state as a strong capitalist state, they provide a basis for understanding how such a strong state, and its “biopolitical” social policies, serve the political purpose of assuring capitalist reproduction. These perspectives could be further strengthened by drawing on theoretical insights discussed above. For instance, the World Market Debate could prove helpful in understanding how the development of neoliberalism was driven by a plurality of states in the context of deindustrialization and restructuring on the world market.96 The empirical accounts of reactions to previous crises in neoliberalism, by Clarke and other members of the CSE, could also contribute to understanding how the strong neoliberal state responds to crises.97 Finally, Agnoli’s theory of statification, in tandem with Bonefeld’s theory of vital-political social management, could illuminate the steps taken by states that contained the counter-hegemonic movements that emerged after 2008. Further developing this account of the form-determined instrument of the capitalist state will be essential in generating theories that can grasp its overcoming.

The Biology of Citizenship: Immigration, DNA Testing, and the State

The past twenty years have witnessed a “return of the citizen,”1 resulting in manifold proposals to redefine and expand the notion of citizenship and its links to the nation-states, giving rise to terms like post-national, denationalized, and transnational citizenship.2 In the last decade, a new concept has emerged that has received particular attention in the citizenship discourse: “biological”3 or “genetic citizenship.”4 This “keyword in the making”5 was first introduced by the anthropologist Adriana Petryna, in her study of Ukrainian citizens affected by the nuclear disaster of 1986.6 The book is based on extensive fieldwork, presenting observations and interviews with government officials, scientists, clinicians, activists from nongovernmental organizations, and people who lived and worked in the contaminated zone around Chernobyl. Petryna shows how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people who had worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant made demands upon the new Ukrainian state through their biological status as sufferers of radiation sickness. In this context, the author introduces the concept of biological citizenship. She uses the term to describe “a massive demand for, but selective access to, a form of social welfare based on medical, scientific, and legal criteria that both acknowledge biological injury and compensate for it.”7

Until now, the growing literature on this topic has almost exclusively referred to the importance of patients’ associations, disease advocacy organizations, and self-help groups that give rise to new forms of subjectivation and collective action, thus challenging existing borderlines between laypeople and scientific experts, between active researchers and passive beneficiaries of technological progress. Frequently, authors using the notion of biological or genetic citizenship argue that these groups are questioning access to knowledge and claims to expertise, forging new alliances with biomedical researchers, and lobbying to influence political decision-making and to receive funding for medical research. So far, the focus of the debate has been on the extension of rights, the emergence of new possibilities of civic participation and social engagement, and on the choice-enhancing options of biomedical technologies, especially the new genetics.8

While this understanding of biological citizenship certainly highlights important social and political implications of biotechnological innovations in a globalized world, it tends to downplay and ignore practices of surveillance and exclusion, and the refusal of citizenship rights based on biological knowledge.9 An interesting example in this respect is the use of DNA testing for family reunification. By discussing Germany as an exemplary case, we show that the use of parental testing endorses a biological concept of the family and may lead to the exclusion or suspension of citizenship rights.10

Family Reunification and DNA Analysis

In general, family reunification refers to the right of family members living abroad to join relatives who hold long-term residence permits for, or are citizens of, a given country. The right to family reunification has been an integral part of many countries’ immigration policies, and is derived from the protection of the family as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Family-related immigration is currently one of the major drivers of legal immigration to Western countries. However, many countries are enforcing more restrictive family reunification policies, imposing stricter requirements on those applying to enter the country. Even if applicants possess the documents required to prove their identities, the information is often rejected by immigration authorities, as they question their authenticity.

In this context, many countries resort to parental testing. Applicants are required to provide official documentation to prove their identities, such as birth and marriage certificates and passports. Providing such information is often difficult, especially in countries that do not use official documents to establish identity, or where those documents have been lost or destroyed due to politically unstable situations. But even if applicants possess the required documents, immigration authorities sometimes reject the information as they question their authenticity.

In the 1990s, some host countries began to use DNA analysis to resolve cases in which they considered the information presented on family relationships to be incomplete or unsatisfactory. Today, at least 20 countries around the world, including 16 European countries, have incorporated parental testing into decision-making on family reunification in immigration cases: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, the UK, and the USA11

In Germany, the most important piece of family reunification legislation is the Residence Act, which came into force in 2005 and incorporates most of the regulations of Council Directive 2003/86/EC. The Residence Act explicitly states that the right to family reunification is meant to protect the family in accordance with the Basic Constitutional Law. Generally speaking, every spouse, either a German or a foreigner who is in possession of a temporary or unrestricted residence permit, can be the sponsor of an application for family reunification. The sponsor and his or her partner need to be married. In principle, same-sex partners may apply for family reunification as well, and they have the same rights as married couples. However, the same-sex partnership or marriage has to be officially recognized as such in the country of origin. For many applicants it is almost impossible to fulfill this prerequisite, as same-sex partnerships are not officially recognized in many home countries. Even worse, the fact that a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and was persecuted because of their sexual identity may well have been the main reason for leaving the country of origin. It might also be a valid foundation for a successful application for asylum in the EU, only for the person concerned to find out that they cannot be reunited with their partner.

In addition to the prerequisite of an existing marriage or recognized same-sex partnership, the sponsor is also expected to provide evidence of an adequate income and enough living space for the prospective united family. Furthermore, the non-German partner needs to prove basic German language skills. Accepted asylum seekers and refugees are exempted from these requirements. Children holding a temporary or unrestricted residence permit may also serve as sponsors and apply to be reunited with their parents, though the provisions in the Residence Act generally assume that the person serving as a sponsor is an adult.

However, German immigration offices will not necessarily accept these pieces of evidence for an existing family relation, and even in cases where legal documents are provided, it is a common administrative practice to ask the applicants for a DNA kinship report.12 There has been press coverage of a case where more than ten pieces of evidence were provided to the immigration authorities, but not accepted.13 Moreover, the German Federal Foreign Office has published a list of over 40 countries whose documents are not acknowledged by German embassies at all, because they assume that their system of identity registration lacks systematic and sound procedures.14 Applicants from these countries will find it extremely difficult to prove a family relationship by means of official documents or alternative pieces of evidence. To obtain permission to reunite with family members, they generally have to resort to DNA testing. Even German citizens may be asked to provide DNA evidence for their biological relation if they apply for family reunification with a foreign spouse and children from one of these blacklisted countries.

The use of DNA testing is considered to be an appropriate measure to prevent fraudulent uses of family reunification.15 The Federal Foreign Office states on its website that the decision on blacklisted countries is made on the basis of an individual evaluation of the likelihood of falsified documents in the country involved. However, it is quite striking that this list almost exclusively consists of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southeast Asia. Documents from countries in these regions encounter systematic mistrust, and as a consequence it is especially applicants with black skin or families from Central and Southeast Asia that are requested to undergo parental testing. At the same time, citizens from Western countries (e.g. the USA) or nationals from other developing countries (e.g. in Latin America) are not usually required to provide DNA evidence. On a related note, they are also exempted from the requirement of basic German language skills.

Given these conditions, one might ask if the formal and procedural argument put forward by the immigration authorities serves to target and discriminate against selective groups of applicants who will generally – regardless of their particular case – encounter more problems than other applicants in proving their identity and family relatedness. Refugee advisors and representatives of NGOs we interviewed report that applicants from some countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, or Burma are almost always asked to provide DNA evidence for their family relations.16

The possibility of DNA kinship testing is explicitly provided for in the general administrative regulations for the Residence Act (no. 27.0.5 AVwV AufenthG). The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and the Federal Ministry of the Interior present DNA testing as an entirely appropriate measure to verify family relatedness. They stress that DNA tests are not a constraint but an opportunity for the sponsors and applicants to prove the validity of their application17. Furthermore, they emphasize the voluntary character of the DNA tests and argue that it is up to the applicants whether they choose this option. Finally, the authorities point out that DNA evidence is only used as a last resort to establish family links, if all other possible options to verify family relatedness have been exhausted. For example, the Federal Foreign Office, which is responsible for issuing the visas for family reunification, stated in response to our inquiry that the “DNA test for family reunification is not a standard but only an exceptional case and … is only offered to the applicants if evidence relevant to the issue cannot otherwise be provided.”18

However, the results of our research indicate that DNA testing for family reunification is not an ultima ratio but a standard tool for the verification of a family relationship in immigration cases.19 The immigration authority of a major city in Germany declared in a written statement sent in response to our inquiry: “While there is no obligation for applicants even from countries with an insufficient official documentation system to prove family relation by DNA evidence, parental testing is an appropriate and frequently used tool of verification.” A senior UNHCR officer mentioned in an interview that “we observe an inflationary use of DNA analyses for family reunification for refugees from Africa and Southeast Asia.”20 Furthermore, a refugee advisor from a church information centre in a town in Germany stated that she alone had supervised more than 20 cases of Somali refugees who were asked to prove their family relations by a DNA test in the course of the family reunification procedure in 2010.

This apparent contradiction between the official statements and the findings of our research can be explained by the German legal framework for immigration. Decisions on immigration and visas have to be based on a case-by-case assessment. Therefore, authorities have no legal grounds for a comprehensive and systematic use of parental tests in family reunification cases, and even if it is a common administrative practice, they cannot officially confirm it.

If the immigration authorities do not recognize the applicant’s documents, they may “offer” him or her the option of taking a DNA test to prove a biological link to family members. As the burden of proof is always on the applicant and the test is a voluntary option, it is up to the applicants to find a suitable laboratory and organize the entire testing procedure. Once all relevant samples are in the lab it will take two to three weeks for the results to be provided to the applicant21, and this is also one of the biggest advantages of DNA testing for family reunification. Applicants often have to wait for as long as a year before their documents are checked and verified by the authorities, and it takes a very long time before they are reunited with their family members. With a DNA test, the decision is sometimes made within less than four months from the application to the final decision. This is also why immigration lawyers often advise their clients to take the test. “We, the lawyers, are quite pragmatic in this respect. It has to go fast, [and] the DNA test is helpful in this respect.”22

While the use of DNA evidence for family reunification might offer some advantages in claiming citizenship rights, it often leads to a restriction of legal claims and citizenship rights by endorsing a biological concept of the family and by refusing the right to informational self-determination to applicants for family reunification.

Biologizing the Family

The establishment of DNA testing in administrative decision-making on family reunification reduces the already narrow definition of the family in German immigration law to biological ancestry. This tendency contrasts with the social understanding and the legal framing of the family for German citizens. The routinization of divorce and remarriage and the growing legal recognition of same-sex unions have generated heterogeneous patterns of family structure and a diversity of new kin connections that are not necessarily based on biological ties. In recent years, several laws have come into force or been amended with the aim of emphasizing the social aspects of parenthood and paternity. In this perspective, parenthood is not defined in terms of biological relatedness but rather as a social relation. The Federal Court of Justice argued in a 2008 judgment that this kind of socio-familial relation exists if the legal father has been shown to be responsible for looking after the child. If this is the case, the biological father cannot question the already existing social fatherhood. This line of argumentation as used by the Federal Court of Justice has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2013.

Furthermore, married and unmarried couples have increasingly been treated equally in legal practice in the last 10 to 15 years, and with the introduction of the Life Partnership Act in 2001 same-sex unions are now legally recognized in Germany as well. In this context it has also been made easier for unmarried couples and same-sex partners to adopt stepchildren. These legislative steps also stress the family as a social relation. In a press release in 2009, the Federal Constitutional Court pointed out that “biological parenthood is not prioritized over legal and social notions of the family in the jurisdiction of the Federal Constitutional Court”23

A completely different trend can be observed in German immigration law. With the use of parental testing in decision-making on family reunification, the family is increasingly conceived of as a biological entity. Consequently, migrants will find it difficult to enter Germany if they do not adhere to the nuclear family model. For example, foster children and adopted children have serious problems reuniting with their families. According to German immigration law, no distinction shall be made between biological children and adopted children if the applicants can prove the adoption by official documentation. As German authorities consider official registration systems in the blacklisted countries to be insufficient, this claim is difficult to sustain in administrative practice.

The practice of family unification in Germany exhibits a differential treatment of native citizens and immigrants. The latter have to comply with a traditional heterosexual and biological family model in order to be officially recognized as a family in immigration cases. The problems that arise from these conflicting definitions of the family for native citizens and immigrants can be illustrated by a parental test that was carried out in a German laboratory in 2010. The application for family reunification by a man, a woman, and a girl from Somalia was turned down by the German authorities earlier that year because they questioned the authenticity of the documents provided. Thus, the applicants had to resort to a DNA test to prove their family relatedness. The test result showed that neither the putative father nor the putative mother was biologically linked to the child. In other words, the test result demonstrated that these three persons were not a family in terms of biological relatedness. However, the staff of the DNA lab were so convinced that the applicants were indeed a family, even though the result was negative, that they wrote letters to the immigration authorities arguing that the result could only be explained by an exchange of children after their birth in the hospital and that they would nevertheless advocate family reunification. It is quite remarkable that the institution that produced a test result that eliminated the possibility of a family relation, according to their own definition, still felt obliged to argue that the three persons were a “true” family. The case was reported to us by the geneticists involved in the procedure24, and their argument was clearly based on a social definition of the family.25

These different standards for family recognition exist not only in Germany but in many host countries26 As family policies in these countries generally tend to favor social notions of the family, the legal gap between native citizens and immigrants may grow wider, since for the latter group the focus is on biological relatedness, while same-sex partnerships and patchwork families are not equally recognized – a trend that is further strengthened and reinforced by the use of parental testing for family reunification.

Genetic Surveillance

The first DNA tests for family reunification in Germany were carried out in 199227. Until 2010, however, they were conducted in a legal grey area. While proofs of kinship by DNA analysis were a more or less common institutional practice in this period, they were conducted without any legal regulation. DNA testing for immigration purposes was first mentioned in the Genetic Diagnostics Law (Gendiagnostikgesetz), which came into force on February 1, 2010 and contains a section dealing solely with kinship DNA testing (Sec. 3, Paragraph 17, GenDG). The general focus of this law is on the right to informational self-determination, with the aim of protecting individuals from the abuse of their genetic information.28

However, for the use of genetic data in the context of family reunification, important legal guarantees are inoperative. First, and it almost goes without saying, the right to informational self-determination in the context of family reunification is just a formal or theoretical right. In practice, it may well be the only chance for a person actually to reunite with his/her family if the documents s/he has provided are not deemed appropriate to prove family relations. The burden of proof is on the applicant, which may force him or her to resort to a DNA test. Therefore, it might be doubted how voluntary the use of DNA analysis in this context can be if the application for family reunification will be rejected otherwise. Here, we note a remarkable parallel to forensic DNA profiling. “Persons who refuse to give a ‘voluntary’ sample (which is their legal right) attract police attention and become more suspicious as a result”29 as it is assumed that someone who rejects the “voluntary” DNA test has something to hide30

Secondly, immigrants have no right to decide what happens to the DNA profiles once the test has been carried out. They cannot demand that their genetic information be destroyed, and their data might be used for criminal prosecution purposes if there is reasonable suspicion that a criminal offence has been committed by the immigrant in question31. Their profile may be stored in a DNA database in accordance with the Prüm Convention, and this information may be exchanged among European member states for crime prevention purposes. In other words, applicants for family reunification are more likely to come under suspicion of criminal activity. While the Genetic Diagnostics Law in its entirety strengthens the right to informational self-determination for German citizens, it denies immigrants this right. In general, the legal framework for DNA testing in family reunification cases establishes an environment of mistrust towards immigrants and provides new means for surveilling them32


The use of DNA testing for family reunification creates a general “double standard” for native citizens and immigrants. It imposes a very restricted, biological definition of the family onto immigrants, undermining the varying social definitions of family forms; and immigrants are not given the same rights to the access, handling, and protection of genetic information.

On the basis of this empirical research, the very concept of biological citizenship has to be rendered more complex, in two respects. First, the existing literature too often stresses the transnational dynamics of patient organizations and support groups. We do not deny the medical significance and the societal impact of support group and patient associations for (genetic) diseases that are characterized by forms of organization and modes of communication often transgressing national borders33 However, the use of DNA tests in immigration displays the enduring relevance of biological criteria to determine who should be granted citizenship rights in a particular nation-state. It follows that there is not only a transnational dynamic to be observed, but also a continuation and re-articulation of the relation between biology and citizenship.

Secondly, the literature on biological citizenship sometimes insists that there is a decisive rupture between the eugenic projects and racialized politics of the past and the new genetics. Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas argue that biological citizenship stands for a new governmental regime which radically breaks with the eugenic and racialized past, and that there has been a shift from political rationalities directed toward the management of risk at the level of populations to the individual management of genetic risks34. In the light of our empirical study this claim has to be reconsidered. The use of DNA analysis in the context of family reunification represents a form of migration control targeted at particular populations – in Germany especially those who derive from “blacklisted countries,” mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southeast Asia. In this respect, the thesis that the use of genetic information for population control belongs to the biopolitics of the past has to be complemented or even corrected. Immigration management and border control are central domains where the “eclipsed” side of current biological citizenship materializes.35

The use of DNA tests for decision-making in the context of immigration reveals the selective format of the debate on biological citizenship. So far, this discussion has often stressed the biological body as the basis of claims about social inclusion, recognition and democratic deliberation. However, as our study demonstrates, this view of biological citizenship itself excludes important dimensions of contemporary migration regimes. The use of DNA testing in immigration policies does not signify the advent of a “molecular biopolitics”36 that finally displaces the concern with bodily features such as skin color, hair texture or eye shape. Rather, it serves to reaffirm and re-articulate “traditional” forms of classification and exclusion.37

The Committee Room and the Streets

We asked several contributors to write on the theme of the state and revolutionary strategy, for a roundtable discussion revolving around the following prompt:

“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the socialist movement spilled a great deal of ink debating the question of state power. Lenin’s work was perhaps the most influential, but it also provoked a wide range of critical responses, which were arguably equally significant. But whether or not Lenin’s conception of the correct revolutionary stance towards the state was adequate to his own particular historical conjuncture, it is clear that today the reality of state power itself has changed. What is living and what is dead in this theoretical and political legacy? What would a properly revolutionary stance towards state power look like today, and what would be the concrete consequences of this stance for a political strategy? Does the ‘seizure of state power’ still have any meaning? Does the party still have a place in these broader questions?”

Although this interview was conducted independently of the roundtable, its themes correspond so closely that we have decided to include it here. Please be sure to read all the other contributions: Panagiotis Sotiris, Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, Jodi Dean, Nina Power, Immanuel Ness.

Salar Mohandesi: The Left is slowly beginning to reassess its relationship to the State. One of the forms this has taken is a renewed interest in electoral politics – in the US, for example, with the election of Kshama Sawant, and in Europe, to take another example, with Syriza. But the return of such “pragmatic socialists” to this older tradition of Leftist electoral political strategy, it seems to me, is either implicitly or explicitly tied to a certain model of postwar social democracy. Is such a model, given how determined it was by a very specific historical conjuncture, workable today, or do you think that the moment which made such a social democratic electoralist politics possible is simply non-repeatable?

Geoff Eley: Well, it probably is non-repeatable. Because it consisted of so many contingencies of that particular period, the 1950s and 1960s – whether in terms of the Cold War alignments, whether in terms of the consequences of Marshall Aid, in terms of the international monetary system that’s created after the War, whether it’s in terms of those longer run processes of working class formation that I talk about in Forging Democracy, or in terms of Europe’s and North America’s position in the world – it is certainly non-repeatable in each of those aspects. So the idea that one could reconstitute a viable left politics by straightforwardly reappropriating the elements that were so effective in this earlier period is a non-starter. At the same time it does not mean that you cannot take some or even all of those elements – suitably rethought – and combine them in new and creative ways that can have real efficacy for the purposes of the present. You have to begin the argument now rather than in relation to then. You can’t recuperate “then” as a way of restarting “now.”

Nor does an electoralist strategy – or a politics that focuses on elections – have to translate necessarily to some close or exact equivalent of the old social democratic or communist model of public mobilization. There are all sorts of ways of using the electoral process as a vehicle, as an instrument, as a platform, as an arena in which you argue the importance of your particular kind of politics – as opposed to the electoral machinery that the Social Democratic and Communist Parties simply became. During the course of the later 20th century, the whole raison d’être of the party became reduced downwards into fighting an election, winning an election, keeping itself in office, or getting back there. But the classic slogan of the SPD left before the First World War had been Durch das Fenster reden (“Speak through the Window!”), i.e. use the parliamentary chamber as an opportunity to challenge the given rules and boundaries of the politically possible by addressing the people outside, and thereby overcome the gap between the committee room and the street. So the problem isn’t so much the bankruptcy of an electoralist politics as such, but rather the degree to which fighting elections can turn into the sole focus.

The challenge now is to think of viable political purposes and objectives in other ways. So how can you acquire a voice of significance, so that you are actually inside the conversations that determine how policy gets made, or how can you use local concentrations of strength in order to ensure the delivery of services and public goods in effective and just ways. Which then become, actually, the bases for political argument themselves. When people can see that something is actually doable, and may even work, then that’s how movements actually acquire momentum.

Historically speaking, there are lots of examples of a movement or a party, oftentimes on a very local basis, using the opportunities for political voice in order to build solidarities, create continuities over time, that were not simply subsumed under the electoral strategy of a labor party or an SPD at a deradicalized, national level.

So you are saying that elections can still be used as an instrument in struggle.

Yes. It seems to me to be self-defeatingly ultra-left to ignore elections completely. Politics has to begin from the already existing points of access – not least because that’s where the majority of people understand politics to be located. So, democratically speaking, it seems self-defeating just to ignore elections or relegate them to purely instrumental or tactical importance. I mean, obviously there will be occasions, and situations, where you may not want to prioritize your politics around an electoral campaign, but, in principle, it seems to be foolish not to acknowledge that this is where political practice has to occur.

It seems, though, that the example you are drawing on is really of a parliamentary system where it is possible to make coalitions. What about the United States, where the strategic options are rather limited in that you may win at the municipal level, but when you move higher up, it becomes less feasible. So what do you think about the American electoral system?

Well, that does feel like an intractable problem at the moment. I mean, the whole polity is broken, in my view. And not least in how its national instances really don’t work. Nothing seems to work anymore. Nor is there any sign of real possibility of significant electoral reform, it seems to me. This is a state that is completely mired in its own inefficiencies, incompetencies, dysfunctionalities. Now that does not mean you have to abandon congressional elections. But how else do you imagine an effective left politics with some popular, democratic appeal and traction?

I think it has to be city by city and state by state. It has to be built from the ground. There are currently some interesting instances of this, like the minimum wage campaign, which is both a real issue with enormous potential and appeal, and, just in terms of building popular openness and sympathy for a different set of policies, it seems to be doable on a city-by-city basis. And there is a sort of rolling effect to that kind of politics. Something that can accumulate and aggregate. So long as you keep realistic expectations, and an understanding that it has to be a politics of the long haul.

This actually leads into another question. Beyond elections, and you’ve written about this extensively, these parties were really rooted in the everyday lives of masses of people. So there was a kind of reciprocal relationship between the electoral struggle and politicizing everyday life, in the sense that the Italian Communist Party, for example, could at one point have been described as a kind of society within society. Today, for a number of reasons, it seems that way of doing politics is gone. So why do you think that has vanished? Can that happen again?

My way of answering that question is to build up an argument about its conditions of viability in the past. And there is this old article from the 1980s, which I think was by Peter Stearns, called “The Effort at Continuity in Working-Class Culture,” something like that. The idea is crucial. So in order to ensure that fragmentary, decentralized, and quite explosive instances of popular political mobilization are not just that, but create efficacies over time, you need to have answers to that very question: how do you create continuities in working-class culture over time? On the one hand, those Social Democratic and Communist Parties were remarkably successful in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century in accomplishing those important starting conditions for what you describe. How do you build identification with your particular kind of politics that lasts over time?

My way of answering that question has been to look at the process of the emergence of those conditions. It has everything to do with building of communities around those concentration points, growth of the parties around them, and especially including the incremental and steadily accumulating conquest of local government. Because it’s once you start building influence and eventually taking control over local governments that you can gain access to those resources that can begin making a difference in people’s lives, especially in the provision of services and public employment. Jobs. Municipal socialism was created out of an infrastructure of resources and access of that kind in a period when other goods were disbursed from the central state through local government. Now that’s what characterized the political strength of the Socialist and Communist Parties in the early twentieth century, which then carried over into the 1950s, 1960s, and even to some extent the 1970s, and that is what is gone. That’s what has been dismantled at every level. Most importantly via deindustrializtion, reorganization of labor markets, and so on and so forth. And also suburbanization and the dismantlement of local government in the 1970s and 1980s, so that local government does not exist in the old way any more as a source of services, employment, and other resources.

So, backtracking a bit to the point where I mentioned the minimum wage campaign, and city-by-city successes: until the 1980s, cities, especially in Europe, had hugely more resources than they do now in terms of their ability to have a real effect on employment, services, and housing. Well, if I’m not mistaken about the American case, one of the most important and destructive outcomes of the Reagan administration, was essentially to dismantle that system of federal subsidy and funding to cities. There’s been a systematic privatization in relation to federal and state governments as well. This was dramatically the case in Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. The Thatcher and Major governments basically abolished local government democracy in Britain – at a time when the Left’s principle strength in Britain was in those metropolitan councils, in the Greater London Council (GLC), and other forms of local and regional government. So that in the course of the 1970s there was a steady erosion of the resources local government had available to it. Until Thatcher, whose momentum actually grew from the rightwing grassroots backlash of the 1970s, the principal form of local taxation in Britain was based in the so-called local government rates, the equivalent of property taxes. Building during the 1970s, there was a constant drumbeat of right-wing campaigning against rates as the form of local property tax that essentially funded most sorts of local government services. Systematic efforts on the part of the right to force local governments in the early 1970s to cap the rates was the UK equivalent of the successful campaign for Proposition 13 (1978) in California in the 1970s, which then continued into the Thatcher era in a radicalized form, resulting in the effective dismantlement of funding for local government, the dependence of local government spending on approval from central government, and finally the abolition of any strong basis for local government democracy.

To my mind, that removed one of the essential elements in that historical formation previously enabling the earlier form of left politics to accomplish so much. So it’s easier to answer that question that it is to answer the big one, the one about the present, which is: how do you build something that can acquire and demonstrate that same kind of political efficacy. I think it’s really hard. And you can only imagine doing it from the ground up, but without the kind of resources that this kind of politics was able to take advantage of earlier in the twentieth century. If movements can be built over the longer term, piece by piece and city by city, then maybe that can assemble the foundations for returning to a kind of strong public sector. Who knows? But for a viable Left politics, that’s what you need, it seems to me. You need to be able to reward the political activism based in communities with real gains in terms of resources, services, and some practical and tangible sense that it makes a difference.

You’ve said a lot about local politics, what about politics at the national level? Also, when you had local governments with resources that could be used by socialist movements, you also had a certain configuration of the nation-state, and the state operating within a certain conception of the nation, so that socialist movements could actually put pressure on national governments to win certain things. How has that changed, in the sense that the state configuration that allowed these kinds of socialist and communist movements to function seem to be different?

Circumstances now are profoundly different. Well, that’s partly a result of those processes of privatization that we’ve talked about already. I mean, they have essentially gutted the ability of national government to provide the social services and public goods that characterized the Keynesian welfare state in that heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, which I do think was a very exceptional time. So how has national government changed? An answer has to begin from neoliberalism, and the triumph of that set of politics. There’s also another factor: the redistribution of sovereignties away from a strong national state model and towards a globalized, transnationalized, far more complex system of sovereignty in the world, which complicates, compromises, and seriously reduces and impedes the abilities of national governments to undertake an ambitious program of progressive reform, whether it’s in the form of the IMF-World Bank complex of global institutions, whether it’s the EU, whether it’s the various international trade agreements in North American terms, or in a variety of other ways too, including the brute power of multinational globalized corporations, the leeway available to national governments is obviously seriously compromised relative to earlier moments in the twentieth century.

And certainly national governments believe they don’t have the latitude anymore – and when I say national governments, I mean the civil services, other bureaucracies, and whichever parties that have come into office. All of them are constantly speaking and having to speak in this language of limited capability. Whether it’s in relation to revenue or whether it’s in terms of what government can legitimately be expected to do in relation to society. For 25 years the language of government has been all about the reduction of government. More and more functions of government are displaced away from the state and are subcontracted to types of profit-making organization, whether it’s the health services, prisons, schools or any other institutional sector, and so the single most important priority for any Left, whether in terms of its principled basis for politics or its access to potential popular support, is to start making arguments again, with real conviction and real traction, arguments that can be really effective, about public goods, social goods. During the 1990s and 2000s, the ability to make those arguments in the public sphere was disastrously destroyed. There was no space for that language in politics anymore.

But even if we succeed in changing the language to speak more of public goods, to talk of a commons, and also of social rights, like a guaranteed social wage, what if the state materially cannot grant that any longer? Perhaps social democracy in after the Second World War could only do this because of a very unique conjuncture – reconstruction, imperialism, and so on. So even if we change the discourse, is this model still materially possible?

It seems to me that it becomes possible if resources are imagined differently than now. I mean it is completely impossible for the state, in its present form, to provide those kinds of social services and public goods, and that kind of interventionist, forward policy, in relation to social justice, if you assume the same resource base. Once you start returning to different ideas, like a rational system of redistributive taxation or the creation of resources through a graduated taxation system, then those possibilities necessarily begin to change and return.

Sometimes this is actually not very difficult. One interesting example is Norway. Well, in Norway they decided to put the revenues from oil into public trust, as opposed to, say, spending them all, which is more or less what happened in Britain under Thatcher. That’s established a protected social fund in fact, from which the Norwegian government is, I think, constitutionally prevented from spending the capital. It is from that fund the Norwegian government finances many of its policies. That’s kind of an easy thing. So long as you’ve got an ideal of the good of the whole society at the center of the thinking around which politics is organized, other associated arguments and claims can then be more easily made. Well, there’s nothing remotely like that in this country.

There has always historically been an uneasy relationship between electoral strategies and militant, on-the-street, extraparliamentary struggles. In some ways these two tendencies enabled each other (the Russian and German revolutions after many years of parliamentary activity by the parties on the one hand, and perhaps the election of Sawant after Occupy on the other). How have socialists historically tried to link up these two tendencies, and what might be the nature of this relationship in the future?

This brings us back to the original starting point of this conversation: how do you try to connect the activism and forms of necessary direct-action militancy on the ground with the conventional places where “legitimate” political action and debate are normally deemed to be taking place (in parliaments; city and local government chambers; election campaigns; the recognized public sphere of newspapers and TV)? How do you make those connections, especially when the “extraparliamentary” and the “parliamentary” commonly treat each other as beyond the pale? On the one hand, the advocates of on-the-street militancy easily develop a kind of purist intransigence, in a confrontationalism that can’t see either the practical purpose or the defensible ethics of coalitioning with mainstream party elements, because that kind of collaboration always leads to sellout or compromise, with effects that demoralize and demobilize the energies that first got people and their demands moving in the first place. On the other hand, those progressives who’ve been working away inside the existing left-wing parties, often with tremendous idealism and patience and with lots of genuine sacrifices, can’t see the point of trying to talk to the activists and bring them along, whether because of their own prejudices or from fear of alienating their “legitimate” allies in the center and right. This kind of gap has become all the harder to bridge as the former socialist parties have moved further and further to the right under the contemporary neoliberal hegemony, while any remaining democracy in the national polities has become more and more hollowed out. The old left-wing parties, from the British Labour Party through the SPD to the Italian Democratic Party or any other evolved forms of the Socialist and Communist left, are now rarely anything more than mildly left-of-center in their orientation. So why should activists on the street ever see the latter as potential sources of alliance in the first place? With all of the differences between the respective contexts, this same kind of argument can also be applied in principle to the US and the Democratic Party too.

It’s very tempting to shoehorn this problem into the old adversarial framework of “revolution” versus “reform.” Leaving aside the more extreme case of an insurrectionary politics (whose conditions of possible success profoundly changed between 1917 and 1968, in my view), a confrontational type of Left politics (extraparliamentary, direct-action) now has to face very unfavorable circumstances, in which the forces of the state and political order more generally are lined up against such radicalism and its chances of succeeding, and – just as key – large sections of society are just not willing even to imagine such radical challenges to the system. In fact, the usual dynamics work precisely against the possibility of building majoritarian support for such challenges, and rather tend to isolate the radical groupings instead. In fact, outside the much rarer exceptional situations (the very biggest crises), the Left builds support for itself by persuasion, campaigning, and all the continuities of organization we associate with successful social movements, and this process requires respect for the rights and entitlements provided by the democratic system, however imperfect the latter may be. The ability of the Left to broaden its support outwards from the core constituencies, with the hope of building sufficient confidence across social groupings that might allow it to start speaking credibly and legitimately for society as a whole (and simultaneously to forestall the emergence of reactionary coalitions, e.g. in the form of a military coup), necessitates a practical and principled respect for democratic process and procedures. Moreover, when existing democratic goods are in danger (whether the more specific democratic gains made in earlier periods or the constitution, civil liberties, and the rule of law per se), the priority of building the broadest possible popular support for democratic goals becomes all the more vital. (I should say, parenthetically, that this is a very deliberately “Gramscian” way of coming at the question.)

The priority of preserving democratic freedoms at the level of the polity (in terms of the constitution, parliamentary process, civil liberties, the rule of law, regional and local government, and whatever social policies and public goods can be protected and even enhanced) has in some ways become harder and harder to see, let alone accomplish, because the state and the powers of government have become ever-further removed from accountability. A key part of his has also been the strengthening of the state’s police powers, whether in the forms and extent of the security apparatus and its coercive technologies, the accepted practices of policing, the criminalizing of protest and dissent, the relentless expansion of the carceral state, or the degree of tolerance in the public sphere for violence exercised by police and security apparatuses. All of these now accepted ways of “policing the crisis” make it both all the more important to defend the classic civil freedoms and all the more difficult to achieve. But however hard it’s become, the case for holding on to the democratic rights gained under the law seems to me to outweigh the arguments for maintaining a “purist” commitment to more radical policies that focus only on transforming the system (where the “system” means capitalism plus liberal democracy).

