Disaster communism part 2 - communisation and concrete utopia

Sonnenschiff 'solar city'

In part two of this three-part article, we look at the relationship between disaster communism, social revolution, and utopia.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Disaster communisation

Recently in the libertarian communist circles we are connected to, much of the recent discussion of what an anti-capitalist revolution would look like has taken place as part of discussions of 'communisation theory'.1 To our knowledge, little of this discussion has directly engaged with climate change. A definition given by Endnotes serves as a helpful point of departure for thinking about disaster communism.

Communization is a movement at the level of the totality, through which that totality is abolished. (...) The determination of an individual act as ‘communizing’ flows only from the overall movement of which it is part, not from the act itself, and it would therefore be wrong to think of the revolution in terms of the sum of already-communizing acts, as if all that was needed was a certain accumulation of such acts to a critical point. A conception of the revolution as such an accumulation is premised on a quantitative extension which is supposed to provoke a qualitative transformation. (...) In contrast to these linear conceptions of revolution, communization is the product of a qualitative shift within the dynamic of class struggle itself.

This passage probably caricatures its unnamed opponents, however, it’s a helpful way to think about disaster communism: no amount of disaster communities will lead to revolution. Revolution would only happen when the self-organised social reproduction of disaster communities came into conflict with existing property relations, the state, and so on, and overcomes these limits. That in turn is hard to imagine without the extension and linking up of different disaster communities, class struggles, and social movements.

Disaster communities are typically short-lived and tend to dissipate back into capitalist normality. Unless these communities compose themselves as antagonists to the prevailing social order, and link up with other struggles, they will be isolated and dissipate (either through repression, recuperation, or simply outliving the conditions of their formation). Both the intensive aspect (overcoming of limits within a struggle) and extensive aspects (spreading and linking up) matter: no local struggle can overcome its internal limits without extension. No widespread movement will become revolutionary without a qualitative shift from an ameliorative to a transformative horizon.

This line of thinking also rules out any kind of catastrophist 'the worse, the better' approach: there is no reason to think disasters will lead to social transformation any more than austerity will inevitably lead to revolution. However, climate change does change the parameters for revolution. Things like rising food and energy costs, mass displacement, and water scarcity will increasingly stress the capacity of proletarians to reproduce themselves within the prevailing social relations. For example, hunger reflects distribution of income not absolute scarcity, and this will remain true even with significant climate-induced reductions in agricultural productivity, so social property relations will increasingly come into conflict with biophysical reproduction.

As Endnotes, umm, note, an activity is only communisation if it occurs at the level of the totality - that is, if it's part of a class- and social-system-wide attack on capitalism in the form of creating communist social relations. If it's not part of that, then activity is part of the totality of capitalist social relations and their reproduction (as we see in isolated disaster communities). The capitalist class and its governments are aware of this as well to some extent. Their responses to disasters are not only about the short-term situation but are about the long term as well.

Harry Cleaver writes in his article on the aftermath of the Mexico City earthquake that landowners and real estate speculators saw the quake as an opportunity to evict people they'd been meaning to get rid of for a long time, to tear down their quake shattered homes and put up expensive high rise condos. The Mexican working class fought back, successfully:

…thousands of tenants organized themselves and marched on the presidential palace demanding government expropriation of the damaged properties and their eventual sale to their current tenants. By taking the initiative while the government was still paralysed, they successfully forced the seizure of some 7,000 properties.

Cleaver identifies two conditions that made this possible, the history of struggle prior to the earthquake and the ways in which "the earthquake caused a breakdown in both the administrative capacities and the authority of the government." The first is important for helping understand the conditions of emergence of disaster communities which might challenge state power or take direct action in their own interests. The second is important for helping us understand how disasters can limit the forces of the state and capital that seek to keep society capitalist.

The two moments of disaster communism

The apparent universality of disaster communities gives strong grounds to believe self-organised social reproduction will emerge wherever capitalist normality breaks down, whether that's due to disaster or social antagonism. Contra-Endnotes, this means we are not restricted to purely negative injunctions:

Endnotes wrote:
What advice [communization theory] can give is primarily negative: the social forms implicated in the reproduction of the capitalist class relation will not be instruments of the revolution, since they are part of that which is to be abolished.

