Issue 2: Theory and Practice

Originally posted: September 10, 2012 at Viewpoint Magazine

The neighborhood is the new factory

An article by Liz Mason-Deese on the unemployed movement in Argentina since 2001.

In 2001, Argentina suffered an economic crisis, similar to the one that much of the world is experiencing today. After more than a decade of IMF-mandated structural adjustment, which only deepened poverty and unemployment, the government was forced to default on over $100 billion of public debt and declared a state of emergency in an attempt to calm public unrest. Despite a military-imposed curfew, thousands of people rushed to the streets and forced the president and other politicians out of office with the chant “que se vayan todos/ni se quede uno solo” (they all must go/not one can stay). These protests were the culmination of years of organizing in response to increasing unemployment and simultaneous reductions in welfare programs as part of neoliberal policies. Workers were taking over factories, the unemployed blocking highways, migrants occupying unused land. When joined by the spontaneous protests of the middle class in December, the mobilizations were able to overthrow the government as the president fled Buenos Aires in a helicopter. The movements were not only the largest mass mobilization in Argentina since the 1970s, but also qualitatively different from earlier movements: not interested in taking state power, nor in working more jobs and longer hours, they struggled to create new forms of life, including new forms of socio-spatial organization and the production and distribution of wealth. In the ten years following the crisis, the strongest of the movements, the Movements of Unemployed Workers (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTDs), has continued on this path, even as the country has recovered economically and has so far been able to resist the effects of the global crisis.

Here I’ll examine the history and practices of the MTDs, drawing on research I’ve conducted since 2003 with the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, and current research in Buenos Aires on the organization of the unemployed. The movements of the unemployed, which first emerged in Argentina in the mid-1990s, challenge traditional representations of the unemployed as lacking political agency and revolutionary potential. While many Marxists and labor organizers have maintained the latter position, Argentina’s recent history paints a different picture: the militant organization of the unemployed across the country was instrumental in overthrowing the neoliberal government in 2001 and steering the course the country would take following the economic crisis. Movements of the unemployed in Argentina are redefining work through their organizational practice, discourses around labor, and active creation of different forms of production and reproduction. This will necessarily be a very partial description of a complex, fragmented, and diverse movement, which has existed for over fifteen years.

Organizing the Unemployed

By the mid-1990s, unemployment in Argentina had reached nearly 20% (with even higher levels of underemployment), due to rapid deindustrialization and privatization, alongside a working class weakened from the earlier military dictatorship. New laws had stripped workers of remaining rights and led to the increasing “flexibilization” of labor, allowing employers to hire workers under short-term contracts and provide less benefits, making it easier to fire workers and unnecessary to compensate them upon doing so. Different forms of informal and precarious labor were already the norm for women and youth, and became increasingly so for adult men as well. President Carlos Menem had effectively cut social spending so that only certain sectors received unemployment benefits, and the jobless could not reliably depend on any support from the state. The main, officially recognized labor movement, headed by the CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo), was politically in ruins as it continued to support Menem because of its Peronist party affiliation, while these changes in the organization of work made the traditional forms of labor organizing increasingly difficult. Without stable employment, the poor increasingly relied on different forms of informal labor, illegal activity, and the political parties’ systems of patronage, as well as strengthened networks of mutual aid and support within communities.

It was in this context that the unemployed began to organize themselves, first in the interior of Argentina and soon after in the country’s major urban centers. Their first public actions were roadblocks, using barricades and burning tires to block major highways, sometimes for weeks at a time. The roadblocks were organized without any support from the major trade unions or leftist political parties, but rather through the already existing networks of support of the poor and unemployed. In the interior of the country, laid-off workers of the recently privatized oil company were the first to protest in 1996, demanding unemployment benefits and/or their jobs back. In the urban areas, however, the protests were of a more heterogeneous composition, including many who had never participated in the formal labor market. In the urban periphery of Buenos Aires, the first actions were centered around the question of food, with large public collective meals and protests demanding food assistance from the state. Other early protests focused on the rising costs of electricity and gas, the poor living conditions in working-class neighborhoods, and the lack of state support for the unemployed.

While different organizations of the unemployed emerged during this time in Argentina, the MTDs were generally the most independent and innovative. The MTDs are organized by neighborhood, instead of around a specific workplace or sector, taking the name of the neighborhood or region where they are based. Although the different MTDs sometimes come together in specific campaigns or actions, and have formed coalitions or blocks, there has never been a national organization uniting all the different groups of unemployed across the country. The MTDs are engaged in a constantly shifting constellation of alliances and networks with each other, different sectors of the labor movement, and other social movements. Thus each group is unique, not only in its geographic location, but in terms of its internal organization, political activity and ideological affiliations as well. Yet there are several elements the MTDs have in common, including the tactic of the roadblocks, a form of organization that emphasizes autonomy and a critique of hierarchy, and an emphasis on territorial organization and forming their own productive enterprises.

The MTDs first came into the public eye for their confrontational roadblocks, or piquetes. The roadblock’s immediate purpose is to stop the normal circulation of goods and services, and to make people’s demands visible. It has been widely remarked that the piquetes are the unemployed’s version of the strike or work stoppage, the only available tactic once denied access to this privileged form of workers’ revolt. However, the decision to block roads does not necessarily start from the assumption of lack: the piqueteros took their protests not to the factory doors, but rather to the streets of the city, understanding the city as the crucial site of capitalist production. For this reason, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri exemplify this tactic as a “wildcat strike against the metropolis.”1 In Buenos Aires, the roadblocks were particularly effective because they often took place at the major bridges or other entry points to the city from the suburbs, and as the crisis worsened and the government’s power weakened, at major intersections within the city itself. The roadblocks were essential in giving the piqueteros a sense of agency many felt they lacked without access to employment or the work site as a place to organize and proved to be an extremely powerful and effective tactic. The piquetes were successful in forcing the state to provide unemployment benefits and food baskets to the poor, and for the organizations winning control over the distribution of the subsidies. This control was important, as it allowed the movements to remain independent of the political parties, which would generally distribute benefits in turn for votes and political support, and because it allowed the movements to choose how to reinvest the funds in community organization.

The roadblocks were also important in that they served as a space of encounter, bringing together the different unemployed and forming new social relations and communal values. More than just protests, the piquetes were encampments in the middle of the street, where people took care of each other, and shared food and other responsibilities for maintaining the space.

Horizontality & Autonomy

While different organizations of the unemployed, and later other movements across the country, use the tactic of the roadblock, the MTDs can be further differentiated by their internal organization and commitment to autonomy. The MTDs’ internal organization emphasizes direct democracy, generally using a moderated consensus process in assemblies which are open to everyone in the movement. While the MTDs differ in their exact practices of internal democracy, with some committed to complete horizontalism while others have different leadership structures, they agree upon a critique of unions and parties for their top-down, hierarchical, and bureaucratic structures and practices, and are dedicated to enacting different forms of internal organization. This differentiates them from other organizations of the unemployed that are organized more bureaucratically, or that have come to rely on charismatic leaders.

The MTDs were formed from self-convened and organized groups of neighbors and remained autonomous from trade unions, leftist and national-popular political parties, and the parties’ patronage networks. They have resisted being incorporated into these institutions although at times they make strategic alliances with the more independent unions or leftist political parties. Since the election of Nestor Kirchner in 2003, many social movements in the country, including organizations of the unemployed with a more national-popular/Peronist political leaning, declared their support for the government, and, in some cases, became officially integrated into its ranks. Several of the MTDs, including those that make up the Frente Popular Dario Santillan, and the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, have remained independent from the government, choosing instead to focus on territorial organizing and creating new productive practices, which continue to this day.

The commitment to horizontality and autonomy are accompanied by a critique of representation. It is recognized that the movement is internally very heterogeneous and there is no ideal figure of the unemployed worker. Additionally, these movements emerged at the time of a complete breakdown of representational democracy, as seen in the neoliberal government of the 1990s and its eventual overthrow. It was clear that the politicians in power did not represent the people, not even of their own parties. Nor did the union, which continued to support Menem, represent the workers. The loss of faith in representational politics led to the cries that “they all must go,” and the adoption of popular neighborhood assemblies across the city of Buenos Aires. This skepticism toward representational politics is countered by a commitment to territorial organizing, to creating new ways of life and social-spatial organization in the neighborhoods where the poor live.

Territorial Organization

The territorial organization is another element that distinguishes the organizations of the unemployed, especially those in urban settings, from other social movements in Argentina and elsewhere. “The neighborhood is the new factory” was one of the principal slogans of the MTDs and other organizations of the unemployed. This slogan carries a double significance: production is no longer centered in the factory but dispersed throughout the territory and, in parallel, labor organizing must be dispersed throughout the neighborhood as well. Many of the MTDs, especially in southern reaches of Greater Buenos Aires, emerged from settlements in the urban periphery that had been illegally occupied in the 1980s. In these settlements, the neighborhood was already the key site of political organization, as the settlements were largely collectively controlled by their inhabitants and sites of constant struggles to maintain their land and for access to services. The neighborhood was also the obvious site for political organization for the large numbers of women and youth that had never been included in the formal labor movement and had always been excluded from other political organizations. Thus, they were the ones to take the lead as these movements emerged, a stark contrast to the many forms of political activity dominated by men.

The struggle against capital must also be the struggle to produce a different type of space and different social relations within the space.2 That is precisely what the MTDs seek to do in their territories, by establishing a physical presence in the neighborhood and seeking to collectively manage as many of the elements of daily life as possible. Territorial organization as practiced by the MTDs includes creating schools, soup kitchens, health clinics, daycares, community gardens, social centers and productive enterprises within a given territory. It means organizing around the basic needs of community residents, food, clean water, housing, education and the desire to form community in neighborhoods that are socially and ethnically fragmented. Territorial organization implies opening up all the spaces of daily activity to critique and as possible sites of organization. These movements recognize and more fully value the different types of labor that go into producing a territory. Ultimately, territorial organization seeks to build on the self-activity of the working class as expressed through the practices of everyday life and social organization in the neighborhoods.


The MTDs differ from what is traditionally conceived of as the labor movement because of their decentering of waged labor and explicit organizing of unemployed people. The MTDs have explicitly taken on the challenge of organizing the unemployed, as well as partially-employed, informal, and domestic workers. Through the positive identity of the piquetero and continuing to identify as workers, the MTDs have moved beyond a definition of the unemployed that is based on lack, on what they don’t have (employment), to one that values the political organization of the class. Thus, this discourse no longer privileges wage labor as the norm, recognizing that this is no longer a possibility for much of the country’s working class. Yet, the MTDs continue identifying as “workers,” as the working class, even without employment or even the possibility of employment. Rather, the movement recognizes that there are many types of work, and that they are organized in many different ways.

The MTDs decenter the experience of waged labor and instead put the spaces of everyday life in the center of their struggle. In this way, they are able to challenge distinctions between waged and unwaged labor, or formal and informal employment, to create a space for the majority of urban residents who survive on some combination of precarious work along with state subsidies, illegal activities, and support from family and friends. Residents of the urban periphery often work part-time in domestic labor or construction, are self-employed through micro-enterprises run out of their homes, and are involved in the constant labor of care in their own homes and communities. This labor lacks the rights and security that have helped other workers to organize, as well as geographic stability. This makes workplace organizing extremely difficult, if not impossible, meaning that there is generally little place for these workers within labor unions. The piquetero movement, however, is one of the few movements that has managed to successfully bring together these different type of workers without reproducing the hierarchies and divisions of the labor market.

Within the piquetero movement there are differing analyses of work and diagnostics of the economic situation, which are manifest in the organizations’ demands and practices. One sector of the movement calls for “genuine work” and demands their old jobs back: real, legitimate, authentic jobs. These were opposed to the demands for subsidies and unemployment benefits, which they considered to reproduce patterns of laziness and dependency. While certainly politicians’ use of these these subsidies to pacifty and co-opt movements must be criticized, it is easy to see how the simple critique of subsidies-as-dependency risks reproducing the logic of neoliberal capital and its ideology of individual responsibility. The demand for “genuine work” makes another mistake by labeling certain forms of labor as legitimate and authentic as opposed to others, devaluing women’s work in the household and community, as well as many other types of labor. It fails to take into account structural changes that make its premise worthless: there is no more genuine work.

Another sector of the piquetero movement, mostly adhering to a nationalist-populist ideology, has centered their actions around demanding unemployment subsidies from the state. Thanks to their success in winning these benefits and the right to distribute them, these organizations grew rapidly in the late 1990s, yet were unable to provide a real alternative to the corrupt and hierarchical forms of politics already taking place in working class neighborhoods. A politics based on making demands of the state means that most of these organizations now support the Kirchner administration and many have officially integrated into the government apparatus, thus losing most of their oppositional potential.

The independent MTDs, on the other hand, have taken a different approach from those either demanding “genuine work” or only demanding subsidies. While these MTDs decenter waged labor, work remains at the center of their practice and analysis. The MTDs do not just demand jobs, however. Instead, they ask: “what kind of work do we want?” and answer: “work with dignity.” Work with dignity is not so much a demand as a statement of intent, for it is precisely what the movements are putting into practice, creating new forms of work that spill over into new ways of living and organizing the urban territory.


Starting in the late 1990s, at the same time as some workers began taking over their factories, a number of MTDs started their own productive enterprises as a way to provide an income for some of their members and to regain a sense of control over their lives, which they had lost with unemployment. These efforts multiplied after 2001, as the crisis hit its peak and the lack of a stable government made it clear that solutions would not come from the state. During this time, the MTDs also participated in organizing barter markets and alternative currency networks, creating new economic systems based on mutual aid and support. Recognizing that full employment was no longer an option, or perhaps even a desire, for everyone, these groups decided to create their own ways of reproducing life in their territories, outside of the capitalist market.

There are different ways of interpreting “work with dignity,” and different ways of putting it into practice. We can, however, identify some common threads: (1) self-management/workers’ control/no boss, (2) workplace democracy and horizontality, (3) communal values over market values. These alternatives sometimes take the form of worker-owned cooperatives, but go beyond obviously productive enterprises as well. As part of their territorial organization, the MTDs seek to collectively manage other spaces and activities of life, from healthcare to education to the food they eat. There is a dimension of autonomy to these projects as well: although most are funded at least partially through state subsidies, the MTDs aim to be self-sufficient in order to no longer rely on the state. This is mostly a practical concern, since it is expected that the state will one day take away the subsidies or enforce certain requirements the movements are not prepared to meet. The subsidies are considered useful, however, inasmuch as they provide a material base from which to further strengthen the movement and people’s self-organization.

The alternatives that the MTDs construct are not limited to workplace alternatives, to working without bosses and democratically controlling the workplace. They aim to create different ways of working, questioning what counts as work and how that work is valued, how that work is carried out and organized, and the relationship between that work and other parts of life. This means going beyond the productive enterprises to focus on activities that create new social relations within the neighborhoods, relationships that are not based on competition or profit but on solidarity and mutual aid.

The productive enterprises the MTDs set up are usually small-scale workshops making food or textiles, or providing services. Bakeries and pizzerias are some of the most common. These enterprises are democratically controlled by the workers themselves and ultimately by the movement as whole, making the needs of the community more important than just turning a profit. They attempt to provide an alternative to the hierarchical discipline of most capitalist workplaces, as well as divisions between manual and intellectual labor, by including all workers in decision-making and rotating roles. Profit is generally invested into the organization as a whole or distributed to members most in need.

In many ways, the cooperatives run by the MTDs are similar to the “recuperated factories” that emerged in Argentina around the same time. In hundreds of sites around the country, workers took over and restarted production in factories, rather than submit to owners’ decisions to close the factories and leave workers unemployed. These range from small printing presses to large metal factories. There is a wide range of diversity in how the recuperated factories operate: in some, workers radically transform the relations of production, instituting non-hierarchical relations between workers and equally sharing responsibilities and tasks, decision-making power, and surplus, while others largely reproduce the relations and practices of the factory under its former boss. Yet in many ways the recuperated factories remain limited, because, after all, they are still creating work, which, instead of relying on a boss to instill the factory discipline, relies on collective self-exploitation. Overall, the recuperated factories do little to challenge the overall system of capital, especially as many continue to fill the same contracts with capitalist corporations as when they were run by a boss. The recuperated factories that are doing the most for political change are those that have been able to create networks with other worker-controlled enterprises, recreating the whole supply chain, and those that build ties with other movements and the wider community.

One of the central focuses of all these movements has been education, which can perhaps best be seen in the bachilleratos populares. The bachilleratos populares are high school degree programs for adults run by social movements, but with state funding and accreditation. The schools emerged out of the movements, both the recuperated factories and the MTDs, first without any outside funding or state recognition, as a way to provide education to their members and the public. They arose out of a double acknowledgment: the lack of quality educational opportunities for much of the city’s poor, and the power of education for political empowerment. After years of fighting, the degrees earned in these schools were formally recognized by the state (in 2007 in the province of Buenos Aires and 2008 in the city). The state provides additional resources as well, and in some localities provides small salaries for the teachers. However, the movements control the curriculum, and are responsible for organizing the school and teaching the classes. Teachers are generally movement activists and/or politically committed university students; some work as teachers in other schools. The MTDs put a great deal of emphasis on knowledge production in general, in some cases even operating their own publishing houses, through which they edit and publish their own research.3

Additionally, some of the MTDs operate health clinics, providing an alternative to the overcrowded and underfunded public health system and taking more holistic approaches to health, as opposed to only treating sickness. Alongside the clinics, the MTDs tend to offer classes about nutrition and wellness, seeking to integrate these elements of their activities into the daily lives of their members. The organizations offer a wide range of cultural and educational programming, from painting classes to readings groups on Marx, provide legal aid for migrants seeking to legalize their status, and facilitate women’s empowerment groups.

Participation in these activities, whether a worker-run bakery or a movement-controlled high school, creates new subjectivities and social relations, produces new territories and new forms of life. The participants go from seeing themselves as helpless victims of global capitalism, solely defined by their lack of employment, to identifying as active agents of social and political change, with the power to confront the state and capital and produce different ways of living. The MTDs challenge dominant narratives about the centrality and desirability of waged labor and instead seek to create alternative forms of production and social organization.

Today the MTDs are not as publicly visible as they were ten years ago, with much less open confrontation with the state and piquetes no longer a daily occurrence. The movement, which was never unified, is perhaps even more fragmented today: some piquetero organizations have been integrated into the Kirchner apparatus, receiving subsidies and other resources from the state, and others are increasingly critical of these new forms of co-optation. The lack of unified action poses an important problem as the government tries to divide “good protesters” from “bad protesters,” determining access to subsidies, and the cooperatives discover it is hard to sustain themselves without building larger networks of trade and support. Certain groups, most notably the Popular Front Darío Santillán, are attempting to counter this fragmentation through the construction of new alliances bringing together the unemployed, low-wage and precarious workers, and students, along with indigenous and campesino groups from other parts of the country. Despite these challenges, however, the MTDs remain committed to the day-to-day work of territorial organizing. There are now around 100 popular high school programs offering degrees around the country, dozens of cooperatives, social centers, and other activities, working to directly improve people’s lives while strengthening the self-organization of neighborhood residents and building their autonomy from the state and capital.

Liz Mason-Deese is a member of the Counter-Cartographies Collective and the Edu-Factory Collective, and is a graduate student in the geography program at UNC Chapel Hill. She currently lives in Buenos Aires, where she is conducting her dissertation research.

Originally posted: September 22, 2012 at Viewpoint Magazine

  • 1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • 2. See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991) for a theoretical analysis on the relationship between space and capital. For more on how social movements across Latin America struggle to produce new types of spaces, see Raúl Zibechi, Territorios En Resistencia: Cartografía Política De Las Periferias Urbanas Latinoamericanas, (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Lavaca editora, 2008). This book has recently been released in English as Territories in Resistance, trans. Ramor Ryan (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).
  • 3. The MTD La Matanza has self-published two books: De la culpa a la autogestión: un recorrido del Movimiento de Trabajadores de La Matanza (2005) and Cuando con otros somos nosotros: la experiencia asociativa del Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados de La Matanza (2007).The Popular Front Darío Santillán operates a publishing house which has published over 50 books since 2007. The MTD Solano has collaborated with Colectivo Situaciones on various projects, including the book Hipótesis 891: Más allá de los piquetes.

Against humanities: the self-consciousness of the corporate university

A stan­dard fea­ture of the hand-wringing asso­ci­ated with the cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity is a fix­a­tion on the human­i­ties. After all, for those of us in the so-called cre­ative and crit­i­cal fields, illus­trat­ing, visu­al­iz­ing and – dare we say it – brand­ing the cri­sis is a new and unique oppor­tu­nity to show off. This is what we went to school for, isn’t it? Take a recent event at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, which dra­ma­tized the ques­tion with the fol­low­ing thought exper­i­ment: after some sort of mar­itime dis­as­ter (details are scarce), a group of under­grad­u­ates com­man­deers a life raft. As luck would have it, they have a bit of space left – but, tragic twist of fate, the only peo­ple left to save are pro­fes­sors. Instead of giv­ing up the seats to their elders, our clever young nar­cis­sists make the pro­fes­sors present a case as to why they deserve the remain­ing spot on the life raft. One physics pro­fes­sor and four from the human­i­ties are gra­ciously granted 10 min­utes, dur­ing which stu­dents are edu­cated on the abil­ity of lit­er­a­ture to help us under­stand each other, Homer’s exten­sive insights on rafts in the Illiad, and the power of the­ater pro­fes­sors abroad to impart the “knowl­edge that Ugan­dans could solve many of their own prob­lems” with a firm belief in them­selves – more effec­tive, appar­ently, than “fresh water or a new AIDS vac­cine.” Physics offered elec­tric­ity, fire, and, per­haps most impor­tant of all, dis­tilled alco­hol. While the clas­sics and physics tied, every­one was root­ing for the human­i­ties as a whole by the end.

These cre­ative defenses come with an under­ly­ing sub­text: it has been the pro­grams in the human­i­ties, and to a lesser extent the social sci­ences, that bear the brunt of bud­get cuts, because some depart­ments lack the imme­di­ate abil­ity to par­lay their knowl­edge into con­tracts with sur­round­ing busi­nesses. Uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tions, only mod­er­ately adept at the art of triage, cut those pro­grams that are unable to find out­side sources to bol­ster their exis­tence. This has become a human tragedy – after all, the way we know our­selves is through the com­mon cul­ture that the human­i­ties in the uni­ver­sity are sup­posed to facil­i­tate. For the defend­ers of the human­i­ties, the 1926 words of Har­vard grad­u­ate and clas­si­cal scholar Paul Shorey echo through now-profane halls. From his speech “Can an Amer­i­can be an Optimist?”:

Who shall resist the fierce, unremit­ting pres­sure of the pub­lic, the press, the lec­ture plat­form, the lit­er­ary crit­ics, the school boards and schools of edu­ca­tion to reduce every­thing to the level of the taste and under­stand­ing of the aver­age pupil, the gen­eral reader, the ordi­nary audi­ence, and to sup­press every word, allu­sion, or quo­ta­tion, every dif­fi­culty, every refine­ment and qual­i­fi­ca­tion, every touch of schol­ar­ship in foot­note or appen­dix that may baf­fle or offend the illit­er­ate lit­er­acy of those who have learned to read easy head-line and best-seller Eng­lish and do not wish to learn more? And yet if we can­not estab­lish and main­tain some dike and se-wall of resis­tance to these ten­den­cies, the ris­ing tide of medi­oc­rity will sub­merge us even while we are count­ing our uni­ver­si­ties by the score and our stu­dents by myriads.

When the scalpels are about to be deployed, the nat­ural response of intel­lec­tu­als is to assume defen­sive pos­tures and recite the usual lita­nies of praise for our own pro­fes­sion: the human­i­ties teach democ­racy; they teach a shared sense of self; they teach how to play­fully and intel­li­gently inter­act with the world, and some­times even pro­duce the world; they are the sole patch of life beyond the scope of mar­ket rela­tions. Those who teach in and take classes in the human­i­ties make the prin­ci­pal claim that with­out the noble voca­tion of the pro­fes­sor we’d all be stu­pider, less capa­ble of mak­ing informed deci­sions, and left to the cold cal­cu­la­tions of science.

For those out­side of the defen­sive pos­ture, many of these argu­ments might seem ludi­crous, arro­gant, and insult­ing. Barely muted is the claim that only those who have attended col­lege – the right classes at col­lege – and have sub­se­quently absorbed the req­ui­site cul­tural learn­ing have the capac­ity to make soci­ety thrive. This was pre­cisely the argu­ment used by the emerg­ing intel­lec­tual elite at the end of the 19th cen­tury – the lib­eral sons of the New Eng­land rul­ing class who helped cre­ate the human­i­ties from the rub­ble of the clas­si­cal stud­ies. The argu­ment under­ly­ing their think­ing was that civ­i­liza­tion was essen­tially a frag­ile machine, which must be oper­ated by a small, though hope­fully grow­ing, group of men – a “demo­c­ra­tic aris­toc­racy” whose posi­tion was granted by virtue of their edu­ca­tion and judg­ment, who could incul­cate right ideas in both the busi­ness titans (who they mis­trusted) and the work­ing class (who they feared). In a 1926 speech deliv­ered to the Phi Beta Kappa club at William and Mary, for­mer Prince­ton pro­fes­sor Henry Van Dyke summed it up well:

[democracy’s] high pur­pose should be to develop an aris­toc­racy of its own beget­ting, after its own heart, and ded­i­cated to its ser­vice. Unless it can do this, democ­racy spells con­fu­sion of mind, fick­le­ness and fee­ble­ness of action, and final decay has­tened by the increase of mate­r­ial wealth. The fat­ter it grows the more it degenerates.

The advent of cap­i­tal­ist higher edu­ca­tion by the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury meant that uni­ver­si­ties would no longer serve just the small cohort of legal and reli­gious minds who were to influ­ence the tenor of towns and cities through their exem­plary action and mate­r­ial suc­cess. The trans­for­ma­tion was a direct result of the cap­i­tal­ist class usurp­ing hege­mony from the colo­nial patri­cians, and sub­se­quently ignor­ing those insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion; this forced the cash-strapped uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges (whose num­bers far out­stripped demand) to des­per­ately search for a way to seduce the fledg­ling cap­i­tal­ists, the stub­born farm­ers, and the recal­ci­trant work­ing class.

John William Draper, pres­i­dent of NYU in 1835, com­plained that “mere lit­er­ary acu­men is becom­ing utterly pow­er­less against pro­found sci­en­tific attain­ment.” He asked, “To what are the great advances of civ­i­liza­tion for the last fifty years due – to lit­er­a­ture or sci­ence? Which of the two is it that is shap­ing the thought of the world?” Accord­ing to the his­to­rian Christo­pher Lucas, the super­in­ten­dent of Cal­i­for­nia schools in 1858 declared the grad­u­ates of the old col­leges to be use­less indi­vid­u­als. And Henry Tap­pan, NYU pro­fes­sor and later Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Pres­i­dent, usu­ally cred­ited as the father of the mod­ern US uni­ver­sity, declared that “the com­mer­cial spirit of our coun­try, and the many avenues of wealth which are opened before enter­prise, cre­ate a dis­taste for study deeply inim­i­cal to edu­ca­tion… The man­u­fac­turer, the mer­chant, and the gold-digger, will not pause in their career to gain intel­lec­tual accom­plish­ments. While gain­ing knowl­edge, they are los­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties to gain money.” Engi­neer­ing, phys­i­cal sci­ence, and other prac­ti­cal knowl­edges were the prin­ci­pal means of this courtship (and sports, of course, though these had appeal beyond the bour­geoisie and helped knit uni­ver­si­ties into the urban fab­ric of the indus­trial era). There was not a tremen­dous enthu­si­asm for either clas­si­cal stud­ies or the human­i­ties out­side of a small cohort of aver­age stu­dents, who enjoyed the the­atri­cal­ity of lec­tures, or the scions of the wealthy.

Clas­si­cal stud­ies gave up the ghost as advo­cates of the human­i­ties – a com­pos­ite of clas­si­cal stud­ies and the con­tem­pla­tive ele­ments of the newly splin­tered sphere of polit­i­cal econ­omy, from which emerged the dis­ci­plines of eco­nom­ics, anthro­pol­ogy, his­tory, social sci­ence, and psy­chol­ogy – seized con­trol of uni­ver­sity depart­ments in phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, and the arts. The cap­i­tal­ist uni­ver­sity would not just pro­duce the legal, juridi­cal, and tech­ni­cal minds required for indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism, it would also pro­duce its soul. As Lau­rence Vey­sey recounts in The Emer­gence of the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, the Har­vard philoso­pher Josiah Royce helped pro­vide the core of the new human­i­ties: to encounter the thought behind the sci­en­tific method, not just the method. The human­ists would be the self-described con­science of the uni­ver­sity, the some­times con­ser­v­a­tive, some­times rad­i­cal gad­fly that would pre­serve capitalism’s human­ity in the face of the vul­gar util­i­tar­i­ans who prized pecu­niary gain and spe­cial­iza­tion above all. By the early 20th cen­tury, the human­i­ties had become assured of their place in the uni­ver­sity, allow­ing Paul Shorey to breathe a sigh of relief: “Nei­ther do I fear direct hos­til­ity, sup­pres­sion, or neglect for the so-called human­i­ties. We have out­grown that stage of controversy.”

When those of us who are edu­ca­tors in the human­i­ties reflect on what exactly it is that “we” do, it is easy to dis­so­ci­ate our indi­vid­ual work from that of the total­ity of the insti­tu­tion – and from the ways that stu­dents use or ignore our work. Sure, says our thought­ful pro­fes­sor, the human­i­ties have been partly respon­si­ble for the sta­tus quo over the last cen­tury. But my col­leagues and I sub­vert, decon­struct, trans­form these spa­tial, intel­lec­tual, dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries and help stu­dents actu­al­ize them­selves, con­front inequal­ity, and learn meth­ods for speak­ing truth to power in defi­ance of a cul­ture that seeks to reduce all mat­ter to mar­ket calculations.

This atti­tude will no doubt con­tinue to per­sist because very few of us want to believe that we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in alien­at­ing insti­tu­tions – whether we are bankers, edu­ca­tors, or urban gen­tri­fiers. And of course, the work that some in the human­i­ties do is inter­est­ing, reveals much that is not yet known, and pro­vides tools by which to bet­ter under­stand the social struc­ture. But the truth is that the human­i­ties actively hide and mys­tify the strug­gles that underly the “com­mon culture.”

Hav­ing long prized vir­tu­oso per­for­mances, and the abil­ity of the pen and podium to beat back the sword, the human­i­ties fos­ter a spe­cial­ized tool, abstract intel­li­gence, that can be most pow­er­fully wielded by elites. Writ­ing in The Nation, Christo­pher Hayes gives a fine descrip­tion of the social role of this intelligence:

Of all the sta­tus obses­sions that pre­oc­cupy our elites, none is quite so promi­nent as the obses­sion with smart­ness. Intel­li­gence is the core value of the mer­i­toc­racy, one that stretches back to the early years of stan­dard­ized test­ing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a mem­ber of the elite “bril­liant” is to pay that per­son the high­est compliment.

Hayes describes intel­li­gence like some sort of jewel encrusted dag­ger: “Smart­ness daz­zles and mes­mer­izes. More impor­tant, it intim­i­dates.” This type of val­u­a­tion is rife through­out aca­d­e­mic depart­ments, espe­cially the human­i­ties. The con­tempt with which many fac­ulty and TAs regard their own stu­dents illus­trates just how deeply this atti­tude runs.

What Hayes misses is that this mer­i­to­cratic elit­ism isn’t just a gen­eral risk of orga­ni­za­tion that could be cor­rected by a “rad­i­cal­ized upper mid­dle class”– it’s part of a wider social process. A cohort of prop­erly demo­c­ra­tic elites, long the cen­tral fan­tasy of the human­i­ties, would still fail to step out­side the under­ly­ing dynamic, which is that cap­i­tal­ism requires expan­sion and move­ment. There is no repro­duc­tion of mar­ket soci­ety with­out the con­quest of new mar­kets, and the open­ing of new spaces to mar­ket mech­a­nisms. We would do well to keep this in mind when we dis­cuss the “cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity.” There can be no doubt that the uni­ver­sity is in cri­sis. But the met­rics in vogue to describe the cri­sis seem wrong.

A pecu­liar insight raised by Brian Whitener and Dan Nemser is that the uni­ver­sity as such is not actu­ally in cri­sis, when mea­sured by the only really impor­tant index of our soci­ety: investor return. It would be a mis­take to imag­ine that pri­va­ti­za­tion, cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion, or mer­i­toc­racy are dri­ving the cri­sis of the uni­ver­sity, when in fact the inter­nal dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism itself lay at its cen­ter. Higher edu­ca­tion today is sim­ply unable to remain in any kind of sta­sis, and the sta­sis urged by the defend­ers of the uni­ver­sity in gen­eral, and the human­i­ties in par­tic­u­lar, is a weak lib­eral utopia.

But the utopia isn’t just a weak form of oppo­si­tion – it’s been part of the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion of the uni­ver­sity from the begin­ning. Echo­ing the ear­lier gad­flies, Eng­lish pro­fes­sor James Mull­hol­land argues in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion: “We suc­ceed within a cor­po­ra­tized uni­ver­sity because we offer ways to reflect on it, rein­vent it, and eval­u­ate it. We are the self-consciousness of the cor­po­rate uni­ver­sity.” When this self-consciousness is uni­ver­sal and “human,” ques­tions of social strug­gle can be evaded. And once this eva­sion is com­plete, the fine-tuning of cap­i­tal­ism can commence.

For the ascen­dant lib­er­als of the early 20th cen­tury, a broad frame­work embed­ded in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences was a mech­a­nism by which to absorb local con­flict into the realm of the inter­ven­tion­ist state. With the pass­ing of laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism her­alded by the arrival of the rail­roads, big busi­ness and the emer­gence of an orga­nized work­ing class in the US, the intel­lec­tual and busi­ness lead­ers saw only two paths: a strong cen­tral­ized state anchored through cen­tral­iza­tion of power at the national level, or social­ism. Stephen Skowronek’s Build­ing a New Amer­i­can State shows how this cen­tral­iza­tion of bureau­cratic func­tions within the civil admin­is­tra­tion, the mil­i­tary, and busi­ness reg­u­la­tion was accom­plished, with the help of the National Civic Fed­er­a­tion (NCF), as a response to the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal by large busi­nesses in the 1870s and the con­comi­tant labor strikes that sub­se­quently shook the US. “The con­struc­tion of a cen­tral bureau­cratic appa­ra­tus,” Skowronek writes, “was cham­pi­oned as the best way to main­tain order dur­ing this period of upheaval in eco­nomic social, and inter­na­tional affairs.”

Edward Silva and Sheila Slaugh­ter have traced a par­al­lel his­tory in Serv­ing Power, which tells of the cru­cial role aca­d­e­mics from the newly cre­ated social sci­ences had to play in this trans­for­ma­tion. As “dis­in­ter­ested experts,” they had the dis­tance and author­ity to expound local prob­lems in ways that those involved did not; they could see the whole pic­ture. Through the NCF, “the most influ­en­tial business-sponsored political-economic forum group oper­at­ing dur­ing the Pro­gres­sive Period,” aca­d­e­mics, bankers, man­u­fac­tur­ers, and con­ser­v­a­tive labor lead­ers – AFL pres­i­dent Samuel Gom­pers was a found­ing mem­ber – part­nered together with the goal of “increas­ing the over­all effi­ciency of cap­i­tal­is­tic enter­prise and solv­ing the many prob­lems of rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion” – mean­ing, labor mil­i­tancy and revolution.

