Aufheben #03 (Summer 1994)

Submitted by Joseph Kay on September 25, 2006

Auto Struggles: The Developing War Against the Road Monster

From capital's point of view, the motor industry is both a vital element in a modern transport infrastructure, necessary for the expanded reproduction of a variety of sectors of the economy, and a locus of expansion in its own right. From the proletariat's perspective, the freedom offered by the car is merely a formal freedom; the consumer-citizen's freedom of movement has as its premise and its result the atomization and enslavement of the class in work and in leisure.

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005


Britain's first motorway opened in 1958 on a wave of auto-triumphalism. Motorways were presented as both an answer to 'the public's' transport requirements and an essential component of the modern infrastructure British capital needed to compete with its European counterparts.

The growth of bypasses (and bypasses round bypasses) has been promoted in the same way. These new roads appear to reflect a compromise between transport needs (of both freight and private motorists) and the needs for freedom from transport: the next road is always the solution to the congestion of the last one. And it's perfectly true; the growth of the car and its environment the road do represent a compromise. Increasingly, however, our relationship with motor vehicles and roads reveals the contradiction at the heart of this compromise: the products that promise to liberate us actually destroy our spaces and enslave us in work and in leisure.

What is of interest to revolutionaries is the way this revelation is not simply unfolding mechanically as an objective and quantitative relationship between natural resources and technical capacity. Such factors play a part insofar as we become more conscious of them; but the most important elements determining how many of us are coming to define our relationship with cars and roads are the growing struggles around road developments. These struggles have brought many people into direct and effective confrontation with capital, this despite the fact that such actions are understood by many of those involved in purely 'moral' or purely 'ecological' terms.

To suggest that many of those involved in these struggles do not have theory adequate to their own practice is not to say that they won't develop their ideas through their engagement in these struggles. Neither is it to say that we at Aufheben have a completed theoretical understanding of the struggle over roads. If we knew where the roads struggle was going we'd be there already. Instead, we are in a similar situation to many of those involved in this struggle - involved and trying to understand what's happening in order to involve ourselves more effectively. The present article is a contribution to this ongoing attempt to understand and act in these struggles.

Part 1: The importance of the car to the modern economy

Roads serve cars. In order to explain current struggles over roads we need to trace out the development of the forces that have led to the modern proliferation of motor vehicles. First, however, we will briefly rehearse some of the more well known arguments against roads.

Know the enemy

Much of the following is fast becoming common knowledge and hardly needs elaborating.

Pollution and health: Car fumes are linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma, particularly for children. The car is responsible for 90% of U.K. emissions of carbon monoxide; it also produces lead and benzene; all are poisonous gases. Among the other nitrous oxides the car produces is carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas. And if they can't gas you or destroy your climate they'll run you over: 4500 people die on Britain's roads each year. These deaths are depoliticized by referring to them as mere 'traffic accidents' or 'problems on the roads'; they are not in fact incidental and inevitable - they are a consequence of a particular mode of accumulation and social existence, and therefore contestable. They are part of a vicious circle, however; concerned for their kids' safety on the busy roads, an increasing number of parents now drive their offspring to school - so contributing to the problem they're attempting to avoid.

Land: In London, 25% of land is devoted to the car. Every mile of motorway takes up 25 acres of land. DoT figures forecast an increase in car numbers of up to 140% by 2025 to a total of 39,000,000; this would require a motorway 257 lanes wide between London and Edinburgh to accommodate them and an area twice the size of Berkshire to park them. Furthermore, the aggregate industry blights quarrying areas such as the Mendips, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands as it extracts 250,000 tonnes of sand and gravel for each mile of motorway. This destruction of trees and green areas amounts to a loss of a communal resource; the continued need for further road building is therefore incompatible with our need for countryside.

Energy: It might also be argued that, since more 'eco-friendly' alternatives to petrol are viable, oil is best reserved for use in plastics etc. However, this argument does not necessarily mean accepting the 'energy-crisis' thesis.

Who needs roads?

Do roads harm everyone's interests? Liberal critics of the road and motor industry add to the list of woes above the following points:

Roads are becoming increasingly less cost effective; the cost of 'improving' them is going up.

And as soon as new roads are built and old ones expanded, they fill up because increased road transport is encouraged. Congestion is therefore not improved and businesses pay the cost of traffic jams.

Finally the liberal critics argue that particular car/road capitals are cutting 'everyone's' throat in the long run because 'we' can't carry on indefinitely using resources in this way.

But, although particular capitals tend not to operate in terms of the future interests of capital in general, there is no reason in principle why a 'greener' capitalism can't be developed. (In fact, it is being developed right now to recuperate the developing 'green rage' into consumer channels.) So why has the car been preferred to more eco-friendly alternatives, such as rail transport? Tracing the development of the motor car industry - and thus road expansion - historically, we can observe a number of forces at work.

Capital needs transport

To put this history of car industry expansion in perspective, however, we need to point to capital's general requirements. Capital is a relationship which necessarily seeks to expand itself. Capital is, essentially, the boundless expansion of value (i.e. of alienated labour) - it is the need and striving to achieve such indefinite expansion. In other words, the economy must expand or die! Thus one important indicator used by economists to gage the health of an economy is percentage growth in gross national product.

>From the capitalist's perspective, one way of creating profit (i.e. surplus-value) more quickly, and hence speeding expansion, is to reduce turnover times; the capitalist always seeks a way of producing goods more quickly and getting them to market more quickly.

Expansion and faster turnovers require efficient transport. Raw materials need to be moved from their source (e.g. mines, farms etc.) to factories to make new commodities. These commodities in turn may need to be transported to further factories to modify their use-value and value before they reach shops. Finally they are transported to shops in order to realize their values in the realm of consumption.

The dynamic of the motor industry: from labour process to way of life

The need for the road-building programme is the need of an alien power. Roads are not simply for moving commodities about per se. Capital needs more roads simply because the motor industry still represents a key locus for its expansion.

As it has grown to serve the needs of particular capitals, the motor industry has developed new needs and desires of its own - desires which draw their energy, vampire-like, from the energy of its host, the proletariat, and which have pushed the motor industry into a pivotal position in its own right in developed economies. But how has it been able to do this?

Railways and the rise of industrial capitalism

A hundred years ago it was not roads, but the railways which were the dominant capitalist mode of land transport. Railways were the iron sinews that had drawn industrial capitalism to its feet. Indeed, the spread of railways across the globe was then synomous with the spread of industrial capitalism.

Providing the rapid and efficient transport of people and commodities over vast distances, railways had made possible the concentration of production in factories centred in large industrial cities. Whereas before production had been dispersed in traditionally based cottage industries and sold for the most part in local markets, the railways had made it possible to concentrate and totally reorganise production in huge factories that could supply both national and world markets. In this way the railways had facilitated the destruction of the old craft skills, which had given workers a large degree of control over their labour, and had thereby served to impose the real subsumption of labour under capital.

With workers concentrated in factories under the direct organisation and supervision of the capitalist and his functionaries, the railways provided the means for the further subordination of the worker to capital that came with the mechanisation of factory production. Mechanisation of production required huge quantities of steel to build and maintain machines and even greater quantities of coal to power them. It was the railways, that are so perfect for hauling bulk materials rapidly over large distances, which provided the vital means of transport without which mechanisation of production would have been impossible.

Yet the railways did not merely make industrial capitalism possible, the railways epitomised early industrial capitalism. The mechanical regularity of the machine that reduced the movements of the worker to its own rhythms in the factory were replicated in the punctual regularity of the railway timetables that confined movement of people to the discipline of precise departure times. The railways after all were the mechanisation of transport.

Having facilitated the development and concentration of industrial capitalism, by the end of the nineteenth century the railways had come to stand alongside iron and steel and coal as one of the central pillars of monopoly capitalism. But with the turn of century this era of capitalism entered into a period of grave crisis whose resolution saw the decline of railways and the rise of the motor industry as a central locus of capital accumulation.

The crisis of monopoly capitalism and the decline of the railways

The development of the factory system and the growth of huge industrial cities brought with it the emergence of the urban industrialised proletariat that stood opposed to capitalism. But capital was not simply confronted by the sheer numbers of the working class that were now concentrated together in the factory and the city but also by their growing power within production. Although the old craft skills that had given the traditional artisan control over his work had been swept away by industrialisation, many industrial workers had become able to define, develop and defend new industrial skills that were vital to the industrial production process. Such skills were evident on the railways as any other industry. The management could not hope to understand the complexities and idiosyncrasies of driving and stoking a steam engine any more than they could hope to develop the finely tuned ear of the wheeltapper.

In response to the growing power of the working class, the bourgeoisie pursued a policy of divide and rule. While attempting to repress the demands of the mass of unskilled workers, skilled workers were conceded higher wages while their limited control over production came to be tolerated. To pay for such concessions capital either had to cut the costs of raw materials by increasing the exploitation of the colonies or else by exploiting their monopoly positions to push prices up at the expense of non-monopoly and pre-capitalist sectors of the economy.

In most industries monopoly prices could only be obtained by restricting domestic production and thus severely limiting the scope for domestic capital accumulation. Consequently, this excess of both commodities and capital drove nationally based capitals to find foreign outlets. With the drive to export capital and commodities, and the need to secure cheap raw materials to cut production costs, international competition and imperialist rivalries intensified.

By the first decade of this century this intensification of international competition, together with the growing power and militancy of the unskilled working class, had reached the point where the capitalists were forced to begin to reconsider their compromise with the skilled workers. However, attempts to cut skilled wages and to wrestle back control over the production process through the introduction of Taylorism (i.e. scientific management through time and motion studies etc) only served to increase the militancy of skilled workers who now in increasing numbers began to flock to the banners of revolutionary syndicalism under the slogan of 'workers control of production!'.

With the mutual intensification of international competition and class conflict capitalism faced a severe crisis which threatened it very existence. The question of the day had become that of, war or revolution!

In 1914 war broke out and engulfed the capitalist heartlands of Europe. Three years later, after millions had been slaughtered in the trenches, revolution broke out in Russia which then sparked a wave of revolutionary movements across mainland Europe. After several years of bitter and intense struggles the revolutionary workers movements in Europe were both defeated and defused one by one by social democracy, fascism and stalinism. Yet despite such defeats, it was not until 1945, after another bloody world war, that capitalism was able to resolve the crisis of monopoly capitalism and establish the basis of a new era of accumulation centred around what has become known as the post-war settlement.

The post-war settlement and the rise of the car

With the class compromise of the post-war settlement, which was established in varying forms throughout the advanced capitalist nations, the working class, in effect, abandoned all hopes for the end of capitalism and relinquished much of its existing control within production. In return the working class was offered the welfare state, the promise of stable full employment and rising living standards.

Yet the post-war settlement, and with it the post-war boom, was only made possible on the basis of a new strategy and mode of accumulation - Fordism. Fordism was based on the mass assembly line production of standardised consumer goods which was made possible by the replacement of the skilled worker by semi-skilled assembly line workers, that then allowed management detailed control over the labour-process. With such detailed control, assembly line production opened up a huge potential for the application and refinement of 'scientific management' and automation which together opened the way for an enormous growth in the productivity of labour.

This scope for raising labour productivity meant that, within the bounds of increased productivity, both wages and profits could rise at one and the same time. With rising wages, and the relative secure employment offered by Fordist production methods, Fordism was then able to provide the basis for mass consumption which was a necessary condition for its own reproduction. The mass production of consumer durables created the effective demand for such consumer goods by creating a relatively prosperous working class.

The analysis of Fordism, and the institutions such as collective bargaining and Keynesian demand management that arose to ensure that the mass consumer demand was able to match the expansion of mass production, has been dealt with in great detail elsewhere. Our main concern here is to stress the centrality of the motor industry for Fordism.

Fordism, as it name indicates, was first pioneered by the Ford motor company in the 1920s, and further experiments were made in Nazi Germany with the development of the Volkswagen (the peoples car) and the building of the Autobahns across Germany in the 1930s. As such the motor industry became the model for whole number of consumer durables that followed its lead, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, hi fis etc

But the car was not merely the first in a line of consumer durables to be produced by Fordist production methods it was also the foremost. After housing the car has become the biggest purchase an ordinary consumer is likely to make, being the equivalent to several months wages. Furthermore, the production of a car involves a wide range of industries ranging from rubber, steel, plastic, electrical, oil together with support industries such as road construction, advertising and finance. The broad range of such economic linkages has meant that large and diverse sections of the modern economy have become dependent on car production to such a degree that car production has become an important economic indicator in its own right. As has been said 'when General Motors sneezes America catches cold!'.

But it not simply at an economic level that the car, as the exemplar of Fordist production, has served to sustain the post-war settlement and the partial truce in the class war. The car has played a prominent role in altering the life and conceptions of the working class which has served to consolidate the social and ideological conditions of the class compromise established within the post-war settlement.

With the post-war reconstruction of bombed cities throughout Europe the opportunity was taken by capitalist state planners to break up the old working class communities and relocate the working class in new tower blocs, new towns and 'Garden cities' and in the middle class suburban areas that had grown up in the inter-war era. This dislocation of the working class from the location of production was at first made possible by the development of public transport, but its further development was consolidated by growing car ownership.

This relocation of the working class, which was increasingly made possible by the spread of the car, was in many ways a major advance for many who were able to escape their old slums and claustrophobic communities for modern housing with inside toilets etc. But it was a gain that had its cost. With the break up of the old communities came the break up of the old working class solidarity to be replaced by the isolated individualism of the new sterilised housing estates. Neighbours are now never seen as they rush past in the motor cars and as neighbourhoods become more dangerous and unpleasant due to increasing traffic more and more people retreat into the comfort of their houses.

Thus the car has become a bubble, a sealed environment, a shield from the picket line; it renders relations more distant in the way that public transport cannot. For businesses, motor transport has become an ideal way to employ scab labour. Potential militancy by railway workers, who could gather together and organise co-ordinated shut-downs at stations and depots, preventing vast amounts of commodities and raw materials moving, could be bypassed with a fleet of individual contract lorry drivers. The lorry has almost become identified with the scab, particularly since the role of TNT in the News International dispute.

Thus although the working class is still concentrated in urban areas this threat to capitalism is mitigated by containing the working class as consumer citizens esconed in their little metal boxes, forever moving past one another in the incessant movement of traffic.

The car and bourgeois freedom

Crossland, the great labour politician of the 1950s who saw in the post-war settlement the advent of socialism, once said 'after one man one vote: one man one car!'. Clearly for the post-war ideologues, from Crossland to Thatcher the car epitomises freedom and democracy, and we would say indeed it does!

For the individual car ownership does offer a leap in freedom and opportunity. The freedom to go where and when you want. A freedom undreamt of for working class people of earlier generations. Indeed, for many learning to drive is the major break from the stifling restrictions of the family and the first step to adulthood.

Yet this increase in individual freedom serves to reduce the freedom of everyone else. Other car drivers now face that much more car congestion and delays; pedestrians, particularly mothers and children, become more restricted by the fear of death or serious injury by one more car; while people suffer more traffic noise and that much more pollution.

The freedom of movement offered by the car becomes increasingly a formal freedom, a representation of freedom, as everywhere becomes the same as it is tarmaced and polluted to make way for the car. As the car becomes the norm, the freedom of the car becomes a necessity, as the mundane acts such as shopping becomes impossible without access to a car. This has already become the case in Los Angeles and is rapidly approaching with the development of out of town super stores.

In casting us as consumer citizens the freedom of the car, like all bourgeois freedoms throws us into a war of all against all where other car drivers serve as merely obstacles and restrictions to our own inalienable right of movement. This inalienable right of movement consequently demands the duty to obey the highway code and traffic laws which is in turn enforced and guaranteed by the state. Through policing the roads and by giving an open ended commitment to provide new road space, the state ensures the bourgeois freedom of movement.

Yet as the volume of traffic grows at a rate faster than road construction the car has nowhere to go (except to take its owner to work) but yet has everything to say. The car has long since become less of a mere means of transport and more a means of identity. In curtailing the possibility of direct communication the car has to say what we are for us. Whether it is that we are upwardly mobile or a conscientious environmentalist the car says it all.

Although the working class offensive of the 1960s and 1970s which threw the Fordist mode of accumulation into crisis and forced a major restructuring of capital, this has not affected the continuing centrality of the car. Indeed the associated struggle of women and youth against the old patriarchal family structure which found its modern material expression in the family farther driven car designed with a wife and 2.4 kids, has long since been recuperated in the drive to sell cars to women and the young (and would be young).

So the car has not only become central to the accumulation of capital over the past fifty years, but has also become a vital means in consolidating the class compromise that has made such accumulation possible. The promise of physical freedom and mobility offered by the car has led to the political demobilisation of the working class.

Developing European markets

Infrastructures must be improved and updated in line with sources of raw materials and new markets. The European Union, for example, is an internal market, an attempt to integrate European national capitals and particular capitals within European Union nations to maximize the realization of surplus-value by stabilizing market relationships. The European Union has drawn up plans for the massive upgrading of a number of strategic road systems across Europe as part of a 'Trans European Route Network', an infrastructure to serve the needs of European capital as a whole by allowing greater efficiency in the movement of freight. The plans for British roads are centred around those trunk-roads serving the Channel Tunnel (e.g. the Folkestone to Honiton road, the M25 and all those roads coming off it) and the links between the Eastern ports of Harwich and the Western side of the country. Roads ministers talk of the individual elements of these roads (e.g. the A27, A35 etc. on the Folkestone-Honiton route) each being 'improved' independently but in fact they are being massively upgraded and augmented in conjunction to accommodate (and encourage) freight lorries. Aside from these public plans there are schemes that have been evolving 'organically' with the growth of bypasses. Now many new bypasses are to be linked up to form 'superhighways'. The widening of the M42, M6 and M1 is part of this process.

The increasing integration within the world market of the eastern European markets of Russia, Poland etc. represents further expanding needs by capital for road development. Raw materials and finished commodities now need to travel regularly across the whole of Europe, hence the EU's plan to integrate a road system all the way from Cork to Moscow.


