We present two texts that constitute a small debate between Blaumachen and two comrades from the journal Internationalist Perspective. Our comrades from IP have written a critique of our main article on the Greek riots of December 2008 that was published in the third issue of Blaumachen. Our response can be found here, just below their text.
This is a very interesting text that provides a detailed account of the December “riots” in Greece and attempts to draw lessons from it that go beyond the specifically Greek context. There is a great deal in it with which we in IP agree: a call for the abolition of the value form and wage labor; the rejection of the unions and of self-management; the need for class unity (involving different strata of the collective worker (our term), full time, part-time, students, immigrants, illegals, etc., across racial or ethnic lines; most important a rejection of the fetish of legality or respect for capitalist property, public or private; a need to spread the struggle beyond sectoral or national frontiers; a clear sense that within the framework of the value form, there is only one direction that society can take: a course towards growing barbarism.
But we also have disagreements on two important issues.
First, on Blaumachen’s view of destruction as capable of creating the conditions for the necessity of communism, because “generalized destruction would make it impossible to go back”. There is a focus on destruction of “buildings, means of production, networks of distribution,” as vital to the class struggle. Woland is not talking about the destruction that capital brings in its wake and imposes on the collective worker, but about the destruction wrought by the proletariat in struggle, which involves “the destruction of the urban space. “The abolition of value necessarily begins with the destruction of things”, Woland writes. Not the destruction of the value form, or the state apparatus, but the destruction — not the expropriation/appropriation/seizure — of the productive apparatus by the collective worker. Isn’t that appropriation the step that becomes revolutionary, as opposed to burning or looting stores? And that quite apart from how capital can and does use the images of destruction to win popular support for its own violence. It is true that pillage can transform commodities into use-values (the text on Chile in the last IP is an illustration of that, and it should not need an earthquake to provoke such action), but pillage can also be either an orgy of destruction or the looting of goods for re-sale and individual profit, which Woland does not criticize (contrary to the text on Chile). One can understand rage, more so in the case of the précaires or sans papiers than the student perhaps, but is this in itself the way forward, tactically or strategically? The idea that the class that is responsible for the production of life in all its facets can and should seize the apparatus within which it is compelled by capital to labor, not burn it down, seems entirely absent here.
The value-form is a social relation, not “things”. Destroying things is not necessarily a blow to the value-form. And while we agree that the practical destruction of the value-form does not begin after the revolution but through it, we disagree with the view that this takes the form of a mere destruction of things. Especially not since capital, at this time of massive overaccumulation, is itself bent on a course of increasing destruction of things (of superfluous value).
The other issue is the rejection of demand struggles, which, in Woland’s view, are condemned to be unionist struggles, even when unions are absent. Still, he states, “we participate in demand struggles that concern us” because “by their failure”, they create the conditions to go beyond unionism.
Our view of demand struggles is in part similar: we too see them as necessary learning experiences in which the workers begin to understand the impossibility to prevent the worsening of their conditions under capitalism. We certainly don’t see it as the role of pro-revolutionaries to tell the workers what demands they should raise nor to encourage illusions about what demands capitalism can accommodate. But there is more. We have always emphasized the dynamic relation between the objectives and means in the struggles of the working class. As the means change, become more powerful because of the growing extension and self-organization of the struggle, the objectives can change too. Through the praxis of self-organization and of overcoming divisions within itself, the class begins to see what seemed once impossible, as possible. The objectives radically change. What other possible road is there to revolution? That struggles begin as resistance against wage-cuts, etc, is to be expected and does not condemn them to remain “unionist” in content forever.
Blaumachen argues that extension and self-organization do not guarantee this transformation of the content of the struggle (which is true) and that real advances are measured by manifestations of the understanding that there is nothing to defend in capitalism, that it has no future for us, which take the form of struggles without specific demands, that are necessarily violent confrontations, riots, etc. In its view, expecting defensive struggles to become automatically revolutionary because of increasing class antagonism and extension of the scale of the struggle, would reflect a teleological view of the class struggle, with the working class realizing its revolutionary “essence”, as prescribed by “history.” We agree that there is no automatism and that this teleological view is indeed implicit in the different strands of productivist Marxism. But that does not mean that this link between goals and means is non-existent. The history of the working class struggle shows both that it is real and not automatic. The complexity of the question defies simplistic schemes.
There is something healthy in Blaumachen’s insistence that the content of the struggle does not automatically change, that it is foolish to equate revolution with the working class becoming a “class for itself,” since revolution would mean the destruction of itself as a class. But its critique throws out the baby with the bathwater. How they see revolution as a practical possibility if the experience of self-organization and extension in struggles for demands would not stimulate class consciousness and thereby change the content of the struggle, is unclear to us.