At the same time, this question needs always to be judged carefully in relation to the “present conjuncture” (a good Marxist term!). For example, where crises are quite finely balanced, whether because of the economy or more contingent political crises (or both), it may well be necessary for the Left to undertake more militant confrontational actions in order to ensure that the situation doesn’t start slipping beyond its influence or control. It’s not hard to think of historical cases of this kind where democratic goods are perilously under threat – e.g. Weimar Germany in the summer and autumn of 1932, or France in early 1937, or Italy after the assassination attempt on Togliatti in 1948, or Chile in 1972-73 – and the usual pattern is for the Left to fail to step decisively up to the mark, although of course the circumstances are also always incredibly complex and ambiguous and full of risks and dangers. It may be useful to think of the recent (and still continuing) crises of democracy in Venezuela, Ecuador, and other countries of Central and South America in this way. So in other words, there are certainly circumstances where democratic criteria require a different type of strategy – i.e. one based on militant and even insurrectionary actions rather than the broadest-based coalition-building through elections. But now, realistically speaking, the Left is usually nowhere near as strongly placed any more to imagine mounting that kind of militantly mobilized massed defense of democratic goods. The practical ground of politics has become more defensive, more strategic, and more dependent on the building of coalitions. Until mass mobilizations have been building over a much longer period, with a huge shift of broader popular sympathies inside then public sphere, any effort at pressing direct-action beyond certain carefully strategized limits is likely to meet with a ferocious and unstoppable police response.

In Forging Democracy I tried to show how the most successful democratic movements have always combined electoral and parliamentary with social movement and extraparliamentary strategies – that is to say, all the ways in which “the committee room” and “the streets” need to be moved into acting together. I’ve argued that in the European present, these two aspects of democratic politics have been broken apart as the result of long-term processes of social, cultural, and political change going back to the 1950s and 1960s, whose consequences the recent centrist deradicalizing of social democratic parties has so successfully ratified. There’s now very little connection at all between the parliamentary parties and the grassroots or the more elemental democracy of “the streets.” So the goal has to be one of patiently trying to build up the kind of political trust that can allow each of these necessary spheres of action to be brought into believable and productive relations again. In the US the severity of the difficulties seems all the greater, as the national Democratic Party has never come close to functioning in the same way as the old European Socialist and Communist Parties. But we can find some rough equivalents of the kind of dynamics I’ve been describing – e.g. the peak of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power/Black Panther politics that followed, along with the forms of social movement politics developing out of the late 1960s into the 1970s, whose history is still waiting to be properly rehabilitated. The two Jesse Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988 provide a very good ground for thinking about how these processes of articulation between the street and the committee room can occur. And again: we can see this happening most clearly when we look city by city.

What I’m suggesting involves an underlying argument about how political change usually occurs, based on my historian’s understanding of the later 19th and 20th centuries and a Gramscian approach to political practice influenced over many years by feminist theory and thinkers like Stuart Hall and Ernesto Laclau. It’s an approach that can be applied to all sorts of particular movements and situations, as well as to the larger-scale conundrum of how to develop an overall political strategy for imagining macro-political change. One very concrete example from the contemporary U.S., as I mentioned earlier, would be the current drive for an improved minimum wage, which has been proceeding most effectively on a city-by-city basis, with important articulations between grassroots activism and allies inside parties, assemblies, and administrations, and with cumulative effects across different places that potentially begin to redraw the terms of the overall political climate. In other words, social movement politics of this kind can be shaped in such a way as to outgrow the localism of its immediate context and take on a much wider efficacy and resonance. And at that point it becomes incredibly important that there be a Left that’s active on a larger-than-local level too – spatially across a region or in chains of coordination across other cities elsewhere, in the multiple contexts of publicness (electronic media, internet, and blogosphere as well as press, radio, and TV), in national parliaments and assemblies via parties and the constellations of NGOs, pressure groups, and campaigning organizations, in the transnationally active versions of all these forms of coaltioning, and so forth. It’s precisely in this way, it seems to me, that the environmental movements have built up their collective political agency during the past several decades, both mobilizing action and everyday awareness at the local level and campaigning for change in the national and global institutional scenes of policy-making, in ways that increasingly aggregate to a critically effective set of political capacities. Given the degree to which climate change will be shaping not just the possibilities for policy at the level of states, but all of the practical details of the quality of life all the way down to the ground in societies, it becomes incredibly important that we make ourselves as conscious and experienced as possible in these ways of understanding political practice.

The Deep State: Germany, Immigration, and the National Socialist Underground

Nearly three years ago, in November 2011, news of a double suicide after a failed bank robbery developed into one of the biggest scandals in postwar German history.1 Even now, it remains unresolved. For thirteen years the two dead men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, had lived underground, together with a woman, Beate Zschäpe. The three were part of the National-Sozialistischer Untergrund (NSU), a fascist terror organization which is supposed to have murdered nine migrant small entrepreneurs in various German towns and a female police officer, and to have been responsible for three bomb attacks and around fifteen bank hold-ups. Although the NSU did not issue a public declaration, the connection between the nine murders committed between 2000 and 2006 as obvious: the same weapon was used each time, a Ceska gun.

At the time they were called “doner murders” (as in doner kebab) and the police called their special investigation team “Bosphorus.”2 Nearly all the police departments working on the murders focused mainly on the victims and their alleged involvement in “organized crime,” the drug trade, etc. Not only was it eventually revealed that the murderers were organized Nazis, but that the killers had been supported by some branches of the state apparatus and the search for the murderers had been systematically obstructed. As one famous public television news presenter said: “One fact is established: the perpetrators could have been stopped and the murders could have been prevented.” She also voiced “the outrageous suspicion that perhaps they were not supposed to be stopped.” The final report of the parliamentary investigation committee of the Thuringia state parliament, published in August 2014, stated a “suspicion of targeted sabotage or conscious obstruction” of the police search. The Verfassungsschutz (VS, the German domestic secret service) had “at least in an indirect fashion protected the culprits from being arrested.”

Since the supposed double suicide on the November 4, 2011, the intelligence services, the interior ministries of the federal and central state, and the BKA collaborated to cover tracks, just as they had collaborated before to keep the existence of the NSU from becoming publicly known. One day before the connection between the NSU and the last bank robbery was publicly announced, a consultation in the chancellery took place. Since then, the investigation has been systematically obstructed by the destruction of files, lies, and the refusal to surrender evidence. In the current criminal case against the alleged sole survivor of the NSU (Beate Zschäpe) and five supporters at the higher regional court in Munich, the public prosecutor wants it to be believed that the series of terror acts were the work of three people (“the Trio”) and a small circle of sympathizers. “The investigations have found no indication of the participation of local third parties in the attacks or any of organizational integration with other groups.” But it is clear that the NSU was much larger and had a network all over Germany. And it is highly unlikely that the two dead men were the only perpetrators.

Research on the NSU has shown that the VS had the organized fascists under surveillance the whole time, without passing its information on to the police. It had many Confidential Informants (CIs)3 in leading positions in the fascist structures – or rather, the CIs even built up large parts of these structures. It is very unlikely that the secret services acted without consultation with the government – but it is certain that we will never find any written order. Sometimes public prosecutors and leading police officials were included in the cover-up. For example, the current President – at the time Vice-President – of the Landeskriminalamt (LKA) or Criminal Police Offices of Thuringia ordered his police in 2003 to “go out there, but don’t find anything!” after receiving a tip about Böhnhardt’s whereabouts.

Obviously the German state apparatus has erected a (new?) parallel structure that operates in accordance with government policies and out of the reach of parliamentary or legal control. The National-Sozialistischer Untergrund was a flagship project of this “deep state,” supporting the new policy towards migrants that started in 1998 at the instigation of Otto Schily, then Interior Minister. Since the NSU became known to the public, this apparatus has even been financially and operationally strengthened.

The NSU complex gives us a glimpse of the way the German state functions, and can therefore sharpen our criticism of the capitalist state. This is of international relevance for two reasons. First, many countries, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Morocco, and Russia, have recently seen mobilization, pogroms, and violence against migrants. In a weaker form this has also happened in Germany, and as usual one can see a pattern: the government stirs up hatred, fascists take action (there have been at least five arson attacks in the first half of 2014). Second, many states are preparing militarily for mass strikes and social unrest. In accordance with an operational scheme that has shaped interior policies in many Western countries since the Second World War, state institutions make use of paramilitary fascist structures. A recent example is the relation between the Greek security apparatus and the fascist Golden Dawn.4

The Background: The State Lays the Ground for Racism

In October 1982 the new German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Margaret Thatcher in a confidential conversation that he wanted to reduce the number of Turks in Germany by half within four years. They were “impossible to assimilate in their present number.” A few months before this conversation his predecessor Schmidt blared: “I won’t let any more Turks cross the border.” In October 1983, the government passed a repatriation grant. In the following years, the Christian Democrats (CDU) began a debate about the alleged rampant abuse of the asylum law. Although hate was stirred against “gypsies,” “negroes,” and others, in its core this racism was always aimed against “the Turks,” the largest group of immigrants. Kohl made this clear in his conversation with Thatcher: “Germany does not have a problem with the Portuguese, the Italians, not even the Southeast Asians, because all these communities are well integrated. But the Turks, they come from a very different culture.”5

Already in the second half of the 1980s, this government policy was accompanied by Nazi attacks on foreigners. After German reunification this process culminated in the racist pogroms of Rostock-Lichtenhagen in August 1992.6 Less than four months later, the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) agreed to abolish the right of asylum almost completely.

The state racism was bloody, but it was not quantitatively successful in deporting large numbers or discouraging immigration. At the beginning of Kohl’s Chancellery there were 4.6 million foreigners in Germany; when it ended in 1998 there were 7.3 million. Consequently, interior policy focused on “police penetration” of “parallel societies” after the Rostock pogroms and especially under the Schröder government. Interior minister Kanther and his successor Schily imposed the definition of immigration as “criminally organized” throughout Europe. This policy, too, was primarily directed not against “newcomers” but against the “Turks” who already live here. Small businesses owned by migrants are generally suspected of involvement in organized crime. Even before 9/11, the financial transactions and phone calls of whole communities were screened and analyzed on suspicion of organized crime and trafficking. In particular, the investigations targeted small businesses frequented by large numbers of people: coffee shops, internet cafes, kiosks, and so forth. From these places migrants can transfer money to another country without the involvement of banks, using the Hawala system.7 “Police penetration” reached its climax with the search for the Ceska killers: the “BOA Bosphorus” organized the largest dragnet among migrant communities in the history of Germany: massive surveillance of phone calls, mobile phones, money transfers, hotel bookings, rental car use, etc.

The Nazis

Although the global economic crisis of the early 1990s reached Germany a bit later than elsewhere because of the “reunification boom,” it was relatively more severe. Unemployment doubled, “floodgates opened wide” in the factories. The unions supported the crisis policy of employers with new collective agreements to ensure “job security” and company agreements implementing “working time accounts” over a full year. The workers were left alone in their defensive struggles, even though some were quite militant and creative. The (radical) Left was preoccupied with the struggle against fascism and racism. They no longer analysed racism as a governmental policy, but as a “popular passion.” Anyone who tries to fight against ethnic racism in all its shades but omits the dimension of social racism remains toothless at best: in the worst case s/he becomes an agent of state racism.8 Jacques Rancière described it this way: “The racism we have today is a cold racism, an intellectual construction. It is primarily a creation of the state… [It is] a logic of the state and not a popular passion. And this state logic is primarily supported not by, who knows what, backward social groups, but by a substantial part of the intellectual elite.” Rancière concludes that the “‘Leftist’ critique” has adopted the “same conceit” as the right wing (“racism is a popular passion” which the state has to fight with increasingly tougher laws). They “build the legitimacy of a new form of racism: state racism and ‘Leftist’ intellectual racism.”9 After that shift, there was a strong tendency for antifascist activities to focus on the socially deprived and their primitive racism, and the state became increasingly attractive as an ally. From the mid-90s onward, it funded most of these anti-racist initiatives. All these changes were completed by the self-disarming of most of the radical Left, which started adopting the aim of “strengthening civil society” at the same time as it removed all references to class struggle.

The most important NSU members were born in the mid-1970s in East Germany and were politically socialized in the “asylum debate” in the early 90s. It was a phase of massive de-industrialization and high unemployment in the East of Germany. The young Nazis learned that they could use violence against migrants and leftist youth without being prosecuted by the state. They realized that they could change society through militant action.

In West Germany a new youth culture grew in the ’80s as well: right-wing skinheads. The skinhead scene in the East and in the West was held together by alcohol, excessive violence, concerts, and the distribution of illegal videos and CDs. This music business allowed them to set up their own financing. Still, a large part of their money was organized through petty crime. From the beginning, many Nazis were involved in prostitution, and arms and drug trafficking. Later they became heavily involved with biker gangs and security firms, which are booming due to the the privatization of state functions.

In the mid-90s various militant groups and other groups from the rightwing music scene united under the banner of the Blood & Honour network (B&H).10 Soon after the German Nazi scene organized internationally, making contacts worldwide and building an infrastructure that stretched from CD production to arms dealing and shooting ranges. At that time the police could no longer countenance Nazi violence, and the Nazis had to hide their actions. In that context, the B&H/Combat 18 concept of clandestine struggle and small, independent terrorist groups (“leaderless resistance”) helped them reorganize.

In the former East German state of Thuringia, the Nazi scene was built up by “Freie Kameradschaften,”11 the Thüringer Heimatschutz (THS),12 Blood & Honour, and the Ku Klux Klan. This is the environment that gave birth to the National-Sozialistischer Untergrund. The “Kameradschaft Jena” consisted of Ralf Wohlleben, Holger Gerlach, André Kapke, Böhnhardt, Mundlos, and Zschäpe. From 1995 onwards they were filed as “rightwing extremists” in the VS Information System. Organized in the THS, they practised the use of explosives and firearms, and committed their first attacks. The other members of the “Kameradschaft Jena” remained active in the scene after the Trio went underground in 1998. And they supported their comrades: Holger Gerlach gave them his driver’s licence, passport, and birth certificate, and he rented motorhomes for them. Kapke and Wohlleben organized weapons and passports. Those two organized the largest right-wing rock festival in Germany and maintained international contacts. In 1998 Wohlleben became a member of the NPD, the largest neo-Nazi party at the time. Over time he became its deputy chairman in Thuringia. With the help of this network, Böhnhart, Mundlos and Zschäpe could move underground and commit their attacks, probably with local support.

The Informants System

The German State is directly involved in organized fascist structures. But the direct and extensive involvement in the Thüringer Heimatschutz and the National-Sozialistischer Untergrund stands out. In and around these groups the VS positioned more than two dozen Confidential Informants, or CIs. These CIs were not used to catch violent Nazis like the Trio, instead they organized the militant Nazi scene in Germany, developing it ideologically and militarily. The VS recruited mostly very young fascists and made them into leaders of the scene. In an internal document of 1997, the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Criminal Police Office, or the BKA) called these CIs “incendiaries” in the Nazi scene.13 It saw “the danger that the CIs egged each other on to bigger actions” and found it questionable “whether some actions would have happened without the innovative activities of the CIs.” There are many statements by former CIs descriving how they discussed their political actions with their handlers. In some of those cases the handlers prevented their CIs from leaving the scene or told them to appear more aggressive. For the German intelligence agencies, maintaining CIs is more important than law enforcement. They protected them from the police in multiple cases so that they could operate undisturbed. In the mid-90s there was a brief debate about this problem, because it became known that CIs of the German intelligence agencies fought and killed as mercenaries in the Yugoslavian civil war.

In 1996 the Federal Interior Ministry began Operation Rennsteig: the Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz (BfV, federal domestic secret service), Militärischer Abschirmdienst (MAD, German military intelligence agency), and local VS agencies of Thuringia and Bavaria coordinated their intelligence activities relating to the THS and the NSU, at least until 2003. They discussed the recruitment of informants but also how they could achieve discursive hegemony within “civil society.” Operation Rennsteig marks a turning point in German interior policy, which really took hold when Otto Schily, a former ’60s student radical and defense lawyer of the Red Army Faction, became interior minister in 1998. There was an unseen extension of the security apparatus and an adjustment of the focus of the intelligence agencies. To adapt themselves to the new international constellation (Yugoslavian wars, the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993), they centralized the German intelligence structure and unified the handling of the Nazi scene. In this process they also expanded intelligence activities within the Nazi scene. All this happened at the same time as the shift in “foreigners policy” from the attempt at “reduction” under Kohl to the “fight against parallel societies in our midst” under Schily.

Everyone involved in Operation Rennsteig knew that it was an explosive and not entirely legal operation. Most of the files concerning recruitment and handling were incomplete, some CIs were not even registered. Between November 12, 2011 and the summer of 2012, 310 case files were destroyed in the BfV alone. They tried to destroy everything connected with Operation Rennsteig, CI “Tarif,” and other important CIs around the NSU. Again, the commands were coming from the top of the hierarchy. A few days after the first destruction of files, the Federal Interior Ministry gave the order to continue the destruction. Not only did they destroy physical files, they also manipulated computer files and deleted the phone data of CIs in contact with the NSU.

Who Was in Control?

When more and more high-level CIs in the NSU’s immediate environment were exposed, they began to tell the fairy tale of “CIs out of control.” This was just the secret service’s next smokescreen, after such cover stories as “we didn’t know anything” and “we were badly coordinated” collapsed when Operation Rennsteig became publicly known. It is a lie, but many on the Left believe it because it fits into their picture that “the Nazis can do what they want with the state.” It is therefore worth taking a closer look at this point.

Who are CIs? The services usually try to recruit people with problems: prison, debts, and personal crises. These people then receive an allowance that can amount to a normal monthly income for important CIs. CIs get support for their political actions and warnings before a house search. On the other hand, there is a lot of control: surveillance of all telephones, tracking of movements, sometimes direct shadowing. In order to crosscheck the reports, the VS runs more CIs than it would otherwise need. Time and again there are meetings of Nazi cadres with four or five CIs sitting around the table. There were several CIs within the NSU structure who did not know about each other. The great majority of them did what the VS wanted them to do — passing on information, betraying everything and everyone, while also directly supporting armed struggle by providing passports, logistics, propaganda and weapons.

Some examples of CIs in the NSU structure:

Tino Brandt, the chief of the THS, was the best paid CI of the Thuringia VS from 1994 to 2001; he helped the Trio go underground, and afterward provided passports and money.
Thomas Starke (LKA CI in Berlin from 2000 to 2011) organized weapons and the Trio’s first hideout, and he delivered explosives before they went underground. He gave clues as to where they could be found in 2002, but these were “not investigated.”
Thomas Richter was CI “Corelli” for the BfV from 1994 to 2012; after this became public he was kept hidden by the agency and was found dead in April 2014. He had “immediate contact” with Mundlos as early as 1995, and was the link between the NSU and the KKK and co-founder of the anti-antifa.
Andreas Rachhausen – “GP Alex” – brought back the getaway car the three had used for going underground in January 1998, when Rachhausen was already a CI.
Ralf Marschner was CI “Primus” for the BfV from 1992 until about 2001. He rented motorhomes through his building company at exactly the time when two of the murders occurred.
Carsten Szczepanski tried to build up a German branch of the KKK in the early 1990s, while monitored by the VS. Between 1993 and 2000, he was imprisoned for a brutal attempted murder. In prison he co-edited the Nazi magazine “Weißer Wolf” (White Wolf), which propagated the concept of leaderless resistance and sent greetings “to the NSU” even then. He became a CI in prison. For his work he received many prison privileges (besides lots of money). He supplied much information, for example that Jan Werner had organized the Trio’s weapons. Immediately after his release he tried to set up a terror cell like Combat 18. When his cover blew in 2000, the VS got him a new identity and sent him abroad.
Michael von Dolsperg, (formerly See), a member of Combat 18, close to the THS. From 1995 to 2001 he was a BfV CI with the code name “Tarif.” He was rewarded with at least 66,000 D-Mark. After 1994 he was editor of the magazine “Sonnebanner,” which proposed “going underground” and “forming independent cells.” We know that some of its articles were discussed by Mundlos, Böhnhardt, Zschäpe and their close contacts. Dolsperg produced a total of 19 issues. In an interview he claimed that “the BfV got all issues in advance.”14 This is not the only case where the VS partly financed and “fine-tuned” the contents of a Nazi magazine. In Thuringia, the VS was consulted for anti-antifascist leaflets and did the proofreading.15 In 1998 Kapke asked Dolsperg if he could provide housing for the Trio in hiding. Dolpsberg refused after his handler advised him to do so.
Parallel to the story about “CIs out of control,” the intelligence agencies created another one: “too much chaos in the intelligence apparatus.” To support this legend they put on display all the internal conflicts between the various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, cases of “conflicting authorities” and the competition between different agencies. One highpoint was the scandal around Roewer, the former President of the local VS agency in Thuringia.16 All this show of confusion was used to make the NSU a pretext for the enhancement of the security apparatus.

1998: The So-called Disappearance of the Underground

In January 1998, the LKA found pipe bombs and explosives in a garage rented by Zschäpe in Jena. The VS had known about these explosives all along. Nonetheless, Böhnhardt was able to leave undisturbed in his car during the raid. It took days until the police issued a warrant for the Trio because all those responsible were on sick leave, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. Obviously they wanted the Trio to go underground. Already in November 2011, the famous German feuilletonist Nils Minkmar described the nature of the “underground” as follows: “They didn’t have to hide very deep, it was more like snorkeling in a bathtub: They used to have a social life in Zwickau, kept in contact with a wide circle of supporters and attended demonstrations, concerts and other events. Many did know where the three were hiding. And if the right wing scene in Germany has a problem, it is certainly not that it is extremely sealed off, but that it is heavily interspersed with CIs.” In fact, today we know that the three operated in an environment that was structured and monitored by the VS; most of their main supporters were CIs. After searching the garage, the police even found two address lists belonging to Mundlos containing 50 names, including at least five CIs.17 The lists displayed the national network of the NSU, with contacts in Chemnitz, Jena, Halle, Rostock, Nuremberg, Straubing, Regensburg, Ludwigsburg. Officially, the police never analyzed the lists or used them for investigation purposes!

2000: The Extremism Doctrine and the Beginning of the Murders

Two and a half years later, on September 9, 2000, the Ceska murders began with the death of Enver Simsek. In early summer the BfV had informed the interior ministry that “a few groups” were trying to get the “structure and the equipment” to “attack certain targets.” These groups were especially active in the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony. The BfV also kept an eye on the Trio — after they went underground they were closely watched by the unit for right-wing terrorism (!). Nevertheless the BfV claimed that these small Nazi groups had “no political concept for armed struggle,” although they actively propagated such concepts by supporting newspapers such as the “Sonnenbanner.” Federal Interior Minister Schily used this information to make a press statement in which he warned of the “danger of Antifa actions radicalizing individual right-wing extremists. These militant right-wing extremists or small groups could decide to retaliate.”

The strategy was to build up fascist structures and to blame the radical left for their existence in the public discourse, employing the extremism doctrine.18 The film Youth Extremism in the Heart of Germany, made by the Thuringian VS in May 2000, is a clear example. At the beginning it states that fascist and antifascist “scenes need each other, they cannot live without each other” and that “violence as a means to an end is accepted in the left-wing scene.” It describes the fascists with the usual clichés: unemployed, uneducated, disorganized, committing crimes when drunk. Roewer, the president of the VS, explains the high number of right offenses “solely with the fact that scrawling swastikas, roaring Sieg Heil … are offenses in Germany … because of that the statistics appear very high with over 1,000 crimes per year, but nearly all are propaganda offences.” The THS is mentioned positively, Kapke and Tino Brandt are allowed to speak: “the Anti-Antifa Ostthüringen was formed in response to violence from the left, to bring those perpetrators to light,” and “We are representatives of the National Democratic Party of Germany in Jena … We are fundamentally opposed to violence.”

2003-2005: The Manhunt is Discontinued; Bomb Attack in Cologne

In 2003 four immigrants from Turkey had already been killed. Evidence piled up that the murders could have a right-wing extremist background. In March 2003 the Italian secret service gave the VS evidence of a network of European Nazis that prepared murders of immigrants. The FBI had analysed the murders and regarded “hatred of Turks” as a motive for the murders. In Baden-Württemberg CI “Erbse” revealed that there was a Nazi group called NSU and one member was called “Mundlos:” the handler was advised to destroy this information. It was decided to let the Trio disappear.

In June 2004, a nail bomb exploded in the Keupstraße in Cologne. The attack resembled other right-wing attacks, for example the London nail bombings by the Nazi David Copeland five years earlier. But the Federal Interior Minister Schily announced two days later: “The findings of our law enforcement agencies do not indicate a terrorist background, but a criminal one.” He definitely knew better!

The shops and restaurants in the Keupstraße are almost exclusively run by immigrants. Many of these shops are very successful; some businesspeople even joined in an initiative to become active in local politics with their own demands. The attack ended these attempts. The uncertainty as to who was behind the attack and the crackdown by the police on the victims directly after created great distrust in the Keupstraße, which is still felt to this day.

The Keupstraße bombing and its aftermath exemplify the structural interaction of state institutions with the fascist terror: first the attack terrorizes the immigrants, then they are harassed by the police and the media. This harassment makes the intentions of the NSU a reality: “foreign profiteers” and “foreign mafias” were marked and cut off from the German “Volkskörper” (“German people’s body”).

2006-2007: Murders of Migrants Stop, Police Officer Kiesewetter is Murdered

In April 2006 two people were killed within three days: kiosk owner Mehmet Kubasik in Dortmund and Halit Yozgat in his internet café in Kassel. The body count of the Ceska murders went up to nine. The victims’ relatives organized joint demonstrations in Kassel and Dortmund, shouting the slogan “No tenth victim!” After the demonstrations the series of murders stopped.

The murder in Kassel showed clearly that the VS wanted to sabotage all investigations – and that this was a decision from the top of the hierarchy: at the time of the murder the Hessian VS officer Andreas Temme was present in Yozgat’s internet café. Temme was known as a gun fanatic and collected fascist literature. He was the only person present at the murder scene and did not come forward to the police. At that time he was the handler of a fascist CI with whom he had a long phone call an hour before the murder. The police saw Temme as a suspect for the entire Ceska series. Nevertheless, the Hessian VS refused to give the police any information; otherwise someone “would just have to put a dead body near a CIs or a handler” to “paralyze the whole VS.” The dispute between the police and the VS was taken up to the Hessian interior minister Bouffier, who stopped the investigations after consultation with the BfV.

Just over a year later, on April 25, 2007, the police officer Michèle Kiesewetter was shot in her police car. Her colleague Martin Arnold, sitting next to her, survived a headshot. After four and a half years the investigations still had not gotten anywhere. After the NSU became publicly known, politicians and the public prosecutor insisted obstinately that Kiesewetter had been murdered by chance and that Böhnhardt and Mundlos had been the sole perpetrators. But that story does not add up!19 In the case of Kiesewetter, the poor performance of the investigation teams cannot be explained by “racism.” The murder victim was part of the police. Why the need for a cover-up?

After the murder in Heilbronn, it became quiet around the NSU. Four and a half years later, suddenly there were two bank robberies that were attributed to the NSU. After the second of these failed, Böhnhard and Mundlos allegedly committed suicide and the NSU became a matter of public knowledge.

Germany’s “Security Structure” and the Nazis

One has to make use of the far right, no matter how reactionary they are… Afterwards it is always possible to get rid of them elegantly… One must not be squeamish with auxiliary forces.
– Franz Joseph Strauß20

Since at least the disclosures starting in Italy in the second half of 1990, it has been known that NATO keeps armed fascist troops as a reserve intervention force. Only states with such a “stay-behind” structure could become NATO members after the Second World War. In case of a Soviet occupation this reserve was supposed to fight as a guerrilla force behind the front (hence the name stay-behind). But it also had to prevent Communist Party election victories and other forms of radical social change. In West Germany the stay-behind troops were called Technischer Dienst (technical services) and were built up by Nazi war criminals such as Klaus Barbie under US leadership. This became publicly known for the first time in 1952.21

According to a German government report of December 1990, in which the existence of stay-behind structures was admitted, “preparations for the defence of the state” were made in cooperation with the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, German foreign intelligence agency) from 1956 onwards. Heinz Lembke was part of these structures. He delivered weapons to the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann22 in the ’70s. Lembke’s huge arsenal was discovered incidentally by forestry workers in 1981. The night after Lembke agreed to disclose who had pulled the strings, he was found hanged in his cell.

The stay-behind structures obviously changed their character in the 70s and 80s (in Italy they were called Gladio and took part in something they must have understood as a civil war from 1969 to 1989.) In the 1990s they changed their direction again: now Islamism was the main enemy – it was perhaps at this point that new personnel were recruited. The thread connecting them: fascist groups as reserve intervention forces.

Christian Menhorn’s testimony at the penultimate session of the BUA23 is typical of the secret services’ self-confidence. Menhorn was responsible for the THS at the time. He appeared as the best-informed VS analyst. He gave the BUA members the impression that he knew a lot more about the Nazi scene than they did and reprimanded them repeatedly. The questions put to him centered on why the VS prevented any mention of the Trio in a joint internal paper by the VS and BKA. Menhorn said that the VS, in opposition to the BKA, knew that the Trio was “irrelevant.” That was after the first murders had already happened. When he was asked for the reasons for this fatal denial, his immediate reply was very brief but still revealed what the VS did at that time: “We adjusted our information.”24

Menhorn, Richard Kaldrack (alias; Marschner’s handler), Thomas Richter, Mirko Hesse, Martin Thein (Dolsperg’s handler) and Gordian Meyer-Plath, Scepanski’s handler and head of the Saxony VS, are all part of a new generation, born in 1966 or later, who came straight from school or university and started working for the VS. They all stand for the extremism doctrine; some of them have used it for an academic career. Thein for example has published books on Ultras and “fan culture” with leftwing publishers. It is very unlikely that those agents/handlers, who were very young at the time, could have taken important decisions (not stopping the Trio, giving them arms, keeping information from the police … ) without consultation with the hierarchy. They were instructed by old hands like Norbert Wießner, Peter Nocken and Lothar Lingen (alias), who won their wings fighting the Red Army Faction. Lingen set up a department in the BfV exclusively for “right terror” at the beginning of the 90s. He could be called the highest-ranking agent/handler: it was he who coordinated the destruction of files after the existence of the NSU became public knowledge.

Behind them there was a strategic level of a very few high officials whose careers swung between the interior ministry, the chancellery and the top levels of the services (e.g. Hanning and Fritsche).

Intelligence, Nazis, and the War

Since the mid-90s Germany has almost always been at war. The biggest missions were those in Yugoslavia since 1995 and in Afghanistan since 2002. The role of intelligence became far more important, playing a greater role in securing German territory, holding down the domestic opposition to the war, and monitoring the Bundeswehr (German army) soldiers. To these ends it uses intelligence operations against opponents of the war, it infiltrates Islamist groups, and it cooperates with neo-fascist soldiers and mercenaries.

Many German and Austrian Nazis fought in the Yugoslavian civil wars, especially on the Croatian side. This involvement was organized by contacts in the “Freien Kameradschaften” and was known to the German government all along. At the same time, the German government ignored the embargo and sent military instructors to Croatia. August Hanning (see below) told the BUA that they were fighting against the Islamists since the mid-90s – and could not be bothered with the Nazis. They were focused on the “presence of al-Qaeda terrorist groups” and not on the extreme right-wing terrorists in Bosnia. What this statement obscures, of course, is that they had previously had strongly supported the Islamist militias, when these were not yet called “al-Qaeda.”

These wars were quite lucrative for some Nazis. Normally they got no pay but they were allowed to loot. They took part in “ethnic cleansing.” The regular Croatian army and the professional mercenaries25 conquered a town and marked the houses of “Serbs.” Then the Nazis were allowed to ‎plunder and murder. After their return to Germany some Nazis could build up companies (and get leading positions in the NPD and other organizations).

The Bundeswehr has been called an “expeditionary force” since 2006. It became an all-volunteer military in July 2011 and can also be used inside Germany. So far, Germany has had little direct experience of the “privatization of warfare,” but the Bundeswehr is actively trying to eliminate this “shortcoming,” seeking to create its own private shadow armies with the support of the Federal Employment Agency. (This agency finances the training and “certification of safety personnel for international assignments”).

Operational Cores and Control from Above

You can see that the structure that led the NSU is still intact by looking at the systematic action to destroy important files. The heads of the agencies were immediately operationally active. On a strategic level they set the course for the further upgrade of the law enforcement agencies with targeted public relations work. In total five presidents of VS agencies were forced to resign. These resignations were intended “to provide breathing space for the Minister of the Interior,” as one of these directors put it. But above all the resignations were supposed to allow the the operational work to continue undisturbed. The “deep state” – this dense web of intelligence agencies, military, and police that supports government actions and implements its regulations with extra-legal means, “freelance” employees and “auxiliary forces” – must not become visible.

August Hanning is certainly one of the strategic coordinators of this structure. From 1986 to 1990 he was Security Officer in the embassy in East Berlin, among other things responsible for prisoner ransom. In 1990 he moved to the German chancellery and in 1998 he became president of the BND. Under his leadership the BND assisted in abductions and torture by the CIA. Among other things, Hanning argued against the return of Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz, although he knew of his innocence.26 He became secretary of state in the interior ministry late in 2005. During his examination before the BUA he said in relation to the NSU complex that “the security structure of Germany has proved itself.”

Another important figure is Klaus-Dieter Fritsche (CSU). Since the beginning of this year he has been federal government commissioner for the federal intelligence services, a newly created post. He is at the height of his career now. In 2009 he succeeded Hanning as Interior Ministry Secretary of State: in this capacity he was known as “Germany’s most powerful official” and “the secret interior minister.” Previously he was intelligence coordinator at the federal chancellery and before that, from 1996 to 2005, he was vice-president of the BfV with responsibility for the management of CIs like Corelli, Tarif and Primus. At the BUA he expressed the self-image of the “deep state” clearly: “secrets that could affect the government’s ability to act if revealed, must not be revealed… the interests of the state are more important than a parliamentary investigation.”

This “deep state” has a long tradition in Germany: it survived both 1933 and 1945. In 1933 the Nazis could smash the (Communist) opposition quickly, because the political police had previously created files about them which they immediately made available to the Nazi government. After 1945 the secret services, police agencies, and the administrative apparatus continued with essentially the same personnel. The BND, the VS and the stay-behind structures were made up of old Nazis. But today this complex runs across party lines. In the case of the NSU, both CDU and SPD Interior Ministers of the states played a role. BKA chief Ziercke is member of the SPD, while the public prosecutor is from the FDP [Free Democratic Party, a liberal party]. In Thuringia, interior ministers openly fought antifascist activities in cooperation with the VS whether they were from the SPD or the CDU, and so on.