Even without the efforts of the planner-union, particular capitals in the form of factories, retailers and road haulage firms are increasingly demanding and filling more road space. One trend which has been becoming more influential in this escalating need for road space and lorries is use by businesses of the 'just-in-time' system. The just-in-time system began as a production strategy aimed at economizing on time and space on the shopfloor by having efficient communications in the production process to ensure that only what was immediately required was built, thereby saving on warehouse/storage space. A firm using this system therefore attempts to save money by cutting down on warehouse workers, managers and bookkeepers etc. The just-in-time system reduces turnover time by reducing production time to the time actually spent in valorization itself - eliminating latent (i.e. potential) productive capital and unproductive labour.

Their 'economizing', their reduction of 'costs' is our intensification and rationalization of work. Just-in-time is essentially a method for imposing discipline on workers through surveillance and through their internalizing the regime's rules and needs.

Factories using the system have many small deliveries a day (instead of a single larger delivery) from their suppliers, many of who in turn would be adopting the system. This amounts to using the road itself instead of a warehouse! What they save on warehousing costs, we pay in terms of loss of environment and air quality!

Worse still, since the advent of the bar code, communications technology has allowed the just-in-time system to be extended to retailers. Major stores are increasingly moving to huge out-of-town sites and using less site space for warehousing; they use bar code scans at checkouts to determine which items are selling and have them delivered constantly from manufacturers and their own warehouses on other sites. These out of town stores choose greenfield sites not far from major roads to which they add service roads. Or if they cannot find a big enough out of town site near a major road, they will offer money to a local council for a 'bypass' which will then be used by their lorries. This is what has been happening, for example, in Yeovil with a proposed Sainsbury superstore.

The motor industry remains a key indicator in the world economy. The nexus of related industries which depend for their continued expansion on the car point to its crucial position. The massive growth of cars has required a massive growth of roads. In Britain and the USA the underdevelopment of the railways means that the roads are in many cases the essential artery for the creation of virtually all commodities and the realization of their value in the market place. Given all this how can cars and roads be neutral? They are forms of technology, and no technology is developed outside the class war. They represent a particular definition of progress; and all definitions of progress depend on who has the power to decide what is good and what is needed.

Having outlined how the vital roles played by the motor industry and road construction in the modern capitalist world, we will now move on to the new forms of opposition to the car/road vampire that have been developing in Britain in the last few years.

Part 2: Against the road/car empire! The nature of current struggles

The factory and beyond

The provisional truce of the post-war settlement was abruptly renegotiated in the late 1960s, a process which is still continuing. But the cracks were appearing long before then. Just as working class power forced capital to develop new modes of accumulation, these new modes created new social subjects with new forms of resistance. The intensification of the labour process and the institutionalization of struggle in collective bargaining gave rise to a trend towards the refusal of work itself in the 1960s, particularly in Italy, where the Turin motor factories were a central site of struggle in the 'hot Autumn' of 1969. The ongoing elimination of powerful sectors of skilled labour and this new refusal of work in the proletariat signalled the demise of the privileged position of the workplace itself in class warfare.

New social subjects

In the factory, capital responded with Neo-Fordism. This was an attempt to make work less mechanical and monotonous. It added flexibility, variety and a human face to alienation with the aim of getting workers to internalize the capital relation in the form of self-management and self-discipline (e.g. semi-autonomous work groups at Volvo); thus it was intended to preserve profitability by cutting down on absenteeism. Neo-Fordism came to British workplaces in 1980s and is still being contested today. Other, parallel, trends were already developing. Since the 1970s, capital has been attempting to restructure social relations by 'diffusing' the factory; this is an attempt to defuse the mass worker, the antagonistic work-refusing subject produced by Fordism. Capital has therefore been attempting to subsume social labour as a whole. At the same time, class antagonism was already being recomposed at a higher level, and struggles beyond the direct workplace were becoming more important.

The battleground of the diffused factory has developed and changed with the mounting attack on and defence of the social wage. Original methods have been found to use aspects of capital's 'victories' against the capital relation. The car features in many of these struggles, now not only as parts on a conveyor belt (exchange-value, bargaining chip) but also as use-value turned against capital itself. The car has become identified as the ubiquitous emblem of modern democratic identity. The very ubiquity of the car, particularly the expensive car, as both representation and embodiment of value, makes it a popular point of attack - as in the poll tax uprising of 1990, for example. However, the car itself can also be the very vehicle (pun intended) for the negation of the modern democratic practices of property ownership, representation, money and work. Cars were used effectively in the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 to loot and attack property, for example. Similarly, the riots of summer 1991 revolved around police attempts to clamp down on joy-riding and ram-raiding, activities which were in many cases popular in their local communities as both forms of entertainment (to watch as well as do) and alternative methods of providing means of subsistence.

Similarly, the burgeoning anti-roads movement is another expression of class antagonism and therefore an attack on capital. Anti-roads actions (occupations of land, 'monkey-wrenching', wasting construction companies' time and money etc.) are direct attacks on the intended expansion of a crucial capitalist industry.

It may be objected to this claim that many if not most of those involved in the many anti-road actions that have been taking place over the last two or three years do not necessarily understand their actions in anti-capitalist terms, that they do not have socialist or communist theories, and that this is the case because they have a coherent identity of struggle only in the sphere of culture (i.e. consumption and politics) - they are not directly connected with the means of production (the true 'levers of power'), and in their composition they are thoroughly heterogeneous (anti-roads campaigns are often made up of a odd alliances of respectable middle class types and unemployable eco-warriors); they are not therefore a true class force, a potential agent of fundamental transformation, in themselves.

Before examining in detail the practices and ideas of the anti-roads movement(s), let us digress for a moment to examine these claims, using our analysis of the class struggle since the Second World War developed above.

Against workerism and social science


The claim that the anti-roads movement, although a fight against some of the more obnoxious effects of capitalism, cannot in itself be an assault on capital is an argument associated with Leninism. Leninists would ask us to believe that anti-roads actions are only of value insofar as those engaged in them can understand (through their defeat or through party propaganda) that building the party is the only solution to their problems. They ask us to believe, in other words, that our own struggles, needs and oppression are not in themselves part of the class struggle and that we can only connect with the class struggle by building an abstract party in preparation for the 'real' struggle. The party's needs are thus privileged over our needs.

The Leninist argument is based on an outdated understanding of the proletariat. As we argued above, the demise of powerful sectors of the skilled working class and the extension of the factory to all aspects of society means that the ontological privileging of the industrial working class is no longer tenable. Certainly, during the time of the Second International, revolutionary strategy revolved around the power of certain sectors of skilled industrial workers, who, because of their skills and perspective, were in a position to bring about change simply by taking over existing means of production. But now, increasingly, everywhere is the factory, everywhere is the battleground: from the university to the dole, from the street to the office. In each of these areas capital has to impose control to ensure the (re)production of labour-power. Each of these areas is therefore capable of being an arena of struggle with the potential and the need to be an intrinsically valid moment of total transformation. By the same token, in analysing the significance of current anti-road struggles, it is not enough to look at people's class backgrounds (the 'odd alliances' mentioned above); it is also necessary to look at what people are actually doing, and the effects of their actions.

And why should we want to take over the existing means of production, anyway? They are not neutral; they were developed to oppress us - that is the function of Taylorist/Fordist/just-in-time practices. Taking over these 'levers of power' is simply to introduce further planning to capitalism. It is no coincidence that Luddite-type ideas are now common among militant sections of the young proletariat. Capitalism is now a world system, forever trying to subsume our activity in ever greater detail, and actions by any sectors to break the capital relation are all equally valuable. The proletariat isn't the 'workers' - it's the obverse of capital; and communism isn't an ideal or programme - it's the movement that carries out this negation of the capital relation.

Social science

A comparable argument against the significance of struggles like that of the anti-roads movement is made from an area of the social sciences that has become a growth industry since the late 1960s - the study of social movements. Weberian and postmodernist perspectives come to remarkably similar conclusions on this. But this is hardly surprising given their common origins in the attempt by liberal academia to recuperate revolutionary theory. These accounts of the 'new social movements' - anti-nuclear, gay, green, black and women's liberation etc. - argue against the validity of class analysis by accepting the Leninist definition of the class war then 'finding' that it longer exists. Instead, particular 'ideologies' (i.e. sets of ideas) give coherence and structural significance to collective actors, and define their difference from and supersession of the 'traditional ideologies' (practices and roles) of class politics Where it is allowed in the analysis, class conflict is understood as just one of many possible sites of collective conflict, one that is not of key ontological significance, and one that is fast going out of fashion.

These theorists avoid relating particular forms of oppression to the requirements of capital, and thus they exclude issues of how resistance might therefore entail resistance to capital, not just to particular loci of power based on 'moral positions' or 'counter-ideologies'. It is a function of their purely analytic perspective that they attempt to grasp the significance of 'new social movements' merely in their subjective aspects (their various ideas) and ignore their objective effects on capital - and thus how they might recreate themselves as a class subject. The sociologists limit the significance of the 'new social movements' to the particular, apparently disassociated aims of 'identity politics'; they exclude what such movements might share and therefore where their logic might lead them in relation to the totality. These academic perspectives, like their workerist political counterparts, deny the dynamic relation of the 'new social movements' to 'class politics'. These 'new social movements' theorists attempt to undermine a class understanding of these movements with their dull empiricist emphasis on differences of appearance; they attack with their theory the theory and practice of the proletariat by denying that capitalism is the issue and that it might be overthrown.

None of this means that we don't recognize the moments of dogma, liberalism and lifestylism in the 'new social movements'. Quite obviously, many of the new movements are consistently limited in their aims and actions or function only to disempower and channel away the energies of potential activists through bureaucracy and representational methods. Although the 'new social movements' are expressions of class antagonism, they have to discover this - and this is something that is by no means guaranteed. Thus we can accept that there may be an element of truth in the suggestion by the 'new social movements' theorists that such movements embody ideologies. But there never have been 'pure' movements. And a movement, like the current anti-roads movement, which stresses action without a conscious coherent political critique of capitalism is no worse (and is often better) than a Marxist theory - like so much Leninism - without a grounding in effective practice.

The current anti-roads movement

In describing the present state of the anti-roads movement, it may be useful to begin with its precursors. This is so because many of those involved in present anti-roads actions draw on the theoretical and practical heritage of certain other movements, whether they participated in them directly or whether they only know the ideas through literature, slogans and arguments.


What is now called the green movement in Britain has taken a number of different forms. For example, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) was born as long ago as 1926 to meet needs not met by the National Trust. The CPRE's target was, and remains, 'urban sprawl'. Until the 1970s, 'green' campaigns like this remained the preserve largely of middle class types who would campaign in a traditional middle class way (i.e. public enquiries etc.).

Popular environmentalism

In the 1970s, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth emerged as a more populist force in green politics; these groups were able to attract a large number of young people who actually wanted to do something, so there were publicity stunts and direct attempts to 'save the planet' organized in the name of these groups. In the 1980s, however, FoE and Greenpeace became more professional in their approach. Now, much of their 'activity' involves commissioned reports and types of lobbying, with the bulk of the membership being reduced merely to raising money to pay for these experts to do their thing. At the same time that this was happening, the Green Party began to expand rapidly and extend its profile. However, a process paralleling in some ways the demise of FoE and Greenpeace took place here too; this led eventually to some of the more professionally minded 'leaders' leaving the Party to the liberal anarchist types.

In each case what has happened is that a need for 'action' of some sort - the very aspiration that made these green groups attractive to many people, particularly young people - has been met with the argument that change can only be effected through official channels. The failure of these groups in the eyes of would-be green activists has fuelled the popularity in the 1990s of Earth First!, a group which has put the emphasis unambiguously on action. At the same time, there is a trend (particularly since Twyford Down - see below) away from a purely 'NIMBYist' basis to groups opposing roads; the issue has become increasingly seen as affecting 'the planet' not just particular 'back yards'.

The British version of Earth First! will be discussed below. It takes its name and much of its ideas from the American Earth First! movement. Earth First! began in America as a number of individuals who were prepared to do whatever was physically necessary to defend the natural environment. Though their literature still carries the monkey-wrenching message, the character of the movement has become more liberal and their anti-human deep ecologism has softened.

'Direct action'

Other important precursors of the present movement(s) are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). (particularly in its Greenham Common type manifestation rather than its manifestation as an organizer of national marches ), and the animal rights movement.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the peace movement (in Britain, at least) tended to overshadow the green movement, and the liberals and radical liberals who might otherwise be campaigning against nuclear power (and other environmental issues) were campaigning against nuclear weapons. Since the peace movement went into decline, the environmental movement has grown correspondingly.

>From these movements the anti-roads movement has inherited its radical liberalism and militant moralism and its range of methods (collective direct action, individual specialisms as well as lobbying and publicity stunts.) The CND technique of civil disobedience, on the mould of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, sits alongside the 'by any means necessary' doctrine of Earth First! and animal rights strategies. The coexistence of these currents is not simply due to theoretical incoherence on the part of those involved, or even mutual tolerance of different points of view. Their shared emphasis on morality (good and evil) has allowed them to coalesce in the new superordinate theme of saving all life on the planet (life and the planet being essentially good) from the evil road monster.

The present wave of anti-roads movements typically stress 'direct action', but this can mean a number of things. Borrowing from the CND tradition, the term often means civil disobedience or symbolic protest; but, borrowing from the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) tradition, it may also mean attacks on property, defined in law as criminal damage.

Many of the ideas and practices from these older movements (monkey-wrenching, setting up camps, non-violence, moral arguments) were used in the first major site of struggle, that at Twyford Down. The Twyford struggle not only consolidated some of these older themes as dogmas; it also produced new ideas and new practices as many people learned how to struggle directly for the first time.


Locals opposing the M3 extension at Twyford had already begun to realize that constitutional methods (lobbying, petitions, letters, public enquiries etc.) were a waste of time when a small number of people turned up and camped on the site where the construction work was due to begin. So began a long war of attrition, with a growing number of Donga dwellers, travelling eco-warriors and their local supporters occupying land, bridges and machines and sabotaging property in their efforts to save the land. For a while protesters were highly successful. At first, security men were bewildered and unable to respond effectively when people sat in front of bulldozers. Finally, however Group 4 security launched a mass assault on the protesters occupying the site.

In terms of the quality (methods) and the mass (numbers involved) of the anti-roads movement, the protest movement against the M3 development through Twyford was pivotal. Vast amounts of investment money were wasted through the protesters' delaying tactics, sabotage and the subsequent security costs. The events at Twyford led to recent changes in the law to shorten the appeal period for proposed trunk roads, the aim being to prevent opposition groups from organizing. In effect, the more traditional methods of green campaigns have been rendered even less effectual. But this is actually not a problem for the new movement which in many cases does not rely on these methods and indeed doesn't spend time on formal organizational issues. Despite the stress by many anti-roads groups that 'direct methods' will be a 'last resort', there is an increasing recognition that the constitutional methods are a waste of time and that public enquiries cannot be of use.

The decision last year to cancel (or at least postpone) the scheme to demolish Oxleas Wood, South-east London to make way for a road was due to the Twyford precedent. Another Twyford was feared when hundreds of people let it be known that they had pledged to hold hands round the bulldozers. A recent government document lists over 100 controversial road schemes, and includes some details of the nature of the opposition in particular cases, testifying to the growth in anti-roads campaigns since Twyford. For example, it states that 'Residents of Maisemore are leading ostensibly environmentalist campaign' and that 'Residents of the area north of the existing A38 are mounting a strong NIMBY campaign'.

The campaign against the M11 link road

The level of campaigning has varied across the country. But perhaps one particular struggle has stood out in the last year both in terms of the quality and quantity of the forces of opposition: the fight against the proposed M11 link road in east London.

History of the struggle

There have been plans to build a road linking the M11 with Hackney since as long ago as 1911. For a number of years, a relatively small number of locals have produced newsletters, held meetings, attempted to lobby MPs and engaged in all the other ultimately futile, methods to stop the road. However, as far as most people in the area (comprising Wanstead, Leyton and Leytonstone) are concerned, the collective campaign began in earnest in September 1993 when the developers' bulldozers first appeared. Most of the people who were sitting in front of bulldozers, occupying sites and trees and locking themselves on to JCBs with bicycle D-locks in September and October comprised experienced eco-activists who had moved to the area a few weeks previously. They included Twyford and Jesmond Dene veterans, such as Earth First!ers, the Dongas, Dragon, Rainbow and Flowerpot tribes, and individuals forming themselves into new anti-road groups, such as Reclaim the Streets and Road Alert who aimed to link up with the radical elements in Alarm UK and the traditional green campaign groups.

The fact that it was the nature-loving eco-warriors and not the urban locals who were involved at this stage was slightly paradoxical given that in these early skirmishes the issue was less 'trees' and 'green areas' but housing. The proposed link road would go through about 350 houses. The Department of Transport bought all these houses a long time ago and has been throwing people out of them for years. Once people are evicted, firms like those scumbags Squibb & Davies are brought in to make the houses uninhabitable: toilets are blocked and smashed, floorboards removed, stair cases demolished, doors and windows breezeblocked etc. to deter squatters. >From the beginning of the campaign, then, the defence and restoration of these houses as dwelling places was important. The empty houses in the area were treated not only as a general living resource to be defended, however, but also as weapons. The houses could be used not only as 'permanent' homes but also as places to crash for people coming up occasionally to join in the struggle and as bases for information and communication, meetings and coordination.

Although most local residents didn't want the road, they were not yet prepared to get directly involved in action against it. There seemed to be a feeling that, since the decision to build the road had gone ahead, and since the bulldozers had already arrived, there was nothing they could do about it. Things began to change when the developers fenced off George Green, Wanstead, to begin work in that area.

Continuing the peasants' revolt!

A short historical digression at this point. George Green used to be part of Epping Forest (could we make it part of Epping Forest again?). Now only a few trees remain, including (until December last year) a chestnut tree which was hundreds of years old. At the time of the enclosures (eighteenth century), the area was the scene of bloody battles as peasants fought to save the common land from the schemes of the money-system. George Green was said to be one of the few areas in the country where the enclosures were repelled and the land remained common.

The details of this story may be apocryphal, but it resonates with some of the events of November-December 1993. On Saturday 6th November, the peasant's revolt to reclaim the land from the designs of the money-system broke out again. And again our needs, as users of the planet, were successfully asserted over the insatiable and destructive needs of the handmaiden of the money-system - the road/car empire.

