Communisation theory and the question of fascism - Cherry Angioma

Opposing fascism - Cable St, East London 1936

A critical look at some assumptions of communisation theorists - considering that their often determinist historical predictions are not the only possible outcomes. "Communisation resulting in a classless society is only one of the possibilities on the horizon".

It is now more than five years since the start of the financial crisis with no sign of respite from austerity and increasing insecurity. Neither the old left of unions and parties or the newer social movements of protest and direct action seem to be up to the task of offering a way forward. In the search for new road maps to navigate crisis and the possibilities of life beyond capitalism, the concept of ‘communisation’ has become an increasing focus of discussion.

The word itself has been around since the early days of the communist movement. The English utopian Goodwyn Barmby, credited with the being the first person to use the term communist in the English language, wrote a text as early as 1841 entitled ‘The Outlines of Communism, Associality and Communisation’. He conceived of the four ages of humanity as being ‘ ’Paradisation, Barbarization, Civilization and Communisation’, while his wife and collaborator Catherine Barmby anticipated current debates about gender with early feminist interventions arguing for communisation as a solution to women’s subordination (Goodwyn Barmby is discussed in Peter Linebaugh, ‘Meandering on the semantical-historical paths of communism and commons’, The Commoner, December 2010).

The Barmbys’ use of the term to describe the process of the creation of a communist society is not a million miles away from its current usage, but it has acquired a more specific set of meanings since the early 1970s when elements of the French ‘ultra-left’ began deploying it as a way of critiquing traditional conceptions of revolution. Communism has often been conceived of by both Marxists and anarchists as a future state of society to be achieved in the distant future long after the messy business of revolution has been sorted out. For advocates of communisation on the other hand, capitalism can only be abolished by the immediate creation of different relations between people, such as the free distribution of goods and the creation of ‘communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism’ (Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Communisation’, 2011).

Today this broad notion of communisation is used in various different ways, but arguably there are two main poles in current debates – albeit with many shades in between.

There is what might be termed a ‘voluntarist’ conception of communisation associated with people influenced by the Tiqqun journal and publications attributed to ‘The Invisible Committee’ such as ‘The Call’ (2004) and ‘The Coming Insurrection’ (2007). It is voluntarist because there is an emphasis on people choosing to take sides and fleeing capitalist society – ‘The Call’ talks of ‘desertion’ and ‘secession’ - in order to create networks and spaces such as communes characterised by ‘acts of communisation, of making common such-and-such space, such-and-such machine, such-and-such knowledge’ (‘The Call’).

This notion has been criticised for the fallacy of proposing an emerging alternative society within a capitalist world by the other main proponents of the communisation hypothesis. What I would term the ‘structuralist’ inflexion of communisation is particularly associated with the French language journal Theorie Communiste (TC). More recently its ideas have been elaborated and extended in discussions with like-minded groups including the English language Endnotes and the Swedish journal Riff Raff. Together these collectives have recently collaborated to produce ‘Sic – an international journal of communisation’ (issue number one was published in 2011).

I term this approach as ‘structuralist’ because there is much more emphasis on how the possibility of communisation arises from the structural contradictions of a particular stage of capitalism. They talk of ‘The historical production of the revolution’ and ‘Communisation as the historical product of the capital-labour contradiction’ (Woland, ‘The historical production of the revolution of the current period’, 2010).

At the heart of this contradiction is the fact that capitalism is increasingly unable to guarantee social reproduction, unlike in the past when it largely did so through the wage. While wage labour is of course exploitative, in the second half of the 20th century increasing numbers of people in many parts of the world were able to reproduce themselves reasonably securely through their wages. Not just a subsistence existence, but for many a material standard of life better than subaltern classes at any point in history. In Europe and America for instance the typical car worker by the 1970s could afford a house (whether they owned or rented it), a car, domestic appliances (TV, washing machine) and a holiday in the sun. The direct wage was supplemented by an increasing ‘social wage’ of pensions, health services, unemployment benefits and so on.

In response to the crisis of profitability in the 1970s, capitalism has restructured itself. The old notion of a ‘job for life’ has been scrapped. For many, access to a ‘living wage’ is sporadic and precarious. Increasing numbers are being deemed surplus to requirements as capitalism pursues its unreachable utopia of wealth creation without the need for a proletariat. At the same time the social safety net is being progressively eroded. For TC and others the possibility of a revolutionary rupture is created by this unfolding contradiction – in order to survive with a life worth living, those dependent upon wage labour must come into conflict with capitalism.

The possibility of a crisis in which money no longer works is a real one and as in Argentina in 2001 would immediately pose the question of how else to produce and distribute the necessities of life. In shifting the focus from communism as a distant future ideal state to immediate practical activity, the notion of communisation can help us to think about what could happen in the event of such a scenario. The specifics of exactly how human beings will meet each others needs beyond the horizon of the market are rarely considered, but doing so might be very fruitful.

The problem with much communisation theory though is that it often seems to assume that under pressure of events, large scale efforts at communisation are inevitable even if their success is not guaranteed. For instance Bruno Astarian argues that ‘When the capitalist crisis breaks out, the proletariat is forced to rise up in order to find another social form capable of restoring its socialization and immediate reproduction’ (Bruno Astarian, ‘Crisis activity and communisation’, 2010).