We disagree. We think that disaster communities offer a glimpse of what non-capitalist social reproduction can look like under abnormal conditions. Since a revolutionary movement is by definition abnormal, it would be as much of a mistake to dismiss disaster communities as to claim them as sufficient in themselves. This does not mean a simple quantitative accumulation of disasters adds up to communism – only that there are glimpses of non-capitalist social relations in disaster communities. Indeed, it would be impossible to account for disaster communities degenerating back into capitalist normality if they hadn’t at some point operated on at least a partly different logic to that of value and capital accumulation. We argue this is a communist logic of self-organised production and distribution for human needs, without state or market mediation.

Furthermore, while it's true that capitalist social forms (wages, value, commodities...) can't form the basis of non-capitalist social reproduction, social forms do not exhaust the content of the current world. For example, David Harvey identifies seven 'activity spheres':

  1. Technologies and organizational forms
  2. Social relations
  3. Institutional and administrative arrangements
  4. Production and labour processes
  5. Relations to nature
  6. The reproduction of daily life and the species
  7. Mental conceptions of the world

The mistake Endnotes make is to take the totalising tendencies of capitalism for an already-totalised capitalism (for example: "What we are is, at the deepest level, constituted by this [class] relation").2 We would surely hope that any revolution would see each of these seven aspects transformed: some abolished and/or replaced with altogether new social forms, others reorganised and reconfigured, as well as the emergence of novel ideas, forms, technologies and so on.

Concrete utopia

If we take seriously Murray Bookchin's dictum that "we must escape from the debris with whatever booty we can rescue (...) the ruins themselves are mines", then we are not restricted to apophatic communism. Of course, we cannot fully specify in advance 'what is to be done', nor would we wish to. That has to be worked out by the participants in the movement as it develops. But that doesn't mean we can’t identify some of the constraints, the possibilities, and the latent potentials which are unable to be realised under capitalist social relations.

We wouldn't be going far out on a limb in saying that distributed renewable energy generation is more compatible with a libertarian communist society than centralised fossil fuel energy generation. That doesn't mean it's 'inherently' communist or necessarily prefigures communism - the solar panels appearing on rooftops around our cities show otherwise. Similarly, in the case of agriculture, there are biophysical parameters which constrain the possible (such as the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles). We cannot say definitively what the communisation of agriculture would look like, but we can identify at least some of the constraints and possibilities, and even speculate as to how these might play out.

Disaster communities are informative in this regard - both in showing how present-at-hand technologies, knowledges, and infrastructure can be rapidly repurposed to meet human needs, and in how these emergent innovations can dissipate and be reabsorbed into capitalist normality.3 We could go further still, and insist on the need to rediscover a concrete utopianism. Increasingly, it is capital which relies on abstract utopia - for instance building new 'clean' coal power plants with vast empty halls for carbon capture technology that doesn't exist. By contrast, a concrete utopianism looks to the already-present possibilities which are frustrated by the prevailing social relations.4

Labour-saving technology is everywhere but is experienced as speed-ups and unemployment. Industrial ecology is largely limited to a corporate social responsibility gimmick in a world ruled by value. Collaborative, self-organising, and co-operative forms of production are pioneered but often experienced as self-managed, precarious exploitation. Viable, sustainable, and low throughput agricultural practices exist but are marginalised in the energy-hungry world market. Biophilic cities and regenerative design are largely restricted to isolated demonstration projects or gentrifying urban spaces for the well-off, their potential constrained by class relations.

With Endnotes, we can say 'the determination of these potentials as ‘communising’ flows only from the overall movement of which they are a part, not from the things themselves'.5 Against Endnotes, we can insist this gives at least some positive content to disaster communism, even if only as a broad outline of incipient, inchoate, yet concrete utopian potentials.

In part three, we will try and tie the micro level of disaster communities to the macro level of disaster communisation via the example of contemporary logistics.