Call­ing on will­ing lead­ers in the newly formed divi­sions of the social sci­ences, aca­d­e­mics wrote model leg­is­la­tion, con­ducted stud­ies on work­ing con­di­tions and pub­lic opin­ion, and offered the­o­ries of social change that placed true agency only with the bureau­cratic cen­tral­ized state. Even the orga­ni­za­tions of these new divi­sions – the Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ics Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, Amer­i­can Social Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion, and Mod­ern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion – formed, Silva and Slaugh­ter note, as aca­d­e­mics sought to atom­ize and spe­cial­ize the dis­ci­pline of polit­i­cal econ­omy, seen to have fos­tered Marxism.

Through the social sci­ences the uni­ver­sity offered a strat­egy for social change that coun­tered Marx­ist polit­i­cal econ­omy, to entrench both pri­vate prop­erty and an inter­ven­tion­ist state. Through the human­i­ties the uni­ver­sity offered a uni­ver­sal the­ory that saw human­ity as some­thing to be imposed upon those too stu­pid or too obsti­nate to sub­li­mate their own desires and needs to those of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. For this rea­son, writes Richard Altenbaugh in Edu­ca­tion for Strug­gle, the mil­i­tant work­ing class dis­trusted for­mal edu­ca­tion at every level. Altenbaugh cites a 1921 remark by Alexan­der Fich­land, direc­tor of the Inter­na­tional Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union’s “Work­ers Uni­ver­sity,” to this effect:

Work­ers feel that they can­not obtain in non-workers’ edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions cor­rect infor­ma­tion on sub­jects affect­ing their own inter­ests. They feel that they are fre­quently deceived and are fur­nished with inter­pre­ta­tions of life which are intended to keep them docile and sub­mis­sive. They feel that the truth will be told to them only by those of their own choos­ing, whose out­look on life is their out­look on life, whose sym­pa­thies are their sym­pa­thies, whose inter­ests are their interests.

By abstract­ing from class strug­gle in all of its guises, the uni­ver­sity weaponized the knowl­edge of the emerg­ing dis­ci­plines and turned them on the work­ing class. All knowl­edge and all edu­ca­tion are his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated, devel­oped out of par­tic­u­lar his­to­ries and cul­tures, and are depen­dent on vast social struc­tures in order to sur­vive. The thought pro­duced in uni­ver­si­ties has, for rea­sons deeply embed­ded in their his­tory, been used to attack and under­mine class strug­gle in the name of a pro­gres­sive utopia that appears more impos­si­ble now than ever.

And this is pre­cisely why the peans to to knowl­edge and higher edu­ca­tion – espe­cially to the human­i­ties – grow more weari­some every year. Even in The New Yorker, the hal­lowed claims of edu­cated self-consciousness, the crown jewel of the human­i­ties, have been ques­tioned. A recent arti­cle on the research of Prince­ton psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Kah­ne­man con­cludes that we are nearly inca­pable of ratio­nal thought regard­ing our own actions, but revel in crit­i­ciz­ing the actions of oth­ers along sup­pos­edly ratio­nal lines. “Edu­ca­tion,” it acknowl­edges, “isn’t a sav­ior.” In fact, “intro­spec­tion can actu­ally com­pound the error, blind­ing us to those pri­mal processes respon­si­ble for many of our every­day fail­ings. We spin elo­quent sto­ries, but these sto­ries miss the point. The more we attempt to know our­selves, the less we actu­ally under­stand.” Research shows that the smarter – and bet­ter edu­cated – are more prone to these “mis­takes.” A case in point is the author of these words, Jonah Lehrer, who was unable to resist the “pri­mal process” of mak­ing up quotes and no longer has a job with The New Yorker.

Some­thing other than defense of the uni­ver­sity, and some­thing other than the human­i­ties, are nec­es­sary today. And this “some­thing other” must take be con­structed both within and out­side of the uni­ver­sity. Within, because as Gigi Rog­gero has pointed out, the uni­ver­sity is a dynamic site of strug­gle and cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Out­side, because knowl­edge is a par­tic­u­lar kind of power, cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally depen­dent. The human­i­ties and uni­ver­sity aca­d­e­mics are an out­stand­ing exam­ple of this: they were cre­ated as an ide­o­log­i­cal offen­sive against both the mil­i­tant working-class strug­gles that threat­ened Europe and Amer­i­cas and the resid­ual patri­cian elites that threat­ened to hold back cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion. Instead of defend­ing this kind of knowl­edge, we would do bet­ter to heed the words of Gilles Deleuze: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” Our task is to develop new weapons, and that will require leav­ing the uni­ver­sity and aban­don­ing the humanities.

Mark Paschal has written for Reclamations Journal, and is a member of University Research Group Experiment (URGE). He is also a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

When professors strip for the camera

If TED took a turn to left­ist (or any) cri­tique, Žižek, the pro­fes­sor of “toi­lets and ide­ol­ogy,” would be the keynote speaker. The irony of the ani­mated lec­ture, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,” is that a dia­tribe on “global cap­i­tal­ism with a human face” would get over 900,000 views on YouTube. “It’s not just what you’re buy­ing, but what you’re buy­ing into” seems to apply not only to Star­bucks’ “cof­fee ethics” and TOMS Shoes’ 1-for-1 African phil­an­thropy, but also to the avail­abil­ity of 10-minute Lacan­ian Marx­ist “soft apoc­a­lyp­tism” at a Google sub­sidiary with per­son­al­ized ads.

With YouTube’s help, the acad­emy where Žižek’s per­sona was born is an increas­ingly vis­i­ble ter­rain of so-called “cul­tural cap­i­tal­ism.” The last decade has wit­nessed a rev­o­lu­tion in open course­ware, a source of short-circuit con­sump­tion in which any­one with a com­puter can drink elite uni­ver­sity Kool-Aid with­out earn­ing credit. The move­ment has been so explo­sive – the Hewlett Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides the mother lode of fund­ing for uni­ver­sity ini­tia­tives, sup­ported a whole book on it, Tay­lor Walsh’s 2011 Unlock­ing the Gates – that one won­ders how long the polit­i­cal econ­omy of edu­ca­tion that it anchors, con­tra Žižek’s hipster-friendly fan­tasies of con­sumerist dystopia, will last.

To date, the most suc­cess­ful, or at least most promi­nent, ini­tia­tive is MIT’s Open­Course­Ware. In 2001, MIT unveiled a plan to offer most of its courses online for free – read­ing lists, lec­ture notes, exams, and all. In its first five weeks of exis­tence, the OCW site got 361,000 unique vis­i­tors from 177 coun­tries and all 7 con­ti­nents. In response to OCW, UNESCO held a “Forum on the Impact of Open Course­ware for Higher Edu­ca­tion in Devel­op­ing Coun­tries.” MIT was the new Bill Gates. As uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent Charles Vest wrote in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion in 2004:

a fac­ulty mem­ber at a new engi­neer­ing uni­ver­sity in Ghana, a pre­co­cious high-school biol­ogy stu­dent in sub­ur­ban Chicago, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Poland, a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor in upstate New York, or an exec­u­tive in a man­age­ment sem­i­nar down the hall at MIT will be able to use the mate­ri­als our pro­fes­sors rely on in teach­ing our full-time students.

Open Yale Courses, which drafted off MIT’s suc­cess, is now a com­peti­tor in the techno hype-space, only with dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing para­me­ters. The OYC site hosts 42 courses, most of which are intro­duc­tory lec­tures in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Yale gives OYC pro­fes­sors a small hon­o­rar­ium in exchange for let­ting video­g­ra­phers sit in the back of the room and record every lecture.

Occa­sion­ally, there will be an awk­ward moment when the pro­fes­sor asks stu­dents not to walk in front of the class lest they get on cam­era, or apol­o­gizes for hav­ing to fix their mic. It’s the self-assurance of Yale’s hand-picked all-stars which makes OYC dif­fer­en­tiable from TED talks, in which some speak­ers, per­haps get­ting to con­dense their wis­dom into 20-minute nuggets of opti­mism for the first time, repeat phrases or give clumsy post­scripts. Oth­er­wise, Yale qual­i­fies, in the words of Evgeny Moro­zov, as a TED-esque “inter­na­tional meme laun­derer.” Open Yale Courses are the ivory tower of uni­ver­sity TED­i­fi­ca­tion. At the same time that Yale con­tin­ues its 20-year stomp on grad stu­dent union­ism and ’juncts its aca­d­e­mic work­force, it parades pop­u­lar tenured pro­fes­sors – “I keep my eyes open for peo­ple in the news,” direc­tor and OYC par­tic­i­pant Diane Kleiner has said – with few offer­ings in crit­i­cal or polit­i­cally charged dis­ci­plines that pro­duce less mar­ketable research.

Yale isn’t the only uni­ver­sity that picks the best and bright­est for the world screen. Fathom, a failed for-profit ini­tia­tive at Colum­bia that pre-dated OCW at MIT, mar­keted over 600 courses but focused on star fac­ulty. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learn­ing Ini­tia­tive, which offers 15 courses in its core com­pe­ten­cies of sci­ence, math, and for­eign lan­guage, demands sig­nif­i­cant time for course devel­op­ment and thus draws mostly from tenured fac­ulty. The whole open course­ware enter­prise was born of rela­tion­ships among big-name uni­ver­sity lead­ers. Yale pres­i­dent Richard Levin had been on the board of the Hewlett Foun­da­tion since 1998. All­Learn, another failed for-profit ven­ture from the dot-com era, was a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Levin and his friends at Oxford, Prince­ton, and Stan­ford. After All­Learn, Yale’s liai­son went on to be pres­i­dent of TIAA-CREF.

The elite ori­gins of open course­ware, put together with the aca­d­e­mic hyper­re­al­ity of its all-star offer­ings, are noth­ing com­pared to the back­room power play that is 2011’s “Great Big Ideas,” a course offered to stu­dents at Yale, Har­vard, and Bard Col­lege and any­one else will­ing to shell out $199 to watch twelve hour-long lec­tures online. The course, “an intro­duc­tion to the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines,” is the pilot offer­ing of the for-profit Float­ing Uni­ver­sity, a joint ven­ture between Yale-bred busi­ness­man Adam Glick and online forum Big Think. Though it isn’t free like OYC, the con­ceits of open course­ware lie within FU’s glossy syl­labus: Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (Nor­ton authors); Larry Sum­mers; William Ackman’s “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” which explains “the logis­tics of the mod­ern port­fo­lio the­ory of invest­ment, hand­ing stu­dents the tools to become the savvy investors of tomor­row”; and a TED-friendly smor­gas­bord of hard sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, and dis­course on human nature—to be sure, the world’s most impor­tant ideas and dis­ci­plines.1

In Shake­speare, Ein­stein, and the Bot­tom Line, Stephen Kirp writes that open course­ware gives elite uni­ver­si­ties the sym­bolic cap­i­tal “to keep their exclu­siv­ity intact.” For schools like Yale that can only drop within exist­ing hier­ar­chies of exchange value – U.S. News & World Report rank­ings, for one – the open course­ware rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sents a new lat­tice of use value that for­ti­fies the gates against dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion from other high-tech knowl­edge ven­tures as well as com­peti­tors from below. (“I don’t want to wake up one morn­ing and find out that Har­vard and Microsoft have put $5 mil­lion on the table,” piped Colum­bia trustee and NBA com­mis­sioner David Stern at the advent of Fathom.) Under this new regime, uni­ver­si­ties accrue a sort of sec­ondary rent on what they already own.

Like the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix, elite uni­ver­si­ties have heeded Bank of Amer­ica ana­lyst Howard Block’s admo­ni­tion to embrace their role as con­tent providers – or, as David Brooks noted opti­misti­cally in a May col­umn, to bank on the trans­for­ma­tion of “knowl­edge into a com­mod­ity that is cheap and glob­ally avail­able.” Famous Berke­ley chan­cel­lor Clark Kerr’s pre­ferred use of the uni­ver­sity is upon us: “Knowl­edge is durable. It is also trans­fer­able. It only pays to pro­duce knowl­edge if through pro­duc­tion it can be put into use bet­ter and faster.” Or, if we take Carnegie Mellon’s fine-tuned, web-specific courses as the model – as Pres­i­dent Obama has, in hail­ing a future for com­mu­nity col­lege expan­sion that doesn’t require more class­rooms – BF Skinner’s “teach­ing machine,” which rewarded stu­dents for cor­rect answers fol­low­ing pre-programmed instruc­tion, is the new motor of the dig­i­tal superhighway.

Open course­ware is a way for uni­ver­si­ties to get by as busi­nesses and as uni­ver­si­ties, with all the atten­dant con­tra­dic­tions. On the one hand, as Walsh recounts in Unlock­ing the Gates, Yale’s direc­tor of mar­ket­ing and trade­mark licens­ing claims that OYC “was dri­ven from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive, because every time some­one views some­thing we made, they’re con­sum­ing Yale, and the qual­ity of their expe­ri­ence reflects how they think of us and the brand.” Indeed, the OYC site is laced with Yale’s name, logo, and col­ors, and every YouTube video has a Yale imprint. On the other hand, as Kleiner has it, “This isn’t a num­bers game, since we’re not mak­ing money off this; this is a gift we’re giv­ing to the world, so we want to see if we can bring that to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.” In a 2000 lec­ture at Oxford, Mel­lon Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent William Bowen waxed that uni­ver­si­ties shouldn’t sell open course­ware for fear of sac­ri­fic­ing their pro-bono pur­pose. The pro­pri­etors of webcast.berkeley con­sider online lec­tures sig­nals to state leg­is­la­tors that the pur­vey­ors of tech trans­fer and pri­vately sup­ported research also teach – for the pub­lic good.

At Yale and else­where, the old boys club has become a gen­der­less, fric­tion­less, sur­fa­ble ocean of phil­an­thropy; and yet these same uni­ver­si­ties remain cor­po­rately man­aged austerity-mongers. Stan­dard cri­tiques of cyber­netic utopi­anism apply. In Data Trash: The The­ory of the Vir­tual Class, Arthur Kro­ker and Michael Wein­stein define the “will to vir­tu­al­ity” as the “dream of being the god of cyber­space – pub­lic ide­ol­ogy as the fan­tasy drive of pre-pubescent males.” In the glob­al­ized acad­emy, a new pan­theon rises.

TED and Twit­ter have two things in com­mon: they pack­age knowl­edge into per­sonal brands; and they dis­sem­i­nate it faster and more widely than the aver­age aca­d­e­mic jour­nal. Any­one can watch a TED talk; hardware-willing, any­one can tweet. Twitter’s mass appeal has as its elite coun­ter­part the slushy mar­ket­ing pitch of the TED talker.

Today’s par­a­dig­matic intel­lec­tual com­modi­ties, like intel­lec­tual prop­erty rights granted to authors but absorbed into the cap­i­tal cir­cuitry of the pub­lish­ing world of 18th cen­tury West­ern Europe, come with new forms of exploita­tion. The labor-power embed­ded in these com­modi­ties is lost not only in the buyer’s fetish but in mega-networks that rede­fine cog­ni­tive labor and reroute it to prof­itable ends. In the Twitter-sphere, The New Inquiry’s Rob Horn­ing put it in a 2011 essay, “we can be aware of our­selves only inso­far as we see our­selves as prof­it­ing or not… We sell out sim­ply by choos­ing to have sub­jec­tiv­ity on social media’s terms.” This alien­ation, one of the “quin­tes­sen­tial aspects of the con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence of pre­car­ity,” rep­re­sents “the total break­down of the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity… the trans­for­ma­tional poten­tial of the enhanced social coop­er­a­tion on which the econ­omy depends is neu­tral­ized, frit­tered away in osten­ta­tious narcissism.”

In “The Ide­ol­ogy of Free Cul­ture and the Gram­mar of Sab­o­tage,” Mat­teo Pasquinelli describes this set-up as a regime of exploita­tion, while also point­ing to a cer­tain kind of resis­tance to it. Respond­ing to high-utopian “dig­i­tal­ism” and selec­tively per­me­able net­works like the Cre­ative Com­mons, he writes, “There is noth­ing dig­i­tal in any dig­i­tal dream. Merged with a global econ­omy, each bit of ‘free’ infor­ma­tion car­ries its microslave like a for­got­ten twin.” Akin to cre­ative pro­duc­tion sub­sumed by urban growth machines or media monop­o­lies, “open cul­ture” becomes a kind of multitude-for-rent. For Pasquinelli, sub­ver­sion lies with the likes of Dmytri Kleiner’s copy­far­left, in which the com­mons are open to com­mer­cial use by sin­gle work­ers or worker coop­er­a­tives that till them, but not agents that exist out­side. Over and against the flat world of open cul­tur­ists, Pasquinelli posits a com­mons that runs on both coop­er­a­tion and uncoop­er­a­tion, in which the mul­ti­tude strug­gles within itself.

Sab­o­tage of the copy­far­left sort is an impor­tant plank of resis­tance, but a kind of van­guardist one; cul­ture jam­mers and con­spir­a­to­r­ial dig­i­tal cabals draw on highly politi­cized sub­jec­tiv­i­ties lodged in a world that relies on the acad­emy no mat­ter how much it may dis­avow its ori­gins. By com­par­i­son, strong asser­tions about the impos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive iden­tity aban­don all attempts to unravel the con­tra­dic­tions and chang­ing class com­po­si­tion of the so-called knowl­edge econ­omy. While it’s pre­dictable for the pro­fes­sional intel­lec­tual to decry the crass­ness of the newest brave new world, tweets and free lec­tures rep­re­sent a redis­tri­b­u­tion of knowl­edge whose latent promise must be taken as seri­ously as its run­away promises. To be sure, it’s easy to crit­i­cize techno-babblers like Wired – which in 2003 wrote of MIT’s OCW, “no insti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing had ever pro­posed any­thing as rev­o­lu­tion­ary” – or, for that mat­ter, MIT’s mar­ket­ing team. The oper­a­tive ques­tion here is whether the tweet­ers or open course­ware con­sumers who aren’tprofessional intel­lec­tu­als can speak. Just as Wired’s take on Occupy Wall Street, a Decem­ber arti­cle enti­tled “#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts,” treats pro­test­ers as mind­less iron fil­ings, Andy Merrifield’s “Crowd Pol­i­tics” in the September/October 2011 New Left Review fore­grounds the “inten­sity of the encounter” while ignor­ing the vari­able sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and lived expe­ri­ences that pro­test­ers carry with them to protest. Who is Horning’s “we”?

For those who never went to a top school or, finan­cial aid notwith­stand­ing, couldn’t take on the debt, open edu­ca­tion rep­re­sents a utopia cap­tured by uni­ver­sity growth machines. Bas­tard sim­u­lacrum of acad­e­mia that it can be, it calls nei­ther for knee-jerk defense of the tra­di­tional acad­emy nor blithe cel­e­bra­tion from those whose depart­ments or job prospects are safe from the chop­ping block, but mea­sured con­sid­er­a­tion of new pos­si­bil­i­ties for reap­pro­pri­at­ing the cri­sis of the university.

As America’s uni­ver­sity sys­tem grew and mod­ern­ized in the post­war era, stu­dents and fac­ulty col­lab­o­rated on sig­nif­i­cant reforms to Yale’s grad­ing sys­tem, grad­u­a­tion cred­its, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for inde­pen­dent study. In the post­mod­ern acad­emy, ideas for appro­pri­at­ing sys­temic trans­for­ma­tion for rad­i­cal ends run wild. At the Open Edu­ca­tion Con­fer­ence in 2009, Christo­pher Mackie offered a “Model Pro­posal for Utterly Trans­form­ing Higher Edu­ca­tion Ped­a­gogy and Intel­lec­tual Prop­erty Gen­er­a­tion,” involv­ing course credit for stu­dents who gen­er­ate online con­tent – ele­vat­ing stu­dents’ con­sump­tion of open course­ware, par­tic­u­larly oper­a­tive at MIT, to a co-creative art. As a res­o­lu­tion to the sky­rock­et­ing cost of uni­ver­sity degrees, n+1’s edi­tors make the less mod­est, if more spec­u­la­tive, pitch for “the cre­den­tialed to join the uncre­den­tialed in shred­ding the diplo­mas that paper over the unde­mo­c­ra­tic infra­struc­ture of Amer­i­can life.”

Break­ing down this infra­struc­ture demands recog­ni­tion that knowl­edge com­modi­ties are objects con­sumed by a het­ero­ge­neous mul­ti­tude rather than a mono­lithic mass trapped within an imposed “con­sumerism.” As Yale’s Michael Den­ning con­tends in Cul­ture in the Age of Three Worlds, “cul­tural forms do not have a nec­es­sary polit­i­cal mean­ing, and may be appro­pri­ated and reap­pro­pri­ated by a vari­ety of social move­ments seek­ing to lead a soci­ety.” For Den­ning, cul­tural prac­tices are not “quick sales” but sites of class con­tes­ta­tion and vari­able mate­r­ial invest­ment. Within this par­a­digm, the masses of peo­ple to whom sim­u­lated aca­d­e­mic knowl­edge is dis­trib­uted are an inte­gral part of any pro­gram that pur­ports to redi­rect the polit­i­cal econ­omy of higher education.

As the acad­emy broad­casts itself to the world, it opens itself to dis­rup­tion from this audi­ence – Ghana­ian stu­dents seek­ing an MIT degree in exchange for all the course­work, high school­ers who love the free lec­tures but can’t access highly ranked uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion because of race or class, let alone adjuncts who see the lies of tenure exposed on cam­era. The onus is on the rest of us to meet them at the gates.

* I’ve ben­e­fited from the per­sonal guid­ance and gen­eros­ity of sev­eral instruc­tors from this course. My state­ments here are directed toward the course and not the pro­fes­sors themselves.

James Cersonsky (@cersonsky) is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. His writing can be found at Dissent, In These Times, AlterNet, and elsewhere. Read about his work on community-centered pedagogy here.

  • 1. I’ve ben­e­fited from the per­sonal guid­ance and gen­eros­ity of sev­eral instruc­tors from this course. My state­ments here are directed toward the course and not the pro­fes­sors themselves.

History and politics: an interview

Asad Haider: You write within a Marx­ist frame­work, but often focus on clas­si­cal polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, prior to or out­side of the Marx­ist tra­di­tion. What’s the rel­e­vance of this kind of study?

Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan: I would say that just as we clearly see that Marx’s eco­nomic think­ing arises out of a cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and that in turn was made pos­si­ble by a prior cri­tique of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy, we also have to see the prob­lems of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics that Marx is address­ing as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with the past his­tory of polit­i­cal thought. There are spe­cific cat­e­gory prob­lems, as well as inter­twined his­tor­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter in an engage­ment with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engage­ment with this lin­eage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and polit­i­cal thinker, clearly, but Hegel’s thought as a cul­mi­na­tion of a tra­di­tion of legal and polit­i­cal think­ing going back to Aris­to­tle. That’s some­thing which has been under­scored by oth­ers in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, you could think of Althusser and Col­letti, who also had works which were explic­itly about the polit­i­cal writ­ers before Marx, who in some way intro­duce or delin­eate the prob­lems of pol­i­tics and his­tory that Marx will sub­se­quently take up in his accounts of the class strug­gles and civil wars of the times that he was liv­ing in.

I want to ask about two polit­i­cal thinkers, and what we can learn from them. The first is Carl Schmitt, the sub­ject of your first book, The Enemy.

Well, you know, it’s not always obvi­ous to peo­ple why it’s nec­es­sary to read fig­ures like Schmitt, a fig­ure who was com­pro­mised by his inti­mate asso­ci­a­tions with fas­cism and National Social­ism. So this is an ini­tial obsta­cle to a crit­i­cal engage­ment – it was even for me. Schmitt, from the other side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, was approach­ing the prob­lems of the forms of pol­i­tics that arose in a period of the his­tor­i­cal and struc­tural cri­sis of the state-form, man­i­fest­ing itself in the inde­ter­mi­nacy around the basic cat­e­gories and con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing from an ear­lier period. His bench­mark is the period of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism, so the con­cepts and cat­e­gory dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing for clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism and before are enter­ing into cri­sis in this new era, in which the oppo­si­tion of state and soci­ety, the fun­da­men­tal sep­a­ra­tion of the eco­nomic from the polit­i­cal – which is of course one of the ways Marx under­stands what’s spe­cific to mod­ern bour­geois or cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety – is under threat. Schmitt is address­ing the same prob­lem as Marx, except he’s doing it in a period when the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, medi­ated by the inter­state sys­tem into a pat­tern of com­bined an uneven devel­op­ment, and fur­ther medi­ated by rev­o­lu­tion­ary and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary rup­tures, is bring­ing about a recon­nec­tion of these pre­vi­ously sep­a­rated spheres or domains of the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic. The actual sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism is recon­nect­ing them in var­i­ous ways, although main­tain­ing fun­da­men­tally the sep­a­ra­tion inso­far as we’re still speak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism. So I think in that sense Schmitt is deal­ing with a prob­lem – indi­rectly, some­times, but some­times directly – a deep prob­lem that arose in Marx’s own thinking.

Now Marx, even though he posited this sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, did not on that basis attempt to elab­o­rate on con­crete forms of mod­ern state­hood and their poten­tial his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions within later phases of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. While he iden­ti­fied the social rela­tions behind the long-term dynamic of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, he devel­oped a more rudi­men­tary account of the basic struc­ture of the state that arises from this sep­a­ra­tion. His accounts of class strug­gles and civil wars of the 19th cen­tury present some gen­eral out­lines of the mod­ern bour­geois state, but not much as far as the­o­riz­ing its con­crete ten­den­cies of devel­op­ment. Unlike cap­i­tal, the state is a very sim­ple cat­e­gory in Marx’s writ­ings. There isn’t really a sys­tem­atic his­tor­i­cal cri­tique of the polit­i­cal order that arises from this con­sti­tu­tive sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, or of con­tem­po­rary rela­tion between state and the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism, although he has much to say about how this played out in the period of the for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. In the early works, when he’s engag­ing with Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Right, he addresses the spe­cific delin­eated forms of the Euro­pean state aris­ing out of this process of sep­a­ra­tion, but its of course still in a rudi­men­tary philo­soph­i­cal form.

Get­ting back to Schmitt: there are of course seri­ous lim­its to his think­ing, to the extent that he only approached these prob­lems through the medi­a­tion of his con­cep­tion of the state in the tra­di­tion of con­sti­tu­tional law and its premises, so his under­stand­ing of the trans­for­ma­tions of cap­i­tal­ism in this period are approached through this medi­a­tion. But what he has to say about the cri­sis of the legal forms of state­hood, pri­vate prop­erty, and war is inter­est­ing in its own right, and often goes well beyond what Marx­ists at the time wrote on these mat­ters. The Weimar Repub­lic was, after all, the epi­cen­ter of a larger his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of an intense inter­war struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and the inter-state sys­tem within which it had evolved. The Weimar state-form, and the con­sti­tu­tional con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing it, was a stag­ing ground for the larger the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions around the char­ac­ter of the period, in terms of the fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tions in the rela­tion­ship of the state to cap­i­tal­ism, of the polit­i­cal to the eco­nomic, that should be of inter­est to any Marx­ist. Of course, many of his stu­dents were Marx­ists, and he was often able to appro­pri­ate ideas from oth­ers across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. This is appar­ent from the very begin­ning of the Weimar Repub­lic, when he wrote on the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat within a wider intel­lec­tual his­tory of emer­gency pow­ers and states of excep­tion, all the way to its end when he addressed the prob­lem of the com­pat­i­bil­ity of the cri­sis man­age­ment of post-laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism with exist­ing forms of democracy.

The sec­ond thinker is Machi­avelli. Both Gram­sci and Althusser wrote about Machi­avelli, and you returned to some of this mate­r­ial in Antag­o­nis­tics.

I would say that one of the ways to think about the sig­nif­i­cance of Machi­avelli is the con­text in which think­ing about the present through a read­ing of Machi­avelli emerged, from the 19th cen­tury to the inter­war period, and per­haps closer to the present con­text as well. If you think about it that way, you can see that there are a num­ber of episodes in the story of the recep­tion with Machi­avelli. In the early 19th cen­tury you have Fichte and Hegel respond­ing to the cri­sis of the Ger­man state, and try­ing to think about the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the recon­sti­tu­tion of a national state, by look­ing at Machiavelli’s writ­ings on the prob­lem of Ital­ian national unity. They saw Machi­avelli as address­ing the prob­lem of the con­di­tions of the gen­e­sis of a state, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of what appeared as cat­a­strophic defeat in the form of for­eign occu­pa­tion. So that’s their his­tor­i­cal link to Machiavelli’s situation.

Keep­ing that in mind, the renewed inter­est in Machi­avelli dur­ing the inter­war period, and this is man­i­fested by writ­ings on him across the polit­i­cal spec­trum – you men­tioned Gram­sci, there’s also Leo Strauss, Wyn­d­ham Lewis, Ray­mond Aron, and many oth­ers. Gram­sci, whether he was deal­ing with the prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal strat­egy in the West, the rise of Fas­cism or even the onset of Amer­i­can hege­mony, raised Machi­avel­lian ques­tions about the nexus between the foun­da­tion of new states and the con­di­tions of their per­pet­u­a­tion. This is the prob­lem that Machi­avelli is deal­ing with in the Dis­courses, the need for an inter­lude or found­ing episode of ter­ror to estab­lish a new state, and the mode by which that ori­gin can be super­seded through the estab­lish­ment of polit­i­cal forms that are capa­ble of per­pet­u­at­ing them­selves on the basis of the mul­ti­tude, the not yet fully inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar foun­da­tion of the new order. So, these episodes of read­ing Machi­avelli are all about the ori­gins and foun­da­tions of new orders, as expe­ri­enced in the after­math of defeat.

So we’re see­ing the res­o­nance of these themes across his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. Crises in state-forms, and crises which are truly global, with cat­a­strophic defeats, sit­u­a­tions in which the shape of a new order can’t be clearly seen. We’re now expe­ri­enc­ing what seems to be an inter­minable eco­nomic cri­sis; how do these clas­si­cal themes play into under­stand­ing the cur­rent period?

The abil­ity of some of these older lega­cies of thought to address the present was called into ques­tion by the resta­bi­liza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem in the post­war period. For that rea­son those who have remained inter­ested in those older lega­cies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal thought, think­ing about a pol­i­tics that could bring them back, have found it dif­fi­cult to find its points of appli­ca­tion to the world of cap­i­tal that arose in the post­war West­ern sec­tor. There were a vari­ety of attempts to keep alive, in some way, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal change, but often this took the form of try­ing to look for other agen­cies out­side the work­ing class, and other sites of strug­gle. For a very a long period of time we’ve expe­ri­enced the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism which is in some respects no longer capa­ble of con­tin­u­ing and repro­duc­ing the suc­cesses of the post­war period.

An ade­quate under­stand­ing of the so-called period of neolib­er­al­ism involves under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent lev­els, some of which seemed to indi­cate that the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem was reach­ing new heights, as the entire world was incor­po­rated into it, while other lev­els of its evo­lu­tion exhib­ited char­ac­ter­is­tics which sug­gested that the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems of the 1970s, in terms of a slow­down in the growth of income, were never really super­seded. What I sug­gest in my piece “Spec­u­la­tions on the Sta­tion­ary State” is that these con­junc­tural prob­lems car­ried over from the 1970s are con­verg­ing with the struc­tural lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism itself, which make it less real­is­tic to assume that this renewal process is going to hap­pen.

It was often thought, until recently, that the last thirty years, after the post­war “Golden Age,” were the great­est period of cap­i­tal­ism ever. Devel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive objec­tive account of what hap­pened in this period has been dif­fi­cult, since there are so many dif­fer­ent lev­els at which what hap­pened unfolded. There’s been a long term period of struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions and adjust­ments with so many new char­ac­ter­is­tics intro­duced into the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, it would seem at least ini­tially para­dox­i­cal that this has not in some way bro­ken forth into a new period of accu­mu­la­tion. So in order to address that prob­lem, its now impor­tant to recon­sider some the­o­riza­tions of longer-term lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. I didn’t really go into the var­i­ous Marx­ist ver­sions of that, which I would do more of now, but I think that the core of it arises out of the Bren­ner account and some unre­solved prob­lems and ques­tions in that account regard­ing the long term, draw­ing the polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal prob­lems out.

Let’s talk about Robert Brenner’s analy­sis of what he calls the long down­turn, which started in the 1970s. His account is con­tro­ver­sial for a num­ber of rea­sons, includ­ing among Marx­ists. He doesn’t make use of the Marx­ian ter­mi­nol­ogy of value, and doesn’t explic­itly refer to Marx’s texts on eco­nomic crisis.

It’s nei­ther framed in terms of Marx’s own char­ac­ter­is­tic ter­mi­nol­ogy, nor is it framed as a gen­eral the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis. Though some gen­eral prin­ci­ples might come out of it, Bren­ner doesn’t advance this as an expla­na­tion of the inter­war eco­nomic cri­sis, the so-called Great Depres­sion, nor of the cri­sis of the last decades of the 19th cen­tury. So although there’s a gen­eral char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the social prop­erty rela­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and there’s an account of some of the long-term dynam­ics and trends, every par­tic­u­lar phase of accu­mu­la­tion is a his­tor­i­cal topic unto itself, call­ing into ques­tion the idea of Marx’s eco­nomic thought as a cri­sis the­ory. That’s good, in my view.

As a sec­ondary issue, on Brenner’s rela­tion to Marx, despite the ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tance, I think actu­ally the account that Bren­ner pro­vides gives a con­crete mean­ing to var­i­ous con­cepts that are the foun­da­tion of Marx’s own account of the value form. I think that there’s still some­thing more to be said on this sub­ject, since Bren­ner him­self doesn’t use the ter­mi­nol­ogy and more or less frames his own account of cap­i­tal­ism and of its accu­mu­la­tion process in terms of a cost-price the­ory, explic­itly avoid­ing the prob­lem­atic that Marx opened up with his under­stand­ing of the social rela­tions which give rise to pro­duc­tion in a value form, that there’s a sig­nif­i­cant dimen­sion of what Marx was try­ing to get at in his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism that is not brought into sharp relief in Brenner’s account.

You’re actu­ally in the midst of research­ing and writ­ing a book on Marx, focus­ing on Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings. One of the major prob­lems for the entire his­tory of what was called West­ern Marx­ism was that Marx never actu­ally wrote what his method was in works like Cap­i­tal.

From begin­ning to end, Marx’s own the­ory arises out of a crit­i­cal analy­sis of the cat­e­gory prob­lems that arose within clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, that it was unable to solve. Marx’s own account of “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion” takes the form of a solu­tion to these prob­lems, from the mys­tery of why the value of com­modi­ties must appear in a mon­e­tary form to why the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion appear in the form of sep­a­rate fac­tors of pro­duc­tion con­tribut­ing to the value of the com­mod­ity, with each appear­ing as a sep­a­rate source of rev­enue to their owner. One of the premises of my work on Marx’s eco­nomic thought is that we have gen­er­ally lost sight of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems that Marx was address­ing, that came out of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy. These were in part still liv­ing prob­lems at the time that Marx was work­ing through them, but even dur­ing the course of Marx’s own writ­ings on these top­ics, from the late 1850s to the early 1870s, this tra­di­tion of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the liv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­tent of the prob­lems it was address­ing, began to fall out of view, became in some way occluded, so I would argue there’s a kind of opac­ity to the fun­da­men­tal under­ly­ing prob­lems of Marx’s eco­nomic thought. The mean­ings of many of the terms he’s using, and more seri­ously the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of his eco­nomic thought, are not appar­ent. Of course, there have always been dog­matic under­stand­ings of the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of Marx’s writ­ings, but putting those aside, inter­pre­ta­tions of his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism have always been medi­ated by the ini­tial attempts to make sense of it, which took shape in the after­math of the decline of the intel­lec­tual tra­di­tions out of which Marx him­self for­mu­lated his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy. These ini­tial attempts estab­lished the points of entry, top­ics and prob­lems that have dom­i­nated much of the com­men­tary since.