While the houses were perceived as private, and not a community natural resource, the Green was recognized by locals as a common facility; its 300 year old chestnut tree was perceived as of historical, practical and symbolic value to the local children. A children's tree-dressing ceremony organized by eco-warriors and local campaigners attracted a large number of local families who were dismayed to find that the developers had fenced off the land with nine-feet high hoardings in order to dig up the earth and cut down the tree. The first few that climbed over the fence were restrained by the security men. But then the kids started climbing in. The security men and cops didn't known what to do. And pretty soon there was nothing they could do because they were outnumbered inside the site. People then took over the site. The kids often led the way in this; for example, they demanded that the security men release those eco-warriors they were holding.

Immediately after a mechanical digger was occupied and made to leave the site, people spontaneously made practical use of this opportunity and began undoing the digger's work by carrying the earth back to the roots of the trees! The digger had made an enormous pile of earth, perhaps hundreds of tons; but people made a line and used bags to carry it all back to where it belonged.

De facto common land!

Still police and security men were doing nothing to hinder this action. Having seized the initiative, those involved quickly saw the need to act on their power and go further in reclaiming the land. So they pushed the fence down. Once the first bit went down, more people joined in. People acted fast and in unison, and eventually very little of the fence was left standing. The police intervened very late and by then most of the necessary work had been done. The 'site' had been transformed into de facto common land! Earth removal and flower planting by locals went of all over the weekend. By Monday, most of the earth had been returned. On Monday, security men were told by their bosses to get everyone off the 'site'. But this simply wasn't practicable. By dismantling the fence the boundaries of the site had been destroyed. It couldn't operate as a site any more.

To date, this event has been perhaps the high point of the campaign. Not only symbolically but also practically, it changed the shape and size of the struggle overnight. A tree-house was constantly occupied in the old chestnut tree which became a site for daily gatherings. The new people that were drawn in potentially provided the necessary numbers for further occupations of the land as well as other activities.

'Blue Tuesday'

A month after the Green was reclaimed from the developers, hundreds of people stood vigil all night after hearing rumours that an attack on the old chestnut tree was imminent. Two hundred pigs turned up at half past five in the morning and fought till the mid afternoon to remove people from in and around the tree and to prevent them from hindering the actions of the sheriff's officers, cherry-pickers and the mechanical digger which eventually felled all the trees in the area.

A lot of the locals who had gathered under the tree didn't know what to expect and were disillusioned by the action of the police. Although far bloodier crowd scenes than this have been witnessed in London in recent years, many of the locals perceived the police as 'excessively brutal'. However, this revelation about police priorities and the logic of democratic power has not necessarily translated into a greater commitment to direct and non-constitutional methods of action. Despite its lack of formal organization, the campaign is already characterized by a relatively consistent ideology (an ideology which is consistent over time rather than internally coherent, that is) which provides support for the persistence of certain practices and attitudes. Below we discuss how such ideas are perpetuated by the social situations of the struggle.

Fall of Wanstonia

The houses occupied by campaign members in Wanstead were declared 'The Autonomous Free Area of Wanstonia' in January this year. This was basically a publicity stunt. The well publicized 'fall of Wanstonia' (16 February 1994) also functioned as a publicity exercise for the campaign although it was at the same time a serious, committed and often courageous attempt to protect perfectly sound housing from the sheriff's bailiffs and 700 police who turned up to evict people. The DoT were so desperate to get on with the work that they began demolishing the houses when there were still people in and on the roofs of some of them. Since then, although activity has continued in Wanstead, the campaign's centre of operations has moved down the route of the proposed road to Leytonstone.

Composition of and relationships in the struggle

The battles in Wanstead have been just a small number of episode in a long term and continuing struggle. But the story of the initial victory and eventual (although provisional) defeat allows us to draw out a number of themes on the nature of this struggle as whole, themes which illuminate some of the dilemmas of the anti-roads movement generally.

'Locals' and 'activists'

Many of the new people who join the campaign have remained largely passive or auxiliary in their functions. Squat opening, eviction of security from houses and house restoration has attracted some local involvement (particularly in Leytonstone), but machine sabotage and demolition hindrance has been left largely to experienced eco-activists. Locals have often preferred to leave it to the 'experts'. Many of them also perceive internal difference in the campaign in terms of 'full-timers' and others. On this continuum there are at one end people who do nothing else but take part in the struggle and at the other end people who only turn up when they are not at work. Locals often admit that they have to much to lose in terms of jobs etc. and therefore won't engage in some activities that could mean injury or arrest.

But it would be easy to exaggerate the extent of this division of labour. Initiative and influence sometimes shifts in the struggle itself and the 'local' - 'eco-activist' distinction doesn't always hold up in practice. Thus, although many older residents have largely limited themselves to providing resources for the 'committed eco-warriors' (e.g. food, blankets and wood for the tree house), site occupation has been popular among local youth, who, since the first George Green struggle have been keen to act directly. The eco-warriors brought with them to this struggle a heritage of useful experience of methods, but locals of all ages were leading the fence pushing in November.


For those locals critical of the struggle the issue is one of 'outsiders' imposing themselves (and their 'hippy' lifestyles) on a respectable local community. This argument has been the main ideological weapon of the locals who want the road, including James Arbuthnot, the absentee MP (an irony he appears not to notice). Involved locals recognize that the issue isn't where people come from but what they are prepared to do; they simply want as many people as possible to help them fight the road. Eco-warriors add that one more road encourages still more cars and ruins the quality of air for everyone and adds to the global environmental crises. But perhaps the central issue is that the outcome of the events in Wanstead/Leyton/Leytonstone have consequences far beyond east London. Any kind of victory for those acting against this road here will both discourage the roads industry and encourage those involved in similar struggles in other parts of the country (just as Twyford and Oxleas Wood have inspired this struggle).

The housing issue

Twyford was about 'nature', 'science', 'history' and 'mysticism'; it was a relatively untouched green area historically associated with the Arthurian myths. A road through east London, however, presents more of a threat to human lungs and housing needs than to natural eco-systems and historic sites. A common source of outrage for many of those involved in the Wanstead struggle is the waste of what would otherwise be perfectly good houses just to build yet another road. The proposed road leads directly to Hackney, which has the highest concentration of squatters of any London borough; and all this at a time when squatting is under threat from new legislation to criminalize it. The sad irony is that, despite the current levels of homelessness, the squatting movement has been unable to contribute sufficiently to the anti-M11 struggle. The reclamation of houses has been too slow relative to the rate of their eviction and demolition, and even when houses have been restored there have sometimes not been enough people to inhabit them!

Some locals saw the tree occupation etc. important purely as a way of giving the campaign media publicity. But it was actually a very important delaying tactic, in itself a direct way of hindering the road scheme. The housing issue has therefore not been overshadowed by the struggle over the Green simply because 'green' issues were being fetishized. The focus on the tree and the Green, although symbolic of the struggle (green issue, community resource, living area etc.), remained at the level of a tactic in terms of its importance.


The unifying theme of non-violent direct action (NVDA) has also been an important inclusive strategy in the campaign against the M11 link road. Its prevalence in the campaign reflects both factors operating directly in the immediate situation, and the existence of pacifist ideology which has been imported from previous struggles but which is readily appropriated by people in the current situation.

Factors in the situation

We can identify two reasons, reflecting the nature of the situation in east London, that have favoured non-violence: firstly, a concern with getting others to join in, and hence with public (media) image; and secondly, the relative effectiveness of operating within the unwritten rules of civil disobedience.

Public support and media image

Campaign propaganda and activity often reflects the dilemma over whether the emphasis should be on appealing to or on shaping 'public opinion'. Those involved in the campaign in the Leytonstone and Wanstead area do not want to cater to every prejudice in an effort not to annoy and drive away the locals from the campaign - hence intra-campaign arguments for 'looking smart' in order not to alienate the middle classes have been rejected. Yet the usual 'practical' argument against violence has been that the campaign will lose 'public support' if we start punching cops etc - even in self-defence! It is argued that 'others' will be more sympathetic, and perhaps even get involved themselves, if the campaign is 'peaceful'.

It is true that the general 'peacefulness' of the eco-warriors has made them attractive to the locals, in spite of the former's 'hippy' appearance. In Wanstead, it has been one of the factors drawing in local people, many of whom are happy to commit inspiring acts of criminal damage but like to justify their action in moral terms. The principle of 'non-violence' allows these people to see their actions, and the more committed actions of the eco-warriors, as based on a 'better' principle than the law of the land and the rule of money. They recognize, in other words, that the road is about 'materialism' (big business, profits, 'government corruption') and see themselves as a force of opposition to this in a fundamental way.

However, it is not simply because the 'activists' are 'peaceful' that greater numbers of locals have been attracted and radicalized. Numbers have swelled because campaign actions have been seen to be effective in slowing down and resisting the progress of the road.

A second point in relation to non-violence as a way of encouraging 'public support' is that there are limits to this numbers game. As discussed above, not everyone is involved in the campaign to the same degree. This in itself can sometimes be a distinct advantage.

For example, actions such as site occupations benefit from people distracting security simply by hanging around; moreover, even the 'passive' supporters' actions, such as bringing food, have been vital in terms of both sustenance and morale. The numbers have maintained the campaign at a high level of daily activity; a small number would be picked off or tired out too soon by the constant action.

Nevertheless, though people involved in the campaign sometimes talk as if they want to get 'everyone' involved, it is obvious that the quality of potential supporters is at least as important as their sheer numbers. Thus, those who are likely to initiate and take part regularly in campaign activities - in the vanguard of the struggle, so to speak - are more valuable to the campaign than those 'supporters' who actually do very little beyond express opinions and listen to speeches. The more radical and committed need less to persuade them to take part, and will not be put off if campaigners sometimes get a bit 'rough' with police or security.

The point is, then, that 'public opinion', conceived as a homogeneous and largely passive perspective that needs to be appeased by careful presentation of a putatively acceptable image, may not be as important as campaigners sometimes think in determining the success of the campaign. Examples from labour disputes in recent history serve to illustrate this point. Despite its poor public (i.e. mass media) image, and the weight of 'public opinion' against them, the miners' strike of 1984-5 could have won. Conversely, despite the fact that 90% of public opinion was behind them, ambulance workers had little chance of succeeding in their dispute. Positive 'public opinion' is useless unless it translates into effective activity.

Concern with 'public opinion' inevitably leads to attempts to attract the mass media. It is of course necessary that people hear about forces of resistance; they cannot take part if they don't know about them, and sometimes publicity stunts are a part of this process. But if the media are encouraged to present positive images of the campaign because campaign activists stress their pacifist identity and their 'democratic rights' to protest etc., then where does that leave other aspects of the campaign? The price of courting the mass media in this way is the (pubic) disowning of effective but illegal tactics such as monkey-wrenching and even the popular assault on the George Green fences as an 'aberration'. To rely on appealing to the democratic prejudices of the media in order to get publicity means to risk allowing the mass media to set the agenda - to determine the shape and nature of the resistance.

In fact, campaigners may again be worrying too much about creating a positive media image. The bad local press the campaign received throughout 1993 did it little harm. Similarly, the larger-scale bad publicity endured by the anti-poll tax movement (both for the riots and the non-payment campaign) had few detrimental effects.

Effectiveness of NVDA

As was mentioned earlier, NVDA is a term than covers a variety of activities, including occupations, site invasions and attacks on property. The basic rationale behind most of these methods is to waste the developers' money and hence ultimately create a climate where it becomes politically unacceptable for the Government to bankroll them any more. It might be argued that broadly similar methods, when adopted by CND, didn't actually contribute much to government decisions not to step back from the arms race; the slowing down of the arms race was actually prompted by international political and economic developments. We will not deal with the economistic aspect of this argument here except to say that changing 'economic factors' need to understood in the light of class struggles. More to the point is the fact governments are not so free as the argument implies to pump money indefinitely into unpopular projects in order to defeat resistance. In the case of the M11 link road, the Department of Transport are apparently bankrolling the construction firm Norwest Holst up to the tune of £2 million. Actions by campaigners have already cost hundreds of thousands. The DoT may well be happy to put more money in, but such a decision would have repercussions beyond the closed doors of a Whitehall office; the money would have to come from somewhere, and the potential victims of any shift in spending priorities would obviously be resistant. Thus if people campaigning against the road continue to waste vast amounts of money through their actions, new areas of struggle could develop at the same time. The campaign of NVDA could therefore be effective beyond its own immediate focus of concern.

But if NVDA is an effective weapon against property and capital, then the forces protecting property and capital must oppose it. How effective is NVDA in dealing with these forces?

In the past, non-violent occupation of land etc. in green campaigns (anti-nuclear actions, for example) has had a certain level of effectiveness because the individuals involved were clearly middle-class types (i.e. valuable skilled mental labour-power) and therefore the cops were reluctant to lay in.

In the final battle for George Green and the chestnut tree, however, many of the people defending the tree were clearly visibly distinguishable as 'non-workers', eco-warriors or alternative types - the people that police tend to hate. Although there were also a large number of locals present, many of whom were recognizably middle-class, these people were also kicked, punched and thrown in the mud etc. Police violence seemed to be determined less by their appearance (and thus their class position) than by where people were standing or sitting.

Despite this, it is generally recognized that the police are usually less willing to get stuck in in this way to 'locals' than to those perceived as 'eco-warriors'; this has been the experience at other actions on the campaign. But because so many people involved are obviously not middle class, overall there is little material back up (i.e., valuable labour-power) to the non-violence argument. There is therefore correspondingly greater stress on the moral, psychological argument of 'shaming' the oppressors in their treatment of 'fellow human beings'.

Those involved recognize that the moral high ground is not enough. So they supplement it with other psychological weapons, such as humour - which they also use as a publicity stunt. Many humorous tactics are made up on the spot and can therefore take the police by surprise. Thus the sudden decision by many of those present on 'Blue Tuesday' to express their love for the police by hugging them was deeply disconcerting to the cops and left them confused as to their response.

It is difficult to say whether the Gandhian techniques alone actually prevented police being more violent than they could have been; quite possibly they did encourage a level of restraint. Similarly, it may well be true that the injuries sustained on 'Blue Tuesday' would have been worse had the cops not seen campaigners' cameras trained on them. Either or both of these factors may have enabled people to fight all day without numbers being depleted by serious injuries. The fighting - and thus the use of non-violence and cameras - did not, in the end, prevent the Green from being taken by the developers, but it certainly wasted a lot of their time and money.

Regarding the use of cameras, those involved reason that, since mass actions are non-violent, they can use cameras without risking arrest among their own numbers. They hope cameras will deter police and security from violence and that, when police etc. do use violence, pictures will facilitate complaints and prosecutions. This assumes not only that protesters will be non-violent but also that they won't break the law in any other way. The latter has been a mistaken assumption on a number of occasions, such as the first great fence removal.

A second potential problem relates to the point discussed above about appeasing the media with a presentation of the campaign as consonant with legality. The police argue that the campaign's regular actions against machinery and property (and in particular the mass attack on the fences in November 1993 and the attack on site property on a big day of action in January this year) give them grounds to suspect that the campaign will do similar things in the future. Therefore they have been obliged to police the campaign more proactively. Unless the campaign disowns and suppresses its vital and inspiring attacks on property, it will have difficulty arguing that the police's actions are 'unreasonable' in law. Democratic rights are part of an exchange process or equation. If you accept that you have rights within the law (in this case, the rights to protest, the rights to be moved by the police using only minimum necessary force, the rights for your trespass of a building site to be treated by police as a purely civil matter), then you must also accept your duties within that same law - i.e. the duty to respect property. The police's suspicions of the campaign are reasonable; the campaign's arguments against them are often inconsistent, though campaigners themselves don't often recognize this. Given what the campaign has done and may do again, legal arguments and video evidence of police 'crimes' may therefore count for little.

Ideological aspects of non-violence

If a strategy is shown to be effective in a particular time and place then it risks developing into a dogma that will be applied indiscriminately. The importance of non-violence was inherited from Twyford (and before that from CND among others) and is already seen by some people as a principle rather than just a tactic.

Strategy as dogma?

As a principle, the pacifist qualification of the campaign's direct action is based on notions of an ideal, good human nature or essence which transcends historical manifestations of human activity, including class differences. On this account, there is no qualitative difference between the violence the personifiers and protectors of capital use against us (in order to alienate and exploit us) and our violence against them (in order to liberate ourselves from this alienation and exploitation). On this account, our oppressors are also human beings 'just like us' and to harm them would be to 'descend to their level'. Thus, during one of the minor fence-wrecking incidents, when someone new to the campaign was heard to call the security protecting the site 'Scum' he was told not to do so because 'They are human beings like us'.

The logic of this dogma is that we might simply have to accept being assaulted, alienated and exploited if we can't stop it through non-violent methods. This grotesque Gandhian inversion of what counts as 'evil', which prefers the moral high ground of risking personal injury rather than injury to 'others', also leads to the type of situation where some of the bravest eco-warriors go to the absurd lengths of almost sacrificing themselves instead of their enemies' machines! Sometimes machines are regarded as targets 'only in the last resort'. This idealist ideology sees only individuals acting out personal consciences and not class members acting on the basis of their collective power. It confuses similarity of appearance (punching, kicking etc.) with the content and object of the action itself.

In practice, whether it is ideological or merely tactical, the NVDA/civil disobedience techniques involve an appeal to the 'humanity' of police, bailiffs and security guards. Methods such as locking yourself on to machinery and barrels of concrete, lying in front of diggers and climbing on to them involve making ourselves vulnerable and thus forcing our oppressors to acknowledge their 'humanity' and their shared commitment to democratic rights and duties (e.g. 'the right to protest as a civil liberty', the value of 'life'). Verbal arguments with these foes take the same form; instead of being treated as cops etc., there is often an attempt to ignore the real objecthood of these social categories and relate to them on a 'human' level ('what you're doing is wrong. Your children will never forgive you').

Limits to NVDA

If cops and security can be emotionally blackmailed or shamed into some kind of restraint or defeat by these tactics then we are all for them. Indeed, the methods have proved relatively effective in the campaign up till now: they have wasted a vast amount of money and engaged a lot of people.