Sander and MacIntosh
On the text by “Woland pour Blaumachen”: A reply
“If the postwar period saw the subsumption of workers not only as labor power but as purchasing power, “treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle), something else begins to happen during the crisis of the 1970s. The producer-consumer submits to new (and newly repressive) disciplines in the advanced capitalist countries: fragmented, decentralized, colonized by rhetorics of self-management and participation, flexibilized, rendered part-time and pushed into industries devoted to the sale, distribution, management and circulation of commodities (including labor-power). This reordering of the working class as in-itself – the reordering of what Italian operaismo might call its technical composition – renders its conversion into the proletariat, as revolutionary self-consciousness, nearly impossible. The restructuring dislocates the working-class from its own self-realization and self-abolition by way of the revolutionary seizure of the means of production”.
Jasper Bernes, The double barricade and the glass floor, an account of the 2009 struggles in the University of California.
Sander and MacIntosh’s (S&M) critique of the text ‘December 2008, Greece: an attempt to detect the power and the limits of our struggle’ published in Blaumachen (BM) #3, though brief, brings to the fore in a concrete manner the most important issue of grasping/theorising the relation between everyday proletarian struggles and the potential revolutionary overcoming of capital. It provides thus a welcome stimulation for us to clarify and productively develop the theorisation attempted in that text.
In overall, S&M’s critique is characterised by a perspective of the proletariat being constituted (united) as a class, where seems to be our main point of divergence. The self-evident obviousness of this perspective for them is probably the reason for whatever misunderstanding of certain points of BM’s text.1 This viewpoint of theirs is clearly summarised in the last sentence of their text: “How they see revolution as a practical possibility if the experience of self-organization and extension in struggles for demands would not stimulate class consciousness and thereby change the content of the struggle, is unclear to us”.
How can one expect this “growing extension” of the struggle today? What we have been experiencing during the last few years (especially after the burst of the global capitalist crisis) is a multiplication of scattered struggles of different fragments of the proletariat and an increase in their vigor, without on the other hand being able to see a rising unity or (if one prefers a workerist terminology) a recomposition of the working class, as a class for itself. The capitalist restructuring that followed the high peak of struggles around 1968 was a counter-revolution which crashed the proletarian offensive and gradually dismantled the previously existing working class power.2 But it was at the same time the all embracing transformation of the class relation in all its aspects. This means that one can no more face class conflicts having in mind the historical patterns of class struggle either of the late 19th/early 20th century or the Keynesian era. One cannot in 2010 expect the victorious repetition of the German revolution nor even a more self-organised, radically anti-unionist Hot Autumn.
The restructuring was a process of “liquidation of the working class” (and the restructured capitalism still advances this process). Its trends was to transform the latter from a collective subject confronting bourgeoisie into a sum of proletarians, everyone of whom is individually related to capital, without the mediation of the practical experience of a common class identity and workers’ organisations that would make of the class a recognised ‘social partner’, accepted to participate at the table of collective bargaining. This was achieved through the unceasing transformation of the technical composition of capital and the labour process and the highly accelerated internationalisation of capital, with the disintegration of the rigidities in the global circulation of capital and labour power and the subsequent ‘zoning’ in the global division of labour and the modalities of reproduction of the working class. This transformation while homogenising the essential conditions of the reproduction of the vast majority of the global population into the ‘proletarian condition’ -i.e. selling one’s labour power as the only means to survive- (contradictorily restricting at the same time access to the formal labour market for a huge percentage of it, producing a structurally overabundant proletariat and a vast ‘unofficial economy’), destroyed workers’ identity and the actuality of ‘common interests’ and fragmented the global proletariat to an unprecedented extent.
No call for class unity can re-establish a revolutionary community grounded on the affirmation of the proletarian class belonging. One cannot face the way capital brings proletarians together, i.e. the fragmented existence of the proletariat as labour power -which is its only existence- as superficial and inessential, as something to be superseded once proletarians begin to ‘understand’ that they have essentially common interests, thus demystifying social relations. In the cycle of struggles which had its peak during the years 1917-23, a unifying class consciousness was incorporated in the reproduction and the specific development of the relation of exploitation anticipating the communist revolution as the affirmation of the working class as the really productive force of society while appropriating the capitalist means of production. Class consciousness was not an apocalypse, but part of a specific historical existence of the class relation. Class consciousness persisted as the manifestation of the powerful workers’ identity of the post-war mass worker, though contradictorily so, since the ‘negation of work’ emerged as the practical critique against the impossibility of revolution as the affirmation of the proletariat, a critique produced nonetheless as inseparable part of this same content of revolution (see for example the contradictory co-existence of ‘ne travaillez jamais’ with the ideology of workers’ councils in the work of one of the most radical political groupings of the proletariat during that period, namely IS).3 A unifying class consciousness (revolutionary self-consciousness of the proletariat) is out of the question today, not because the proletariat is on the defensive but because the current content of the relation of exploitation doesn’t affirm working class as a social entity seeking to prevail against the opponent class.