That being said, Marx’s own under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism has many char­ac­ter­is­tics of the par­tic­u­lar socio-historical world of 19th cen­tury Eng­lish cap­i­tal­ism embed­ded within it. Although it’s a gen­eral the­ory, and arises as a cri­tique of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic cat­e­gories of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the solu­tion of the fun­da­men­tal cat­e­gory prob­lems and with them obvi­ously the real under­ly­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, with the work­ing through of the prob­lems and impasses of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, Marx arrived at a gen­eral the­ory, but this gen­eral the­ory is in some way con­joined to the spe­cific socio-historical con­text of the cap­i­tal­ism of his time. Not just of course the factory-industrial order that emerged in Eng­land, which is the locus clas­si­cus for the gen­eral the­ory, but also the var­i­ous regions of the larger world-system, from declin­ing Asi­atic empires to the still-intact world of Euro­pean feu­dal­ism in the East, in Rus­sia, in the period of its demise, the emer­gence of white set­tler states, the end of the large plan­ta­tion slavery-based economies. These con­di­tions are spe­cific to the clas­si­cal period of cap­i­tal­ism that Marx is the­o­riz­ing, and not all of them are in some uni­form way sub­sumed under one sin­gle form of cap­i­tal­ism. Many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his age of cap­i­tal­ism belong to another world: cap­i­tal­ist land­lordism based on agri­cul­tural rent, gold stan­dard money, and con­di­tions of work­ing class life that were uprooted with the advent of mod­ern med­i­cine and the wel­fare state – although, of course, this lat­ter devel­op­ment has only taken place in more advanced economies. So there’s a num­ber of ways in which Marx’s world is dis­con­tin­u­ous with our own, though the gen­eral the­ory allows us to make the bridge, to under­stand what in the sub­se­quent peri­ods of cap­i­tal­ism, although they break and depart with the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Marx’s own time, are nonethe­less intel­li­gi­ble in terms of the account that Marx does provide.

What you’re point­ing to is the fun­da­men­tal rela­tion between the log­i­cal expo­si­tion in Cap­i­tal and the his­tor­i­cal chap­ters, which are some­times seen as exist­ing in an entirely dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter.

There is a ten­dency to iso­late the value the­ory, or the “the­ory” part of Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings from the his­tor­i­cal parts, to put it crudely. That has to do with pre­vail­ing con­cep­tions of what the­ory is. I’d like to demon­strate what kind of the­ory Marx is build­ing by pre­sent­ing it in a sys­tem­at­i­cally uni­fied, recon­structed form. Clearly, Marx does not mean by mean by the­ory, gen­er­al­iza­tions applied to some­thing called “his­tory.” But there is another sense of the term “the­ory” asso­ci­ated with Marx which is also not exactly the one Marx him­self had: so-called “Crit­i­cal The­ory.” Marx’s con­cep­tion of the­ory was not merely neg­a­tive in this sense, but aspired to be sci­en­tific and sys­tem­at­i­cally inte­grated with his­tor­i­cal con­tent, that is, with the artic­u­la­tion and solu­tion of real his­tor­i­cal problems.

Many of the attempts now to get to a new read­ing of Cap­i­tal set up as their adver­sary some­thing called “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism or “world­view” Marx­ism, which is con­nected to the polit­i­cal projects of the work­ers’ move­ment. Now, if we do a read­ing of the the­o­ret­i­cal texts that were pro­duced by the work­ers’ move­ment, we find a remark­able het­ero­gene­ity, of per­spec­tives, prob­lem­at­ics, ques­tions. How can we begin to reread this tra­di­tion as well?

I think there are a cou­ple of ques­tions there, some of which pre­sup­pose a par­tic­u­lar answer. I would say that, con­trary to my own incli­na­tions, inso­far as I’m sym­pa­thetic to some of the tra­di­tions of so-called “world­view Marx­ism,” there really isn’t much in Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings to war­rant the idea that it had some imme­di­ate or direct rela­tion­ship to an under­stand­ing of the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the pur­suit of class strug­gles, or imme­di­ately ori­ented towards the prob­lems of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary praxis of the work­ing class. That was an attempt made at a later point, based in the fact that Marx’s writ­ings are not just eco­nomic, but also on the pol­i­tics and his­tory of his time, some of them part of a series of writ­ings on the great upheavals, the rev­o­lu­tions and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tions from 1848 to 1871. So obvi­ously it was not sim­ply culled out of noth­ing, that so-called “world­view Marx­ists” would try to estab­lish the con­nec­tion. But aside from some dis­cus­sions of the work­ers’ move­ment in the form of the strug­gle to limit the work­day, and to estab­lish nor­mal con­di­tions of labor within the fac­tory sys­tem, and the sig­nif­i­cance of the suc­cess of that in induc­ing struc­tural changes within cap­i­tal­ism, as opposed to break­ing with it and over­throw­ing it, there isn’t really that much in the eco­nomic writ­ings which either explic­itly puts the class strug­gle at the cen­ter of the unfold­ing evo­lu­tion of these social rela­tions. There’s much more on the vio­lence of the class strug­gles that char­ac­ter­ized the period of the “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” of cap­i­tal than on any sub­se­quent episodes of it. It’s not even clear whether the the­ory which he presents, and this is a trib­ute to his sci­en­tific integrity, really iden­ti­fies the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for a work­ers’ move­ment, in the sense of a dynamic by which the work­ing class might develop out of the process of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal into a force of eman­ci­pa­tion and recon­struc­tion. It’s not entirely clear that this is his under­stand­ing of what hap­pens to the work­ing class under capitalism.

Nev­er­the­less he described Cap­i­tal as a weapon in the hands of the work­ing class.

Sci­en­tific the­ory is a weapon, it’s ulti­mately ben­e­fi­cial to the work­ers and the down­trod­den of soci­ety because they have the most inter­est in under­stand­ing the world with­out illu­sions. It’s in that respect that I think it’s a weapon for the work­ing class, and it’s not really clear that it can be directly, in the form that Marx wrote it, turned into an instru­ment of the class strug­gle. But that’s not what Marx is try­ing to do, either. He’s try­ing to set up a frame­work for con­crete inves­ti­ga­tions of the evo­lu­tion of this form of soci­ety and the polit­i­cal and other forms of strug­gle that result from its under­ly­ing con­tra­dic­tions. The­ory – in some ways I think this is what Althusser was good at point­ing out – is not there for us, in the sense of some­thing which is imme­di­ately even mean­ing­ful for us, and the ques­tions that we’re ask­ing. It’s not meant to do that. It’s meant to maybe take us away from the ques­tions we’re ask­ing. So we can’t really think of the­ory in an instru­men­tal way, because of that rela­tion­ship, true the­o­ries don’t serve our pur­poses so eas­ily. But they bet­ter serve our pur­poses for all that, because they are ulti­mately about true things and a knowl­edge of them. In that sense I think you could say that the scientific-critical under­stand­ing of the­ory, as opposed to a polit­i­cal world­view under­stand­ing, is really what the clas­si­cal con­cep­tion ulti­mately sub­scribed to. Let me qual­ify that: I think that Gram­sci is maybe, in the after­math of defeat, more attuned to the way a scientific-critical under­stand­ing of his­tory and pol­i­tics leads to a cer­tain, let’s say, dis­abused rela­tion­ship to the imme­di­ate prospects of the con­di­tions of strug­gle for work­ing and sub­al­tern classes. It’s really a dif­fi­cult thing to sci­en­tif­i­cally and crit­i­cally explore these prob­lems. We pre­fer to have our ques­tions result in answers which are enabling to us in some way. There are totally good rea­sons we ask the­ory to do this for us. But it best served even that pur­pose when it did this indirectly.

Now, there are moments in Marx, even in Cap­i­tal, which describe a kind of inex­orable process of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment which will result in communism.

Where would you say that is?

The “His­tor­i­cal Ten­dency of Cap­i­tal­ist Accu­mu­la­tion,” in con­ti­nu­ity with ear­lier works.

I would dis­agree with that, I would say that there’s often a kind of pecu­liar dialec­ti­cal form to the way Marx estab­lishes the con­di­tions of the nega­tion of exist­ing con­di­tions. So although he very strik­ingly sug­gests the dialec­ti­cal form of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism as a process of the expro­pri­a­tion of labor, which will in turn cap­size over into an expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors, that formal-dialectical struc­ture shouldn’t deceive us. I think this is where we might take a cue from some of the crit­i­cism of dialec­ti­cal thought that came out of cur­rents in the, let’s say, Althusser­ian tra­di­tion. The way the logic of devel­op­ment is under­stood as a way of fol­low­ing the logic of nega­tion, can lead to assump­tions about the course of his­tory which ulti­mately turn out to be dialec­ti­cal illu­sions. I’m not advo­cat­ing step­ping back away from the dialec­ti­cal devel­op­ment of laws and ten­den­cies. Much of what is great in Marx’s think­ing takes this form, and any ver­sion of Marx which strips that out of it, really strips out the guts of it. Briefly in the penul­ti­mate chap­ter of vol­ume 1 he speaks of this “expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors,” it seems as if this is cul­mi­na­tion of the analy­sis, at least in that vol­ume of the text. We might be tempted to see vol­ume 1 as cul­mi­nat­ing in this under­stand­ing of the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors. Cap­i­tal is often read today as the story of the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class and, let’s call it, before the let­ter, “the mul­ti­tude.” The basic idea is that as we approach the final chap­ter of the expro­pri­a­tion of the mul­ti­tude, the con­di­tions are emerg­ing for a great rever­sal. This is the enabling ide­o­log­i­cal for­mula of the rad­i­cal left today. There is a ratio­nal core to this. Lib­er­als, social-democrats and rem­nant lega­cies of an older far-left often snicker at such illu­sions, but since they were com­pletely blind­sided by the con­tem­po­rary cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, and failed to pre­dict it, and now offer only hind­sight and stick to what­ever it is they were say­ing before, they’re hardly cred­i­ble either.

It seems to me the rea­son Marx places such an empha­sis on vio­lence, as you men­tioned before, in the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is to break from the idea – which is there in clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, but can also be repeated in a mod­i­fied form in a Marx­ism which relies on a tran­shis­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the forces of pro­duc­tion, the devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion – the idea that the “social-property rela­tions” of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are the real­iza­tion of some­thing nascent in the pre­vi­ous mode of pro­duc­tion, whereas he is describ­ing a process which isn’t a sim­ple real­iza­tion, but which involves dis­con­ti­nu­ity, and which engages every level of the social for­ma­tion. He empha­sizes the role of the state, the inter­ac­tion of var­i­ous ele­ments which don’t con­tain cap­i­tal­ism within them.

I’m not sure if you’re describ­ing Marx here, I think that his thoughts on the sub­ject of the emer­gence or tran­si­tion to some­thing like a “social” mode of pro­duc­tion, are scat­tered, as every­one knows, and really take the form of either this dialectical-overturning, or, more mod­estly, of a con­sid­er­a­tion of the way aspects of social repro­duc­tion which assume a par­tic­u­lar form because of cap­i­tal­ist social-property rela­tions would be sus­pended, given a social mode of pro­duc­tion. In this lat­ter vein his basic point is that what are assumed to be mate­r­ial neces­si­ties of pro­duc­tion are really only such because of these par­tic­u­lar social forms.

You’ve described the story of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class as a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive, with util­ity for the social moment. What would be a sci­en­tific analy­sis of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat? Not Marx’s?

Well, he explic­itly says in that chap­ter, that he is not going to look at the eco­nomic causes of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat, that he is just going to look at the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s an explicit admis­sion that this is not really a the­o­riza­tion, or his­tor­i­cally grounded account of the whole process of the orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, but a counter-myth to the bour­geois story of enter­pris­ing Lock­ean fore­fa­thers scrap­ing together, out of their labors, sums which they are then able to use to employ those who were unable, or didn’t want to do that. That story is basi­cally an ide­o­log­i­cal account of why peo­ple today are divided into classes, and so Marx is coun­ter­ing it with another one unfold­ing within a dialec­ti­cal form, with this kind of reversal.

So he’s laps­ing out of sci­ence? Because you’ve described the sys­tem­atic­ity of this entire work.

I have said that there is a logico-historical sys­tem­atic­ity. I haven’t described it though.

Okay. But your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion seems to sug­gest that they are not part of this.

I think that there’s a con­cep­tual devel­op­ment run­ning through­out Marx’s works, includ­ing the texts on prim­i­tive accumulation.

The­o­riza­tions of his­tory and pol­i­tics are always in some way con­nected to a con­crete his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, an existential-historical sit­u­a­tion. Every exam­ple we have of even the artic­u­la­tion of sweep­ing accounts of basic polit­i­cal forms, whether that’s done in a way that his­tori­cizes them or not, arose in that con­junc­ture and encounter with a par­tic­u­lar set­ting. That’s going back to Aristotle’s Pol­i­tics, and that’s cer­tainly true of early mod­ern polit­i­cal thought. It’s also true of Marx. So this dual­ity of the­ory and, let’s call it ide­ol­ogy, is inside of the­ory. The ques­tions we’re ask­ing of pol­i­tics and his­tory are ques­tions for us, not like when we’re ask­ing ques­tions about other kinds of objects, with the under­stand­ing and com­pre­hen­sion of non-human real­ity, the sep­a­ra­tion of what is and what is for us can in some way be made com­pletely, and that’s obvi­ously not true when we’re talk­ing about pol­i­tics and his­tory. So there is in some way this inter­nal mutual impli­ca­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal and the the­o­ret­i­cal. The­ory takes the form of the dis­so­lu­tion and cri­tique of our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. It doesn’t ever sever itself com­pletely from our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. Ide­ol­ogy in the Althusser­ian sense is ris­ing out of social expe­ri­ence, right? The spon­ta­neous ways things appear, and even the­o­ries can become encrusted with ide­ol­ogy, and become a kind of obscu­ran­tist naivete. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s not the case that we have the­ory on the one hand and spon­ta­neous and direct social expe­ri­ence in its naive form on the other. That social expe­ri­ence is medi­ated by a whole gar­bled set of ter­mi­nolo­gies and half-formed ques­tions and prob­lems, which then it’s the busi­ness of crit­i­cal the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing to break apart and to gen­er­ate tracks and paths for analy­sis and inves­ti­ga­tion. The­o­ries and prob­lems within any tra­di­tion can become ide­ol­o­gized. This is true of Marx­ism, this is true of every tra­di­tion. There’s a moment in which the­ory emerges in some liv­ing rela­tion to scientific-critical prob­lems and does so per­haps in some con­junc­tion with the polit­i­cal moment, and then there are moments when that is left behind, and we only have ossi­fied ter­mi­nolo­gies and poorly-understood ques­tions and problems.

For Althusser, I would argue, the really core char­ac­ter­is­tic of ide­ol­ogy is that it posits the trans­parency of social rela­tions. And this is guar­an­teed by an under­stand­ing of his­tory as a process with a sub­ject and a goal, which is the real­iza­tion of this trans­parency. The pri­mary exam­ple of this is the tele­ol­ogy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, and for him this is repeated in the human­ist, his­tori­cist the­o­ret­i­cal revolt against the cat­e­gories of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. The way this maps out onto Marx’s works is, for exam­ple, that dialec­ti­cal account that you described in that chap­ter in Cap­i­tal, that would be the ide­o­log­i­cal moment, while prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is an attempt to break with that.

Cer­tainly within Marx’s work is the pos­si­bil­ity of devel­op­ing an ade­quate account of the actual prim­i­tive, or orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. There’s plenty of mate­r­ial in Marx which is about this process of the for­ma­tion of wealth in a new social form dur­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing period. That’s the real mate­r­ial on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion. Whether it’s wholly cor­rect is another matter.

So while I am sug­gest­ing, along with Althusser, that the chap­ter on the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors and the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion are in a ten­sion, because one describes a his­tor­i­cal dialec­tic with a goal, the other describes a process of rup­ture which is fig­ured in vio­lence, you’re sug­gest­ing that they’re part of the same ide­o­log­i­cal mold.

Like I said before, I’m not say­ing that Marx him­self was unable to break with this. I’m say­ing that he explic­itly says that in this chap­ter he is only look­ing at the polit­i­cal side, the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s a pretty direct state­ment to the effect that this is not a com­pre­hen­sive account of the whole process. The process of social and his­tor­i­cal change, the emer­gence of a new mode of pro­duc­tion, can’t be explained ade­quately by a “force the­ory of his­tory.” Although Marx once referred to force as the mid­wife of such changes, Engels had to launch an attack on exag­ger­ated reac­tionary ver­sions of this view. By the late 19th cen­tury there’s an increas­ing wide­spread rejec­tion of the older peace­ful account of the ori­gins of civ­i­liza­tion, and Bis­mar­ck­ian blood and iron is replac­ing Lock­ean labor as the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy of the ori­gins of soci­ety. Marx­ism as a result devel­oped not just a cri­tique of the story of the peace­ful rise of civ­i­liza­tion that you get from the clas­sics, it also devel­ops as a cri­tique of the bour­geois reac­tionary accounts of blood and iron as the motor of his­tory, and in this respect Marx was a Marxist.

It never really suf­fices to say “it’s more com­pli­cated than that,” but social and his­tor­i­cal change is, to put it gen­er­ally, a multi-dimensional process. In some way Althusser tried to con­vey this with his under­stand­ing of the dis­con­ti­nu­ities between lev­els of a social total­ity, that they were not capa­ble of coher­ing into a sin­gle sub­ject, because they all had their own rel­a­tively autonomous ten­den­cies and his­to­ries. So in this sense there were his­tories, but there is no sub­ject from which one could speak of a his­tory. This was the point of con­tention with Sartre and Lukács. The for­ma­tion of his­tory was not an auto­matic and given process, it was a com­plex one in which the medi­ated and rel­a­tively autonomous social and his­tor­i­cal exis­tence could be given a uni­fy­ing account which would become the basis for a process of their sociopo­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The idea of a sub­ject of his­tory, and I think Althusser came to this under­stand­ing later, is some­how implicit within our pol­i­tics of his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. One of the rea­sons why I think he’s wrestling with the prob­lem of the­ory and ide­ol­ogy later on, is that he real­izes that these are not sep­a­ra­ble things, in pre­cisely the man­ner in which this was thought to be pos­si­ble in the ear­lier writings.

Some­times the cri­tique of “tra­di­tional” or “world­view” Marx­ism extends as far as the claim that cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment required a work­ers’ move­ment in order to com­plete itself. So the end of the work­ers’ move­ment was essen­tially inscribed in its ori­gins. To me it seems we’re back at what Althusser cheek­ily described as “poor man’s Hegelian­ism,” repro­duc­ing the Sec­ond International’s tele­ol­ogy in what claims to be a cri­tique of the very deep­est cat­e­gories of Sec­ond Inter­na­tional Marx­ism. The same struc­ture of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment is now applied to the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment itself.

If by this you mean the idea that we can under­stand his­tor­i­cal processes through gen­eral inter­re­la­tion­ships between cat­e­gories of analy­sis, this is truly to be avoided. This is some­thing that Marx him­self had things to say about. So the idea that one can, instead of actu­ally doing his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion in the mold that Marx does him­self, which he is in some sense cre­at­ing the foun­da­tion of, if one thinks that we can instead of that do a kind of under­stand­ing of the world-historical dynam­ics that arise out of the inter­nal rela­tion­ships between cat­e­gories, then that is not some­thing which fol­lows Marx. It might be that some things of intel­lec­tual inter­est arise out of this way of fram­ing things, I don’t want to say that there’s noth­ing to that, but it should never be con­ceived of as a sub­sti­tute for real his­tor­i­cal understanding.

The social rela­tions that Marx devel­ops out of an analy­sis of cat­e­gories and the cat­e­gory prob­lems of polit­i­cal econ­omy are always being devel­oped through real his­tor­i­cal con­tent. This real his­tor­i­cal con­tent takes the form of prob­lems that can­not be resolved by appre­hend­ing their con­cep­tual form. They don’t exist inde­pen­dently, the idea that there’s a kind of purely log­i­cal mode of the inter­con­nec­tion of these cat­e­gories to one another is sim­ply to have a mys­ti­fied and fetishis­tic con­cep­tion of what the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories are.

I want to return to these two themes of polit­i­cal thought that you iden­ti­fied ear­lier. One was cri­sis, which we’ve dis­cussed. The other was defeat. The major defeat which frames our period is pre­cisely the defeat of the work­ers’ move­ment, across the end of the 1970s through the 1980s. As the ambiva­lence towards “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism demon­strates, this defeat poses con­sid­er­able prob­lems for peo­ple inter­ested in mass move­ments and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion today.

On the one hand we seem to be in a period in which more and more peo­ple are com­ing around to the view that the eco­nomic prob­lems of the day speak to a deep struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. Even a few years ago when I wrote the piece on the sta­tion­ary state this wasn’t widely held to be the case, but it’s now increas­ingly accepted. On the other hand, as you point out, we’re con­fronted with the absence of any large-scale agen­cies of social and polit­i­cal change that might open up the ques­tion of a new social eco­nomic order beyond cap­i­tal­ism. The way the cri­sis has unfolded so far is pri­mar­ily to raise ques­tions about how to sus­tain and prop up the sta­tus quo, and even forms of oppo­si­tion to aus­ter­ity have not really been able to break out of a set of purely defen­sive demands, to roll back some of the dam­age of the finan­cial cri­sis and think about resta­bi­liz­ing the econ­omy by restor­ing a pre­vi­ously exist­ing level of eco­nomic equal­ity and job secu­rity, which is thought to be per­haps attain­able. Some peo­ple are draw­ing the con­clu­sion that the prob­lems are so deep that those kind of solu­tions aren’t going to work any­more, but the fun­da­men­tal struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions that would have to hap­pen for these prob­lems of unem­ploy­ment, declin­ing wages, and mass poverty around the world, to be over­come are so daunt­ing, that the fall­back posi­tion is under­stand­ably one or another of these forms of left-wing pop­ulism. I don’t have any prob­lem with that being the form that strug­gles assumes, it’s inevitable for that to be the case. But the rea­son the rea­son why this can­not ulti­mately suc­ceed even as a strat­egy of defense is because there’s no new track that cap­i­tal­ism seems to be able to go to. Var­i­ous types of left-wing reformism have been depen­dent on the abil­ity of cap­i­tal­ism to deliver employ­ment and ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards. So even though cap­i­tal­ism is in this deep and sys­temic cri­sis, the cri­sis is simul­ta­ne­ously man­i­fest­ing itself in under­min­ing the con­di­tions of social and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. That hasn’t just been a mat­ter of defeat of rev­o­lu­tion­ary chal­lenges to the sys­tem, but has also in this period taken the form of a roll­back of the reformist accom­plish­ments of the work­ing class within the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, and else­where the var­i­ous mixed lega­cies of the attempt to pro­mote eco­nomic devel­op­ment in some vision of progress in more eco­nom­i­cally “back­wards” zones of the world-system. That’s the con­text in which we operate.

Gopal Balakrishnan is an editor at New Left Review, and the author of The Enemy and Antagonistics. He is a professor in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.

To the party members

The sound and image of a drum cir­cle may be one of the most easily-mocked moments asso­ci­ated with the Occupy move­ments. But the role of music in the move­ment, and its rela­tion to protests and polit­i­cal action in gen­eral, bears closer inves­ti­ga­tion, beyond the drum circle.

Music at Occupy events has been as diverse as the peo­ple and loca­tions involved, from Bay Area rap stal­wart Mis­tah FAB’s freestyle at Occupy Oak­land to Tom Morello’s Gui­tarmy, indige­nous dancers and singers in Min­neapo­lis, polit­i­cal march­ing bands like the Rude Mechan­i­cal Orches­tra or the Hun­gry March Bands in New York, the Mil­wau­kee Molo­tov Marchers, Pittsburgh’s Riff Raff, and the leg­endary Infer­nal Noise Brigade of Seat­tle. Videos and albums have been launched, and many have called for a new era of protest music to arise.

These musi­cal actions them­selves are often char­ac­ter­ized as “protest music.” In fact, march­ing bands serve vital tac­ti­cal pur­poses at street protests (and beyond): sur­round­ing police vans, iden­ti­fy­ing and fol­low­ing under­cover police, de-escalating ten­sion, and help­ing facil­i­tate the flow and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the crowd. But the con­cept of “protest music” can obscure some of music’s most pow­er­ful aspects as a social force. For many involved in Occupy, the spe­cific rela­tion­ship between the music being played and the peo­ple who hear it has not been thought through very care­fully – and this weak­ness can rein­force polit­i­cal weak­nesses. Indeed, when even can call 100 tracks of Occupy-themed music “shape­less and safe,” we might ask our­selves what this protest music is missing.

Har­sha Walia has pointed out that many of the most pow­er­ful aspects of Occupy spaces were not about “protest­ing,” but about enact­ing exist­ing con­nec­tions: what hap­pened in the kitchens, the medic tents, the libraries, the teach-ins and work­shops. These were places where peo­ple brought their exist­ing skills to bear in self-organized con­fig­u­ra­tions, pro­vid­ing for them­selves and each other along a met­ric that was nei­ther char­ity nor busi­ness, but a com­mon inter­est. The most promis­ing polit­i­cal actions were those that con­nected to exist­ing com­mu­nity strug­gles around police vio­lence, home fore­clo­sure, and home­less­ness, where activists, res­i­dents, and even the home­less them­selves, engaged directly with the lived real­i­ties of peo­ple fac­ing sys­temic violence.

Music con­structs sim­i­lar pos­si­bil­i­ties for social rela­tions. The kind of social rela­tions evoked by “protest­ing” are not very fer­tile – a protest can get voices “out there,” some­where – but doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily affect how peo­ple deal with each other. While music, on the other hand, can have a “mes­sage” to com­mu­ni­cate, it can be so much more – it can be a social activ­ity rather than just a prod­uct, what the musi­col­o­gist Christo­pher Small has called musick­ing: a way for peo­ple to per­form con­nec­tions with each other and with exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties, through shared cul­tural expression.

There is a com­plex rela­tion­ship between music and cul­ture that makes music polit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant – and mobi­liz­ing – in ways that go beyond words, and the par­tic­u­lar moment of “protest.” Music can be a lived nego­ti­a­tion and per­for­mance of com­mu­nity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. A bet­ter under­stand­ing of how music does this, as well as more seri­ous atten­tion to its dif­fer­ent cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally spe­cific tra­di­tions, would help forge a more rad­i­cal rela­tion­ship between the het­ero­ge­neous com­mu­ni­ties and inter­ests that par­tic­i­pate in resis­tance movements.

In my own expe­ri­ence as a DJ, dancer, party orga­nizer, and researcher, I’ve engaged in-depth with the every­day prac­tices of Jamaican musick­ing. In Jamaica, even though the cul­ture of the urban poor is offi­cially vil­i­fied and excluded, that cul­ture still sets main­stream trends, and is under­stood to be authen­ti­cally Jamaican. This cul­tural author­ity has per­sisted despite its exclu­sion from mass media tech­nolo­gies like radio and tele­vi­sion, from their ear­li­est incep­tion. Both under­writ­ten by the gov­ern­ment until rel­a­tively recently, these media out­lets have con­sis­tently sup­ported for­eign and British-identified cul­tural expres­sion over pop­u­lar culture.

This same hos­til­ity has lim­ited poor people’s abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in both for­mal employ­ment and pres­ti­gious artis­tic per­for­mance. Such bod­ily restraints oper­ate at the lev­els of both race and class: skin color tracks poverty even more dra­mat­i­cally in Jamaica than in the US, so the phys­i­cal and ver­bal traits asso­ci­ated with poverty are also gen­er­ally asso­ci­ated with dark-skinned Jamaicans. In the face of colo­nial rejec­tion and hos­til­ity at tra­di­tional sites of “mass cul­ture,” poor Jamaicans began, in the 1930s and 1940s, to carve out their own sites of cre­ative expres­sion, espe­cially through nightlife – music and danc­ing at night, usu­ally around home-built sound sys­tem. These dances, espe­cially the free out­door events usu­ally known as “street dances” – became places where poor Jamaicans pro­duced a degree of cul­tural auton­omy from the colo­nial tastes of the rul­ing class.

These par­ties weren’t utopias of free­dom and equal­ity, but the per­for­mances of gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, dom­i­nance, and plea­sure that were enacted there rep­re­sented a col­lec­tive resis­tance to dom­i­na­tion. After Jamaican inde­pen­dence, offi­cial media chan­nels remained dom­i­nated by colo­nial tastes, and poor neigh­bor­hood nightlife became cen­ters of an alter­na­tive voice for the majority.

This alter­na­tive voice speaks in terms that tra­di­tional pol­i­tics usu­ally don’t hear. For exam­ple, sex­u­al­ized dance moves have been con­tin­u­ally pop­u­lar in Jamaica from the 1930s to the present, and crit­ics of nightlife are often unable to hide their dis­com­fort with these erotic social inter­ac­tions. But sweaty moments can have polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Jamaican schol­ars such as Car­olyn Cooper have empha­sized the con­text of these moves: invented by descen­dants of enslaved Africans, such dances were a way to express tra­di­tions and rela­tions denied to them by dom­i­nant soci­ety. Cooper sug­gests that that dance­hall cul­ture is “an eroge­nous zone in which the cel­e­bra­tion of female sex­u­al­ity and fer­til­ity is rit­u­al­ized.” Tak­ing this point more broadly, for mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties – espe­cially those with a his­tory of enslave­ment – sex­ual auton­omy is a seri­ous issue. Secur­ing this auton­omy fre­quently requires trans­gres­sion of reli­gious, sex­ual, and even eco­nomic rela­tions val­ued by dom­i­nant society.

These issues are still alive. Jamaican elites, and the gov­ern­ment itself, have been so hos­tile to local pop­u­lar music that to this day there is no large music venue in the cap­i­tal city – so the abil­ity of pop­u­lar spaces to redraw and resist dom­i­nant cul­tural hier­ar­chies remains rel­e­vant. As Son­jah Stanley-Niaah puts it, these can be spaces where peo­ple “revaloriz[e] aspects of the body that are cen­sored in the wider social sphere.” Con­sider, for exam­ple, the 2010 vic­tory in a Jamaican “Dance­hall Queen” com­pe­ti­tion by Kristal Ander­son, a viva­cious and tal­ented per­former who was both dark-skinned and weighed over 200 pounds. Anderson’s glo­ri­ous skills and tal­ents, honed in the dances that occur in what Obika Gray calls “exilic spaces,” drew enthu­si­as­tic pop­u­lar sup­port. The judges, whose ties to the local music scene require that they respect the audience’s taste, had to rep­re­sent that audience’s sub­ver­sive val­ues. It would be a mis­take to under­es­ti­mate the impor­tance of street dances, and the cul­ture cen­tered on them, in chal­leng­ing dom­i­nant standards.

Valid crit­i­cisms can be made of these prac­tices. Sex­u­al­ized per­for­mances can par­tic­i­pate in the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of bod­ies along gen­dered and racial lines, and many sub­cul­tures are not free of the homo­pho­bia and sex­ism that also dom­i­nates main­stream soci­ety. How­ever, ignor­ing the spe­cific con­text in which such inequal­i­ties take place risks mis­in­ter­pret­ing their ori­gins, and per­pet­u­at­ing hier­ar­chies of race and class. The Jamaican dance­floor, while echo­ing with the sound of many an explic­itly anti-gay lyric, is simul­ta­ne­ously a place where per­form­ers chal­lenge stan­dard def­i­n­i­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity – con­sis­tent with a cul­tural shift, even in main­stream Jamaican pol­i­tics, towards a less homo­pho­bic stance than many pop­u­lar elected offi­cials in the US. Under­stand­ing how dance­floor pol­i­tics reflects and pos­si­bly pushes towards these changes requires a cri­tique informed by the subject-positions and expe­ri­ences within the com­mu­ni­ties being dis­cussed. Unfor­tu­nately, white-dominated “activist com­mu­ni­ties” have not demon­strated a hum­ble com­mit­ment to under­stand­ing mar­gin­al­ized cul­tures. This is a great loss for many rea­sons. For one thing, it’s clear that so many com­mu­ni­ties care about music, and use it as a basis for sol­i­dar­ity and plea­sure – which ought to make any good orga­nizer sit up and pay attention.

My own obser­va­tion of (and par­tic­i­pa­tion in) white-dominated activist scenes sug­gests that the abil­ity to col­lab­o­rate often falls apart not over polit­i­cal plat­forms, but over per­sonal and social engage­ments around race, cul­ture, eth­nic­ity, and gen­der – often in seem­ingly non-political set­tings, like night­clubs and par­ties. In rela­tion to music, these prob­lems result from the “protest” mind­set. Many par­tic­i­pants in the Occupy move­ment have approached music as a didac­tic event, instru­men­tal­ized around “get­ting a mes­sage to peo­ple,” to inspire them or oth­er­wise make them behave in a cer­tain way. Alter­nately, music is expected to be a gen­eral com­mu­nal “emo­tional release” where the specifics of par­tic­u­lar cul­tural and musi­cal prac­tices and his­to­ries are expected to be sub­sumed or erased – and that era­sure is appar­ently assumed to be liberating.

Nei­ther under­stand­ing of music is polit­i­cally fer­tile, or likely to take the musi­cal expe­ri­ence very far out­side of white middle-class activists, because it fun­da­men­tally mis­takes or ignores the social func­tion of music within mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. This reflects a broader prob­lem fac­ing the self-identified “Amer­i­can left,” which has long made it irrel­e­vant, or even harm­ful, to com­mu­ni­ties of color, queer com­mu­ni­ties, and indeed the work­ing class – an inabil­ity to deal with cul­ture as an aspect of polit­i­cal iden­tity and practice.

Much like Jamaican street dances, the his­tory of vogue balls, hip-hop (which includes DJing, danc­ing, rap­ping, and graf­fiti), and house or block par­ties where immi­grants play the music of their home coun­tries or dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties, all demon­strate that music affirms spe­cific his­to­ries and iden­ti­ties in the face of mar­gin­al­iza­tion. Queer com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cially queer com­mu­ni­ties of color, have been espe­cially rooted in these spaces, since a queer per­son of color may not be safe diverg­ing from expected iden­tity per­for­mances any­where else they go. While cer­tain norms of gen­der are enforced at home, at school, and at work, the dance floor is a space to work out plea­sure, sex, and style, in the face of often mur­der­ous hos­til­ity from dom­i­nant cul­ture. Plea­sure, sex, and style can be dis­rup­tive of dom­i­nant social orders – not always, but depend­ing on the spe­cific bod­ies and com­mu­ni­ties who per­form them, and the modes of their per­for­mance. It is pos­si­ble, to be sure, for peo­ple to take plea­sure in racism or sex­ism, or for hedo­nism to col­lapse, espe­cially along lines of class, into con­sumerism and addic­tion. But when people’s actual bod­ies face hos­til­ity – from arrest to state-sanctioned vig­i­lante vio­lence, or direct police vio­lence – for devi­at­ing from dom­i­nant norms of sex­u­al­ity, gen­der, and race, then their prac­tices are more sig­nif­i­cant than sim­ple “sex-positivity” or the fetishiza­tion of transgression.