At present, however, it is difficult to point to examples of communisation in practice, at least beyond outbreaks of looting or the short term occupation of public space. As Benjamin Noys observes in his recent overview, the old movement might be in crisis but ‘the emergence of an alternative ‘“real movement” is hard to detect to say the least’ (B.Noys ‘The Fabric of Struggles’ in ‘Communisation and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles’, 2011).

Communisation must remain a hypothesis, but surely so must the possibility of other outcomes in the heat of crisis – including a rise in populist nationalism, racism and/or religious fundamentalism, incorporating elements of a reactionary ‘anti-capitalism’. The crisis years have seen plenty of uprisings, but also upsurges of reaction on the streets. In Greece for instance, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn has increased its support and there have been attacks on migrants. In Libya, sub-Saharan Africans were targeted by insurgents against the Gaddafi regime. There have been riots against minority groups in the Assam area of India (where Muslim migrants were targeted) and in Bangladesh (where Buddhists were targeted).

Marcel Stoetzler’s critique of John Holloway’s ‘Change the world without taking power’ could also be applied to much of the communisation current: ‘there are anti-capitalist screams and cracks that are not at all, and cannot even potentially become, communist: there are reactionary, anti-emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism, and as these were decisive factors in the catastrophic history of the twentieth century, their theoretical reflection needs to be more than a critical afterthought; it needs to be central’ (‘On the possibility that the revolution that will end capitalism might fail to usher in communism’, Journal of Classical Sociology, 2012). Along with Holloway and much of autonomist marxism, would be communisers often seem to suffer ‘from a lack of a theory of fascism’.

For the authors of The Call, a rhetorical exaggeration of the extent of the horrors of the present gives the impression that things can hardly get much worse. Since we are already living with ‘the catastrophe’, ‘the disaster’, ‘the desert’, ‘the world civil war’, presumably fascism would be just be more of the same. Of course they are right that war, terror and repression are happening now, but there is a world of difference between this and their generalised application in genocide. They also tend to casually equate banality with barbarism – among the horrors they decry is ‘the suburban sprawl of Florida, where the misery lies precisely in the fact that no one seems to feel it’ (never mind, the pro-revolutionaries can ‘feel it’ on your behalf). As for much of the post-situtationist ultra-left, the qualitative difference between boredom and Buchenwald is left unexplored.

Others in the pro-communisation camp are more reflective on possible mutations of capitalist society. In Sic no. 1, B.L. ponders that ‘The revolution itself could push the capitalist mode of production to develop in an unforeseeable manner, from the resurrection of slavery to self-management’ (‘The suspended step of communisation’, 2011). Presumably fascism is one such possibility, but generally the main danger posited by communisation theorists is some kind of radical democratic self-management that reintroduces capitalism through the back door.

The ultra left and fascism

Unfortunately the historic ultra left does not offer many useful tools for understanding fascism and similar movements. By the ‘ultra left’ I mean those currents that trace their origins to the various groups that broke with the mainstream Communist International in the 1920s, including the ‘council communists’ and ‘left communists’ in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. In the 1960s and 70s newer groups emerged that combined ideas from these currents with elements derived from the Situationist International, Socialisme ou Barbarie and others. I am well aware that the term ‘ultra-left’ has rarely been used as a self-designation by such groups, and that there have always been huge differences within this milieu. Nevertheless I will use it as a catch-all term to designate a political area quite distinct from Trostkyism, Stalinism and anarchism.

Jacques Camatte is rare amongst adherents of the ultra-left in recognising that ‘The people on the left in the 20s and 30s did not really want to take into account of and analyze the ideas put forward by the Nazi movement and related currents, and this was in spite of the fact that many of their number were ultimately to suffer under Nazi repression. Generally speaking, there was no serious attempt to appreciate the originality or otherwise of what was coming’ (‘Echoes of the Past’, 1980).

In the 1920s and 30s, many on the German left including the KAPD (Communist Workers Party of Germany) and its successor factions held to a version of final crisis theory, believing that capitalism was on the verge of a collapse that would precipitate revolution. With this perspective, which was shared by the Stalinized Communist Party, the later rise of Nazism was often seen as an ephemeral phenomenon that would soon be swept aside in the showdown between capital and labour. Even the council communist Pannekoek, who criticised ‘final crisis theory’, seemed to believe as late as 1934 that the main obstacles to revolution were the leftist illusions of the working class: ‘It appears to be a contradiction that the present crisis, deeper and more devastating than any previous one, has not shown signs of the awakening of the proletarian revolution. But the removal of old illusions is its first great task: on the one hand, the illusion of making capitalism bearable by means of reforms obtained through Social Democratic parliamentary politics and trade union action and, on the other, the illusion that capitalism can be overthrown in assault under the leadership of a revolution-bringing Communist Party’ (Anton Pannekoek, The theory of the collapse of capitalism, 1934).

During the post-war period, revolutionaries faced ruling classes in Europe, US and USSR that sought to legitimise their position by stressing their anti-fascist credentials. There were various strategies available to combat this ideology, including observing that these ‘anti-fascist’ regimes had in fact dealt happily with Hitler when it suited them, and had allowed pro-nazi industrialists, police and military officers to remain in position after the war. But some on the ultra-left went further and sought to downplay the specific horrors of the Holocaust as just capitalist business as usual.