Theory, as the self-critical character of daily struggles, is necessarily faced with the re-elaboration of the way revolution is produced in these struggles today, but -here is the crux of the question- not necessarily as their linear expansion or deepening. When S&M claim that we “participate in demand struggles that concern us because by their failure, they create the conditions to go beyond unionism”, they reconstruct our sayings in a way that reduces the theorisation of the contradictory course of class struggles to a question of political intervention. Our participation in class conflicts is not a ‘choice’; it stems ‘spontaneously’ and ‘objectively’ from our position in the class relation, our situation. We don’t attribute to theory the role of formulating a Revolutionary Practice out of concrete proletarian practices, being thus transformed into a revolutionary programme seeking to ‘radicalise’ actual struggles.
Moreover, in regard to the essential aspect of S&M’s argument, it is not ‘defeat’ in a strict sense that creates the potential for the ‘demanding’ content of daily struggles to be overcome, but the fact that everywhere, in all their struggles over immediate demands, even in the (rare) cases when such struggles are victorious for a small fraction of labour power,4 proletarians at the end of the day face only the present specificity of the relation of exploitation, which means the perpetuation of their being superfluous, expendable, precarious, depreciated and fragmented. There is no wage/productivity deal anymore. There is no socialist alternative either, or a radical alternative to the ‘really existing’ socialist one (e.g. self-organisation and self-management). In other words, the dynamics and limits of class struggle today converge exactly at the inability of the struggle to conclude its class dynamics (meeting of demands, renewed fighting position inside the reproduction of capital). This is as well manifested in the fact that one can see no stabilisation of new organisational forms of the working class that would question the official unions-in-crisis on the ground of an enstrengthened position of the class in the negotiating of labour power: the December revolt in Greece, the occupations of factories in Britain and France and the strikes and riots in China, India and Bangladesh ‘have left nothing behind’ in that respect.5
Nonetheless, making claims, putting forward demands, is the normal course of proletarian struggles; it is not the expression of something like ‘a false consciousness’ (or “ideological rubbish”) dominating the working class movement. For the time being, we can see such practices that demand nothing from capital as the manifestation of ruptures emerging inside (and in a close/dialectical relation to) the day-to-day class struggles. But these ruptures and the generalisation of the struggle are not a matter of “understanding that there is nothing to defend in capitalism”. The fact is that in a sense there is much to defend in capitalism, since after the restructuring of the ‘70s and the subsequent highly accelerated internationalisation of capital, global proletariat’s reproduction has been fully -and without mediations- integrated in the production of surplus value. The contradictory feature is that now the bourgeoisie does not give a shit to guarantee this reproduction, which it faces as a mere cost. By breaking down the rigidities of the Keynesian period and really subsuming labour now at a global level, capital tends more and more to free itself from maintaining the level of reproduction of the proletariat.6 Value’s utopia consists in emancipating itself from its dependence on living labour, in its uninterrupted parthenogenesis; needless to say that this is a self-destructive utopia which defines the present crisis as crisis of wage labour. We are confronted with a historically specific mode of accumulation where the wage, while at the heart of the crisis of reproduction of the capitalist relation (i.e. crisis of the reproduction of the proletariat, at the same time), has ceased to provide the core bargaining terrain for the face-off between THE working class and capital; demands have become ‘illegitimate’.
The potential of ruptures within the revindicative content of struggles grounds itself exactly in this presently a-systemic character of demanding. But then these ruptures are not a matter of forms of organisation either (against unions, let’s say) but a rupture with the content of the struggle, a rupture with being proletarian and necessarily fighting as such, which can only mean keep living all this shit. Ruptures are the failure of the class to conclude the course of its acting as a class. The generalisation of struggle then will be the result of a more or less simultaneous production of ruptures within revindicative struggles, i.e. the generalisation of practices that question proletarians’ existence as proletarians, which is not a matter of propaganda or finding effective ways to ‘bring out crowds’ or ‘call people to join’. This coming together of conflicts within struggles will immediately bring multiple aspects of the production of surplus value/reproduction of capital to a halt, putting thus at stake the reproduction of the working class itself, necessitating simultaneously the intensification and expansion of what will then be an open insurrection (or probably multiple insurrectionary fronts). Obviously, in this generalisation of struggle, the coming together of proletarian practices will not be a peaceful one; on the contrary a conflictive, contradictory and in many instances violent process is what we should expect.7 The production of ruptures is the questioning of class belonging within the class struggle. This dynamics of class struggle today can never be victorious because it will keep finding class struggle itself as its limit up to the point that the multiplication of ruptures will become the overcoming of class belonging (and therefore of self-organisation of the class) as a revolution within the revolution, as communising measures which will either de-capitalise (communise) life further and further or be crashed.