The VS was an important tool in the domestic policy of all previous governments. In the mid-50s it helped to ban the Communist Party; in the 60s it worked with intelligence operations and agent-provocateurs against the youth movement. At the beginning of the 70s it helped the Brandt government to implement “professional bans”: 3.5 million applicants for civil service were audited, 11,000 applicants were banned from work as civil servants. There were unofficial disciplinary procedures and dismissals, too.

These structures survived the collapse of the Eastern Bloc: the security services were even able to use them to expand their sphere of influence. This was reinforced by 9/11: During the war on terror intelligence agencies worldwide had a massive boost, similar to that of the Cold War. The United States enhanced its security apparatus with the Patriot Acts to ensure “homeland security.” In Germany, the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre was founded in 2004 to coordinate BKA, BND, VS and the LKAs. The BKA Act of 2009 provides the BKA with means “to respond to threats of international terrorism,” which were previously only available to the police authorities of the states (computer and network surveillance, dragnets, use of undercover investigators, audio and video surveillance of housing and telecommunications). In addition, the BKA can now investigate without concrete suspicion on its own initiative, without the approval of an prosecutor.

The development of the scandals surrounding the NSU and the surveillance of the NSA and its western partners (which include the German agencies) has made clear that the power of the ‘deep state’ in Germany is stronger than was expected. It was never touched and has survived all scandals. Across party lines, parliamentary investigation is conducted with special consideration for raison d‘état. This ensures that the deep state is not affected and that police and intelligence agencies continue to be empowered, provided with additional rights and encouraged to cooperate more closely. Because of this, the Bundestag investigation committee arrived at the non-factual conclusions that there is “no evidence to show that any authority was involved in the crimes (of the NSU) in any manner, or supported or approved them” and that there was no evidence “that before November 4, 2011 any authority had knowledge” of the NSU or its deeds or “helped it to escape the grasp of the investigating authorities.”27

This raison d‘état also includes the PdL (Partei die Linke – Left Party), which participated “constructively” in the BUA and supported its final report. The PdL is the left-wing opposition party in Germany. It was formed in 2007 through a merger of the successor of the SED (state party of former East Germany) and the Left opposition in the SPD. It is increasingly supported by sections of the radical left. So far, the VS had spied on the PdL. As part of the final declaration of the BUA the PdL has been assured that it will be no longer monitored by the secret services.

The Nazi scene is hardly affected: the unmasking of the NSU has not weakened it, instead many are encouraged to pursue their goals at gunpoint. They are arming themselves. In 2012, there were 350 cases of gun use registered. That was a peak, but in 2013, the use of firearms by Nazis increased further. Refugee shelters are attacked much more frequently again.

There is no reason to believe that we could take action against the brown plague via the state. At the trial in Munich, the public prosecutor is doing a political job, trying to deal with the case according to the ruling doctrine.

A weakness of large parts of the “left” opposition and the radical Left becomes apparent: after the pogroms of the early ’90s many abandoned the working class as a revolutionary force. They could therefore only turn to “civil society” and thus ultimately the state as an ally against the Nazis. This ally supported fascist structures and helped to establish them, while at the same time it gave the left-wing opposition the opportunity to turn itself into a force supportive of the state. This fact paralyses many Antifa and other leftwing groups. Instead of naming the state’s role in the NSU complex, they focus on the investigation committees and the trial, they lose themselves in the details which are produced there. There were no significant movements on the streets when the NSU became public. All this allows the state apparatus to minimize the NSU – but many people still feel the horror.

NSU timeline:

1993/1994 Foundation of the “Kameradschaft Jena”
1996 Foundation of the Thüringer Heimatschutz (THS)
1996-1998 Small actions with dummy bombs and deactivated bombs
1/26/1998 Raid on the garage of Zschäpe; the Trio (Zschäpe, Mundlos, Böhnhardt) goes underground
1998-2011 Numerous bank robberies
07/27/2000 Bomb attack on eastern European, mostly Jewish migrants in Düsseldorf
09/09/2000 Murder of Enver Şimşek in Nürnberg
01/19/2001 Bomb attack in the Probsteigasse in Cologne
6/13/2001 Murder of Abdurrahim Özüdoğru in Nürnberg
6/27/2001 Murder of Süleyman Taşköprü in Hamburg
8/29/2001 Murder of Habil Kılıç in Munich
2/25/2004 Murder of Mehmet Turgut in Rostock
06/09/2004 Bomb attack on the Keupstraße in Cologne
06/09/2005 Murder of İsmail Yaşar in Nürnberg
6/15/2005 Murder of Theodoros Boulgarides in Munich
04/04/2006 Murder of Mehmet Kubaşık in Dortmund
04/06/2006 Murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel
4/25/2007 Murder of the police officer Michèle Kiesewetter
11/04/2011 The NSU becomes publicly known

List of Abbreviations

VS = German domestic secret service

BfV = Federal office of the domestic secret service

MAD = German military intelligence agency

BND = German foreign intelligence agency

BUA = Parliamentary investigation committee

NSU = National Socialist Underground

B&H = Blood & Honour

Trio = Böhnhardt, Mundlos, Zschäpe

BAW = German public prosecutor

BOA = Special investigation team

LKA = The “Criminal Police Offices” of Germany’s 16 federal states (Länder). Each incorporates a ‘state security’ division.

BKA = Federal equivalent of the LKA, with reponsibility for “national security,” “counter-terrorism,” etc.

THS = Thüringer Heimatschutz (Thuringia Homeland Protection): coordinating network of the neo-Nazi Freie Kameradschaften groups in Thuringia, eastern Germany. See also footnotes 9 and 10.

The Ends of the State

As a prefatory aside, it seems worth averring that, while we often encounter the suggestion that purportedly practical questions like that of state power are shortchanged at the expense of sexy but vague musings on revolution and full communism and so forth, in truth contemporary social movements are altogether far too focused on the state. It would be curious indeed to suggest that the various social movements and uprisings of the last few years, spilling from the squares and plazas of Egypt, Greece, the United States, Turkey and beyond, somehow did not sufficiently orient themselves to the state and its functions, whether legislative, repressive, or bureaucratic. Indeed, these movements were often entirely focused on state power – on the tyranny of leaders, on the repression of the police, on the bad decisions of parliaments and legislature. If they were thoughtless about anything, it was capital; the organization of our lives by work and money remained far more elusive as a target for these movements than the presidential palace or the department of interior. This was true from the level of the most common daily conversations to that of the most militant direct actions: again and again the state provided the focal point for these struggles and the limit of their imaginings. It is therefore in no way self-apparent that thinking more about the state, even if one promises to do it differently, is the sensible remedy for the problem of social movements that hurl themselves repeatedly against the colonnades of the National Assembly. If we are to confront practical problems in the struggle to remake the world, we should like to see the situation right side up. For us, the problem is not how to seize state power but how not to be seized by it – how we might elude being hailed by the question of power rather than that of social reproduction, and in turn, elude being forced to fight on terrain that is unfavorable.

The Unity of the Political-Economic

No doubt one must have some serious account of the state so as to avoid being captured by it. Let us in fact grant that questions of the state are of such significance for communism that they ask us to return to first principles. As it happens, it is precisely the nature of first principles that distinguishes a Marxist approach from others: they are necessarily not based in formalizations, theories, or examples drawn from the past. They are not to be found in politics. Neither, however, are they to be found in economics, in the sense of a bourgeois description of the market’s operations. Marxism being neither a policy nor a program but a mode of analysis, the return to first principles insists on unfolding the possibilities that inhere within a given historical situation. Within such an analysis, the political and the economic cannot be separated into independent strata, for it is precisely their enforced unity – the domination of political economy – which provides the character of history under capitalism and is thus the object of critique. The state ought not be rendered as a mere epiphenomenon of economic interest; neither can it be treated as a political instrumentality.

The state is a precondition for a capitalist economy, producing the legal conditions for the dissemination of property rights (and rendering the violence of property impersonal, by making the direct violence of the state something external to property rights), engaging in infrastructural projects necessary for accumulation, establishing the monetary and diplomatic conditions for exchange both nationally and internationally – most significantly, perhaps, in the production of money economies via taxation and military waging. By the same token, a capitalist economy is a precondition for a modern state (which can only fund its massive bureaucratic and military operations by way of the kinds of revenue generated by capitalist accumulation processes). Here we draw largely on the “state-derivation” debate and its reception by the writers associated with Open Marxism, the considerable nuance and complexity of which we can’t describe in any detail here.1 In nuce, rather than treating the state as an instrument of class rule, or a semi-autonomous “region,” the writers involved with the debate examine how the functions and structures of the capitalist state are presupposed by the underlying capitalist mode of production, which itself presupposes the existence of a state. The recognition of this mutual presupposition – that is, the “form-determination” of the capitalist state by capital – is what led Karl Marx to conclude, in the wake of the Paris Commune, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

This critical unity of the political and the economic does not exist in the mind, in theory, before it exists materially; neither can it be divided by any act of mind without affirming the political and the economic as the bourgeois reifications they so often appear to be, as the names of academic departments, for instance, or sections of the bookstore. When we say that communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, the very condition of possibility for such a scandalous claim is that “the real movement” (die wirkliche Bewegung) draws together the visible forms of political activity with the deepest dynamics of capital, the ceaseless expression of the law of value, the ongoing restructurings of the wage-commodity nexus, the recompositions of class belonging and of technical and social divisions of labor, and so forth.

Paradoxically, it is this mode of analysis which offers a practical outlook onto strategies and tactics – precisely because questions of the state have salience only in so far as they are posed in relation to present conditions. This is the conjuncture in which people “make their own history” but only “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Wary of veiled idealisms, we cannot start from a political theory of the state absent this careful engagement with circumstances existing already for us. If we are to examine the extraordinary developments of France in 1871, of Russia in the early 20th century (or for that matter of China in 1949, Mexico in 1914, or any other false dawn in the long night of capital), it is not to learn from these moments what an ideal state might be. It is rather to understand from the present prospect what was possible within the given conditions, what was not, and how that might inform the question, what is possible in our own given conditions? For that is the only place from which to begin: with a careful assessment of the present situation.

Method in the Present

The debate as to whether long-standing Marxist ideas about the state, for instance, or its conceptual supplement, the party, are presently a plausible model of communist struggle will be by now a familiar conversation to some. To revisit a recent argument in which we have shared regarding the party, that might apply as well to state, “The collective experience of work and life that gave rise to the vanguard party during the era of industrialization has passed away with industrialization itself. We recognize as materialists that the capital-labor relation that made such a party effective – not only as idea but as reality – is no longer operative. A changed capital-labor relation will give rise to new forms of organization. We should not criticize present-day struggles in the name of idealized reconstructions from the past. Rather, we should describe the communist potential that presents itself immanently in the limits confronted by today’s struggles.”2 Ideas about the state must also be adequate to their time.

None of this is to foreclose a discussion of the state or the party but to make sure we do not fall into kitsch formalisms and instead begin from solid ground. We must end there as well. By this we mean to specify the content of particular struggles, their orientation or disposition. As we know, a riot or a strike may be anti-capitalist or anti-immigrant, just as a neighborhood assembly may be convened for the purposes of instituting communist measures or protecting the property of petit-bourgeois shopkeepers. We can only evaluate forms such as the state or the party in the light of particular contents, and those contents are always given by history. However, because capitalism obtains a certain dynamic historical consistency, based around axiomatic elements – value and wage, abstract labor, and the impersonal domination of the state – communism as the content of proletarian struggles obtains a similar consistency, defined as the negation of all these elements and their replacement by a classless society. In other words, this content should not be thought of as invariant (to use the term given to it by some ultra-leftists) except to the extent that capitalism and the condition of the proletariat is itself invariant, vested in the formal and apparent separation of state and economy which occludes their compelled underlying unity.

The content of communism cannot be associated with a particular form, be it of party, council, state. It is found in the smashing of said unity-in-separation: the breaking of the index between one’s labor and one’s access to the social store, and the concomitant abolition of state and economy both. In this we discover the emancipation of proletarians from capitalist domination, the generation of a classless and therefore communist society, the destruction of all the poisoned inheritances of capitalism: wage, money, value, compelled labor, and yes, the state.

What remains contingent and historically determined is how this happens. Each age gives rise to its own communist horizon, one that unfolds from within the material conditions at hand. The horizon only seems not to move; it is historical contingency all too often mistaken for invariance by Marxists and other communists.

The Two Seizures

None of this means we can neglect the question of forms or their effectivity. If we want to know whether the “seizure of state power” thematic has relevance today, we still must understand the history of the state as particular social form, as well as the kinds of things socialists and communists have tried to do with it. To speak in the broadest terms possible, we might say that, among those who imagine the state as means to a socialist or communist end, who think of the state as an object to be seized, there are two currents of thought. One is progressivist, gradualist, reformist. The other is strictly insurrectionary. The former imagines the capture of the capitalist state through the formation of proletarian electoral majorities (and the struggles for democracy and suffrage that this presupposes) and from there a transition to socialism, perhaps involving armed confrontation but mostly unfolding within the framework of the bourgeois state. In this project, there is no immediate or complete expropriation of capitalist producers, but rather the introduction of gradual set of reforms – abolition of inheritance, nationalization of banking, progressive taxation – that aims to slowly squeeze out capital, perhaps by the expansion of a state-owned sector. We can associate this particularly programmatic conception with the practice of the 2nd International, if not its theory. The other current descends from the 3rd International, based upon a reading of the insurrectionary lines in Marx’s and Engels’s theory, particularly The Civil War in France. It is exemplified and perhaps systematized first and foremost by V.I. Lenin’s State and Revolution. Here, the state is a tool of the insurrectionary class, to be purged of its most loathsome aspects – the army, first and foremost – and used both for the administering of society along communist lines and for defensive combat against the organized enemies of the revolution.

In practice, these two currents often run together. Each can be tracked upstream to the same wellspring via a selective reading of The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels themselves did not seem to see any contradiction between urging, on the one hand, the need to smash the repressive machinery of the state in a revolutionary overcoming, and encouraging, on the other, the participation of workers’ parties in parliamentary processes toward winning vital reforms. The currents separate quickly, however, and most followers have emphasized one or the other; it’s not hard to read the ebb and flow between the two currents as a moving index of revolutionary promise.

The confluence of the currents is not only at their source. It returns downstream, as it were, in the courses that the two streams are driven to take in their flowing – until the two streams cross, not simply a confluence but a chiasmus. The state seized within a reformist mode, if it is not to fall back into capitalism, is compelled to move toward revolutionary expropriation; the insurrectionary seizure of the state will be drawn toward reformist arrangements.

Reformist Seizure

Let us consider this crossed destiny in some detail, beginning with the somewhat more easily dispatched reformist conception. Consider what it means to say that the modern state presupposes the existence of a capitalist economy. At the most basic level, this is a simple acknowledgment that a modern capitalist state requires continuous revenue at volumes that only an expanding economy can generate: to pay its workers, to build infrastructures, to provision armies and police, to act as a lender of first and last resort, to maintain a felicitous monetary environment for domestic and international exchange. The presupposition is mutual, since these necessary activities cannot be undertaken by individual capitalists without eroding their competitive prerogatives. The state is therefore both a requirement for, and dependent upon, conditions of profitability.3

Moreover, if programs of redistribution and provision of a social wage – health care, education, wage controls – are undertaken while maintaining capitalist production, as one would expect from even the most feeble of social democracies, such a state will need further revenues. If it is to generate enough taxable income to pay for all its programs, it will be compelled to steer the economy toward maximal rates of surplus value generation so as to satisfy the conditions of profitability that capitalists demand if they are to keep reinvesting their income. Notably, any attempt to redistribute output away from capital and toward workers – via the mechanisms of the state – will threaten the circuit of valorization and realization, except in very exceptional conditions of high rates of profit. Such a state will be functionally subordinated to world capital, to the world-market, and the prevailing conditions of profitability and competition. None of the obvious expedients here are likely to help all that much – partial nationalization of “vital” industries, for instance, capital controls, progressive taxation.

Here we encounter the historical aspect of such a process. The mutually-presupposing functions at play in capitalism – abstract labor, money, capital, wage-labor, the state – are continually reproduced in a dynamic, historically variable manner. They have a directionality that corresponds with the tendential aspects of the accumulation process: real subsumption of labor, the rising organic composition of capital, the falling rate of profit, the expulsion of living labor from the production process. In this section, as ever, we are not describing “the state,” for such is meaningless. We are describing an exceptional developmental route. The path we have just outlined is a best-case scenario, as it were, available only to states controlling rapidly industrializing and modernizing economies capable of generating the rates of growth that allow states to meet all their socialist obligations without imperiling reproduction. In fact, industrializing economies are able to benefit in some circumstances from the kinds of putative socialist measures that reformist programs would want to enact: either social wages or direct wage controls, both of which can increase profitability. But few states are in such a position today, and those that are will quickly find themselves in the same post-industrial doldrums through which the United States, Europe and East Asia presently drift. This speaks rather clearly to prospects for Syriza-style left parties and so-called Latin American Socialism both. Such projects – and here we come to the rock and hard place of a serious analysis – will either be re-incorporated and tamed by the capitalist world system, or will need to pass over into an explicitly revolutionary, expropriating phase.

Revolutionary Seizure

We are left, then, with the “orthodox” position on seizure of state power. The state is taken up as a weapon wielded by an expropriating proletarian revolution, a weapon necessary, according to the influential treatment by Lenin, in order to smash the armed force of the counterrevolution and fulfill the administrative duties of a nascent non-capitalist economy.

Lenin’s book is an explication of the conclusions that Marx drew from the experience of the Commune, pivoting on the passage cited earlier: “ the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Lenin educes a fairly crude conception of the state. It is a two-headed monster: bureaucratic and military. The latter he deems unsuitable to the aims of proletarian revolution; any successful overthrow of state power would need to shatter the police and army and replace them with the “armed people” or the “armed workers.” Many of the most significant revolutionary events have occurred against the exhaustion and even defeat of the state’s military powers via interstate conflicts. This confirms the importance of dismantling the repressive powers of the state; if there was ever any doubt, the recent experience of the Egyptian revolution reminds us of the army’s intransigently counterrevolutionary character.

In Lenin’s account, once the repressive fraction of the state is smashed and the legislature abolished, the administrative remainder can be made into an effective tool for those who want to produce communist or socialist relations. The necessary staff positions can be transferred quickly to proletarians and, through routinization, made simple enough that no special skills are required for their performance. But this cleansed state is not simply an “administration of things”; it is not simply the post offices whose powers of efficiency he extols. It is also, for Lenin, a “government of persons,” a means by which proletarians govern themselves forcefully, as can only be the case once we consider that, as Lenin tells us, “human nature… cannot do without subordination, control, and ‘managers.’” What matters, for Lenin, is who rules: “if there is to subordination, it must be to the armed vanguard of all exploited and laboring – to the proletariat.”4

Government of persons is costly, however, and can’t be self-managed, distributed throughout the entirety of the social body. It requires centralization and centralization requires that no small amount of social surplus be directed toward state functions. Since these large, bureaucratic states will require massive volumes of revenue in order to operate, inasmuch as money relations are maintained they will find themselves require to develop the productive forces of the economy, to force the accumulation process forward, with all the baleful consequences this spells for presumed beneficiaries of such a revolution. Even where some of the main elements associated with capitalism are suspended, as was the case with the USSR, revolutions will find that state functions inherited from capitalist states are not good for much else than superintending a course of economic (and nationally-delimited) development, and that what one gets with these kinds of experiments in “socialist transition” is a mimesis of capitalist accumulation, using various bureaucratic and administrative indices in place of the mediations at work in capitalism. This is the best-case scenario, of course, presuming that there is an economy to develop, an assurance that seems less and less the case in the world at hand. In short, states are good for one thing: administering capitalist economies. Those revolutions which would keep in place money, wages, markets and other aspects of capitalism, in order to deal first with the question of political power, to win the war, to develop the productive forces, or any of the various reasons usually given, will find the state a useful tool, no doubt. But this is a tool that will use these revolutions with far more ruthlessness than they will use it. These revolutionary processes will therefore, sooner or later, slip back onto a historical trajectory not all that different from the reformist and gradualist path.

21st-Century Prospects

We can agree, as seems universally acknowledged, that any authentically expropriating revolution will need to arm itself and defend itself against attack. However, the “armed people” is something other than a state. Indeed, it is definitionally the opposite of the state, as it distributes and concentrates power in the hands of the insurgents themselves rather than some delegation. The more state-like such armed groups become – that is, the more they function through structures of discipline, command, hierarchy – the more they will bear in themselves the germ of counterrevolution. When the defensive power of the “armed people” is vested in a particular, dedicated fraction, directed by military leaders, it is easily co-opted, neutralized, or turned against the people themselves. Whatever benefits traditional command and control military structures might confer to those who want to win this or that battle is overshadowed by the fact that such structures, by definition, lose the war. Here, also, the historical dimension is paramount. We are not dealing with 19th-century militaries. The hyper-technological powers of killing and counter-insurgency at the disposal of contemporary states puts paid to any idea of winning a frontal confrontation, of a purely “military” victory. Even the old theory of guerrilla warfare, which has had scant success beyond peripheral, rural zones, now appears ludicrous in the face of the new algorithmic security and military apparatus that inventories every sparrow falling and every grain of sand.

Only a process of demoralization and destabilization of the armed forces, with mass defections and an undermining of the very social and economic foundations of the military, could have any hope of success. This can take place only under conditions in which the revolution is not merely a question of power, of the seizure of power, but is something that allows people to directly and immediately meet their own needs – for food, housing, and useful things; for care of all sorts; for education; for hope in the future and meaningful participation in the things that concern them. For this reason, endeavoring to lead the majority of people forcibly toward a future they don’t know is good for them – one definition of “dictatorship of the proletariat” – will always fail. If there is a role for a dedicated, interventionist proletarian fraction within the revolution, it is in creating the initial conditions under which communist relations and further communist measures might be undertaken. This might involve an inaugurating communist measure – for example, expropriating and distributing necessary and useful things on the basis of free access, or collectively and voluntarily organizing and generating other useful things. But this is something quite different than telling people what to do or commanding and organizing the activity of the larger mass of dispossessed people; such a class fraction is a catalyzing factor, producing communist relations in which it plays no part aside from its initial contribution.5 As we and many of our contemporaries have argued, the immediate establishment of these new social conditions, to the greatest extent possible, is in the present not only the likely course a revolutionary unfolding might pursue, directly or indirectly, but, given the objective material conditions, its only hope for eventual success.6

The question then becomes, if our task involves the immediate transformation of social relations, the abolition of money, wages, and compulsory labor, how useful would the offices, resources, and technologies of the administrative rather than repressive portion of the state be? Not very. As elaborated above, the state bureaucracy provides functions which are necessary or at the very least helpful for the reproduction of capitalism in many and various ways. States are concerned with maintaining the legal conditions of property and exchange, maintaining a proper monetary environment, providing the infrastructure necessary for the development of capital (and not the development of human beings). They help insure that labor-power arrives at the site of production in the right packaging, requiring certain conditions of hygiene and education.

Moreover, while these functional components of the state might have once enjoyed a certain autonomy from capitalist logic and market imperatives, they have been increasingly disciplined over the last century to capital’s needs, cleansed of all aspects that elude the calculative logic of the bottom line. It’s fairly fantastical to imagine that the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, of Education, or of Health and Human Welfare – along with their municipal and state-level counterparts – can be reconfigured to meet the kinds of needs for housing, learning, and medical care that people are likely to have in a revolutionary situation, without relying on the mediations of money, wages, et cetera.

From the outset, these departments are constituted by their separation from all sorts of functions pertaining to education, housing, and health undertaken directly by capitalist firms; by design, they are constitutively incapable of administering the totality of functions people would need, even in the event that such functions and capacities already exist and do not simply need to be generated from the ground up, which is the more likely scenario. The resources of the Post Office that Lenin treated as prime example of the virtuous aspect of the state may, in fact, be useful to a revolution, but no more useful than the technologies for moving objects and distributing messages that exist in the private sector. In any case, revolutions will doubtless need to invent entirely new methods of coordination and administration more suited to the tasks at hand. These functions will be most effective when directly controlled by those involved in them, whether as providers or receivers or both; in this sense, there will be no division between the state, as a sphere of separate powers that stands apart from and controls society, and no division between “economy” and “state.” There will not even be an economy, since that also presumes such separation.

Readers will recognize in this final turn the reappearance of our opening theme, having gone through its dialectical unfolding. Under prevailing conditions, which yoke the political to the economic at the root while presenting each superficially as autonomous objects, one simply errs in imagining there is such a thing as “the state” which can be supposed independent of capital’s presuppositions. The task before us is to break the domination of political-economy as such – this is the minimum definition of emancipation from capital, which engenders that unity even as it enforces its spectral separation. And this cannot be done other than by smashing the underlying unity in reality. The breaking of this bond is recto to the verso of breaking the index between labor and access to social goods, since it is precisely this indexing which makes labor the measure of value and wage the instrument of control, and thus allows the law of value and its compulsions to stand over social existence.

We can say again therefore that this breaking of the index is the goal provided to us by capital, which universalizes the index in the first place; it is in this historical sense that it becomes the project of the struggle for a classless and free society. And with this cleavage, “the state” and “economy” will be neither perfected in their independent existence nor bound together more effectively, but will cease to be; provided the autonomy in reality that they appear to have in bourgeois ideality, they will lack the mutual presuppositions that have to this point preserved them. There will simply be people meeting their own needs and developing the facilities and resources to do this.

The Margins and the Center: For a New History of the Cultural Revolution

At the end of the Qing dynasty and in the early twentieth century, a significant number of Chinese revolutionary activists and theorists believed that anarchism was China’s most promising revolutionary path, and that was in part because it corresponded most closely to the actuality of social existence. The vast majority of the population, after all, lived their lives with next to no relationship with the state, whose functionaries almost never reached the village level, and whose levies and regulations were for the most part administered by members of the local elite, with ties to their communities that were many and varied. Peoples’ lives were marked by various forms of community and solidarity—self-help, religious, ceremonial, clan-based, labor-cycle, and market-network related—and these forms of solidarity had made many communities capable of resistance and mobilization in the face of external threats, including imperial authoritarian overreach. Those early theorists of revolution felt that these local social capabilities could be strengthened and politicized in an egalitarian direction, and that the emergent energies of the polity to come would lie precisely in these local forms, rather than national state authority.1

The anarchist revolution never came, of course, and most anarchist activists, and the social forces they represented, were absorbed, as one-time semi-anarchist Mao Zedong was, into either the Nationalist (KMT) or Communist (CCP) parties. Both parties, in the course of their struggle for state power, were forced to respond to or ally with local formations in a number of ways, and this made for a number of local variants in revolutionary practice.2 For both, however, the ultimate project was strong state power, a version of which the CCP attained in 1949. Most western observers of the PRC, in the Maoist and reform periods, assume a strong central state. Figures like Mao or Deng Xiaoping give a picture of sovereign authority that has led many to ascribe to them a dirigisme that has for the most part been less thorough than widely assumed.

Unlike in the Qing dynasty, officialdom in the PRC penetrated to nearly all levels of society, but, particularly in the reform period, the interests and practices of local officials have often been at some variance from those at the center. I remember being initially surprised, when taking a bus in 1991 through coastal Fujian province—an area that had emerged as a center of new export-oriented manufacturing in the post-1978 reform period—by the number of red billboards exhorting local enterprises to pay their taxes as required. The billboards wouldn’t have been there had taxes been paid. The center’s inability to manage revenue collection created fiscal difficulties for the state and necessitated policy changes in the middle of the reform period.

The localities have consistently shown a high level of resilience and semi-autonomy. During the double-digit growth years, this bifurcation of authority was generally useful to the center.3 The local officials’ front-line status made them take the brunt of protests from workers, residents with environmental NIMBY issues, or from those—pensioners, retirees, those with ambiguous residential status—with unmet financial claims on the state, and the violent repression those protests often met, as the testimony of participants nearly always revealed, contrasted with a faith and confidence in the authorities in Beijing, a strong testimony to the center’s legitimation efforts. The ability of local officials to profit—legally and illegally—from commercial, enterprise, and property development, or from management of Foreign Direct Investment, played a central role in transforming them into stake-holders in, rather than conservative obstructers of, the central state’s reform process. This pattern of often extreme local divergence has served the state in other ways. New forms of capital accumulation could be tested locally before being applied on a wider scale. Shanghai, by all economic measures the most advanced city/region in China from the mid-19th century until the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, was left out of the first wave of market and FDI reforms, which were concentrated in the Pearl River Delta region and in Fujian province, across the straits from Taiwan; if the reforms proved to be a failure, failure was not deemed to be an option for Shanghai, whose capitalist takeoff waited until the 1990s, after the “successful” implementation of reform in the south. In the last decade, the central government has been able to take advantage of regional disparities in order to accomplish internal spatial fixes of the kind employed by capital globally: the massive infrastructural and financial investments in Sichuan province and elsewhere in the west have helped to balance and counteract growing workers’ power and concomitant wage increases in the coastal regions. For the most part, the state has well weathered the chaotic dynamic between local and central power, and has thrived. The citizenry, absorbed into a shifting and precarious capitalist labor market as well as into a multi-tiered consumer society, adept at channeling social aspirations through mass-mediation and the attendant consolidation of mechanisms of identification with a largely mythic promise of individual self-fulfillment and upward mobility, is left with fewer and fewer social resources.

This particular center/local dynamic may be coming to an end. I write this in September 2014 in Shanghai, and a several hundred person strong delegation of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the body charged with the massive anti-corruption campaign instigated by President Xi Jinping, has recently arrived and installed themselves in a local hotel. It is widely assumed that its targets are in high places, and the local papers report and speculate about the meaning of events such as one last week, when a neighborhood residents group who had in years past unsuccessfully struggled against a local real estate development presented the commission with a sheaf of purportedly incriminating documents, which the commission then agreed to review. Around the country, local officials are falling by the day, in what is proving to be a relentless and wide-sweeping campaign. If Xi Jinping is successful in creating a rationalized, functionalist bureaucracy, one which for the most part no longer views land and contracts as local resources to be mined, but serves more purely an instrument of the will of the state, he will have reached a level of central state authority well beyond that of any of his predecessors. This is not guaranteed, of course, and an achievement even of that scale might be open to later reversal, but it could significantly alter the terrain of political possibility. Many voices on the Left in China continue to place their hopes in the central government, which they view as capable of a decisionism that would, with the right ideological orientation, be able to contain the market within a new social compact.4 I suspect that they will prove to be mistaken. It is easy to overestimate the political capacity to contain market forces.

Few leftist intellectuals write of political initiative or creativity coming from the people themselves—they see intellectuals as fulfilling that role. Labor activism remains largely within the local dynamic described above; there remain significant institutional and political barriers to broader, trans-local mobilization. Although the Yue Yuen (shoe manufacturing) strikes in the spring of 2014 had a wider reach than previous labor actions, it is too soon to evaluate what this portends for the future. Still, given that a militant politics has to date largely been confined to “the margins,” and given the present fairly bleak political terrain, an examination of historical manifestations of political creativity at the mass level might have greater than historiographical importance.

Wu Yiching’s re-interpretation of the Cultural Revolution—The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis (Harvard University Press, 2014)—is such a study, and it is a story whose dynamic bears an important relation to the historical vicissitudes of the local/center dynamic. Considering its historical and continuing political importance, including in much recent radical philosophy, the Cultural Revolution (CR) remains one of the most under-studied phenomena of the 20th century. This is a particularly acute problem in China, where the negation of the Cultural Revolution and the prevention of its recurrence form a central pillar of state ideology, and where the relative absence of sustained analysis and discussion of the period has foreclosed a deeper understanding of the changing nature of what has constituted politics in China over the last half century. This, and the prohibition of discourse on that other and more ambiguous outburst of the political—the late 1980s protests that culminated in the so-called Tiananmen Square movement in 1989—has been central to the state’s ongoing depoliticization process.

Although the state prohibition on open and widespread discourse on the Cultural Revolution remains in place, there has, over the last ten or twelve years, been a steady and slow accumulation of scholarship in Chinese,5 as well as in western languages. There is of course much archival and empirical work that remains to be done. But mostly absent in recent work are new historical syntheses that make clear, original, and cogent claims for the broadly political character of the Cultural Revolution, and for its legacy into the reform period. In addition to performing important and analytically rich historical and political syntheses, Revolution at the Margins contains much new scholarship as well, based on newly available material, including interviews, and work in archives that have rarely been consulted. Wu’s notion of “margins” is not geographically based—his case studies include events in Beijing and Shanghai—but refers to popular-based political movements and analyses that arose outside of official state organs, made possible by the irruption of political groups and tendencies over which there initially existed little official control.

The view that the mass politics of the Cultural Revolution was merely a case of mass manipulation, or a distorted effect of central CCP power politics, has fortunately lost much of its authority in recent years, even though machinations in the central leadership remain central to the most recent comprehensive English-language history, Macfarquahar and Schoenhals’s Mao’s Last Revolution.6 But no analytical framework of similarly broad interpretive scope has arisen to replace this. The argument for the primacy and originality of the margins is thus an important one. Those studies that do investigate politics “from below”—and there have been many good ones recently7 —tend to focus on group identity, interest, or structural antagonism, and generally downplay non-functionalist dimensions of the political.