In 1960 the French Bordigist journal Programme Communiste published the notorious article ‘Auschwitz, or the Great Alibi’ which suggested that the mass murder of Jews was not the result of anti-Semitism but simply a moment in the eradication of the petit-bourgeoisie as a result of the ‘irresistible advance of the concentration of capital’. Seemingly they were killed ‘not because they were Jews, but because they were ejected by the production process’. Obviously this is empirically nonsense, Jews of all classes were killed not just those who could be characterised as ‘petit bourgeois’. But it also whitewashed the murderers as simply following the logic of accumulation, perhaps even against their wishes: ‘German capitalism resigned itself with difficulty to murder pure and simple’.

Significantly the article was republished as a pamphlet in 1970 by a group around the Paris ultra-left bookshop La Vielle Taupe. For some in that scene, notably Pierre Guillaume, this was the start of a journey towards fully fledged Holocaust denial. In the early 1980s, Guillaume came to the defence of Robert Faurisson, a French writer who claimed that the gas chambers were a hoax. He was not alone. Ultra-left group Guerre Sociale, which included Dominque Blanc, published a poster entitled ‘Qui est la juif?’ (Who is the Jew?) which compared the treatment of Faurisson with the fate of the Jews. After the dissolution of that milieu Guillaume went on to become a prominent publisher of revisionist literature – a ‘négationniste’ to use the French term.

Interestingly it was in this very milieu that the current notion of communisation first emerged: ‘It is not sure who first used the word… To the best of our knowledge, it was Dominique Blanc: orally in the years 1972-74… Whoever coined the word, the idea was being circulated at the time in the small milieu round the bookshop La Vieille Taupe (‘Old Mole”, 1965-72). Since the May 68 events, the bookseller, Pierre Guillaume, ex-Socialisme ou Barbarie and ex-Pouvoir Ouvrier member, but also for a while close to G. Debord (who himself was a member of S. ou B. in 1960-61), had been consistently putting forward the idea of revolution as a communising process’ (Gilles Dauvé et Karl Nesic, Communisation, 2011).

It is certainly not my view that the notion of communisation is fatally tainted by its association with the likes of Guillaume and Blanc, nor that everybody in that early communisation milieu can be tarred for all time with the revisionist/negationist brush. For instance Dauvé has been unequivocal that ‘Nazi Germany deliberately killed millions of Jews and a lot of them in gas chambers. These are historical facts’; he contributed to a detailed critical account of the Faurisson episode in the journal La Banquise in 1983 – ‘Le roman de nos origins’ (translated into English as ‘Re-collecting our past’).

Still it would be misleading to see this episode as just a case of individual pathology, as Endnotes seem to do in their overview of this current: ‘For reasons only really known to himself, Pierre Guillaume became a prominent defender of Faurisson and managed to attract several affiliates of La Vielle Taupe and La Guerre Sociale (notably Dominique Blanc) to his cause’ (Bring out your dead, Endnotes 1, 2008)

The strength of the historic ultra-left in all its forms has been its refusal to support capitalist currents of any kind – no ‘critical support’ for social democratic politicians , no defending Stalinist police states, no cheerleading for national liberation dictatorships in waiting. It has correctly argued that misery, exploitation and war continue under the guise of ‘socialism’, anti-fascism and democracy as well under fascism and military rule.

There is though a permanent danger with this position of seeing all forms of capitalist rule as identical, and of misunderstanding everything that happens under capitalism as simply determined by the logic of accumulation without reference to any other historical or political factors. At the fringes, perhaps this fuels a temptation to be receptive to ideas like Holocaust revisionism that conveniently eradicate evidence of the specific horrors of National Socialism and therefore shore up the position that there was no real difference between Hitler and any other capitalist politician. Of course, Hitler ruled in the interest of German capital, crushing anti-capitalist opposition and providing slave labour for the likes of Daimler-Benz and BMW. But the Shoah was an unprecedented and unique episode of industrialised racist extermination that can hardly be explained simply by economics.

Crisis and reaction

I doubt that many communisation theorists would deny the possibility of capital generating murderous, racist or even genocidal measures to head off the alternative of revolution. But the issue isn’t just how the state and capital might respond under threat, but how the very dynamic of social antagonism and crisis might give rise to fascism or some 21st century version from below.

If it is true that capitalism’s inability to guarantee social reproduction can only prompt various kinds of collective attempts to secure a life worth living, there is no immediate reason why these attempts should take an expansive, internationalist direction. The historical experience would suggest that it is just likely that many people could fall back on some kind of limited national, religious, racial or extended family/clan identity and seek to secure the survival and reproduction of their self-defined group – if necessary at the expense of others.

We can see traces of this today in the popular support in many countries for tighter immigration controls, at the heart of which in its working class version lies a demand to protect the position of workers in historically more affluent countries from the impact of destitution elsewhere, even if the price paid by others is detention centres and the deaths on the high seas of migrants taking risks to get round border controls.

One possible outcome of crisis is a kind of plunder-state in which capital effectively throws one part of the population to the wolves to ensure its survival, suspending the normal rules of property to enable the looting of the resources and personal effects of marginalised communities. Arguably that is partly how the Nazis secured the support of many Germans of all classes. The thesis of Goetz Aly’s ‘Hitler’s People’s State: Robbery, Racial War and National Socialism’ (2005) is precisely that many German people, including proletarians, were able to materially benefit from the plunder of the Jews and other minorities.