Proceeding from this understanding of the dynamics and limits of present day class struggles, we can account of lootings as a proletarian practice emerging in a great deal of instances within them. One could criticize “looting of goods for re-sale and individual profit”; but in doing so the important issue is the clarification of the real/material framework of any proletarian practice in a specific historical moment and not the weighing of really existing struggles against a self-proclaimed revolutionary tactics or strategy. In order for ‘looting for re-sale’ to be overcome, the existence of exchange should be widely questioned in a generalised communising struggle. In so far as exchange is the only means of reproducing oneself, one can only expect individual consumption and re-sale to be the prominent aim of re-appropriation of goods. So, the character of looting is not a matter of good or bad will. A critical account of specific instances of looting in present proletarian struggles is much more complex than just condemning the ‘bad looting for re-sale’. Immigrants appropriating and re-selling cell phones and laptops in Athens is quite different a thing from proletarians organised in gangs looting stores in Haiti aiming at a much profitable control of the distribution of essential goods, averting at the same time looting carried out by other proletarian groups for the meeting of immediate needs. In the last example, one could imagine that the practical questioning of ‘looting for re-sale’ in the potential development of a struggle would take much more violent forms, being identified with the questioning of the existence of gangs as temporary formalisations of the perpetuation of the domination of capital.
Finally, as far as the dynamics of destruction is concerned, S&M are right to imply that revolution will not be an all-embracing burning down of what already exists. However, it will not be today the appropriation of the shit that capitalist society produces. The existence of a great deal of the means of production and means of subsistence will necessarily be incompatible with the continuation of the revolutionary struggle as the abolition of value and the capitalist division of labour. On the other hand, one shall justifiably imagine that insurrected proletarians will seize aspects of the productive machinery of capital in order to retain their survival. But this seizing will be a conflictive process which will have to do away with exchange and the division of labour, de-capitalising thus the means of production to mere tools that could be useful (or not) to the needs of struggling proletarians becoming social individuals. Of course, we agree that the abolition of the value form is not merely destroying things. “Destroying things is not necessarily a blow to the value-form”, but a blow to the value-form necessarily includes the destruction of things, which are aspects of the existence of capital relation themselves. The nucleus of our disagreement with S&M is that there is no class that is responsible in itself “for the production of life in all its facets”. Only capital is responsible for the production of life today and capital is a moving contradiction between two classes and not the ground for an opposition between two autonomous subjects. The proletariat is the productive class only in so far as it is subsumed by capital. In this sense, we do not perceive of the revolution produced by class struggles today as the radical socialisation of the means of production,8 but as the abolition of both classes and of the means of production as such. The ‘necessity of communism’ is not a theoretical postulate; it is something that can be produced by the destructive action of the proletariat. If one wants to be a realist and understand history as human practice, then they have no choice other than understanding the ‘necessity of communism’ as a proletarian practice which decomposes capital to the extent that any going back will be impossible.
- 1For example, already in the first paragraph, their identifying a point of agreement in the “need for class unity” is actually false. This will hopefully become clear in what is written below in this reply.
- 2This obviously didn’t take place overnight, as for example the 1985 miners’ struggles in Britain indicate.
- 3This point undoubtedly needs further developing, but this cannot be done within the limited scope of this reply. The progress of this discussion will hopefully give us the opportunity to bring it up again in more depth.
- 4See, for example, some of the occupations over redundancies in France or the recent wave of strikes in China.
- 5In these conditions, the radical/autonomous/grassroots unions in countries like Greece or France are more militant proletarian groupings inclined in various kinds of activism against dismissals or compensations, rather than proper unions negotiating the labour power on an enterprise or sectoral level.
- 6No matter how much differentiated these processes are in the different parts of the globe (global zoning of the capitalist accumulation/reproduction).
- 7Different aspects of this conflictive process are already prefigured in instances like the recent dispute in FIAT and the relation between Polish and Italian workers therein, the Bangladeshi workers’ firebombing of factories with scabs working inside some months ago or the attacks by ‘banlieu kids’ against anti-CPE demonstrators in Paris 2006.
- 8In other words, as an abolition of private expropriation of surplus value in its radical socialisation, which historically has been proven to be impossible in its own terms.