But if non-violence is a tactical necessity at present, this does not mean that it will be so in the future. To the extent that it becomes petrified as a principle, it could become a serious problem to the resistance to the road if that movement of resistance grows and conflict becomes more likely. It has often been argued that use of violence by the campaign would 'give the cops the excuse' to trash everyone. Of course, cops don't always need 'excuses'; so long as they're physically capable, they trash you if they think you're effective, not just when you are 'violent'. They don't use violence against us simply because they are ignorant and immoral; they do it because it works. They are not dogmatic about it; they have evolved their violent methods through years of trial and error. We need to evolve our methods likewise in order to continue our effectiveness in the face of threats from the cops.

Practical protest

Before leaving this question of pacifism it is necessary to stress that in this struggle it is not usually an abstract dogma but a predicate of direct action. People didn't simply hope that if they stood around long enough shouting 'Let us in' the security and police would do so; they did it themselves by tearing the fences down. Despite a concern with legal efforts, the crucial importance of action directly to hinder the road construction process is clearly recognized. Moreover, although many of those involved criticize aggression and violence, much of the 'non-violence' is far from passive and stoical. Damaging machinery and other property doesn't usually count as 'violence', for example. And during the fierce struggle of 'Blue Tuesday', people didn't simply sit waiting to be dragged off; they pushed police lines back, and snarled, shouted and swore at police. Despite the pacifist rhetoric, they were often an impressively intimidating and aggressive force.

Input from Earth First!

Earth First! (UK) has had two main focuses of influence. The first was the American Earth First! (discussed above). The second source of influence came from various related European currents: the European anti-nuclear movement and the ALF, for example. As EF! began to form itself in Britain, different factions began to develop, reflecting the disparate influences of the new movement, over such issues of public image, use of violence, form of organization and so on. The more radical elements became disillusioned with EF!'s lack of thrust, and set up the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) as an underground movement. These radical elements also saw more need to link up with other forms of class struggle and hence get away from the usual middle class type of lobbyist ghetto organization that usually characterizes environmental groups.

Earth First! is associated with the slogan 'No compromise In the defence of Mother Earth!'. There are two elements implicit in this: the deep ecologism (also reflected in the very name Earth First!) and the principle of putting action before public opinion. This would appear to endorse monkey-wrenching and violence at the expense of courting the mass media, using the law and the support of locals. Yet in conference, where these issues have been debated, Earth First! has deliberately come out with a 'policy' of having no policy on either monkey-wrenching or violence. Again this appears to reflect two things. Firstly it seems to stem from the influence of liberal-anarchist tolerance of the particular decisions made by different Earth First! groups and individuals; many of those attracted to Earth First! are, again, ex-CND, liberal anarchists, 'hippies' etc. Secondly, it stems from a shrewd recognition of the importance of not turning a strategy into a dogma that defines the movement in stone.

Relatedly, Earth First!, unlike the typical leftist group, is not concerned with claiming credit for actions or with building its public profile as an organized group. It is more concerned that the action itself should take place. It is preferred that when actions take place - such as monkey-wrenching and other acts of sabotage - those responsible are understood to be non-aligned rather than members of named groups. Breaking a sharp 'ordinary person' versus 'revolutionary' distinction in this way again makes anti-road sabotage more inclusive and gives the authorities nothing to attack but 'ordinary people'.

Despite the radical potential of many of these ideas, the Earth First!/ELF dichotomy has meant that the former is often more radical in its rhetoric than it is in practice. Hence although Earth First! is an important current at the campaign against the M11, much of its distinctive contribution (monkey-wrenching, for example) has been outweighed by pacifism and media-oriented methods. This is not simply because Earth First! members have lost arguments against other elements; rather what usually happens is that Earth First! members themselves practice and preach an ideology that is far milder and less coherent that the literature produced in the name of that group.

Forms of organization

As with other anti-road campaigns, those involved in this struggle make a fuss about the fact that 'all the legal channels have failed'; they point out that the Government and the roads lobby 'did not consult the local community' and make the other democratic arguments. Despite this apparent concern with democracy, the campaign has certainly benefited from the fact that there is little democratic organization. This seems to have little to do with explicit arguments by Earth First! and other radicals against hierarchy, bureaucracy and formality. There is simply so much to do that there is no time to waste on electing committees, tedious voting procedures and any of the other long-winded nonsense we associate with democracy. There is a skeleton of organized duties (some people commit themselves to answering phones, providing food, handing out leaflets on particular days), but basically whoever is present simply does what is necessary.

The campaign has certainly benefited from the fact that there is little democratic organization.

There are several good things about this highly informal form of organization. Firstly, it means that the nature of particular actions at particular times determines the form of the collective, rather than the reverse which would be the case with a formal cumbersome committee framework. Secondly, and relatedly, there is space for the spontaneity necessary in many actions; people are not accepting a democratically imposed and predefined discipline beyond their shared commitment to the NVDA and eco ideology. Similarly, it means that there is still room for the specialist or 'expert'. Not everyone need know that ten people plan to trash some machinery for example. Why should they? Although anyone could do this kind of thing with a hammer and something to chuck in a fuel tank, it is not necessary for them all to be there. Although there is always a danger of an ALF-type division of labour developing between active specialists and passive masses, such a split is not likely to develop here because of the stress on numbers as the bread and butter of the campaign; what makes specialist monkey-wrenching possible is the existence of a large movement of people all getting involved in different ways; with so many people involved, culprits are not easily identified. A rigid and visible hierarchy would also allow the most active to easily recognized and picked off by the authorities. Lastly, although there has been little leftist interest in the campaign up to now, even if a particular party or faction wanted to take over, the lack of formal structure would make it impossible; there is no 'committee' to be voted on to in order to determine decisions and no decision making meetings to pack. This is not to say that people do not coordinate and that they do not have mass meetings. They certainly do, but decisions are not necessarily binding, and informality prevails.

And this is not to say that the 'organization' is perfect by any means. Plans are not enacted, things don't get done and a small number of people frequently do most of the work and become tired out or resentful - or resented as a clique. There are also frequent internal complaints about lack of communication (and lack of responsibility being taken). The lack of formal coordination may have functioned effectively in Wanstead because of the closeness of the community and the fact the Green was an excellent rallying point. But in Leytonstone the lack of formal organization and communication has just allowed houses to be picked off one by one by the scumbag demolition firms.

Some of these point about intra-campaign issues organization need to extended to the current anti-roads movement(s) as a whole. The struggle in east London has been the focus of the discussion here because it is already serving to some extent as a national focus for anti-roads struggles. But this process needs to be taken further. What is needed, we suggest, is a way of bringing together anti-roads struggles across the country into some form of nationwide movement that encompasses all of them. In short, we need the kind of concrete organization or coordination that will allow the struggle over roads to be recognized not merely as a series of only coincidentally related local issues and campaigns but as an issue of national significance, an issue that involves the country (and indeed Europe and the world) as a whole. A greater degree of commonality needs to be added to the existing diversity.


Progress and need

In both Britain and the USA, radical greens such as Earth First! have developed from a deep green anti-humanist position to embrace a recognition that human need is involved in most of the struggles they are engaged in. But this development has been uneven. The most advanced elements in the radical green movement recognize human need as an historical essence and thus make the connection explicitly between environmental issues and the requirement to smash capitalism. Most eco-warriors recognize that technology isn't neutral; science presents itself to them as what it is - an attack on natural resources (not to mention human need) to expand surplus-value. But for many of those involved in these struggles, this well-founded anti-progressivism and anti-scientism degenerates into both mysticism and a fetishized anti-workerism that sees workers as 'dull materialists' whose interests coincide with those of industry and techno-expansion simply because they say they need their jobs.

Despite this confusion, the common rejection of modern technological progress among eco-warriors find the right targets in terms of collective action more frequently than one would expect if it was entirely ideological or arbitrary. In the nineteenth century, railways were being built all over the place; this involved cutting holes in hills, knocking down houses, scarring green areas and natural habitats etc. - all the things that road development is doing now (although of course it is worse now because so little of these natural resources remain.) And at that time the railways were crucially linked with capitalist expansion; they were cause, product and symbol of the industrial revolution, the growing real subsumption of labour under capital. Yet people involved in the struggle against the M11 typically want to see more and better railways. This is a recognition, not only of the importance of human need in such struggles, but of the fact that human needs are always historical. We are against capitalist progress since it is always at our expense. We endorse the slogan of 'Not one more road', but we do not want to see the railways eliminated in an attempt to return to some ideal past. The point is that since there are virtually no needs (beyond those for community, understanding etc.) that are not historically specific, all needs are equally real. We have now evolved a need for a certain amount of mobility - due to the fact that one effect of the developing antagonism between capital and labour has been the creation of various modes of transport - and we will use some of these technologies to meet our need.

Future needs and forms of struggle

Just as the road building programme steps up one more gear so its antithesis has grown and flourished. Those involved in the anti-roads movement claim to perceive the 'tide turning' in their favour. There has certainly been a shift in the nature of struggles over capitalism's need for transport and control - and 'public opinion' is moving with it. Now, refusal to take the presence of bulldozers as the end of a campaign has become widespread; the closing of a public enquiry is no longer seen as the end of the matter.

But we don't see anything inevitable about this. The shape of future struggles depends on the outcomes of present ones. New sites of conflict are opening up but there is still a need for a lot more people to get involved because people are often spread too thinly over existing sites. One of the reasons for this article is the fact that critique is always necessary, because present forms of struggle eventually need to be superseded in order to overcome their limitations, limitations which reflect oppositional adaptations to these present forms. We only bother to make a critique of the anti-road movement because we think the movement is valuable and effective, and we find the courage and commitment of many of those involved an inspiration. One of the strengths of the movement has been its originality in finding new points of attack.

The issue of methods and strategies is crucially important right now as the Government introduces new legislation on public order in an attempt to undermine hunt sabs, travellers, ravers, squatting and mass trespasses. The last two are particularly relevant for the battle in east London and for other road struggles. Changes in the law could see a regression back to basic reliance on constitutional methods, persuasion of authorities etc. Or such changes could see a shift to a greater militancy born out of clearer recognition of the link between roads, the state and capital. Reliance on legal arguments may fall away as the law fails to provide even the pretence of an impartial mechanism of redress; people may come to recognize the law for what it is - an instrument of class oppression which will be changed by the state whenever the forces of opposition are effective within it.

Anti-roads campaigners in actions are often confronted by arguments from their opponents in terms of people's freedom to use cars. They respond often by pointing to the way this freedom encroaches on their freedom from pollution etc. But they need to make more connections. As we have argued above, freedom to drive is the freedom of an individual consumer. This personal partial freedom in the market place is premised on enslavement as a class member in the sphere of production and in the social factory: this is the essence of the Fordist deal. What links this personal freedom with class enslavement is the freedom of money as a social and physical force at work shaping our relationships. The dominance of the car/road empire is our real subsumption by money in the social car factory as a whole.

We suggested earlier that the anti-roads campaign could have effects beyond its conscious area of concern; that it could help activate other struggles. To make and recognize these links will allow the roads campaign to coordinate with other sectors of the proletariat and hit capital more effectively. For example, the privatization and running down of the rail network is working in tandem with the Government's current roads programme. We need to find some way of bringing these sites of conflict together in order to assert our needs over those of capital.

March 1994


Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory? Part 2

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005

Part 1/ Part 2 / Part 3

In the second instalment of this, our radical soap-opera of theoretical controversy, we critically examine three important revolutionary currents that went beyond the objectivism of orthodox Marxism - Socialism or Barbarism, the Situationist International, and the Italian autonomist current, as well as attempts to reassert the orthodox line.

Part Two

The subject of this article is the theory that capitalism is in decline or decay. This characterisation of 'the epoch' is associated with the schema that capitalism's youth was the period of mercantile capitalism that lasted from the end of feudalism until the middle of the nineteenth century, its mature healthy period was the laissez faire liberal period in the second half of the nineteenth century, and that its entry into the period of imperialism and monopoly capitalism with its forms of socialisation and planning of production marks the start of the transitional epoch towards post capitalist society.

In Part I we looked at how this idea of the decline or decadence of capitalism has its roots in Second International Marxism and was maintained by the two claimants to the mantle of true continuers of the 'classical Marxist tradition' - Trotskyist Leninism and Left or Council communism. Both these traditions claimed to uphold proper Marxism against the reformist Marxists who had ended up defending capitalism. We suggested that a root of the practical failure of the Second International was that theoretically 'classical Marxism' had lost the revolutionary aspect of Marx's critique of political economy and had become an objectivist ideology of the productive forces. The idea of the decline of capitalism upheld by these traditions is the sharpest expression of their failure to break from objectivist Marxism. After the Second World War, while Trotskyism and Left-communism maintained their position despite the counter evidence of the greatest boom in capitalist history, a number of revolutionaries attempted to develop revolutionary theory for the new conditions, and it is to these currents that we now turn.

We will look at three groups which broke from orthodoxy - Socialism or Barbarism, the Situationist International and the Italian workerist/autonomist current. We will also consider the re-assertion of the theory of decline and the rejection of decline within objectivism.

1 The break with orthodoxy

i) Socialism or Barbarism
Socialism or Barbarism(S or B), whose principle theorist was Castoriadis (aka Cardan or Chalieu), was a small French group that broke from orthodox Trotskyism. It had a considerable influence on later revolutionaries. In Britain the Solidarity group popularised its ideas through pamphlets that still circulate as the most accessible sophisticated critique of Leninism.

Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of S or B was its focus on new forms of workers' autonomous struggle outside their official organisations and against their leaders.1 S or B, though small, both had a presence in factories and recognised proletarian struggles beyond the point of production.

Part of what allowed S or B to get down to this theorisation and participation in the real forms of workers struggles was a rejection of the reified categories of orthodox Marxism. In ]Modern Capitalism and Revolution Cardan summed up this objectivism as the view that "a society could never disappear until it had exhausted all its possibilities of economic expansion; moreover the 'development of the productive forces' would increase the 'objective contradictions' of capitalist economy. It would produce crises - and these would bring about temporary or permanent collapses of the whole system."2 Cardan rejects the idea that the laws of capital simply act upon the capitalists and workers. As he says "In this 'traditional' conception the recurrent and deepening crises of the system are determined by the 'immanent laws' of the system. Events and crises are really independent of the actions of men and classes. Men cannot modify the operation of these laws. They can only intervene to abolish the system as a whole."3 S or B took the view that capitalism had, by state spending and Keynesian demand management, resolved its tendency to crisis leaving only a softened business cycle. Cardan's attack on orthodox Marxism's adherence to a Nineteenth century crisis theory in mid-Twentieth century conditions had bite. Conditions had changed - in the post war boom capitalism was managing its crises.

But rather than take this position as undermining the objective basis for revolutionary change S or B affirmed a different way of conceiving the relation of capitalist development and class struggle. As Cardan puts it, the "real dynamic of capitalist society [is] the dynamic of the class struggle." Class struggle is taken by this to mean not just the constantly awaited date of revolution, but the day to day struggle. In this turn by S or B within their theory of capitalism to the everyday reality of class struggle and their attempt to theorise the new movements outside of official channels we see the turn from the perspective of capital to the perspective of the working class. In the mechanical theory of decline and collapse the orthodox Marxists were dominated by capital's perspective, and such a perspective affects ones politics as well. The rejection of the crisis theory was for S or B the rejection of a concomitant politics for as Cardan points out, the objectivist theory of crisis holds that workers' own experience of their position in society makes them merely suffer the contradictions of capital without an understanding them. Such an understanding can only come from a 'theoretical' knowledge of capital's economic 'laws'. Thus for the Marxist theoreticians workers:

Driven forward by their revolt against poverty, but incapable of leading themselves (since their limited experience cannot give them a privileged viewpoint of social reality as a whole) ... can only constitute an infantry at the disposal of a general staff of revolutionary generals. These specialists know (from knowledge to which the workers as such have no access) what it is precisely that does not work in modern society...4

In other words the economics involved in the theory of capitalist decadence goes hand in hand with the vanguardist 'consciousness from outside' politics of What Is To Be Done.

In the attempt to recreate a revolutionary politics S or B rightly rejected the orthodox conception that the link between objective conditions and subjective revolution was that the crisis would get worse and worse forcing the proletariat to act, with the Party (through its understanding of 'the Crisis') providing leadership. Indeed, in the absence of crisis but with the presence of struggle, the rejection of the traditional model was a help rather than a hindrance. At their best S or B turned to the real process of class struggle, a struggle that was more and more against the very form of capitalist work. As they put it:

The humanity of the wage worker is less and less threatened by an economic misery challenging his very physical existence. It is more and more attacked by the nature and conditions of modern work, by the oppression and alienation the worker undergoes in production. In this field there can be no lasting reform. Employers may raise wages by 3% per annum but they cannot reduce alienation by 3% per annum.5

Cardan attacked the view that capitalism, its crises and its decline, was driven by the contradiction of the productive forces and private appropriation. In place of this he argued that in the new phase of 'bureaucratic capitalism' the fundamental division was that between order-givers and order- takers, and the fundamental contradiction was that between the order-givers' need to deny decision-making power to the order-takers and simultaneously to rely on their participation and initiative for the system to function. In place of the notion of crises of capitalism on the economic level Cardan argued that bureaucratic capitalism was subject only to passing crises of the organisation of social life. While the notion of a universal tendency towards bureaucratic capitalism with the crucial distinction being between order-givers and takers seemed useful in identifying the continuity between Eastern and Western systems - in both situations proletarians don't control their lives and are ordered about - such a distinction fails to grasp that what makes capitalism distinct from other class societies is that the order givers have that position only because of their relation to capital, which in its various forms - money, means of production, commodity - is the self expansion of alienated labour. The tendency towards bureaucracy does not replace the laws of capitalism, particularly the fetishism of social relations, rather it expresses them at a higher level. The return of crises in the early seventies showed that what Cardan termed bureaucratic capitalism was not a once and for all transformation of capitalism that abolished economic crises but one particular form of capitalism in which crises tendencies were temporarily being controlled.