After all, we shouldn’t for­get that despite the white faces of main­stream “gay rights,” it has always been queer and trans­gen­der peo­ple of color at the fore­front of the strug­gles against the polic­ing of sex­u­al­ity. Such strug­gles often began with attempts to defend seem­ingly dis­rep­utable spaces of refuges and resis­tance. Such spaces are spe­cially impor­tant for peo­ple – dis­pro­por­tion­ately queer peo­ple of color – who have been expelled from or are unable to find homes. If a home isn’t safe, or you don’t have one to live in, spaces where you can just be your­self, with­out scrutiny and threat from oppres­sive forces, are even more nec­es­sary. Many of these spaces exist on the mar­gins of respectable and legal soci­ety. From ware­house par­ties to the Christo­pher Street Pier, such strug­gles are rooted in the his­tory of queer lib­er­a­tion: it should be no sur­prise that Stonewall is so sig­nif­i­cant to the movement’s his­tory – a bar fre­quented by trans peo­ple of color like Sil­via Rivera, who led the resis­tance. Nightlife can be a refuge, but also a source of resis­tant iden­tity and mobilization.

When we talk about cul­ture, we’re also talk­ing about his­tory, and often music defines people’s iden­ti­ties from the begin­ning. Songs with lyrics that might make white middle-class activists squirm can take on dif­fer­ent mean­ings in the con­text of the dance floor. Such an engage­ment with music is not defined by the record­ings or lyrics them­selves – music is a socialexpe­ri­ence, and its polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance can’t be under­stood until you know who is phys­i­cally in the room, and how they are inter­act­ing with each other in the moment of musi­cal engage­ment. A room­ful of white frat boys singing along to DJ Assault’s “suck my moth­er­fuck­ing dick” has a very dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance, and a very dif­fer­ent effect, from the same cho­rus sung by black drag queens.

What I’ve learned as a DJ is that the sig­nif­i­cance of a musi­cal expe­ri­ence is enacted by the actual bod­ies of the peo­ple in the room, and thus mak­ing mean­ing­ful musi­cal expe­ri­ences requires know­ing specif­i­cally who you’re try­ing to reach and what their (musi­cal) his­to­ries are. Reusing those musi­cal ref­er­ences can affirm and rep­re­sent the lis­tener in a way that builds col­lec­tive emo­tional con­nec­tions. In the con­text of mass polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tions, these tools are espe­cially impor­tant, to gen­er­ate the inclu­siv­ity that is the con­di­tion for any mean­ing­ful dia­logue or connection.

The fail­ure to build these con­nec­tions has been one of the major weak­nesses of the Occupy move­ment, which set its camps up against insti­tu­tions – like the police – that many com­mu­ni­ties were already in strug­gle against. It’s not sur­pris­ing that Occupy had repeat­edly repli­cated the racist, sex­ist, nativist, and eth­no­cen­tric atti­tudes of main­stream soci­ety; it just requires a con­scious effort to resist. Part of the solu­tion is to more care­fully define the prob­lems fac­ing Occu­piers, to con­nect them to exist­ing strug­gles over, for exam­ple, police vio­lence or indige­nous rights. And another part of the solu­tion is that these same strug­gles take place over the role of music.

The great protest songs were pow­er­ful not only because the lyrics were true, and forced peo­ple to respond, but because the music called out to con­nec­tions that already existed, named real­i­ties and iden­ti­ties that were already lodged in people’s mem­o­ries, in their own expe­ri­ences and tra­di­tions. That force is lost if music is sub­or­di­nated to a pas­sive vision of “mes­sage” and “protest,” or a homo­ge­neously com­mon strug­gle. Attend­ing to music’s cul­tural res­o­nance, and the social dynam­ics around its prac­tice, can make it a pow­er­ful force for shar­ing plea­sure, trust, release, and pur­pose across mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and forg­ing a rad­i­cal, broadly par­tic­i­pa­tory movement.

Larisa K. Mann is a legal ethnographer, educator, journalist, public speaker, and DJ, who teaches Media Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and Sociology of Law at Brooklyn College. She has written for WireTap, the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, and other publications, and has contributed chapters to Bits without Borders: Law, Communications & Transnational Culture Flow in the Digital Age (forthcoming, Elgar, 2012), and Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement (New Internationalist Publications, 2012). As DJ Ripley, she has played in 19 countries across 3 continents over the past 16 years.

Be the street: on radical ethnography and cultural studies

The man who only observes him­self how­ever never gains
Knowl­edge of men. He is too anx­ious
To hide him­self from him­self. And nobody is
Clev­erer than he him­self is.
So your school­ing must begin among
Liv­ing peo­ple. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the under­ground, the shops. You should observe
All the peo­ple there, strangers as if they were acquain­tances, but
Acquain­tances as if they were strangers to you.

—Bertolt Brecht, Speech to the Dan­ish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Obser­va­tion (1934-6)

“Anthro­pol­ogy is the daugh­ter to this era of vio­lence,” Claude Levi-Strauss once said. Poetic as that state­ment is, I pre­fer the more pre­cise and less gen­dered words of esteemed anthro­pol­o­gist and Johnson-Forest Ten­dency mem­ber Kath­leen Gough: “Anthro­pol­ogy is a child of West­ern impe­ri­al­ism.” Much like Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies in the Span­ish Empire, anthro­pol­o­gists exam­ined indige­nous groups in order to improve colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues into the present day with the US military’s Human Ter­rain Project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, this colo­nial imper­a­tive has fed a racist dis­re­spect of the sub­jects under study. It was not uncom­mon, for exam­ple, for researchers to draw upon colo­nial police forces to col­lect sub­jects for humil­i­at­ing anthro­po­met­ric measurements.

Accord­ing to Gough, at their best, anthro­pol­o­gists had been the “white lib­er­als between con­querors and col­o­nized.” Ethnog­ra­phy, the method in which researchers embed them­selves within social groups to best under­stand their prac­tices and the mean­ings behind them, had only medi­ated this rela­tion­ship, while Gough, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist, wanted to upend it. Writ­ing in 1968, she urged her dis­ci­pline to study impe­ri­al­ism and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments against it as a way to expi­ate anthro­pol­ogy of its sins. Gough later attempted this her­self, trav­el­ling through­out Asia in the 1970s. Although she lacked a solid uni­ver­sity con­nec­tion due to her polit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, she man­aged to con­duct field­work abroad, ana­lyz­ing class recom­po­si­tion in rural South­east India dur­ing the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and detail­ing the improve­ment in the liv­ing stan­dards of Viet­namese peas­ants after the expul­sion of the United States.

Years later, anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes sees fit to ask, “Why hasn’t anthro­pol­ogy made more dif­fer­ence?” The prob­lem is not that anthro­pol­o­gists are ret­i­cent to con­tribute to end­ing impe­ri­al­ism. Indeed, there are prob­a­bly more rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists now than dur­ing Gough’s time, and cer­tainly the dis­ci­pline takes anti-racism and anti-imperialism incred­i­bly seri­ously. Gough her­self artic­u­lated some dif­fi­cul­ties:

(1) the very process of spe­cial­iza­tion within anthro­pol­ogy and between anthro­pol­ogy and the related dis­ci­plines, espe­cially polit­i­cal sci­ence, soci­ol­ogy, and eco­nom­ics; (2) the tra­di­tion of indi­vid­ual field work in small-scale soci­eties, which at first pro­duced a rich har­vest of ethnog­ra­phy but later placed con­straints on our meth­ods and the­o­ries; (3) unwill­ing­ness to offend the gov­ern­ments that funded us, by choos­ing con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects; and (4) the bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting in which anthro­pol­o­gists have increas­ingly worked in their uni­ver­si­ties, which may have con­tributed to a sense of impo­tence and to the devel­op­ment of machine-like models.

None of these plague anthro­pol­ogy today. Anthro­pol­o­gists are often incred­i­bly deep knowl­ege about mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines (I have an anthro­pol­o­gist friend I con­sult on any ques­tions of struc­tural semi­otics, Marx­ism, 19th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture, or gam­bling); they have exam­ined cul­ture within large indus­trial and post-industrial soci­eties; they have been involved in all sorts of rad­i­cal issues, from union­iz­ing sex work­ers to ana­lyz­ing the secu­ri­tized state; and while the uni­ver­sity may remain a bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting, anthro­pol­o­gists have largely aban­doned machine-like mod­els. So what gives?

One issue is how anthro­pol­ogy chose to atone for its com­plic­ity in racism and impe­ri­al­ism. Instead of mak­ing a direct polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion into impe­ri­al­ist prac­tice, ethnog­ra­phy attacked impe­ri­al­ist hermeneu­tics. A deep cri­tique of the Enlight­en­ment sub­ject, the source of anthropology’s claims to sci­ence and objec­tiv­ity as well as meta­phys­i­cal ground for West­ern notions of supe­ri­or­ity, became a major tar­get of the dis­ci­pline. Thus rose crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy, decon­struc­tive in spirit. Accord­ing to Soyini Madi­son, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy “takes us beneath sur­face appear­ances, dis­rupts the sta­tus quo, and unset­tles both neu­tral­ity and taken-for-granted assump­tions by bring­ing to light under­ly­ing and obscure oper­a­tions of power and control.”

This func­tions at the level of the method itself: crit­i­cal ethno­g­ra­phers should be self-reflexive. Rather than assum­ing an omni­scient author­i­ta­tive view­point, they should high­light their own posi­tion­al­ity in the field by empha­siz­ing it in the writ­ten account, thereby decon­struct­ing the Self and its rela­tion to the Other when­ever pos­si­ble. In an attack on Enlight­en­ment pre­ten­sions to uni­ver­sal­ity, accounts became par­tial and frag­men­tary, a way to head off poten­tially demean­ing total­ized por­tray­als at the pass.

How­ever, iron­i­cally enough, by per­for­ma­tively ques­tion­ing one’s own research, the fig­ure of the ethno­g­ra­pher risks becom­ing the cen­tral fig­ure in the study, rather than the social group. Even as it pro­duces an often-engrossing lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy can under­mine its own polit­i­cal thrust by dras­ti­cally lim­it­ing what it per­mits itself to say. While Marx­ist soci­ol­o­gist Michael Bura­woy, who shov­eled pig iron for years in the name of social sci­ence, claims that with exces­sive reflex­iv­ity ethno­g­ra­phers “begin to believe they are the world they study or that the world revolves around them,” I’d counter that this isn’t so much pro­fes­sional nar­cis­sism as a prod­uct of the very real anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the ethics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How best to fairly, but accu­rately, por­tray one’s sub­jects? How can one really know the Other? I’ve strug­gled with this in my own work, and I know col­leagues who have been all but con­sumed by it. Writ­ing about one­self seems, at the very least, safer. But this aban­dons sci­en­tific rigor in its reluc­tance to make any gen­er­al­iz­able claims.

My own expe­ri­ence in ethnog­ra­phy came from a study of pop­u­lar cul­ture. I had grown tired of schol­arly tex­tual analy­sis: it seemed like more of a game for the com­men­ta­tors, where we crit­ics bandied about spec­u­la­tive assess­ments of books and films and TV shows, try­ing to one-up each other in nov­elty and jar­gon. These inter­pre­ta­tions said more about our posi­tions as theory-stuffed grad­u­ate stu­dents eager to impress than they did about the puta­tive “audi­ences” for the texts. Our con­scious­ness of the objects in ques­tion had been deter­mined by our mate­r­ial lives as critics-in-training. I felt pulled fur­ther away from cul­tural phe­nom­ena, when I wanted to get closer in order to bet­ter under­stand its sig­nif­i­cance. So I revolted against the rule of thoughts, start­ing to learn the meth­ods that got closer to the mat­ter at hand: ethnography,

In cul­tural stud­ies, ethnog­ra­phy (or as a fully-trained anthro­pol­o­gist would prob­a­bly write, “ethnog­ra­phy”) is most closely asso­ci­ated with audi­ence recep­tion and fan­dom stud­ies. Tex­tual analy­sis tells you only what a critic thinks of the work; in order to dis­cover how “aver­age” con­sumers expe­ri­ence it, you have to ask them. This way you avoid the total­iz­ing, top-down gen­er­al­iza­tions of some­one like Adorno, where a rei­fied con­scious­ness is deter­mined by the repet­i­tive, sim­pli­fied forms of the cul­ture industry.

This was Janet Radway’s goal when she stud­ied female read­ers of misog­y­nist romance nov­els. She found out that read­ers cared more about hav­ing pri­vate time away from domes­tic duties than the borderline-rape occur­ring in the books. How­ever, she was forced to con­clude that romance nov­els worked as com­pen­satory mech­a­nisms, secur­ing women in cap­i­tal­ist patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion – in other words, she took the long way around and ended up in the same Adornoian con­clu­sion: we’re fucked and it’s our mass cul­ture that makes it so.

My cho­sen topic helped me get on a dif­fer­ent path, one that I believe has more rel­e­vance to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics than harangu­ing the choices of hap­less con­sumers. I wanted to study inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar music instead of romance nov­els. This meant I was well posi­tioned to exam­ine music from the stand­point of pro­duc­tion, rather than just sur­vey­ing audi­ence mem­bers, a tech­nique that always felt too spec­u­la­tive and a bit too closely aligned with mar­ket research.

Not that mar­ket research was totally off base. Pop­u­lar music exists in the form of com­modi­ties. Its form, as Adorno rightly points out, is dic­tated by the needs of the cul­ture indus­try. If the music indus­try was a fac­tory, then musi­cians were the work­ers, bang­ing out prod­ucts. A pecu­liar fac­tory, to be sure, where oper­a­tions spread to the homes of the work­ers, the machines were pirated soft­ware, and the prod­ucts were derived from unique cre­ative labors, becom­ing objects of intense devo­tion among consumers.

You can run into resis­tance when you define art in this way – it seems to cheapen it, as if you can’t call a song a “com­mod­ity” with­out implic­itly stick­ing a “mere” in there, just as refer­ring to artists as work­ers seems to demean their abil­i­ties. But this resis­tance comes almost entirely from music fans, who com­mit their own Adornoian blun­der by plac­ing music on that archaic crum­bling pedestal of Art. The pro­duc­ers and DJs I spoke to in Detroit didn’t see it that way. They saw them­selves as cre­ative work­ers; at best, as entre­pre­neurs. One DJ talked about remix­ing songs in the morn­ing over cof­fee. “You know how some peo­ple check their email or read the news­pa­per? Well, I’m mak­ing a remix of the new Ciara song dur­ing that time.” He took pride in his work ethic, but never roman­ti­cized his occupation.

There wasn’t much to wax roman­tic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The cul­ture indus­tries were under­go­ing a restruc­tur­ing for the imma­te­r­ial age. Vinyl was no longer mov­ing. Local radio and local music venues had gone cor­po­rate, squeez­ing out local music. DJs who wanted local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the sub­ur­ban mega­clubs instead of the native styles of elec­tronic music that had given Detroit mythic sta­tus around the world. Many had given up on record labels entirely. Every­one looked to the inter­net as the sav­ing grace for record sales, pro­mo­tion, net­work­ing – for every­thing, prac­ti­cally. Some of the more suc­cess­ful artists were attempt­ing to license their tracks for video games. Almost every­one had other jobs, often off the books. For crit­i­cally acclaimed Detroit pro­ducer Omar-S, music is his side job, in case his posi­tion on the fac­tory line is eliminated.

I wasn’t embed­ded within this com­mu­nity, as an anthro­pol­o­gist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute drive to Detroit when I could, and spent the time inter­view­ing artists in their homes or over the phone. I attended some events, par­tic­i­pated and observed. And still, I could have writ­ten vol­umes on my subject-position and how it dif­fered from many of the musi­cians: I was white, college-educated, not from Detroit (the last one being the most salient dif­fer­ence). But my goal was to go beyond self-reflexive inter­ro­ga­tions, in spite of their impor­tance as a start­ing point. I aspired to write some­thing that would in some way, how­ever minor, par­tic­i­pate in the implicit polit­i­cal projects of musi­cal workers.

I can’t say I suc­ceeded in this goal. But while I may have done lit­tle for the polit­i­cal for­tunes of Detroit musi­cians, I had started to think about how to rev­o­lu­tion­ize my the­o­ret­i­cal tools. The point was not to efface or under­mine my role in my research, but to iden­tify the struc­tural antag­o­nism the artists were deal­ing with and describe it from a par­ti­san per­spec­tive. Beyond the self-reflexive analy­sis of the ethnographer’s subject-position was the pos­si­bil­ity of pick­ing sides.

Decid­ing to pick sides is the dif­fer­ence between mil­i­tant research, of the kind Kath­leen Gough prac­ticed, and purely scholas­tic exer­cises. Bura­woy argues that this is a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of Karl Marx’s “ethno­graphic imag­i­na­tion”: Marx rooted his the­o­ries – not just of how cap­i­tal­ism func­tioned, but how best to destroy it – in the con­crete expe­ri­ences of work­ers, as relayed to him by Engels and oth­ers. Kath­leen Gough is an exem­plary fig­ure in this respect, remain­ing a firm mate­ri­al­ist in her stud­ies. As Gough’s friend and col­league Eleanor Smol­lett puts it in a spe­cial jour­nal ded­i­cated to Gough’s legacy,

she did not arrive in Viet­nam with a check­list of what a soci­ety must accom­plish to be ‘really social­ist’ as so many Marx­ists in acad­e­mia were wont to do. She looked at the direc­tion of the move­ment, of the con­crete gains from where the Viet­namese had begun… Observ­ing social­ist devel­op­ment from the point of view of the Viet­namese them­selves, rather than as judged against a hypo­thet­i­cal sys­tem, she found the people’s stated enthu­si­asm credible.

After study­ing mate­r­ial con­di­tions and for­eign pol­icy in the social­ist bloc, Gough decided that the Soviet Union, while cer­tainly no work­ers’ par­adise, was a net good for the work­ers of the world – heresy for any­one try­ing to pub­lish in the West, let alone a Trotskyist.

Analy­sis is impor­tant, but the really explo­sive stuff of ethnog­ra­phy hap­pens in the encounter. Accord­ingly, ethno­g­ra­phers and oth­ers have increas­ingly turned towards the meth­ods of par­tic­i­pa­tory action research (PAR). In these stud­ies, a blend of ethnog­ra­phy and ped­a­gogy, the anthro­pol­o­gist takes a par­ti­san inter­est in the aspi­ra­tions of the group, and aids the group in actively par­tic­i­pat­ing actively in the research. Mem­bers of the group under study become co-researchers, ask­ing ques­tions and artic­u­lat­ing prob­lems. The goal is to tease out native knowl­edges that best aid peo­ple in nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances while mobi­liz­ing them to cre­ate polit­i­cal change.

But par­tic­i­pa­tory action research has returned to the same old prob­lems of impe­ri­al­ist anthro­pol­ogy. In the hands of rad­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes, PAR led to the for­ma­tion of a sex work­ers’ union in Great Britain. But in the hands of devel­op­ment scholar Robert Cham­bers, PAR is a tool to bet­ter imple­ment World Bank ini­tia­tives and gov­ern pop­u­la­tions by allow­ing them to “par­tic­i­pate” in their subjection.

The point, then, is to real­ize that ethnog­ra­phy has no polit­i­cal con­tent of its own. Pol­i­tics derives not from the com­mit­ment or beliefs of the researcher, but from engage­ment with wider social antag­o­nisms. Ethnog­ra­phy enables Marx­ism to trace the con­tours of these antag­o­nisms at the level of every­day life: a mil­i­tant ethnog­ra­phy means Marx­ism at work, and func­tions not by impos­ing mod­els of class con­scious­ness and rad­i­cal action from above, but by reveal­ing the ter­rain of the strug­gle – to intel­lec­tu­als and to work­ers – as it is con­tin­u­ally pro­duced. Ethnog­ra­phy can con­tribute in just this way, as a method where researchers lis­ten, observe, and reveal the now hid­den, now open fight for the future.

Gavin Mueller is a graduate student in Washington, DC.

In defense of vernacular ways

The crises con­tinue to accu­mu­late: the eco­nomic cri­sis, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the social cri­sis, crises upon crises. But as we try to cre­ate “solu­tions,” we dis­tress­ingly find our­selves up against a limit, dis­cov­er­ing that the only alter­na­tives we can imag­ine are merely mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the same. Pro­posed solu­tions to the eco­nomic cri­sis toss us back and forth between two immo­bile poles: free mar­ket or reg­u­lated mar­ket. When we face the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, we decide between sus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy or unsus­tain­able tech­nol­ogy. What­ever our per­sonal pref­er­ence, a lit­tle to this side or a lit­tle to that side, we all unwit­tingly play accord­ing to the same rules, think with the same con­cepts, speak the same lan­guage. We have for­got­ten how to think the new – or the old.

Ivan Illich, priest, philoso­pher, and social critic, is not a fig­ure that most would expect to read about in a Marx­ist mag­a­zine. But he iden­ti­fied this prob­lem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a com­plete change in think­ing. His sug­ges­tion, both as con­cept and his­tor­i­cal fact, was the “ver­nac­u­lar.” We will not escape from cap­i­tal­ism through the ratio­nal­ity of the sci­en­tist of his­tory; nor will we get any help from the stand­point of the pro­le­tariat. The firm ground of Illich’s cri­tique was pre­cap­i­tal­ist and prein­dus­trial life in common.

Even those who reject this posi­tion must meet its chal­lenge. Those for whom pol­i­tics is embed­ded in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of post­mod­ern “lifestyles,” inflected with pseudo-Marxist jar­gon, will have to rec­og­nize that the only model we have of forms of life based on direct access to the means of sub­sis­tence is pre­cisely the “ver­nac­u­lar” that Illich pro­poses. Alter­na­tively, those who locate eman­ci­pa­tion in a Marx-inflected nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal progress must to face Illich’s deep crit­i­cisms of devel­op­men­tal­ism, sci­en­tism, and pro­gres­sivism. The fol­low­ing is a chal­lenge not only to cap­i­tal­ism and the experts who defend it, but also to its critics.

Mind Trap 1: the eco­nomic crisis

Ignor­ing his own con­tri­bu­tions to the fes­tiv­i­ties, George W. Bush recently scolded those on Wall Street for get­ting drunk on the prof­its from sell­ing unpayable debts.1 The result­ing col­lapse of finan­cial mar­kets her­alded the end of the party. The drunks seem to have sobered up with­out them­selves suf­fer­ing the con­se­quent hang­over. Instead, in the U.S. and else­where, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple are left stranded with­out homes, jobs, food, or med­i­cines in the wake of that twenty-year long binge. In the opin­ion of some, the prospects of full employ­ment or secure retire­ments for US cit­i­zens are a dis­tant and unlikely dream. As recently as April 19th 2011, The McDon­ald Cor­po­ra­tion con­ducted a national hir­ing day. Almost one mil­lion peo­ple applied for those jobs, known nei­ther for their lav­ish pay nor for their agree­able work­ing con­di­tions. McDonald’s hired a mere six per­cent of these appli­cants, as many work­ers in one day as the num­ber of net new jobs in the US for all of 2009.2

Unsur­pris­ingly, diag­noses of what went wrong have pro­lif­er­ated fast and furi­ously. Of the many expla­na­tions offered, three stand out.3 First, in a spirit of self-examination, econ­o­mists have con­cluded that their sci­en­tific mod­els of how peo­ple behave and asset prices are deter­mined were wrong and con­tributed to their inabil­ity to antic­i­pate the cri­sis. That is, econ­o­mists con­fessed to their igno­rance of how economies work. Since their earnest attempts to improve these mod­els are unlikely to ques­tion the credulity that forms the shaky foun­da­tions of finan­cial mar­kets, it is likely that the future of finan­cial and macro­eco­nom­ics will resem­ble the epicy­cles and eccen­tric­i­ties of Ptole­maic astron­omy in the time of its decline.4

Sec­ond, jour­nal­ists, pol­icy mak­ers, and econ­o­mists who began to sing a dif­fer­ent tune after the cri­sis erupted, find fault with the ide­ol­ogy of neo-liberalism. There is wide­spread recog­ni­tion now that dereg­u­lated and unreg­u­lated mar­kets allowed com­mer­cial and invest­ment banks to invent and trade in finan­cial instru­ments that car­ried sys­temic risks and con­tributed to the fail­ure of credit and cap­i­tal mar­kets. This doc­trine that unfet­tered mar­kets pro­duce the great­est eco­nomic ben­e­fit for the great­est num­ber, while embar­rassed, is not in full retreat, at least in the U.S.5 That neo-liberal ide­ol­ogy is not van­quished by its evi­dent fail­ures is related to the third cause iden­ti­fied in these diag­nos­tic exercises.

If igno­rance excused econ­o­mists and pol­icy mak­ers from antic­i­pat­ing the cri­sis and widely worn ide­o­log­i­cal blink­ers exac­er­bated it, then it is badly designed incen­tives that are gen­er­ally fin­gered as the most promi­nent and prox­i­mate cause of the cri­sis. Accord­ingly, much ink has been spilled on redesign­ing incen­tives to more effec­tively rein in the “ani­mal spir­its” that derail economies from their pre­sumed path of orderly growth. As such, incen­tives are a flaw that rec­om­mends itself as remedy.

This con­ceit is per­haps best exposed in the report authored by the Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Com­mis­sion of the US gov­ern­ment.6 For instance, in indict­ing the process and meth­ods for gen­er­at­ing and mar­ket­ing mortgage-backed secu­ri­ties, the com­mis­sion empha­sizes that incen­tives unwit­tingly encour­aged fail­ures at every link of the chain. Low-interest rates allowed bor­row­ers to refi­nance their debts and use their homes as ATM cards; lucra­tive fees drove mort­gage bro­kers to herd up sub­prime bor­row­ers; the demand for mort­gages from Wall Street induced bankers to lower lend­ing stan­dards; rat­ing agen­cies stamped lead as gold because paid to do so by invest­ment bankers; the lat­ter dis­trib­uted these toxic assets world­wide rely­ing on math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els of risk; and the C-suite of the finance, insur­ance, and real estate sec­tors presided over the house of card because hand­somely rewarded for short term prof­its. Unsur­pris­ingly, chang­ing these incen­tives through more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions and better-specified rewards and pun­ish­ments to guide the behav­iors of dif­fer­ent mar­ket par­tic­i­pants occupy most of its rec­om­men­da­tions for the path for­ward7

This pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of igno­rance, ide­ol­ogy, and incen­tives used to explain the eco­nomic cri­sis, also illu­mi­nates the space of con­tem­po­rary politico-economic thought. Most of the heated debates on how to ensure orderly growth, cen­ter on the quan­tum of reg­u­la­tion nec­es­sary to con­trol eco­nomic motives with­out sti­fling them. Accord­ingly, think­ing about eco­nomic mat­ters vac­il­lates on a fixed line anchored by two poles-free mar­kets on the one end and mar­kets fet­tered by legally enforced reg­u­la­tions at the other. Only a brief exposé can be afforded here of the lin­ea­ments of this thought-space cir­cum­scribed almost two cen­turies ago.8

Around 1700, Bernard Man­dev­ille acer­bically exposed the mech­a­nism dri­ving eco­nomic growth. Poet­i­cally, he pointed out that it was the vices—vanity, greed, and envy—that spurred the expan­sion of trade and com­merce. In bar­ing the vicious­ness that nour­ished the desire to accu­mu­late riches, he also left to pos­ter­ity the prob­lem of pro­vid­ing a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mar­ket activ­ity.9 Adam Smith pro­vided a seem­ingly last­ing rhetor­i­cal solu­tion to this moral para­dox. First, he col­lapsed the vices into “self-interest” and so removed the sting of vicious­ness from the vices by renam­ing them. Sec­ond, he grounded “self-interest” in a nat­ural desire to “bet­ter our con­di­tion” that began in the womb and ended in the tomb and so mor­al­ized it.10 Third, he invoked an invis­i­ble hand to trans­mute the self-interest of indi­vid­u­als into socially desir­able ben­e­fits. Not only was the pas­sage from the indi­vid­ual to the social thereby obscured by prov­i­den­tial means but the pri­vate pur­suit of riches was also jus­ti­fied by its sup­posed pub­lic benefits.

Thus, Smith hid the para­dox unveiled by Man­dev­ille behind a rhetor­i­cally pleas­ing façade. The uncom­fort­able insight that pri­vate vice leads to pub­lic ben­e­fit was defanged by the notion that pub­lic ben­e­fits accrue from the unflinch­ing pur­suit of self-interest. Whereas the for­mer revealed the vicious mech­a­nism fuel­ing com­mer­cially ori­ented soci­eties, the lat­ter made it palat­able. Faith in the effi­cacy of the inscrutable invis­i­ble hand thereby under­wrote the pur­ported “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests,” accord­ing to which the butcher and the baker in each pur­su­ing his own ends unwit­tingly fur­thers the wealth of the nation at large.

Smith’s rhetor­i­cal con­vo­lu­tions were nec­es­sary because he excised use-value from polit­i­cal econ­omy and founded the lat­ter entirely on exchange-value. In con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sors for whom the eco­nomic could not be sep­a­rated from ethics and pol­i­tics, Smith carves out a space for the eco­nomic by defin­ing its domain by the deter­mi­nants of mar­ket prices.11 He accepted Locke’s argu­ments: that labor is the foun­da­tion of prop­erty rights; that apply­ing labor trans­forms the com­mons into pri­vate prop­erty; that money ignites acquis­i­tive­ness; and that accu­mu­la­tion beyond use is just.12 Smith delib­er­ately ignores the com­mons and embold­ens the mar­ket because it is the sphere in which acquis­i­tive­ness flour­ishes. He cur­tails his inquiry to exchange-value in full aware­ness of the con­trast­ing “value-in-use.” Even if not in these pre­cise terms, the dis­tinc­tion between “exchange-value” and “use-value” was known to both Aris­to­tle and Smith. Yet, Smith is per­haps the first who rec­og­nizes that tra­di­tional dis­tinc­tion and nev­er­the­less rules out use-value as a legit­i­mate sub­ject of an inquiry on wealth.13 For Aris­to­tle, it was pre­cisely the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange that grounded the dis­tinc­tion between appro­pri­ate acqui­si­tion and inap­pro­pri­ate accu­mu­la­tion. More gen­er­ally, it is when con­sid­er­a­tions of jus­tice and the good con­sti­tute the start­ing point of think­ing about man that profit-seeking becomes vis­i­ble as a force that rends the polit­i­cal com­mu­nity into a com­mer­cial soci­ety. By encour­ag­ing self-interestedness, Smith allows the vain­glo­ri­ous pur­suit of wealth to over­shadow virtue as the nat­ural end for man.14 By focus­ing eco­nomic sci­ence on exchange val­ues, Smith priv­i­leges the world of goods over that of the good. The price Smith pays for ignor­ing use-value is the need to invoke prov­i­den­tial the mys­tery by which self-interest becomes socially ben­e­fi­cial. Since Smith, neo-classical eco­nom­ics has either dis­avowed the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange value or con­fessed to being inca­pable of under­stand­ing use-value.15 By insist­ing that the valu­able must nec­es­sar­ily be use­ful, Marx, unlike Aris­to­tle, could not rely on the lat­ter to crit­i­cize the for­mer.16

Nev­er­the­less, it was soon dis­cov­ered that indi­vid­ual self-interest did not “nat­u­rally” pro­duce social ben­e­fits. Vast dis­par­i­ties in wealth, endemic poverty, mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions, and per­sis­tent unem­ploy­ment con­sti­tuted some of the many socially maligned con­se­quences of unfet­tered mar­ket activ­ity. To account for these vis­i­ble fail­ures in the nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests, a sec­ond for­mula, due to Jeremy Ben­tham, was there­fore paired to it. An “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” forged through laws and reg­u­la­tions were deemed nec­es­sary to lessen the dis­junc­tion between pri­vate inter­ests and pub­lic ben­e­fits. That is, state inter­ven­tions in the form of incen­tives – whether coded in money or by law- were thought nec­es­sary to prod way­ward mar­ket par­tic­i­pants to bet­ter serve the pub­lic inter­est.17

Accord­ingly, it is this dialec­tic between the nat­ural and arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests that encodes the poles of the Mar­ket and the State and con­sti­tutes the thought-space for con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions on eco­nomic affairs.18 Too lit­tle reg­u­la­tion and mar­kets become socially destruc­tive; too much reg­u­la­tion and the wealth-creating engines fueled by self-interest begin to sput­ter. And yet, the con­tin­uum con­sti­tuted by these two poles is uni­fied by a com­mon pre­sup­po­si­tion: that use-value is of no use to com­merce and that the ego­ism implied by self-interest is both nec­es­sary and nat­ural to com­mer­cial expansion.

Though the eco­nomic cri­sis has, once again, exposed the Man­dev­il­lian foun­da­tions of com­mer­cial soci­ety, think­ing about it con­tin­ues to func­tion in the space marked out by Smith, Ben­tham and the founders of that philo­soph­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, which erected the moral­ity of a soci­ety ori­ented by exchange value on the foun­da­tion of ego­ism. When con­fined to this thought-space, one is con­demned to rely­ing, in alter­nat­ing steps, on the inter­re­lated log­ics of free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The ques­tion remains whether there is an alter­na­tive to the thought-space con­sti­tuted by the State and the Mar­ket. Per­haps the answer to this ques­tion lies in tak­ing a dis­tance to what these log­ics pre­sume: that exchange-value is of pre­em­i­nent worth and that pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­als are to be har­nessed to that cause.

Mind Trap 2: the envi­ron­men­tal crisis

Boarded up homes and idle hands are to the ongo­ing cri­sis in eco­nomic affairs, what dis­ap­pear­ing fish and poi­soned airs are to the oncom­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. A gen­er­a­tion after Rachel Car­son and Barry Com­moner, sci­en­tists are now of almost one mind: humankind’s activ­i­ties on the earth have so changed it, that the species is now threat­ened by dis­as­ter on a plan­e­tary scale.19 What poets and prophets once warned in verse, sci­en­tists now tell us through sta­tis­tics and mod­els. Lurk­ing beneath those dry num­bers is a grow­ing cat­a­log of hor­rors – ris­ing seas, rag­ing rivers, melt­ing glac­i­ers, dead zones in the oceans, unbear­able hot spots on land – that fore­tell an unliv­able future.

Were the pic­ture they paint not so dire, it would be laugh­ably ironic that sci­en­tists and tech­nocrats now dis­avow the fruits of the very techno-scientific machine they once served to mid­wife. But it is cer­tainly tragic that in think­ing about what can be done to avert the impend­ing cri­sis, sci­en­tists and engi­neers no less than politi­cians and cor­po­rate bosses insist on more of the same. Atten­tion is now directed at invent­ing meth­ods to not only mit­i­gate the phys­i­cal effects of run­away indus­tri­al­iza­tion, but also to re-engineer the human psy­che to bet­ter adapt to such effects. Thus, from recy­cling plas­tic and increas­ing fuel mileage in cars to devis­ing tow­ers to sequester car­bon under­sea and engi­neer­ing car­bon eat­ing plants, the pro­posed solu­tions range from the mun­dane to the bizarre. More gen­er­ally, the debate on what to do about the con­flict between eco­nomic growth and eco­log­i­cal integrity is anchored by two poles: at the one end, “eco-friendly” or “sus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, and at the other, pre­sum­ably “unsus­tain­able” or envi­ron­men­tally destruc­tive ones.