Interestingly this is acknowledged by the Berlin-based pro-communisers The Friends of the Classless Society who argue that ‘As indisputable as it may be that the fascist state initially took aim at the workers movement, it is undoubtedly so that it was able to extend its mass base to the working class. As racially privileged supervisors of millions of slave laborers, as the foot soldiers of the German war of annihilation, as the beneficiaries of “Aryanization”, a considerable portion of the German proletariat was absorbed into the national community’ (‘28 Theses on Class Society’, Kosmoprolet, No. 1, 2007).

And however capitalist National Socialist rule may have been it also drew some of its support from an ‘anti-capitalist’ sentiment, as Camatte realized: ‘’Nazism proposed a community, the Volksgemeinschaft, to all the people uprooted and expropriated by the movement of capital’ (though it is perhaps more accurate to say that it offered this only to some of the people!). This notion of ‘community as Gemeinschaft, the grouping together of people possessing a particular identity and having certain roots.. their domain of exclusive being, engendering apartness and exclusion of others’ (‘Echoes of the Past’) is by no means confined to 1930s Germany.

Another possibility is an extension beyond a state-managed plunder towards localised insurrectionary movements with a racist dimension. Even some of the great movements of the past celebrated by revolutionaries today sometimes had some of this flavour - during the English Peasants revolt of 1381, the rebels specifically targeted aliens, with at least 40 Flemings being beheaded, while the ‘Gordon riots’ of 1780 featured attacks on the London Irish prompted by anti-Catholic sentiment. If more modern revolutionary movements have generally avoided this, mass participation in ethnically-based massacres in the past 25 years in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda suggests that this is always a possibility.

Even a racialized partial communisation is conceivable, in which one part of the community establishes internal relations of equality and sharing of resources while simultaneously ‘ethnically cleansing’ people defined as outsiders. Such a vision is, for instance, promulgated by the thankfully marginal ‘National Anarchist’ scene with its call for racially pure village communities to replace capitalism and the state. To quote Stoetzler again ‘why should not a racial, super-hierarchical, anti-Semitic, ‘national-socialist’ post-capitalism emerge out of the chaos? Even today there are more than enough ‘left-wing fascists’, ‘autonomous nationalists’, and so on, around, whose dream is exactly that, and their chances are not so bad. In their world, Hitler is guilty of having sold out the national-socialist revolution to ‘the Jews’ and ‘the system’. If the rest of us underestimate the possibility of their victory out of a residual belief that it is somehow written into the DNA of world history that after capitalism things can only get better, we do so at our own peril…properly anti-capitalist fascists might emerge and prevail over pro-capitalist fascists in a situation when capitalism is on its last leg, and in any case, many people who look for an efficient force to get rid of liberalism-capitalism (and either subscribe to, or don’t really object very much to, such things as anti-Semitism, racism, sexism) will give them the benefit of the doubt, as was the case previously (Fascists often also have very reasonable soup kitchens.)’ .

For much of the historic ultra-left this was not really an issue, as their determinist ‘Marxist’ position imbued the working class with a revolutionary destiny. The highly dubious ‘Auschwitz, or the Great Alibi’ text articulated this very clearly: ‘It sometimes happens that the workers themselves give themselves over to racism. This happens when, threatened with massive unemployment, they attempt to concentrate it on certain groups: Italians, Poles or other “filthy foreigners,” “dirty Arabs,” “n*ggers,” etc. But in the proletariat these impulses only occur at the worst moments of demoralization, and don’t last. As soon as it enters into struggle the proletariat clearly and concretely sees its enemy: it is a homogeneous class with an historical perspective and mission’.

Today it is hard to be so straight-forwardly optimistic. Communisation resulting in a classless society is only one of the possibilities on the horizon, and those who advocate it need to reflect more on some of the other potential outcomes and how to avoid them. The Communist Manifesto (1848) talks of the alternatives of ‘a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or…in the common ruin of the contending classes’. Rosa Luxemburg, after Engels, talked of the choice between socialism or barbarism. The ‘ruin’ and ‘barbarism’ which they referred to was not simply the continuation of capitalism as we know it, but a breakdown of society into a state of all-engulfing war and terror.
It may be true that no localized racist or nationalist ‘anti-capitalism’ could create a lasting alternative to capitalism – social reproduction today cannot retreat from a global human society. Astarian is not alone among the pro-communisers in assuming that any such contradictions can only be temporary diversions on the road to a better future: ‘When the counterrevolutionary proletarian alternatives have demonstrated their ineffectiveness by failing to deliver the economic salvation of the proletariat, communisation will bring about the leap towards the non-economy’ (Communisation As a Way Out of the Crisis, 2007). But the last hundred years, and indeed much of human history, suggests that in times of crisis the road forward can be terminally blocked by desperate inter-communal violence and the spiral of massacres and reprisals – or when one group is particularly marginalized, massacres without even the fear of reprisals.

Countering this possibility does not mean signing up to some state/media/celebrity ‘anti fascist’ popular front, but it does mean being permanently aware of the potential for even apparently radical, insurgent movements to take a terrible direction. It also means challenging potential manifestations of this at every turn within the real movements around us, whether it be the emergence of nationalist anti-migrant sentiments in workplace struggles (e.g. ‘British jobs for British workers’) or rebranded anti-Semitic notions of saving the ‘real economy’ from ‘cosmopolitan’ money lenders (e.g. the dubious ‘moneyless’ notions of the ‘Zeitgeist Movement’ on the fringes of the Occupy actions).