Cardan and S or B thought they had superseded Marx in identifying as the 'fundamental contradiction' of capitalism that between capital's need to "pursue its objectives by methods which constantly defeat these same objectives", namely that capitalism must take the participative power away from workers which it actually needs. In actual fact this contradiction, far from being an improvement on Marx, is but one expression of the fundamental ontological inversion Marx recognised at the root of capitalism - the process where people become objectts and their objects - commodities, money, capital - become subject. Of course capital has to rely on our participation and initiative because it has none of its own. Capital's objectivity and subjectivity is our alienated subjectivity. While the ideology that flows from capital's social relations is that we need it - we need money, we need work - the other side is that it is totally dependent on us. S or B's 'fundamental contradiction' does not grasp the full radicality of Marx's critique of alienation. In other words they presented as an innovation what was actually an impoverishment of Marx's critique. We can however understand that their theory was a reaction to a Marxism, whether Stalinist or Trotskyist, that had lost the fundamental importance of Marx's critique of alienation and become an ideology of the productive forces, a capitalist ideology.

Moreover, in not really grasping the root of what was wrong with orthodox Marxism S or B allowed some of its problems to reassert themselves within their own ideology. One could say that, in their identification of the order giver's reliance on workers control of the production process and their councilist wage labour based program,6 S or B showed the extent to which it remained stuck in the councilist perspective that some of its concrete studies of workers' resistance should have moved it away from - i.e. the perspective of the skilled technical worker. The perspective and struggles that were to bring the post-war boom to a crashing end were those of the mass worker. Whereas the radical perspective of the skilled worker, because s/he understood the whole productive process, tended towards the notion of workers control whereby the capitalist parasite could be dispensed with, the struggles of the Taylorised mass worker tended towards a rejection of the whole alienated labour process - the refusal of work.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cardan's critique of Marx and Marxism is what it identified in Capital as the root of orthodox Marxism's sterility. What's wrong with Marx's Capital for Cardan:

is its methodology. Marx's theory of wages and its corollary the theory of the increasing rate of exploitation, begin from a postulate: that the worker is completely 'reified' (reduced to an object) by capitalism.7 Marx's theory of crises starts from a basically analogous postulate: that men and classes (in this case the capitalist class) can do nothing about the functioning of their economy. Both these postulates are false... Both are necessary for political economy to become a 'science' governed by 'laws' similar to those of genetics or astronomy...It is as objects that both workers and capitalists appear on the pages of Capital. ...Marx who discovered and ceaselessly propagated the idea of the crucial role of the class struggle in history, wrote a monumental work ('Capital') from which the class struggle is virtually absent!8

Cardan has recognised something crucial - the relative marginalisation of class struggle by the very method adopted by Marx in Capital. It is this closure of the issue of class struggle and proletarian subjectivity in Capital that is the theoretical basis of the objectivist theory of decline. Cardan's reaction is to abandon Capital. Similarly Cardan makes a central point of his attack on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall an assertion that Marx believed that the real standard of living and wages of the working class is constant over time.9 However this is not the case. Capital holds this as a provisional hypothesis - part of the provisional closure of subjectivity in Capital. Marx was always aware that what counts as the necessary means of subsistence is a point of struggle between the combatants but in Capital he holds it constant expecting to deal with it in the 'Book on Wage Labour',10 a book that was never written. Thus the value of labour power is dealt with in Capital only from the point of view of capital because here Marx was essentially concerned with showing how capitalism was possible. For capitalism to exist it must reify the worker, yet for the worker to exist and to raise the level of her needs she must struggle against this reification. In Capital Marx presented the proletariat with an account of how capitalism operated. Such an account is one part of the project of overthrowing capitalism but only a part. The problem with objectivist Marxism is that it has taken Capital as complete. Thus it takes the provisional closure as final. Cardan's criticisms grasp an important one-sidedness to Capital, and it is the failure to recognise that one-sidedness that leads to the one-sidedness of orthodox Marxism.11

However understandable in the context of the post war boom, Cardan and S or B's rejection of the theory of crisis and later of Marx was an overreaction that itself became dogmatic. Cardan and many other S or B theorists like Lyotard and Lefort became academic recuperators. While adopting Cardan's ideas gave revolutionaries an edge on the Leninists in the fifties and sixties, when crisis returned in the seventies those who continued to follow him ironically showed the same dogmatism in denying crisis in the face of its obvious reappearance as the old lefties had in insisting on it during its absence. What one might say is that although the substance of the theory of S or B was wrong, the importance of the group was not their alternative theory of capitalism nor the later ravings of Cardan but rather the way their critique of orthodox Marxism pointed the way for later revolutionaries. S or B pointed towards a rediscovery of the revolutionary spirit in Marx, which is nothing more than an openness to the real movement happening before our eyes.

ii) Situationist International
One of the most important parts of S or B's analysis was their recognition that workers were struggling against alienation in the factory and outside. The situationists developed the critique of the modern forms of alienation to a new peak, subjecting the capitalist order of things to a total critique. Rather than saying revolution depended on the capitalist crisis reducing the proletariat to absolute poverty the situationists argued that the proletariat would revolt against its materially-enriched poverty. Against the capitalist reality of alienated production and alienated consumption the situationists put forward a notion of what is beyond capitalism12 as the possibility of every individual participating fully in the continuous, conscious and deliberate transformation of every aspect and moment of our lives. The refusal of the separation of the political and the personal - rejection of the sacrificial politics of the militant and thus the critique of objectivist Marxism in a lived unity of theory and practice, objectivity and subjectivity, was one major contribution of the Situationist International(S.I.). In fact one could say that in recognising that revolution had to involve every aspect of our activity and not just the changing of the relations of production the situationists reinvented revolution, which Leninism had wrongly identified with the seizure of the state and continuation of an economically determined society.

While S or B fetishised their rejection of Marx the situationists recovered his revolutionary spirit.13 The chapter of Debord's Society of The Spectacle - 'The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation', is an acute study of the history of the workers' movement. In terms of the question of crisis and decline14 one of the most important of Debord's points is his criticism of the attempt to ground the proletarian revolution on past changes in modes of production. The discontinuity between the tasks and nature of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions is crucial. The proletarian aim in revolution is not the wielding of the productive forces more efficiently; the proletariat abolishes their separation and thus abolishes itself as well. The end of capitalism and proletarian revolution is different to all previous changes so we cannot base our revolution on past ones. For a start there is only really one model - the bourgeois revolution - and our revolution must be different in two fundamental ways: the bourgeoisie could build up their power in the economy first, the proletariat cannot; they could use the state, the proletariat cannot.15

These points are crucial to an understanding of our task. The bourgeoisie only had to affirm itself in its revolution, the proletariat has to negate itself in its. Of course orthodox Marxists will admit there is something different about the proletarian revolution but they do not think through its implications seriously. In the notion of the decline of capitalism the analogy is made to previous systems in which the old order runs out of steam and the new one has grown ready to take over with a simple capture of political power to accompany economic power. But the only change between modes of production that corresponds to this was the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the transition from capitalism to socialism/communism must be different because it involves a complete rupture with the whole political/economic order. The state cannot be used in this process because by its nature the state is an organ to impose unity on a society riven economically while the proletarian revolution destroys those divisions.16

Part of what led orthodox Marxists to the notion of socialism as something constructed through the use of the state is their bewitchment by Marx's 'Critique of Political Economy', through which they become political economists. Now while Marx's work was not political economy but its critique it had elements that allowed this attenuation of the project. As Debord writes:

The deterministic-scientific facet in Marx's thought was precisely the gap through which the process of 'ideologization' penetrated, during his own lifetime, into the theoretical heritage left to the workers movement. The arrival of the historical subject continues to be postponed, and it is economics, the historical science par excellence, which tends increasingly to guarantee the necessity of its future negation. But what is pushed out of the field of theoretical vision in this manner is revolutionary practice, the only truth of this negation.17

What this describes is the loss of the centrality of 'critique' in the assimilation of Capital by the 'classical Marxist' tradition. In losing the importance of this fundamental aspect to Marx's project their work descends into 'Marxist political economy'. As we mentioned in relation to Cardan a theoretical root of objectivist Marxism is the taking of the methodological limitations of Capital as final limitations in how to conceive of the move beyond capitalism.

However if the problem of the objectivists was how they took Capital as the basis for a linear model of crisis and decline, a problem with the situationists was the extent to which they reacted to this misuse of the Critique of Political Economy by hardly using it at all. For the situationists the critique of political economy becomes summed up as the 'rule of the commodity'. The commodity is understood as a complex social form affecting all areas of life but its complexities are not really addressed. The complexities and mediations of the commodity form - that is the rest of Capital - are worth coming to terms with. The commodity is the unity and contradiction of use value and value. The rest of Capital is the unfolding of this contradiction at ever higher levels of concreteness. This methodological presentation is possible because the beginning is also a result. The commodity as the beginning of Capital is already the result of the capitalist mode of production as a totality, is thus impregnated with surplus value and an expression of class antagonism. In other words the commodity in a sense contains the whole of capitalism within it. More than that the commodity expresses the fact that class domination takes the form of domination by quasi-natural things. That the situationist critique could have the power it does is based on the fact that 'the commodity' does sum up the capitalist mode of production in its most immediate social form of appearance. However, particularly with regards to questions like that of crisis, the mediations of that form need to be addressed.

Instead of rejecting Capital (or ignoring it) what should be emphasised is its incompletion, that it is only one part of an overall project of 'capitalism and its overthrow', in which the self-activity of the working class has the crucial role. What the work of the situationists did, in their re-emphasis on the active role of the subject, was to pose 'the only truth of this negation'. To emphasise this, against all the scientific Marxists, the Althussarians, the Leninists etc., was right. In a fundamental sense it is always right. Orthodox Marxism, lost in political economy, had lost the real meaning of revolutionary practice. The situationists regained this crucial element in Marx by preferring the earlier writings and first chapter of Capital. The ideas of the situationists, which were a theoretical expression of the re-discovery of revolutionary subjectivity by the proletariat, inspired many in '68 and since then. They are an essential reference point for us today. But this re-assertion of the subject in theory and in practice did not defeat the enemy at that time - instead it plunged capital into crisis.

In the new period opened up by the proletarian offensive in the late sixties and seventies an understanding of the crisis - including its 'economic' dimension - would once again need to be a crucial element of proletarian theory. But the situationists had essentially adopted Socialism or Barbarism's position that capitalism had resolved its tendency towards economic crisis.18 Debord's critique of the bourgeois outlook lying behind the scientific pretensions of the upholders of crisis theory had its truth, but he was wrong to dismiss the notion of crisis completely. In The Veritable Split, Debord and Sanguinetti at least admit the return of crisis saying that "Even the old form of the simple economic crisis, which the system had succeeded in overcoming... reappears as a possibility of the near future."19

This is better than Cardan's attempt even in his '74 intro to another edition of Modern Capitalism and Revolution to deny the substantial reality of the economic crisis.20 Cardan even accepts the bourgeois belief that it is all an accident caused by the oil shock. But whilst Debord and Sanguinetti's position in admitting the return of crisis is better, we see no attempt by situationists to really come to terms with that return. As The Veritable Split opens "The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes."21 In fact The Veritable Split is generally characterised by the notion that capitalism's final crisis has arrived - though that crisis is seen as a revolutionary one.

In The Veritable Split the description of the period opened up by May '68 as one of a general crisis is basically correct, however it was also inadequate. Although in the wake of May '68, the Italian Hot Autumn etc. to judge the epoch thus is perhaps forgivable what was needed was a real attempt to come to terms with the crisis. That would have required some grasp of the interaction of the rebelling subject and the 'objective' economy, and that would have required a look at the rest of Capital.

2 Return of the Objectivists

When economic crisis did return with a vengeance in the early seventies the defenders of the traditional Marxist notion that capitalism was in terminal decline seemed vindicated.22 As well as thinkers of the old left like Mandel for Trotskyism and Mattick for the council communists new figures like Cugoy, Yaffe and Kidron23 emerged to champion their version of the proper Marxist theory of crisis. The political movements connected with such analyses also experienced a growth. There was major disagreement between the theories produced, but what most shared was the perspective that the return of crisis was to be explained solely within the laws of motion of capitalism as explained by Marx in Capital.The question was which laws and which crisis tendency was to be emphasised from Marx's scattered references.

i) Mandel and Mattick
Mandel and Mattick, as the father figures, offered influential alternatives. Mattick essentially had kept Grossman's theory of collapse alive through the period of the post-war boom. That is, he offered a theory of capital mechanistically heading towards breakdown based on the rising organic composition of capital and falling rate of profit. His innovation was primarily to analyse how the Keynesian mixed economy deferred crisis through unproductive state expenditure. He argued that though such expenditure could temporarily stop the onset of a crisis this was only because of the general upswing in the economy following the war. The successful manipulation of the business cycle was seen to be dependent on an underlying general healthiness of profits in the private sector. When the underlying decline in the rate of profit had reached a critical point then the increase in demand by the state would no longer promote a return to conditions of accumulation and in fact the state's drain on the private sector would be seen as a part of the problem. His argument then, was that Keynesianism could delay but not prevent the tendency to crisis and collapse inherent to the laws of motion ofcapital. One of the main advantages of his analysis was to make the theory of crisis basic to the internal contradictions of capitalist production. Mattick thus avoided the fashionable focus on capitalism being undermined by the defeats of imperialism represented by third world revolutions. He thus does not deny the revolutionary potential of the Western working class. However their class struggle for him would be a spontaneous response to the eventual failure of Keynesianism to prevent the crisis of accumulation. The laws of capital from which crisis was seen to originate and the class struggle were totally separate. What his analysis fundamentally lacked was an analysis of how the class struggle occurred within the period of accumulation. Capitalism's crisis cannot be understood at the abstract level with which Mattick deals with it.

Mandel, the Belgian economist, offered in Late Capitalism a multicausal approach. He defines six variables, the interaction of which is supposed to explain capitalist development. Only one of these variables - the rate of exploitation - has any relation to class struggle but even here class struggle is only one among other things that determine this variable.24 The history of capital is the history of class struggle among other things! The main other thing being the nature of uneven development and thus the revolutionary role of the anti-imperialist countries. He thus describes the history of the capitalist mode of production as driven not by the central antagonism of labour and capital but that between capital and pre-capitalist economic relations. On the one hand he asserts his orthodoxy in claiming that late capitalism is just a continuation of the monopoly/imperialist epoch discerned by Lenin, but he also rehabilitates the theory of long waves of technological development which overlays the epoch of decline giving it periods of upturn and downward movement. The long waves are driven by the agency of technical innovation.

But neither in Mandel's technology driven long waves, nor the rising organic composition driven falling rate of profit thesis, is there is recognition of the extent to which technological innovation is a response to class struggle. Technological determinism of one form or other lies behind objectivist Marxism, which is why the autonomist critique of the objectivist view of technology is so important.25 It is necessary to relate capitalist accumulation and its crises to the class struggle. The Keynesian/Fordist period had been one in which working class struggle had been expressed largely in steadily rising wages, where the unions as representations of the working class had directed struggle against the tyranny of the labour process into wage claims. By winning steady increases in wages the workers forced capital to increase productivity by intensifying the conditions of work and making ever more labour saving investments, which in turn allowed it to continue to grant the workers rising real wages. In this sense, as we shall see the autonomists argued, working class struggle for a period had become a functional moment in the circuit of capital: a motor of accumulation. But before looking at such analysis it is worth noting that some thinkers in the objectivist camp did break from the decline problematic and attempt a more sophisticated analysis of the post-war period. The Regulation Approach(RA) was open to new ideas like the autonomist analysis of Fordism. However another major influence was structuralism and this kept the RA within the boundaries of objectivism.

ii) The Regulation approach
The RA is significant because it attempted to develop theory in relation to the concrete reality of modern capitalism. RA figures such as Aglietta and Lipietz broke from the orthodox positions on the periods of capitalism and on what capitalist crisis represented. The orthodox periodisation of capitalism was that it grew with mercantile capital, becomes mature with competitive laissez faire, and then declines and prepares the conditionsfor socialism in the period of monopoly and imperialism. The orthodox position on crisis was that in healthy capitalism it was part of a healthy business cycle while in 'the epoch of wars and revolution' it is the evidence of its underlying decline and always quite possibly the terminal breakdown crisis of the system as a whole. In terms of periodisation the RA introduced the notion of 'regimes of accumulation'. That is that the stages of capitalist development are characterised by interdependent institutional structures and patterns of social norms. In terms of crisis the RA suggested that prolonged crisis could represent the structural crises of the institutions of regulation and social norms connected with the regime.

So for example they reinterpreted the division between laissez faire and monopoly capitalism as the move from the 'regime of extensive accumulation and competitive regulation' that had existed before the First World War to a regime of intensive accumulation and monopolistic regulation after the Second World War, with the period in between a period of the crisis of one regime and transition to the next. The problem for the orthodox Marxists had been to fit the post-war period into their notion of the 'transitional epoch'. They might do so by calling it a new stage of 'state monopoly capitalism', but their problem was that monopoly should represent the end of capitalism rather than its growth. The RA said that far from being a period of decline the post war period saw the consolidation of a regime of intensive accumulation. This period they saw as characterised by Fordist production methods and mass consumption, the incorporation of consumer goods as a major part of capitalist accumulation, and at the international level American hegemony. At its core the regime is seen as founded on the linkage of rising living standards and rising productivity. In the light of the RA the '70s are then a new period of structural crisis, but this time of the regime of intensive accumulation. Like Negri and the autonomists the RA sees one part of the crisis as the delinkage of wage increases and productivity and the undermining of the social consensus. The breakdown of productivity increases brings out the fiscal crisis of the state as it remains committed to accumulative increases in public spending while the economic base - real sustained growth - for such a commitment is undermined. At the international level there is also the breakdown of favourable conditions of world trade as American hegemony is undermined. The point in relation to the decline thesis is that the crisis is not a death agony but a severe structural crisis out of which capital could come if it re-establishes a regime of accumulation.