Thus man’s sur­vival appears as a choice between the Prius, solar pan­els, biodegrad­able paper bags, local foods, and high den­sity urban lofts on the one hand, and the Hum­mer, oil tanks, plas­tic bags, indus­tri­al­ized foods, and sub­ur­bia on the other. Eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies may change the fuel that pow­ers our energy slaves but does noth­ing to change our depen­dence on them. That the fruits of techno-science have turned poi­so­nous is seen as a prob­lem call­ing for more and improved tech­ni­cal solu­tions imply­ing that the domain of tech­nol­ogy forms the hori­zon of eco­log­i­cal thought.20 That more and dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy is the dom­i­nant response to its fail­ure sug­gests that the made (techne) has replaced the given (physis). Eco­log­i­cal thought is con­fined to the space framed by tech­nol­ogy partly because of the unstated assump­tion that knowl­edge is cer­tain only when it is made.

It was Vico who announced the specif­i­cally mod­ern claim that knowl­edge is made, that verum et fac­tum con­ver­tun­tur (the true and the made are con­vert­ible; have iden­ti­cal deno­ta­tion). It is true that the school­men, in think­ing through the ques­tion of the Chris­t­ian God’s omnipo­tence and omni­science, argued his knowl­edge was iden­ti­cal to his cre­ations. They argued this by insist­ing that through his cre­ative act (mak­ing some­thing from noth­ing) he expressed ele­ments already con­tained within Him­self. God knows every­thing because he made it all from his own being. How­ever, the school­men humbly held that the iden­tity of mak­ing and know­ing applied only to God. Man, being cre­ated, could not know him­self or other nat­ural kinds in the man­ner akin to God. Since sci­en­tia or indu­bitable knowl­edge was the most per­fect kind of knowl­edge, and nature or physis was already given to man, it implied that man could not sci­en­tif­i­cally know the sub­lu­nary world. It took a Galileo and a Descartes to turn this under­stand­ing on its head.21

These early mod­erns were “sec­u­lar the­olo­gians” who tried to marry heaven and earth. They argued that geo­met­ri­cal objects or forms – such as tri­an­gles and squares – were unearthly. At best, such math­e­mat­i­cal objects were “ideas” formed by the cre­ative act of the imag­i­na­tion. The imag­i­na­tion as a site of cre­ative activ­ity entailed that it be unhinged from what is given. Exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal objects, whose per­fec­tion owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the imper­fect beings of the world, the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians thus argued that the truth of ideas is guar­an­teed by the very fact that they are made.22

The per­fect and time­less shapes of geom­e­try were once thought to be applic­a­ble only to the unmov­ing heav­ens. The sub­lu­nary sphere of gen­er­a­tion, change, and decay was not sus­cep­ti­ble to immo­bile math­e­mat­i­cal forms. But accord­ing to the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, what was good for the heav­ens was good enough for the earth. By insist­ing that the book of nature was writ­ten in “mea­sure, weight and num­ber,” these early mod­erns raised the earth to the stars.

For them, beneath the bloom­ing, buzzing, phe­nom­e­nal world lurked the laws of nature inscribed in math­e­mat­i­cally for­mu­lated reg­u­lar­i­ties. Thus the made lay beneath the given, it required ardu­ous exper­i­men­ta­tion – the vex­ing of nature – to unveil these insen­si­ble but imag­ined laws. Accord­ingly, math­e­mat­i­cal forms and lab­o­ra­tory exper­i­ments con­sti­tuted the pre­em­i­nent meth­ods for con­struct­ing knowl­edge of the world. Unhinged from the given because com­mit­ted to the cause of the made, techno-science shook off its Aris­totelian roots, where expe­ri­ence was the mem­o­rable formed from long immer­sion in the reg­u­lar­i­ties of the world, gen­e­sis and move­ment were impos­si­ble to know with cer­tainty but only for the most part, and beings in the world were pos­sessed of sub­stan­tive natures.23

Pride­ful immod­esty was not the only rea­son that early mod­ern philoso­phers brought the heav­ens to the earth. They also did so for char­i­ta­ble rea­sons. Moved by con­cern for the poor this-worldly con­di­tion of man, they sought to improve man’s estate by escap­ing what is given – food tech­nolo­gies to erase hunger, cars and planes to over­come the lim­its of time and space, med­i­cines to elim­i­nate dis­ease, and now genetic manip­u­la­tions to per­haps even cheat death. Thus, pride and char­ity infuse that potent and world-making brew we call techno-science.24

Mod­ern techno-science grew, a bit topsy-turvy, but always cleav­ing close to these found­ing impulses. The pride that com­pels to know-by-construction con­tin­ues to be wed­ded to the char­ity fuel­ing the pro­duc­tion of arti­facts that bet­ter our con­di­tion by trans­mo­gri­fy­ing it. Whether TV’s or the­o­rems, the mod­ern techno-scientific endeavor is one by which, Entis ratio­nis, cre­ations or con­struc­tions of the mind, are pro­jected and given form as entis realis, things real­ized. Caught in this closed loop between mind and its pro­jec­tions, every­where he looks, man now sees only what he has made. Instead of recov­er­ing the gar­den of his orig­i­nal inno­cence, mod­ern man is now faced with the grow­ing desert of his own mak­ing. Yet, trapped by the premise of the iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, con­tem­po­rary thought remains unable to think of any­thing other than remak­ing what has been badly made.25

Per­haps it is this com­mit­ment to the propo­si­tion that we can know only what we make, to knowl­edge by con­struc­tion, that forces us to be trapped within the techno-scientific frame. The envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis has exposed the Achilles heel of unre­strained techno-scientific progress. Yet, faith in Progress and in Knowl­edge as the cur­rency of Free­dom remains unshaken. Shut­tling between the poles of “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, the for­mer is prof­fered as the new and improved cure for the dis­eases caused by the lat­ter. And once more, dis­in­ter­ested curios­ity and solic­i­tous con­cern for the wel­fare of oth­ers jus­tify and reaf­firm faith in sal­va­tion through tech­nol­ogy. To escape this debil­i­tat­ing con­fine per­haps requires being dis­abused of the prej­u­di­cial iden­tity between know­ing and mak­ing, which ani­mates techno-science.

Planely speak­ing, but not entirely

The space con­sti­tuted by the dialec­tic between a nat­ural and arti­fi­cial “har­mony of inter­ests” enfolds the rela­tion between free and reg­u­lated mar­kets. The pol­i­tics of a com­mer­cial repub­lic is ori­ented to the sat­is­fac­tion of human needs through com­modi­ties. To con­tin­u­ally increase the sat­is­fac­tion of needs, mar­ket soci­eties must expand the sphere of com­mod­ity depen­dence, that is, the relent­less pur­suit eco­nomic growth. The pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties pre­sup­poses the worker and the con­sumer, and regard­less of who owns the means of pro­duc­tion or how prof­its are dis­trib­uted, eco­nomic growth requires workers/consumers. Even if work­ers are no more likely to find well-paying jobs than are debt sat­u­rated con­sumers likely to buy more stuff, the social imag­i­nary formed of work­ers and con­sumers per­sists. Accord­ingly, any effort to see beneath or beyond this con­fin­ing thought-space must take its dis­tance to this indus­trial mind-set formed by the thor­ough­go­ing depen­dence on commodities.

Sim­i­larly, the debate on the neces­sity of “eco-friendly” tech­nolo­gies that carry a lower “eco­log­i­cal foot­print” pre­sup­poses man as oper­a­tor instead of as user.26 The user is trans­formed into an oper­a­tor when the power of a tool over­whelms that of its user. Thus, whether it is a Prius or a Hum­mer, both aim to improve man’s con­di­tion by frus­trat­ing his nat­ural abil­ity and capac­ity to walk. Both demand skilled oper­a­tors to steer, and nei­ther per­mits the degrees of free­dom nec­es­sary for autonomous use. Whether pro­moted by the tech­no­crat or eco­crat, men are dis­abled by and become depen­dent on their arti­facts when the lat­ter are designed for oper­a­tors instead of enabling users.

The ordi­nary and every­day mean­ing of use­ful­ness embeds it within both human pur­poses and human actions. A thing is use­ful inso­far as it unleashes and extends the capac­i­ties of the user; as long as it can be shaped, adapted, and mod­i­fied to fit the pur­poses of its users. There­fore, the capac­ity of a thing to be use­ful is lim­ited by the innate pow­ers or nat­ural thresh­olds of the user. For exam­ple, a bicy­cle calls for users because it only extends the innate capac­ity for self-mobility. In con­trast, the auto­mo­bile requires immo­bile if adept machine oper­a­tors. In this sense, the for­mer is a con­vivial tech­nol­ogy where the lat­ter is manip­u­la­tive. A hand-pump or a well can be used to raise water for drink­ing or bathing. In con­trast, a flush-toilet or a dam must be oper­ated to pipe or store a liq­uid resource. Thus, to bring to light was has been cast into the shad­ows requires expos­ing the dis­abling fea­tures of some technologies.

Accord­ingly, what­ever lies beyond the thought-space marked by the dialec­tic of the State-Market on the one hand and that of the sustainable-unsustainable tech­nol­ogy on the other, it must be het­ero­ge­neous to both the worker/consumer and the oper­a­tor. In this search, two caveats are to be kept in mind. First, even if the ques­tion is addressed to the present, the answer must be sought for in the past. One is obliged to rum­mage in the dust­bin of his­tory to recover what was once mus­cled into it. Oth­er­wise, imag­ined futures would give wing to utopian dreams just like those that have now turned night­mar­ish. Sec­ond, there is no going back to the past and there is no choice between the (post)industrial and the tra­di­tional immured in habit and trans­mit­ted by mem­ory. The depen­dence on com­modi­ties and manip­u­la­tive tech­nolo­gies has been and con­tin­ues to be estab­lished on the destruc­tion of alter­na­tive modes of being and think­ing. There is lit­tle of the lat­ter around, even as mil­lions of peas­ants and abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples are daily uprooted and dis­placed in China, India, and Latin Amer­ica. But it would be sen­ti­men­tal and dan­ger­ous to think that one can or should bring back the past. Instead, the task for thought is to find con­cep­tual cri­te­ria to help think through the present.27

The Ver­nac­u­lar Domain

Ivan Illich pro­posed to reviv­ify the word “ver­nac­u­lar” to name a domain that excludes both the con­sumer and the oper­a­tor. The appro­pri­ate word to speak of the domain beyond depen­dence on com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies is fun­da­men­tal to avoid­ing one or both of two con­fu­sions. First, the pre­sup­po­si­tions of eco­nom­ics and techno-science are likely to be anachro­nis­ti­cally pro­jected into forms-of-life that lie out­side or beyond the thought space con­sti­tuted by them. This is obvi­ous when econ­o­mists retro-project fables of the dia­mond and water “para­dox,” “utility-maximization” and “scarcity” into pre-modern texts. So does the his­to­rian of tech­nol­ogy who indif­fer­ently sees the mon­key, Nean­derthal man, and the uni­ver­sity stu­dent as tool users. In a related vein, forms-of-life orthog­o­nal to techno-scientifically fueled economies are likely to be mis­un­der­stood. Thus, those who today refuse mod­ern con­ve­niences are labeled Lud­dites or just cussed, while those who get by out­side the techno-scientific and com­mod­ity bub­bles are clas­si­fied as back­ward or poor.

A sec­ond, more potent, con­fu­sion flour­ishes in the absence of a word ade­quate to the domain out­side tech­no­log­i­cally inten­sive mar­ket soci­eties. Dis­abling tech­nolo­gies no less than wage work can pro­duce or gen­er­ate unpaid toil. That the spin­ning jenny and the com­puter have put peo­ple out of work is well-known. But it is less famil­iar that waged work neces­si­tates a shad­owy unpaid com­ple­ment. Indeed, wage work is a per­haps dimin­ish­ing tip of the total toil exacted in market-intensive soci­eties. House­work, school­work, com­mut­ing, mon­i­tor­ing the intake of med­i­cines or the out­flows from a bank account are only a few exam­ples of the time and toil devoted to the nec­es­sary shadow work com­pelled by commodity-intensive social arrange­ments. To con­fuse the shadow work neces­si­tated by the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion with the unpaid labor in set­tings where pro­duc­tion is not sep­a­rated from con­sump­tion is to mis­un­der­stand shadow work as either autonomous action or the threat­ened and shrink­ing spaces out­side the mar­ket.28

Indica­tive of this con­fu­sion is the use of such terms as “sub­sis­tence econ­omy,” “infor­mal economies,” or “peas­ant econ­omy” to refer to what has been cast into the shad­ows. By adding an adjec­tive to the “econ­omy,” his­to­ri­ans and anthro­pol­o­gists unwit­tingly rein­force the grip of what they intend to weaken. By merely mod­i­fy­ing the “econ­omy” they are nev­er­the­less beholden to its pre­sup­po­si­tions. A sim­i­lar weak­ness attends the term “sub­sis­tence.” While its ety­mol­ogy is noble and invokes that which is self-sufficient and stands in place, its mod­ern con­no­ta­tions are irre­deemably nar­row and uncouth. In pri­mar­ily invok­ing the modes by which peo­ple pro­vided for their mate­r­ial needs – food and shel­ter – “sub­sis­tence” rein­forces the eco­nomic by nega­tion. With its con­no­ta­tions of “basic neces­si­ties” or “bare sur­vival,” sub­sis­tence des­ic­cates the var­ied and mul­ti­far­i­ous forms-of-life once and still con­ducted beyond the space cir­cum­scribed by the machine and the mar­ket. One can­not speak of “sub­sis­tence archi­tec­ture” as one can of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures. “Peas­ant” or “infor­mal” does not mod­ify dance and song, prayer and lan­guage, food and play. And yet, these are inte­gral to a life well-lived, and at least his­tor­i­cally, were nei­ther com­mod­i­fied nor the prod­ucts of techno-science. It is to avoid such blind­ing con­fu­sions that Illich argued for reha­bil­i­tat­ing the word “ver­nac­u­lar.“29

Though from the Latin ver­nac­u­lum, which named all that was home­bred, home­made, and home­spun, it was through Varro’s restricted sense of ver­nac­u­lar speech that the word “ver­nac­u­lar” enters Eng­lish. The his­tory of how ver­nac­u­lar speech was trans­muted into a “taught mother tongue,” is an exem­plar of not only what lies beyond the con­tem­po­rary thought-space but also for what may be wor­thy of recu­per­a­tion in mod­ern forms.30

Elio Anto­nio de Nebrija was a con­tem­po­rary of Christo­pher Colum­bus. In 1492, he peti­tioned Queen Isabella to spon­sor a tool to quell the unruly every­day speech of her sub­jects. In the Spain of Isabella, her sub­jects spoke in a mul­ti­tude of tongues. To dis­ci­pline the anar­chic speech of peo­ple in the inter­est of her power Nebrija noted, “Lan­guage has always been the con­sort of empire, and for­ever shall remain its mate.” To unify the sword and the book through lan­guage, Nebrija offered both a rule­book for Span­ish gram­mar and a dic­tio­nary. In a kind of alchem­i­cal exer­cise, Nebrija reduced lived speech to a con­structed gram­mar. Accord­ingly, this con­ver­sion of the speech of peo­ple into a national lan­guage stands as a pro­to­type of the for­ays in that long war to cre­ate a world fit for workers/ con­sumers and operators.

Nebrija fab­ri­cated a Span­ish gram­mar as a tool to rule enlivened speech. Because stan­dard­ized and pro­duced by an expert, his gram­mar had to be taught to be effec­tive. More­over, fol­low­ing gram­mat­i­cal rules for speech con­veys the belief that peo­ple can­not speak with­out learn­ing the rules of gram­mar. By this dis­pen­sa­tion, the tongue is trained to repeat the gram­mat­i­cal forms it is taught; the tongue is made to oper­ate on lan­guage. Hence, the nat­ural abil­ity to speak that can be exer­cised by each and all is trans­formed into an alien­able prod­uct requir­ing pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. The con­ver­sion of every­day speech into a teach­able mother tongue thus ren­ders what is abun­dant into the regime of scarcity – to the realm of exchange-value. Instruc­tion in lan­guage not only dis­ables the nat­ural pow­ers of the speaker but also makes her depen­dent on cer­ti­fied ser­vice providers. Thus, Nebrija’s pro­posal at once dis­closes and fore­shad­ows the world pop­u­lated by work­ers and oper­a­tors, by the mar­ket and the machine.

The war against the ver­nac­u­lar has been pros­e­cuted for some 500 years.31 Once the com­mod­ity and mar­ket occu­pied the inter­stices of every­day life. Today, it is every­where. For most of human his­tory, tools were shaped by the pur­poses and lim­ited by the nat­ural abil­i­ties of its users. Today, their machines enslave the major­ity of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly in advanced indus­trial soci­eties. Though this trans­for­ma­tion has and is occur­ring in dif­fer­ent places at dif­fer­ent times and rates, it nev­er­the­less dupli­cates the dia­gram of how stan­dard­ized Span­ish gram­mar dis­em­bed­ded the speech of peo­ple. For instance, the rapa­cious “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” that enclosed the com­mons in the 17th cen­tury, uprooted Eng­lish peas­ants from the land to make them fully depen­dent on wages. A sim­i­lar dis­pos­ses­sion now occurs in China and India, where hun­dreds of mil­lions move from farms to fac­to­ries and slums. Abo­rig­i­nal tribes of the Ama­zon are being dis­pos­sessed and killed now with the same impunity as those in Aus­tralia and the Amer­i­cas once were. For enter­tain­ment, chil­dren now oper­ate PlaySta­tions where they once kicked around a ball on the street. Mega-churches in the US indoc­tri­nate the flock with power point slides and music, much as teach­ers, train­ers, and coaches do in class­rooms around the coun­try. Food sci­en­tists, nutri­tion­ists, and plant pathol­o­gists pro­vide just some of the inputs that con­sumers depend on for their daily calo­rie intake. Whether in single-family homes or boxes piled on top of each other, peo­ple live in houses seem­ingly cut from an architect’s tem­plate. Women in India now demand valen­tine cards with as much enthu­si­asm as Turk­ish men pur­chase hair, calf, and chest implants. The his­tor­i­cal record is rife with exam­ples that stand as wit­nesses to the con­tin­u­ing destruc­tion of the ver­nac­u­lar –whether of food, shel­ter, song, love, or pleasures.

It is by attend­ing to the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of our present predica­ment in the mir­ror of the past that Illich thus reveals a third axis that lies orthog­o­nal to the plane cir­cum­scribed by the axes of com­mod­ity inten­sity and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. On this z-axis are located forms of social orga­ni­za­tion anchored by two het­ero­ge­neous forms. At the point of ori­gin of this three-dimensional space, are social arrange­ments that plug peo­ple into mar­kets and machines and thereby pre­vent them from exer­cis­ing their freely given pow­ers. At the other end of this z-axis is found a pro­fu­sion of social forms, each dif­fer­ent from the other, but all marked by sus­pi­cion towards the claims for techno-science and the commodity.

For these modes of social orga­ni­za­tion, the dif­fer­ence between “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies is a chimera. Instead, what mat­ters is the real dis­tinc­tion between con­vivial and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Sim­i­larly, the pur­ported dif­fer­ence between reg­u­lated and free mar­kets, between pub­lic and pri­vate prop­erty does lit­tle to shape these social forms. Instead, they are ani­mated by the dis­tinc­tion between the house­hold and the com­mons. Thus, the Amish of Penn­syl­va­nia cur­tail their use of such power tools as trac­tors. The Bhutanese limit the num­ber of tourists to whom they play host. Some cities in Ger­many and Den­mark have banned the car to make way for the bicy­cle and walk­ing. Whether on a rooftop in Chicago or by the rail track in Mum­bai, diverse groups rely on their veg­etable patches for some their daily sus­te­nance. While com­mu­nity sup­ported agri­cul­ture build bonds of per­sonal depen­dence, ceramic dry toi­lets and related forms of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures allow peo­ple to dwell. In a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh on the Lud­dites and the Roman­tics, one is per­suaded by the implicit claim that com­mu­nism for the 21st cen­tury may need to mimic in a new key, the coura­geous Lud­dite defense of the ver­nac­u­lar.32 Even Marx, in his last years, was less of a Marx­ist than many of those who spoke in his name. He was far more open to the peas­ant com­munes of Rus­sia and West­ern Europe than usu­ally assumed.33

These modes and man­ners of liv­ing in the present are informed by the past. Those engaged in the attempt to unplug from the mar­ket and the machine know that the reign of prop­erty – whether pri­vate or public-was erected on the ruins of the com­mons and that the ubiq­uity of dis­abling technologies-whether sus­tain­able or not-was achieved by den­i­grat­ing con­vivial tools. Yet, cru­cially, know­ing what is past has gone, they are not dog­matic in their fight. They prac­tice a form of brico­lage, oppor­tunis­ti­cally tak­ing back what­ever they can get. A shared lawn­mower here, an over­grown and weed infested gar­den there, a polit­i­cal strug­gle to retain arti­sanal fish­ing in Ker­ala, a move to the bar­ri­cades in the Chi­a­pas, the will­ing­ness to ped­dle cocaine derived home reme­dies in Peru and build­ing ille­gal ten­e­ments on pub­lic lands in Sao Paulo, each effort is aimed at reduc­ing the rad­i­cal monop­oly of com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Such ways – of fish­ing, farm­ing, cook­ing, eat­ing, dwelling, play­ing, pray­ing or study – are as diverse and var­ied today as the peo­ple who engage in them. How­ever, what they have in com­mon is being ori­ented by the same genus, the vernacular.

Epis­temic Prudence

The effort to fight against the con­tin­u­ing war on the ver­nac­u­lar also extends to the activ­ity of think­ing.34 What is con­fused for knowl­edge today is largely R&D funded and deployed by gov­ern­ment and indus­try. Sci­en­tists, whether in the employ of uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ments, or cor­po­ra­tions, pro­duce objec­tive knowl­edge for use by oth­ers. The per­ti­nent ques­tion for those affected by these cir­cuits of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and sale is to ask if there are ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing. Is there a kind of thought jus­ti­fied by nei­ther pride nor char­ity? What is the nature of rig­or­ous thought that is nev­er­the­less con­ducted among friends and aimed at shap­ing one’s own modes of life in more beau­ti­ful ways? Are some styles of think­ing bet­ter suited to com­pre­hend­ing the vernacular?

It is likely that the intel­lec­tual effort appro­pri­ate to bring­ing ver­nac­u­lar ways out of the shad­ows might itself be self-limiting. I sug­gest the now dis­carded notion of com­mon sense as a cri­te­rion to both com­pre­hend the ver­nac­u­lar domain and to rec­og­nize the styles of thought appro­pri­ate to it. Though the his­tory of com­mon sense is too tan­gled a story to be told here, it is suf­fi­cient to note its pri­mary mean­ing, at least in Eng­lish. The first mean­ing of com­mon sense is the Aris­totelian “sen­sus com­mu­nis”: “The com­mon bond or cen­ter of the five senses; the endow­ment of nat­ural intel­li­gence pos­sessed by ratio­nal beings.”35 This under­stand­ing of the com­mon sense stretches from at least Plato to Descartes and, in this pri­mor­dial sense, refers to the fac­ulty nec­es­sary for the exer­cise of rea­son­able judg­ments. Con­trary to pop­u­lar prej­u­dice today, com­mon sense does not refer to the con­tent of what is known but rather how knowl­edge is achieved. Com­mon sense is not reducible to a body of propo­si­tions or of knowledge-claims: instead, it is the ground from which judg­ments are reached, par­tic­u­larly, the judg­ment of what is appro­pri­ate, fit­ting, or ade­quate.36

Briefly, com­mon sense is that fac­ulty which syn­the­sizes sense impres­sions into per­cep­tions of the world. In turn, the active intel­li­gence abstracts con­cepts from these sen­si­ble per­cep­tions. An echo of this activ­ity of the intel­lect still res­onates in the word “con­cept,” ety­mo­log­i­cally related to grasp­ing or touch­ing. That con­cepts are teth­ered to per­cepts, which are rooted in the sen­sual, under­writes that Aris­totelian com­mon­place, “noth­ing in the intel­lect that is not first in the senses.” Con­cepts are abstrac­tions. But pre­cisely because they are abstrac­tions from the real, they main­tain an accord between the world and the mind. Stated sim­ply, both per­cep­tion and the con­cepts that flow from them are depen­dent on what is given to the senses; con­cep­tions of the world depend on grasp­ing the world as it is.

Yet, techno-science is based on pre­cisely turn­ing this under­stand­ing on its head. Indeed, the announce­ment of Vico may be taken as the slo­gan behind which a com­mon sense under­stand­ing of the world was slowly suf­fo­cated. From the very begin­ning of mod­ern sci­ence, know­ing is under­stood to be the same as mak­ing: the Carte­sian plane is as con­structed as an air­plane; the Pois­son dis­tri­b­u­tion is as fab­ri­cated as a pipette in the lab­o­ra­tory. Mod­ern sci­en­tific ideas are not con­cepts teth­ered to the senses; instead they are con­structs. Con­structs, as the word sug­gests, are made and not given. As Ein­stein famously said, “Phys­i­cal con­cepts are free cre­ations of the human mind, and not…uniquely deter­mined by the exter­nal world.” Though wrong to use the word “con­cepts,” his acknowl­edge­ment that sci­en­tific the­o­ries are cre­ated under­scores how sci­en­tific con­structs frac­tures the com­mon sense tie between per­cep­tion and reality.

The sharp dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs recalls that the mod­ern world is con­structed and that peo­ple and things are often resized to fit in. Con­cepts are forms of thought engen­dered by the com­mon sense, which itself expresses the union between the world and the senses. Con­cepts reflect a way of know­ing things from the out­side in – from the world to the mind. In con­trast, con­structs are forms of reflex­ive thought express­ing a way of know­ing from the inside out – from the mind to the world.In mod­ern times, what is made up does not ide­ally con­form to what is given. Instead, what is given is slowly buried under the made-up world.

Sci­en­tific con­structs are there­fore not rooted by a sense for the world. Indeed, given the con­trast between con­cepts and con­structs, it fol­lows that sci­en­tific ideas are non-sense. They are not abstracted from expe­ri­ence but can often be used to reshape it. They can be exper­i­men­tally ver­i­fied or fal­si­fied. But exper­i­ments are not the stuff of ordi­nary expe­ri­ence. No exper­i­ment is nec­es­sary to ver­ify if peo­ple breathe, but one is required to prove the prop­er­ties of a vac­uum. Exper­i­ments are nec­es­sary pre­cisely to test what is not ordi­nar­ily evi­dent, which is why they are con­ducted in con­trolled set­tings and also used to pro­pa­gan­dize the unusual as ordi­nar­ily com­pre­hen­si­ble. Exper­i­men­tal results are nei­ther nec­es­sar­ily con­tin­u­ous with nor com­pre­hen­si­ble to every­day expe­ri­ence; they do not clar­ify expe­ri­ence but usu­ally obfus­cate it.

Unlike R&D, ver­nac­u­lar styles of thought are nei­ther insti­tu­tion­ally funded nor directed at the pur­ported hap­pi­ness and ease of oth­ers. More­over, ver­nac­u­lar think­ing also cleaves closely to the com­mon sense under­stood as the seat of rea­son­able judg­ments. Thus, it avoids the mon­strous heights to which thought can rise on the wings of the unfet­tered imag­i­na­tion. Accord­ingly, the abil­ity to grasp the ver­nac­u­lar demands not only the courage needed to buck aca­d­e­mic pres­sures but also to avoid those flights of the­o­ret­i­cal mad­ness pow­ered through the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of con­structs.37

To draw out some fea­tures of the form of thought ade­quate to the ver­nac­u­lar domain, con­sider Illich’s essay titled Energy and Equity, where he dis­tin­guishes between trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic. Whereas tran­sit bespeaks the motion afforded to man the self-moving ani­mal, trans­port refers to his being moved by het­eronomous means, whether car, train, or plane. There, a bul­lock cart trans­ports vil­lagers headed to the mar­ket. Here cars trans­port com­muters to the work­place. By com­mon sense per­cep­tion, trans­port – whether by cart or car – per­verts tran­sit, which is embod­ied in the freely given capac­ity to walk. To those who can­not per­ceive the sen­sual and car­nal dif­fer­ence between walk­ing and being moved as a Fedex pack­age, the dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit is unper­sua­sive. It is equally unper­sua­sive to those mired in that con­structed uni­verse where all motion is iden­ti­fied with the dis­place­ment of any body in space. The rit­u­al­ized expo­sure to passenger-miles – whether in cars or class­rooms – is the likely rea­son for the inabil­ity to per­ceive the felt dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit. Thus, the elab­o­ra­tion of con­cepts to prop­erly grasp the ver­nac­u­lar domain can­not but begin by plac­ing the con­struc­tions of the econ­omy and techno-science within epis­temic brackets.

Yet, if it is to be rea­son­able, such an exer­cise in epis­temic hygiene can­not be immod­er­ate.38 The con­trast between trans­port and tran­sit is clear and dis­tinct, rooted as it is in phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cally dis­tinct per­cep­tions. Yet, traf­fic is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct, pro­posed to com­pre­hend any com­bi­na­tion of trans­port and tran­sit. This neces­sity for con­structs is nev­er­the­less under­mined by their being teth­ered to and by con­cepts. Accord­ingly, the con­cep­tual grasp of the world hob­bles the free con­struc­tion of it. The dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs does not imply refus­ing the lat­ter at all costs but rather entails see­ing the hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion between them. That is, ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing do not exclude the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs but only seek to keep them in their place.

A sec­ond and related fea­ture of ver­nac­u­lar thought-styles con­firms its mod­er­ate and indeed, mod­est nature. In accord with ver­nac­u­lar ways, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the exclu­sion or exci­sion of that which is anti­thet­i­cal and for­eign to its domain – the mar­ket or the machine. For instance, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the era­sure of trans­port so that tran­sit can flour­ish. Instead, because rooted in the per­ceived accord or just pro­por­tion between the tran­sit and trans­port, ver­nac­u­lar thought insists only that the capac­ity for auto-mobility impose a bind­ing con­straint on trans­port. The sug­ges­tion that the speed limit for cars be roughly the same as that reached by a bicy­cle is rooted in the argu­ment that traf­fic be cal­i­brated by the lex­i­co­graphic pref­er­ence for tran­sit over transport.

Thus, ver­nac­u­lar ways of think­ing in con­so­nance with doing and being do not deny con­structs – whether imag­ined or real­ized. It merely refuses the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­ern iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of know­ing and mak­ing, of reduc­ing think­ing to cal­cu­lat­ing, of dis­plac­ing the rela­tion between sub­jects and their pred­i­cates by quan­ti­ta­tive com­par­isons. In see­ing beyond the prej­u­dice that com­pares beings in terms of “mea­sure, num­ber, and weight,” ver­nac­u­lar thought rean­i­mates a sec­ond form of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment that, with it, was also cast into the shad­ows. Recall, as Ein­stein admit­ted, sci­en­tific con­structs are free cre­ations of the mind, exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal con­structs – equa­tions, cal­cu­la­tions, and the like. But such math­e­mat­i­cal mea­sure­ment is only the infe­rior of two kinds of quan­ti­ta­tive measurement.

In The States­man, Plato argues for the dis­tinc­tion between arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ric” mea­sures.39 While both are forms of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ments, arith­meti­cal or numer­i­cal mea­sure is inde­pen­dent of the pur­poses of the cal­cu­la­tor and either cor­rect or incor­rect. In con­trast, “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ments of too much or too lit­tle are inex­tri­ca­bly bound to inten­tion­al­ity and there­fore never sim­ply cor­rect or incor­rect but always mea­sured with respect to what is just right or fit­ting. To clar­ify the dis­tinc­tion, con­sider the fol­low­ing two points. Given a con­ven­tional mea­sure – gal­lons or liters – a quan­tity of water can be pre­cisely and uni­ver­sally mea­sured as 4. How­ever, whether 4 is too much or too lit­tle depends on whether one intends to fill a 3 or 5 gal­lon pail; or to put out a blaz­ing fire or to water a horse. The frame of inten­tion­al­ity or pur­pose thus defines the quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment of greater or lesser, of more or less. Accord­ingly, the numer­i­cal mea­sure of plus or minus 1 gains its mean­ing from and is there­fore sub­or­di­nate to the non-numerically mea­sure of too much or too lit­tle. More­over, it is also rel­a­tive to pur­pose that 3 or 5 is con­sid­ered fit­ting, appro­pri­ate or just right.

But there is a sec­ond point to be empha­sized about the rela­tion between so-called arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ri­cal” mea­sure­ments. Arith­meti­cal mea­sures are utterly ster­ile when it comes to answer­ing the ques­tion of pur­pose, of what is to be done. That is, the ques­tion of whether a given end is appro­pri­ate or fit­ting can­not be debated in math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols. In fact, the oppo­site is true. It is always pos­si­ble to ask if apply­ing arith­meti­cal mea­sures to a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion is appro­pri­ate. Thus, whether one should fill a 5-gallon pail, or con­struct a math­e­mat­i­cal model of human behav­ior or fab­ri­cate a mea­sure called eco­log­i­cal foot­print are unan­swer­able in numer­i­cal terms.40

That arith­meti­cal mea­sure­ments can­not adju­di­cate its own appro­pri­ate­ness shows they are infe­rior in rank or hier­ar­chi­cally sub­or­di­nate to “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ment. The ques­tion con­cern­ing pur­pose is pre­em­i­nently a ques­tion of ethics, of jus­tice among per­sons. More­over, since per­sonal rela­tion­ship can­not but be grounded in the embod­ied sense of and for another, it fol­lows that eth­i­cal judg­ments must be rooted in com­mon sense. Thus, geo­met­ric mea­sures of what is just and right, of what is appro­pri­ate and fit­ting, are judg­ments formed of the com­mon sense. Accord­ingly it fol­lows that con­cepts should reg­u­late and serve as norms for con­structs and, anal­o­gously, that ver­nac­u­lar ways should reg­u­late techno-scientific constructions.

Past or Future?

Illich’s plea to resus­ci­tate the ver­nac­u­lar must be taken seri­ously – espe­cially now, when the ongo­ing eco­nomic and eco­log­i­cal crises reveal the restricted thought-space within which con­tem­po­rary debates con­tinue to be con­ducted. Just as the demand for more reg­u­lated mar­kets expose exchange-value as the pre­sup­po­si­tion of eco­nomic thought, so also the call for sus­tain­able or eco-friendly tech­nolo­gies expose the grip of techno-science on the mod­ern imag­i­nary. The ver­nac­u­lar, we could say, lies orthog­o­nal to these axes of mar­kets and machines, offer­ing us a unique stand­point from which to inter­ro­gate the present. While the object of an almost 500 year long war, it nev­er­the­less per­sists within the inter­stices and byways of mod­ern life, ready for reactivation.

Sajay Samuel is a Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting at Penn State University. He has spoken on science, economic thought, and the vernacular for Canadian radio. His academic publications aim to undermine the current fascination with accounting and related numbers as a modality of management.