To take refuge in a world view in which only communisation or the continuation of the status quo is taken seriously is to deny the range of historical options and ultimately to deny human agency with all its positive and negative potential.

Note: I have not included full links to all articles cited; all can be readily found online, most via http://libcom.org/

Source: Datacide Twelve - http://datacide.c8.com/magazine/datacide-twelve/ - October 2012

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Comments

Loki
Nov 21 2012 08:39

Some disconnected thoughts on this article:

First, it reaffirms a conclusion that I've recently come to: Communization and other anti-authoritarian Marxist tendencies seem to be finally catching up to what anarchists have been saying for 150 years. I admire the rigorous theoretical work that Marxists do. It seems like anarchists often lack the theoretical analysis that is necessary for developing better strategies (or any serious strategies at all). But I find that Marxist determinism and a desire for grand theories can be paralyzing. And non-Marxist communization stuff like the Invisible Committee is inspiring (because it resonates with me), but its so vague that I don't get any insight into how to act.

This article makes a good point that we need to be vigilant of authoritarian/fascist responses to this crisis. I hope that Chomsky is right when he says that the social movements of the past century have made overt fascism in the U.S. highly unlikely. But this is probably overly optimistic.

The article also ignores the fascistic realities that already exist in the U.S., like the militarization of police, violent policing of urban areas, the huge population in prison and the record-level deportations of immigrants. I don't want to fall into the problem that the author highlights (equating all capitalist states and ignoring the materially harsher realities of fascist states). But it seems like fascism is creeping into being already.

This article is missing the arguments that Rebecca Solnit makes in Paradise Built in Hell, which is that during catastrophes people respond with solidarity and mutual aid. It is the elites that freak out and use force to maintain their authority. Perhaps the dynamics are different in a protracted crisis rather than a catastrophe. But I have a feeling that we're not gonna get our shit together before a serious catastrophe (either natural or economic/political/social/etc.). So Solnit's arguments give me hope for humanity's future.

Radicals also need to proactively reach out to segments of the population who might be susceptible to authoritarian ideas/movements and try to channel their frustration into an attack on capitalism/the state, rather than against other proletarians. This is easier said than done, of course. I've spent too much time with racist whites, and I probably don't have the patience to work with them long enough to channel their anger in the right direction. But history is full of examples of people overcoming racial barriers to fight their common oppressor.

Steven.
Nov 21 2012 10:34

This is a good critique of one of the most significant flaws (i.e. millenarianism) of at least some of the communisation texts I have read

Spikymike
Nov 21 2012 16:55

Very timely given all the recent reports about the upsurge of ultra-nationalist right-wing groups and activity in Russia and Eastern Europe as well as Greece in particular their at least tolerance by the state authorities and the continueing nationalist discourse of the left as well.

solidariedade
Nov 21 2012 18:12

Unfortunately it's not only greece. In Portugal there's been a recent upsurge in the us versus them mentality articulated in nationalist terms. This is mainly instigated by the parliamentary left (especially the communist party), and by their fronts, dressed as socials movements (15S and M12M platforms).

Their analises are exclusively focused on finance capital, the troika, and germany. There is no public discussion outside these narrow views, and no one, except for the tiny ultra-left and anarchist milieu is putting forward an alternative reading of the present crisis. This left-wing nationalism is so widespread that it is perfectly acceptable, to call a joint demonstration between bosses and workers.

The communist party has been advancing for years the idea that productive national capital is in someway more benign than those evil finance parasites, and well, it seems to be attracting more and more people.

Five minutes in any demonstration, talking to people and hearing their slogans, will show that not only once capitalism is acknowledge as a whole. The bankers, germany, the imf, the government, these are the enemies, against who, we must unite, as a nation, not as workers.

I'ts also gotten to the point where a lot of people are asking for a technocratic national government, appointed by god knows who and comprising honest hard-working citizens.

This might not the beginning of fascism, but it's certainly a dangerous situation.

NPC
Nov 22 2012 17:02

I'm going to repost below the response to this article I put up on the Red Spark blog, here:

http://www.redsprk.org/post/36289985093/bottomless

- - -

A good amount of what the author argues is spot-on, particularly with regard to the economic determinism of the “structuralist” wing of communization, represented by Theorie Communiste. That said, the critique in many ways also misses the point entirely, transforming what is a (not insignificant) peripheral problem of communization’s political and social form into a damming condemnation of its theory as such.

——

1

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One hint of this is in the article’s conflation of alternativism and the voluntarist wing of communization. It’s a very common conflation, because it’s largely supported by the actual political behavior and organization (or lack thereof) in anarchist scenes where Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee have become fashionable. The problem is that the actions of an authors’ readership should not be confused with that authors’ actual arguments. If this were the case, there would be little to salvage from Marxism at all.

If we look at the actual theory in the writings of Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee, we have to admit that much of it is explicitly anti-alternativist, arguing that there is absolutely no simple “subtraction” from the space of the state, that lifestyle changes are not revolutionary acts and that the “temporary autonomous zone” is ultimately in service of capitalism. The popularity of this trend within Anarchism in the last five years has been due precisely to the fact that many anarchists have realized the failures of the alternativist and lifestylist trends that emerged from the anti-war and alter-globalization era.