The RA's break with the rigid schema of orthodoxy appears a much more sophisticated and less dogmatic Marxist analysis. However there is no reversal of perspective to see the process from the point of the working class. The RA stays firmly within capital-logic simply layering a mass of complications on to the analysis. So although it might rightly see the crisis as an overall crisis of the social order, the fact that it sees capital not as a battle of subjects but as a process without a subject means that it falls into functionalism. It is assumed that the current restructuring of capitalism will successfully lead to the establishment of a new regime of flexible accumulation - post or neo-Fordism is deemed to be inevitable. Such ideas amount to a new form of technological determinism26 which, because it asserts the inevitable continuity of capitalism rather than its collapse, is attractive to reformist leftists rather than revolutionaries. So although we might be able to use some of their ideas, the RA is like its structuralist father essentially based on capital logic. Taking the point of view of capital is always going to be a tendency of the academic thinker paid by the state.27

Objectivist Marxism does partly grasp the reality of capitalism but only from one pole - that of capital. The categories of Capital which are based on the reifying of social relations in capitalism are accepted by this Marxism as a given rather than a contested reality. The subsumption of working class labour is taken as final where it is something that must be repeatedly made. The working class is accepted as a cog in the development of capital which develops by its own laws. Tendencies such as rising organic composition is taken as a technical law intrinsic to capital's essence while it and its counter tendencies are actually areas of contestation. It is necessary to come at the process from the other pole - that of the struggle against reification, which is what groups like Socialism or Barbarism and the situationists did. Their move away from crisis theory was understandable and a necessary part of rediscovering revolutionary practice in the post war boom. However when crisis resurfaced it was the objectivists who seemed to have the tools to grasp it. Yet they failed to come out with an adequate political direction from their theory. The idea was simply that they understood the crisis so people should flock to their banner. However in Italy there emerged a current whose rejection of objectivism included a a new way of relating to crisis.

3 The workerist/autonomist current

A strong tendency in the Italian New Left is represented by the 'workerist'28 theoreticians of the '60s such as Panzieri and Tronti and the autonomists of the late '60s and '70s in which Negri and Bologna come to prominence. They attacked the reified categories of objectivist Marxism. Attacking the objectivism of orthodox Marxism also brought into question the crisis-decline problematic that was so dominant. Part of the strength of this current was that rather than simply assert Marx against a straightforwardly reformist labour movement it had to deal with theoretically sophisticated and prestigious Marxism of the hegemonic Italian Communist Party. The PCI in its transition from Stalinism to Eurostalinism had shifted from contemplation of capitalism's general crisis to support for its continuing development. The workerists recognised that both positions shared a contemplative position on the capitalist economy and that what was needed was a reversal of perspective to look at capitalism from the point of view of the working class.

Raniero Panzieri, one of the initiators of the current contributing two fundamental critiques of orthodox Marxism. He attacked the false opposition of planning and capitalism; and the idea of the neutrality of technology contained in the ideology of the productive forces.

i) The false opposition of planning and capitalism
Panzieri argued that planning is not the opposite of capitalism. Capitalism, as Marx noted, is based on despotic planning at the point of production. Capitalism transcended previous modes of production by appropriating co-operation in the productive process. This is experienced by the worker as control of her activity by another. In nineteenth century capitalism this despotic planning contrasts with anarchic competition at the social level. Panzieri argued that the problem with orthodox Marxism and its theory of decline is that it takes this period of laissez faire capitalism as the true model, change from which must represent the decline of capitalism or transition to socialism. The conception Panzieri and later Tronti developed was that mid-twentieth century capitalism had to a certain extent transcended the opposition of planning versus market, becoming a more advanced capitalism characterised by the attainment of the domination of society by Social Capital; the progressive formation of a Social Factory. At the social level capitalist society is not just anarchy but is social capital - the orientation of all areas of life to the imposition of the capitalist relation of work.

With this the central contradiction on which orthodox Marxism based its theory of decline is undermined. There is no fundamental contradiction between capitalist socialisation of production and capitalistappropriation of the product. The 'anarchy of the market' is one part of the way capital organises society but capitalist planning is another. These two forms of capitalist control are not in deadly contradiction but in a dialectical interaction:

with generalised planning capital extends the fundamental mystified form of the law of surplus value from the factory to the entire society, all traces of the capitalist process' origins and roots now seem to really disappear. Industry re-integrates in itself financial capital, and then projects to the social level the form specifically assumed by the extortion of surplus value. Bourgeois science calls this projection the neutral development of the productive forces, rationality, planning.29

The planning we see in capitalism is not transitional. With the identification of socialism and planning, socialism from being the negation of capitalism becomes one of its tendencies. What emerged from the development of monopoly/finance capital was not the basis for a non-capitalist mode of production but for a more socially integrated form of capitalism.30 Capital overcame some of the difficulties of its earlier phase but its process of doing so was interpreted as its final stage.

ii) The critique of technology
Related to Panzieri's deconstruction of the planning/anarchy of market dichotomy was his perhaps even more path-breaking critique of technology. Capitalism's despotic planning operates through technology. Essentially Panzieri argued that in capitalism technology and power are interwoven in such a way that one must abandon the orthodox Marxist notion of the neutrality of technology. Once again what is being critiqued here is the reified nature of the terms in the orthodox conception of the productive forces rattling against the chains of their capitalist fetters.

There exists no 'objective', occult factor inherent in the characteristics of technological development or planning in the capitalist society of today, which can guarantee the 'automatic' transformation or 'necessary' overthrow of existing relations. The new 'technical bases' progressively attained in production provide capitalism with new possibilities for the consolidation of its power. This does not mean, of course, that the possibilities for overthrowing the system do not increase at the same time. But these possibilities coincide with the wholly subversive character which working-class 'insubordination' tends to assume in face of the increasingly independent 'objective framework' of the capitalist mechanism.31

This exemplifies the change the 'workerist' perspective represented - the turn from some 'occult' movement of the productive forces considered technically to the greatest productive force - the revolutionary class. Panzieri was responding to a new combativity of the working class, its coming together to pose a threat to capital but "This class level" as he puts it "expresses itself not as progress, but as rupture; not as 'revelation' of the occult rationality in the modern productive process, but as the construction of a radically new rationality counterposed to the rationality practised by capitalism."32

While the mainstream Marxists, whether ostensibly revolutionary or reformist, were and are stuck in a reformist attitude towards capitalist technology, i.e. the expressed wish of organising it by means of the plan more efficiently and more rationally, Panzieri had seen the extent to which the working class were the much better dialecticians who recognised "the unity of the 'technical' and 'despotic' moments of the present organisation of production."33 Machine production and other forms of capitalist technology are a historically specific product of class struggle. To see them as 'technically' neutral is to side with capitalism. That this view has dominated orthodox Marxism makes it no wonder that some now wish to reject the historical critique of capitalism in favour of an anti-technology perspective. The problem with substituting the simple negati on of 'civilisation' for the determinate negation [Aufhebung] of capitalism is not just that some of us want to have washing machines, but that it prevents one connecting with the real movement.

The critique of technology combined with the reversal of perspective allowed the workerists to reclaim the critique of political economy as a revolutionary tool by the proletariat. As we have seen, a crucial part of most theories of crisis and decline is the tendency for the rate of profit to fall due to the rising organic composition of capital brought about by capital's replacement of labour (the source of value) by machines. The Italians took an overlooked statement by Marx "It would be possible to write a history of all the inventions introduced by capital since 1830 just to give them weapons against the revolts of the working class"34 and developed it into a theory that made capital's technological development a response to and interaction with working class struggle, the capitalist labour process becoming a terrain of constantly repeated class struggle. By founding capitalist development on working-class struggle the workerists made sense of Marx's note that the greatest productive force is the revolutionary class itself.

When we see the constant increase in organic composition as a product of working class struggle and human creativity, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall starts to lose its objectivist bias. Capital's turn from an absolute surplus value strategy to a relative surplus value strategy35 was forced on it by the working class and has resulted in capital and the working class being locked in a battle over productivity. The categories of the organic and technical composition of capital become de-reified in this workerist theory and linked with the notion of class composition, that is with the forms of class subjectivity and struggle accompanying the 'objective' composition of capital. Using this notion the theorists of workers' autonomy developed the critique of earlier forms of organisation, such as the vanguard party, as reflecting a previous class composition and theorised the new forms of struggle and organisation of the mass worker. This puts a whole new light on the decline of capitalism / transition to communism question:

The so-called inevitability of the transition to socialism is not on the plane of the material conflict; rather precisely upon the basis of the economic development of capitalism - it is related to the 'intolerability' of the social rift and can manifest itself only as the acquisition of political consciousness. But for this very reason, working-class overthrow of the system is a negation of the entire organisation in which capitalist development is expressed - and first and foremost of technology as it is linked to productivity.36

We see then that the first wave of Italian workerism in the '60s rejected of the view that the period of laissez faire marked the proper existence of capitalism and that what has happened since is its decline or decay in favour of an analysis of the concrete features of contemporary capitalism. This allowed them to see the tendency towards state planning as expressing the tendencies of capitalism to the full: Social Capital. They also broke from orthodox Marxism in their reversal of perspective to see the working-class as the motive force of capital, backed up by militant research on the struggles of the mass worker.

iii) The class struggle theory of crisis
There are similarities with Socialism or Barbarism's analysis but the autonomists' positions, based as they were on a reinterpretation of the tools offered by Marx's critique of political economy rather than a rejection of them, were better able to respond to the crisis that opened up in the '70s. In fact the crisis of the seventies could be said to show the accuracy of Tronti's 1964 suggestion that it was possible that "The first demands made by proletarians in their own right, the moment that they cannot be absorbed by the capitalist, function objectively as forms of refusal that put the system in jeopardy.. simple political blockage in the mechanism of objective laws."37 Capitalism's peaceful progress was shattered in the late '60s and the Italian workerists theory went furthest in understanding this, just as the Italian workers' practice during the '70s went furthest in attacking the capital relation.

As we saw with Mattick the orthodox Marxist response to Keynesianism was to argue that it could not really alter the laws of motion of capital and that it could only delay the crisis. At one level this is correct but the problem is that the economy is seen as a machine rather than the reifed appearance of antagonistic social relations. The autonomist advance expressed in such works as two essays by Negri in '6838 was to grasp Keynesianism as a response to the 1917 working class offensive, an attempt to turn working class antagonism to the benefit of capital. Keynes was a strategic thinker for capital and Keynesianism by channelling working class struggle into wage increases paid for by rising productivity was essentially not just demand management of the economy but the state management of the working class, a management that becomes increasingly violent as the working class refuses it. The precarious balance that it represented was flung into crisis by the working class offensive of the late '60s and '70s which ruptured the productivity deals upon which the accumulation was premised. The whole post-war Keynesian/Fordist period was seen in the autonomist analysis as the period of the planner state that had now been flung into crisis and was being replaced by the active use of crisis by the state to maintain control.

The class struggle theory of crisis is a necessary corrective to the objectivists' views. The fundamental point in autonomist Marxism was to turn capitalist crisis from the fatalistic outcome of objective laws standing above the working class into the objective expression of class struggle. The notion of an epoch of decline or decadence is effectively bypassed by this theory of the concrete struggles of the class. The history of capitalism is not the objective unfolding of capital's laws but a dialectic of political composition and recomposition. The serious world crisis that opened in the '70s is thus seen as the result of the struggles of the Fordist mass worker. That subject, which had itself been created by capital's attack on the post first world war class composition that had almost destroyed it, had politically recomposed itself into a threat to capital. The crisis of capital is the crisis of the social relation.

During the '70s the autonomists produced the most developed theorisation of the refusal of work and a critique of the catastrophist theory of the crisis in favour of a dynamic theory of capitalist crisis and proletarian subjectivity. The autonomists developed a class struggle theory of the crisis exemplified in the slogan 'The Crisis of the Bosses is a Victory of the Workers'. This puts them in sharp variance with the orthodox Marxist explanation of crisis39 in terms of internal contradictions of capital with the general crisis caused by its decline brought on by its fettering of the productive forces by the relations of production. The notion that capital fetters the productive forces, though in a sense true, forgets that at times of strength the working class fetters the productive forces understood in capitalist terms - the working class fetters the development of the productive forces because their development is against its interests, its needs. The significance of the resistance of the proletariat to capitalist work must not be missed in a socialist dream of work for all. As Negri puts it, "Liberation of the productive forces: certainly, but as the dynamic of a process which leads to abolition, to negation in the most total form. Turning from the liberation-from-work toward the going-beyond-work forms the centre, the heart of the definition of communism."40

Autonomist theory was in some ways an optimistic projection forward of tendencies in the existing struggle. This worked fine when the class struggle was going forward and thus when revolutionary tendencies became realised in further actions. So for example Tronti developed the notion of a new kind of crisis set off by workers' refusal because he saw it prefigured in the battle of Piazza Fontana (events in 1962 when striking FIAT workers attacked the unions with great violence). The Italian Hot Autumn in 1969 when workers would often go on strike immediately after they came back to work from a previous strike showed the validity of this projection. However such theoretical projection, which the situationists also made in seeing the emergence of wildcat strikes in England in particular as a sign of things to come,41 became inadequate when in capital's counter offensive against this refusal the tendencies that were to be later realised were that of a re-imposition of work. Autonomist theorists tried to grasp this with notions like that of the shift from the planner to the crisis state.

The class struggle theory of crisis lost its way somewhat in the '80s, for while in the seventies the breaking of capital's objective laws was plain, with capital's partial success the emergent subject was knocked back. It appears that during the '80s we have seen the objective laws of capital given free reign to run amok through our lives. A theory which connected the manifestations of crisis to the concrete behaviours of the class found little offensive struggle to connect to and yet crisis remained. The theory had become less appropriate to the conditions. Negri's tendency to extreme optimism and overstatement of tendencies as realities, while not too bad in a time of proletarian subversion, increasing became a real problem in his theorising, allowing him to slip in his own decline thesis. Out of the relation to the revolutionary movement Negri's writings suffer massively. In writings like Communists Like Us and his contribution to Open Marxism we even see in a new subjectivist guise the theory of a decline of capital/emergence of communism behind our back.42

All in all the autonomists are a necessary move but not a complete one, they expressed the movement of their time but, in Negri's case anyway become weak in isolation from it. We might say that just as '68 showed the limitations as well as validity of situationists ideas the period of crisis and revolutionary activity in Italy in the decade '69-'79 showed the validity and limitation of the workerist and autonomists theory. This does not mean we need to go back to the objectivists but forward. Autonomist theory in general and the class struggle theory of crisis in particular did essential work on the critique of the reified categories of objectivist Marxism. It allows us to see them "as modes of existence of class struggle".43 If at times they overstate this, failing to see the real extent to which the categories do have an objective life as aspects of capital, it remains necessary to maintain the importance of the inversion. We need a way of conceiving the relation of objectivity and subjectivity that is neither the mechanics of the objectivists nor the reactive assertion that its 'all class struggle'.

S or B, the situationists, and the autonomists all, in different ways, made important contributions to recovering the revolutionary core of Marx's critique of political economy. They did this by breaking from the catastrophist theory of decline and breakdown. But the revolutionary wave they were part of has receded. The post-war boom is now a fading memory. Compared to the era in which these revolutionary currents developed their theories the capitalist reality we face today is far more uncertain. Capitalism's tendency to crisis is even more evident, yet class struggle is at a low ebb. In the third and final part of this article we shall look at more recent attempts to solve the problem of understanding the world we live in, such as that of the Radical Chains group, and put forward our own contribution to its solution.

  • 1 The Johnson-Forest tendency in America were developing a similar bottom up and non-workerist approach.
  • 2 Modern Capitalism and Revolution, p. 85.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 48.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 44.
  • 5 Redefining Revolution, p. 17.
  • 6 See Workers' Councils and the Economics of Self-Management.
  • 7 Paradoxically, though this reification is a central part of Cardan's critique of Marx, he himself suggests another problem with Marx is his use of the category of reification when instead modem capitalism should be understood by its 'drive to bureaucratic-hierarchical organisation.' Revolution Redefined, p. 6.
  • 8 Modern Capitalism and Revolution, p. 43.
  • 9 See the Appendix to Modern Capitalism and Revolution. Part of the rest of this appendix is an argument for a return to Adam Smith's definition of capital.
  • 10 As he writes to Engels 2/4/1858, "Throughout this section [capital in general] wages are invariably assumed to be at their minimum. Movements in wages themselves and the rise or fall of that minimum will he considered under wage labour."
  • 11 For more on this crucial point about how to read Marx, see F.C. ShortalI, The Incomplete Marx (Aldershot: Avebury, 1994).
  • 12 They declined to use the word communism because of its associations. To which one would have to say their alternative of universal self-management has not escaped its own negative connotations.
  • 13 "Are you Marxists? - Just as much as Marx was when he said 'I am not a Marxist."' Situationist International Anthology.
  • 14 The situationists at times expressed the idea of a general crisis of capitalism, of its reaching of an impasse. At times they expressed the view that modem capitalism was in decline or decomposition. However they did not see this proceeding through an objective logic of the economy, seeing it rather as arising from the subjective refusal of the proletariat to go on as before. To an extent they did ground this on the contradiction of productive forces and relations, but only to the extent that the gap between how capitalism developed them, and what their possible use by the proletariat as it abolished itself could be, had reached an extreme level visible to the subject. This perspective is crucial but it should not be confused with the theory of decline as classically understood where there is a linear evolutionary logic in which it is the productive forces which push to be liberated. The gap between what is possible and what actually exists can only be crossed by a leap.
  • 15 "...the bourgeois revolution is over; the proletarian revolution is a project born on the foundation of the preceding revolution but differing fiom it qualitatively. By neglecting the originality of the historical role of the bourgeoisie' one masks the concrete originality of the proletarian project, which can attain nothing unless it caries its own banners and It knows the "immensity of its tasks." The bourgeoisie came to power because it is the class of the developing economy. The proletariat cannot itself come to power except by becoming the class of consciousness. The growth of productive forces cannot guarantee such power, even by way of the increasing dispossession which it brings about. A Jacobin seizure of power cannot be its instrument. No ideology can help the proletariat disguise its partial goals - general goals, because the proletariat cannot preserve any partial reality which is really its own." The Society of the Spectacle, Thesis 88.
  • 16 This is not to say the proletariat does not use force to realiae its goals and prevent a return to capitalism, just that its force is qualitatively different to state force, which can only be the power of the separate.
  • 17 The Society of the Spectacle, Thesis 84.
  • 18 See The Society of the Spectacle, Thesis 82.
  • 19 Debord and Sanguinetti (1972) The Veritable Split, Thesis 14, (London: Chronos Publications, 1990).
  • 20 Modern Capitalism and Revolution, pp. 10-11.
  • 21 The Veritable Split, Thesis 1.
  • 22 The ICC even try to explain '68 in terms of the objective crisis beforehand. Despite the overwhelming market lead of the falling rate of profit theory of crisis they continue to push a Luxemburgist thesis. Such brand loyalty really should be applauded.
  • 23 Yaffe and Kidron were both in the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) which attempted to distinguish itself with its theory of the Permanent Arms Economy. This essentially tried to account for the whole post-war boom in terms of one factor - arms spending. Behind the innovation of giving arms spending a stabilising role, the theory was essentially orthodox Marxist economics. In the version put forward by Cliff the orthodoxy was underconsumptionism. Military expenditure was given an ability (initially very temporary then as the catastrophe failed to arrive more long lasting) to ofliet an inevitable crisis of overproduction of capital versus the limited consumption power of the masses. When within Marxist economics there was a shift - the falling rate of profit increasingly took the foreground and underconsumptionism was seen as too crude - Kidron put forward a new version which changed what it was that military spending was meant to mitigate. Rather than unproductive arms spending delaying the point when production of capital outstrips the possibilities for its consumption, that spending was to be seen as a counter-tendency to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

    The essential point is the theory kept within the assumptions of objectivist Marxist economics. To the extent that it broke from Lenin's analysis of imperialism it was not because of the fact that Lenin gave no place to working class struggle in his analysis. No, for the International Socialists imperialism was just to be the 'last stage but one - another objectivist capital-logic stage. The permanent arms economy was to be the final stage and it, like Lenin's Imperialism, is explained purely in terms of capital. Even in its more developed form the theory was a bit of a hotch potch that had younger guns in the I.S. like Yaffe, who was better versed in the Marxist classics, demanding a return to a fundarnentalist falling rate of profit-based theory and leaving to form the RCG in order to develop one. Since then Chris Harman has fleshed out the theory, rounded off a few of its rough edges, and even used Grossman and other decline theorists to back it up. By the seventies anyway the SWP had returned to the fold by agreeing that arms spending could no longer mitigate the tendency towards crisis.