Wu’s thesis is that the irruption of new political energies in the early period of the Cultural Revolution was initially facilitated but not controlled by the center, that it represented new responses to long-standing grievances and discontent as well as emergent forms of political imagination, and that the state’s response to that irruption decisively shaped the character of the party-state itself, beginning as early as 1968 and continuing up to the present day. Wu does not ascribe to the “margins” more political and ideological coherence than they actually possessed; politics at the margins was tentative, messy, heterogeneous, and out of control. The state’s active policy of containment not only led to the premature end of political and ideological experimentation, but made containment itself, and the resultant energies of political neutralization, a core component of state function. Wu writes of the object of containment:

The freeing of political interpretation from the neat categories of official thought created a carnivalesque space in which officially sanctioned ideas and heretical meanings coexisted and impinged upon one another; and orthodox notions—while being ritualistically invoked—were nevertheless surreptitiously appropriated and creatively modified into new interpretations. (13)

The mass political activism characteristic of the Cultural Revolution, however, was not necessarily the direct expression of preexisting social discontent and grievances. Rather, this activism was often the result of novel forms of political language and action in a turbulent process that few participants fully comprehended. In espousing explosive slogans such as “Bombard the headquarters” and “Rebellion is justified”, Mao—China’s party chief turned rebel leader—set in motion new dynamics that radically disrupted the existing arrangements of politics. With the abrupt separation of Mao’s charismatic authority from the party apparatus, superior political understanding was no longer the monopoly of the party. Indeed, the basic rationale of the mass politics characteristic of the Cultural Revolution was that Mao’s Thought could be grasped directly by the general populace, unmediated by the party. Although everyone was speaking in the name of Mao, Mao’s fragmentary ideas were variously interpreted in fluid circumstances and were appropriated for diverse purposes—to rationalize interpersonal conflicts and factional rivalries, to articulate popular grievances, or to justify attacks on political authorities… Giving new meanings to a myriad of antagonisms that had hitherto remained latent, the events of the Cultural Revolution had a logic and dynamic of their own, and in ways that neither the Supreme Leader nor any determinate political programs could fully control or even foresee. (51)

Important corrective approaches to the Cultural Revolution,8 Wu’s included, treat its politics according to a specific historical periodization that centers on the changing nature of political actors and small-group composition, the nature of antagonisms, and the character of containment/institutionalization. Wu’s periodization is not, of course, neat and tidy, and the movement was certainly subject to numerous local variations. In the following summary of the historical sequence, for readers unfamiliar with the movement’s contents, I will make occasional note of Wu’s interpretive periodization schema, but will address his specific arguments in the following section.


The Cultural Revolution began in the late winter of 1966, with a power struggle waged by Mao and his allies against others in positions of central authority deemed to be following a “revisionist” line antagonistic to Mao himself. Mao and his anti-revisionist allies consolidated their power from February on, culminating in the May 16 establishment of the “Cultural Revolution Group,” whose most prominent members included his wife, the radical Jiang Qing, as well as Kang Sheng, polemicist Yao Wenyuan, and theorist Zhang Chunqiao. On May 25, Beijing University philosophy lecturer Nie Yuanzi posted the first “big character poster” attacking the university leadership and its suppression of revolutionary fervor, a poster that Mao publicly approved. Almost immediately, Red Guard groups arose at nearly every university and middle school in Beijing, and this was soon to be emulated around the country. In the early summer of 1966, then-President Liu Shaoqi, later to become the major target of the anti-revisionist campaign, sent “work teams” to the schools and universities to direct and supervise student activism. This attempt to suppress these nascent energies met with substantial student opposition. The Cultural Revolution Group also recognized the work teams as counterrevolutionary, and these teams were withdrawn in July. At that point, the “pluralization” phase, as Alessandro Russo has called it, developed rapidly, as numerous and varied Red Guard groups sprang up, often in conflict with each other. Although the composition of the Red Guards was diverse, Wu observes that in this early period, the children of revolutionaries and cadres, those who were “Born Red,” played a dominant role. These young people primarily targeted those with “bad class backgrounds,” which they believed made them real or potential agents of counter-revolution. Beijing’s demographics—it had a negligible working class population and a disproportionately high number of government functionaries—shaped this dynamic. This, according to Wu, contributed to the strategic and ideological predominance of the “bloodline” theory of revolutionary identity in the early period. The summer and early fall of 1966 were marked by numerous incidents of violent attack on those with bad class backgrounds, as well as destruction of historical monuments from imperial times. In Wu’s analysis, the high degree of violence in this period was not unrelated to the ideological domination of the bloodline position, and he musters research to suggest, here and elsewhere in the book, that the worst violence in the Cultural Revolution was not characteristic of the Cultural Revolution as a whole, but was the product of distinct political conjunctures.

The Cultural Revolution Group was tepid in its support of the “bloodline” analysis, however, and over the fall, the targets increasingly included all those in positions of authority, irrespective of class background. This, according to Wu, both allowed for broader participation in the movement and occasioned significantly more political creativity than had been possible under the more rigid identity politics of the previous months. The most significant events of late 1966 and early 1967 occurred in Shanghai, where, in contrast to Beijing, large numbers of workers became active in the movement. The Shanghai events are among the most studied in the Cultural Revolution, but interpretations vary. Over the course of the autumn, workers organized around a disparate range of grievances—pay, employment status, residence and relocation, working conditions, and factory governance, and in November, a loose coalition of groups took shape, naming itself the Workers’ General Headquarters (WGHQ). Foremost among their demands was recognition and legitimacy, for the directives from the Cultural Revolution Group were, in the fall of 1966, somewhat ambiguous on the question of workers’ participation. Other groups sprang up as well, including the Scarlet Guards, who were defenders of the Shanghai municipal authorities, against whom the WGHQ were arrayed. Events came to a climax in late December and early January of 1967, as WGHQ and allied groups’ militancy reached a boiling point—institutions were taken over, and the situation in general was akin to that of a general strike. Zhang Chunqiao of the Cultural Revolution Group came to Shanghai in January and officially recognized the WGHQ as a revolutionary group. February 5, 1967 witnessed the formation of the famous Shanghai Commune, which was heralded as a new model for a politics developing out of the seizure of power from below. Earlier than this, however, units of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) had been sent into Shanghai to assist in the revolutionary seizure of power, and the PLA constituted, in Wu’s analysis, an energy of order and, at times, containment.

As events progressed in Shanghai, Mao had second thoughts about the Commune, and ordered it disbanded on February 24 in favor of a new administrative form that had emerged in the northeast. In Shanghai, as elsewhere in China, the Cultural Revolution was to be overseen by Revolutionary Committees, comprising members of the PLA, representatives of rebel groups, and party cadres. Throughout the late fall and winter, and throughout the brief life of the Commune, groups with varied compositions and agenda proliferated, with demands that their grievances be addressed and that they participate in power sharing. The situation before, during, and after the Commune was very fluid. Although the Revolutionary Committee mode of governance was intended to be followed nationwide, its implementation was slow and uneven, and Shanghai remained the scene of inter-factional struggle until the summer of 1967. The events in Shanghai precipitated many other attempts to seize power throughout the country during the winter and spring of that year.

In the spring of 1967 in Wuhan, a strategically and industrially important city in central China, the PLA intervened militarily against the city’s large, radical Red Guard faction, despite being ordered to desist by the Cultural Revolution Group. When two representatives of the Cultural Revolution Group arrived in the city, one was assaulted. This prompted a brief campaign against “capitalist roaders in the army,” and the damage to the PLA’s legitimacy encouraged widespread defiance against their authority. This confluence of events convinced many in the central leadership that the country was threatened with total chaos. In September of 1967, Mao began a campaign to end factional conflict, and rapidly put the Cultural Revolution under the control of the Revolutionary Committees. This met considerable resistance in many quarters, but by the end of 1967 it was clear that this was the center’s chosen course.

Over the first half of 1968, the movement and factions were largely contained, and the focus shifted to the institutionalization of the Cultural Revolution’s successful power struggles to date. By September of 1968, Revolutionary Committees were in place in every province. Between late 1968 and 1972, the Revolutionary Committees went after thousands of people accused of factional fighting and counterrevolutionary activities, and as several scholars have noted, these purges marked the most violent period of the Cultural Revolution.9 By 1972, the PLA had emerged as the strongest administrative force in the country. In the factories and the schools, the politics and values of the Cultural Revolution remained in force, as evident in the “worker-peasant-soldier” universities, the universities-in-the-factories, continued discussion of organizational forms, etc. Although the Red Guards had ceased to exist, this final period witnessed periodic national campaigns (criticize Lin Biao, etc.) as well as struggles within particular factories. The period was also marked by power struggles within the central leadership, the most salient event of which was an aborted coup by PLA supporters of Lin Biao in 1971. Following its defeat, the PLA’s authority again came into question. The Cultural Revolution continued until 1976, when the “Gang of Four” was arrested.


Critique of bureaucratic class privilege was central to Cultural Revolution politics, and Revolution at the Margins makes distinctive analytical contributions to our understanding of the nature of class, class analysis, and class conflict in the PRC. It begins by recognizing the incommensurate and discrepant temporalities of post-1949 class politics. The codification of class categories was first made on the basis of family origin, i.e., with reference to a social system whose field of antagonism had for the most part ceased to exist by the 1960s, but which were insisted upon, in part, to guarantee a form of affirmative action for those with “good” class backgrounds, and thus avoid the unintended reproduction of class privilege.10 Yet these bureaucratized and reified class categories, which had become a defining element of individual identities, had taken on a life of their own, divorced, for the most part, from actual social relations. At the same time, a privileged bureaucratic stratum was in formation, with well-defined benefits for each administrative level. Mao’s alarm at the emergence of this new class structure—he was determined to avoid China’s revolution following the Soviet revisionist path—added a new dimension of antagonism to the social field. Existing class discourse proved an awkward vehicle for this newly superimposed language of critique of bureaucratic class privilege. A consequence, Wu writes, was that

Instead of giving rise to a conception of class adequate to Chinese socialism, the reification of class and compression of class analyses centering on old and new—or prerevolutionary and postrevolutionary—social relationships ended up creating a hopelessly incoherent ideological space in which sharply different politics of class interpenetrated and fused, with new types of social conflict continually represented as manifestations of the titanic battles of the past between the revolutionary forces and the agents of the ancient regime. (49)

Although much existing scholarship on post-1949 class recognizes the incoherence of PRC class discourse, it remains far less analytically precise on this incommensurability and its consequences. Wu suggests the political and theoretical work at the margins proposed various ways out of that incoherence. The party-state’s containment and repression of those initiatives culminated, ultimately, in the suppression of class discourse altogether as the reform period progressed. Today, for example, the word “class” (jieji) is frowned upon, in favor of the less fraught term “stratum” (jieceng). Another characteristic of class in China today, although Wu neglects to mention this, is that members of families with “bad” class backgrounds have been disproportionately represented in the ranks of university students, in executive positions, and in arts and letters. This phenomenon is not uncommon in postsocialist societies, wherein pre-revolutionary elites, such as the Polish szlachta, have managed to recapture substantial social and economic privilege after decades of social restructuring. This re-emergence might make one look more sympathetically at the redistributive identity-based class politics of the earlier period.

One significant force on the margins was Yu Luoke, whose writings represented a major challenge to official class discourse. Yu Luoke is best known for his polemical essay against the bloodline theory, “On Class Origins,” published in January 1967. It was critical not only of the rigidity of codified class identity, but also of the capacity of such a system to produce a new elite class. Wu makes the strong claim that Yu Luoke’s position was in no way a functionalist expression of a particularist interest, derived from his own (privileged background) class position as defined by the system, and thus a harbinger of a later liberal universalizing human rights discourse, as some have claimed, but rather a significant attempt to reframe the revolution-era discourse of class in its entirety, turning it to questions of “moral autonomy” and “human dignity.” Although, as I mentioned earlier, members of the Cultural Revolution Group also expressed reservations of the bloodline theory, the broadly anti-authoritarian and popular democratic implications of Yu’s analysis were considered too great a challenge to the CCP. Yu, variously branded as a Trotskyist or an anarchist, was arrested in January 1968 and executed in 1970. Wu suggests that the state’s reactive foreclosure of this discussion of class was a formative component of its growing neutralization function, a function kept alive today in state bromides on the “harmonious society.”

Wu offers a new and original interpretation of the Shanghai events. The spread of the Cultural Revolution beyond students and into the working population was not part of the revolution’s original plan. The PRC was of course a developmentalist state, and Mao was consistent in his insistence on the importance of maintaining production levels. Although approving of workers’ radicalism in the strictly political sphere—the challenge to the power of municipal authorities, for example—concerns were raised, for the first time in PRC history, about “economism.” For on the surface, “economistic” concerns were indeed a primary activator of the Shanghai mobilizations. There were good reasons for this. Massive numbers of workers had been laid off in the early sixties, many sent to the countryside where they met a severe reduction in living standards. A system had grown in place whereby peasants from nearby agricultural areas were brought into factories seasonally, according to production schedule needs, and at vastly lower wages than those of urban workers; in many factories they represented 30% or more of the workforce. The housing crisis was acute, with urban residents reduced to an average of around three square meters per person. Although state rhetoric designated the working class as the masters of the country, in Shanghai, their position seemed to be deteriorating.

In late 1966 and early 1967, though, when state authority was at its nadir and when radical worker power was at its apogee, demands for back pay and benefits were often rapidly met, depleting enterprise and municipal coffers. The charge of “economism” was the language the state authorities used to curb this alarming tendency, and this charge was echoed by their epigones in the movements. And yet, as in the discourse of class, “economism” failed to capture what Wu sees as an underlying dynamic of an inchoate politics, an understanding of which requires a consideration of the relation between the economic and the political in socialist societies.

Although working-class struggles over wages and the length of the workday under capitalism may be viewed as economistic (or “economic-corporate” to borrow a term from Antonio Gramsci) and thus structurally intrinsic to a capitalist system, the same may not be true of similar struggles in state-socialist societies in which economic and political spheres lack differentiation and in which extraction of surplus-labor is achieved through extra-economic means… But in certain forms of noncapitalist society (including state-socialist society), the amalgamation of economic and political powers makes possible extraction of surplus labor through the coercive apparatus of the state. In such contexts, contests over economic issues challenge the state power underlying surplus extraction, and apparently economic struggles often become inseparable from political conflicts. (107)

The CCP, Wu holds, functioned very early on in the radical phase of the Cultural Revolution as a force of containment, a force visible even in the proclamation of the Shanghai Commune itself. Wu’s analysis of the complex sequence of events in January and February is extremely detailed. Zhang Chunqiao, in this analysis, does not emerge as a spokesperson/theorist of a new worker’s politics, and the Commune is not the expression of workers’ victories. Rather, the state from the start worked to forestall the development of a mass politics that had yet to coalesce and which could have, given space, time, and opportunity, created a new political discourse, expanding its initially prominent “economistic” concerns more fully into the social and political field. The proclamation of the Commune had a dual character. It galvanized political imagination elsewhere in the country, as Wu demonstrates in his chapter on the Shengwulian group in Hunan province (see below), but it was at the same time an attempt to reassert order, albeit within the parameters set by the political achievements of the rebel groups.

The document “Whither China,” written by Yang Xikuang for the Shengwulian group, which formed in Hunan province in September 1967 in reaction to the deradicalization of the Cultural Revolution then in progress, reflected the lessons that its author had learned from the Shanghai Commune—that the way to build communist society was through the wholesale elimination of the bureaucratic stratum, and the multiplication of communes. It is an extraordinary document, and I recommend it to readers of this review (available as of September 2014 at or ). Rejecting the view that Shengwulian’s composition reflected a form of interest politics—its members were commonly drawn from those deemed to have been left out of the Cultural Revolution’s main thrust, such as decommissioned soldiers, urban “rusticates” who had left the villages to which they had been sent and returned to the countryside, and others—Wu holds that it was rather this marginal status that gave energy to a broader and more general critique of bureaucratic authority. Based on interviews and on archival work in Hunan (for which Wu was jailed and subject to interrogation), Wu gives a remarkably clear history of the organizational precedents for the Shengwulian group in Hunan—this itself is a remarkable feat of historiography—and the specific historical conjunctures to which it was a response. The chapter also makes clear that Yang Xiguang, member of Shengwulian and author of the famous “Whither China” essay, was not the only active intellectual in the movement. Wu makes clear that the standard view of Shengwulian as a movement of the disaffected and persecuted is not an inaccurate one, but argues convincingly that the group’s politics are not reducible to that.

The combination of locally based demands and the development of novel political ideas that informed and gave new meaning to specific incidents and grievances had a potentially explosive impact on the mass politics of the Cultural Revolution. But such ruptural moment did not materialize. Condemned as “anarchist” and anti-party, these critical currents were swiftly crushed by national and local authorities. The political and theoretical activities of the activists were suppressed ruthlessly. They were denounced for calling for the discarding of party leadership and deliberately propagating a false image of a self-perpetrating bureaucratic class. With the reassertion of organizational regimentation and interpretive control, critical voices emergent in the movement were silenced, and political orthodoxy was reimposed. (185)

The Shengwulian group was active as the most radical phase of the CR was winding down, as the party was consolidating the policies of containment and neutralization that crystallized in reaction to developments such as those described above. The Shengwulian presented a particularly radical challenge to the newly consolidated state orthodoxy, and Wu’s analysis makes clear why it met with such a heavy state response.

The Shengwulian was one of many popular anti-bureaucracy movements around the country that arose from the end of 1967 and into 1968, when all of them met the heavy hand of the state and suffered the same fate as Shengwulian’s. Indeed, as Wu shows from a survey of mostly Chinese-language scholarship, the most violent phase of the CR was a consequence of violence perpetrated by the state against these late-period militants. The period between 1970 and 1976 is a significant gap in Wu’s historical coverage, even given that the book is not intended to be a “history” of the CR. This is the most under-researched period of the CR, and we will need to await further scholarship before this period can be evaluated more fully.11 Extra-party mass movements had ceased to exist, but as I mentioned above, struggles continued within schools and factories as the CR was institutionalized. Although the period was indeed characterized by purges of “class enemies,” it is likely that in this period, as in earlier periods, there were a range of antagonisms that were carried out within this discursive frame. It is possible that further research on this period might reveal “micro-margins,” within particular institutions, and thus complicate Wu’s analysis of neutralization and containment.

Wu continues his analysis of the anti-bureaucratic tendencies by skipping to the immediate post-Mao period in the late 70s, treating material more familiar to readers of English-language scholarship—Li Yizhe, Chen Erjin, and Democracy Wall, commonly taken as the first stirrings of western-style human rights and liberal democracy discourse. Wu places this irruption of late Seventies politics within the context of the grassroots anti-bureaucratic movements that arose in late 1967 and early 1968, and makes a clear and convincing case for the many continuities he finds between movements of the two periods. The economic and political shifts of the immediate post-Mao years had, of course, created the latter opening, and political contingency made it initially expedient for the Deng Xiaoping reformist faction to use and tolerate the movement. Containment and neutralization of these energies would take a new form, however, with the 1978 Deng-ist reforms, which Wu analyzes according to Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution,” whereby the earlier antagonisms were displaced into and neutralized by the new context of market reforms. The state logic of containment that arose in 1968 perdured, albeit in a new form.

Here, although it is not discussed in The Cultural Revolution at the Margins, I believe it would be useful to return to the reform-period center/local dynamics discussed at the beginning of this essay, which, as I suggested, represent a different version of politics and economics at the margins. Wu’s late-Seventies “margins” are worker-intellectual anti-authoritarian activists, who continued, in a different form and in new language, the radical anti-bureaucratic politics of the Cultural Revolution. Equally significant in the early reform period were spontaneous village-level reorganizations of rural industrial production. There remain significant ideological and political disputes about the nature of this development. Many on the Chinese Left hold that in its initial phases, these represented popular, locally based mutations of a cooperative mode of production, at more remove from state control, but in which the development of ownership and private property rights was not on the political-economic agenda. I tend to concur with this judgment.12 This is also, however, one argument made by the “continuity” school in China, which sees in the early Deng-era reforms significant continuities with Mao-era socialist developmentalism, but without bureaucratic and authoritarian shackles of the earlier period, in other words, a politically progressive development. There are significant political implications in these claims for continuity. In this school’s analysis of the present period, to summarize somewhat crudely, China remains a socialist country, and in the absence of universal private-property rights, and minus the consolidation of a distinct capitalist class with its own social power, the state retains the capacity—although it has largely chosen not to exercise this capacity—to shape development along socialist and egalitarian lines, given the rapid development of productive forces and China’s participation in the global economy on its own terms.13 This is certainly an overestimation of the Chinese state’s ability or will to create a socio-economic system that represents a serious alternative to globally dominant modes of capitalist accumulation. It does represent a conviction that the CCP is a power wherein the political and the economic spheres continue to have a different relationship than elsewhere in the capitalist world, and that socialist or social-democratic political and ideological hegemony within the party remains a possibility.

I would suggest, rather, that the course of the reform period, especially beginning in the 1990s, with its massive acceleration of private enterprise development and capitalist market relations, even within the state-owned enterprises, represented a reshaping of the center/local or center/margin dynamic, locating it no longer in the realm of politics, but in the realm of differentiated capitalist spatiality. To date, this has served the state reasonably well. But the negative consequences—corruption, over-capacity, local debt, environmental degradation—not only render the economy more prone to crises but, more importantly, threaten state legitimacy. Current efforts to reassert central control and rationalize the bureaucracy are intended to address these threats. It is doubtful that this effort, even if successful, could immunize China against capitalist crisis. But it could very possibly, in the near future, in any case, weaken the capacity for innovation or political creativity at “the margins.”

The Chinese Left was generally enthusiastic about developments in Chongqing at the end of the first decade of this century. Bo Xilai, Chongqing party chairman, announced a series of social-democratic reforms and an expansion of the government-owned sector of the economy, and revived, though the singing of “red songs” and other public forums, some of the populist language of the Mao era. As I have written elsewhere, developments in Chongqing departed in very few ways from the market-reform state’s developmentalist path, and it was questionable whether the modest social-democratic reform programs were economically sustainable, or whether they were, as Bo Xilai’s champions claimed, exportable to the country at large and not merely a slightly progressive version of the spatial fix.14 Bo fell from power in 2012—and the extent to which this was a political or a criminal affair is still debated. Many leftist supporters reacted with alarm when then Premier Wen Jiabao raised the specter of the Cultural Revolution in his denunciation of Bo. Although there was nothing especially radical in Bo’s politics, the Cultural Revolution language signaled central concern over the political implications of excessive local deviation. His fall was likely to end, for the time being at least, of any possibility of significant innovation at the local level.

Existing scholarship on the Cultural Revolution in China generally adheres to the official state view of “ten years of disaster” or restricts itself to detailed, often regionally specific empirical study. It is difficult to do more than that, and the political argument that Wu is advancing here would not be possible in China. In English-language scholarship, another set of constraints obtains. One is what Jacques Rancière once referred to as the “police view of history”: the historian functions as the cop at the scene of an incident, urging witnesses to move along by saying “nothing happened”: the CR as disastrous aberration without anything significant at the level of content. More serious studies commonly focus on planes of antagonism either at the level of the CCP higher bureaucracy, or between factions among the people, factions whose own organizational logics are interpreted in various ways, most commonly according to material or corporate group interest, and to the relationship or non-relationship between politics at the center and in the extra-party organizations.

Wu’s achievement in this book is to consider the primary antagonism as that between the party state bureaucracy and the “marginal” political forces that arose either in the early period of the CR or in reaction to the containment/consolidation of late 1967 and into 1968. His analysis overlaps with, but is ultimately quite different from, that of Perry and Li, for whom worker politics in the CR was primarily an expression of worker interest. For Wu, as outlined above, has a more nuanced sense of “interest.” It also has some overlap with, but is ultimately quite different from the very interesting work of Alessandro Russo, who has a much more sanguine view of the anti-bureaucratic politics of Mao and others in the Cultural Revolution Group. Wu’s book makes a coherent and important argument about the political content of popular movements in the CR, even though these politics remained inchoate, and the deep impact that these movements had on the nature of the party state. The legitimacy of the contemporary Chinese state rests on the twin pillars of developmentalism and “maintaining stability” (weiwen). The latter is of course a notoriously fluid term, and serves a number of purposes—suppression of popular protest movements, militarization of ethnic-minority regions, controls on the internet—but it is widely understood to refer in no small part to the “chaos” (luan) of the not-so-distant past. In keeping with the logic of negation that this position embodies, the state thus remains within the parameters set by the Cultural Revolution, which makes Wu’s study so vital today.

The New Deal and the New Order of Capitalist Institutions (1972)

Selections from a longer text in Sergio Bologna and Antonio Negri, eds., Operai e stato: Lotte operaie e riforma dello Stato capitalistico tra rivoluzione d’ottobre e New Deal (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1972).

To speak of the New Deal as a huge qualitative leap in the development of capitalist institutions – a leap that, precisely because it functions at a crucial point in the plot1 of capitalist society at a global level, has itself a special historical importance – seems to be a statement by now generally taken to be wholly correct. The matter was already settled in the mind of its greatest protagonist [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and in the ideology created around him that enthusiastically founded the “myth” of the New Deal’s “revolution”; and, if every myth must have a real justification, this one lay in the effective dismantling of the system in the rapid course of a decade. No less significant, at this level, is the bitter opposition from various positions that the New Deal came to provoke; these were attitudes that then, and not accidentally, flowed back against it in a wide underlying consensus. Even the opposition was to become New Dealistic2 in a “me-too” fashion. In any case, one can recognize in the facts the irreversibility of the new order imposed or acquired by the New Deal. But how was this tremendous leap of the entire capitalist order reflected internally? On what points did it hinge and along which lines did its upheaval unfold, even while it is still taken in general shape as a given fact, or, at the least, as a more than legitimate working hypothesis?

It’s clear that passing to analysis, which alone might give us a definitive answer, our research would be strengthened and supported by an accomplished articulation of the hypotheses. But it’s precisely on this point that the usefulness of what we might call traditional elaboration is attenuated: instead of responses in terms of a global political-institutional system, we get either ideological generalizations or sectarian responses, more solid yet limited. The most incisive recent effort to offer a synthetic interpretation of the period, even if still within the limits of an analysis conducted in terms of ideological constellation, is that of Hofstadter. Therefore, it’s from there that we can proceed.

It seems difficult to contest Hofstadter’s theses in their negative part, so to speak: for Hofstadter, the New Deal was essentially a “fresh start,” and, above all, a radical rupture with the entire populist and progressive tradition which, on first glance, it might appear close to. We shouldn’t marvel at the way that it manages to yoke together the whole multicolored world of that tradition – from bimetallism to the KKK, from “muckrakers” to the campaign for competition, from the struggle for social welfare to that for prohibition, and, above all, in their most conscious, historically and politically significant forms, from the “neonationalism” of Theodore Roosevelt to the “new liberty” of Woodrow Wilson. That’s to say, it connects the social and political climate of which it is an expression, however mediated. That is a climate dominated, according to Hofstadter, by the already massive presence of social-economic forces, which can be read through small urban entrepreneurship and the figure of the farmer, who became more active on the political scene the more dramatically they struggled with continuous social upheavals brought about by the expansion of capitalist production relations. From this perspective, it’s no great leap to see how the true lineage of populism could gather, in the ’30s, the unequivocal figure of Huey Long, the “lord” of Louisiana, or a variety of Father Coughlins, Reverend Smiths, and Doctor Townsends; and, as Hofstadter notes, that progressivism, so strong in the moralizing campaigns and protests in defense of competition and balancing the books, truly came out of the Republican “opposition” to the New Deal.

Naturally, all of this is of little direct interest to us. But it remains important insofar as it lets us understand, or at least intuit, just how much the old stratification of society was revolutionized in the span of years from the First World War to the “second” Roosevelt. To discern it in its particulars would require extended research, but the lines are clear all the same: it is the polarization of an entire society toward a “pure” capitalist form. Concentration of capital on one side, and concentration, enlargement, and flattening of labor-power on the other.3

This sweeping process took off in ’29 with an intensity proportional to the liberty with which it was performed. No one could see the point from which it might have started: not the workers who, having struck down in ’20 the prospect of a direct assault on the state, now found themselves without even the minimal practical instruments of organization available for immediate use. Not capital, which was totally disorientated, incapable of fully explaining the reasons for the crash, searching, through Hoover, for “international” causes that convinced no one, and precisely because of this, fearful of restarting accumulation along paths already taken. The years from the crash to Roosevelt were years of stalling: a paradoxical situation, where everything was in movement and everything remained still. In other words: the situation couldn’t last indefinitely. But public consciousness itself couldn’t imagine [a way out], either a directly capitalist initiative of exiting the impasse differently from what was happening that very same moment in Germany [i.e. the Nazis], or a workers’ initiative different from that of 15 years prior and the situation of general societal breakdown that brought the Bolsheviks to power.

From this emerged the New Deal. We have to acknowledge this, because there is an element of historical truth contained in all these ideological theorizations about the New Deal’s third way, or, if one prefers, about American “exceptionalism,” – provided, that is, that we remember that this exception had the same logic as every exception in the capitalist mode of production: it will be suppressed, or it will be imposed as a general rule, with all the force of a natural law.

The New Deal’s initiative meant a political initiative that moves and develops entirely from institutions, from the state, from collective capital. When we see big finance, the Morgans and Mellons, Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufactures all put themselves entirely at the disposition of Roosevelt, who leads the charge, we are not witnessing a picture whatsoever similar to old representations of investment. Behind the resigned attitude of a Morgan in ’33, there is the awareness that the single capitalist, big as he may well be, does not succeed – does not because he cannot – in seeing with his own eyes anything beyond the possibilities and needs of his own profit, his own market. He can’t see the average rise of profit or the market as a whole, which, at this level of development, signifies society as a whole. In order to see this and to govern society, collective eyes and arms are needed: and in this historical moment, these are Roosevelt’s eyes and the New Deal’s “arsenal.” In this moment, the crucial leap is made, or, at least, its immediate premises are laid. Later, the old brawl between business and government will start up again, but the fundamentals have already been decided: there will be either verbal battles, from the rearguard in particular, or, as we will see, they will have new causes. Either way, all will be carried out on the ground created by the New Deal and will often even extend it.

Roosevelt, for his part, is perfectly aware of what is happening, and he comes to embody it rapidly, in spite of his purported pragmatism: “The truth of the matter, of course, is that the exponents of the theory of private initiative as the cure for deep-seated national ills want in most cases to improve the lot of mankind. But, well intentioned as they may be, they fail for four evident reasons – first, they see the problem from the point of view of their own business; second, they see the problem from the point of view of their own locality or region; third, they cannot act unanimously because they have no machinery for agreeing among themselves; and, finally, they have no power to bind the inevitable minority of chiselers within their own ranks.”4

Obviously, we’re not talking about the discovery of state intervention: those who stop at this vacuous generality would risk misunderstanding, entirely of their own fault, and would have reason to object – like an Italian expert of labor law – that, when seen really on the institutional and political level, the New Deal was a direct heir of the neo-nationalism of the first Roosevelt or even of the politics of W. Wilson, in the way that its effective management practically contradicted Jeffersonian ideology.

At the same time, we’re not seeking to simply counterpose a “positive government” to a “negative government;” we’re dealing instead with a different total function and therefore with a qualification of the New Deal’s “positive government” different even in comparison to the “positivity” of previous interventionism. This difference also isn’t to be found in the charge of “empire,” with greater or lesser intensity of constriction, in regards to single capitalists, because from this point of view, there were far more sanctioning mechanisms in the Sherman Act or the Clayton Act, with its Federal Trade Commission, than in the NRA (National Recovery Adminstration) and its “codes,” of which tbe only unique (or quasi-unique) formal guarantee was bound up with the abolition of the Blue Eagle [in 1935], collective capital’s certificate of merit given to its own functionaries. Nor does the difference lie in the immediate contents of the intervention, if it is true that between the concrete administration of anti-trust legislation in the years of the New Deal and the declared aims of the NRA, or the “efficientist” imposition enacted in the course of the “second New Deal,” there was perfect continuity.

So just what are we dealing with? One lone, unadorned fact alone offers the key to an answer: in the space of one year, the more than 600 laws sanctioned by Roosevelt – containing price fixes, production quantities, wage conditions, etc. – pertained to 95% of American employers! Here it is no longer a question of interventionism but of the direct responsibility of the state, in the first person, for the entire production of value. Here, even in symbolic form, a whole series of traditional presuppositions of the State and its relation to society (and the economy) discover, in the framework of an uninterrupted continuity of power, their own practical reversal.

In reality, if one really wants to find precedents and practical origins of the first New Deal models, they should be sought in the brief, exceptional experience of the War Industries Board: and it is hardly accidental that here, in General Hugh Johnson of the NRA or George Peck of the AAA, one can even identify them with specific persons. But it is really this reference to the model of war industry management, which is achieved by now and which imposes itself out from here, that can spontaneously generate the objection that, because that was an episode, imposed by circumstances and limited in time, the required leap made by the institutions of the New Deal, and of which NIRA was without doubt a qualifying element, can also be traced back to a parenthesis, imposed by the no less dramatic situation of the war and totally dominated by the need to exit the crises however possible, the need to secure the recovery by whatever means necessary.

It’s an idea that, in turn, might find ample confirmation in the fact that, between ’35 and ’36, a large part of institutional construction put in place in the preceding years had to fall and that, therefore, of this construction, it was specifically the NIRA that would not be brought back to life; yet this shouldn’t be accidental or surprising, because it was then believed, and still is by many, to be a largely “failed” measure.

There emerges here, in other words, an interpretative tendency to separate, if not to oppose, recovery and reform within the overall New Deal experience; a tendency that was nourished also by the distinction, to which we’ll return, between a “first” and “second” New Deal.

Even if one had, in general, excellent reasons for doubting every attempt to abstractly distinguish between “recovery” and “reform,” between conjuncture and development, how should one reconcile these apparently contrasting elements in this case? How to square the importance of NIRA – here assuming for simplicity that exemplary and summary moment of the political-institutional leap – with the admission (and in line with current view) not just of the exhaustion of its function but truly of its failure, less than two years from its founding?

It does not seem difficult to isolate the path through which to exit this problem of how to interpret the New Deal “revolution,” as soon as one has got free of that abstract, and merely institutional, approach. In fact: what signifies all that formidable articulation of the state over society, that flows down from the state as from the political heavens,

that coordinates around a single center of gravity the entire process of social reproduction and its conditions? This is, it’s said, the discovery of society, of capitalist society; the discovery of a real dynamic that was grown through many convulsions and that today shows itself before our eyes not just in all its complexity but also in all its terrible simplicity; it is an active discovery, that is an immediate need, of the necessity of organization and control. But now it’s clear that, for the restructuring to be effective and functional, for it to constitute that new “economic constitutional order” of which Roosevelt spoke (in a much-noted speech to the Commonwealth Club of California), the entire structure of society will be learned, in its real consistency and real contradictions, beyond any “popular” ideological residue. Now, the paradox, if you wish, of the American situation in ’31 is this: while capital, that which is wrongly accused of incurable individualism, offers to society a compact political will and rich organizational forms for proceeding with “industrial reorganization,” the working class cannot “offer,” so to speak, anything of this sort: it covers an economically broad surface but one totally, or nearly, without handholds. One can’t take into serious consideration the unions of the Gompersian trades [i.e. the AFL], which gathered less than 3 million workers, an extremely low percentage of the total labor-power of the factory, true leftovers of a situation in which unionized workers were not just the heart but also – still – the relatively restricted elite of the proletariat. Instead, after the rapid massification of workers in preceding years (the disappearance of the proletariat within direct relations of factory production), and under the whip of the crisis, it became an urgent political and economic necessity to recuperate for society a comprehensive and organized figure of the working class.