The specific variant of voluntarism that is used in the writings of Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee has plenty of problems. It risks elitism, contains few organizational suggestions about how counter-revolutionary regression might be avoided and presents a thoroughly reduced image of capitalism that is drained of all complexity. Some of these problems are sacrifices made for the sake of outreach—it would be incorrect to think that most of these insurrectionary writings are meant to be stand-ins for detailed theory of revolution. They are primarily simplified propaganda documents.

Still, even within this necessarily reduced format, both Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee argue explicitly against many of the things that the author accuses them of. The Commune is in no way equivalent to The Commons—which is the operational space of the various right-wing communitarianisms that the author (correctly) argues are just-as-likely outcomes of anti-capitalist resistance. Though the Commune is something which often utilizes the shadows cast by the state, it is never an alternativist “commune” (in the older, Hippy-ish sense of the word) that tries to find full self-sufficiency in the shadow of state and capital. There are certainly plenty of anarchists who conflate these, of course, overemphasizing the squatting, shoplifting, dumpster-diving aspects of expropriation—yet these anarchists are explicitly ignoring the theory in their hands, paying attention to only half of the equation.

In the same breath that such activities are advocated in passing, The Invisible Committee suggests building large-scale antagonistic infrastructure (beyond just squatted social centers), expropriating large productive technologies (i.e. “means of production”) for use by the Commune, and experimenting with various organizational forms to best accommodate the Commune’s spread—because the Commune, unlike the Commons, is defined by its very density, which is to say both its force of human attraction and its ability to warp the space of capitalism around it. The victory of the Commune is the victory of a singular, qualitative geography against a quantitative, territorial one through the inherent fracturing, division and subsumption of that capitalist territory—it means that the Commune, to be the Commune, must by definition spread: “The expansive movement of commune formation should surreptitiously overtake the movement of the metropolis.”

The author of the critique selects only a handful of metaphors used in The Coming Insurrection, lists them out of context, and thinks this is sufficient argument to prove the group’s alternativist leanings. This is by far the weakest part of the article, either resulting from explicit misrepresentation or a sloppy skimming of the primary text.

Here are a few longer lines, in greater context, from The Coming Insurrection which argue exactly the opposite of what the author claims The Invisible Committee is saying:

On the one hand, a commune can’t bank on the “welfare state” being around forever, and on the other, it can’t count on living for long off shoplifting, nighttime dumpster diving at supermarkets or in the warehouses of the industrial zones, misdirecting government subsidies, ripping off insurance companies and other frauds, in a word: plunder. So it has to consider how to continually increase the level and scope of its self-organization. Nothing would be more logical than using the lathes, milling machines, and photocopiers sold at a discount after a factory closure to support a conspiracy against commodity society.

Rather than calling for communes to exist in the interstices of the state, waging revolution without “taking power,” the Invisible Committee calls for

a multiplicity of communes that will displace the institutions of society: family, school, union, sports club, etc. Communes that aren’t afraid, beyond their specifically political activities, to organize themselves for the material and moral survival of each of their members and of all those around them who remain adrift.

Finally, if we put the “secession” metaphor back into context, its meaning seems to be hardly one of subtracting from the space of the state—in fact, “secession” seems to be chosen because of its association with the beginning of outright civil war and open struggle:

The territorial question isn’t the same for us as it is for the state. For us it’s not about possessing territory. Rather, it’s a matter of increasing the density of the communes, of circulation, and of solidarities to the point that the territory becomes unreadable, opaque to all authority. We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.

Every practice brings a territory into existence – a dealing territory, or a hunting territory; a territory of child’s play, of lovers, of a riot; a territory of farmers, ornithologists, or flaneurs. The rule is simple: the more territories there are superimposed on a given zone, the more circulation there is between them, the harder it will be for power to get a handle on them. Bistros, print shops, sports facilities, wastelands, second-hand book stalls, building rooftops, improvised street markets, kebab shops and garages can all easily be used for purposes other than their official ones if enough complicities come together in them. Local self-organization superimposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession.

It’s easy to conflate this notion of opacity or invisibility with a sort of subtraction, if one makes the mistake of confusing tactics and strategy. But The Invisible Committee are clear on the point:

To be visible is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable. When leftists everywhere continually make their cause more “visible” – whether that of the homeless, of women, or of undocumented immigrants – in hopes that it will get dealt with, they’re doing exactly the contrary of what must be done. Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack.

[…]

Visibility must be avoided. But a force that gathers in the shadows can’t avoid it forever. Our appearance as a force must be pushed back until the opportune moment. The longer we avoid visibility, the stronger we’ll be when it catches up with us. And once we become visible our days will be numbered. Either we will be in a position to pulverize its reign in short order, or we’ll be crushed in no time.

There are certainly critiques to be made of this tactical opting for invisibility (so similar to the clandestine era of communist parties a century ago), but we ought to keep clear that in doing so we critique a particular tactic associated with one stage of revolt.

It’s true that Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee never give adequate answers for how the Commune might best organize itself to resist communitarianism—but it is made clear that a shift toward the communitarian nullifies the communist and that the Commune must generate organizational models capable of resisting this.

It’s also true that the question of fascism has today been violently re-opened. But the fact is that no one seems to have a theory adequate to explain how to effectively resist reaction. No one poses new organizational checks against it, though some think it might be adequate to blindly parrot the old theory and (failed) models used by former communist parties and syndicalist unions, as if the rise of reaction today will exactly mirror its rise a hundred years ago.