  • 1. BBC, “‘Wall Street got drunk’ says Bush.”
  • 2. Andy Kroll, “How the McE­con­omy Bombed the Amer­i­can Worker,TomDis­patch. While advanced indus­tri­al­ized economies can­not find enough jobs for its unem­ployed pop­u­la­tions, so called emerg­ing economies are actively cre­at­ing employ­ment. By inverse sym­me­try, to sat­isfy the demand of eco­nomic growth through indus­tri­al­iza­tion, notably in China and India, peas­ants are con­verted into fac­tory work­ers in the hun­dreds of millions.
  • 3. Of the raft of books on the causes and con­se­quences of the cur­rent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, there are those who argue, rightly in many par­tic­u­lars, that this was only the most severe of the cri­sis prone dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism. In this vein, see for exam­ple most recently, Paul Mattick, Busi­ness As Usual (Lon­don: Reak­tion Books, 2011); David Har­vey, The Enigma of Cap­i­tal (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010); and John Bel­lamy Fos­ter and Fred Magd­off, The Great Finan­cial Cri­sis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009). I ignore these accounts since they are and were largely ignored in pol­icy cir­cles and main­stream eco­nomic thinking.
  • 4. Notably, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Ani­mal Spir­its (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009). But see also Justin Fox, The Myth of the Ratio­nal Mar­ket (New York: Harper Busi­ness Books, 2009); and Paul Krug­man, “How did econ­o­mists get it so wrong?” New York Times, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2009.
  • 5. Joseph Stiglitz in Freefall (New York: Nor­ton Books, 2010) is per­haps the most tren­chant of the well-known econ­o­mists to fin­ger free mar­ket ide­ol­ogy as an impor­tant cause of the cri­sis. Also see, N. Roubini & S. Mihm, Cri­sis Eco­nom­ics (New York, Pen­guin Press, 2010); and S. John­son & J. Kwak, 13 Bankers (New York: Pan­theon Books, 2010). Wor­thy of spe­cial men­tion in this regard, is Richard Posner’s, A Fail­ure of Cap­i­tal­ism (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009), which stands as a model for ret­ro­spec­tive hand-wringing by a booster of neo-liberalism.
  • 6. The Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Report (New York: Pub­lic Affairs, 2011). Most if not all of the writ­ings on the finan­cial cri­sis cite incen­tives as both cause and rem­edy. The U.S. Con­gres­sional report pub­lished after two years of study and inves­ti­ga­tion is exem­plary since failed or inad­e­quate incentives—whether in the form of reg­u­la­tion or compensation- com­prise the sum of causal fac­tors dri­ving the cri­sis. But also con­sult among any of the above-mentioned books, Lau­rence Koltikoff’s, Jimmy Stew­art is Dead (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010) for a sen­si­ble pro­posal to limit finan­cially induced boom-bust cycles through lim­ited pur­pose bank­ing. The lat­ter is designed to dampen the ill-effects of debt financing.
  • 7. The para­dox of design­ing incen­tives to deter­mine future behav­ior seems not to have been fully com­pre­hended. Indeed, in a forth­com­ing work, I intend to argue that incen­tive mech­a­nisms assure only one con­se­quence: they will cer­tainly fail.
  • 8. For a fuller account, see Sajay Samuel & Jean Roberts, “Water can and ought to run freely: reflec­tions on the notion of “scarcity” in eco­nom­ics” in The Lim­its to Scarcity, ed. Lyla Mehta(London: Earth­scan, 2010), 109-126.
  • 9. Bernard Man­dev­ille, The Fable of the Bees or Pri­vate Vices, Pub­lick Ben­e­fits (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1924).
  • 10. “It is because mankind are dis­posed to sym­pa­thize more entirely with our joy than with our sor­row, that we make parade of our riches, and con­ceal our poverty…Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sen­ti­ments of mankind, that we pur­sue riches and avoid poverty. For to what pur­pose is all the toil and bus­tle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambi­tion, of the pur­suit of wealth, of power, and pre­hem­i­nence? Is it to sup­ply the neces­si­ties of nature? The wages of the mean­est labourer can sup­ply them… If we exam­ined his oecon­omy with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon con­ve­nien­cies, which may be regarded as super­fluities, and that, upon extra­or­di­nary occa­sions, he can give some­thing even to van­ity and distinction…From whence, then, arises that emu­la­tion which runs through all the dif­fer­ent ranks of men, and what are the advan­tages which we pro­pose by that great pur­pose of human life which we call bet­ter­ing our con­di­tion? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sym­pa­thy, com­pla­cency, and appro­ba­tion, are all the advan­tages, which we can pro­pose to derive from it. It is the van­ity, not the ease, or the plea­sure, which inter­ests us. But van­ity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of atten­tion and appro­ba­tion.” Adam Smith, The­ory of Moral Sen­ti­ments (Lon­don: A Mil­lar, 1759/1858), pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 3, empha­sis added. Con­sult Louis Dumont, From Man­dev­ille to Marx (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 1977) whose close tex­tual analy­sis of clas­si­cal authors shows that it is the idea of a nat­ural har­mony between indi­vid­ual self-interest and the gen­eral inter­est, that allows, in prin­ci­ple, acquis­i­tive­ness to be free of ethico-political restraints. Though he includes William Petty and John Locke among “econ­o­mists,” William Letwin’s judg­ment is instruc­tive: “…there can be no doubt that eco­nomic the­ory owes its present devel­op­ment to the fact that some men…were will­ing to con­sider the econ­omy as noth­ing more than an intri­cate mech­a­nism, refrain­ing for the while from ask­ing whether the mech­a­nism worked for good or evil”; Ori­gins of Sci­en­tific Eco­nom­ics (Lon­don, 1963), 147-48. See CB Macpher­son, The Polit­i­cal The­ory of Pos­ses­sive Indi­vid­u­al­ism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1962) for sup­port­ing argu­ments that root eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism in 17th cen­tury polit­i­cal thought.
  • 11. “…money has become in all civ­i­lized nations the uni­ver­sal instru­ment of com­merce, by the inter­ven­tion of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one another. What are the rules which men nat­u­rally observe in exchang­ing them either for money or one another, I shall now pro­ceed to exam­ine”; Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4.
  • 12. The impor­tance of Locke to Smith is evi­dent in his paean to prop­erty. “The prop­erty which every man has in his own labour, as it is the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion of all other prop­erty, so it is the most sacred and invi­o­lable” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 10, part 2). For rea­sons of space, I can­not do full jus­tice to Locke’s argu­ments. How­ever, the fol­low­ing state­ments suf­fi­ciently sup­port the four points I empha­size. “What­so­ever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath pro­vided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to some­thing that is his own, and thereby makes it his prop­erty. It being by him removed from the com­mon state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour some­thing annexed to it that excludes the com­mon right of other men”; “And as dif­fer­ent degrees of indus­try were apt to give men pos­ses­sions in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, so this inven­tion of money gave them the oppor­tu­nity to con­tinue and enlarge them”; “…the exceed­ing of the bounds of his just prop­erty not lying in the large­ness of his pos­ses­sion, but the per­ish­ing of any­thing use­lessly in it”; John Locke, Con­cern­ing Civil Gov­ern­ment, Sec­ond Essay, ch. 5.
  • 13. “…These rules deter­mine what may be called the rel­a­tive or exchange­able value of goods. The word value, it is to be observed, has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and some­times expresses the util­ity of some par­tic­u­lar object, and some­times the power of pur­chas­ing other goods which the pos­ses­sion of that object con­veys. The one may be called ‘value in use’; the other, ‘value in exchange.’” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4).
  • 14. Smith argues that “virtue con­sists not in any one affec­tion but in the proper degree of all the affec­tions.” For him, Agree­able­ness or util­ity is not a mea­sure of virtue. Instead, it is ‘sym­pa­thy’ or the “cor­re­spon­dent affec­tion of the spec­ta­tor” that “is the nat­ural and orig­i­nal mea­sure of the proper degree (of virtue).” ***TMS, Part 8, Sec. 2, Ch.3. But such sym­pa­thy is not a virtue. At best it is a mir­ror of social prejudices.
  • 15. The blind­ness to sub­sis­tence in con­tem­po­rary eco­nom­ics is evi­dent in the judg­ment of George Stigler in his review of late 19th cen­tury efforts to grasp use-value: “…and there were some mys­ti­cal ref­er­ences to the infi­nite util­ity of sub­sis­tence.” See his “Devel­op­ment of Util­ity The­ory II,” Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, 58 (1950), 373. Stigler is only capa­ble of equat­ing the use­ful, which is price-less, with the mystical.
  • 16. “A thing can be a use-value with­out being a value. A thing can be use­ful and a prod­uct of human labor, with­out being a com­mod­ity. …Noth­ing can be a value with­out being an object of util­ity..” Marx, K.(1976) Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books), 131.
  • 17. The fun­da­men­tal, though largely over­looked, essay on the elab­o­ra­tion of the twinned yet polem­i­cally related “nat­ural” and “arti­fi­cial” har­mony of inter­ests remains, Elie Halevy The Growth of Philo­soph­i­cal Rad­i­cal­ism (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1955).
  • 18. It would take a longer essay to show the func­tion of law in com­mer­cial soci­ety. Sum­mar­ily, Com­mer­cial soci­ety trans­forms Law into an instru­ment of social engi­neer­ing; and thus of reg­u­la­tion. It began to be used to engi­neer soci­ety towards more or less market-intensive rela­tions. Clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism pred­i­cated on the “nat­ural har­mony of inter­ests” requires econ­o­miz­ing on law. In con­trast, to mit­i­gate the destruc­tive­ness of ram­pant mar­ket soci­ety requires shack­ling com­mer­cial­ism with­out destroy­ing it, forg­ing an “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” through puni­tive reg­u­la­tions. Hence both the min­i­mal state of lib­er­al­ism (whether clas­si­cal or neo-liberalism) and the expanded state of wel­fare lib­er­al­ism implies the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of Law. See Michel Fou­cault, “On Gov­ern­men­tal­ity,” in The Fou­cault Effect, eds. Colin Gor­don, G. Burchell and P. Miller (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1998). The newest crin­kle to this old tale is that mar­kets are no longer thought nat­ural. Instead, mar­kets can be designed, often by mar­ket par­tic­i­pants them­selves. Thus mod­er­at­ing mar­kets through incen­tives becomes a mat­ter of auto-engineering of and by mar­kets around the late 20th century.
  • 19. Rachel Car­son, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mif­flin Co, 1962) and Barry Com­moner Sci­ence and Sur­vival (New York: Viking Books, 1967) are per­haps the two most promi­nent sci­en­tists to have jump-started the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment with the bless­ings of sci­ence. By now, despite a few if noisy detrac­tors, wide­spread anthro­pogenic envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion is, as it is said, “sci­en­tific fact.” Over 2000 sci­en­tists world­wide con­tribute to the reports and rec­om­men­da­tions pro­duced by The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) on the envi­ron­men­tal effects of indus­tri­al­iza­tion at per­haps the most gen­eral envi­ron­men­tal reg­is­ter. See Cli­mate Change 2007 for its most recent report.
  • 20. A pair of recent books authored by French philoso­phers sug­gests the philo­soph­i­cal ambit within with the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is com­pre­hended. On the one hand, Michel Serres’s The Nat­ural Con­tract (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Press, 1995) insists on the neces­sity of a con­tract with the Earth now that Human­ity presses against it as does any mam­moth nat­ural force. Such a nat­ural con­tract, pre­sup­poses a new meta­physics, accord­ing to which human­ity can­not be reduced to indi­vid­u­als and Earth is not under­foot but whirling in empty space; both so com­pre­hended by Sci­ence and Law. In some con­trast, Luc Ferry’s The New Eco­log­i­cal Order (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) fears the new meta­physics. Cleav­ing to mod­ern ways, he believes “it will ulti­mately be by means of advance­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy that we man­age one day to resolve the ques­tions raised by envi­ron­men­tal ethics” (127). Nev­er­the­less, nei­ther doubt the path for­ward to be illu­mi­nated by a suit­ably refor­mu­lated techno-science.
  • 21. Lynn White, Jr., “The His­tor­i­cal Roots of Our Eco­log­i­cal Cri­sis,” Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, 155:3767, argued for anthro­pocen­tric sin­gu­lar­ity of Chris­tian­ity and its atten­dant bequest of nature to man for fuel­ing techno-science that has caused the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. In this sec­tion I focus on the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence. For a recent state­ment on how his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence who raise their heads from the dusty archives deal with the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence, see Lind­berg, The Begin­ning of West­ern Sci­ence (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1992), ch.14. He agrees with E.A. Burtt, The Meta­phys­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Sci­ence (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1932), whose judg­ment of the pre­sup­po­si­tions and impli­ca­tions of New­ton­ian mechan­ics has not been fun­da­men­tally chal­lenged. Han­nah Arendt, “The Con­quest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Ran­dom Books, 1993) offers a suc­cinct sketch of the ground­less­ness pre­sumed by techno-science.
  • 22. For a fuller account of the the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal debates that pre­pared this view from nowhere, see Amos Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy and the Sci­en­tific Imag­i­na­tion, (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1986). It is he who names as sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, “Galileo and Descartes, Lieb­niz and New­ton, Hobbes and Vico” among oth­ers. I rely heav­ily on him (par­tic­u­larly part 5) and on Peter Dear, Dis­ci­pline and Expe­ri­ence: The Math­e­mat­i­cal Way in the Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tion (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1995) to grasp the cen­tral lines in the math­ema­ti­za­tion of physis. Also con­sult Peter Dear’s text­book, Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the Sci­ences (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2001) cast as a pithy sum­mary of the seis­mic changes between 1500 and 1800 in what was worth know­ing and how it was known.
  • 23. See A. Mark Smith’s “Know­ing things inside out: the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion from a Medieval Per­spec­tive,” The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, 95:3 (1990) for an excel­lent sum­mary on the rever­sal of the hier­ar­chy between sense and rea­son in mod­ern sci­en­tific thought. Also, con­sult Eamon Duffy, Sci­ence and the Secrets of Nature (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1994) for a per­sua­sive account of sci­en­tific exper­i­ments as vex­ing nature in order to extract her secrets.
  • 24. To appre­ci­ate the brew of pride and char­ity that con­sti­tutes mod­ern techno-science we need only to attend to Descartes. “…It is pos­si­ble to reach knowl­edge that will be of much util­ity in this life… instead of the spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy now taught in the schools we can find a prac­ti­cal one, by which, know­ing the nature and behav­ior of fire, water, air, stars, the heav­ens, and all the other bod­ies which sur­round us, as well as we now under­stand the dif­fer­ent skills of our arti­sans, we can employ these enti­ties for all the pur­poses for which they are suited, and so make our­selves mas­ters and pos­ses­sors of nature. This would not only be desir­able in bring­ing about the inven­tion of an infin­ity of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agri­cul­ture and all the wealth of the earth with­out labor, but even more so in con­serv­ing health, the prin­ci­pal good and the basis of all other goods in life.” Rene Descartes, Dis­course on Method (Indi­anapo­lis: Library of Lib­eral Arts Press, 1960), part six.
  • 25. The term con­struc­tion refers to things – whether phys­i­cal or sym­bolic – made. The math­e­mat­i­cal roots of con­struc­tion and con­struc­tivism are thor­oughly explored with spe­cial note of Descartes in David Lachter­man, The Ethics of Geom­e­tr (Lon­don: Rout­ledge 1989). Funken­stein, The­ol­ogy, espe­cially chap­ter 5, describes well the philo­soph­i­cal shift from the con­tem­pla­tive ideal of know­ing to the ideal of knowing-by-doing or made knowl­edge. A cur­sory glance at any sci­en­tific book should con­vince that “the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs” are a sta­ple of the mod­ern sci­en­tific enter­prise. Those (so-called post­mod­ern philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists of sci­ence) who think they chal­lenge techno-science by empha­siz­ing that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is con­structed only repeat in prose what Bacon, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, and New­ton said in verse. Those who think they defend sci­en­tific knowl­edge by invok­ing, as the last trump card, its tech­ni­cal pro­duc­tions merely recon­firm the found­ing con­ceit of mod­ern techno-science: that know­ing and mak­ing are interchangeable.
  • 26. In this sec­tion I rely on the most exten­sive state­ment of Illich on crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, Tools for Con­vivi­al­ity (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1973). Note espe­cially the Chap­ter 4, “Recov­ery” (84-99) call­ing for the demythol­o­giza­tion of sci­ence, the redis­cov­ery of lan­guage and the recov­ery of legal pro­ce­dure. He super­sedes this state­ment only in some respects with his later think­ing: on sys­tems; on the his­toric­ity of the instru­ment as a cat­e­gory; and the empha­sis on the sym­bolic power of technology.
  • 27. Louis Dumont, Essays on Indi­vid­u­al­ism (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1983), shows pre­cisely the con­se­quences of attempts to recover the past, whose sig­nal dimen­sion has been the rel­a­tive embed­ded­ness of the indi­vid­ual within the social whole. To insist on recov­er­ing that past today is thus to court a species of inhu­man­ity the West­ern world has once already encoun­tered in the mid 20th century.
  • 28. The chill­ing con­clu­sion of this con­fu­sion is the dis­hon­est sen­ti­men­tal­ism fos­tered in indus­trial soci­eties, to wit “that the val­ues which indus­trial soci­ety destroys are pre­cisely those which it cher­ishes” Ivan Illich, “Shadow Work” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), 99. Thus, the rad­i­cal depen­dence on work pro­motes the cher­ished value of Freedom.
  • 29.Ver­nac­u­lar comes from an Indo-Germanic root that implies ‘root­ed­ness’ and ‘abode.’ Ver­nac­u­lum as a Latin word was used for what­ever was home­bred, home­spun, home­grown, home­made, as opposed to what was obtained in for­mal exchange. The child of one’s slave and of one’s wife, the don­key born of one’s own beast, were ver­nac­u­lar beings, as was the sta­ple that came from the gar­den or the com­mons. If Karl Polanyi had adverted to this fact, he might have used the term in the mean­ing accepted by the ancient Romans: sus­te­nance derived from reci­procity pat­terns imbed­ded in every aspect of life, as dis­tin­guished from sus­te­nance that comes from exchange or from ver­ti­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion… We need a sim­ple adjec­tive to name those acts of com­pe­tence, lust, or con­cern that we want to defend from mea­sure­ment or manip­u­la­tion by Chicago Boys and Social­ist Com­mis­sars. The term must be broad enough to fit the prepa­ra­tion of food and the shap­ing of lan­guage, child­birth and recre­ation, with­out imply­ing either a pri­va­tized activ­ity akin to the house­work of mod­ern women, a hobby or an irra­tional and prim­i­tive pro­ce­dure. Such an adjec­tive is not at hand. But ‘ver­nac­u­lar’ might serve. By speak­ing about ver­nac­u­lar lan­guage and the pos­si­bil­ity of its recu­per­a­tion, I am try­ing to bring into aware­ness and dis­cus­sion the exis­tence of a ver­nac­u­lar mode of being, doing, and mak­ing that in a desir­able future soci­ety might again expand in all aspects of life.” Ivan Illich, “The War against Sub­sis­tence” in Shadow Work, 57-58. The argu­ment of this essay belies its title.
  • 30. For the fol­low­ing sec­tion, I gloss “Ver­nac­u­lar Val­ues” and The War on Sub­sis­tence,” both in Illich, Shadow Work.
  • 31. A more com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the themes in this sec­tion would include a selec­tive sur­vey on the his­tor­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on ver­nac­u­lar ways and its destruc­tion. As a first ori­en­ta­tion to the exten­sive lit­er­a­ture on the war on the ver­nac­u­lar, con­sult Ivan Illich, Gen­der, (Berke­ley: Hey­day Press, 1982). The works of Karl Polanyi, pre­em­i­nently, The Great Trans­for­ma­tion, (NY: Rein­hart, 1944); but also the essays col­lected in Prim­i­tive, Archaic and Mod­ern Economies, ed. George Dal­ton, (NY: Anchor Books, 1968) and those in Trade and Mar­kets in Early Empires,eds. K. Polanyi, C. Arens­berg, and H. Pear­son (NY: The Free Press, 1957) clar­ify the his­toric­ity of commodity-intensive soci­eties, made vis­i­ble when nature and human action become widely priced as land and labor respec­tively. Mar­shall Sahlins in Stone Age Eco­nom­ics, (NY: Adline, 1972) and M.I. Fin­ley in The Ancient Econ­omy, (Berke­ley, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1985) con­firm that pre- mod­ern soci­eties, whether Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia or West­ern Antiq­uity, got on quite well with­out it. Jacques Le Goff, in Medieval Civ­i­liza­tion, 400-1500 empha­sizes the aim of the medieval “econ­omy” as that of sub­sis­tence, of pro­vid­ing for neces­si­ties (Lon­don: Black­well, 1988). The con­tin­u­ing mod­ern war on sub­sis­tence and the resis­tance to it is well doc­u­mented. Con­sult for exam­ple, E.P. Thomp­son, “The Moral Econ­omy of the Crowd,” reprinted in The Essen­tial E.P. Thomp­son, ed. Dorothy Thomp­son (NY: The New Press, 2000), and the essays col­lected in Cus­toms in Com­mon (New York: New York Press, 1993); Eric Wolf, Peas­ant Wars of the 20th Cen­tury (NY: Harper & Row 1969), Teodor Shanin, The Awk­ward Class (Lon­don: Cam­bridge, 1977) and Sub­co­man­dante Insur­gente Mar­cos, Our Word is our Weapon (NY: Seven Sto­ries Press, 2001). James Scott, in See­ing Like a State (Prince­ton: Yale Uni­ver­sity, 1999) argues that vision­ary plans to mod­ern­ize soci­ety invari­ably fail and usu­ally leave their ben­e­fi­cia­ries worse off for the atten­tion. Study the key terms col­lected in The Devel­op­ment Dic­tio­nary, ed. Wolf­gang Sachs (NY: Zed Books, 1992) as com­mands that rally the troops to the war against subsistence.
  • 32. Peter Linebaugh, Ned Ludd, Queen Mab: Machine Break­ing, Roman­ti­cism, and Sev­eral Com­mons 1811-12 (Oak­land: PM Press/Retort, 2012).
  • 33. Con­sult the well-documented essay by Teodor Shanin, “Late Marx: Gods and Crafts­men” in Late Marx and the Russ­ian Road, ed. T. Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), for a per­sua­sive case that “…to Marx, a timely rev­o­lu­tion­ary vic­tory could turn the Russ­ian com­mune into a major ‘vehi­cle of social regeneration.’”
  • 34. This sec­tion is derived from Ivan Illich, “Research by Peo­ple” in Shadow Work (Lon­don: Mar­ion Boyars, 1981), and his unpub­lished man­u­script titled The Wis­dom of Leopold Kohr which makes ref­er­ence to the com­mon sense.
  • 35. This sen­tence from the OED weakly sum­ma­rizes the fol­low­ing: “The senses per­ceive each other’s spe­cial objects inci­den­tally; not because per­cip­i­ent sense is this or that spe­cial sense, but because all form a unity: this inci­den­tal per­cep­tion takes place when­ever sense is directed at one and the same moment to two dis­parate qual­i­ties in one and the same object, e.g., to the bit­ter­ness and the yel­low­ness of bile…” De Anima, III, 425a 30-425b 1. And: “Fur­ther, there can­not be a spe­cial sense-organ for the com­mon sen­si­bles either, i.e, the objects which we per­ceive inci­den­tally through this or that spe­cial sense, e.g, move­ment, rest, fig­ure, mag­ni­tude, num­ber & unity…. In the case of the com­mon sen­si­bles, there is already in us a com­mon sen­si­bil­ity (or com­mon sense) which enables us to per­ceive them non-incidentally; there is there­fore no spe­cial sense required for their per­cep­tion,” De Anima, III 425a 15-26.
  • 36. I do not fully explore here the trans­for­ma­tion from a fac­ulty into the “innate capac­ity” of any per­son to rea­son and judge cor­rectly after Descartes. The judg­ment of Funken­stein in The­ol­ogy, espe­cially page 359, is instruc­tive. He sug­gests that the “mil­i­tant, mis­sion­ary ideal” of edu­ca­tion over the 17th and 18th cen­turies is related to “the shift in the con­no­ta­tion of the term ‘com­mon sense.’” The con­no­ta­tions of the terms “le bon sens,” “gemeiner Men­schen­ver­stand,” and “com­mon sense” after the 17th cen­tury imply the capac­ity to be edu­cated; for all men to become philoso­phers. Indeed, the prop­a­ga­tion of a method for think­ing pre­sup­poses the com­mon­sense as that which is in need of edu­ca­tion. More recently, Sophia Rosen­feld, Com­mon Sense: A Polit­i­cal His­tory (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011) traces the twinned log­ics gen­er­ated by the degra­da­tion of com­mon sense from a fac­ulty. On the one hand, it serves as a touch­stone for the wis­dom of peo­ple against elites; on the other, the mul­ish­ness of the masses needed re-education. For a con­spec­tus of writ­ers on the com­mon sense con­sult, AN Foxe, The Com­mon Sense from Her­a­cli­tus to Pierce (Turn­bridge Press, 1962). It is how­ever frus­trat­ing for the lack of a bib­li­og­ra­phy and a his­tor­i­cally insen­si­tive read­ing of the authors sur­veyed. In con­trast, JL Beare, Greek The­o­ries of Ele­men­tary Cog­ni­tion from Alcemaeon to Aris­to­tle (Claren­don Press, 1926); WR Bundy, The The­ory of the Imag­i­na­tion in Clas­si­cal and Medieval Thought (Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Press, 1927); David Sum­mers, The Judg­ment of Sense (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1987) are excel­lent treat­ments of the his­tory of the com­mon sense as fac­ulty from Aris­to­tle to the late Renais­sance when read seri­ally. See also E. Ruth Har­vey, The Inward Wits: Psy­cho­log­i­cal The­ory in the Mid­dle Ages and the Renais­sance (Lon­don, 1975); and HA Wolf­son, “The Inter­nal Senses in Latin, Ara­bic and Hebrew Philo­soph­i­cal Texts,” Har­vard The­o­log­i­cal Review, 25 (1935).
  • 37. Stan­ley Rosen, The Elu­sive­ness of the Ordi­nary (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002) argues spirit­edly for the com­mon­sense foun­da­tions of thought. Such foun­da­tions sup­port but can­not rise to heights reached by extra­or­di­nary thought, which by neces­sity, exceed its grasp. In the so-called “sci­ence wars” of recent decades, the issue was framed as that between the social con­struc­tivists and the real­ists. In the light of the fore­go­ing dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs, it is clear that both par­ties to the debate agree that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is made, that is to say, constructed.
  • 38. In much of his writ­ings, Illich insists on elab­o­rat­ing con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions built on the per­cep­tion of autonomous human actions. Between Deschool­ing Soci­ety and The His­tory of Homo Edu­can­dus he con­trasts learn­ing to edu­ca­tion and school­ing; in Med­ical Neme­sis, between autonomous cop­ing and health­care; between Research by Peo­ple and R&D. In some cases, he invents or gives new shades of mean­ing to terms to recover per­cep­tions buried by con­structs – for exam­ple, dis­value, shadow work, gen­der and ver­nac­u­lar. Let the triple, hous­ing, dwelling, and habi­ta­tion stand as a par­al­lel exam­ple to trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic used in the text above. A gen­eral case for the com­mon­sen­si­cal Illich still awaits a care­ful exe­ge­sis of his texts.
  • 39. I take some lib­er­ties with inter­pret­ing The States­man, 283d-284e in Plato, Com­plete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hack­ett Pub­lish­ing, 1997).The rel­e­vant dis­tinc­tion as described by the vis­i­tor reads as fol­lows: “It is clear that we would divide the art of mea­sure­ment, cut­ting it in two in just the way we said, post­ing as one part of it all sorts of exper­tise that mea­sure the num­ber, lengths, depths, breaths, and speeds of things in rela­tion to what is opposed to them, and as the other, all those that mea­sure in rela­tion to what is in due mea­sure, what is fit­ting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be-everything that removes itself from the extremes to the mid­dle” (384e).
  • 40. It is a weak recog­ni­tion of this hier­ar­chy that is reit­er­ated in the widely accepted dis­junc­tion or dis­con­ti­nu­ity between “sci­ence” and “values.”

The terrain of reproduction: Alisa Del Re’s “The sexualization of social relations”

In an era when the exploits of Sil­vio Berlusconi’s “pri­vate” life seem to have cat­e­gor­i­cally oblit­er­ated any progress towards sex­ual equal­ity achieved dur­ing the Ital­ian fem­i­nist move­ment of the 70s, it is essen­tial to remem­ber what was once accom­plished. Although second-wave fem­i­nism was already a well-established net­work of debates in the U.S. by 1970, Ital­ian women influ­enced by work­erist writ­ings of the fem­i­nist ilk, most notably Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (1972), set out to ini­ti­ate bat­tles over issues such as abor­tion and divorce.1 Fem­i­nist cur­rents both from within and inde­pen­dent of work­erist move­ments then spread with a fierce momen­tum that would endure through the decade.

From the inad­e­quate patri­ar­chal rubric of the New Left, from the ashes of male-dominated work­erist orga­ni­za­tions such as Potere Operaio, and later Lotta Con­tinua, women through­out Italy orga­nized autonomously, on the basis of the inher­ent con­nec­tion of repro­duc­tion and gen­der roles to class strug­gle.Fight­ing for Fem­i­nism: the ‘Women Ques­tion’ in an Ital­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group." href="#footnote2_nm85a68">2 It was the prob­lem of mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women within these move­ments, along with the larger ques­tion of unpaid domes­tic labor, that directed many fem­i­nist inquiries. Sil­via Fed­erici has said, reflect­ing on her dif­fi­culty rec­on­cil­ing her expe­ri­ence as a woman with the rhetoric of these orga­ni­za­tions, “I was unwill­ing to accept my iden­tity as a woman after hav­ing for years pinned all my hopes on my abil­ity to pass for a man.“3 An orga­nized col­lec­tiv­ity of women inde­pen­dent of the uni­form assim­i­la­tion to a male-driven class per­spec­tive became nec­es­sary, since women’s work was to this point largely con­fined to the domain of repro­duc­tion, but remained an equally essen­tial yet cat­e­gor­i­cally unique form of pro­duc­tion in the greater sense.

Mari­arosa Dalla Costa has described how, in the 1970s, Ital­ian fem­i­nism largely took one of two posi­tions: a kind of gen­er­al­ized, over­all “self-awareness” or a workerist-driven fem­i­nism. The lat­ter took shape as Lotta Fem­min­ista, which orga­nized into a more sub­stan­tial inter­na­tional move­ment. The focus of their attack, house­work, was described in Federici’s Wages Against House­work as “the most sub­tle and mys­ti­fied vio­lence that cap­i­tal­ism has ever per­pe­trated against any sec­tion of the work­ing class.”4 In 1972, Dalla Costa, Selma James, and oth­ers formed the Inter­na­tional Wages for House­work Cam­paign around the notion that women held a sig­nif­i­cant power as pro­duc­ers of the labor force itself – and that through the refusal of this pro­duc­tion, they engaged in a form of social sub­ver­sion that could lead to “a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety.”5

How­ever, Fed­erici has since acknowl­edged this kind of utopian think­ing as dam­ag­ing to the fem­i­nist movement:

One of the major short­com­ings of the women’s move­ment has been its ten­dency to overem­pha­size the role of con­scious­ness in the con­text of social change, as if enslave­ment were a men­tal con­di­tion and lib­er­a­tion could be achieved by an act of will. Pre­sum­ably, if we wanted, we could stop being exploited by men and employ­ers… rev­o­lu­tion­ize our day to day life. Undoubt­edly some women already have the power to take these steps… But for mil­lions these rec­om­men­da­tions could only turn into an impu­ta­tion of guilt, short of build­ing the mate­r­ial con­di­tions that would make them pos­si­ble.6

In an inter­view accom­pa­ny­ing the vol­ume Futuro Ante­ri­ore, Alisa Del Re describes how she began her own path towards the analy­sis of women and work, ini­tially as a polit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent and research assis­tant to Anto­nio Negri in the late 1960s.7 Encoun­ters with the meth­ods of work­ers’ inquiry, and later the writ­ings of Tronti and Marx, became points of ref­er­ence that would inform Del Re’s involve­ment with Potere Operaio until its dis­so­lu­tion in 1973. With­out offi­cially cross­ing over to Autono­mia Operaia like many of her com­rades, Del Re remained in some­what close prox­im­ity to the group, while begin­ning to address issues from a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive that was unique for this period, par­tic­u­larly regard­ing social ser­vices and the rela­tion­ship between work and per­sonal time.

Del Re reveals a sub­jec­tiv­ity that informed her posi­tion on wel­fare pro­grams – a posi­tion that, stem­ming in large part from her own need for sub­si­dized child­care while nav­i­gat­ing the work­force, would unin­ten­tion­ally oppose the views of Dalla Costa and oth­ers dri­ving the Wages for House­work move­ment. While Wages for House­work sought com­pen­sa­tion for domes­tic labor, Del Re argued for sub­si­dized child­care and other such social pro­grams so that a woman could have a life out­side of work­ing, both in and out­side of the home – not because she dis­agreed with Wages for House­work, but because their demands did not apply to her own sit­u­a­tion as a woman choos­ing to sub­sist within the work­force rather than in the home. She describes how her very posi­tion as a work­ing woman assigned her to the mar­gins of the work­erist move­ment, while the women of Wages for House­work were demand­ing rights from within their imposed “ter­rain” – that of reproduction:

…the issue of wages was per­haps more “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” but from the polit­i­cal prac­tice that Rosa [Dalla Costa] endorsed it was dif­fi­cult to under­stand who was demand­ing these wages and when… maybe my issue was much more reformist even though it is true that we annoyed a few peo­ple when we occu­pied local gov­ern­ment meet­ings, demand­ing the con­struc­tion of nurs­ery schools and propos­ing con­crete forms of ‘lib­er­a­tion from house­work.8

It is worth not­ing, how­ever, that while the posi­tions of Wages for House­work and Del Re were seem­ingly in oppo­si­tion, they are per­haps bet­ter described as par­al­lel streams of strug­gle, progress in both are­nas con­sti­tut­ing a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for women’s auton­omy. In the first place, Wages for House­work rec­og­nized house­work as work, and thus, the strat­egy of “get­ting a job” as a means of lib­er­at­ing women from depen­dence on men’s wages, as Fed­erici would later reflect, alien­ated women who worked because their fam­i­lies need the added finan­cial sup­port “and not because they con­sider it a lib­er­at­ing expe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­larly since ‘hav­ing a job’ never frees you from house­work.“9 Fur­ther­more, Del Re’s view on the recla­ma­tion of per­sonal time sup­ported by state-funded child care pro­vi­sions offers the only pos­si­bil­ity of relief from what would oth­er­wise be a near-24/7 work week, waged or not, for working-class women. Years after Wages for House­work, Fed­erici rec­og­nizes the mutual depen­dence of these two conditions:

…as long as house­work goes unpaid, there will be no incen­tives to pro­vide the social ser­vices nec­es­sary to reduce our work, as proved by the fact that, despite a strong women’s move­ment, sub­si­dized day care has been steadily reduced through the 70s. I should add that wages for house­work never meant sim­ply a pay­check. It also meant more social ser­vices and free social ser­vices.10

In a later piece enti­tled “Women and Wel­fare: Where is Jocasta?”, Del Re describes the labor of repro­duc­tion as “a spe­cific rela­tion between women and the State” that is sep­a­rate from the labor mar­ket and that has been inad­e­quately sup­ported and stud­ied.11 The wel­fare sys­tem, despite “its lim­i­ta­tions on the qual­ity of life,” she pro­poses, “liberat[es] the labor of repro­duc­tion from its depen­dence on another person’s salary,” in other words, the labor of pro­duc­tion.12 Thus, Del Re pro­poses that since women con­trol the means of repro­duc­tion, we “must find a way to present [our] bill” – by mak­ing “vis­i­ble the labor of repro­duc­tion in its total­ity” and by under­lin­ing “its cen­tral­ity with respect to pro­duc­tion and the mar­ket.” As she has con­tin­ued to assert, this begins with a reor­ga­ni­za­tion of one’s time.13

Inter­est­ingly, sit­u­ated upon this same imposed ter­rain were both the sub­jects and objects of a year-long research study regard­ing work and fam­ily, cul­mi­nat­ing in the pub­li­ca­tion of Le sexe du tra­vail: struc­tures famil­iales et sys­tème pro­duc­tif (Greno­ble: Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de Greno­ble, 1984). In an arti­cle for the jour­nal Primo Mag­gio, Del Re exam­ines this work with a favor­able view on their inves­ti­ga­tions, as women researchers, into the sex­ual and social divi­sions of labor. Trans­lated here, Del Re’s piece rep­re­sents in itself an evolv­ing vision of these divi­sions that does not, as she writes, “sig­nal a marginality.”