If there was, with the New Deal, a leap made by institutions, its characteristic internal element was this need for a public remedy through the “economic” organization of the working class. If NIRA was the “heart” of the 100 days [i.e. the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s administration], then paragraph 7(a) – that imposed by law the necessary conditions for unionization5 and that the organizations of industrialists themselves had demanded in a moment of maximum awareness (knowing full well that, without a legislative obligation, each of them at the meeting would be “forced” to squeeze salaries to save their own capital, thereby accelerating the tailspin of the Depression) – is, in outlook, the heart of the entire New Deal.

So, what failed in ’35, when the NIRA was annulled, or better, what had not succeeded to the degree demanded by the circumstances, was really that paragraph 7(a). But it did not shift the fundamental axis of the New Deal one iota: it didn’t shift it for the workers who also, in ’35, speak of the NRA as the “National Round Around,”6 but who together, for their own interests, drive more than the half the struggles of that year on the theme of union organization or, if you prefer, for the “respecting” of 7(a). It did not shift for the New Deal that, in the same year, substituted 7(a) with the Wagner Act, guaranteeing it on a larger scale. Of the latter, one could say from a historical perspective, that it was to be the “most significant measure of the first and second New Deal, that which engraved itself most lastingly on the structure of American society.”7

It is of absolutely secondary importance, in this regard, that the Wagner Act was not a direct Roosevelt initiative or that Roosevelt had taken it up and supported it only after it was approved by the lower House. Those who are embarrassed by this difficulty problem could speak of a “real cunning of reason.”8 It’s important to grasp its absolutely characteristic significance in this specific historical phase. One is simply dealing with the fact of unionization itself: from this point of view, the birth of the CIO, the jump from 3 million unionized workers in ’33 to 7 million in ’37, to 41 in ’45, would seem above all – as in the cover, the recuperation of a delay with respect to the conditions of capitalist production in other countries. But the fact of the matter is that, at that level of the system’s development (and with the crisis having at least served to impose awareness of this), unionization was, or least became, a directly capitalist exigency and need.

We’re not crafting a “fantastic” or ideological story of the New Deal: capital’s needs are always, in the last analysis, hard economic needs. In this case, the immediate need was to resolve the enormous economic problem of the crisis, even if the solution came to condition, as a projection forward, an entire historical phase of capitalist society. Workers’ union organization – that is, the class of workers as seen through the eyes of capital – is necessary because it – not by itself, if you wish; it is just one directly Keynesian face of the New Deal – could stimulate and guarantee the recovery of development, moving from the single grounding point it could find that would let it realize this in a stable fashion. To put the second category of the Marxian schema9 in relation with the first, and to ensure this relation, it is in fact necessary that the process begin again and that it will be guided by the rise of demands, by purchasing power: workers’ unionization in all branches of production signifies exactly that guarantee of the rate of increase of salary in single branches of industry (whose downward rigidity has already been discovered) and of the rise of the global mass of wages.


[The protests of capital] in fact project today nothing other than results achieved by the New Deal. It isn’t a question of “verifying” that hypothesis; only, if anything, of fleshing out its construction. It would have to result in, on one side, the adherence of terms of the actual situation to those constructed within the New Deal; and, on the other, as new problems that emerge and demand new solutions born from the internal logic of that balance. We might say that it is all the more possible today to grasp the construction of the New Deal as the opening of the “historical phase” in the development of capitalist society insofar as it reveals itself, and its specific internal characteristics, to be over. Because the United States will now have to refer, in all likelihood, back to the ’50s when capital, determinedly following its “technological way” toward anti-worker repression, made the leap to the “era of automation” and, conversely, spread wide the gap between the autonomous logic of the struggle of workers from that of their “organizations.”10 As always, it is in the moment of crisis that the essential features of the old order are revealed. This transition is perfectly realized in dialectical form. That extraordinary Fordist intuition, having become through the New Deal the Grundnorm of capitalist society, assigns to the wage its role as the strategic share of revenue within the dynamics of the system, and to the working class the concrete function of capital’s “moving motor.” Yet the grand effort of “appropriating” the working class, like the daily appropriation of their labor-power by capital, could have no other result than to render the contradictions of the system even more intimate. Here is rooted the crisis of that same order achieved through the New Deal, a crisis that can only collide with what [the New Deal] sought to claim as its most mature institutional achievement: the “function” of the union.

For this reason, it might seem interesting to give a quick glance at more recent developments; for this, the indications of a good enough manual will suffice. Therefore, today, “certain principles seem to be fixed. Among these are the right of labor to organize for collective bargaining, the duty of each party to negotiate in good faith, the right of employers to express their opinions in a noncoercive way to their employees, the liability of labor organizations to suit, the recognition of the distinctiveness of the supervisor’s position, determination of questions of representation by election, and prohibition of political contributions from corporate or union funds.” 11

The uncertainties still surrounding certain points – like indirect boycott, mass picketing – don’t shift the general framework. But more interesting to consider are new problems: these are the problems born, we’d say, “from the existence of third party interests: the totality of the public.” The so recent use of so old an idea isn’t accidental. It’s the most evident index of a real difficulty, born on properly economic terrain, of the dynamics of these elements to which were entrusted the task of the recovery.

We see in this nothing less than its basic institutional shape, which is of interest to us now. The problem comes to be posed in terms of a “monopoly of labor.” It’s not the problem, mind you, of the closed or union shop, that directs an entire category of workers under a single union. The Taft-Hartley Act, in this regard, may have been a reactionary moment, to the degree it sought to intervene on this point. But the unity of the union in the company or in the category isn’t here in question; the unity of representation is even seen as a positive fact. The co-involved problems are indeed problems of the excessive breadth of the bargaining and of the union. More precisely – for the moment excluding the impracticably drastic solution of resubmitting the unions to anti-trust law – the major open questions were the following two:

1) What must the public political stance in the case that bargaining fails? This is the problem that lies behind the final demand of the outline of labor conflicts prepared by the Railways Act. One could arrange the outline as one liked, one might extend it in all possible ways, but at a certain point, this [failure of bargaining] had to come. It’s precisely this that they sought to avoid: not because workers pressure for wage increases always requires open and official war in order to be heard (also because the struggle was always used consciously by the union, in the initial bargaining phases, as a steam valve to reduce the pressure that built up past a point “rationally” possible to obtain), but more simply because a demand always contains something worrying. And moreover, the problem, in its abstract terms, is irresolvable, or at the least, its conflictuality cannot be eliminated. So in concrete terms, the best solution still seemed to be that of putting trust in the self-regulation of the mechanism, only taking care to handle it in a more “rational” manner or to once again extend the length of its passages. But the dissatisfaction was obvious, as the existing balance’s slump betrayed awareness of its unsustainability.

2) On the other hand, the so-called public interests don’t lie only in the “industrial,” i.e. in the existence of correct relations between involved parties and of procedural rules that could determine the dynamics; nor were they only concerned to avoid blockages of production (which was a later specification of those interests behind this peace). Today, one could say, they concern also the contents of these agreements. The problem can also be expressed in these terms: “whether the public can leave the determination of some issues to private parties whose jurisdiction is industry-wide, or whose decisions are pattern-setting. These decisions may have such large consequences toward inflation, impairment of the American competitive position abroad, increase of unemployment, or other results as to raise a question whether they should be made in a forum where only private parties, under constraint to represent their limited clienteles, participate in the decision.”12

This is an increasingly pressing problem. How to confront it? On one hand, by reinforcing the tripartite bargaining model: if a general interest is in play, it must be represented: and it can be done so indifferently, either by the government or by “neutral” technicians.

On the other, there’s the formulation of guideposts “for the non-inflationary movement of prices and wages.” This is the most consistent strategic move, especially because, for the time being, it reconciles the desire for public intervention with that of avoiding solutions that are merely impositions or that are irregular or ad hoc presidential interventions. The guideposts (whose principle is the equalization of taxes on wage increases in single branches of industry with the tax on the general rise in productivity) are contained for the first time in the 1962 report of the Council of Economic Advisors; it’s the Council of Kennedy.

In this case, the “new frontier” is that of the entirety of international capital: the “politics of wages” and the repression of legitimate struggles by the “plan” already have nothing uniquely American about them. The New Deal, tested in the highest point of capitalist development in a crucial moment, is by now behind them, and behind us all.


A few conclusive remarks seem possible on the basis of what has just been observed. What reveals itself is a series of contradictory movements in the relation between bourgeois political terrain and the social process of capitalist production. The horizon of the New Deal would seem to be dominated by a unique tension. In effect, what presented itself, in still limited dimensions, for the first time with the “legislation on factories” – “that first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed form of the process of production”13 – could then become a completely developed reality when all of society is directly inserted into the production process of capital. In the same way that the legislation of factories is already a legislation of capital by capital, of the variable part of itself, on the level of the society-factory it gives objective grounding to legislation of the working class by collective capital. It would not seem unjustified to see in the New Deal a historically foundational point of passage in this development.

However, this process has its own dialectic. On one side, the machinery of the political state tends to increasingly identify itself with the figure of the collective capitalist and increasingly becomes the property of the capitalist mode of production and therefore a function of the capitalist. On the other, however, this “recuperation within society… of the political functions of the state” necessarily participates in the mystifying appearances of a society divided into classes and in the mystified relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society. In fact: as “when the factory becomes boss of all society… the factory seems to vanish,” as “the real rising process of proletarianization presents itself as the formal process of tertiarization,” so “the return of political and state functions inside the very structure of civil society presents itself as a contradiction between state and society: the increasingly strict functionality of politics and economy as the possible autonomy of the political terrain from economic relations.”14

We should also perhaps underscore now that this “appearance” is, or becomes, also a real process, a necessity. Here the New Deal enters it only relatively: it was totally engaged in the “discovery” of capitalist society. The discourse bears on recent developments: when, today, we see the autonomy of the political vigorously confirmed and constructed, while for some time now the state has become the subjective principle of the imputation of the process of social reproduction, in which we can discern a defensive principle, a spy of a capital’s weakness on its own terrain, that found in the New Deal a historic point of departure and the essential terms of its own explication.

This weakness is a reality that capital must learn on its own accord, through experience. The awareness of this is entirely absent in technocratic utopias of controlled industry, of which there were so many in the New Deal. When Berle and Means end The Modern Corporation (1932) by writing: “The future may see the economic organism, now typified by the corporation, not only on an equal plane with the state, but possibly even superseding it as the dominant form of social organization. The law of corporations, accordingly, might well be considered as a potential constitutional law for the new economic state, while business practice is increasingly assuming the aspect of economic statesmanship”15 – this is the confident and optimistic proposition of a new economic order. It’s fitting that the union, officially constituted, enter into this process, because the new order loses every ambiguous corporate residue, and presents itself instead as the organization of freely contracted subjects, a system of “counterposed powers,” and dynamic democracy.

Society-factory, capitalist social plan: from the first historical realization of this movement is born the optical illusion that foresees the “extinction” of the exponential accumulation of social violence. What we can’t see immediately, though, is how the social diffusion of domination and the apparent “truce” between “politics” and “economy” necessarily contains within in itself the concentration of factory despotism [to be spread] over all of society, the relation of separation that must increasingly reunite authority with consensus.

But the experience ends by putting into crisis this optimism about a perfect democracy on economic ground: workers keep pushing, even if in fits and starts, the terms of trade to their favor, doing so in a disordered fashion dangerous given the overall equilibrium. We aren’t reproposing an updated edition of theses of the automatic discovery of contradictions: what is there of the automatic in the workers struggles? Nor are we discussing a mythic system of “high salaries”: high or low, in the end, in terms of what? The problem is that of the function of the wage. Between the New Deal proposition of the wage as the spurring moment of development and the actual generalization of the politics of income as the specific content of the plan, there moves a true and proper historical period, a cycle of development. This is the hypothesis that we are proposing once again. To find its depth and proof, our research will have to properly begin.

– Translated by Evan Calder Williams

The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin (1968)

I. The Revolutionary Crisis

1. Attempts at a Definition

In several places throughout his work, Lenin tries to define the notion of a “revolutionary crisis,” especially in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and The Collapse of the Second International. However, he outlines a notion more than he establishes [fonder] a concept, as the descriptive criteria that he enumerates remain subjective assessments.

These criteria are stated most clearly in The Collapse of the Second International. First, Lenin tries to discern the “symptoms of a revolutionary situation”:

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses…1

Lenin views “the totality of all these objective changes” as the elements of a revolutionary situation.2 This definition remains theoretically imprecise, especially since these criteria cannot be considered in isolation from one another but only in their interdependence. The “increase in the activity of the masses” and the “crisis of the ruling class” reciprocally condition each other. In Left-Wing Communism, these main criteria undergo a noticeable shift, as there Lenin also stresses the support [ralliement] of the middle classes for the proletarian cause. Again, this support cannot be understood as a phenomenon in itself, but only through its relation to other prerequisite phenomena. The support of the other classes is all the more resolute when the proletariat shows itself to be determined in its struggle.

The Leninist definition of the revolutionary situation thus involves an interplay of elements which interact in complex and variable ways, and cannot easily be analyzed in a rigorous and objective manner. Trotsky takes a similar approach in his History of the Russian Revolution, such as when he takes up Lenin’s definition and explicitly emphasizes this dimension of reciprocal conditioning:

That these premises condition each other is obvious. The more decisively and confidently the proletariat acts, the better will it succeed in bringing after it the intermediate layer, the more isolated will be the ruling class, and the more acute its demoralisation. And, on the other hand, a demoralisation of the rulers will pour water into the mill of the revolutionary class.3

But if the analysis of a revolutionary situation always appears to be revisable, then the intervention of a deciding factor would correct the dangers of imprecision by unifying the other disparate factors and grounding their interaction. Trotsky considers the “revolutionary party” as a deciding condition in the seizure of power insofar as it is a “tightly welded and tempered vanguard of the class.”4 Lenin also sees the party as what differentiates a revolutionary situation from a revolutionary crisis.

it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls,” if it is not toppled over.5

In this way, the revolutionary organization transcends the tentative status of the different conditions of a revolutionary crisis; it also links these conditions together and unifies them. Their juxtaposition is abolished through this point of intersection. The weakness of the ruling classes, the impatience of the lower classes, the support of the middle classes: all these factors strengthen the party. The nature of the crisis seems to reside in the fact that the unmeasurable diversity of the revolutionary situation is unified by the organization that works within these conditions. The nodal point of the crisis is no longer located in one particular objective element, but is transferred within the organization-subject that combines and incorporates them.

2. What is the Object of the Crisis?

In order to overcome the inaccuracies that mark any attempt at defining the notion of revolutionary crisis, it is necessary to go beyond literal interpretations. One must begin again on a theoretical basis that is not found in these initial definitions and which alone can bring us to a true concept. First, in order to talk about a crisis, we need to know that there is one. Two levels of this question have to be distinguished, and confusing them only leads to further obstacles. More specifically, there needs to be a theoretical understanding of the crisis that is distinct from its practical manifestations. If we consider the succession of modes of production – understood as theoretically elaborated models that subsume the diversity of social formations – then the rupture between modes of production can perhaps be understood as a crisis. But this brings us back to a problem which is unsolvable at the theoretical level; we can juxtapose different models, but the transition from one mode of production to another cannot be deduced through logic, and a theory cannot be constructed out of a logical sequence without making a detour through politics. The “pure” mode of production – the one Marx derived from the historical conditions of nineteenth-century England – does not exist in reality. It is an abstract-formal object, an archetype that does not correspond to any concrete social formation, and for good reason. Nicos Poulantzas, in his Political Power and Social Classes, considers a social formation as “the specific overlapping of several ‘pure’ modes of production.” He also adds: “the social formation itself constitutes a complex unity in which a certain mode of production dominates the others which compose it.”6

The revolutionary crisis, then, is not the crisis of a mode of production, because between modes of production there is a transformation, not a crisis. The crisis of a determinant social formation, which involves the real forces that bring to life and actualize the contradictions of a mode of production (in Lenin’s words: “all history is made up of the actions of individuals, who are undoubtedly active figures”7), is the only type of crisis that can be analyzed.

This is why Lenin defines the essential characteristics and dominant aspects of the current Russian social formation with such exactness. From the 1890s onwards, he devotes much time to careful research, compiling the most detailed statistics on the zemstvos. From these early works, he delineates the arguments that will anchor all the strategic and tactical maneuvers of his political practice. The Development of Capitalism in Russia is a product of this arduous work, as its conclusions will be the reliable reference points that Lenin refers to when faced with difficult questions.

In “What The ‘Friends of the People’ Are,” written in 1894, the conclusions of The Development were already being broached: “everywhere in Russia the exploitation of the working people is by its nature capitalistic.”8 He draws all the consequences from this position, in particular that it is impossible to “find in Russia any branch of handicraft industry, at all developed, which is not organized on capitalist lines.”9 From now on, these certainties will serve to ground any political strategy: Russian revolutionaries will fight against a capitalist social formation (even if feudal remnants survive in the countryside). Lenin underscores this argument in the first point of the program declared at the RSDLP congress in 1902: “Commodity production is ever more rapidly developing in Russia, the capitalist mode of production becoming increasingly dominant in it.”10

Lenin defined his opponents in this manner from his earliest political experiences. This confrontational clarity always informed his analytic methods and tactical choices. As the Russian revolutionaries fought against capitalism, their strategy of alliance contained an understanding of the unequal development of the economic sectors within Russian capitalism; but they never forgot that the crisis they were working towards was that of the capitalist system itself. It is these same analyses from the young Lenin that will support the interpretation of the Russian Revolution found in The Renegade Kautsky:

Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the “whole” of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place.11

The path ahead is clear, given that the objective remains the overthrow of the form of capitalism already dominant within the Russian social formation; the Russian Social-Democrats sought a temporary alliance with the peasantry in order to destroy the vestiges of feudalism in agriculture. Lenin’s various agricultural programs made it imperative to determine the correct grounds for this revolutionary alliance. But the struggle against feudalism and autocracy was only a springboard for the anti-capitalist struggle, which remained the principal objective.

In Capital, Marx emphasized that the capitalist process of production, considered in its continuity as a process of reproduction, does not only produce commodities or surplus value; it produces and reproduces the capital relation itself: “on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer.”12 The system that reproduces itself also engenders its own crises; its contradictions produce ruptural points, which can become economic crises. However, an economic crisis is not a revolutionary crisis. It can be part of the self-regulating mechanisms of the system itself, only fulfilling a “purging” function. After the crisis, with the stocks returning to previous levels and unprofitable businesses eliminated, the capitalist economy starts up again with a clean slate. Georg Lukács is insistent on this distinction between revolutionary and economic crises: “Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle.”13

The crisis of a social formation, then, has an expanding, deepening function. It is the tipping point where one can glimpse the structure of a new system, but it can just as easily be part of the self-regulation of the capitalist system. If the crisis is to become a revolutionary situation, the emphasis must be on the becoming: that is to say, it becomes surpassable in the revolutionary sense, where a subject takes hold of the process of deconstructing and reconstructing a social formation. Lukács again expresses this idea clearly, in response to the fatalists who passively wait for the final revolutionary crisis of capitalism:

It must not be forgotten, however, that the difference between the period in which the decisive battles are fought and the foregoing period does not lie in the extent and the intensity of the battles themselves. These quantitative changes are merely symptomatic of the fundamental differences in quality which distinguish these struggles from earlier ones. At an earlier stage, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, even “the massive solidarity of the workers was not yet the consequence of their own unification but merely a consequence of the unification of the bourgeoisie.” Now, however, the process by which the proletariat becomes independent and “organises itself into a class” is repeated and intensified until the time when the final crisis of capitalism has been reached, the time when the decision comes more and more within the grasp of the proletariat.14

3. Who is the Subject of the Crisis?

The crisis that affects a determinant social formation does not become revolutionary until a subject works towards its resolution; this is accomplished through taking on [attaquer] the State. The State is the strategic target, the connecting point [vérin] which maintains the relation between capitalist relations of production and the forces of production.

After having located the principal object of the crisis [the State], it still must be defeated. The Marxist problematic, reaffirmed by many of its proponents, seems indisputable on this point. It clearly distinguishes between a theoretical subject of the revolution and a politico-historical subject. The theoretical subject is the proletariat insofar as it is a class, and the political subject is its vanguard organization insofar as it incarnates and represents, not the proletariat “in-itself” (as politically, economically and ideologically dominated) but “for-itself,” when it is conscious of the process of production in its totality and its own unique role in this process.

This point relates to one of the most forceful arguments of What is to be Done?, where Lenin distinguishes between different forms of “spontaneity.” He sees spontaneity as “consciousness in its embryonic form,” but he also differentiates between degrees of consciousness, such as a directionless and subservient [asservie] spontaneity and a spontaneity freed and deepened by the revolutionary vanguard. He maintains that consciousness can only come to the working class “from without,” from intellectuals who bring them their understanding and acute knowledge of society and the process of production. “The working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness.”15

In the revolutionary crisis, the two subjects are brought together: first, the theoretical subject, because it is both the bearer of a yet-to-come [encore à venir], and vital for the formulation of revolutionary strategy; second, the political subject, or the party that takes up and elaborates this strategy. Again, Lenin commits himself to the twofold task of accurately defining the theoretical subject of the coming revolution and giving it a political subject capable of accomplishing this task.

In his early writings, Lenin is constantly concerned with showing that the proletariat is the social class most invested with a revolutionary mission. At the same time as he analyzes the Russian social formation as capitalist, he declares the autonomy of the proletariat as the only class capable of resolving the contradictions of society as a whole. He unwaveringly affirms the independent role of the proletariat in its alliances and political initiatives. From 1894 onwards, he thinks that “none but a bourgeois could see only the solidarity of the interests of the whole ‘people’ against medieval, feudal institutions and forget the profound and irreconcilable antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat within this ‘people.’”16 In the same work, Lenin advances the “fundamental and principal thesis” that “Russia is a bourgeois society which has grown out of the feudal system, that its political form is a class state, and that the only way to end the exploitation of the working people is through the class struggle of the proletariat.”17 He clarifies further: “the period of Russia’s social development, when democracy and socialism were merged in one inseparable and indissoluble whole… has gone, never to return.”18

One year later, in the “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats,” Lenin recalls that “only those fighters are strong who rely on the consciously recognized real interests of certain classes,” urging the Social-Democrats to remember and “emphasize the independent class identity of the proletariat, who tomorrow may find themselves in opposition to their allies of today.”19 He also returns to the point that “the merging of the democratic activities of the working class with the democratic aspirations of other classes and groups would weaken the democratic movement, would weaken the political struggle.”20 Because of his precise knowledge of historical conditions and the coming revolutionary crisis, Lenin avoids all confusions on this point in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, where he calls for the “support for the peasantry… insofar as the peasantry is capable of a revolutionary struggle against the survivals of serfdom in general and against the autocracy in particular.”21 In the same work, he continues:

Two basic forms of the class struggle are today intertwined in the Russian countryside: 1) the struggle of the peasantry against the privileged landed proprietors and against the remnants of serfdom; 2) the struggle of the emergent rural proletariat against the rural bourgeoisie. For Social-Democrats the second struggle, of course, is of greater importance; but they must also indispensably support the first struggle to the extent that it does not contradict the interests of social development.22

This solidly grounded and patiently refined understanding of the Russian social formation and class structure makes it possible for Lenin to grasp the real forces at work in the revolutionary crisis of 1917:

The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.23

Having elucidated the problem of the theoretical subject of the coming revolution – not the people, not the peasantry, but the proletariat – Lenin focuses all of his militant energy on making sure that the political subject will be equal to its task. He tirelessly attempts to bring the proletarian vanguard within the Social-Democratic party. It was not enough to theoretically give the proletariat the leading role in the revolution (ahead of the populist currents), as the question of emerging from the revolutionary crisis victoriously still remains. Even among those who recognize the proletariat’s leading role, there is not a real understanding of the practical means by which the latter can “become what it is” in reality: a class.

Against the Economists, Lenin demonstrates that the proletariat does not rise above the terrain of the economic struggle “spontaneously.” He posits that

The struggle of the workers becomes a class struggle only when all the foremost representatives of the entire working class of the whole country are conscious of themselves as a single working class and launch a struggle that is directed, not against individual employers, but against the entire class of capitalists and against the government that supports that class.24

Recalling the famous words of Marx, Lenin stresses that a struggle only becomes political to the extent that it becomes a struggle between classes. While he readily admits that the activity of local Social-Democratic cells forms the basis of all party activity, if this remains only the work of isolated cells, it would not be properly social-democratic, “since it will not be the organisation and leadership of the class struggle of the proletariat.”25

Lenin always defends the same – theoretically justified – concept of the party, whether it is against the Mensheviks after 1904, against the partisans of the organizational process, against the liquidationists after 1907. The party is the instrument through which the conscious elements of the proletariat reach the level of political consciousness and prepare for the confrontation with the centralized bourgeois State, the key support of the capitalist social formation. All the ideological battles that Lenin engages in regarding the party can be considered as struggles over the shaping of the political subject in preparation of the revolutionary crisis. The organization, conceived of as a historical subject, is thus not a pure form but a content: the vessel of a collective will, expressed through a theory that continually renews itself in relation to a political program of class struggle.

II. The Crisis as a Test of Truth

Of course, condensed formulas and slogans are subject to all sorts of theoretical misunderstandings and simplistic interpretations. In an article on Engels, Lenin tries to summarize Marx and Engels’s importance in one phrase: “The services rendered by Marx and Engels to the working class may be expressed in a few words thus: they taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, and they substituted science for dreams.”26

A trivial summary could give rise to many unwarranted extrapolations: on the one hand, the belief that the proletariat can, on its own, become conscious of its role through a progressive process of self-emancipation; on the other, there is a slippage towards scientism, i.e. the idea that Marxist theory is a science that speaks the Truth.

The revolutionary crisis throws light on the “absolutes” and leads us toward them in a more adequate fashion. In the decisive moments of the crisis, we can glimpse the fugitive arrival of truth: “The experience of war, like the experience of any crisis in history, of any great calamity and any sudden turn in human life, stuns and breaks some people, but enlightens and tempers others.”27

1. For Organization

The party-organization is not a pure crystal, just as theory is not a pure Science; in an internalizing movement, the party translates within itself the contradictions of the system with which it is intertwined. Rosa Luxemburg, in Marxism or Leninism?, clearly identified the origins of this occurrence:

The international movement of the proletariat toward its complete emancipation is a process peculiar in the following respect. For the first time in the history of civilization, the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. But this will can only be satisfied beyond the limits of the existing system. Now the mass can only acquire and strengthen this will in the course of day-to-day struggle against the existing social order – that is, within the limits of capitalist society. On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way.28

Two rival currents take shape within the revolutionary organization as a result of the redoubling of this contradiction: one which maintains its fidelity to the revolution, another which is susceptible to the dangers of opportunism. The organization cannot completely separate itself from society; not only does it have to prepare itself for the assault [on the state], but it also must simultaneously conduct a permanent struggle against opportunist deviations within its ranks.

Lenin and Luxemburg perceive the social causes of this opportunism differently, as each assigns greater influence to a certain factor more than the other, but their definitions also overlap at certain points.

One should first consider legal parliamentarianism and relatively long periods of stability as the causes of opportunism. Together, these phenomena produce professional representatives of the working class who can become agents of the state and are vulnerable to bourgeois interests. These political personnel in turn rely on the labor aristocracy and the petty-bourgeoisie who benefit from the spoils of colonial relations. Lenin summarizes this point in The Collapse of the Second International, where he affirms that “Opportunism has been nurtured by legalism,” or “bourgeois legality.”29

The second cause is more subtle, and is a mechanism Luxemburg makes most apparent; it consists in the fact that opportunism depends on the existence of an organization. The spread of bourgeois values and the preservation of granted privileges is not enough to explain opportunism: the defense of the organization is also a major part. These two sources inextricably reinforce each other. This occurrence did not escape Lenin: “the great and strong parties were frightened by the prospect of their organisations being dissolved, their funds sequestered and their leaders arrested by the government.”30 The constitution of a worker bureaucracy and organizational conservatism are two ways in which the party-organization manifests the contradictions of the capitalist system, affecting all members of the revolutionary ranks.

This problem is at the root of all failures, all betrayals by the working-class parties, and all reformist ideologies. May ’68 in France was an illustration of the way in which bourgeois ideology and PCF ideology are mutually connected, through the passive acceptance of an established order seen as unchangeable. The degeneration of the working-class parties can be viewed more or less in this way. Lenin always strives to determine the errors which render a party irredeemably lost: the social-chauvinist support for the war exhibited in 1914 marked for him the end of the Second International and the beginning of a factional struggle. There is no party that remains completely free from the danger of degeneration.

The organization is thus never a tempered sword; it must be defined in differential terms. Its determinate impact is established through the interval it explores, the in-between that it measures. More than being the direct expression of a class, it is marked by a gap: the gap which separates a class as theoretical subject from its political spontaneity, such as they appear within the capitalist social formation.

Lenin always held the view that social-democracy is the merger of the workers’ movement and socialism: “Isolated from Social-Democracy, the working-class movement becomes petty and inevitably becomes bourgeois.”31 We could add that when isolated from working class struggles, social-democracy also becomes disorientated and tends to degenerate; it strengthens itself on the “instincts” of the revolutionary class. The Party forms a bridge between the embryonic consciousness of the proletariat and the theoretical role with which the latter is invested. It is the necessary mediation between the concept of the working-class and its practical, alienated realization in capitalist society. This is why:

The Party’s task is not to concoct some fashionable means of helping the workers, but to join up with the workers’ movement, to bring light into it, to assist the workers in the struggle they themselves have already begun to wage… [to] develop the workers’ class-consciousness.32

The task of the Party is to hold together the two complementary poles that tear it apart: the theoretical understanding of the process of production and the role of the proletariat, and the connection with practical, everyday questions of working-class life. The Party forges itself through this permanent tension; it is between these two points that it formulates its strategy, by which the consciousness of a difference and a gap [interval] becomes the indication of a new order to come. At the same time as being the visible and “organised incarnation of their class consciousness” (Lukács), the working-class party is the witness to the gap that separates the historical role of the proletariat and its consciousness mystified by the ruling ideology.33

As the mediation between a subject (the proletariat) which is not yet conscious of its historical role and an object (capitalist social formation) that must be transformed by this subject, the party embodies and expresses the project of the working class. Here, a philosophy of the project is established, something that politics perhaps shares with science, since according to Bachelard, “above the subject and beyond the object, modern science is based on the project. In scientific thought the subject’s mediation upon the object always takes the form of a project.34 This philosophy of the project is also at the core of Sartre’s observations in the Critique of Dialectical Reason: “The project, as the subjective surpassing of objectivity toward objectivity, and stretched between the objective conditions of the environment and the objective structures of the field of possibles, represents in itself the moving unity of subjectivity and objectivity… Thus the subjective contains within itself the objective, which it denies and which it surpasses toward a new objectivity; and this new objectivity by virtue of objectification externalizes the internality of the project as an objectified subjectivity.”35

As a last example, Freud’s formula of Wo es War, soll ich werden contains the idea of a movement which carries a disfigured and alienated proletariat toward its truth. In this movement, the party represents neither the ego nor the id, but the mediating effort by which the proletariat breaks away from its immediacy to see its proper place in the totality of the social process through its relations with other classes, and discovers its historical truth as a class. The work of the Party resides in shedding this “trade union secretary ideal for that of the ‘tribune of the people.’”36

Insofar as, “synchronically,” its presence represents a gap – a discontinuity between the proletariat as it exists historically and its theoretical role (its “mission”) – the party-organization restores a diachronic continuity. The working class, as the hidden truth of the capitalist system, carries socialism beyond the merely possible. If, as for science, “what is possible and what is [l’Être] are homogeneous,” the revolutionary crisis is to be understood through a double perspective: that of continuity and discontinuity.37

But to define the party in this way, as the project that synthesizes and surpasses the subjective and the objective when the will of its militants becomes an objective factor of social development, is to define its content as well as its function: “When, in the pursuit of a single aim and animated by a single will, millions alter the forms of their communication and their behaviour, change the place and the mode of their activities, change their tools and weapons in accordance with the changing conditions and the requirements of the struggle – all this is genuine organisation.”38 To know the function of the vanguard organization is not to simply justify its necessity but to recognize what type of organization it must be and which internal rules must rigidly structure it.39 The ensemble of these rules tend to make an organization coherent and homogeneous; the famous formula of “democratic centralism” summarizes and condenses them. But to merely list them resolves nothing. Democratic centralism indeed constitutes a contradiction in terms, an expression of the organization’s contradictory position with the system it is supposed to destroy and overcome. Democratic centralism is the formula of a provisional reconciliation between opposites, shaping militant revolutionary spontaneity into a democratic form within the centralized network of the organization. Cohesion never comes without the revolutionary organization encountering difficulties. The crisis not only affects the system it undermines, but also the organization: for the latter it is the hour of its truth, the time for readjustments. The Bolshevik party could not escape history: the public articles of Zinoviev and Kamenev against the insurrection led Lenin to demand their expulsion in September 1917. The revolutionary crisis works to reveal much for the organization: it shows its defects and delimits the fraction of the party capable of concluding the crisis through the revolution. It serves as the pattern on which the provisional organization stands out and adjusts itself to its historical task.

2. For Theory

Just as the organization is not pure steel, so theory is not pure science. In periods of stagnation, scientistic tendencies dominate the revolutionary movement. Korsch first made this remark and Althusser illustrates it when he considers theory as speaking the truth distinctly, beyond the grasp of history.