Of all communization theory, though, it seems that the insurrectionary trend is more vocal and aware of the dangers of fascism, including anti-capitalist forms of reaction. However, by limiting printed works to these kind of materials aimed at a broader audience, insurrectionaries have often perpetuated the undertheorization of this very danger. Similarly, the flattened image of capitalism they present threatens a vulgarization of thought reminiscient of that caused by the oversimplifications of old Marxist propaganda.

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When it comes to the “structuralist” variants of communization represented by groups like Theorie Communiste and Endnotes, the article accurately points out many of their failings. The determinism of some groups in this trend can be overbearing, as can the almost complete lack of organizational motion. Many seem to be content functioning entirely in a research capacity, as if concluding a class composition analysis of Greece is a wholly sufficient contribution to the revolutionary movement. Others can be just as dogmatic and programmatic as old Trotskyists, the only difference being their ultraleftist merit badge and a closet full of situationist souvenirs.

Groups like TC have real failings in their (sometimes very cookie-cutter) schema of capitalism’s “stages,” creating an overconfidence in the notion of terminal crisis. Ironically, they repeat the same failure as those older Marxist economists who deemed capitalism to be in such a terminal stage twice before (each time before a massive world war). This is precisely where the author points to the lack of critique of Fascism as symptomatic of a reckless optimism—and this critique (of optimism and inevitablism) is fair and accurate for groups like TC, at least. To it, I would add that “structuralist” communizers tend to downplay capitalism’s ability to regenerate itself through massive acts of destruction, massive acts of guile and (as the author argues) even through anti-capitalism itself.

But it is not fair and accurate to pretend that this is a summary critique of communization (large segments of the movement that make the author’s same points are ignored), or that this critique is even linked that strongly to the basic economic arguments at the heart of the “structuralist” school. Despite their over-optimism about the terminal crisis, one has to admit that the basic economic diagnoses of contemporary capitalism made by TC, Endnotes, et al. are largely accurate, though maybe more so for Western countries. More importantly, their explanation of the reflexive nature of class categories in Marx’s critique of capitalism—and thus the inevitability of the proletariat’s self-negation as it suppresses the bourgeoisie, the impossibility of “affirming” the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, the necessity of abolishing the value-form of labor, etc.—all of these points remain unchallenged by the critique, since the author makes absolutely no effort to tie the core of TC’s economic arguments to the same failures in strategy caused by an overoptimistic determinism.

Nor is it fair to try and explode what is basically an economic critique of contemporary capitalism into a full-blown system of political thought and recommendation for organizing. Communization, when applied by groups like TC, is much more the name for a basic reengagement with Marx in an attempt to rethink the deadlocks of the historic communist movement, particularly trying to look at the notion of class in a fresh manner but without reverting to complete voluntarism or “de-essentialized” nonsense like Hardt and Negri’s “multitudes.”

If we try to use this theory as more than that, it certainly won’t serve the purpose well. Marx’s Capital itself does not contain a theory of right-wing reaction, organizational suggestions to suppress counterrevolution, or explicit arguments for or against “contained” Commons systems at a national or regional level. All the arguments that the author levels at communizers, then, could be leveled equally at Capital, but I hope that stupidity of doing that would be more than apparent. Don’t conflate economics with political strategy.

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Ultimately, though, the most disturbing aspect of the critique is that it mentions but never addresses what can be said to be communization’s preeminent thesis. I’ll quote from the article directly:

Communism has often been conceived of by both Marxists and anarchists as a future state of society to be achieved in the distant future long after the messy business of revolution has been sorted out. For advocates of communisation on the other hand, capitalism can only be abolished by the immediate creation of different relations between people, such as the free distribution of goods and the creation of “communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism” (Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Communisation’, 2011).

Elsewhere, Dauvé has a few important addendums:

Because the vast majority of revolutionaries (Marxists and anarchists) regard communism above all as a new way of organising society, they are first of all concerned by how to find the best possible organisational forms, institutions in other words, be they fixed or adaptable, complex or extremely simple. (Individual anarchism is but another type of organisation : a coexistence of egos who are free and equal because each is independent of the others.)

We start from another standpoint: communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations. The way they relate to each other depends on what they do together. Communism organises production and has no fear of institutions, yet it is first of all neither institution nor production : it is activity.

These quotations are important, because they confront two of the most common critiques leveled at communization: 1. That communizers think communism should be “implemented,” fully-formed, immediately after the revolution, and, 2. That communizers reject organization and institutions, favoring spontaneity and subtraction into “communes” outside the state.

Clearly, neither of these claims are substantiated. Communization means that the activity of building communism begins with the revolution, meaning that the central mechanisms of capitalism (monetization, the value-form, labor time, etc.) need to start to be dismantled immediately—this doesn’t mean it happens overnight or even quickly, it just means that there is no focus on building some “new democracy” or “socialist” stage which supposedly gives us the preconditions for communism while still utilizing these capitalist mechanisms. I would even point out that, in some sense, the grassroots commune movements in Venezuela (which also just as often endorse Chavez), actually fit this definition of communization.