  • 1. Like this forum thread.
  • 2. This point is borrowed from a friend in discussion on Facebook. It can be contrasted with Marx's position in Capital that "here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests" (our emphasis). The communisation argument would be that 'real subsumption' has subsequently advanced to the point that Marx's 'only in so far as' caveat has been rendered moot. We disagree, and think this caveat is vital to any theoretical analysis of capitalism.
  • 3. A communist movement mirrors capital in this one sense – it must grow or die.
  • 4. The distinction between concrete and abstract utopias comes from Ernst Bloch, who sought to show – against Marx’s protestations – that Marx was in fact the greatest utopian thinker. Whereas the utopian socialists Marx criticised only posed abstract blueprints of future societies, Marx sought utopia through detailed analysis of concrete tendencies and latent potentials that are already present.
  • 5. Arguably Endnotes are simply paraphrasing classic Marx here: ‘communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.’

Posted By

Out of the Woods
May 14 2014 08:25

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  • It is capital which relies on abstract utopia - building new 'clean' coal power plants with vast empty halls for carbon capture technology that doesn't exist. By contrast, a concrete utopianism looks to the already-present possibilities which are frustrated by the prevailing social relations.

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Comments

Steven.
May 14 2014 09:36

Great stuff, looking forward to the final part

Sub editing note, with other multipart blog articles like this, we have put links at the top of them to each part, so I would suggest doing that with these, and adding in the third part to all of them when it is done as well, like so:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

vermelho
May 15 2014 11:17

How is this great stuff?
"Viable, sustainable, and low throughput agricultural practices exist but are marginalised in the energy-hungry world market. "
The archaic agriculture practices that you support can not feed 7 billion people. How is it viable?
Poverty for All and Long Live the Great Famine!
Fortunately, you are only a bunch of nobodies that can't possibly influence the real world.

Joseph Kay
May 15 2014 14:12

How does 'agriculture could be sustainable' = famine for all? confused

vermelho
May 16 2014 16:29

You are Pol-Potists. That is the reason I part ways with your ideological camp where that position regarding technology is hegemonic. Nurturing illusions about something so important as food is genocidal.
Now, down my post!
Energy-hungry world market only translates an energy-hungry world population. The great catastrophe will not be global warming but the empoverishment and disempowering of humanity through luddism and reactionary green politics. I find capitalist anarchy best suited to solve our problems than obscurantist greenpreaching.
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230443110457955000288...

Joseph Kay
May 16 2014 17:00
vermelho wrote:
You are Pol-Potists.

Lolwut? WSJ opinion page: a leading source on agronomy.

Alasdair
May 16 2014 19:26
vermelho wrote:
Poverty for All and Long Live the Great Famine!


Viva Pot!

Alasdair
May 16 2014 19:31

Seriously, where did this idea OOTW is anti-technology or agriculture come from though? One line that advocates sustainable agriculture? Are you saying agriculture that can feed everyone is unsustainable? We'd rather disagree and that would rather put you on the side of advocating famine and genocide.

In fact we linked to ideas about systems ecology and urban agriculture, in other words mass, technical solutions to healing the metabolic rift and providing food for everyone in the world within an urban setting without resorting to bourgeois scientific utopianism or anti-civ apocalypse.

husunzi
May 16 2014 20:42
vermelho wrote:
The archaic agriculture practices that you support can not feed 7 billion people.

Sounds like someone's been asleep for the past decade or so...

http://www.iatp.org/blog/201309/new-un-report-calls-for-transformation-i...
http://www.unep.org/dewa/Assessments/Ecosystems/IAASTD/tabid/105853/Defa...

kingzog
May 17 2014 21:28

Industrial agriculture or gtfo I say. As long as this sustainable thing does not resemble Cuban "special period" idealizaion or urban garden utopianism and rather, offers a plan for mass production, then it may as well be pol-potism. I'm kind of weary of this "disaster" language stuff. It's too much like eco-catastrophism and liberal green millenniarianism. Which are not helpful if we want to solve the climate change stuff.