  • 24 Late Capitalism, p. 40. Interestingly Mattick, who one would have to side with politically against Mandel, argues that Late Capitalism gives too much weight to the class struggle. Mattick introduced Grossman's falling rate of profit based breakdown theory to a new audience. That we find the non-Leninist arguing against the significance of class struggle shows that the problem of objectivism cuts across the Leninist/anti-Leninist divide. In actual fact in Britain the Mattick/Grossman thesis on the nature of the crisis was taken up by a firm Leninist David Yaffe. For Yaffe the class struggle had been absent during the post war boom but the economic detetminants had apparently been progressing in its absence.
  • 25 See following section.
  • 26 The attack on the functionalism and determinism of the RA is ably made in Post Fordism and Social Form (edited by Bonefeld and Holloway) and reviewed in Aufheben 2 (Summer 1993).
  • 27 On the other hand the analysis of the autonomists never lost the point of view of the working class. The point is that though some of the Italian theorists were academics they were also part of a revolutionary current. They might be 'thinkers sponsored by the state' but when half of them get arrested and banged up for years it becomes reasonable to believe that their ideas were contradictory to their position.
  • 28 Italian 'workerism' refers not as with the Anglo-Saxon use of the term to the idea that only shop-floor struggle is meaningful, but to the attempt to theorize capitalism from the working class's perspective.
  • 29 'Surplus Value and Planning' in The Labour Process and Class Strategies, CSE Pamphlet No.1, p. 21.
  • 30 While some of those influenced by Bordiga became the archetypal dogmatic proponents of the theory of decadence others developed some of his ideas in an interesting direction with parallels to the workerists. Invariance (Jacques Camatte et al.) theorised that the increasing socialization of production expressed not the decline of capital but the shift from capital's formal subsumption of the labour process to its real subsumption i.e. the shift from capitalist supervision of a labour process dependent on workers' skills and understanding, to complete capitalist domination of the whole process. Furthermore they saw a shift from capital's formal domination of society to its real domination. However we might say that their attention to the autonomy of capital insufficiently recognised that this process is constantly contested; this led them to see revolution as a catastrophist explosion of repressed subjectivity.
  • 31 R. Panzieri, 'The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Versus the 'Objectivists'' in P Slater ed., Outlines of a Critique of Technology (Ink Links, 1980), p. 49.
  • 32 lbid., p. 54.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 34 Capital, vol. 1, p. 563.
  • 35 I.e. From a strategy of increasing exploitation through lengthening the working day to one of increasing productivity, thereby lengthening the section of the existing working day during which the worker produces surplus-value.
  • 36 'The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Versus the 'Objectivists'' in Outlines of a Critique of Technology, op. cit., p. 60.
  • 37 Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis (Red Notes and CSE Books), p. 17.
  • 38 'Keynes and Capitalist Theories of the State Post 1929' and 'Marx on Cycle and Crisis', both in Revolution Retrieved (London: Red Notes, 1988)
  • 39 In fact your orthodox Marxist militant will think it wrong to suggest that crisis could possibly be the work of the working-class. "No, no, no" s/he'll say "that's a right wing argument; crisis is the fault of capital; the working class - bless his cloth cap - is free of any involvement in it - the crisis shows the irrationality of capitalism and the need for socialism". But this was precisely what the autonomists attacked - socialism seen as the resolution of capital's crisis tendency.
  • 40 Marx Beyond Marx, (London: Autonomedia/Pluto, 1991), p. 160.
  • 41 Not to mention Marx and the Silesian miners.
  • 42 For example on p. 88 of Open Marxism II: "new technical conditions of proletarian independence are determined within the material passages of development and therefore, for the first time, there is the possibility of a rupture in the restructuration which is not recuperable and which is independent of the maturation of class consciousness." He seems to think that this possibility is linked in with the immaterial labour of computer programrners! It seems that many radical thinkers show a tendency to lose clarity in their old age or, more accurately, when the movement to which they are connecting falls back. Perhaps it is a question of using Negri against Negri as we (must sometimes?) use Marx against Marx, and perhaps also we should see decadence theory as a slippage made by revolutionaries when the movement they are part of recedes (post 1848, post 1917 post 1977). When the movement of class struggle that one could connect to seems to lose its power there is a temptation to give power to capital's side - a temptation that should be resisted.
  • 43 See R. Gunn (1989) 'Marxism and Philosophy', Capital & Class, 37.


Review: Midnight Oil

In asserting the centrality of class struggle Midnight Oil is an important attempt to go beyond Lenin's theory of imperialism as a means of understanding the Gulf War. Unfortunately the inadequacy of their understanding of capitalism leads them on some bizarre theoretical wanderings in their search for an alternative.

(Work, Energy, War, 1973-92). Midnight Notes. Autonomedia. Brooklyn 1992. £9.95. ISBN 0-936756-96-9.

Libcom note: A member of Midnight Notes responded to this review here.

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005


Midnight Oil is a collection of articles produced by the Zerowork (1974-79) and Midnight Notes (1979-) collectives, having as its focus a thorough analysis of the recent Gulf war. There are a number of reasons why the publication of this book should be welcomed. For a start the making available of texts from the autonomist tradition, which have previously been available to few people, can only have a positive impact on revolutionaries in this country who, with notable exceptions, have tended either to regurgitate orthodoxy or dismiss theory as academic contemplation. It is also reassuring to find that despite the setbacks experienced by the US working class over the last couple of decades some US theorists are still capable of attempting to analyse contemporary events - not everyone has responded to these defeats by seeking to conjure the future out of some mythical past like Zerzan or Perlman.

Coming after the Gulf-War Midnight Oil provides a pertinent counter-point to the orthodox Marxist theories which reduced the war to merely an inter-imperialist conflict. However, whilst we are sympathetic to aspects of Midnight Notes'/autonomist analysis, and appreciate it as a weapon against orthodox Leninist conceptions, we can not remain entirely uncritical. Indeed, while at first sight the broad sweep of analysis in Midnight Oil is impressive, on closer inspection we find that it has fundamental weaknesses. A hint of such problems become apparent if we remember Midnight Notes's predictions before the Gulf War in the pamphlet When Crusaders and Assassins Unite. This pamphlet, published in November 1990, in an attempt to provide a class analysis for the US anti-war movement, argued that there would be no war as there were no fundamental disagreements between US and Iraqi capital as both wanted higher oil prices :

These differences over oil pricing control and debt policy can be mediated, though this mediation process might very well include the use of marginal military force. However, U.S. Crusaders are not in the Arabian Peninsula to fight a large-scale, conventional shooting war with the Iraqi Assassins, as frequently envisioned. For U.S. troops are not in the Arabian Peninsula to fight the soldiers of a government that plays the game of collective capital. A game that the Saddam Hussein regime has shown itself perfectly willing and able to play. The U.S. invasion of the Persian Gulf, therefore, is not like the war in Vietnam where the U.S. military was sent to crush a directly anti-capitalist, revolutionary armed movement. It is more like the post-W.W.II U.S. occupation of Western Europe, whose main function was not to fight a Soviet invasion, but rather to repress the rise of any revolutionary forces within Western Europe itself.

Midnight Notes, and No War But The Class War (NWBTCW) in Britain, attempted to move beyond Leninist analyses of the war to emphasise the class war, but we have to recognise their limitations if we are to move beyond them. Perhaps unsurprisingly 'When Crusaders and Assassins Unite' and its predictions go unmentioned in Midnight Oil. However what is important for us is not so much that Midnight Notes got it wrong but why they got it wrong. When we test their analysis against the litmus of the Gulf War the loose ends of their theory rapidly unravel. It is not merely that Midnight Oil is inconsistent, as is only to be expected from a collective project developing over 20 years, rather it is that we find its underlying theory incoherent.

To understand the significance of Midnight Oil we have to put it into the context of its opposition to the dominant Marxist explanations for the Gulf War. In Britain the anti-war movement was dominated by the left-liberal pacifism of CND which advocated sanctions to starve the Iraqi's into submission instead of bombing them into the middle ages. The immediate response of the 'revolutionary left' was simply to 'trot out' the old anti-imperialism position of 'supporting the weaker country against imperialist aggression' which refuses any real class analysis of the war. However, in the case of Iraq the sheer absurdity of this position became apparent. How could so called revolutionaries back a fascist dictatorship with a proven record of butchering its own working class? In the case of the SWP their knee jerk reaction of backing Iraq was soon dropped as opportunism led them to change their line and tail-end the peace movement in the hope of picking up new recruits whilst the RCP maintained an unrelenting support for the Iraqi state. In both cases a rigid adherence to the discredited Leninist theory of imperialism led these groups to fail to grasp the initiative from left-liberalism/pacifism in the anti-war movement.

Lenin's Theory of imperialism

The Leninist theory of imperialism owes its origins to Lenin's Imperialism. Lenin's Imperialism was based on Bukharin's work which in turn had developed out of the orthodox theory of the Second International, as exemplified by Hilferding's Finance Capital. It argued that since the 1870's the world had seen the concentration and centralization of production into huge monopolies and cartels that dominated national markets. This had brought about a new era of monopoly capitalism which, for Lenin at least, was the last stage of capitalism. In monopoly capitalism the huge monopolies tended to merge with banking capital and because of the national importance of these huge capitals they became increasingly regulated and protected by the state. Since these huge capitals, organised in cartels, dominated the market they could plan production and set prices. No longer was there an anarchy of the market. The preconditions for a centralized and planned socialist economy were all but there. All that was needed was for the working class to take power and nationalize the big monopolies and banks!!

But to make monopoly profits the big monopolies restricted domestic production to push domestic prices up. Restricted production limited investment which meant that there was both a tendency for surplus-production and surplus-capital to be invested abroad. This meant a drive for foreign markets and imperialism under the protection of the state, but this brought each imperialist power into conflict with others as its rivals. The orthodox/centrist Kautsky thought that this imperialist conflict would ultimately be resolved peacefully through ultra-imperialism. Lenin said it could only be resolved through war and revolution. A point he thought vindicated by World War One.

Problems of Lenin's theory

Firstly his analysis is out of date when applied to the current situation. Hilferding's work, which Lenin's analysis is largely based on and relates to the era of monopoly capitalism at the turn of the century, particularly to the situation in Germany. But with the development and establishment of Fordism the division of the world is no longer based on super-exploited colonies, rather the Third World appears as marginalized economies within the world market that capital is unable to fully exploit.

Perhaps more importantly Lenin's theory of imperialism is crippled by its assumption of working class passivity. The working class is the least developed aspect of Lenin's Imperialism as the dynamic to war and the possibility of planning are derived entirely from the relations between capitals. Thus the working class is seen as passive, needing the objective conditions to mature before being forced to take decisive action. This is particularly clear in Lenin's conception of the labour aristocracy in terms of workers being 'bought off' rather than in terms of them winning concessions that force the monopolies to push prices higher. Therefore the result of Lenin's Imperialism, with its assumption of working class passivity, is to locate the movement towards communism in the contradictions of capital as an objective economic system rather than in the revolutionary self-activity of the working class.

Autonomism against Leninist theories of Imperialism

If the inadequacy of Lenin's Imperialism, as applied to the Gulf-War, is its focus on the 'objective', i.e. capital, can we combat this by using Midnight Notes' autonomist analysis to bring in the 'subjective', i.e. class struggle? The great strength of Midnight Notes and other autonomist-Marxists is their focus on the centrality of class struggle. Through their focus on working class composition, especially the notion of the mass worker, Midnight Notes' and other autonomists grasp the need to go beyond the era of monopoly capitalism described by Hilferding. By focusing on the working class as an autonomous power within and against capital the autonomists were able to account for Fordism and the resistance to it. Therefore both technology and working class organization reflect a particular division of power produced as an outcome of past struggles. This makes trade unions, social democratic, and Leninist parties historically specific organizational forms.

Midnight Oil's great strength is its focus on class struggle whether it be of migrant oil workers, Iraqi deserters, striking autoworkers, wildcat coal miners, or Italian rent strikers. But whilst this focus on working class self-activity is Midnight Oil's greatest strength it is also its greatest weakness. The problem with Midnight Notes however, is not simply that they overemphasize class struggle, rather it is their inadequate understanding of modern capitalism. By concentrating so much on struggles they tend to reduce the workings of the world market to merely a question of power, one where capital collectively manipulates prices in order to attack the working class.

Value and the Apocalypse

For Marx capitalism is not the latest incarnation of the omniscient megamachine that comes to dominate humanity, nor is it a simple means through which the capitalist class consciously conspires to exploit us. Rather capital is a social relation through which human activity returns as an alien and objective force which subsumes human will and purposes to its own ceaseless drive towards its own quantitative expansion. As such, for Marx, capitalism is very far from being a consciously regulated system. As a totality capital is a process that must continually reconstitute itself out of the conflicting actions and purposes both between disassociated individuals and antagonistic classes. Of course this is not to say that there are not conscious attempts to plan nor of some forms of social co-operation, e.g. the state, but that these are only moments subsumed within capital as an unconscious subject and only arise from given conditions of conflict and competition between individuals and classes.

Despite different political perspectives, both Midnight Notes and the orthodox Marxism of Lenin and Kautsky see a fundamental change in capitalism from that described by Marx in Capital - modern capitalism is seen as moving towards a consciously regulated system. This is linked with the notion of us entering the transitional stage to socialism/communism. For orthodox Marxism this is seen primarily in terms of inter-capitalist relations in the form of growing state intervention and the growth of monopolies, both of which lead to the planning of production and exchange rather than regulation through the anarchy of the market, i.e. the supersession of the law of value. For Midnight Notes/autonomism the supersession of the law of value is seen more in terms of the separation of labour from capital with the automation of production.

The fragments on machines

The theoretical basis for Midnight Notes' argument that the law of value has been superseded is the now famous passage from the Grundrisse that has become known as the fragments on machines. In these passages Marx vividly describes how capital in its drive to increase the social productivity of labour through the mechanisation and eventual automation of production makes production increasingly disproportionate to the labour employed. But since capital is nothing but the expansion of alienated labour, this tendency drives capital beyond its own foundation. Hence crisis and apocalypse. As Marx notes:

As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be a measure] of use value. ...Capital itself is the moving contradiction , [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth...On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labor time employed in it. On the other side, it wants to use labor time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.

The notion that there is a tendency for the law of value to be superseded is central to Midnight Notes' analysis of oil pricing. It allows them to argue that, since value is no longer a necessary measure/regulator of capital work has become merely a form of social discipline. Hence the refusal of work is no longer a utopian demand. Also, to the extent that labour is separated from capital and no longer mediated by value we have only two antagonistic classes each with its own distinct strategy. Therefore the collective capitalist seeks to preserve its power through the imposition of work and the collective worker seeks to resist and refuse this work.

In Midnight Oil, Midnight Notes seek to unilaterally apply this tendency as if it was a long term historical tendency that is now at the point of realisation. But in doing so they run into severe problems. If this tendency has been realised then capital steps beyond its own substance. If capital is not the self expansion of value what is it? Capital disappears! Unedited by objective categories of value and capital we are left with two antagonistic subjects, the 'capitalist' class and the 'working' class locked in an apocalyptic life and death struggle. Have we reached such an era? Is the continuing existence of capitalist competition and markets merely an illusion left over from the past? Midnight Notes staring into the abyss see the consequences of such a conclusion and recoil from them:

If capital can, at will, change and manipulate energy and industrial prices on the basis of multinational corporate power , i.e., independent of the amount of work that goes into the production of commodities, then we must abandon work and surplus value (exploitation) as our basic analytical categories. Marx would be an honored but dead dog. We would have to accept the position of Sweezy and Marcuse that monopoly organization and technological development have made capital independent of the 'law of value,' (viz., that prices, profits, costs and the other numerology of accounting are rooted in (and explained by) the work-time gone into the production of the commodities and reproduction of the relevant worker). Capital it would seem can break its own rules, the class struggle is now to be played on a pure level of power, 'will to domination,' force against force and prices become part of the equation of violence, arbitrarily decided like the pulling of a trigger.