Similarly, communization has no aversion to organization or the building of institutions. Even the supposedly “alternativist” communization of Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee advocates the organized creation of large-scale antagonistic infrastructure—what more traditionally-worded communists call institutions of “dual power” or “working class institutions.” The difference is simply that organizational or institutional schemata are not the defining factor of communism in that they do not precede communist activity but are generated by it. This is the same point made by Badiou, when arguing that the Idea does not precede or dictate human activity but is born through it, humans having the capacity to intervene directly in the futurity of their own existence. The relation is dialectical, not linear. This means that there is nothing guaranteed, spontaneous or certain about communist revolution.

But the never seems very interested in addressing any of this. Instead, the article looks at some real failures of particular groups in the communization current, invents some new failures based on misreadings of the “voluntarist” trend, then spends even more time discussing the problems of ultraleftist movements from the later 20th century, regardless of how tenuous the connection to today’s communizers might be. Even then, the author makes no attempt to point out why communizers would be unable to provide a critique of fascism, for example. In fact, one of the only two groups (Friends of the Classless Society) quoted in reference to the issue speaks directly to the possibility of resurgent fascism that the author says communizers ignore.

Through all of this, we never once get an actual answer as to what the author’s position is on the central, more-or-less shared thesis of today’s communization current might be. Without that, the critique is only able to engage with the social embroidery surrounding communization, condemning it more for what it doesn’t talk about than what it does.

Unfortunately, this type of critique-through-inversion is bottomless. There are plenty of important things that communization groups haven’t talked much about—race and gender are two big ones, alongside reaction and fascism. But the practice of condemning a group for not speaking to one particular issue and then, for this reason, deeming them blind to it, is more symptomatic of identity politics than communist critique.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to the author’s critique of the structural communization groups. I’ve had many discussions on these exact issues with some of the more dogmatic communizers, and there does often appear to be an earnest blindness caused by reckless optimism. But I also believe in the basic practice, from classical logic, of arguing according to the principle of charity: making the best argument for your opposition that you can. In this case, we have to admit that communization is a broad, diverse current. In order to engage with it earnestly, it’s insufficient to reduce that current to its lowest common denominator of dogma and then to rail against that dogma. It’s also insufficient to automatically blame today’s inheritors of ultraleftism for the sins of their fathers—though we must be wary that those errors not be repeated.

RedHughs
Nov 22 2012 17:50

This site seems to be degenerating but here's a reply I put on Facebook.

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Of course capitalist society can get worse and of course many of this society's defenses present themselves as and draw people from ostensible anti-capitalist movements. I don't think an honest look at communist theory could claim we are ignorant of this unfortunate situation (capitalist society may indeed become so horrible in one fashion or another that it murders many of us - sorry if I can't offer a theory which immunizes us all from this but I don't anyone else can either. "HA! you didn't see THE NAZIs coming!!" is a pretty empty cry. So f*ckin' what?).

The critique of "anti-fascism" is the critique of the "drop everything and join the democrats against the worser evil" ideology which indeed a despicable ideology (would X-many anti-state communists have stopped Hitler in 1933?).

Articulating what a real opposition to capitalist society entails is a useful task to combat the tendency of people to go from confused anti-capitalist to confused reactionary. That's something we can and should do but here working with you're normal "anti-fascists" would hold us back.

Claims of the uniqueness of the Holocaust are fundamentally mistaken. Capitalist society (and even pre-capitalist civilizations) has engaged in mass murder in a variety of contexts and on a significantly large scale. Each of these happened slightly differently but these differences don't provide us magic tea leaves to determine the nature of capitalist dynamics.

The NAZIs killed Jews of all classes and also communists, homosexuals and a variety of their class enemies. In any case, any determinist theory basing itself on an exact mechanical determination and explanation of the irrationalities of NAZI ideology is engaged in mystical bullshit (Irrationality is a necessary component of modern ideology guys). Thus Postone and "Auschwitz, or the Great Alibi" are equally bogus. Postone's NAZI analysis, as is well known, has been used by the most crazed proponents of anti-fascist ideology - for the defense of other murderous capitalist factions. Obviously proves no more but also no less than idiocies around La Vielle Taupe.

I would claim the choice is never going to be "capitalism or barbarism" simply because capitalist society sinks to barbarism based on its internal dynamic, a dynamic which even a mass anti-capitalist couldn't change, much less the few anti-state communists that might remain "between upsurges".

orphanages
Nov 22 2012 22:49

did you even read the article?

solidariedade
Nov 23 2012 02:55
Quote:
Articulating what a real opposition to capitalist society entails is a useful task to combat the tendency of people to go from confused anti-capitalist to confused reactionary. That's something we can and should do but here working with you're normal "anti-fascists" would hold us back.

I don't think that anyone is claiming that we drop everything and join a popular anti-fascist front, but rather that this, should we say, misguided anti-capitalism, might be opening a space where nationalism can present itself as a respectable answer to the crisis.

It is not a matter of black and white, and no revolutionary critique should just drop everything and play the liberal anti-fascist game; however it is necessary to recognise that fascism and all its iterations, pose much different problems to the working class than what we presently have.

Now, I don't subscribe to Postone's particular position, but to say that the shoah was just business as usual, strikes me as a stupid mistake.

EDIT: Just to clarify: "Articulating what a real opposition to capitalist society entails", is indeed the best way to counter this confused anti-capitalism, but it is also necessary to fight it as what it really is and to show where it might lead us to.