Lenin is more cautious when he reiterates after the 1905 Revolution that “practice marched ahead of theory,”40 but he still stresses elsewhere that “Marxism is all-powerful because it is true.” Starting from the premise that in the sciences where man is taken as object, my truth does not speak, at most it is heard, Lacan concludes that one cannot tell the truth about the truth. There is no metalanguage which does not have its connotation.

The object of science is also its subject, but it is “internally excluded from its object.”41 In assuming the truth to be mute, Lacan rightly questions Lenin’s statement above: “how could theorizing this [the omnipotence of Marxist theory] increase its power?”42

Lacan thinks the relation between knowledge and truth topologically in the form of the Mobius strip, where the two terms interpenetrate one another to an indiscernible degree. Truth speaks [parle] through theory, but theory does not tell [dit] the truth. In a Lacanian vein, when Althusser escapes from his scientistic nostalgia, he reaches deeper insights: “the truth of history cannot be read in its manifest discourse, because the text of history is not a text in which a voice (the Logos) speaks, but the inaudible and illegible notation of the effects of a structure of structures.”43 But in the Lacanian entanglement of truth and knowledge, a dimension is lost, without which theory would only be redundant, leaving no reason to theorize truth in order to increase its power. This third dimension is ideology. If truth speaks through knowledge, it also speaks through ideology. On the Mobius strip, where, to recall the image, truth and ideology run together, theory marks the point that can sketch their shared place. Just as organization is the measure of the gap between the theoretical standing of the proletariat and its empirical reality, so theory is the conscious formulation and measure of a truth which overtakes the voice and an ideology which renders it silent.

Theory is thus within the order of “relative truth” that Lenin borrows from Engels, speaking of the

contradiction … between the character of human thought, necessarily conceived as absolute, and its reality in individual human beings with their extremely limited thought. This is a contradiction which can only be solved in the infinite progression, or what is for us, at least from a practical standpoint, the endless succession, of generations of mankind. In this sense human thought is just as much sovereign as not sovereign, and its capacity for knowledge just as much unlimited as limited. It is sovereign and unlimited in its disposition (Anlage), its vocation, its possibilities and its historical ultimate goal; it is not sovereign and it is limited in its individual expression and in its realisation at each particular moment.44

In respect to theory, the revolutionary crisis functions as a cut [coup de ciseau], through which the noted difference between truth and ideology is accentuated and realized through the fracturing of the Möbius strip, breaking these terms apart. Knowledge pays the price, as its place is abolished by this division. What was the case for organization holds for theory as well: the crisis acts as a practical functor of truth, marking the ruptural point between a long-winded science and a truth liberated from its silence.

Like the conception of organization, theory is differential.

In a period of crisis, It is also what makes possible the overcoming of the conservative aspects of organizational work. Only a complete ignorance and a great theoretical acuity would leave the organization open to the contingencies of history. It is was because of this theoretical acuity that Lenin knew to see the revolutionary crisis for what it was, while the old Bolsheviks were blind to this fact.

From this parallelism between the grouping of class-party-spontaneity and the grouping truth-theory-ideology, there is the outline of a homology by which the party is indeed the place of theory but not necessarily that of truth. Trotsky did not understand this in his struggle against Stalin, as he hesitated to put the place of truth outside the party (according to Merleau-Ponty), because he had learned that what was true could only be attributed to the proletariat and its vanguard organization.

The revolutionary crisis is the moment of truth for the party-organization, when the latter tends to correspond with the class which remains its hidden truth; the same goes for the revolutionary crisis in relation to theory, a suspended moment that allows this hidden truth to suddenly irrupt into the realm of practice.

Theory is a possible measure of the gap between truth and ideology, but it is not alone in having the ability to reconnect them. Ultimately, a theory taken too seriously can become a danger, as it forces the flow of history into neat categories. This is why Lenin never discarded the corrective of the imagination, even if he approached every problem from a theoretical angle; he found in imagination another form of connection, certainly less rational than the theory which carefully manages it. But from ideology to the truth, the imaginative path intersects with science and reveals detours and shortcuts not viewable from a more rigorous track.

“We should dream!”

Strangely, this is one of the conclusions of What is to be Done?: “We should dream,” repeats Lenin.45 He sketches in a few lines the bizarre table of beards and monocles at the congress attacking him for posing this apparent incongruity; he mentions Marytnov and Krichevsky, who respond with incredulity: “I ask, has a Marxist any right at all to dream?” He answers them with a long citation from Pisarev on the rich dialectic between dream and reality, and he concludes: “Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.”46

The revolutionary crisis brings historical truth to life, while the imagination delineates a complementary mode of access to theory. This is not the least of Lenin’s denials of all stubborn scientism.

3. For the Social Formation

We have shown that the revolutionary crisis is a crisis of the social formation, not the mode of production, and that the contradictory structure of the mode of production forms the hidden background of this crisis. This is what Althusser expresses through the concept of Darstellung, “the effectivity of an absent cause,” or again, through a metonymic causality, “the very form of the interiority of a structure, as structure, in its effects.”47

Lenin’s second criterion of the revolutionary situation shows what the crisis means in relation to the social formation. Through the rallying of the middle class strata behind the proletariat, the social formation diminishes the overlap between modes of production of which the intermediate stratum are a consequence. In the crisis, the social formation tends symptomatically towards the dominant mode of production which constitutes its hidden truth. Rosa Luxemburg argues in The Accumulation of Capital that the development of capitalism puts into motion the disintegration of the intermediate strata. The more the vestiges of feudalism are eliminated, the more the social formation tends toward the abstract capitalist mode of production defined by Marx, and the more violent this process becomes:

Broader and broader strata separate out from the – seemingly – solid edifice of bourgeois society; they then bring confusion into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, they unleash movements which do not themselves proceed in the direction of socialism but which through the violence of the impact they make do hasten the realisation of the preconditions of socialism: namely, the collapse of the bourgeoisie.48

The revolutionary crisis accelerates the process and heightens its contradictions, leaving only the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, wage labor against capital, what Marx had theoretically distinguished as the two necessary and irreducibly antagonistic poles of the capitalist mode of production.

This is because through the rupture of the crisis, the social formation – the site of an emergence of dual power – tends to be reduced to its dominant mode of production. After having rigorously studied the lessons of 1905, Lenin incessantly repeated in 1917 that the soviets were “a new type of State.”49 He vigorously reproached Martov for acknowledging the councils as organs of combat without seeing their larger mission, as a new type of State apparatus. Because it is the mode of production itself which is affected by the crisis, the relations between the vanguard and the masses are transformed. The proletariat rapidly attains a higher degree of class consciousness.

In the specific temporality of the crisis, Lenin repeatedly insists that the masses learn more in a few hours than they would in twenty years. Their subservient and mystified spontaneity gives way to their revolutionary spontaneity as a class, deepened by the work of the vanguard. The organs of this class, the “highest form of the united front,”50 the soviets, are the organs of power of the proletarian class. Lukács, commenting on Lenin against the ultra-leftists, recalls the difference between party and union, and that the councils are a permanent class organization. Their concrete possibility goes beyond the frame of bourgeois society and their mere presence already signifies the real struggle for State power, namely the civil war.

The revolutionary crisis is the privileged point of rupture where the proletariat intervenes within history, where the masses “take hold of their own destiny” and play a leading role. The party now has an educative task: to organize the proletariat against disorganizing forces (commercial petty bourgeoisie, marginal reconstitution of a commodity economy) which undermine it. But the leading role remains with the class which maintains itself through its own organs of power.

The crisis can be conceived, like organization and theory, as a particular relation by which the social formation is reduced to the mode of production. We can recall the parallelism of these relations through the following table:

Social Formation Revolutionary Crisis Mode of Production
Subservient Spontaneity Organization – Party Class
Ideology Theory Truth

The crisis thus acts as a catalyst by which its foundational differences, its gaps are abolished: an embryonic time [le temps d’un accouchement]. “It is the great significance of all crises,” said Lenin, “that they manifest what is hidden; they cast aside all that is conventional, superficial, or trivial; they sweep away the political litter, and expose the real mainsprings of the class struggle.”51

Only upon this dual basis, disclosed by the sudden irruption of the latent process, can we account for the Marxist images and metaphors making reference to the “occult works,” with Marx’s “old moles” remaining the most famous. It follows that the perception of society oscillates between two views. The first is descriptive: it registers and keeps track of social events, such as comparing competing class demands and the electoral results of parties. The second is of a strategic order: it is not merely confined to aligning classes side by side, it goes beyond their appearances to their deeply decisive conflicts. “The key to class statistics,” writes Glucksmann, “lies in the class struggle, not vice versa.”52

To take up an analogous distinction of Lenin’s: politics is not a matter of arithmetic but of algebra, a superior form of mathematics rather than an elementary one.53 The bureaucrats incessantly harp that three is better than two, but in their electoralist blindness, they do not see that

all the old forms of the socialist movement have acquired a new content, and, consequently, a new symbol, the “minus” sign, has appeared in front of all the figures; our wiseacres, however, have stubbornly continued (and still continue) to persuade themselves and others that “minus three” is more than “minus two.”54

This algebraic understanding of the class struggle, which alone opens the path to strategy, is characteristic of the political field. The revolutionary crisis distinguishes itself from the simple “purgative” economic crisis of the system through politics.

III – Revolutionary Crisis as Political Crisis

1. The Renunciation of Organization and the Forgetting of Politics

The subsequent discussions around the events of May ’68 often dwell on the problem of the revolutionary party. Most novel takes on this subject propose a party of a new type, or simply denounce the anachronism of a party left based on the Bolshevik model.

In fact, this is an old yet fundamental problem that has resurfaced under the guise of novelty and actuality. What do the innovators have to say today on the problems of organization? Gorz, in an editorial for Les Temps Modernes from May-June 1968, determines the sole function of the party apparatus to be to “coordinate the activities of local activists through a thread of communication and news; elaborating general perspectives.” Glucksmann, on the other hand, breaks down the many functions of the party (political, economic, theoretical); he asserts that a revolutionary movement “does not need to be organised as a second State apparatus; its task is not to direct but to co-ordinate these autonomous centres into a network.”55 He recognizes that “centres are necessary: not to ‘make’ a revolution, but to co-ordinate it.”56 Eventually, it results in the roles of the leaders fading in the course of the struggle, through the discovery of “work-teams which bring together ‘specialists’ capable of defining the most urgent technical tasks of the revolution.”57

Some Maoist groups base their rejection of a party “of the Leninist type” on the fact that the dominant ideological force at the global level is not that of the bourgeoisie but of the proletariat, that the period of the bourgeoisie’s encirclement of the proletariat has given way to, in the epoch of “Mao Tse-Tung Thought,” the proletariat’s encirclement of the bourgeoisie. Marxism would become the source of an ambient ideology, no longer needed to demarcate and protect the vanguard from bourgeois ideology. Now there is only the soft debate between currents that flow within proletarian ideology.

All these remarks and reflections point to a problematic that Rossana Rossanda interprets most clearly: “The center of gravity displaces political forces toward social forces.”58 The origin of this problem is found in Arthur Rosenberg’s theses that the theory of the party is dependent on the state of development of the proletariat.59 In the period where the proletariat was only weakly developed, a group of intellectuals founded conspiratorial organizations that were the restrictive bearers of the atrophied class consciousness of the proletariat. Thus, for Marx and Engels, the party was limited to their two physical persons. Lenin reformulates this model for Russia, where the proletariat is still weakly developed in 1907. But in a subsequent stage, the proletariat, particularly in the period of the Second International and in its development within industrial capitalism, assimilates Marxist theory. In a third and final period, the educated proletariat becomes a revolutionary class; the party no longer has a limited role of permissive leadership [direction], or simply interpreting the aspirations of the proletariat.

In sum, through the historical development of the proletariat, the class in itself would become a class for itself, the theoretical subject of the revolution and its political subject coincide. This thesis arises from the Hegelian problematic, of the in-itself and the for-itself, as filtered [transmettre] through Lukács. This reading of Marx is what Poulantzas qualifies as historico-genetic: an undifferentiated mass at the start, the social class organizes itself as a class in-itself in order to reach the level of a class for-itself. This problematic engenders a slippage by which the class is conceived as the subject of history, “as the factor of genetic production and of transformations of the structures of a social formation.”60 The provisional role of the party is over due to the self-development of the class-subject of history.

For, as Poulantzas reminds us: “if class is indeed a concept, it designates the effect of an ensemble of given structures, an ensemble which determines social relations as class relations.”61 In this problematic, the order of the political and therefore the party is irreducible to the social. Class remains the theoretical and not the political subject of history, and the mediation of the party through which the former rises to the political level remains indispensable.

All of Lenin’s efforts on the question of organization are dedicated to avoid this specific confusion between party and class. In What is to be Done?, he incessantly repeats that purely worker movement is incapable of elaborating its own ideology, all “belittling” of socialist ideology involves a reinforcement of bourgeois ideology, “that the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology,” that “the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism … and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”62

In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin’s debate with Martov over paragraph I of the party statutes has the clear and neat distinction between class and party as a larger goal. The looseness of the categorization or titles of party members “introduces a disorganizing idea, the confusing of class and party.”63 Several pages later, he resumes discussion on Martov’s formula whereby the “the party is the conscious spokesman of an unconscious process.” He continues:

for if “every strike” were not only a spontaneous expression of the powerful class instinct and of the class struggle which is leading inevitably to the social revolution, but a conscious expression of that process, then… our Party would forthwith and at once embrace the whole working class, and, consequently, would at once put an end to bourgeois society as a whole.64

It is only in the revolutionary crisis that the party begins to identify with the class, because it is then that the latter reaches the level of the political struggle. The party is the instrument by which the revolutionary class maintains its presence at this level as a permanent threat to the bourgeois State. But the revolutionary crisis, by opening the political field to the class in its masses, qualitatively transforms political life. This is why organizations are seen in the crisis as crucibles of truth, and also why practice takes precedence over theory:

History as a whole, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes. This can readily be understood, because even the finest of vanguards express the class-consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of thousands, whereas at moments of great upsurge and the exertion of all human capacities, revolutions are made by the class-consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of millions, spurred on by a most acute struggle of classes.65

The principles of a Leninist politics are established in this dialectical relation between party and class, where neither term can be reduced to the other. Those who downplay the role of organization conceive of it in terms of specific conjunctures and definite tasks. Glucksmann, for instance, distinguishes between organizational norms for periods of legality and for periods of illegality. Lenin has a different conception, one which determines a set of invariant organizational principles correlative to the task of the party: the struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeois State, the cornerstone of the capitalist social formation. This fundamental objective also situates the party in the political sphere: as much as the relations of production, the State is what is ultimately at stake in the political struggle. It is upon this resolute basis that the party has a margin of leeway relative to its immediate tasks; but what really defines its function is its fundamental task. Lenin makes this distinction by distinguishing between “principles of organization” and the “systematic organization.” As he further remarks, the specific conditions of Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century made the systematic organization conceived around Iskra the mark of a “gap” in relation to the principles of organization that it defined.

All of the revisions of Lenin’s principles in organizational matters follow, in one way or another, from a shift outside of the political field; it is only within this field that the protagonists of the revolutionary crisis can arm and prepare themselves and can locate what is at stake, the State. Beyond the simplistic schema of consciousness and unconsciousness as respective attributes of class and party, the Leninist problematic is more akin in complexity to the second Freudian topography introduced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle,where the conscious/unconscious opposition is substituted for that between the “coherent ego and the repressed”; in the latter, the unconscious is an attribute which affects both terms.66 Thus, in the Leninist problematic of organization, there is no continuous path from the in-itself to the for-itself, from unconsciousness to consciousness. The party is not a “militarized” class, it remains plagued by uncertainties, theoretical immaturity, and a degree of unconsciousness. But it expresses the fact that in a capitalist social formation, there cannot be a class for-itself as a reality, but only as a project through the mediation of the party. Lukács comments on this point in his short work on Lenin: “it would be a totally unhistorical illusion, to conclude that a correct proletarian class-consciousness – adequate to the proletariat’s leading role – can gradually develop on its own, without both frictions and setbacks, as though the proletariat could gradually evolve ideologically into the revolutionary vocation appropriate to its class.”67 This is also the reason why the revolutionary crisis for Rosa Luxemburg never occurs too early, and consequently is always too early. Never too early, because its economic premises and the existence of the proletariat are necessarily united; always too early because its political premise – the fully conscious proletariat – is never met. It then follows that the vanguard party can be prepared to overthrow the bourgeois State, but it is never prepared enough to follow through in the aftermath of the crisis, for the domination of the proletariat as a class (dictatorship of the proletariat, proletarian democracy): while Marxism prepares the party for the first moment, it only offers a glimpse of the second, where power remains an empirical problem. There is the idea that there exists no pure separation between the capitalist mode of production and socialism. The revolutionary crisis is thus both in its place and an arbitrary time: it cuts through the center of a social formation that has not completely exhausted the resources of capitalism when it turns towards socialism, the conditions of which are not all met. Here lies the origin of Trotsky and Mao’s pragmatism and a first answer to Kautsky’s fatalism, where we learn that one can only learn to ride once seated firmly in the saddle.

2. The Crisis and the Specificity of Politics

The organization that synthesizes the dialectical relations between subject and object through its project forms the mediation through which the revolutionary crisis is resolved at its real level, that is, politics: “The most purposeful, most comprehensive and specific expression of the political struggle of classes is the struggle of parties. The non-party principle means indifference to the struggle of parties.”68

But what exactly is this political struggle that Lenin always returns to? Before defining it positively, he is adamant about what it is not: “it would be inexact to say that the realization of political freedom is as necessary for the proletariat as an increase in wages…” Its necessity is of another order, one “much more complicated and difficult.”69 This is the algebraic terrain that appears elsewhere. Lenin always struggles against the reduction of the political to the economic sphere, any and all diminutions of the class struggle. He fights the members of Rabochaia mysl for whom “politics always obediently follows economics,” and he castigates Rabochee delo for proclaiming that the “economic struggle is inseparable from the political struggle.”70

But outside of these warnings, Lenin discusses politics more than he defines it. Poulantzas endeavors to define politics by its object (“the conjuncture”)71, its product (the transformation of the unity of the social formation), and above its strategic objective: the State is the nodal point which maintains the conflictual equilibrium of the various modes of production combined within a social formation. It is “cohesive factor of this complex overlapping of various modes of production,” between which it neutralizes any “true relations of forces.”72

The State, as the site that ties together the unity of the social formation, is also the place where the “ruptural situation of this unity can be deciphered”73: the duality of power which is the decisive factor of the revolutionary crisis, through which the proletariat builds itself up as a holder of power and endeavors to break the bourgeois State. This is what causes the simple economic crisis to transform into a revolutionary one: because it affects the State and through the State all the juridical and ideological bases of society, the crisis, “as a critique, in words and deeds, of the superstructures,” becomes a total crisis and shakes society from its economic foundations to its superstructures.74

This specificity of the political, which is the site of the emergence of the revolutionary crisis, makes it possible to define the role of the political subject as breaking with all rigid economic determinism. Lenin is attentive to the original roles certain political forces can play, without a common measure among their real social content. This role does not depend on the strata they represent, but more on the place they occupy in the specific structuration of the political field: all simplified mechanisms are rejected. In this way we can understand, in accordance with Leninist orthodoxy and devoid of sociological extrapolations, the role the students played in the crisis of May ‘68 in France. Lenin was always very sensitive to the consequences of the specificity of the political. For example, in an article entitled “Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth,” he noted: “The class division is, of course, the ultimate basis of the political grouping; in the final analysis, of course, it always determines that grouping. This ‘final analysis’ is arrived at only by political struggle.”75

If the political subject is indeed determined in the last instance by the economy, only fatalism can result. To the contrary, the initiative of the subject helps to trigger the crisis, whose outcome depends on the part that subject plays within it. The corresponding lesson is that the wealth of politics foils all plans, as its complexity causes the triggering or pretext of the crisis to not always – or almost never – occur as one would have expected it to have “logically.” This is why the party, armed with political understanding, must be vigilant to the horizon of the social whole [ensemble]:

We do not and cannot know which spark – of the innumerable sparks that are flying about in all countries as a result of the world economic and political crisis – will kindle the conflagration, in the sense of raising up the masses; we must, therefore, with our new and communist principles, set to work to stir up all and sundry, even the oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres, for otherwise we shall not be able to cope with our tasks, shall not be comprehensively prepared, shall not be in possession of all the weapons …76

And again: “Communism is emerging in positively every sphere of public life … If special efforts are made to block one of the channels, the ‘contagion’ will find another one, sometimes very unexpectedly.”77

These detours, these sudden and unexpected upsurges – which can take the revolutionary organization unawares and make it a victim of its blindness, its dogmas, its prejudices – constitute the very particularity [le bien propre] of politics as the revolutionary crisis slowly makes its way to the surface, unexpectedly. May in France highlighted the specific structuration of the political field, giving politics a disalienated, freed image, appearing attractive to all those who had seen it as austere and unwieldy. Mutilated by the traditional parties, torn apart by union struggles over immediate demands and parliamentary struggles, confined by others to the single form of anti-imperialism, each had used up what had been suitable to them; politics was pillaged, nothing more than a sad chessboard. Nanterre was enough to put the puzzle back together and return to politics its totalizing function, through which the crisis can break and undermine the contradictory assemblage of contradictions. When politics is in shambles, the revolutionary crisis breaks down, its gaps sealed and its fronts controlled; it can play its full role only on the political terrain, where the contradictions of the crisis are brought together.

3. Proletarian Strategy and Bourgeois Strategy During the Crisis

The forms of the bourgeoisie’s political domination are secondary in relation to the forms of its economic domination. It is on this level that the economy is strategically situated. Lenin insists on the very relative importance of political domination for the bourgeoisie: “economic domination is everything to the bourgeoisie, and the form of political domination is of very little importance; the bourgeoisie can rule just as well under a republic.”78 Prolonging the economic struggle means fighting the bourgeoisie on its own terrain. This why Lenin repeats several times in What is to Be Done? that the “Trade-unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class.”79

The political terrain, on the other hand, is the strategic space of the proletariat, understood as the class that can overthrow the capitalist system. The political structures concentrate and reproduce all the forms of exploitation of the proletariat, who is the dominated class in every sphere (economic, political, ideological). The bourgeoisie already held economic power at the time of its own political revolution.

This is the source of the originality of the proletarian revolution as proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto:

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation.80

This is why, while the goal of the bourgeois revolution is to put political power in the service of economic power, the proletarian revolution is characterized by putting politics “in command.” Maurice Godelier goes in the same direction when he asserts from a mathematical point of view that free perfect competition and a perfect system of planning are equal. It is not only economic rationality that is leading the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle, but a rationality, needs, and objectives that are of a different order: the order of politics. This is not the contradiction internal to the economy that undermines the capitalist mode of production in a decisive manner, but an interstructural contradiction that produces distortions between the political and the economic.

Knowing that the outcome of the crisis depends on its actions, the revolutionary party gives itself the means to accomplish the task. While the onset of the crisis cannot be determined with any certainty – the organization plays a role without controlling all the given facts – its outcome must be decided. The antagonistic forces are on alert and observing each other. From now on, those who know how to choose their weapons and proper terrain will prevail. Assessing the situation to see if the ruptural moment has been reached, setting the date of the insurrection; these are the final actions and decisive experiences that force the organization to prove its own cohesion and its unity.

On September 29, 1917, Lenin calls out the warning: “The crisis has matured.”81 On October 24th, he sends a letter to members of the central committee: “to delay the uprising would be fatal … this very evening, this very night, arrest the government… History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating.”82 The next day, the insurrection is victorious.

While the exact date of the revolution cannot be set, the insurrection must be made in the light of theory. Lenin stressed this point to the Bolsheviks after the 1905 Revolution. But theory stops at the threshold of insurrection, which is an art, the last – practical – test of truth [épreuve de vérité] encountered during the revolutionary crisis.

IV. The Inaugural Crisis of What Revolution?

1. What Revolutionary Crisis?

The crisis that Lenin prepared for was the crisis of a capitalist social formation; it was of the political order and could only be resolved by a political subject. But what revolution was this the crisis of?

Beyond the knowledge of the social formation that he confronted, Lenin focused from his very first writings on defining the level of structuration of the system he was battling. Already in “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are” (from 1894) he understands, with Marx, “the entanglement of all people in the net of the world market, and with this the international character of the capitalistic regime.”83 Here one finds the real level of structuration of a system, a system of which the Russian social formation is only a part of.

This systemic level of structuration corresponds to the particular level of structuration of the theoretical subject. This does not mean a national proletariat, but a global proletariat. The strategy it assumes is also an international one: “A strictly proletarian programme and strictly proletarian tactics are the programme and the tactics of international revolutionary Social-Democracy.”84

Just as the national revolutionary strategy finds its manifestation in the organization, so the international revolutionary strategy finds its apparatus and manifestation in the international organization: “The International consists in the coming together (first ideologically, then in due time organizationally as well) of people who, in these grave days, are capable of defending socialist internationalism in deed.”85 And after his return to Russia in 1917, Lenin advanced the creation of “a new International” (in the April Theses) as one of the Bolsheviks’ principal tasks.86

The existence of such an international organization is not reducible to the sum of its individual sections, as it qualitatively transforms these sections and establishes them as the political subject of the world revolution. In the program he wrote for the RSDLP in 1902, Lenin argues in thesis XI that “the development of international exchange and of production for the world market has established such close ties among all nations of the civilised world, that the present-day working-class movement had to become, and has long become, an international movement. That is why Russian Social-Democracy regards itself as one of the detachments of the world army of the proletariat, as part of international Social-Democracy.”87 In this problematic of the international revolutionary organization, the intellectuals of the feudal countries could become communists if they adhere to the strategy and rules [la discipline] of the International. At the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organization of the Peoples of the East (1919), Lenin asserts to the representatives from countries where the proletariat hardly existed in even an embryonic state that “Thanks to the communist organisations in the East, of which you here are the representatives, you have contact with the advanced revolutionary proletariat.”88

Because of this conception of the international character of capitalism in the imperialist epoch and the international level of the structuration of the corresponding theoretical and political subjects, Lenin saw the revolution as a global process of which all revolutionary crises only represent a moment, affecting “the weakest link in the chain.” This is why the Russian Revolution was not to be enclosed within its national borders, but was to be only the bridgehead of the revolution.

In the epoch of the “actuality of the revolution,” all revolutionary crises are moments of the world revolution.

2. Beyond the Crisis

The historical articulation of the revolutionary crisis is always readable through the double aspects of continuity and discontinuity. One could say that it accentuates a discontinuity in the structure of modes of production but it remains the channel of a continuity, to the extent that the elements of the original social formation are re-articulated – after the revolution – in the following social formation. Logically, this must be admitted.

Just as there are many modes of production that overlap in the capitalist social formation, so are there many co-existing and entangled modes of production within the socialist social formation that is typical for the transitional phase.

Lenin is particularly aware of this situation and the resulting problems:

There can be no doubt that between capitalism and communism there lies a definite transition period which must combine the features and properties of both these forms of social economy. This transition period has to be a period of struggle between dying capitalism and nascent communism – or, in other words, between capitalism which has been defeated but not destroyed and communism which has been born but is still very feeble.89

In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin insists many times over on the daily, multiple attacks the bourgeoisie will carry out on the dictatorship of the proletariat, especially the part of the bourgeoisie that reforms itself in the sectors of small-production and whose resistance is “increased tenfold by their overthrow.”90 He also asserts that “it is a thousand times easier to vanquish the centralized big bourgeoisie than to ‘vanquish’ the millions upon millions of petty proprietors; however, through their ordinary, everyday, imperceptible, elusive and demoralizing activities, they produce the very results which the bourgeoisie need and which tend to restore the bourgeoisie.”91

The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is thus not completely over after the revolutionary crisis; the sole criterion which marks the success of a revolutionary crisis, and in fact a historical threshold, is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and maintaining the position of politics as “in command.”

Only a victorious and international revolution can definitively ensure the triumph of the proletariat.

It is important to note on this point that proletarian power can deliberately give back command to the economy and thus lose ground to the bourgeoisie. Stalinist policies demonstrate that in the construction of socialism in one country, the encouragement of economic competition as the primary objective in a world where imperialism remains the dominant structure is also to encourage the vital necessity of finding markets, as well as the restoration of profits and profitability, in order to maintain the competitive capacity of the national economy within the larger international economy. As long as the revolution has not triumphed internationally, this only reinstates the economic criteria of the bourgeoisie and tries to fight a battle on their own ground, instead of deepening the revolution against any peripheral resurgence of the market economy and bourgeois ideology.

Conclusion: The Revolutionary Crisis as Criterion for Periodization

1. Continuity and Discontinuity

The revolutionary crisis appears as the nodal point in the international class struggle. In this way, the crisis opens up a periodization that follows the traditional concept of history, a result that Marx’s own concepts cannot overcome. Balibar indicates that this concept of periodization is the concept of the discontinuous within the continuous, by which they illuminate and explicate themselves through the other, just as for Bachelard the particle and the wave (discontinuous and continuous) “are different moments of the mathematization of experience… the wave regulating the probability of the presence of particles.” The revolutionary situation engendered by the contradictions of the social formation regulates the probability of the revolutionary crisis; a crisis introduces discontinuity within continuity and can accentuate the developmental rhythms of social formations.

2. Diachrony and Synchrony

In his article on history and structure, Greimas stresses the difficulty of integrating temporal dimensions in relative consideration to the mode of existence of structures of signification; he attributes this difficulty to the non-pertinence of the Saussurian dichotomy of diachrony and synchrony, the chronic axis being logically prior to these two complementary aspects of temporality.92 But this common axis cutting through diachrony and synchrony is not enough to put them in relation. Only speech, as a repetitive action of the subject upon language (synchrony), can show the path of transformation. This suggests a possible solution but it is not elaborated further.

Thus for the articulation between continuity and discontinuity, and thus for the articulation between synchrony and diachrony, all solutions lead back to the poorly defined mediation of the subject. Gustave Guillaume extracts an “evental duration” from a universal duration through the intervention of an “operational time,” the present: this is the time of the subject.93 The present is then the point of overlap and fusion of the past and the future, “the image of the operation by which, incessantly, a portion of the future is resolved in a portion of the past.”94 The revolutionary crisis is also, in this way, the present where the dual determination of history exhausts itself.

3. History and Structure

As Greimas remarks, a single duration does not seem to be able to serve as a reliable bridge between history and structure. Moreover, modern epistemology has shown that time acts more through repetition than duration, and that the agent of transformation is “the action of rhythm upon the structure.”95

Lenin searched in this way for the practical solution to the problems of the revolutionary crisis. The merit of returning to his work is his recognition of the importance of the political order, in the manner of Marx, in order to form the political subject of this crisis. Also, to his credit, Lenin understood the crisis as the sharp thread upon which nothing can permanently stay, as the rare instance where practice becomes the truth of the theory it advances, where the working class finally plays the historical role temporarily bequeathed to the intermediate party. Finally, it returns the unique privilege to have made the primary fact of history the result of the conscious will of men. Marx had announced this new era where men, armed with theory and organization, were no longer satisfied with a subordinate role: they were only satisfied with the continuation and completion of a chosen project. Lenin opens it by victoriously deciding the crisis of 1917.

Yet, the image of the crisis as a razor blade that sharpens the truth, under the condensed material of steel, demonstrates the function of the crisis without allowing a glimpse of its nature. Balibar states this problem:

The “transition” from one mode of production to another can therefore never appear in our understanding as an irrational hiatus between two “periods” which are subject to the functioning of a structure, i.e., which have their specified concept. The transition cannot be a moment of destructuration, however brief. It is itself a movement subject to a structure which has to be discovered.96

Under this transition, Marx poses the invariant structure of the uninterrupted process of reproduction, which takes a particular form in each mode of production, as an obvious fact. In this way, the transition cannot be reduced to a “qualitative leap”; having distinguished, within the concept of reproduction, the continuous reproduction of commodities and the reproduction of social relations, and the conditions of the perpetuation of the system as a whole (which are specifically abolished in the crisis), Marx gives a partial solution without allowing for a real conclusion. The splitting of the concept of reproduction cannot be a substitute for the construction of a concept of transition.

The theory and laws of the revolutionary crisis are not adequately defined when put in the terms of an inaugural rupture of a new order, with the global proletariat as its subject. At the threshold of this problem the Leninist notion of the revolutionary crisis breaks down, at the very threshold of its own concept.

Mémoire de maîtrise (Philosophy), under the supervision of Henri Lefebvre, 1968

The original version of this text can be found at Le site de Daniel Bensaïd.

– Translated by Patrick King

The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State (1971)

“If socialism is improbable, it will require an all the more desperate determination to make it come true. What stands in its way is not the technical difficulty of its implementation but the apparatus of domination of the ruling class.”

– Heinrich Regius1

Historical materialism’s critical economic prognoses on the natural course of the capitalist world order have been confirmed. The conditions for the economic breakdown and crisis of capital have been fulfilled; the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation has long since reached the degree of concentration and centralization that Marx and Engels designated as its naturally produced historical terminus.2 The existence of the authoritarian state is just as much an expression of the “final crisis” as it is of the temporary, politically mediated success of the attempt to manage it in the interests of monopoly capital. Scholars have long feared, however, that the economic breakdown and crisis does not yet spell the political end of the capitalist social formation:

Even if the theory of the imminent collapse were correct as an economic theory, no unambiguous political consequences would flow from it. If it were correct that the process of capitalist production must necessarily lead to the collapse of this production, this still would not mean that a political collapse would have to follow on the economic collapse. It could very well be that the ruling class would draw the inference from the threatening collapse of the capitalist system that it must use political means to prevent this collapse from becoming politically effective.3

Franz Neumann’s hypothesis is notable for historical materialism as the only general model [Formtypus] of revolutionary theory to date, that is, of a doctrine the propositions of which describe society in terms of its revolutionary transformability. To equate the system’s final economic crisis with its elimination from the whole of society would contradict all of the theoretical determinations that structure the materialist concept of history in the doctrine of Marx and Engels. A tendency towards economic breakdown, generalized in terms of the philosophy of history and social theory, would imply that humans are inescapably under the heel of a social being that is beyond their conscious control; revolution then would be an absurdity of the historical process. The “final battle,” however, should definitively annul the shabby materialist doctrine of capitalist reality, according to which material being determines consciousness. That the history humanity makes is also made consciously, that “mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work,” is a central emancipatory exigency of the Marxian concept of history.4 Thus the natural logic of capitalist development, according to which “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation,” implies no optimistic belief in progress as a kind of fate.5 The natural laws of capitalist society are of a qualitatively different constitution from those of nature itself [ersten Natur]. They can be abolished; their abstract existence relies on the producers’ false consciousness of their own production. The objective validity of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not immutable in the same way as the physical law of gravity. Such views are left over from Marx’s epigones in the Second International, for whom the idea of unstoppable human progress according to natural laws exempted the proletariat, as well as themselves, from the task of revolutionary liberation even while rationalizing their own reformist betrayal.6

Against Wilhelm Dietzgen’s “religion of social democracy” – “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter” – Benjamin also applies his accurate critique of the social democratic concept of time, in which history, formalized as a transcendental time-continuum, in truth delivers an apology for a dehistoricized time-consciousness that, through exploitation, comes to appear as unchangeable labor-time.

Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims… The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.7

When raised to a historical principle, the practical stabilization of capitalism through the politics of social reform corresponded to the vulgarized reprise of the bourgeois philosophy of history in social democratic theory. Bernstein, as a sort of Kant of social democracy, delivered the nicely packaged teleology that inserted a hidden natural rationality into the history of the human species as capitalism’s evolutionary “growing into” socialism. He glorified the logical unreason of capitalist development as the rational course of world history itself. History is then expected to perform what only the revolutionary praxis of a united proletariat can accomplish. By contrast, Marx and Engels consistently stress:

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.8

Social reformism repeats the idealistic and Young Hegelian mystification of history as a “person apart, a metaphysical subject of which the real human individuals are merely the bearers.”9 It ossifies the ambivalent objectivity of the law of value, which indeed places itself over the heads of the individuals who are thus reduced to accidental agents of capital-in-process and which imposes itself, in the manner of a law of nature, as an unfaltering natural history. According to Marx and Lenin, it is only the final crisis that will be brought about with the necessity of natural law, by no means revolutionary liberation and much less a rational society – a critique that forms the systematic conceptual basis of Georg Lukács’ early work. “Lenin was very right to go against the front of opinion that mechanistically and fatalistically deemed the imperialist crisis of capitalism—which he himself thoroughly comprehended—as hopeless; there is, he said, no situation that could be abstractly, and in and for itself hopeless. The proletariat, the action of the proletariat blocks the way out of the this crisis for capitalism. Of course, the fact that the proletariat can be in such a position that the solution to the crisis depends on the proletariat is the consequence of economic necessity, of ‘natural laws.’ But the ‘natural laws’ only determine the crisis and rule out that this crisis (like earlier ones) will reach a capitalist sort of solution. The unhindered effects of this crisis allow for another solution: ‘the joint downfall of the struggling classes,’ the reversion to a condition of barbarism. The ‘natural laws’ of capitalist development can only lead society into the the final crisis, they are not able to point to the path that would lead out of the crisis.”10 The final crisis that historically announces the economic collapse of the capital relation does not necessarily compel the proletariat, but rather offers it the objective possibility to break through the economic power structures internalized by terroristic means for hundreds of years – the real semblance of capitalist conformity to the laws of nature – and to illuminate the darkened memory of exploitation through the historical anamnesis of a class consciousness that is aware of the mediations of politics and the economy at the level of society as a whole. This could then materialize the diffuse position of the wage-dependent masses as a class-in-itself into a revolutionary subjectivity and an objectively determined organization of the proletarian class struggle. Liberation can only occur through the consciousness and will of the exploited, or it does not occur at all.

The dictatorship of capital can, however, find an exit from the final crisis, as Marx and Engels, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg emphasized in historically different ways. An extreme dialectic of monopolistic and imperialist phases in the collapse of the capitalist social formation admits of two objectively possible resolutions, one at the scale of world history and the other in the dimension of the history of the species: the historical abolition of the system through the self-conscious associated producers, the “leap into the realm of freedom” (Engels), or else the blind reproduction of the unconscious “spiritual animal kingdom” of capitalist prehistory – “either transition to socialism or regression to barbarism.” More than fifty years ago, in reference to the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg articulated this world-historical alternative with which imperialism confronts humanity.

Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.11

The natural decision in favor of fascist barbarism and the destructive power of highly technologized forces of production in late capitalism, the danger of an atomic catastrophe, all confirm the world-historical and species-historical character of the alternative that the phase of capitalist collapse has put to the human species: the question of a better life is inextricably bound, on the level of global history, to that of mere survival; the final crisis forces the species to confront the question of its own continued existence.

The authoritarian state is capital’s political exit from the economic crisis. Its absolutized extra-economic coercive power, typically represented by the Bonapartist coercion of the nineteenth century and the fascist terror of the twentieth, furnishes the repressive instrumentarium necessary to delay definitive economic collapse and to sabotage the real possibility that the action of the “unified proletarians” could bring the capitalist system to an “unnatural end” (Horkheimer). Nevertheless, Thalheimer’s phenomenological description – correctly developed in connection with Marx’s materialist historiography of Louis Bonaparte’s regime – of a structural equivalence between the Bonapartist and the fascist forms of the authoritarian state’s appearance founded upon the mechanism of “the independence of the executive authority” (Marx) vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie,12 which blindly delegates its political power to the “the dictatorship of an adventurer and his gang” for the sake of maintaining its existence and economic dominance, should not lead us to overlook the essential differences between the two that result from changes within the economic production process itself owing to the progressive concentration of capital. The monopolist and imperialist final phase of capitalism transforms the relation between valorization and crisis. Monopoly capital is crisis capital in intentione recta; it requires the state’s uninterrupted intervention into the economic valorization process, which ultimately elevates the state to the material personification of national capital [den Staat zum materiellen Gesamtkapitalisten]. If we follow Max Horkheimer’s early analyses, fascism is a potentiality inherent to monopoly capital that the state can actualize at any time. “In any case, with trusts or without,” Engels writes,

the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways… All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees… But, the transformation – either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership – does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces… And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine – the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital… The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.13

The theory of the authoritarian state is determined by this historical endpoint of the capital relation; if the concept of late capitalism is to have more than a formal meaning, then it will have it only in the philosophical context of the tendency towards state capitalism that Engels described and that Horkheimer once broached theoretically:

This theory of the end grows out of a situation which was still ambiguous, and is itself ambiguous: either it counts on collapse through an economic crisis, thereby ruling out stabilization of an authoritarian state, as Engels in fact predicted. Or else the theory expects the triumph of the authoritarian state, thus foreclosing collapse through a crisis, which was always defined by the market economy. But state capitalism does away with the market and hypostatizes the crisis for the duration of eternal Germany.14

Out of scientific necessity, the critique of political economy breaks off at the endpoint of capital historically fixed by Marx and Engels themselves, if it is not to degenerate into prophetic abstraction. Revolutionary theory still applies to the end phase of capitalism, which is partly but not wholly characterized by its form of appearance, the increasing primacy of the political. It is highly questionable whether revolutionary theory is still possible as the critique of political economy, or whether it must already be written, like Marcuse implicitly assumes, as a critique of political technology. In any case the dogmatists still treat revolutionary theory as if no further historical development were possible. Critique, however, is the theoretical life of the revolution. It would be a logical absurdity to claim that a doctrine that is so much a theory of history and of conscious change as is historical materialism should itself be removed from history and in no need of change. With the historical transformation of social facts, historical materialism’s propositions about these facts must also change. The historicity of the theory demands the critical application of historical materialism to itself, which Karl Korsch elevated to a program. Through its desire, grounded in practical reason, for a revolutionary transformation of the world, historical materialism ultimately presents itself with the immense theoretical claim to be the first self-aware doctrine in the history of human thought.

The level of revolutionary subjectivity in historical materialism was critically and philosophically uncovered by Korsch and Lukacs in the early 1920s through their explications of the genuinely negative relationship of Marxism and philosophy. This was a time of actual historical world revolution defined by the objective terrain of the first imperialist world war and the great October socialist revolution and the failed November German revolution, which structured the thought of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, the theoretical development of the constituent phase of the Comintern, as well as the representatives of the Dutch school in regard to controversial theories of organization.15 Yet the emancipatory subjective dimension of the revolutionary theory of the proletariat brought to light theoretically in this way was condemned to either suffocate or be of practical inconsequence for decades to come due to the Soviet Union’s transformation of once revolutionary politics into pragmatic Realpolitik. This went along with the growing terroristic demands of forced collectivization of the countryside and stunted technical industrialization under Stalinism,16 not to mention the ever-more intensifying context of the world economic crisis and fascism’s solution of violence.

To a similar degree, Marxist theoreticians were less and less able to analytically describe monopoly capitalism and its imperialist world system as guided by the emancipatory rational interest to connect revolutionary theory to such a praxis. The reconstruction period of West European capitalism following the Second World War seemed to permanently extinguish the actuality of revolutionary praxis and put off revolution forever and a day. Critical political economy continued to ossify into a positive economics unable to conceptualize society as a whole. As a result, its practical strategic significance remained in the dark. To unite historically new facts with the conclusions of a handed-down theory, the “system” of Marxism was either fragmentarily “amended” into dogmatic orthodoxy, or parts were broken off from it in a revisionist manner to bring it into accordance with the changed conditions. The possibility that the fundamental stratification of the social totality – of production and circulation, of economic “base” and the derivative institutional “superstructure” – could have historically transformed itself was left entirely out of consideration, due not least to the historical situation of theory, marked as it was by the absence of any practical experience of revolutionary actuality. The “system” in toto was assumed to be inalterable; orthodox dogmatism and system-adapted revisionism agree in liquidating the dialectical quintessence of critique, the historical difference between the essence and appearance of things. According to this view, historical mutability should pertain only to the empirical manifold of capitalism’s world of appearances, not the consistent identity of its exploitative essence. If such profound changes in the reified forms of appearance of capitalist production – of the flow of exchange and of the legal, political-moral, and cultural-scientific superstructure – take place as happened in the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism in the highly industrialized countries at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th century, then it stands to reason to assume, in terms of historical materialism, that the derivative relationship of economy and industrialized ideology had changed together. This suggests a change of “the system of needs,” of the economic essence of capitalist social forms themselves and, with that, bourgeois society in general.

Without the assumption that the “essence” of the capitalist mode of production is part of its historical dynamic and in no way ontologically separate from it, and that it alone corresponds to the historically transitory character of the capitalist mode of production that Marx systematically revealed, neither Horkheimer’s conception of the authoritarian state nor Marcuse’s systematic hypothesis of the one-dimensionalization of social antagonisms would be thinkable.17 Both theoretical conceptions offer complementary systematic approaches that target the changed whole of the capitalist social formation. They set out to hold onto Marx and Engels’ theory of the historical endpoint of capitalist relations, albeit without adequately subjecting their new systematic approach to a critique of political economy in its Marxian version. Marcuse and Horkheimer relate to each other, with different emphases, by reference to two overlapping socioeconomic tendencies that are bound to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

1. Horkheimer, in agreement with Engels, refers essentially to the growing and manifestly emergent socialization of the productive forces at the foundation of the capitalist mode of production itself. According to Marx and Engels, with the joint stock company form this immanent though suppressed basic contradiction in the capital relation – the intrinsically social character of the forces of production that are coerced into the guise of capitalist private property – historically becomes an “empirically perceptible” appearance that can be practically experienced and gains explosive revolutionary force.18 Engels takes the Marxian theory of the joint-stock company further by exposing this immanent tendency toward monopoly and the authoritarian state:

Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. The bourgeoisie demonstrated to be a superfluous class. All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees.19)

It was under the historically new effect of monopolization, in which the inner-capitalist socialization of the productive forces corresponded to an increasingly coercive statification [Verstaatlichung] of society, that Horkheimer near the end of the 1930s drafted – in however fragmentary a fashion – a theory of the authoritarian state. At the heart of this theory is the assumption of an admittedly inadequately defined liquidation of the sphere of circulation by the monopolist market controls of centralized authoritarian production. With the abolition of competition and the liberal free market economy, this process eliminates from bourgeois society its ideologically distorted emancipatory content and unleashes the exploitative relationship of violence between capital exchange and wage labor, which was previously concealed by the law of contract. By no means does the term “authoritarian state” stand for a problematic isolated to theories of legal philosophy and of the state, but rather for a historically new system constituting the social totality. “State capitalism is the authoritarian state of the present.”20

2. Where for Horkheimer the systemic accumulative dynamic toward authoritarian [autoritativen] state capitalism is based on the historically new monopolistic quality of socializing productive forces immanent to capital and the resulting changed constellation of production and circulation, Marcuse, more than thirty years later, deals with the changed constitution within the “metabolism between man and nature” itself: the increasing automation of industrial forces of production radically shifts the weight of the constitutive moment of the labor process from the position of the producers to machines [Maschinenwesen], from living to objectified labor.21 The technical and scientific advance by means of automation is more “than quantitative growth of mechanization,” rather “a change in the character of the basic productive forces.”22 Automation “is an explosive or non-explosive catalyst in the material base of qualitative change”23 that actualizes a “totalitarian” systemic transformation of bourgeois society even as it potentially opens the “historical transcendence toward a new civilization.”24 With this, Marcuse is able to invoke what Marx in the Grundrisse referred to as the highest and last developmental tendency of the capitalist mode of production, in which technology and science have reached a productively implemented stage of development on a scale that threatens to explode the system. The “growth of scientific power… the measure in which it is already posited as fixed capital, the scope and width in which it is realized and has conquered the totality of production” is one of those explosive moments of contradiction found at the natural end of capital’s violent history of crisis “in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production.”25 The technological and scientific reshaping of production is no longer able to tolerate its compulsory capitalist objectification. For Marx, automation—the scientific reshaping of industrial machinery— produces a totalitarian technologization of political economy.26 But with that, according Marcuse, the principle of “technological rationality,” which is part and parcel of industrial technique [Technik] and modern science from the beginning and inseparable from domination over nature and human beings seems to reach its fully developed reality, as he asserts in his critique of Max Weber’s concept of rationality. “[W]hen technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a historical totality—a ‘world’.”27

Following Marcuse’s logic, theory can no longer be carried out as a critique of political economy; rather, it is driven on by the force of its intrinsic historical tendency to become to a critique of political technology.

Both endpoints of the capital relation – the authoritarian [autoritär] statification of society as well as its totalitarian one-dimensionalization in a social lifeworld thoroughly rationalized by technology – underlie a peculiar dialectic of historical transition. Both the immanent tendency of socialization toward state capitalism that Horkheimer demonstrated as well as the possible technical and scientific substitution of living labor described by Marcuse refer immediately to the association of producers and the “association of free men.” Capital nevertheless seems to put off its own historical terminus and to stabilize in its transition when immediately faced with the possibility of its demise. State capitalism and a total system of fixed capital embodied in machines typically stand for this final dialectic of capital, which neutralizes in appearance its most historically glaring contradiction and most acute crisis. The authoritarian “Welfare State” presents the image “of a historical freak between organized capitalism and socialism, servitude and freedom, totalitarianism and happiness.”28 In a Hegelian sense, state capitalism is an instance of bad ideality [schlechte Idealität]. The ideal is a speculative result of a historically ripe and perishing reality within the medium of bourgeois post festum consciousness. “History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom.”29 The ideal comprises a two-fold abstraction of the course of history. It releases the old substance that has historically come into being from the medium of the conceptual process within which it realized itself, and abstracts the principle of the historically new from the conceptual unfolding that lies before it, and in which it forms an idea for the first time. It connects ahistorically two moments that repel each other historically, the old substance with the new though still unreal principle.30 State capitalism is just such an ideal end product of a matured crisis and the dying valorization of capital. State capitalism, in its form of appearance, releases the old substance of capital – value – from the shell of capitalist private property and apparently links it to the historically undeveloped principle of the socialization of the means of production, whose socialist, associative concretion it at first blocks; it thus captures the new principle of the associative mode of production in the old substance of value. The authoritarian state is capitalism’s distorted caricature of socialism.

Conversely, the technological and scientific reshaping of production, which pushes for the abolition of capital, is unable to realize its emancipatory potential so long as it remains captured within the limits of the valorization of fixed capital. But this creates the technical and scientific advance that elevates the abolition of work to a concrete utopia, instead of structural unemployment: “In the system of the free market economy, which pushed men to labor-saving discoveries and finally subsumed them in a global mathematical formula, its specific offspring, machines, have become means of destruction not merely in the literal sense: they have made not work but the workers superfluous.”31

This fatal dialectic, which fixes the capital relation in its transition, leads Marcuse and Horkheimer to conclude that the position of revolutionary subjectivity in relation to the objective state of development of the capitalist social formation has changed. The objective appeal to maturity, “the topic probandum and probatum,” of history (Horkheimer), has lost its validity. In its time, Marx’s polemic against Bakunin’s abstractly idealist voluntarism was practically correct and theoretically true, but now seems to have lost its power. When faced with the Willich-Schapper group, Marx dismissed the idealism of pure will in the revolutionary learning process that takes place in the formative epoch-making spontaneity of crisis-ridden and warring social relations, a process in which the working class matures into self-liberation:

The point of view of the minority is dogmatic instead of critical, idealistic instead of materialistic. They regard not the real conditions but a mere effort of will as the driving force of the revolution. Whereas we say to the workers: “You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power,” you say on the contrary: “Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.”32

That the proletariat must be free for its liberation is a conditio sine qua non of insight into the revolution. But regulated fixed capital, at its natural historical endpoint, seems to flip the relationship between Marxism and anarchism on the grounds of historical materialism itself. If the natural laws of capitalist development have run their course, then the appeal to insufficient maturity can only hold off practically the theoretically necessary revolution.

It might be said of past historical enterprises that the time was not yet ripe for them. Present talk of inadequate conditions is a cover for the tolerance of oppression. For the revolutionary, conditions have always been ripe… A revolutionary is with the desperate people for whom everything is on the line, not with those who have time. The invocation of a scheme of social stages which demonstrates post festum the impotence of a past era was at the time an inversion of theory and politically bankrupt. Part of the meaning of theory is the time at which it is developed.33

The conception of the revolutionary theory of the proletariat as an “epistemology of revolutionary will” corresponds to Horkheimer’s idea that the actuality of revolution depends on the practical reason of the voluntary factor. Certainly unheeded in this conception is whether the reification of capital in its endphase does not constitute another contradictory quality, whether revolutionary subjectivity and objectivity do not differentiate themselves anew on another social level. If we presuppose the objective possibility, opened by the last crisis, of a formerly only hypothesized revolutionary liberation in the world historical sense, then Horkheimer’s dictum applies: “The revolution that ends domination is as far-reaching as the will of the liberated. Any resignation is already a regression into prehistory.”34

– Translated by Michael Shane Boyle and Daniel Spaulding

The Political (1979)

“Introduction” to the edited collection Il Politico, in four volumes, Feltrinelli, Milan 1979.

1. The political has a history. It is the modern history of relations of power. To reconstruct, reread, to accumulate materials, to lay out the problems by following the unhurried course of time, to set out from the classics is not an escape into the past, it is an experiment, a test, the attempt to verify a hypothesis. Let us leave formulae to the arithmetic of politics. Let us leave the autonomy of politics to the newspapers. The difficulties encountered by the Marxist theory and practice of the workers’ movement in taking upon itself the fact of power all stem from this absence of knowledge, from this lack of reflection on the historical horizon of bourgeois politics. The Marxist critique of politics has no follow-up; it has not accompanied, not anticipated – here we must choose! – the Marxist critique of political economy. The idea of this book has, in its own small way, a great model: that fourth book of Capital [Theories of Surplus Value], where Marx collects, exposes, comments upon, attacks – that is, critiques – the economists, great and small, classical and vulgar; he does history of theoretical economics, a history of battle, for his own ends, so as to know, to understand, to beat the hegemony of bourgeois thought in a field that is immediately incorporated in the class relations of capitalist society. The fourth book of Capital, as everyone knows, was composed prior to the other three.

The political has a bourgeois history. It cannot be leapt over. One cannot immediately arrive at an “other” political without having traversed and tested and understood what there is already. The past is weighty. Up to now capitalism has produced power; but power has also produced capitalism. This latter thing is difficult to accept. And yet here there is one of those stubborn facts that do not allow themselves to be shunted aside even by the most revolutionary form of thought that has ever existed, that of Marx. It is the fact of a history that from its beginnings, above all from its beginnings, comes forth as a political history. The proposal that we read this political history of capital, in intellectual discoveries and practical choices, is a necessity for Marxist research. Each attempt to leap over a moment of theoretical delay naturally provokes the risk of imprecision, numerous examples of incompleteness, and some naïve enthusiasms. This proposal would like to act as a guide to a gathering of materials that are then to be taken up, one by one, through specific analyses and labors. It is an idea for investigation aimed at young intellectual forces. We also find here a first reply to one of their questions. The arc of historical development is long. Whoever thinks of politics today, thinks they are doing so in a new way. This is very much organic to the old politics, because it leaves it in the tranquility of its everyday life, it fails to reckon with it, it does not fight it and hence does not destroy it. The need for strategic breadth cannot leap over the angst of everyday practice; it must confront it if it wishes to strike it.

The political has a modern bourgeois history. Many of the things that we do badly today had been done well a few centuries ago. It is extraordinary how little that is new can be found under the sun of politics. No, this is not the banal thesis that politics is always the same. It is not. Depending upon the way that it relates itself to the problem of power, politics changes form. As the subjects of politics change, its laws also change. It is around the crux of the political history of capital that a unity is to be reconstructed. The iterability of political phenomena must be scientifically verified within a historically determined socio-economic formation. For this reason, in undertaking a unified reconstruction of political history, we cannot go back beyond the modern era. Otherwise one would have to speak of an eternal and ideal notion of the political. This we can do without. The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns does not present itself again here. In politics we are not dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. Capitalism, in the epoch of its great crisis, produces Great Politics, as it did at the time of its birth. And alongside the modern classics there are the contemporary classics of politics. There is an intertwining of the production of politics, theoretical and practical, and the production of culture, modern and contemporary, that must almost always be teased apart in original ways. The old interpretive categories of the great intellectuals are useless. One needs new forces, brains that have not been smoothed out by the hammer of tradition. One needs the taste for a new inquiry into new problems. This explains the method chosen for the composition of this anthology. Putting in direct contact a page of modern history or of political theory with a young scholar who is doing research or doing politics today already makes a spark fly that can illuminate possible discoveries. But only on one condition: that we possess a working theoretical hypothesis within a horizon of practical action. This project exists to bring Marxist research and the initiative of the workers’ movement to a transformative strategic confrontation with the political.

But what is the political? There is an image of it that is at once modern and classical. This image has undergone prodigious development and ruinous crises, it has shaped the history of the past centuries but also that of recent decades, and only today does it appear unable to gather within itself the new complexity of the social, incapable of governing the action of the forces that it itself contributed to putting into play. The powerlessness of power seems today to hint ambiguously at the end of politics. It is not so. But we should take on and follow through to the end the positive charge of this ambiguity. We must put up for discussion the classical modern canons of politics. A critique of politics is necessary. In a Marxist sense. Not mere critique of ideology, but critique of the practice embodied in the relations of power. Knowledge, which is insufficient, is nevertheless indispensable. Knowledge of the mechanisms, the techniques, the subjects and of the images of power. One cannot turn the State into a theoretical dogma, precisely today when it no longer works as the manager of interests and the controller of contradictions. The standpoint of the movements that contest the state-form must not be expelled from the horizon of reflection, because something of their theoretically aggressive charge must be brought to bear on the problem. The outlook of a possible government of the new figure of the social should not be moralistically thrown back into the hellfire of criminal actions, because direction and mediation, that is, authority, is not the past of politics, but its present in crisis. The oscillations between these extreme ways of looking at the political are in the things themselves, in the forces, in the relations and in the subjects. We can find their echo in the different treatment of the thinkers in this anthology. One cannot do a history of the political without doing politics.

What, then, is the modern bourgeois political? It is technique [tecnica] plus machine, political class [ceto] plus mechanism of domination, politics plus state. Each of these components has a history, but the history of the political includes them all. In the bourgeois consciousness of the modern political the totality is not brought in from outside; it is its nature, its tendency, its logic. Hegel is in nuce Machiavelli. Not in general, but on the basis of capitalism, the machine of the State is implicit in the technique [tecnica] of politics. For this reason, power cannot be the pure summation of techniques [tecniche] and politics the raw instrument of domination. Of course, the totality of the political is that of the classical bourgeois era. Then there is the crisis. In other words, there is our time: crisis of totalities, of organicist summings-up, of final products and results, the crisis of the Synthesis-State. One must stand in this new horizon of the broken, dispersed, non-organized political. In the knowledge, however, of the relationship that is established here with the preceding moments of unity, concentration, and force. It is not enough to look, one must change. This is also true of the political, and for its history. The crisis of the State-form poses practical problems of struggle. Is the schema, the passage, the contradiction “conquest of power – conservation of power” still valid? In order to know, we will have to retrace the entire development of the experience of the modern political at the level of the highest works of thought, on the battlefields of ideological alternatives, on the terrain of historic practical decisions. The consciousness of the past must not lead to the historicist knowledge of the present; it must push, practically, for its transformation. Hence the leaps will be privileged over the developments. What emerges is a history of Great Politics. This is a choice. Besides, the question comes from below. The last ten years have made an initial selection of the emerging forces of the young politics. The mass elite that has emerged from it is now being asked to stand up and be counted. Those who resist the return of moderation in small things, whether private or public, will find themselves having to make a grand reckoning anew. We must prepare instruments for reading the processes that are capable of grasping reality so as to return to the young intellectual forces the taste and appetite for great transformations.

2. There is, then, a practical origin to this theoretical interest in the history of the political. From the beginning, a close link is established between the terrain of the political and the birth and development of capitalism; an organic relationship, a reciprocal functionality. The present transition – that is, the strategic reversal that within capitalism puts crisis in the place of development without even a glimpse of a possible collapse of the system – and yesterday’s transition – that is, the great crisis and the exit from it through a new relationship between system of power and class struggle in America – all of this puts the role of the political back in play and makes that of the State visible. To grasp the sense of these transitions at its root it is necessary to retrieve the classical dimension of certain problems.

The birth of the political as a problem lies at the origins of capitalist society. The impact, the intertwining, the exchange, the conflict is between the state subject and the transition to capitalism. Without the State, from its origins, no capitalism. Without modern politics, immediately, from its beginnings, no bourgeois revolution. Let us reconsider the “Marxian” example of England. The English route to capitalism is simultaneously – not before and not after – but at once the English route to the modern bourgeois State. And the latter, before its birth as a liberal State, as a constitutional form, does not have a pre-history; it has a real history that leads to that result, which forces it to that transition. About this originary history, about this primitive political accumulation of the bourgeois State, Marxism is silent. And yet, as is Marxism’s wont, there are here elements not only for knowledge, but also for denunciation; moments not only for development, but also for struggle. And so it is. The political development, like the economic, drips blood and tears. The history of the State, like that of capitalism, is the history of force and violence, of conquest and domination, of ability and deceit. It is political, not ethical; it is history, not human progress. When individual rights made their appearance, power had already won, sovereignty was already absolute, and the modern State had already been born. How does one arrive first, along with capitalism, at this sovereign power of the State – this is the problem.

The hypothesis that runs through the pages of this first volume is that one passes from a theory of politics to a theory of the State, from Machiavelli to the threshold of Hobbes, from the Prince to the Leviathan. With respect to this strong line of interpretation of political thought and political practice in the 1500s and through to the middle of the 1600s, the differences of approach to the various protagonists of the epoch serve not only to articulate the framework of the interpretations, but also to register the objective blurring of the rigidity of the hypothesis. So we pass from the careful philological reconstruction of an author and his work to the brilliant discourse of someone who has fallen in love with a character, painting a portrait that cannot fail to be personal. At least at the start, I think this margin of oscillation cannot be eliminated. This is a tangled knot that belongs to cultural work on the modern classics. I do not believe that it will be possible quickly to arrive at a synthesis of a sophisticated interpretation of a text (as scientific as possible), and its cold, raw, practical use. This contradiction must be kept alive; its terms must be taken to their extremes, the opposite solutions must be set in opposition. This is a real conflict, as with all conflicts that cannot be eliminated, one must prepare oneself to use them.

As we said: from politics to the State, throughout that century of great political thought that the sixteenth-century was. Here the great islands of Bodin, Althusius, Suarez, Grotius are surrounded by an archipelago of lesser islands where realism and ideology, the recognition of things and the vain ambitions of universal palingeneses are interwoven, coexist and fight. No matter how and in any case, at the beginnings, in the process of formation of the bourgeois political horizon, the technique [tecnica] of politics comes forth as a technique [tecnica] of domination. Conquest and conservation of power: Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses put the problem directly in this form. Modern society is founded not only on the domination of nature, through the development of technique [tecnica] and industry. Modern capitalist society is founded on the domination of men by men. As Horkheimer writes of Machiavelli: “The aggregate of the paths that lead to this condition, and of the measures which serve to maintain this domination, goes under the name of politics.”1 Whether we are dealing with a principality, a government of patricians, or a popular state, it is always like this – as Machiavelli said, “it is while revolving in this cycle that all republics are governed and govern themselves.”2

Let’s repeat. There has been an optical illusion, that is, an excessively passive Marxist reading of a bourgeois politics as being based on the “rights of man,” as a universalist ideology of the citoyen that masked the particular class interest of the bourgeois. Whence a workers’ horizon of thought as essentially a critique of ideology and as a retrieval of its ultimate truth in the Marxist doctrine of human emancipation. These things remain painfully present. What still has to be calculated is the politico-practical damage, the blockage of the development of the class struggle that has been occasioned by the incomprehension of the political origins of capitalism. Once again, these are the reasons behind this choice of a work of research that, over the long term, aims to remove this blockage, even, and amongst other things, putting a web of problems back into play. In reality, in modern classical bourgeois political thought there was not only a knowing false consciousness, which is to say ideology, but also realistic objective description of nodes, passages and, yes, problems – of course, this is truer in the case of great conservative thought than in so-called revolutionary thinking. So, I repeat, from Machiavelli to Hobbes, politics becomes State, technique [tecnica] becomes machine, accumulation becomes power and the practice of politics wins, that is, conquers and conserves domination. In between there are the wars of religion, social revolts, a civil war turning into revolution, the “general crisis” of the 1600s and a first crisis of bourgeois culture in which the unity and rationality of the Renaissance intellect crumbles. In the course of this fiery ordeal, it is a fact – as historically indubitable as it is politically rich – that the unity and concentration of power, and hence the reality of sovereign power, comes before and founds the liberty, sovereignty, and the very property of the bourgeois individual. It is on this latter material base that the need for the ideology of modern politics emerges and does so quickly, already in the sixteenth century with natural law theory and Calvinism. What follows, Locke, the liberal tradition and later democratic thought, cannot be understood without these ideological sources; but they also cannot be understood without those great material, structural processes of the organization of power as a function of what will become the history of the accumulation of capital. What emerges here is a weighty problem that has yet to find its great historian. Upon these two aspects of ideology and power the religious unity of the world is shattered. The protestant ethic operates as an ideological support for a very specific epoch of the spirit of capitalism: it appears as a tactical relation, not by chance expressed in certain sociological categories, Weberian ideal types that interpret, describe, explain but do not change and do not propose to change the conditions of the investigation according to a practical outlook. The historical nexus represented by the relation of power and capital – the conquest and exercise of power, the accumulation and development of capital – is posed in the form of the strategic nexus of the relation between Catholicism and capitalism. And on the side, more distant historically but conceptually tighter, it appears as the ambiguous functional interchange of theology and politics. This is where we must plunge the knife of discovery so as to uncover the nerves, the ligaments, and the relations of the political in a determinate historical point; here is perhaps the privileged field for an anatomy of power; without doubt, this is the terrain upon which for a long time it will be necessary to work with the means of production of the critique of politics.

With Hobbes, in the bourgeois epoch, a veritable age of the State begins. From Machiavelli to Cromwell – this is the age of modern politics. A doing, an acting begins, which is by a single individual but is for all the others, or over all the others. It is the public action of the isolated individual; it is political activity. The laws of action, the rules to direct men and women, the forms to dominate them are born. The rationality of politics is born: looking in, there is the iterability of human behaviour and the contempt for the naturally subaltern vocation of humanity, the citizen as subject; looking out, there is the taste for ability and the sense of force, the cultivation of virtù and the command over fortuna, “those princes are weak who do not rely on war.”3 This is the bourgeois horizon of politics: the only one that has existed up to now. Hitherto the workers’ standpoint has attempted to change this horizon; now the moment has come to understand it. Only a cold understanding can put a real transformation back on its feet. From Machiavelli to Cromwell politics wins: because it becomes State, it becomes power. The workers’ movement is the end of politics, or is it politics incarnated in the masses? In the first case there is a break in the course of history: “play crazy, like Brutus,”4 Machiavelli used to say. In the second case, there is the reversal of direction: “we should consider where are the fewer inconveniences and take that for the best policy, because nothing entirely clean and entirely without suspicion is ever found.”5 Death of politics or class politics? This sharp alternative should be left open. The knot must either be undone or cut. Before we decide, we must understand. This is why we need to traverse modern politics, looking at it with fresh eyes, rethinking it with young minds. At the end of the historical course of events, we will decide with theory.