In “Women and Wel­fare,” Del Re ele­gantly states the impor­tance of the woman’s role as both sub­ject and object:

It is cru­cial, there­fore, that women’s lives – their exis­tence, their nature, as well as their activ­i­ties - become an inte­gral part of philo­soph­i­cal and intel­lec­tual dis­course, so that the acknowl­edg­ment of female sub­jec­tiv­ity, con­structed as it is in mul­ti­ple sym­bolic and mate­r­ial loci, can reveal the par­tial­ity of a vision of the world that even today is con­sid­ered uni­ver­sal.14

Like other projects of the work­erist move­ment, Primo Mag­gio as a pub­li­ca­tion reveals con­cep­tual lay­ers rang­ing from his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal record to schol­arly peri­od­i­cal to polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. As Primo Mag­gio’s Ser­gio Bologna writes in his review of Steve Wright’s Storm­ing Heaven, the jour­nal focused on main­tain­ing a sub­ject posi­tion “within a net­work of ini­tia­tives of self organ­i­sa­tion at the level of polit­i­cal cul­ture and for­ma­tion ‘at the ser­vice of the move­ment.’”15 In an inter­view with Patrick Cun­ing­hame, Bologna describes Primo Mag­gio’s search for new method­olo­gies, in con­trast to the efforts at party orga­ni­za­tion by Negri and Autono­mia Orga­niz­zata:

Primo Mag­gio was not even a polit­i­cal elite. Rather, we had refused our role as a polit­i­cal elite to put our­selves instead in the role of that techno-scientific intel­li­gentsia which exca­vated within the dis­ci­plines. So, we wanted to exca­vate within the his­tor­i­cal dis­ci­plines to make his­tory in another way. You read Primo Mag­gio and it is not a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in the sense that it is a jour­nal … for the trans­for­ma­tion of his­tor­i­cal method­ol­ogy. In the sense of trans­for­ma­tion also of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal lan­guage which has an enor­mous impor­tance in polit­i­cal lan­guage.16

The idea of a “woman-science,” women (and sex­ual divi­sions of labor) as a topic of research by women researchers, is the prod­uct of this strat­egy, recon­struct­ing a sub­ject through its methodologies.

Anna Culbertson is a special collections librarian at San Diego State University, where she has taught courses on using primary sources to research feminism and gender roles.

The sexualization of social relations

From Primo Mag­gio, no. 23/24 (sum­mer 1985)1

“Should work, then, have a sex? Absurd ques­tion. Every­one knows it has existed only in the mas­cu­line [form], in sec­tors where activ­ity is car­ried out by men. No work else­where, and no women in work. What remains, of course, is to set­tle the ques­tion of a few mil­lion ‘actives’…”2 And so is intro­duced The Sex of Work (Famil­ial Struc­tures and the Sys­tem of Pro­duc­tion), pub. by PUG, 1984, by the authors them­selves: a large group of researchers who found them­selves over the course of the pre­vi­ous year in the most diverse spaces of debate: from the con­fer­ence Women and the Work­ing Class (Vin­cennes, Decem­ber 1978); to their days at the Société Française de Soci­olo­gie on The Famil­ial Insti­tu­tion and Women’s Work (Nantes, June 1980); to the con­fer­ence of the Cen­tre Lyon­nais d’Etudes Fémin­istes on Women and the Ques­tion of Work (Lyon, Decem­ber 1980); and finally to the research sem­i­nar of the Unité de Recherche et d’Etudes Soci­ologiques, Divi­sion sociale et sex­uelle du tra­vail, on Women’s Work, Paid Work, Domes­tic Work (1980-81-82), result­ing directly in the for­ma­tion of this group.

Draw­ing upon their own intel­lec­tual and exis­ten­tial resources, their own claims to both fem­i­nism and a suc­ces­sion of the most insti­tu­tional of ini­tia­tives, the group finally formed at the Tenth World Con­gress of Soci­ol­ogy (Mex­ico City, August 1982), express­ing the desire to pro­mote research cen­tered on the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis, for both men and women, of the sit­u­a­tion of work and fam­ily. This book rep­re­sents the bulk of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions pre­sented in Mex­ico City and con­sti­tutes a first tan­gi­ble, vis­i­ble step of the expe­ri­ence of the group, a moment in its life.

Women, researchers, fem­i­nists, in an insti­tu­tion­al­ized group with a research topic both pre­cise and iso­lated from the tra­di­tional sci­en­tific con­text, with the pal­pa­ble need to find new method­olo­gies, new avenues, of recon­struct­ing the sub­jects in their entire form, the same sub­jects that in tra­di­tional sci­ence become chopped, muti­lated, seen in quan­tity and with­out qual­ity. And this in “sci­ence,” to impose a new “sci­en­tific” point of view that con­cerns women and their work, the sex­u­al­ity of social rela­tions as an “exis­tent.” As a method, bring­ing sci­en­tists together from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and dif­fer­ent “schools” (although here we limit our­selves to the social sci­ences) is noth­ing new: inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in the human­i­ties has been fruit­ful in var­i­ous fields. But the nov­elty lies in the fact that it is the woman-subject that is study­ing the woman-object. And the effect this pro­duces is that it seems the very object of the research floods the lim­its tra­di­tion­ally imposed, reach­ing into cur­rent method­ol­ogy, find­ing itself within strict def­i­n­i­tions of use. The very def­i­n­i­tion of the field research requires dif­fer­ent means of approx­i­ma­tion, as if one were to turn on dif­fer­ent lights rather than just one to iden­tify the road ahead, the con­tours of the object to be stud­ied. And some­times it is right at the inter­sec­tion of two dis­tinct fields, in the area of exist­ing soci­o­log­i­cal frame­works, that the object of exam­i­na­tion is found. As Mar­tine Chau­dron says about her research, “The object – the social tra­jec­to­ries and the famil­iar strate­gies of repro­duc­tion, the one and the other sexed – has been con­structed on the inter­sec­tion of two fields, that of social mobil­ity and that of the fam­ily; it [the object] can’t exist soci­o­log­i­cally out­side of the prob­lem attempt­ing to artic­u­late and hold together the sex­ual and social divi­sions of work with social rela­tions of sex and class.”

And this per­ma­nent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with iden­ti­fy­ing the rela­tions between the sexes as social rela­tions is impor­tant, in order to exit the fix­ity of roles, totally deter­mined and hier­ar­chi­cal: “That which is impor­tant in the notion of social rela­tions – defined by the antag­o­nism of social groups – is the dynamic that it introduces.”

The form that attempts this mode of stat­ing, of seek­ing, of point­ing towards a sex­u­al­iza­tion of social rela­tions that does not sig­nal a mar­gin­al­ity, but is in recog­ni­tion of an exist­ing injus­tice, to be changed, requires an adjust­ment to a new vision of real­ity, and to do this demands a dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary inno­va­tion of tools. And then the inter­est to depart from tra­di­tional method­olo­gies that have always made the study of women subordinate.

For exam­ple, as well stated in the gen­eral intro­duc­tion: “The dom­i­nant dis­course on work con­tin­ues to func­tion as an implicit model: the male worker, nei­ther too young nor too old, light-skinned, clearly. In short, the ideal type! All the rest are not spec­i­fied. And so that the fam­ily remains the essen­tial start­ing point of analy­sis for the pro­fes­sional activ­ity of women; as if their work sit­u­a­tion results solely of the oblig­a­tion (real or sym­bolic, mate­r­ial or ide­o­log­i­cal) imposed upon them to take on the bulk of fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties.” “Mater­nity ren­ders sus­pect the pro­fes­sional qual­i­ties of women”: and then, to remove this sus­pi­cion, they must “act like a man,” or not have chil­dren socially. And this, only for women. Because how­ever the worker con­forms to the norms of work is as a non-parent. But the non-parent as an absolute, the priv­i­leged worker, is the father with a fam­ily to pro­vide for, but with­out the respon­si­bil­i­ties of a fam­ily. This bur­den is placed on the mother, so that it becomes non-compliant to the norm and – per­fectly squar­ing the cir­cle – jus­ti­fies her pro­fes­sional stag­na­tion, her non-career with the same motives by which it pro­motes “the man of the house.”

In eco­nom­ics, soci­ol­ogy and the other human­i­ties, the social infe­ri­or­ity of women is due to the mech­a­nisms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion suf­fered by this sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion, most unarmed for the labor mar­ket. So women would con­sti­tute, as the young or the old, as immi­grants or the hand­i­capped, a mar­ginal group, non-competitive. In other words: because of their fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties, women face obsta­cles, and there­fore require assis­tance in order to be able to work, given the para­me­ters of work hours, vaca­tion time, and pensions.

Con­versely, when it comes to study­ing the work of men, there is no ref­er­ence to their mar­i­tal sta­tus, nor to the size of their fam­ily (num­ber of chil­dren, etc.), nor even to the pro­fes­sional activ­i­ties of their wives. Only women are enlisted to a fam­ily, only men to their posts in the work world; women are inac­tive and men are with­out fam­ily. So, a joint approach to the famil­ial struc­ture and the pro­duc­tive sys­tem that is not the super­im­po­si­tion of one sec­tor on the other is sought.

It is by the denun­ci­a­tion of the invis­i­bil­ity of domes­tic work in soci­o­log­i­cal and eco­nomic analy­ses that fem­i­nists have intro­duced a deci­sive break. The analy­sis of domes­tic work and rela­tions between the sexes has sig­ni­fied new approaches in respect to social rela­tions and women’s work. We no longer con­sider the study of rela­tions between the sexes as con­fined to the fam­ily, but rather, merge all the inter-dependencies between house­work and pro­fes­sional work.

And all of this within a con­stant: the crit­i­cal analy­sis of sci­ence con­sti­tutes the insuf­fi­ciency of the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, their blind spots.

So these researchers con­test research (and meth­ods) based on the dis­tinc­tion between pro­duc­tive work and repro­duc­tive work, where the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in “pro­duc­tive” work is not ana­lyzed as such, but as a par­tic­u­lar of a gen­eral, mas­cu­line model. And the over­tak­ing occurs in the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis of pro­duc­tion sys­tems and fam­ily struc­tures. The rejec­tion of the production/reproduction dichotomy, and, to its con­trary, the study of their inter­re­la­tions, nec­es­sar­ily impli­cates the accep­tance of key con­cepts, which I briefly define here from the text:

    The con­cept of repro­duc­tion, used in the text in oppo­si­tion to pro­duc­tion. It’s not, then, treated in the clas­si­cal sense of social repro­duc­tion. Repro­duc­tion includes, apart from the pro­duc­tion of chil­dren and more broadly of indi­vid­u­als, a set of activ­i­ties, exclud­ing the activ­ity of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. From this per­spec­tive the analy­sis of the fam­ily is insep­a­ra­ble from the study of other insti­tu­tions that con­tribute to reproduction.
    The con­cept of work: a term that, in the broader sense, takes into account as much pro­fes­sional activ­ity as that which is devel­oped in the domes­tic sphere. From this per­spec­tive it becomes nec­es­sary to renew the analy­sis of production.
    The con­cept of fam­ily, as some­thing that is not a closed space con­cern­ing the pri­vate sphere. It is nec­es­sary, there­fore, to study it in terms of social rela­tions and not of the rules between the sexes, in terms of the divi­sions of work rather than the divi­sions of labor.

It is from these base con­cepts, these gen­eral agree­ments, that the itin­er­aries of each researcher become the heads of rams with which this group attempts to break down the social sci­ences build­ing, lit­tle by lit­tle, at dif­fer­ent lev­els. Already the crit­i­cal read­ing of the sta­tis­tics of social mobil­ity (gen­er­ally sexed in terms of the mas­cu­line model) is fur­ther enriched by qual­i­ta­tive meth­ods (sur­veys, inter­views, biogra­phies, genealo­gies) of iden­ti­fy­ing the social tra­jec­to­ries of men and women.

The simul­ta­ne­ous study of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion nec­es­sar­ily involves the con­struc­tion of new ter­rains, cut­ting across tra­di­tional dis­ci­plines. And again, all of the more secure con­cepts should be recon­sid­ered: from, for exam­ple, the sex­ual divi­sion of work as a given, it is obvi­ous that the con­cept of the social divi­sion of work itself should be called into ques­tion. “To state, as we do, that work has a sex and that there­fore the divi­sion of work is also sexed, has effec­tively sub­ver­sive virtues”.

And it does not end with the book, because this group con­tin­ues to work together at an annual sem­i­nar (1984-85) called Production/Reproduction Work­shop (pre­sented at PIRTTEM). They con­tinue the hard work of research­ing, defin­ing a sub­ject, woman, at full length; of remov­ing the veil of invis­i­bil­ity, of renew­ing the ties between the vis­i­ble and the hid­den, between the impor­tant and the disregarded.

A short digres­sion: already many passes have been made in an attempt to untie the Gor­dian knot of the rela­tion­ship between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, for exam­ple by study­ing “in con­tin­uum” the two phe­nom­ena, thus defeat­ing the acqui­es­cent accep­tance of inequal­ity, attrib­uted to the nat­ural order of things.

Is it not pos­si­ble to ven­ture fur­ther? Why not attempt to estab­lish a com­pletely new method of inves­ti­ga­tion, that has repro­duc­tion as its epi­cen­ter, its qual­ity, in which com­modi­ties and their pro­duc­tion result in some sub­or­di­nate way, objects of an exter­nal strat­egy; and inside this grid inter­pret the strug­gles, find again the real sub­jects, inter­ests, the same recent his­tory of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal and of its insti­tu­tions? Is it too much to pro­pose a scale of val­ues, even in research, less sub­or­di­nated to the val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion (and I insist that it is already a lot to have even changed the com­po­si­tion of the field of inves­ti­ga­tion by inter­weav­ing the prob­lem of reproduction)?

A woman-science that artic­u­lates itself on (being directly from) an imposed and not cho­sen ter­rain, that is the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion – might that there­fore be a sub­or­di­nate science?

Two con­sid­er­a­tions:

    Even though it has been imposed as a mode of dom­i­na­tion, even though it sub­sists as a form of exploita­tion, even though it has been deval­ued, unpaid, “nat­u­rally” attrib­uted to our sex, repro­duc­tion, in the broader sense of the word, is in real­ity the cen­tral axis of a world of val­ues to recon­sider, plac­ing them in the sub­or­di­nate, direct­ing all work for the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. It may be a con­sid­er­a­tion of plain com­mon sense, but then plainly we speak of work time and free time, we speak of peace and ecol­ogy, from the old poor, we speak of the new poor, of unem­ploy­ment, of famine.
    In the sec­ond place, if it is true of the world in which we live that this is not the case, that work for the sake of work­ing seems to be the only form of social and per­sonal real­iza­tion, and the mea­sure­ment of exist­ing passes through the mea­sure­ment of exis­tence or at least of earn­ing a wage, and, sub­se­quently, the amount of that wage (“Marx was right, but that doesn’t suit me – and then, until when?”), it is not clear why, exactly, in a time in which salaries have the ten­dency to shrink and work to dis­ap­pear, for both women and men, we can’t see a glimpse of a chance to change our point of view.

But I don’t want to cast aside other bud­ding ideas that need the soil of col­lec­tive debate to grow. In every case, the very exis­tence of this group of women-feminists-researchers, of a new rig­or­ous and effec­tive style, requires the assump­tion of a new point of view, mark­ing a point of no return.

All women, researchers, teach­ers, who work on a topic con­cern­ing women, and thus on an issue that directly con­cerns them, have often seen, at some time or another, their results affected by deri­sion, or else by invis­i­bil­ity. Already the fact of “try­ing to remain in touch with our sim­i­lar­i­ties in the world” (see Sot­toso­pra [Upside Down], More Women Than Men) “by weav­ing a web of pref­er­en­tial rela­tion­ships between women, where the expe­ri­ence asso­ci­ated with being a woman becomes stronger in mutual recog­ni­tion by invent­ing ways to trans­late it into social real­ity,” is a mode of exist­ing and cre­at­ing the strength to impose their own ideas. When, then, this also serves to invent new tools with which to under­stand and ana­lyze the real­ity that sur­rounds us, and from this per­haps the strength and courage to change it, we get the impres­sion that some­thing is mov­ing in the right direc­tion, that con­crete pos­si­bil­i­ties reopen.

—Trans­lated by Anna Culbertson

Alisa Del Re is associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Padova.

  • 1. I would like to thank Andrea Righi for his invalu­able advice; any errors in trans­la­tion are my sole respon­si­bil­ity. All notes are the translator’s.
  • 2. The authors of The Sex of Work use “actives” in this case to refer to the four out of ten work­ers that are women, and as such, are “lost” or not accounted for out­side of the domes­tic sphere. The eco­nomic term “active pop­u­la­tion” refers to all per­sons legally able to per­form work, and cor­re­sponds to a country’s labor supply.

Towards a socialist art of government: Michel Foucault’s “The mesh of power”

How sur­pris­ing the events of May 1968 must have seemed to Michel Fou­cault is sug­gested by a remark made to his life-long part­ner Daniel Defert in Jan­u­ary of that year, fol­low­ing his nom­i­na­tion for a fac­ulty posi­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Paris Nan­terre. “Strange how these stu­dents speak of their rela­tions with profs in terms of class war.”1 Inter­pre­ta­tions of this remark will reveal a lot about one’s received image of the late philoso­pher. Among fig­ures of the New Left he had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as an anti-Marxist for dis­parag­ing pub­lic com­ments about Jean-Paul Sartre, and the appar­ent here­sies of Les mots et les choses (1966).2 A younger gen­er­a­tion of left-leaning intel­lec­tu­als, activists, and agi­ta­tors, exposed only to later por­traits of the rad­i­cal philoso­pher – the author of Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish (1974), mega­phone in hand, rub­bing shoul­ders with Sartre and other ultra-gauchistes at protests in the streets of Paris – will prob­a­bly find the con­fes­sion dis­con­cert­ing. Is it pos­si­ble that he was taken off guard by the polit­i­cal sparks that would set alight le mou­ve­ment du 22 mars? He did, after all, arrive in Paris post fes­tum, par­tic­i­pat­ing in some of the final ral­lies at the Sor­bonne in late June.

I pre­fer to read the remark as a know­ing reflec­tion on the pecu­liar­ity of priv­i­leged Nan­terre stu­dents, rep­re­sent­ing them­selves as some rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­le­tar­ian sub­ject, locked in a bat­tle with their pro­fes­sors as though the lat­ter owned the means of pro­duc­tion. As if to draw out the con­se­quences of this con­tra­dic­tion, by 1969 Fou­cault began using the lan­guage of class strug­gle in polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions, and pub­licly declar­ing the “retour à Marx” as the spirit of his age.3 Foucault’s polit­i­cal makeover occurred among a group of Trot­sky­ist stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Tunis where he was teach­ing phi­los­o­phy in 1968. The young Tunisians inspired him to brush up on the clas­sics of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism from Marx’s own work to Rosa Lux­em­burg, in addi­tion to pop­u­lar fig­ures of the New Left, includ­ing Che Gue­vara and the Black Pan­thers.4 Reflect­ing back on this year of strikes, course sus­pen­sions, occu­pa­tions, arrests, impris­on­ments and tor­ture in Tunisia, Fou­cault admired the moral energy and exis­ten­tial charge of his stu­dents’ Marx­ist iden­ti­fi­ca­tion more than its rigor or pre­ci­sion. Revers­ing his ear­lier posi­tion on the his­tor­i­cal obso­les­cence of Marx, he had been con­vinced “that myth was nec­es­sary. A polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy or a polit­i­cal per­cep­tion of the world, of human rela­tions and sit­u­a­tions was absolutely nec­es­sary to begin the strug­gle.”5

These remarks imme­di­ately recall Sorel, rather than Marx; how­ever, is it going too far to sug­gest that Fou­cault sought to cap­ture the polit­i­cal imag­i­nary of his day by spin­ning a new myth, an alter­nate “polit­i­cal per­cep­tion of the world” with his con­cep­tual unfold­ing of the term “power?”6 After all, Foucault’s key insight in this regard – power is pro­duc­tive rather than repres­sive; indi­vid­u­al­ity is itself the prod­uct of a his­tor­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of power – is not some world-weary warn­ing about the ruse of his­tory. It is not to say that “power always wins.” In fact, it is a research agenda: try to his­tor­i­cally val­i­date the hypoth­e­sis accord­ing to which every­where power has crushed some­one in its gears, or men­aced peo­ple with guns and over­seers, it has done so pre­cisely because that indi­vid­ual or group pre­sented some essen­tial threat to the exer­cise of that power. The oppressed, Fou­cault argues, also make use of an immense “net­work of power.” They are not pas­sive vic­tims of a his­tor­i­cal process; in fact, power is his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent. The resis­tance of the oppressed has shaped the present orga­ni­za­tion of power. Rev­o­lu­tion, accord­ing to this view, is a rare bird indeed.7

Such polit­i­cal reflec­tions may be cyn­i­cal, but they are not alto­gether for­eign from the Marx­ist polit­i­cal tra­di­tion of thought. For instance, some of the above for­mu­la­tions are remark­ably sim­i­lar to the lessons Ben­jamin gleans from the his­tory of the oppressed, includ­ing his idea of the “weak mes­sianic power” of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pos­si­bil­ity.2Through­out Foucault’s career, he was atten­tive to the voices of the oppressed. His writ­ten work and its bib­li­o­graphic sources are scan­dalous pre­cisely to the extent that he gives less space to mas­ter thinkers – Ben­tham, Marx, Freud, Decartes, Smith, Machi­avelli, Rousseau – than to long-forgotten voices unearthed from volu­mi­nous time spent in libraries. These were also Marx and Benjamin’s pre­ferred meth­ods. Fou­cault fondly referred to it as the “warm freema­sonry of use­less eru­di­tion.” Although he immersed him­self in the heights of West­ern thought, he was far more likely to write a book about a late-19th cen­tury her­maph­ro­dite like Her­cu­line Barbin, than some more explicit expo­si­tion or com­men­tary on the thought which con­sti­tuted his ground. Detect­ing his intel­lec­tual influ­ences demands care­ful reading.

Given that Foucault’s par­tic­u­larstar rose at the start of the mass media age, dur­ing France’s trente glo­rieuses, it is pos­si­ble that he crafted ambiva­lent con­cepts and catch­phrases with pre­cisely this vastly expanded power of media out­lets in mind. It would be a mis­take to assume that he did not fore­see the dif­fi­cul­ties of phi­los­o­phiz­ing with a word that invokes the stuff of super­sti­tion. In stark con­trast to the Frank­furt School and Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional, Fou­cault refrained from crit­i­ciz­ing mass media tech­nolo­gies and con­sid­ered them as mostly neu­tral instru­ments, which broad­ened the field of dis­cur­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties. This was prob­a­bly due to the fact that he was able to nav­i­gate and manip­u­late this media appa­ra­tus so deftly as a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, fore­shad­ow­ing the rise of the much-loathed, television-ready nou­veau philosophe. How­ever, this too is a prin­ci­pled stance. Foucault’s method­ol­ogy resists divi­sions between “high” and “low” cul­tural forms: Ben­tham is just as likely to betray his era’s par­a­digm of pun­ish­ment as the plan for a Quaker prison in Penn­syl­va­nia or the mun­dane daily rou­tine from a prison in the French provinces. With Machi­avelli in mind, Fou­cault calls this “the local cyn­i­cism of power.”9

Foucault’s thought about power must first be sit­u­ated within his con­junc­ture and our own if we want to artic­u­late his con­cep­tual prob­lems and grasp their stakes. These con­tex­tual moves will help us unlearn the way his thought was received and recon­structed. To uncover the ratio­nal ker­nel of his sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal argu­ment will require de-emphasizing his descrip­tive lan­guage, which was often quite beau­ti­ful but has a ten­dency to dis­tract. He often rhetor­i­cally dis­tanced him­self from his own neol­o­gisms, treat­ing them as index­i­cal place­hold­ers for a thought rather than as rig­or­ous the­o­riza­tions. As a cipher for unlock­ing this admit­tedly par­tic­u­lar read­ing of Fou­cault, I offer a trans­la­tion of “Les mailles de pou­voir” – “The Mesh of Power” – which for rea­sons that still remain obscure is absent from all English-language edi­tions of Foucault’s “col­lected works.”

Orig­i­nally deliv­ered in two install­ments at the Fed­eral Uni­ver­sity of Bahia in 1976, Foucault’s words were recorded on cas­sette tapes, tran­scribed and pub­lished as a text, first appear­ing in Por­tugese, and trans­lated back into French for pub­li­ca­tion in Dits et écrits– now deliv­ered to you in Eng­lish, via the Inter­net. The “mesh” of a net of power, the size or gauge of its holes, is a par­tic­u­larly apt metaphor in the Inter­net age, res­onat­ing with these new kinds of cap­ture and slip­page.10 The trans­mis­sion of this pur­loined let­ter to you is itself the result of the devel­op­ment of tech­nolo­gies that have made it eas­ier to cir­cu­late what Fou­cault once termed dis­cours veridique, par­rhe­sia, or truth­ful speech. Indeed, Foucault’s work from the late 1970s reaches us like a tick­ing time bomb from some for­got­ten past, threat­en­ing to explode a whole set of assump­tions about the unity and dis­unity of his thought, reveal­ing new insights and limitations.

Sit­u­at­ing Foucault’s Intel­lec­tual Cri­sis and “The Mesh of Power”

The “polit­i­cal turn” of 1969 and the late “eth­i­cal turn” towards the “care of the self” are widely cited episodes in the intel­lec­tual his­tory of Fou­cault. This peri­odiza­tion pro­vides a neat tri­par­tite divi­sion of his work into early, mid­dle and late. In the sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture, these turns are noted, but their causes remain obscure. Few have attempted a rea­soned and well-argued recon­struc­tion of their sig­nif­i­cance, and most stud­ies of the sub­ject com­pen­sate for such lacu­nae with gos­sip and speculation.

These dif­fi­cul­ties have only been com­pounded by prob­lems of recep­tion. French his­to­rian François Cus­set con­sid­ers the “Amer­i­can adven­ture with French The­ory” to be a para­dox of com­par­a­tive intel­lec­tual his­tory; although “Der­rida, Fou­cault and Deleuze & co.” were embraced on this side of the Atlantic and pack­aged together “for what was seen as their anti-Marxism… they were banned from their home coun­try under the charges of a per­verse col­lu­sion with the worst of left­ist Marx­ism.”11

For var­i­ous rea­sons, the Amer­i­can recep­tion of Fou­cault emerged as the hege­monic one, and his con­cepts have crys­tal­lized into so many polit­i­cal ontolo­gies – “nor­ma­tiv­ity” in queer the­ory, “biopol­i­tics” and war in the works of Gior­gio Agam­ben, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri – but none of these ontolo­gies responds to our political-economic hori­zon of low or no-growth cap­i­tal­ism and its impli­ca­tions for state power, social insti­tu­tions, and resis­tance strug­gles. Indeed, the period char­ac­ter­ized by bub­ble­nomics, osten­si­ble ero­sions of state sov­er­eignty and the dif­fuse resis­tance offered by alter-globo and anti-war mul­ti­tudes, which once gave these Fou­cauldian assess­ments of the con­junc­ture a cer­tain bite in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has now cap­sized into a sit­u­a­tion of eco­nomic melt­down, con­sol­i­da­tions of old-fashioned class power, sov­er­eign debt crises, uneven reasser­tions of Euro-American mil­i­tary might and emer­gent strug­gles over aus­ter­ity mea­sures in the US and Europe along­side pop­u­lar rebel­lions against author­i­tar­ian regimes in the Mid­dle East.

The Amer­i­can hey­day of French The­ory now appears like a blip on the radar between the eco­nomic down­turn, debt cri­sis, youth unem­ploy­ment and Mideast upris­ings of the 1970s, which was Foucault’s con­junc­ture, and the eco­nomic chain reac­tion set off by the Amer­i­can banks in 2008, polit­i­cal upheavals,youth unem­ploy­ment and Arab Spring which con­sti­tutes our own. His polit­i­cal thought from this ear­lier period of eco­nomic cri­sis – espe­cially his thought con­cern­ing neolib­er­al­ism as an emer­gent art of gov­ern­ment for man­ag­ing the cri­sis ten­den­cies of cap­i­tal – merit a care­ful reap­praisal in light of the present conjuncture.

Most cru­cially for a reassess­ment of Foucault’s thought, all of his pub­lic lec­tures at the Col­lège de France have now been published.These lessons, which had pre­vi­ously cir­cu­lated on boot­leg cas­settes within a lim­ited milieu of con­nois­seurs, have now become a pub­lic record of Foucault’s intel­lec­tual tra­jec­tory from 1971 to his death in 1984. Although his will stip­u­lated that there were to be “no posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions” and Fou­cault admit­ted to being “aller­gic” to the record­ing devices clut­ter­ing his lectern, he under­stood their impor­tance: “word always gets out,” he affirms in a lec­ture from 1976.12 Indeed, with these pub­li­ca­tions, his lessons are no longer sub­ject to the dem­a­goguery and occul­ta­tion that so fre­quently accom­pa­nies arcana. The can­did form of the lec­tures reveals a remark­able tran­si­tional period from 1976 to 1979 in which Fou­cault expe­ri­enced a pro­found intel­lec­tual cri­sis and began a project of self-criticism, before turn­ing to the more eth­i­cal con­cerns that would char­ac­ter­ize his late period.

We may now be in the posi­tion to eval­u­ate the intel­lec­tual sig­nif­i­cance of this moment, and ven­ture a guess as to why the ever-prolific Fou­cault stopped pub­lish­ing from 1976 to 1983.13 Does the thought that emerges from this period of intel­lec­tual cri­sis and self-criticism bring into focus the insights and lim­i­ta­tions of Foucault’s ear­lier attempts to the­o­rize power?Does his empha­sis upon prob­lems of state­craft, his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness, and polit­i­cal econ­omy dur­ing this period rep­re­sent a depar­ture from or a cul­mi­na­tion of his ear­lier stud­ies of the inter­nal phys­iog­nomy of insti­tu­tions such as the mil­i­tary, pris­ons, med­i­cine and psychiatry?

No mat­ter how many col­lege fresh­men have their minds blown by a vir­ginal voy­age through Foucault’s work, his prob­lem­atic and its famil­iar con­stel­la­tion of sexy neol­o­gisms, “biopol­i­tics,” “panop­ti­cism,” and “gov­ern­men­tal­ity,” not to men­tion the dark atmos­pher­ics of a finely-meshed “net­work of power” in which “there is no out­side,” have been in cir­cu­la­tion for nearly thirty-five years.These terms have accreted a mean­ing that can­not be found in the orig­i­nal copy. This lan­guage and its many polit­i­cal valances – lib­eral, anar­chist, rad­i­cal – has gone in and out of fash­ion. The vin­tage of most “The­ory peo­ple” can be ascer­tained from their pre­ferred (or loathed) Fou­cauldian jar­gon. Per­haps with some dis­tance from this period, we are now in a posi­tion to eval­u­ate his remark­able and oscil­lat­ing attempts to think pol­i­tics with­out recourse to bour­geois con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of the state, law or rights.His old ene­mies – psy­chi­a­try, uni­ver­si­ties, pris­ons, human­ism, rights dis­course, and the remorse­less com­pul­sion to give an account of one’s sex­u­al­ity – have con­tin­ued to pro­lif­er­ate and expand along­side the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of his analy­ses of them.This para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion arouses the sus­pi­cion that these insti­tu­tions of power are not threat­ened by the attempt to reawaken the his­tor­i­cal mem­ory of their entry into the world, drip­ping with blood and dirt.In the absence of the social move­ments that once con­tested these insti­tu­tions, Foucault’s his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion up through the mid 1970s risks becom­ing a con­fessed cri­tique, an advanced kind of agi­ta­tion and pro­pa­ganda for a strug­gle that expe­ri­enced defeat and pyrrhic victories.

This con­clu­sion may be pre­ma­ture, but Fou­cault admit­ted as much around the time that he deliv­ered “Mesh of Power” to rad­i­cal stu­dents in Brazil. While edit­ing the final proofs of His­tory of Sex­u­al­ity, vol­ume 1, Fou­cault pub­licly pro­fessed to his audi­tors, as stu­dents are called at the Col­lège de France, that he was suf­fer­ing some­thing of an intel­lec­tual cri­sis. In his first lec­ture of 1976, Fou­cault begins the course by ques­tion­ing both the rel­e­vance and coher­ence of his intel­lec­tual project. He wor­ries that his research agenda “had no con­ti­nu­ity” and was “always falling into the same rut, the same themes, the same con­cepts,” ulti­mately fear­ing that “it’s all lead­ing us nowhere.” Char­ac­ter­iz­ing his genealog­i­cal method as an “insur­rec­tion of knowl­edges” against “sci­en­tific dis­course embod­ied in the Uni­ver­sity” – and here the attack on his old men­tor, Louis Althusser, is barely con­cealed – Fou­cault con­fronts the his­toric­ity of his own thought and the shift­ing cul­tural sta­tus of both the Uni­ver­sity and Marx­ism in France. He states that his work “was quite in keep­ing with a cer­tain period; with the very lim­ited period we have been liv­ing through for the last ten or fif­teen years.” A cer­tain num­ber of “changes in the con­junc­ture” sug­gest to him that “per­haps the bat­tle no longer looks quite the same.”14

Such sober assess­ments give one pause. Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish had just been pub­lished the pre­vi­ous year to great acclaim fol­low­ing an intense period of activism around pris­ons in France. The activ­i­ties of the Prison Infor­ma­tion Group (Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons, GIP) brought about suc­cess­ful reforms of France’s sen­tenc­ing prac­tices and penal sys­tem by foment­ing an unprece­dented wave of prison strikes, forc­ing the appa­ra­tus to become more open and trans­par­ent. In autumn of 1971, twenty pris­ons across France simul­ta­ne­ously exploded into open revolt against their cages and masters.