Out of the Woods
May 18 2014 07:21

We'll be writing a fair bit about agriculture in future. The idea that it's either more of the same or year zero is a false dichotomy. 'Sustainable' might be a bit of a meaningless buzzword generally, but it's fairly well delimited with respect to agriculture. Specifically, it's about the application of ecological science to crop production.

For instance, continuation of the industrial fix for the metabolic rift in the soil (depletion of nutrients) requires finding an alternative source to natural gas for hydrogen and energy inputs to the Haber process. In theory, water could be electrolysed to yield hydrogen, and e.g. solar cells could provide the energy to do this, and to create the high temperatures and pressures needed for nitrate synthesis.

Though solar cells have a large footprint which could compete with crops, and water resources will also be stressed by climate change. And once you add in this extra water/energy input, is it still more efficient than organic methods (which for some crops in some soils approach comparable yields)? It might be more practical to rotate leguminous plants, which have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. This 'archaic' practice makes use of a technology far more advanced than anything we've designed yet: rhizobium are far more efficient at fixing nitrogen than the Haber process. In some places, the latter method is probably superior. Without prejudging the outcome of our research, a mixture of high tech and traditional practices are likely to be necessary to sustain food production under climate chaos.

And that's only considering the yields and energy inputs. Extending industrial agriculture means continued enclosures, destruction of commons, and subsequently hunger for the former subsistence producers. Often so that the land can be used to grow cattle feed for beef for export to the core countries. So there's a whole host of social, neocolonial dynamics at work here. Whether or not La Via Campesina's proposal of 'food sovereignty' is a good alternative, that's something we'll look into and probably write about in future.

dmb85
May 18 2014 08:39

I can't help but feel that 'disaster communism' - whilst a lovely, catchy term - is perhaps not doing justice to the complexity of thought going on here. I've got to say that I worried it was going to be another lot of white-guy disasterbating. A sort of communist Boards of Canada, if you will. And I can't help but think that the name's encouraging the headline-readers to pitch in with their 'year zero' accusations. This is palpably not primitivism; nor is it Year Zeroism. But the name does bare traces of the latter, and although any half-decent communist should be able to reprocess 'disaster' as an ongoing capitalist process I think that unless the relation between this process and the 'event' of disaster is thought through the risk is that the confusion brought on by the name carries through to the argument.

One of the things I like about this is its undercutting of binary thinking on the spatiotemporal scale. This is neither a call for a return to the past nor some acceleration into a doomed future; nor does it fetishise either the local or the global. That, I think, is vital for the communist movement.

Joseph Kay
May 18 2014 09:26
dmb85 wrote:
I can't help but feel that 'disaster communism' - whilst a lovely, catchy term - is perhaps not doing justice to the complexity of thought going on here.

Maybe 'disaster' needs to be specified more clearly? The first piece is talking about individual disaster like hurricanes or floods. This piece is talking more about the unfolding 'disaster' of climate change. I guess the argument is saying 'far from being the end of prospects for communism, disasters only make communism more practical/necessary'. That's a very different argument to anti-civ catastrophism or millenarianism, since the disaster of climate change is only an event in geological time, it's more a slow motion process unfolding through the course of decades and centuries. Perhaps 'disaster' doesn't capture that temporality, at least without clarification?

dmb85
May 18 2014 11:52
Quote:
the disaster of climate change is only an event in geological time, it's more a slow motion process unfolding through the course of decades and centuries.

Yeah, I think that's my concern. Discrete disaster-events offer temporary 'cracks' for communism (and/or anarchism, depending on how you see things); the ongoing disaster-process creates problematics communism/anarchism may well have some answers for. I think more needs to be thought about connecting up the former (Part 1) with the latter (Part 2) - both in terms of 'disaster' and 'communism'. But I don't want to criticise this blog for that too much - I don't have the answers, and this is a problem communists in general struggle with (it's the two sides of the communization divide, I guess - one focussed more on cracks that prefigure the world to come, one on struggle at the level of totality that might create the world to come).

I think it's also important to note that fascists and far-right weirdos view disaster-events as opportunities too, albeit in a far more Year Zero/millenarian manner. And of course organisations like Hamas foster loyalty by enclosing scarce resources and providing basic social amenities in a disaster-process situation. This needs thinking through too, but I'm really glad these short pieces have prompted me to think more about all this.