Instead they try and get around the problems that flow from abandoning the law of value by arguing that only certain sectors have escaped labour, but these sectors - oil and food - are basic commodities whose price determines all other prices and thus can be used as a weapon through which capitalism as a global system can be organised against the working class. In several articles, most notably the Notes on the International Crisis, they take political control of oil as self evident, but in The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse they try and explain it in terms of differing organic compositions of capital.

Using Marx, The Work/Energy crisis and the Apocalypse argues that the equalisation of the rate of profit means that prices must diverge from labour-values due to differences in the ratio of living to dead labour across various branches of industry. Since surplus-value can only be expropriated from living labour, those industries employing a large amount of labour relative to their employment of means of production (i.e. those with a low organic composition of capital (OCC)) will be able to produce relatively more surplus-value than those capitals invested in industries that are highly mechanised (i.e. those that have a high OCC). An equalisation of the rate of profit arises through the transfer surplus-value from those capitals invested in industries with a low OCC to those with high OCC. For this to occur prices must be higher than values in industries with a high organic composition of capital (OCC) and lower than values in those with a low OCC.

From this Midnight Notes then attempt to invert Marx by asserting that this proves that prices can be disconnected from values in high OCC industries like food or energy. Yet Marx was attempting to show the very opposite, i.e. how despite variations in prices and values, values still regulate production and exchange. It is through this very analysis of the formation of a general rate of profit, and the formation of production prices that systematically diverge from values, that Marx shows how, through the competition between individual capitals, the 'law of value' ensures that each individual capital is obliged to act as if it simply a particular part of capital-in-general, despite any conscious intentions on the part of the capitalist themselves.

So even if we accepted that energy and food were necessarily high OCC industries, which we do not, The Work/Energy crisis and the Apocalypse fails to provide an adequate theoretical grounding. Indeed Midnight Notes even admit this themselves when they concede that capitalists only have 'apparent freedom' when it comes to setting oil prices independent of the labour that goes into the production of oil. However it is only through considering Midnight Notes' view of history that the importance of these theoretical inadequacies becomes apparent.

Oil as history

Is it true, as Midnight Notes contend, that the history of post-war capitalism is the history of oil price changes?

As is well known, by the late 1960s working class struggles broke the wage-productivity deal of Keynesianism. Workers demanded 'more money - less work' resulting in a steep decline in profits. Midnight Notes argue that in response to this offensive 'capital' (in the guise of the USA) engineered the 'energy crisis' by forcing up oil prices, which resulted in a restructuring of capital and cuts in real wages. Thus the quadrupling of the oil price in 1973-74 resulted in huge profits for the energy companies and oil producing countries which were then recycled as petrodollars, allowing massive investment in the automation of factories and a shift of production to the 'Newly Industrialising Countries' where labour was cheaper.

After capital has jacked the price of oil right up, Midnight Notes then argue that it has to bring it back down again; because by the mid 1970s oil producing states in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caribbean had succumbed to popular demands and 'squandered' the increased oil revenues on higher wages and social spending. Not only did this rise in oil prices lead to the oil proletariat demanding higher wages but, in countries like Iran, it also encouraged them to overthrow their rulers in an attempt to gain control of the wealth they produced.

Therefore Midnight Notes argue that, in the 1980s capital abandons its high energy price strategy and imposes austerity. This necessarily involves cutting the price of oil in order to attack the oil proletariat. Thus the US Federal Reserve Bank engineers a global slowdown by constricting the money supply, which results in a steep climb in interest rates, and when combined with a loss of export revenues triggers off the debt crisis. As chief enforcer for capital the IMF prescribes austerity for debtor nations, i.e. a more favourable investment climate and production for export. However Midnight Notes argue that working class resistance to austerity leads to a threatened default on Third World debts which forces the US to devalue the dollar by half, thus halving the debt (which it is calculated in US dollars) in order to save the global banking system.

As expected this extension of austerity was met with fierce working class resistance, which leads Midnight Notes to argue that by the late 1980s capital had decided that its austerity program had failed, and that it was planning a massive expansion with huge new areas like Russia and China to be opened up. The idea being that the cheap labour and raw materials of the socialist bloc could be used to undermine the wages of western workers. But, given the world wide recession, investment was in short supply, thus oil prices were to be used as the motor to create surplus funds for a general restructuring of global accumulation. This restructuring was to centre on the reorganization of the oil industry, particularly in those areas where it had been nationalised. International capital was hoping to force open these areas as a result of falling oil prices, but when the IMF tried to force oil states like Nigeria, Venezuela, Algeria and Morocco to cut welfare and wages there were mass uprisings. Therefore Midnight Notes argue that if oil prices were to be raised there would have to be a massive increase in repression to prevent the proles appropriating a slice of the planned oil revenue as had happened throughout the 70s and 80s.

Thus Midnight Notes argue that the Gulf War emerged out of the process of recolonization in the late 1980s following the collapse of the socialist bloc. If the oil fields in the Eastern bloc, Mexico, and Nigeria were to be opened up there would need to be a whole new wave of investment to make them profitable. But the regimes might be forced to give some of the increased revenues to the proles. For Midnight Notes the Gulf war was needed as an example to terrorize the proles into accepting a life of extreme poverty amid vast accumulations of wealth. Therefore;

the re-organization of workers in the planet's most important oil-producing region was not an accidental by-product of the war, but rather a central objective, and one shared, despite some disputes, by the Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Saudi, European and US ruling classes. As the oil industry in the Mideast (and internationally) was preparing for its largest expansion in fifteen years, it needed both to recompose and terrorize an increasingly rebellious oil-producing proletariat. In the environment of an 'international intifada' against IMF austerity plans, any new attempt to vastly debase workers' lives amidst new accumulations of wealth based on oil price increase was going to require a leap in the level of militarization.

Down the slippery slope to conspiracy

The central problem of Midnight Oil is that their attempt to reduce the history of capitalism to the history of oil price fluctuations tends to lead to a conspiratorial analysis where a unified capital manipulates energy prices in order to attack the working class. No one denies the impact of oil prices, nor their role in the restructuring of capital after the working class offensive of the 1960/70s, but Midnight Notes' analysis completely ignores the importance of the development of global finance capital. Because it is beyond the control of any government, global finance capital completely undermines Midnight Notes' notion of a unified capital exercising conscious control.

Also Midnight Notes' fail to show anywhere in Midnight Oil how and by whom oil prices are manipulated. Who decides 'capital's strategy'? Furthermore the 'documentation' they cite showing the USA conspired with OPEC to triple oil prices does not support their case. It merely shows that, with the tripling of oil production and exploration costs in the USA, the American oil industry was able to influence the US government not to intervene when first Libya and then the other states took the opportunity of the crisis in the oil industry to push prices up to levels determined by the marginal producers in the USA. The oil crises of 1973,1979 and 1986 could be better explained as critical conjunctures in the development of the oil industry away from the conscious and planned regulation of production and exchange by the big seven oil companies, backed by the US and British governments, to a unified global oil market which to a large extent escapes conscious control of governments and monopolies.

The limitations of Midnight Notes' method and analysis are starkly exposed in the articles Oil, Guns and Money and Rambo on the Barbary Shore. Although Rambo on the Barbary Shore appears ostensibly to concern Saudi Arabia's doubling of oil production in 1985-86 and its relation to the US bombing of Libya, it in fact encapsulates Midnight Notes' conception of how capital manipulates the market. The argument is summarised in Oil, Guns and Money where, referring to the devaluation of the US dollar by one half in 1985, they argue that:

This manoeuvre, in one stroke, lowered the value of debt held by countries from Mexico to Poland by one half. But this was no charity. If the lowering of interest rates in 1983 had been prompted by Mexico's moratorium, the dollar devaluation was prompted by South Africa's moratorium on payments to foreign banks in August 1985. The potential of South African capital to succumb to black workers struggles within the country and to provoke other governments around the world to similarly halt loan payments was enough to force western capital to change the terms of global debt. In this manipulation of monetary values we see capitalist planning at its most abstract and reified levels, where decisions seemingly removed from the labors on the shop floor or in the kitchen ultimately entail the most profound effects. One of the most important consequences of the dollar's devaluation, for example, was the simultaneous devaluation of oil. As the dollar was taking a free fall in the market, Saudi Arabia doubled its production within nine months and thereby halved the price of oil. The US government arranged this oil devaluation to keep the US import bill from skyrocketing. With a dollar half of what it was worth before, imports, particularly oil, would have doubled in cost. The US was already becoming the largest debtor nation in the world and there was the fear that the dollar devaluation, if taken alone, would have thrown the US over the edge of solvency. These twin manoeuvres of 1985-86 - the dollar and oil devaluations - exhibit how the international market is consciously structured by capital.

This whole analysis is riddled with errors which are symptomatic of Midnight Notes' theoretical inadequacies. Firstly the US dollar was not devalued unilaterally at a stroke. The devaluation of the dollar that followed the Plaza Accord took nearly two years and required concerted intervention of the central banksof the major industrial powers armed with reserve funds that were only a fraction of the huge flows of capital surging around the international money markets. Secondly the devaluation does not necessarily halve the debt, particularly if the debt is denominated in US dollars and the exporter, e.g. Mexico, is trading mainly with the US. It is true that resistance to debt forced rescheduling under the Baker plan and simultaneously limited the US government's strategy of using interest rates to indefinitely defend an overvalued dollar, forcing them towards international co-operation to devalue the dollar in 1985. But we can not simply explain fluctuations in the US dollar in terms of oil pricing as Midnight Notes are prone to do. Halving the dollar does not mean that oil prices have to be halved to prevent the US' import bill doubling since oil is denominated in dollars. Consequently the twin manoeuvres of 1985-86 do not show how the international market is structured by capital, on the contrary they show how attempts to consciously regulate international markets are highly circumscribed!

Conspiracy at Midnight?

Overall Midnight Oil is an important work because its unrelenting focus on working class struggles provides an important corrective to the objectivism of Lenin's Imperialism and its defenders. However Midnight Oil is fatally undermined by Midnight Notes' tendency to ascribe outcomes to the conscious strategy of a unified capital. Throughout Midnight Oil Midnight Notes fail to show how capital constitutes itself. They imply that the US state formulates capital's strategy, but then fail to explain how US policy is formulated. The problem is that Midnight Notes conception of a unified capital results in them conflating capitalism with the actions of individual capitalists. Capitalism does not have a strategy, although capitalists pursue different strategies. Capitalism as a totality is mediated by the world market and emerges from the conflict between and within different capitals and the working class.

Even if capital has a strategy, which it does not, Midnight Notes fail to show how it is organized and by whom. Given that Midnight Notes see capital as an undifferentiated unity imposing an agreed strategy on the working class, we would expect to find them focusing on organizations like the UN, the IMF, G7 etc. However there is little analysis of those organizations which could be seen as arenas for hammering out 'capital's strategy'. Such an omission can not simply be a mistake by Midnight Notes, rather it is a consequence of their method which does not look at capitalist divisions because their theory has assumed these divisions away.

When their conception of a unified capital is applied to concrete events its inadequacies are glaring. For example Midnight Notes saw the Gulf War as a collective capital imposing an agreed strategy of increasing oil prices. Initially this caused them to take the position, in 'When Crusaders and Assassins Unite', that there would be no war, or at most token skirmishing. After all, why should there be a war if there are no fundamental disagreements between Iraq and the US? However, when they are forced by events to admit there was a war then they merely reduce it to collective capital militarizing oil production. This results in them tending to argue that Iraq and the US colluded in the invasion of Kuwait, via April Glaspie, as part of a co-ordinated strategy of increasing oil prices. Whilst the invasion of Kuwait was a consequence of the Ba'athists inability to impose austerity on their own working class, it is not the case that it was part of a co-ordinated global plan for militarizing the world's oil industry, as the disarray of the US government's response clearly illustrates.

By imposing a pre-defined conception of a unified capital onto events Midnight Notes are able to change their position on the Gulf War from seeing it as a 'phoney war' to seeing it as a method for the Iraqi regime to impose austerity. This culminatesin them arguing that the Iraqi state did not believe the US would intervene and even if it did that it would be in the Ba'athists interests. It is true that the main targets of the UN bombing were civilians, infrastructure, and retreating troops who were the main force of revolt within Iraq, but from this Midnight Notes argue that the war was in the Ba'athist's interests because it finally enabled them to impose austerity on the Iraqi working class.

However, the triumph of the Ba'athist state over the working class uprisings was by no means guaranteed. Also it is not the case that the Iraqi state sought saturation bombing, resulting in massive destruction of productive capital, and the risk of overthrow, because it thought it might possibly improve its ability to impose austerity. Excepting the decimated oil industries of Iraq and Kuwait, Midnight Notes fail to show that oil production is more militarized after the Gulf War than it was before. Even with civil war raging in Yemen oil prices are only $16 a barrel, the level they were prior to the Gulf War. This is hardly the mass increase in oil prices that Midnight Notes expected as the result of collective capital militarizing oil production through the Gulf War. With oil prices predicted to settle down to $13-14 a barrel for the forseeable future we can conclude that either capital does not have a high oil price strategy atall, or that it has been incapable of imposing one. It is clear that oil prices are not operating as the motor for a new phase of accumulation to pull the world out of recession.

Finally when we apply Midnight Notes' theory to other conflicts like Somalia and Yugoslavia we find that their method breaks down. The war in the former Yugoslavia provides a perfect example of the disunity and divisions among the various capitals. Whilst the Leninists see the conflict as an imperialist war fought out by proxies, autonomist analyses tend to see it as a conspiracy by a unified capital using nationalism and war to divide and subjugate a combative working class. These two positions represent the opposing flipsides of the same undialectical coin. Theorising conflicts such as these is only possible if we can understand how the class struggle is mediated by competition, and vice versa. The autonomists' antipathy to dialectical thinking means that whilst they can provide a corrective to the diatribes of the anti-imperialists they cannot supersede them.


Review: Carry on Recruiting

Aufheben reviews the Trotwatch pamphlet about British far left group the Socialist Workers Party, carry on recruiting.

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005

'The politics and practice of the SWP negate its claim to be revolutionary'. Have Trotwatch nailed the Leninists?

Why the SWP dumped the 'downturn' in a 'dash for growth'

Trotwatch. £2.95 AK Press. ISBN 1 873176 02 3.

"Many people find a critique of Bolshevism boring. Unfortunately even one's uninteresting enemies can be powerful."- Call It Sleep.

Carry on Recruiting! is certainly not boring. The irreverent manner in which it catalogues the SWP's regular changes in line and the tortuous arguments used to justify them is undoubtedly its strength. Trotskyism still has far more credibility amongst would-be rebels in the UK than anywhere else, and needs therefore to be subjected to repeated criticism. But we need not take the Trots too seriously, as if another Krondstadt were threatening. After all, ideas which have hardly developed since the demise of the classical workers movement are unlikely to have much resonance in a modern revolutionary upheaval, for all the students that get taken in in the meantime.

Trotwatch wickedly take the piss out of the SWP's abandonment of their 'downturn' theory in October '92. As they point out, the SWP clung vehemently to the theory in the face of the '81 inner-city riots and the '84/'85 miners strike only to argue that the 'upturn' had arrived when faced with the back bench rebellion over the pit closures programme and a fifty year record low in the level of strike activity. Similar treatment is meted out to the SWP's about turn on Poll Tax non-payment and the meaning and significance of the Trafalgar Square riot.

Throughout this, plus a section looking at the SWP's contradictory positions on the '74-'79 Labour government, the underlying aim of the pamphlet is "to examine the reality of the SWP's 'critique' of the labour movement and the bureaucrats that run it. It goes on to question the SWP's understanding of what constitutes a 'genuinely independent' working class movement. In doing so, it uncovers an organisation whose politics and practice negate its claim to be revolutionary."

Trotwatch's commitment to working class autonomy and emphasis on self activity underpins the piss-taking. But merely allowing this perspective to inform its jokes about the SWP's opportunistic inconsistencies is obviously insufficient - a point Trotwatch acknowledge in the final section 'What's wrong with the SWP'.

Following on as it does from a long catalogue of details this section is crucial; tying the ends together with a stinging critique of Leninism as the knock-out blow. Unfortunately Trotwatch don't quite manage it. Because of the SWP's eagerness to recruit anyone with vague anti-Tory sentiments, it is argued, the party must be structured to ensure that the Central Committee maintain a tight grip over the organisation. Generalising their critique, they state:

"In reality, a Leninist party simply reproduces and institutionalises existing capitalist power relations inside a supposedly 'revolutionary' organisation: between leaders and led; order givers and order takers; between specialists and acquiescent and largely powerless party workers. And that elitist power relationship is extended to include the relationship between the party and the class."

The attack on hierarchical organisational forms is obviously a necessary component of the critique of Leninism, but is insufficient in itself. This line of argument is reminiscent of that of libertarian socialists who accuse the Leninists of employing the wrong means (the party) for the right end (socialism). And whilst it would be wrong to accuse Trotwatch of being wishy washy liberals their critique relies heavily on a paper produced by dissidents within Southampton SWP which simply complains that the party isn't democratic enough.

A thorough critique of Leninism requires a critique of representation and democracy. The advocacy of democratic-centralist 'Revolutionary Party' must be shown to arise from the fact that their programme is the capture of state power in order to abolish the 'anarchy of the market'. Not the abolition of work but a planned reorganisation of work. Not the destruction of alien 'productive forces' but their liberation from fetters. Leninists have an objectivist critique of capitalism, which is why they can't grasp its real negation. In other words a critique of Leninism must address the fact that Leninists are not communists; they have not broken sufficiently with Second International orthodoxy, which is why their relationship with Labourism appears contradictory. One cannot abolish alienation with alienated means, but we cannot just attack their 'means' without distinguishing our 'ends' from theirs.

Trotwatch's 'negative, critical and destructive' publications provide handy ammunition for arguments with Trots, sparing the rest of us the trouble of reading their banal papers and turgid magazines. And they make no claim to provide a complete or definitive critique of Leninism or even the SWP in particular. But partial critiques provide fertile ground for the forces of recuperation. We don't need better organisations to deliver socialism- we need to organise our emancipation from all forms of alienation.

"Bolshevism will remain formidable as long as it can maintain its monopoly on the interpretation of revolution."- Call It Sleep