3. Theory, precisely. In the current confusion of languages or, to be more up-to-date, in the present plurality of languages, it is difficult to understand if this crisis of Marxism exists or not. Insofar as it is a project of thought-transformation, Marxism is tied to the historical nature of the workers’ movement. There could be a temporary tactical crisis regarding the instruments, within the framework however of a strategic development of restructuring of objectives. That is, the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach does not go into crisis while there is even a single case of class struggle present. When there is none, if there is none, then we will see. In the meantime, parts of contemporary Marxism fall. Sectors of Marxist culture no longer find space for productive growth. There is a crisis, in the strong sense, of historical Marxist research. It has lasted too long and is too widespread for it to be down to mere accidental or immediate causes. There must be an underlying process that makes its effects felt on the general sense of the research, on the entire field of the analyses that refer back to Marxism. There is a crisis of historical materialism, of that complex of organicist, universalist, and (not coincidentally) economistic ideas that goes by the name of the materialist conception of history. These first centuries of modern history, this passé present, has refuted this aspect of Marxism. Indeed, as Lüthy writes: “The greatest wrong that the prevalent school of doctrinaire historical materialism has committed against history has been that of considering the State solely as an instrument in the service of others, and of the political regime as the reflection of the relations of power between social classes; and hence to have precluded for itself the true study of institutions, law, regimes, in short, of the political organization of society and of the evermore constraining and overpowering autonomous action of constituted power on the evolution of society and of economies. Because political history, in the full sense of the term, is not an epiphenomenon, nor a historical category alongside others: the economic, the social, the cultural, it dominates them and unites all of them as integrating parts of the history of the ‘city.’” Here there is a clear-cut inversion of direction that goes to the opposite extreme, assigning to political history a new totalizing, integrating function. This is certainly not the guiding hypothesis of our investigation. We seek a place for the political within a Marxist analytical horizon; a specific place for the political and hence also a determination of its history that helps us understand the function that it has played and thus the role that we can ask it to play. The history of thinking about politics and about the State, the history of certain great directions of state politics must also be read alongside the rest of modern history, that of class struggle and the relations of production, that of industry and science, that of society and movements. We want to hold open this historical spectrum; in each case, we attempt to understand its logic; we do not abandon the objective of a synthesis, but we do not preempt the results of the investigation. Besides, the logic of scientific discovery within the workers’ movement is interwoven with the struggle over political direction. I am convinced that a theoretical synthesis only begins to become possible when one starts to win in practice.

The centrality of politics must therefore be critical and problematic, it must carry contradictions – which it has done and continues to do. Immediately behind us lies the era of the victory of politics: in the workers’ camp, with the age of revolutions and the attempts at alternative societies; in the capitalist camp, with the macro-government of the great crisis and the programmes for the rationalization of development. The substantial failure of these attempts and programmes, both the great revolutionary ones and the great conservative ones, and furthermore the growth in the complexity, stratification, and disarticulation of the contemporary social, lead today (or appear to lead) the great forces as well as single individuals, to a “retraite” from the political. We are living through a moment of crisis of politics. It is a crisis of the ideological apparatuses, the criteria of belonging, the articles of faith, and it is a crisis of the technical instruments, of administration and mutation, State, parties, unions. The capture of active consent and the practice of subjective transformation become increasingly difficult. The functioning of politics becomes more difficult, both in terms of management-and/or-overturning and of government-and/or-revolution.6 Politics is suffering from a crisis of identity; there is a fall in the credibility of a political solution to the great problems of modern society and individuals. We are experiencing a crisis of political rationality. Here too one must think and live this transition; remain within it, traverse it and allow it to traverse us. We must take up a line of investigation that is open and provisional. This was precisely the “other” dimension of the autonomy of the political. Taking cognizance of a logic specific to the political and in this sense bringing about a revolution in the Marxist mode of thinking. But not as a project; not as a recomposition or as rationalization. On the contrary, as a moment of destabilization at the level of the theoretical tradition and, hence, with an awareness of the crisis of political rationality. The unveiling of the autonomous forms of political domination and so the anticipatory expression of anti-institutional movements understood, however, as new levels of class struggle that seek for themselves – and perhaps here is where the real novelty lies – a use of the political and an institutional politics. In other words: maturing of the class movement through a crisis of rationality of the very autonomy of the political of the bourgeoisie.

To know politics, and its history, is a weapon; an offensive instrument in the struggle for change. And it is not a struggle between cultures; it is not a battle of ideas. It is not a case of convincing intellectuals. And we don’t wish to titillate the specialists. I repeat and insist. There is an area of new militancy that has grown in the course of these ten years amid various disappointments; it now asks for a new culture of politics, a modern knowledge of transformation. There is a young intellectual force in formation, which has already experienced on its own body the failure of the “progressive” cultural horizons and is now ready to grapple with the other, even if the other is the enemy. This is the public for this discourse. Here there are vigilant eyes and minds ready to understand, deployed in such a way as to capture the true sense of the investigation and to utilize it for growth or for changing themselves. There is only one path towards the recovery of politics – as activity and as thought – and that is via the realistic recognition of its originary bourgeois nature. Once recognized, and only then, will we be able and will we need to go beyond.

Cassirer writes: “There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which we see Faust in the kitchen of the witch, waiting for her drink by virtue of which he shall regain his youth. Standing before an enchanted glass he suddenly has a wonderful vision. In the glass appears the image of a woman of supernatural beauty. He is enraptured and spellbound; but Mephisto, standing at his side, scoffs at his enthusiasm. He knows better, he knows that what Faust has seen was not the form of a real woman; it was only a creature of his own mind.”7 There is not only the “myth of the State,” there is also the myth of politics. It is possible that the exercise of this new power, “the power of mythical thinking,” has not erupted anywhere with greater violence than in the field of politics. Carr has spoken of “Bolshevik utopia;” it would have been better to speak of utopia with respect to the Bolshevik 1917, or of State and Revolution as active inheritance that brings with it the “most blatantly utopian element of Marxist doctrine,” the extinction of the State and, consequently, the end of politics; a Marx closer to Smith than to Hegel. Alongside other significant facts, is it not also this Bolshevik utopia that arouses the complete state-centeredness of the Soviet experience? “Mystical visions” are like the sleep of reason; they produce monsters. Only the realism of analysis, the critique of motives, the calculation of forces, and the disenchantment of values are able to save us from the fate of uncontrollable results.

And so: from Machiavelli to Cromwell; this is politics and this is the State. Here we find the history of origins. The rest, what follows, will not come about through spontaneous germination, or through peaceful development, or from the accumulation of data; it will only come through contradiction, contrast, via leaps, forward and back. Focusing on the origin does not help us understand everything, but it does help us to know the origin. Knowing where the theoretical roots of politics and the State lead is knowing where we must plunge the spade to tear out those roots in practice. To do this we must turn our hands to a labor of excavation. We cannot just exploit the labor of others; revisit their scholarship. We must get our hands dirty. Better to run the risk of error than to have the academic certainty of not knowing. In politics, in political theory, one cannot be Canetti’s Peter Kien, professor of sinology, a head without a world: “he remembered [the roses’] sweet smell from Persian love poetry.”8 The route is the other one. Confide in God but keep your powder dry. Machiavelli … but with Ironsides.

– Translated by Matteo Mandarini

The Political Economy of Capitalist Labor

The conviction that capitalist production requires laborers who are not only dispossessed of autonomous means of reproduction, but are also legally free to offer their capacity to labor on the market, has been central to Marxist analyses of capitalism. Any endeavor to confront this thesis with the actual history of capitalism not only runs counter to the dominant content of traditional Marxist analysis, but also to the fundamentally optimistic Marxist philosophy of history. Notwithstanding exploitation, pauperization, injustice, and all the other evils of this historical epoch, Marx, Engels, and Marxists have also conceived of capitalism as one step further in the development of humanity.

Much like the proponents of capitalism, Marx and Marxists have explained that while direct violence against producers was constantly threatened and often applied in pre-capitalist forms of production, violence is no longer required for capitalist forms of exploitation. It is, indeed, even contrary to the successful production of surplus value, and hence profit. Capitalism, then, is conceived of as a marker of human progress in comparison to pre-capitalist forms of production, not only because of its surpassing of direct violence, but also because it brings about the social, technological, and ideological conditions which make socialism possible.

Nonetheless, while Marx, Engels, and Marxists concur with proponents of capitalism in their conception of this political-economic system as a progressive stage in the history of mankind, they are neither in agreement with the latter’s conception of capitalism as the final stage of history, nor with their explanation of its historical origin. This difference is spelled out at the end of the first volume of Capital in Marx’s explication of “primitive accumulation,” conceived of as historical prerequisite to the accumulation that becomes dominant in capitalism.

After having made fun of Adam Smith’s anecdotal narrative of the origin of capitalism, Marx explains that primitive accumulation of capital was “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”1 The seven paragraphs of the chapter on “so-called primitive accumulation” contain extensive historical descriptions. However, they do not represent historical analysis as such. Instead, Marx highlights strategies and processes which resulted in the dispossession of laborers from autonomous means of reproduction, and in the accumulation of capital. While the latter was achieved through “colonialism, national debt, taxation, protectionism, trade wars, etc.,”2 the former was brought about through forceful appropriation and expropriation. All of these strategies were ripe with violence, and all of them made use of state power.

That these practices are considered to be conducive of the establishment of capitalist production, but not of its continuous reproduction, is made clear by the famous statement about violence being the midwife of any old society which is pregnant with a new one.3 We might smile about Marx’s choice of word, since instead of using the word “Hebamme” (midwife), he entrusts historical progress to a male, designating him as “Geburtshelfer” (obstetrician). We will leave that aside. I will also leave aside the extensive debate on revolution in the course of which this sentence has, again and again, been cited.4 But this statement is not only relevant for debates on revolution; it also concerns the analysis of capitalism. Having helped a woman in labor to give birth to new life, the mission of a midwife is fulfilled. Assuming that Marx chose his terms conscientiously, this also applies to the role of violence in history. And, indeed, it is in the same chapter that we are told that extra-economic violence, though exceptionally still made use of in capitalism, has been replaced by the “natural laws of production.”5 In other words: the open violence of former times has been replaced by the silent force of market conditions.

Of course, neither Marx nor Marxists have conceived of capitalism as being devoid of violence. Instead, they have remarked, the site of violence has changed. It is no longer in the open, executed through the state, or – in places where the monopoly of legitimate physical violence has not yet been appropriated by the state – by open private violence. Once material conditions have forced men, women, and even children to offer their capacity to labor on the market, direct violence is no longer necessary to establish exploitation, because this result is achieved by the impersonal functioning of competition on the labor market. And it is this impersonal power which ensures the acceptance of dominance that is inherent in every capitalist labor relation. This capitalist form of violence, no longer in the open and no longer sporadic, has become the central element of the everyday life of capitalism. Its analysis forms the center of the Marxist analysis of capitalist labor, and rightly so. Nevertheless, by focusing exclusively on the violence inherent in the everyday command over the application of one’s capacity to labor, and hence over the bodies and the intellectual capacities of wage-laborers themselves, one only grasps specific historical developments of capitalist labor, albeit important ones.

I am rather convinced that Marx himself conceived of primitive accumulation as a historical phase which more or less ended when and where capitalist forms of production became dominant. Why else would he have stated that at the time of his writing, primitive accumulation had been more or less accomplished in Western Europe?6 I am not opposed to re-interpretations which endeavor to make use of the analytical concept of primitive accumulation in order to grasp continual processes of expropriation as well as the extension of market structures into spheres of life heretofore outside the realm of competition.7 Instead, my critique focuses on the assumption that the constitution of labor relations through direct violence and constraint is only prevalent at the fringes of capitalism, and that this will be overcome when the rationality of capitalist economic relations becomes dominant.

Just like proponents of capitalism, Marx, Engels, and Marxists have maintained that the forceful constraint of laborers is a hindrance to any strategy which aims at furthering the productivity of labor. If there was, indeed, slavery to be found in the epoch of capitalism, then this had to be conceived of as an alternative to capitalist production, albeit an alternative that was historically outdated and hence doomed to disappear. Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth have recently labeled this a Eurocentric conception of the history of capitalism.8 I would rather point to the fact that – with very few exceptions – it is not economic rationality that effects the end of forced labor. Instead, historical analysis of the concrete functioning of capitalism reveals that the end of the many different forms of direct violence in labor relations has usually been achieved by the application of state power, hence by political struggle. Capitalism has correctly been termed a “political-economic” system. In what follows I will try to explain why this should be taken much more seriously than has hitherto been the case.

Let us start out with the results of recent historical research on the history of wage labor in England. In contrast to developments on the continent, English laborers were legally free to sell their capacity to labor at a very early stage. However, until the mid-1870s – definitely long after the beginning of industrial capitalism in England – they were not legally free to end their contract at will. If they did so and their employer went to court, they had to expect a sentence in prison. Upon their arrival they were officially welcomed with a flogging, and during their stay many experienced forced labor in a treadmill. In his important work on the history of voluntary wage labor Robert J. Steinfeld is very firm in his rejection of any functional explanation of the persistent use of state violence to leave the duration of contracts to the will of employers.9 He concludes that “what we call ‘free labor’ is defined essentially by the moral and political judgment that penal sanctions… should not be permitted to enforce ‘voluntary’ labor agreements.”10 While coercion had long been a foregone conclusion in the political management of labor relations, its justification came into public doubt when suffrage was extended to more laborers in 1868. More and more members of parliament started to think that it might not be politically wise to uphold the legal inequality between employers and laborers, as far as labor contracts were concerned, by making use of penal law and penal institutions. Seven years after the extension of suffrage, the penal sanctions of so-called breaches of contract were repealed.

While corresponding developments were taking place in other states of the metropolitan core of capitalism, developments in France were somewhat different. This difference should be taken into account when debating the theoretical analysis of the political economy of capitalist labor. Before the Revolution, laborers in France, just like almost everywhere in Europe, had been under the control of the police. This subjection was symbolized in the fact that laborers had to present their livret (worker’s booklet) to the police when entering a new occupation, thereby proving that they had left their former occupation with the consent of their employer. Again just like almost everywhere in Europe, breach of contract was considered a penal offense in Ancien Régime France. The livret was hated, and it was abolished in the course of the Revolution. Although it was reinstituted at the beginning of the 19th century, it no longer functioned as a means to constrain employment-at-will as far as journaliers, meaning industrial wage-laborers, were concerned. (Instead, it was used for documenting advances of wages and the repayment of these credits.11 ) In spite of the fact that post-revolutionary development was a struggle about the removal or the preservation of revolutionary changes in society, and in spite of the numerous attempts to control and discipline workers, labor relations as such remained private in France, i.e. not under the direct supervision of the state. The political necessity to decree that the two parties of a contract were to be equal before the law was brought about by the political necessity of constituting state power after the revolutionary demise of nobility. It was a direct result of the Revolution, and had nothing to do with any economic rationality. Indeed, in France industrialized capitalist production was developed much later than in the United Kingdom. Some maintain that it started in the middle decades of the 19th century, others that it was negligible until the 1880s. In any case: there is no convincing functional economic explanation for the development of modern free wage labor at the end of the 18th century in France.12

In spite of the restriction of the examples to only two national developments, it should now be clear that the actual history of capitalism does not support the assumption that the full legal and political autonomy of laborers is a fundamental requirement for capitalist forms of exploitation. Once this is established, we can start to tackle the problem of slavery.

The notion of the incompatibility of slavery with capitalist production is not only dear to proponents of capitalism, but also, at least until very recently, to most of its critics. More often than not the adherence to this conviction has been taken to be a touchstone by which to decide if an analysis can be accepted as Marxist or not.13 Rather early on, however, Wilhelm Backhaus contended that Marx had to postulate this incompatibility because he conceived of the division between free wage-laborers and slaves as a hindrance to the development of a revolutionary class in the United States.14 Of course, not only Marx and Engels but also later critics have suggested other explanations for their assertion. They have been successfully refuted by historical research.

Marx would have been correct in postulating that the enslaved workforce was exploited to an early death and therefore had to be continually replaced, if he had restricted himself to the West Indian sugar colonies. But the enslaved workforce in the United States was not only biologically reproduced, but growing. The mobility of labor, which indeed is a requisite for a capitalist labor market, was managed through the practice of hiring out slaves, as well as through the marketing of slaves. Where technology was introduced, as for example in Caribbean sugar mills, slavery was no obstacle to its competent operation. Every one of these arguments, and all the others that have been advanced in the course of the extensive debate on slavery, has been and will further be objected to. But as soon as we replace conviction by historical analysis, it is simply not possible to refute Robin Blackburn’s conclusion that “slavery was not overthrown for economic reasons but where it became politically untenable.”15 And if some still insist on explaining the durability of slavery by pointing out that, in spite of its economic irrationality, it was sustained by the self-image of slave owners and their ladies, this explanation falters in the view of the many strategies aiming at the reproduction of a subservient labor force which differed from outright slavery only by name and legal definition. In the United States most former slaves were not only disappointed in their hopes to become landowners, somehow receiving “forty acres and a mule,” but in the decades after emancipation very many of them had to endure some form or another of “Ersatz” slavery.16 The Black Codes, enacted by one Southern state after another in 1865 in order to effectively prevent the mobility of all black people,17 and to legislate severe punishment for breach of labor contract, had to be repealed in the course of time. But white landowners continued to reject blacks as tenants, thereby forcing many of them to become laborers. More often than not they were denied any form of autonomous production.18 The fact that the enticement of laborers by another employer was made a legal offence in every one of the former slave states shows that former slave owners still saw their workforce as property. The most important substitute for the legal status of slavery, however, was peonage. In spite of the fact that Congress outlawed any form of forced labor in 1867, laws sanctioning debt bondage existed in all of the Southern states. Cheap and bonded labor could also be acquired by renting prisoners. The sheer number of convictions sentenced to forced labor in the South proves the economic relevance of this practice.19 Employers tried to prevent flight by using chains, dogs, whips, and weapons.20 Most of these forced laborers were black. However, by the beginning of the 20th century a growing number of whites also came to suffer under peonage and other forms of bonded labor.

Not only in the United States did abolition fail to do away with the reality of forced and bonded labor. So-called domestic slavery remained lawful in many parts of the world; the slave trade as well as slavery were secretly being continued; Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and especially peonage forced many a freed slave and many poor men, women, and children into jobs they were constrained to uphold, even if they would have preferred to exist in unemployed misery. In many colonies, forced apprenticeship, as well as laws against vagrancy, were used as substitutes for slavery.21

When a global labor market came to increasingly replace the former slave trade in the middle decades of the 19th century, its dominant institutional form was a trade in labor contracts.22 Even if recruiters made use of “coolie-catchers” who were known not to shrink from outright kidnapping,23 and even if the future laborers were not able to read or to write their name and had been deceived about the conditions of their servitude and the continent where they were going to be employed, the fiction of a labor contract to which both partners had freely agreed was upheld.

Coolies were made use of in the United States, on the Sugar Islands, in Peru, in Hawaii, in European Colonies in Southeast Asia, and in Australia. Most of them were recruited in China, India, and Malaya, but some of them also in Africa. Conditions varied in the different states and colonies, but some recurred in most coolie contracts. Officially, coolies were free to return to their home country at the end of their contract, but even if they would have been able to find a ship and pay their fare, many were tricked and forced into the renewal of their contract. In the early phases of the trade in coolies, these laborers often found themselves on plantations or in sugar mills whose owners and overseers were accustomed to slavery and saw no reason to change their manner of commanding labor. The hypothetical ability to leave their job at the end of a contract did not improve the working and living conditions of coolies while the contract lasted. From the 1860s onward, governments in the home countries tried to forbid or at least to control the trade, and some governments in receiving countries, especially in the West Indies, set up commissions to look into the realities of contract labor. The most important incentive to do so seems to have come from free wage-laborers in these countries, among them those former coolies who – for whatever reason – had not returned home after the end of their contract. They protested against the fact that the very low pay of coolies endangered their own demand for better wages. At the end of the 19th and in the first decades of the 20th century there were many places in world capitalism where unbiased observers were at a loss to detect differences between slavery and contract labor. Often coolies were forced to live at their place of work, and not only the managers of the tea-gardens in Assam but also those of tobacco plantations at the Eastern Coast of Sumatra tried to prevent the flight of their labor force by guarding them with fences, dogs, and armed watch personnel. Of the 85,000 coolies who had arrived in the modern hell of tobacco plantations in Sumatra in 1866, 35,000 had already died three years later. In 1873 planters in this colony were granted penal jurisdiction over their labor force.24

It was around that time that free wage labor had, indeed, become prevalent in the metropolitan core states of capitalism. This notwithstanding, employers could and still did make use of the state in order to prevent collective bargaining. More often than not armed forces were employed in order to prevent or break up a strike, and activists were regularly sentenced to stints in prison. It was only in the first decades of the 20th century that capitalism in the core metropolitan capitalist states started to become domesticated.25 While most authors take the development of social policy as having been vital for the transformations of capitalism, “domestication” focuses on the institutionalization of class conflict. This is most evident in the neutrality of state penal institutions in the face of strikes.

One might be tempted, and many Marxists have given in to this temptation, to describe these developments as the workings of tendencies inherent in capitalism, the most important aspect of this tendency being the fact that direct violence was no longer used as threat against the health and the life of workers, in order to make them subservient to exploitation. That this argument – as well as the philosophy of history from which it has been deduced – cannot be upheld in the face of the concrete historical functioning of capitalism has been brutally made obvious by the labor regime of National Socialism. Not only were strikes outlawed and trade unions dissolved, with their activists among the first to be imprisoned in concentration camps, but from the late 1930s onwards, millions of men, women and even children were forced to labor under severe conditions in the “Reich.” Their capacity to labor was used in private households, on farms and on ships, in institutions of the church and in factories.

And it was especially in factories that German employers disproved the conviction that forced labor cannot be used in modern industry. In spite of the fact that in some firms in the armament industry more than thirty and sometimes even more than sixty percent of the work force consisted of forced labor,26 the output of these firms grew threefold between 1942 and 1944.27 This growth was not halted when the German government decided to make available for private exploitation not only so-called “civilian” laborers from occupied countries, as well as prisoners of war, but also prisoners of concentration camps. All of these were delivered upon the request of private firms. Since forced labor had already been widely used since 1939, the application for prisoners of concentration camps seems to have been considered as falling into the range of normal management strategies. Some processes of production were adapted to these changes of the work force, for example by reducing the level of mechanization or by introducing production lines.28

The offer of concentration camp prisoners for private exploitation was motivated by the intention of the SS to further its political influence;29 it was not the result of political intentions to integrate economic rationality into the machinery of terrorism and destruction. Racism remained the guiding principle of strategy. It was, therefore, only in mid-1944 that the physical destruction of Jews was “postponed,” in order to reduce the scarcity of labor in the armament industry.30 While the percentage of forced labor, including prisoners of war, was very high in Germany during the Second World War, the percentage of concentration camp prisoners in the whole German workforce never amounted to more than 3%. Every one of their number was denied existence as an individual human being by being reduced to a number and a creature whose physical existence was permanently endangered.

When the International Court, which was set up in Nuremburg after the war, worked to investigate and punish the crimes against humanity committed by personnel of the Nazi regime, the use of prisoners for production was labeled “slavery.” Victims have also often used this term to sum up their experiences. Since then some historians have tried to compare German practices during World War II to other forms of slavery, most often slavery in the South of the United States.31 While these endeavors offer insights into the specificities of the systems under consideration, they are nonetheless futile, because the abolition movement changed, once and for all, the content of the word “slavery.” It no longer refers to a status which, in the course of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, was defined by the laws of a colony or a sovereign state. Instead, it has become a political category, used to denote conditions of life and work considered to be irreconcilable with globally accepted norms of morality. The historical experience of Nazi Germany has proved that utter brutality is not irreconcilable with the functioning of advanced industrialized production.

There are two theoretical conclusions to be drawn from this degeneration of advanced capitalism to an economic system in which the extensive use of direct violence was practiced on a regular basis. Firstly: the domestication of capitalism hinges on the state safeguarding private and collective rights of laborers, and secondly: no level of economic development safeguards against the brutal use of direct violence against laborers.

It was only after the end of Second World that political struggle and political regulation resulted in what Robert Castel has called the civilization of labor,32 and what I call the further domestication of capitalism. This, alas, was rather short-lived. Because not only has rigid competition on the world market led governments to sharpen the constraint to offer one’s capacity to labor on a very unfavorable market, but societies and governments all over the world also, once again, more or less tolerate forced labor. My definition of forced labor centers on the restriction of movement, i.e. the prevention of laborers from leaving the workplace and/or the job. Taking away the passports of foreign wage-earners implies that they are threatened with criminal procedure for lack of an identification card, and preventing them from leaving the workplace by barring doors and windows implies the threat of illness and even death. We all know numerous examples.

Political struggles against such practices of constraint have not become easier since the globalization of the labor market. They are, nevertheless, unavoidable. If it has always been analytically problematic to conceive of the violence inherent in primitive accumulation as being the characteristic of a certain historical phase of capitalism or of its fringes, globalization forces us to finally recognize that open violence and forceful constraint continue to present dangers in all phases and all places of capitalist labor regimes.

Indeed, I insist on the hypothesis that open constraint and repression are constant possibilities of capitalist labor regimes. Far from marking a certain epoch of capitalist development, violence is constantly hanging about in the wings of capitalist labor relations. It comes into the open when governments and societies refrain from decisive objection.

The Reproduction of Patriarchal Hegemony: Women in Italy Between Paid and Unpaid Work

As long as reproductive work is devalued, as long it is considered a private matter and women’s responsibility, women will always confront capital and the state with less power than men, and in conditions of extreme social and economic vulnerability. It is also important to recognize that there are serious limits to the extent to which reproductive work can be reduced or reorganized on a market basis… As for the commercialization of reproductive work through its redistribution on the shoulders of other women, as currently organized this “solution” only extends the housework crisis, now displaced to the families of the paid care providers, and creates new inequalities among women.

– Silvia Federici, “The reproduction of labor power in the global economy and the unfinished feminist revolution” (2008)1

In the system of gender relations, the role played by women in augmenting the productivity of the workforce has been and still remains absolutely functional to economic growth. In these terms, the role assigned to women is the outcome of the condition of subordination and dependence on the employment status of the partner or husband, and also the cause of the reproduction of this condition. This process was a structural feature of the Fordist regime, but it is also shaping the post-Fordist regime – because it is precisely through the denial of reproductive work that the patriarchal system allows capital accumulation, and state disengagement in public spending.

Our case study will be Italy, which like all other Mediterranean countries has very limited state intervention to reduce care burdens, and which maintains that the pathway to full economic citizenship necessarily follows a male model marked by the demands of the market based on the exchange value, full-time availability, and androcentric hierarchies that cannot be reconciled with the constraints of reproductive work. The lack of jobs allowing workers to combine life and professional prospects, requires Italian women to engage in a deep reorientation of their life. Along these lines, the greater investment in higher education by many young women, and the consequent desire by those women to direct their career path far from family traditions or prescriptions based on gender stereotypes, are leading to a radical transformation of family patterns both an outstanding reduction in births (one of the highest among European countries) and also the increase in the average age of women who marry and who have their first child, as shown by Eurostat data on fertility and marriage.2

The (hidden) role of women in the Italian economy

babboThe participation of Italian women in paid work is not a twentieth-century phenomenon, as testified by data from the census carried out in the post-Unification period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian women worked in manufacturing industries, especially in the textile industry, which requires a large workforce with high availability, on the basis of peaks of production and seasonality. Women’s work then expanded during the war periods: up to 1920s women were employed in military clothing manufacturing, and more generally in all positions that, before the war, were filled by men. Perry Willson notes that with the advent of fascism, the relationship between the state and the private sphere radically changed.3 Fascist ideology characterized motherhood as a “useful service to the country,” embedded within militarism, to the point of establishing reproduction as a real political imperative.4 Female labor was strongly condemned, while the representation of women as prolific mothers was exalted, in line with the imagery of the Catholic Church.5 Victoria De Grazia highlights the role of ruralization and the policy of low wages in the dispersion of the workforce, and in maintaining a state of dependence of rural households on the state, and of women on the heads of households; both these conditions of dependence played a key role in the construction of the stereotype of the male breadwinner and the wife-mother-housewife. The fascist dictatorship invented the maternalistic tradition: in 1933 it announced the celebration of the “Day of the Mother and Child,” but it did not provide any equitable distribution of funds and resources among indigent families, while it introduced the “tax on celibacy” that required payments from all men aged 25 to 65.6

During the fascist regime, particularly in the educational sector, women were not allowed to gain access to senior positions and to some specific fields: in 1923 women were forbidden to operate as principals in state secondary schools, while in 1926 women could not teach Italian language, history, philosophy and Latin in high schools. Furthermore, women were prevented from obtaining top management roles at the Ministry of Postal Service, and limits on the recruitment of women were introduced in public administration. Willson emphasizes that the measures taken by the regime intended to maintain a gender balance in order to reintroduce male domination and gendered hierarchies in the workplace.7 These measures played a decisive role in the social control of women: they undermined the possibility of self-determination, restricting women to the role of wives and mothers, and increasing the economic dependence of women on the income of men. In this sense, what happened during the fascist regime was a crucial step in forming the mode of production that supported the “Italian road to Fordism” taken after World War II.

In the second postwar period, rural exodus and urbanization were driven by the “economic miracle,” and the inexorable decline of the patriarchal family redefined the family structure. However, these phenomena, at least until the 1970s, would not involve the greater participation of women in paid work or the redrawing of balance in the relationship between men and women. Unlike most European countries during the economic expansion of the second post-war period, in Italy female employment did not grow, but declined. In 1950 only 32% of Italian women were employed (a compared to 40.7% in United Kingdom, 44.3% in Germany, 35.1% in Sweden, and 49.5% in France), in part a consequence of the entry into force of the law of 1 October 1960, n. 1027,8 which recognized the principle of equal pay between men and women and generated an increase in labor costs. In order to defend the institution of the family against the “danger” of women’s emancipation, the Catholic Church opposed birth control practices and attributed responsibility for the declining birth rate to the “selfishness” of modern women.9 The growth of the real wages as a result of industrialization, and the increase of the share of income allocated to consumption, allowed many Italians to improve their standard of living. At the same time, the distribution of resources worsened, and population growth led to an increased demand for public services, such as healthcare, housing, education, and transport. The state’s response in public spending, however, was trivial compared to this demand. Laura Balbo points out that the worsening of the relationship between public resources and social needs caused the intensification of the exploitation of women, to the point that the role of full-time housewife became “a role structurally necessary to realize, in the new conditions, the balance between resources and need-satisfaction that is considered an essential standard.”10

In the late 1960s the Fordist mode of production, based on the large-scale manufacturing of standardized goods and the centrality of big firms, was in crisis. The Italian production system was reorganized, introducing elements of flexibility that could preserve and also increase the profits of big firms. In 1970, the introduction of an extensive system of formal protections for workers with the Workers’ Statute accelerated the collapse of the Fordist mode of production. The increased rigidity in the use of the work force became the main argument in support of policies of decentralization of production.11 Italian capitalism’s response to the economic crisis of the 1970s therefore consisted, on the one hand, in the dismantling of big firms through the extensive use of vertical disintegration of the production process, and on the other, in the spread of small and medium firms, where the limited number of workers and the close relationship between employers and employees precluded class struggles.12

In the 1970s the reorganization of the Italian manufacturing system passed through the expansion of the black market and illegal employment, homework (piecework done at home), second jobs, and a general proliferation of working activities with no contract. This labor market segmentation and the spread of new firms, in industrialized but also especially in rural areas, totally invisible for taxes and national insurance, grew to the point that the underground economy began to play a structural role within the Italian economy. It should be emphasized that in early 1970s Italy the segmentation of the labor market, as well as occupational segregation, were not related to migrant workers, as they were in other industrialized countries, because the migrant flows were still limited. Rather, these processes involved young people, adults over 40 with few job opportunities, and especially women.13 So the female workforce represented a crucial pool of labor, which could be used in the most flexible way, through the exploitation of the irregular workforce and homework, allowing the production system to cope with the instability resulting from extreme fluctuations of the economy without affecting reproductive labor.14 In these terms it is the female workforce that ultimately bore the burden of economic and industrial restructuring. Think, here, of the spread of the practice of “blank resignation letters” imposed on female candidates at the time of recruitment. In this practice, which still exists today, women are asked to sign their employment contract together with a blank resignation letter, which can be enforced at the employer’s will; these letters are usually brought out when an employee informs her employer that she is pregnant.15

Since the 1970s the strategic role progressively gained by small-firm manufacturing has been mostly due to high productivity, the intense pace of work, and the peculiar role of exports. The economic sectors that, in fact, derived greater benefit from smaller firm size were clothing, footwear, furniture, and small metallic manufacturing. These sectors are characterized by low technological investment and intensive exploitation of human labor, while the manufacturing process can be easily segmented and some of its stages outsourced to other firms, self-employed workers, and homeworkers. In small-firm areas manufacturing socialization has affected entire local communities, defining a labor market, on a territorial basis, consisting of men employed in agriculture and in the factories, women and workers with low educational levels employed in discontinuous working positions, in which the unions and the traditional means of aggregating interests are unlikely to take root. In these feminized contexts, the onset of conflict is less likely.16 The dynamic economy of new manufacturing areas which expanded during the 1970s and the 1980s, especially in rural areas, were mainly supported by families that informally managed workforce placement, through the activation of local networks; contributed to the reduction of labor costs, because of the closeness between households and workplaces; and also organized the reproduction of the workforce through the informalization of social services.17

Nevertheless, this explanation does not consider some important macroeconomic elements related to the global division of labor, and its effects on the Italian economy. It must be observed that in the 1970s the restructuring of the Italian manufacturing system was closely associated with external pressures arising from fluctuations in global demand and internal rigidities produced by the new relations between capital and labor. Therefore, the extensive use of the decentralization of production, while establishing a new form of development, was in continuity with the existing economic relations, deeply rooted in the social structure.18

The economic dynamism of the system of production emerging in the second half of the 1970s was based on the family structure and a peculiar socialization due to the legacy of rural culture. For a long time the main economic actor in Italy has been the family as a “place of composition, examination, income distribution, agent consumption, scope definition in labor supply, and actor of the informal economy.”19 In these manufacturing areas the culture of the “self-made man” was the result of a socialization process that occurred within the family. In fact, the economy of these areas associated formal production for the market with informal production, related to the ties arising between the employed workforce and the local community.20

In small-firm areas the marginalization of women’s role, totally subordinated to the expectations of social promotion of male family members, has been fully functional for economic development, as showed by the spread of the homework. During the 1960s and 1980s, the expansion of homework in many manufacturing areas became crucial for the national economy, testifying that women working at home have played a pivotal position, fully functional to the needs of economic growth.21 Domestic and care work and working activity for the market have coexisted in the same subject, even if dependent on the needs of the family, often resulting in physically detrimental labor conditions. It is sufficient here to recall, for example, the frequent cases of neuropathies found among women working at home due to the use of risky solvents usually employed in the shoe manufacturing industry.

During the economic miracle, the paid and unpaid work of Italian women led to a decisive reduction of the social costs of production. In the long run, however, this large amount of unpaid domestic and care work, and low-paid work for the market, has reinforced the gendere