Khawaga
May 22 2014 13:32
Quote:
Seriously, where did this idea OOTW is anti-technology or agriculture come from though? One line that advocates sustainable agriculture? Are you saying agriculture that can feed everyone is unsustainable? We'd rather disagree and that would rather put you on the side of advocating famine and genocide.

Most likely because they cite Endnotes and Jasper Brenes has an article in the third volume. From what I've heard he's a bit of a primmo. In any case a logical fallacy. I also don't get how sustainable agriculture makes you a pol potist; it's such an uncontroversial standpoint. And if you're against that, in favor of what we have now, you might as well say "but what about the economy?" So yeah, that's why I think it's only the endnotes connection that can be the source of that claim.

Joseph Kay
May 22 2014 18:01

Thing is, to the extent Endnotes are millenarian, it's surely to the extent of the purely negative, 'apophatic communism' this piece rejects?

Spassmaschine
May 24 2014 00:13
Khawaga wrote:
Most likely because they cite Endnotes and Jasper Brenes has an article in the third volume. From what I've heard he's a bit of a primmo.

What makes you say Bernes is a primmo?

Khawaga
May 24 2014 00:41

As I said, it's from what I've heard. I.e. rumours. The Endnotes piece is the only thing I've read by him and that did not leave the impression he is a primitivist. I was merely speculating on why on earth a line on sustainability meant that Out of the Woods represent the second coming of the Khmer Rouge. I really have no idea why ppl label him that.

kingzog
Jun 3 2014 17:12

As long as "sustainable" doesn't refer to small scale gardening in the cities or permaculture and refers to a way of "sustainably" continuing large scale industrial farming, then it's good. Oftentimes "sustainable" refers to farmers markets and crypto-primitives agriculture that could never sustain current population levels.

kingzog
Jun 4 2014 00:53

Bernes once called himself a, "post-modern Pol pot." He has also said once, "move the people to the food" and that urban gardening will do much to sustain the cities.

jolasmo
Jun 4 2014 06:54
kingzog wrote:
As long as "sustainable" doesn't refer to small scale gardening in the cities or permaculture and refers to a way of "sustainably" continuing large scale industrial farming, then it's good. Oftentimes "sustainable" refers to farmers markets and crypto-primitives agriculture that could never sustain current population levels.

Do you have anything to back that up, out of interest? Why couldn't the measures you describe here sustain current population levels?

~J.

globno
Jun 24 2014 07:55

Applying some permaculture can be just as industrial and productive as the modern dominant techniques. Seriously though it sounds like you haven't ever studied botany. You know what Mao's solutions to troubles in agriculture were and I can assure you we are in a far worse stat of affairs in today agriculture. Soil degradation is real not to mention the countless other shit that the leading agricultural methods produce. I want fucking massive self-replenishing forests of food and industrial food gardens not rows and rows of self defeating bullshit that will eventually kill the soil and constantly lower crop yields.

Also fuck sustainability, sustaining is not a good fucking goal at all.

But seriously the leading trends in agriculture have caused famines, droughts, the dust bowl, massive species die-off, degradation of crops, depletion of the soil etc etc etc

This isn't about wanting to go back to some fabled past, this is about not marching over a fucking cliff because it's what happens to be going on. I got family in Kansas that farm corn and soy and damned if they don't know growing crops like they do is killing them and they land they're on.

"Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM...which must be changed?"-Lucy Parsons

globno
Jun 24 2014 08:02
Quote:
As long as "sustainable" doesn't refer to small scale gardening in the cities or permaculture and refers to a way of "sustainably" continuing large scale industrial farming, then it's good. Oftentimes "sustainable" refers to farmers markets and crypto-primitives agriculture that could never sustain current population levels.

Primmies hate agriculture.
Also prove that all horticulture that isn't the contemporary industrial agricultural method cannot feed the amount of people we have? How would cultivating our food production while keeping in mind ecosystems that support our food and our desired environment not be able to support us? You sound pretty reactionary.