The suc­cess of the GIP was due in large part to the fact that many of its agi­ta­tors had them­selves been impris­oned for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties – thus the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity by the French state wound up politi­ciz­ing crime.15 In a curi­ously Maoist adap­ta­tion of the tra­di­tion of worker’s inquiries, the GIP smug­gled sur­veys to pris­on­ers to dis­cover weak points in the sys­tem and find out what demands they would make for their reform or abo­li­tion. Pris­on­ers forced anal­o­gous reforms in the US, due to the resis­tance and lit­i­ga­tion of mem­bers of the Nation of Islam who estab­lished an unprece­dented jurispru­dence per­tain­ing to prisoner’s rights in the 1970s.16 Dur­ing this era, French pris­ons per­mit­ted no vis­i­tors, unlike Amer­i­can pris­ons, and remained some­thing of an infor­ma­tion black hole. Fou­cault first vis­ited a prison while in the US; he toured the Attica Cor­rec­tional Facil­ity fol­low­ing its upris­ing and repression.

Due to his grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity, Foucault’s pub­lic lec­tures had become so uncom­fort­able and over-crowded as to per­mit lit­tle exchange or con­tact with students.Politically, the heady days of post-68 French ultra-gauchisme and “new social move­ments” had begun to wane. The milieu with whom Fou­cault had orga­nized and demon­strated in the early sev­en­ties began to dis­solve. Some of these Maoist com­rades became the nou­veaux philosophes, celebrity aca­d­e­mics pre­oc­cu­pied with total­i­tar­i­an­ism or the­o­log­i­cal con­cerns, cit­ing Fou­cault him­self as their inspi­ra­tion. The Stal­in­ized Marx­ism of the French Com­mu­nist Party (Par­tie com­mu­niste française, PCF) had also begun to decom­pose. The PCF had entered an alliance with François Mitterand’s new Social­ist Party, (Par­tie social­iste, PS), sign­ing a com­mon pro­gramme in 1973. The PCF aban­doned all ref­er­ences to the “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat” and was forced to reeval­u­ate the legacy of Lenin dur­ing the 1976 firestorm sur­round­ing the French pub­li­ca­tion of Alek­sandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Arch­i­pel­ago, which detailed the abuses of the Soviet Union’s forced labor system.The alliance between the PCF and PS would pro­pel Mit­ter­rand into the pres­i­dency in 1981.All of this amounted to a tec­tonic shift in the intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal ter­rain of the post-68 Left in France.

The con­junc­ture com­ing to a close in the mid-1970s had opened with the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence in 1954, which did more to negate than con­struct a field of pol­i­tics and intel­lec­tual activ­ity in France – Sartre, de Beau­voir and Les temps mod­ernes were excep­tions in this regard. Reports of the bru­tal­ity and tor­ture of the gen­darmes were a major blow to the tra­di­tion of la République and its sup­pos­edly uni­ver­sal val­ues.17 Fol­low­ing the 1957 Bat­tle of Algiers, 1958 coup d’etat and mil­i­tary junta in Alge­ria, the col­lapse of the Fourth Repub­lic, and Charles de Gaulle’s return to the head of a much strength­ened exec­u­tive power, the non-Communist left was argu­ing that the Com­mu­nist and Social­ist par­ties had failed to use their moral and polit­i­cal high ground fol­low­ing the resis­tance to Nazi occu­pa­tion to estab­lish a clear direc­tion and pro­gram. Accord­ing to this view, they no longer rep­re­sented the his­tor­i­cal inter­ests or con­scious­ness of the French work­ing class. Cit­ing the aston­ish­ingly low union mem­ber­ship in France and the wild­cat strikes of ‘53 and ‘55, André Gia­cometti writes that “[t]he bulk of the work­ers is unor­ga­nized, and the real life of the working-class takes place out­side of their scope.”18 Spon­tane­ity was, in keep­ing with long-standing polit­i­cal legacy of French rad­i­cal­ism, still the nation’s only rev­o­lu­tion­ary hope. Sartre and other mem­bers of the non-Communist left saw the party’s sup­port of the Soviet Union’s inter­ven­tion in Hun­gary and the party’s tacit endorse­ment of the Alger­ian War as evi­dence of either a con­ser­v­a­tive turn in the tra­di­tional French work­ing class or a reformist and inte­gra­tionist turn of its offi­cial polit­i­cal organs, or both. Many intel­lec­tu­als of the non-Communist left no longer con­sid­ered “the Party” to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. In this regard, Althusser was the exception.

The rapid expan­sion of the uni­ver­sity sys­tem dur­ing the post­war eco­nomic and demo­graphic boom, along with oppo­si­tion to the Viet­nam War, had estab­lished a new polit­i­cal actor that would become essen­tial to the strug­gle in 1968: youth in gen­eral, and stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar. An increas­ingly edu­cated pop­u­la­tion cre­ated an his­tor­i­cally unprece­dented mar­ket for cul­tural jour­nal­ism, which lent non-party intel­lec­tu­als greater power and influence.The non-party Marx­ist tra­di­tion in France, as rep­re­sented by the work of Social­isme ou Bar­barie and the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional, had reached the con­clu­sion that rev­o­lu­tion­ary agi­ta­tion would have to out­flank estab­lished unions and par­ties if it was to gal­va­nize the population.

Decol­o­niza­tion strug­gles and polit­i­cal break­throughs in the Third World, above all China and Cuba, led to sig­nif­i­cant revi­sions of the the­ory of revolution.Regis Debray pub­lished Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion in 1967, propos­ing foquismo– a viral the­ory of how an armed rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard could dis­trib­ute hotbeds of dis­con­tent through­out a pop­u­la­tion, foment­ing a gen­eral fever of insur­rec­tion – based on the Che Guevara’s expe­ri­ence of guer­rilla war­fare dur­ing the 1959 Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. Beneath the ban­ner of a “rev­o­lu­tion in every­day life” and a renewed empha­sis upon the con­cept of alien­ation, Marx­ism became a the­o­ret­i­cal home for new social move­ments. The events of May 1968 dove­tailed these already exist­ing polit­i­cal currents.

After May-June 1968, the rev­o­lu­tion was no longer con­sid­ered a mat­ter of con­test­ing the own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion alone. State-managed cap­i­tal­ism was not a solu­tion to the social prob­lems iden­ti­fied by the new rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The divi­sion of labor, and espe­cially the author­ity struc­ture of man­agers, union bosses, inspec­tors, and func­tionar­ies in place to keep work­ers in line had to be contested.

In the pages of Les temps mod­ernes, Andre Gorz inter­preted May ‘68 as demon­strat­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon in West­ern Europe, and blamed its fail­ure on the PCF and CGT. Les temps mod­ernes under­took an explicit cri­tique of Lenin­ism from 1969 to 1971 and attacked insti­tu­tions from a rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­tic per­spec­tive, exhort­ing its read­ers to “destroy the Uni­ver­sity” as part of the strug­gle against the divi­sion of labor. Not only the abode of pro­duc­tion, but also those super­struc­tural appa­ra­tuses that repro­duce racial and class divi­sions, cre­ate divi­sions of labor, sup­port tra­di­tional roles for women, and prop up citizen/non-citizen dis­tinc­tions had to be assaulted.19

The extra-parliamentary pol­i­tics of the extreme Left of this period were announced by the 1969 text Vers la guerre civile (Towards Civil War), by indi­vid­u­als who would later found the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne. May ‘68 had, accord­ing to this view, “placed rev­o­lu­tion and class strug­gle at the cen­ter of every strat­egy. With­out play­ing the role of prophet: Rev­o­lu­tion is France’s hori­zon from ‘70 to ’72”; the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for such a strug­gle were iden­ti­fied as the “the pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion of the mass move­ment.”20 Vers la guerre civile empha­sizes the exem­plary use of ille­gal direct action, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat, and the strate­gic impor­tance of the divi­sion of labor for the main­te­nance of dis­ci­pline and hier­ar­chy. Armed strug­gle is invoked as the rad­i­cal legacy of the French work­ing class’s resis­tance to Nazi occu­pa­tion.21

The text pro­vided a pro­gramme for the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne (Pro­le­tar­ian Left, 1968-1973) which was con­sid­ered “a greater threat to state secu­rity than any other left-wing group” by the head of the renseigne­ments généraux (Gen­eral Intel­li­gence).22 With grou­pus­cules scat­tered through­out France, theirs was a pol­i­tics that com­bined vol­un­tarism, rad­i­cal democ­racy and spon­tane­ity. The new fig­ures of this rev­o­lu­tion were the immi­grant worker, ouvrier spé­cial­isé, and prison inmate. Impris­on­ment, state repres­sion, and union bureau­cra­cies were the forces that had, in the ter­mi­nol­ogy of this group­ing, “pro­le­tar­i­an­ized” the mass move­ment. The French state banned the sale of Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne’s broad­sheets in pub­lic spaces, which led to an engage­ment with intel­lec­tu­als of the non-communist left. Daniel Defert joined and invited Fou­cault to par­tic­i­pate in this group’s activ­i­ties. Sartre, Simone de Beau­voir, Fou­cault and other pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als were asked to con­tinue dis­tri­b­u­tion of the broad­sheets on the assump­tion that the Repub­lic would not arrest its lumières. Indeed, dis­tri­b­u­tion con­tin­ued unmo­lested. Foucault’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne even­tu­ally resulted in the found­ing of the Prison Infor­ma­tion Group.

As his­tory would have it, the warm after­glow of May ’68 in France turned out to be “a still­born rev­o­lu­tion – what should have been the turn­ing point of its mod­ern his­tory that, as in 1848, failed to turn.”23 Reflect­ing on this period with his char­ac­ter­is­tic wit, Foucault’s 1976 course hinges on an inver­sion of Clauswitz’s famous apho­rism that war is pol­i­tics con­tin­ued through other means, by trac­ing the geneal­ogy of the view that “pol­i­tics is a con­tin­u­a­tion of war by other means.”Although the theme imme­di­ately recalls the pre­vail­ing polit­i­cal lan­guage of a period of extreme left mil­i­tancy, Fou­cault has deeper philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal prob­lems in mind. In the dis­courses of the 17th and 18th cen­tury aris­toc­racy and rev­o­lu­tion­ary bour­geoisie, he attempts to track the entry of race and class war into his­tor­i­cal reflec­tion, artic­u­lat­ing the cen­tral para­dox of the “the­ory of right” within which mod­ern polit­i­cal strug­gles from the French Rev­o­lu­tion to con­tem­po­rary human rights dis­course become intel­li­gi­ble. Rights talk always appeals to an imag­i­nary his­tory of ancient priv­i­leges which, Fou­cault sug­gests, erect a whole series of dis­tinc­tively mod­ern polit­i­cal oppo­si­tions between the indi­vid­ual and society.

His­tor­i­cal thought is thus polit­i­cally use­ful to strug­gles over gov­ern­men­tal pri­or­i­ties and rec­i­p­ro­cal oblig­a­tions only to the extent that it empha­sizes one of two dis­cur­sive par­a­digms. On the one hand, the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of pol­i­tics as war priv­i­leges the moment of strug­gle, the moment of dom­i­na­tion: “what is being put for­ward as a prin­ci­ple for the inter­pre­ta­tion of soci­ety and its vis­i­ble order is the con­fu­sion of vio­lence, pas­sions, hatreds, rages, resent­ments, and bit­ter­ness.”24 On the other hand, one may priv­i­lege the moment of uni­ver­sal­ity and peace, the found­ing of cities and laws, accord­ing to which all his­tory would be noth­ing other than praise of Rome. Fou­cault con­sid­ers these to be the reac­tionary and lib­eral dis­courses of his­tory – here “reac­tionary” in the strict sense of reac­tion to an ascen­dant bour­geois lib­er­al­ism – reach­ing their high­est philo­soph­i­cal artic­u­la­tions in Hegel and Kant respec­tively, a strug­gle for recog­ni­tion or per­pet­ual peace.25 This dilemma and its bloody 20th cen­tury his­tory of national con­flict and state racism is, accord­ing to Fou­cault, the reef upon which the con­cept of power as dom­i­na­tion, repres­sion, and war comes to grief.

Thus, Fou­cault returns to pre-Marxist the­o­rists of class strug­gle – the Dig­gers, Henri de Boul­lainvil­liers and Abbé Siyès – to show that the rhetoric of class war has cer­tain genealog­i­cal affini­ties with pre-scientific and aris­to­cratic the­o­ries of race. The later crys­tal­liza­tion of sci­en­tific the­o­ries of race also have, as their imme­di­ate antecedent, cer­tain 19th cen­tury pseudo-scientific racial­iza­tions of lower classes.26 Instead of a “war-repression schema” Fou­cault calls for a the­ory of polit­i­cal power as essen­tially “pro­duc­tive,” that is as a set of tech­niques for reg­u­lat­ing human pop­u­la­tions and mak­ing bod­ily com­port­ment more effi­cient. The lec­tures from 1976 cul­mi­nate in an analy­sis of the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Nazi Ger­many and the forced labor sys­tem of the USSR as pro­duc­tive deploy­ments of the power to man­age pop­u­la­tions. It is an attempt to demon­strate the con­ti­nu­ity of these pol­i­tics with those of the Enlight­en­ment project: what estab­lishes their com­mon ground and pro­vides a grid of intel­li­gi­bil­ity for this his­tory is not, as in the Frank­furt School, the “ratio­nal irra­tional­ity” of cap­i­tal­ism; it is rather the phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion, as the liv­ing sub­stra­tum of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and mod­ern polit­i­cal power.

After a year-long sab­bat­i­cal in 1977, dur­ing which time Bernard-HenriLévy and Andre Glucks­mann take to the air­waves and tele­vi­sion screens pro­mot­ing their books La bar­barie à vis­age humain (Bar­barism with a Human Face, 1977) and Les maîtres penseurs (The Mas­ter Thinkers, 1977) with totalitarianism-mongering, Foucault’s lec­tures change course. This is also the year of Foucault’s reportage on the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. He becomes increas­ingly cir­cum­spect regard­ing his ear­lier descrip­tive lan­guage. He explic­itly aban­dons his claim that ours is a “dis­ci­pli­nary soci­ety” in 1978, argu­ing that power now oper­ates through more sub­tle lib­eral tech­niques pro­mot­ing free­dom of var­i­ous kinds.27 He aban­dons the words “biopol­i­tics” and “biopower” after the 1979 course, and con­cludes that they were noth­ing other than an attempt to grasp “‘lib­er­al­ism’… as a prin­ci­ple and method of the ratio­nal­iza­tion of the exer­cise of gov­ern­ment, a ratio­nal­iza­tion which obeys – and this is what is spe­cific about it – the inter­nal rule of max­i­mum econ­omy.”28 Per­haps after cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion and de-industrialization, the fac­tory dis­ci­pline no longer pro­vided the blue­print for power in advanced cap­i­tal­ist societies.

Future French edi­tions of Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish will qui­etly remove the phrase “carceral arch­i­pel­ago,” no doubt because Fou­cault wished to dis­tance him­self from the gulag­ism of Glucks­mann and Lévy. His lec­tures turn to an account of the his­tor­i­cal emer­gence of the con­cept of rai­son d’état and polit­i­cal eco­nomic thought as prac­ti­cal and reflec­tive schemas for the “art of gov­ern­ment” in the 17th and 18th cen­turies. He returns to the clas­sics of polit­i­cal econ­omy in order to make a remark­able analy­sis of Quesnay’s Tableau économique, the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, and the birth of neolib­er­al­ism. At times he seems to address him­self directly to the nou­veaux philosophes, con­fronting a car­i­ca­ture of his own thought on “secu­rity”: he crit­i­cizes right- and left-wing “state pho­bia” as elid­ing, “thanks to some play on words,” the dif­fer­ence between social secu­rity and con­cen­tra­tion camps; “the req­ui­site speci­ficity of analy­sis is diluted.”29 The lec­tures then veer into an analy­sis of the var­i­ous regimes of truth-telling among the early Chris­t­ian desert fathers and con­clude with an analy­sis of the prac­tice of Par­rhe­sia among the ancient Greeks, before Foucault’s project and life are sud­denly cut short by AIDS in 1984. The above intel­lec­tual his­tory sug­gests that, fol­low­ing his intel­lec­tual cri­sis and the clo­sure of cer­tain polit­i­cal hori­zons in France, Fou­cault refused to pro­vide a uni­fied polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and turned to more explic­itly “Marx­ist” themes when Marx­ism was being equated with bar­barism and had became unfash­ion­able for pub­lic intellectuals.

Foucault’s Con­cept of Power and its Rela­tion to Marx

In the wake of the May ’68 upris­ing, the French ultra-left attempted to cir­cum­vent the Com­mu­nist Party as the vehi­cle for the trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety, and sought to dis­place the state-capital nexus of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal the­ory by propos­ing a rad­i­cally expan­sive rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. Foucault’s thought from the early 1970s attempts to cap­ture these dis­parate and con­tra­dic­tory polit­i­cal cur­rents with a con­cept of pou­voir, or “power,” which he claims to have devel­oped out of the work of Ben­tham and Marx. This “power” posits the bio­log­i­cal and social phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion and the phys­i­cal move­ments of the human body not only as the eco­nomic sub­strate of pro­duc­tion, but also the polit­i­cal ground of con­tention and neu­tral­iza­tion. These kinds of knowl­edge, or gen­eral intel­lect – inter­ven­tions in the col­lec­tive social and bio­log­i­cal metab­o­lism, a New­ton­ian ana­lyt­ics of bod­ily com­port­ment, move­ment and habi­tus – make pos­si­ble wholly unprece­dented kinds of polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion, new forms of social engi­neer­ing and con­trol, that cre­ate a pro­duc­tive machine out of human mul­ti­plic­ity, a mul­ti­plic­ity pre­vi­ously wasted by polit­i­cal power.30 Fou­cault is try­ing to think about how a mod­ern polit­i­cal field, dif­fer­ent from abso­lutism, forms, takes shape, and allows for cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion to take place, while under­cut­ting worker mil­i­tancy by pro­vid­ing the pro­le­tariat with “secu­rity” (Polizewis­senschaft) – i.e., mod­est reforms that increase life expectancy, encour­age fam­ily life, and so on. This thought implies that Marx aban­doned the clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­mists’ for­mu­la­tions of the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion, only to redis­cover the phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­la­tion as class strug­gle and labor-power.Although this political-economic con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of “power” responds to Foucault’s par­tic­u­lar con­junc­ture of renewed inter­est in Marx, and the demand made by new social move­ments for a more expan­sive model of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject, it is not reducible to such.

By con­ceiv­ing of a prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal moder­nity in terms of the pro­duc­tive man­age­ment of human pop­u­la­tions and bod­ies, Fou­cault strate­gi­cally returns to Marx in order to short cir­cuit the ten­dency of bour­geois thought – and of many Marx­ists, for that mat­ter! – to reify the “state appa­ra­tus” by con­ceiv­ing of power in vul­gar terms of prop­erty own­er­ship, seizure of prop­erty and alienation.This is, accord­ing to Fou­cault, a pro­foundly anthro­po­mor­phic con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the polit­i­cal field. Polit­i­cal power ulti­mately appears as a con­spir­acy of inter­ests which receive rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the state appa­ra­tus; whereas power actu­ally resides in the coor­di­na­tion, cir­cu­la­tion, and pro­duc­tive employ­ment of a mul­ti­plic­ity of forces with­out any “mas­ter plan” or inventor.The gov­ern­ment of these forces is not pro­vided by some cen­tral com­mit­tee of the rul­ing class; it is pro­vided by a non-subjective inten­tion­al­ity or abstract com­pul­sion – the prin­ci­ple of “max­i­mum econ­omy,” the com­pul­sion to work for some­one else to repro­duce your life – which pro­vides the polit­i­cal field with a for­mal unity and prin­ci­pal of intelligibility.

Fou­cault also returns to Marx in order to neu­tral­ize the ten­dency of many fel­low trav­el­ers on the Left to con­ceive of power in terms of sup­pres­sion, which Fou­cault con­sid­ered the polit­i­cal par­a­digm of an early mod­ern tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. He held that both ten­den­cies of thought – power as own­er­ship, power as sup­pres­sion – ulti­mately affirmed the lib­eral model of soci­ety accord­ing to which “soci­ety is rep­re­sented as a con­trac­tual asso­ci­a­tion of iso­lated juridi­cal sub­jects.” To claim such posi­tions for Marx is to aban­don his cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy and merely “re-subscribes us to the bour­geois the­ory of power.” In the polem­i­cal judge­ment pro­nounced in “Mesh of Power,” these alter­nate con­cep­tions of power “Rousseauify Marx,” as if the social form of cap­i­tal­ism were some contract-based free-association of indi­vid­u­als air-dropped from the heav­ens, for­ever abol­ish­ing man’s more per­fect nat­ural state.According to Fou­cault: “The indi­vid­ual is no doubt the fic­ti­tious atom of an ‘ide­o­log­i­cal’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion of soci­ety; but he is also a real­ity fab­ri­cated by this spe­cific tech­nol­ogy of power that I have called ‘dis­ci­pline.’”31

The above pas­sage imme­di­ately recalls Marx’s lan­guage from the intro­duc­tion to Grun­drisse.32 Fou­cault is attempt­ing to trace the geneal­ogy of a social form in which com­mod­ity rela­tions pre­dom­i­nate by grasp­ing the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of the iso­lated indi­vid­u­als of exchange. This trans­for­ma­tion is not the inevitable out­come of the tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion. Instead, the moment of tran­si­tion has to be under­stood as a con­tin­gent out­come of a new form of pol­i­tics, which Fou­cault calls, again fol­low­ing Marx, “dis­ci­pline.” The rel­e­vant pas­sages in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish explic­itly cite Marx’s dis­cus­sion of “coop­er­a­tion” in Cap­i­tal, vol­ume 1, and his exchanges with Engels about the ori­gins of fac­tory dis­ci­pline in mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline. Fou­cault asks how a trib­u­tary sov­er­eign power to levy a tax – on pro­duce, blood, trade, etc. – tran­si­tions to a pro­duc­tive eco­nomic power gen­er­a­tive of sur­plus. The thread of this thought about the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism proper – rather than the ori­gins of mere mar­ket exchange – and its care­ful play on Marx­ist lan­guage can be fol­lowed through all of Foucault’s pub­lished works, though his cita­tions and insin­u­a­tions are rarely as obvi­ous as they appear in “Mesh of Power” or Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.

Pre­sented very schemat­i­cally, consider:

1. His analy­ses of the con­fine­ment of pau­pers and the mad in the same work­houses inMad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion (1961).

2.His con­cern for the pas­sage from an analy­sis of wealth to polit­i­cal econ­omy in The Order of Things.

3. His analy­sis of the impor­tance of dis­ci­pline in the devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish.33

4. His asser­tion that human life is the real mate­r­ial sub­strate of an expand­ing and pro­duc­tive deploy­ment of polit­i­cal power in The His­tory of Sex­u­al­ity(1976).

5. His very explicit analy­ses of Phys­io­cratic thought and the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism in Secu­rity, Ter­ri­tory, Pop­u­la­tion (1978).

6. Finally, his pre­sen­ta­tion of the prob­lem of the polit­i­cal sub­ject of neolib­er­al­ism, ver­sus that of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy in The Birth of Biopol­i­tics (1979).

These are not merely inci­den­tal pas­sages or asides. They are in fact quite cru­cial to under­stand­ing Foucault’s cen­tral his­tor­i­cal claims; each of them returns us to Marx.

Per­haps gen­er­ous minds will grant that Fou­cault was a care­ful reader of Marx, a scholar who appre­ci­ated the latter’s enor­mously sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal account of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. But what would it mean to argue that Foucault’s thought expresses some essen­tial under­ly­ing polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual affin­ity for Marx’s project – one pos­si­bly even deserv­ing of the moniker “Marx­ist”? There are many dan­gers to this kind of inter­pre­ta­tion. It must be atten­tive to Foucault’s strong polit­i­cal cyn­i­cism. It requires a full recon­struc­tion of Marx’s thought as well as Foucault’s, and there is no space for that dis­cus­sion here. But this read­ing strat­egy faces other objec­tions as well, con­sid­er­ing his well known cri­tique of the author-function. Wouldn’t call­ing his thought “Marx­ist,” even grant­ing a bit of iron­i­cal dis­tance from such a claim, be to engage in what Jacques Lacan termed “Uni­ver­sity Dis­course,” the use of proper nouns, a chain of sig­ni­fiers in place of actual thought or truth?34

Such an oper­a­tion may be jus­ti­fi­able in Foucault’s own terms. Fou­cault makes the case in “What is an Author?” that cer­tain founders of dis­course, such as Marx and Freud, open up entirely new fields of inquiry, explod­ing the lim­its of what is sayable. Fou­cault con­sid­ers their thought to be infi­nitely pro­duc­tive. New appli­ca­tions and trans­for­ma­tions of such thought have the qual­ity of “reac­ti­va­tions,” for the philoso­pher avails him­self of a new zeit­geist only in order to clear the cob­webs away from old prob­lems.35 Such claims are close to Sartre’s argu­ment in the intro­duc­tion to Cri­tique of Dialec­ti­cal Rea­son that Marx is the untran­scend­able hori­zon of our thought.

The wager of the fol­low­ing is that it is pre­cisely in the spirit of a reac­ti­va­tion of Marx – rather than a faith­ful recita­tion of a dead let­ter, or some more thor­ough crit­i­cal recon­struc­tion – that Fou­cault pur­sued his his­tor­i­cal analy­ses of power. Foucault’s result­ing body of work is a tes­ta­ment to just how fruit­ful or fruit­less such an approach may be. Ulti­mately, we must admit the pos­si­bil­ity that his glib dis­missals of Marx were face­tious. To admit this pos­si­bil­ity is to sug­gest that, by mis­un­der­stand­ing or reject­ing Fou­cault, self-professed Marx­ists are tak­ing the bait. They risk demon­strat­ing that they haven’t under­stood some­thing essen­tial in their master’s discourse.

Although Fou­cault was under no illu­sion that he had sup­planted Marx, he may have con­sid­ered him­self an inher­i­tor of Marx’s project. I quote his words on the sub­ject from a 1978 inter­view with a Japan­ese Marx­ist at length and with­out comment:

So long as we con­sider Marx­ism to be a unity [ensem­ble] of the forms of appear­ance of power con­nected, in one way or another, to the words of Marx [la parole de Marx], then to sys­tem­at­i­cally exam­ine each and every one of these forms of appear­ance is the least that a man liv­ing in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury could do. Even today we are pas­sively, scorn­fully, fear­fully and inter­est­edly sub­mit­ting to this power, whereas it’s nec­es­sary to com­pletely lib­er­ate our­selves from it. This must be sys­tem­at­i­cally exam­ined with the gen­uine sen­ti­ment that we are com­pletely free in rela­tion to Marx. Of course, to be free with regards to Marx­ism does not imply return­ing again to the source to show what Marx actu­ally said, grasp­ing his words [sa parole] in their purest state, and treat­ing them like the one and only law. It cer­tainly doesn’t mean demon­strat­ing, for exam­ple, with the Althusser­ian method, how the gospel [la véri­ta­ble parole] of the prophet Marx has been mis­in­ter­preted. These for­mal ques­tions are unim­por­tant. How­ever, recon­firm­ing the func­tional unity of the forms of appear­ance of power, which are con­nected to Marx’s own state­ments [la parole de Marx lui-même], strikes me as a wor­thy endeavor.36

Polit­i­cal Questions

Three cru­cial ques­tions are raised by “Mesh of Power.” The first con­cerns Foucault’s curi­ous claim that he derives his the­ory of power, at least in part, from the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal. The sec­ond con­cerns “the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion” as the con­cept which gives Foucault’s dis­parate his­tor­i­cal stud­ies a the­matic unity, despite his protests to the contrary;the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion returns us to the ques­tion of the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism and that of any uncer­tain con­tem­po­rary tran­si­tion out of capitalism.The third con­cerns his response to the ques­tion raised at the very end of the lec­ture by a female audi­tor, which will return us to the themes of Foucault’s his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture and the prob­lem of his reception.

1. The ques­tion of Cap­i­tal. Marx’s the­ory of the expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal is impor­tant because he is attempt­ing to describe the unity of dis­parate social processes. Although mar­ket soci­ety has anar­chic qual­i­ties, there is a unity to the social form of pro­duc­tion. Marx avoided the dead­locks of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy with the con­cept of labor-power. Labour, as such, does not cir­cu­late on the mar­ket. The poten­tial for labor –la force de tra­vail, Arbeit­skraft – is what cir­cu­lates. Labor as force, as poten­tial, as power is exchange­able accord­ing to abstract equiv­a­lence regard­less of its par­tic­u­lar uses because the mar­ket estab­lishes a con­crete min­i­mum stan­dard for its value: the labor nec­es­sary to repro­duce labor as human life. Hence, “liv­ing labour.”

Although it is impor­tant to main­tain a dis­tinc­tion between the two, Fou­cault unfolds “power,” as a cat­e­gory of thought, in a way anal­o­gous to Marx’s unfold­ing of the cat­e­gory of “cap­i­tal” in his the­ory of expanded reproduction.“Capital” is invested in means of pro­duc­tion, infra­struc­ture, and the built envi­ron­ment just as “cap­i­tal” is invested in liv­ing labour. With­out either cir­cuit, or depart­ment, “cap­i­tal” can­not real­ize the value crys­tal­ized in com­modi­ties. This dou­ble move­ment is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates cap­i­tal­ism from mere rent extrac­tion; it is what his­tor­i­cally and cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­tin­guishes “rel­a­tive” from “absolute” sur­plus value extrac­tion. It is the source of capital’s peri­odic, and per­haps ter­mi­nal, cri­sis tendencies.

For Fou­cault, “power” is a unity of both power and resis­tance. “Power” sus­tains and guar­an­tees the life of human pop­u­la­tions just as “power” is invested in the orga­ni­za­tion of a fac­tory, the plan for a prison, or the orga­ni­za­tion of city streets accord­ing to a grid.The pro­duc­tive orga­ni­za­tion of human bod­ies and pop­u­la­tions is a tech­nol­ogy, he argues, just as impor­tant to the mode of pro­duc­tion as the machines whose smooth oper­a­tion it allows. He gave this term “power” a polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance out­side the abode of pro­duc­tion, as an alter­na­tive to rep­re­sen­ta­tional the­o­ries of polit­i­cal power, but locates the ori­gins of this “power” in the abode of pro­duc­tion and in cer­tain early mod­ern mil­i­tary inno­va­tions. Accord­ingly, the divi­sions set up by the “power” Fou­cault describes are not reducible to those of class. In the lec­tures from ‘78 he argues that polit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy of secu­rity dis­tin­guishes between “essen­tial” and “non-essential” lev­els of the pop­u­la­tion in order to deter­mine accept­able lev­els of risk. That is, Phys­io­cratic reforms per­tain­ing to grain short­ages were not attempts to elim­i­nate star­va­tion. They were attempts to use mar­ket mech­a­nisms to dis­trib­ute scarcity within iso­lated pock­ets of the pop­u­la­tion, attempts to pro­tect against mass hunger and scarcity which threat­ened polit­i­cal insta­bil­ity. The polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions he iso­lates – per­tain­ing to san­i­ta­tion, hous­ing, epi­demic dis­ease, insur­ance, mass immi­gra­tion, wel­fare, and so on – emerge quite late in the 19th cen­tury, as a result of polit­i­cal reforms and exi­gen­cies that had only just begun in Marx’s time.

2. The ques­tion of pop­u­la­tion. Genealogy’s abil­ity to jux­ta­pose rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent con­junc­tures enables a thought about the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism which sheds light on the present moment in a way that other his­to­ries can­not. The­o­riz­ing the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion caused Fou­cault to revise his ear­lier claims about power; the con­cept of “secu­rity” rep­re­sents a return to polit­i­cal econ­omy and a more care­ful peri­odiza­tion of “dis­ci­pline” as inter­nal to a tran­si­tion to a cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, after which dis­ci­pline is in the ser­vice of more lib­eral arts of gov­ern­ment. Fou­cault locates the epis­temic and polit­i­cal break of moder­nity in the thought of the Phys­iocrats and their his­tor­i­cal role within the French abso­lutist state. In an attempt to think the rad­i­cally incom­men­su­rable, Fou­cault poses the fol­low­ing prob­lem: within a largely back­wards and pop­u­lous region of Europe, in which a set of class rela­tions par­tic­u­lar to the French abso­lutist state fore­stalled the full tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism until the 19th cen­tury, a prop­erly mod­ern polit­i­cal eco­nomic the­ory of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity emerges in the 18th cen­tury due to a suc­ces­sion of demo­graphic crises which directly threat­ened monar­chi­cal power and cre­ated a remark­ably polar­ized polit­i­cal field. How­ever, this new art of eco­nomic gov­ern­ment ‘remained imprisoned…within the forms of the admin­is­tra­tive monar­chy.’37 The pop­u­la­tion, accord­ing to Fou­cault, pro­vides a uni­fy­ing – if not entirely uni­fied – field of prac­tice for the tran­si­tion from an analy­sis of wealth to polit­i­cal econ­omy, from nat­ural his­tory to biol­ogy, from gen­eral gram­mar to philol­ogy.38

I would like to sug­gest that Fou­cault calls this new orga­ni­za­tion of power “secu­rity” because he is his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated at the moment in which the ris­ing post-war demand for hous­ing credit in the United States required the struc­tured financ­ing of mort­gage pools in the 1970s: the secu­ri­ti­za­tion of debt. Such devel­op­ments enabled Fou­cault to ven­ture the hypoth­e­sis that the utopian pro­gramme of neo-liberalism is not “a super mar­ket soci­ety, but an enter­prise soci­ety. “Thus, he con­ceived of this new phase of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, inau­gu­rat­ing our own late cap­i­tal­ist era, in terms of a trans­for­ma­tion in the man­age­ment of polit­i­cal dan­ger and mar­ket risk.39 In Foucault’s final analy­sis, neo-liberalism is not a reac­ti­va­tion of the prac­tice of lais­sez faire, for the state must “inter­vene on soci­ety so that com­pet­i­tive mech­a­nisms can play a reg­u­la­tive role at every moment and every point in soci­ety and by inter­ven­ing in this way its objec­tive will become pos­si­ble… a gen­eral reg­u­la­tion of soci­ety by the mar­ket.”40

How­ever, what does Fou­cault allow us to see about the birth of neolib­er­al­ism that pre­vail­ing accounts of the cri­sis of the 1970s in terms of finan­cial­iza­tion, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, and the con­sol­i­da­tion of class power fail to bring into view?In unequiv­o­cal terms, Fou­cault asserts: “Neo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not mar­ket soci­ety; neo-liberalism is not the Gulag on the insid­i­ous scale of cap­i­tal­ism.”41 For the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, it was the dis­cus­sion of “com­mod­ity fetishism” in Book I of Cap­i­tal, vol­ume 1,and the infa­mous “ten­dency of the rate of profit to fall” from vol­ume 3, which pre­vented them from grasp­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of this new form of gov­ern­men­tal power. In an analy­sis of the Frank­furt School, which could be mobi­lized to crit­i­cize con­tem­po­rary the­o­rists of the grim arcana of “biopower” today, Fou­cault argues that it was Max Weber’s influ­ence that dis­placed Marx’s prob­lem­atic of the con­tra­dic­tory logic of cap­i­tal in 20th cen­tury Ger­many. The prob­lem of “the irra­tional ratio­nal­ity of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety” would – in the wake of Nazism, polit­i­cal exile and the destruc­tion unleashed by the sec­ond world war – moti­vate the Marx­ists of the Frank­furt School and the ordolib­er­als of the Freiburg School to crit­i­cize the irra­tional excesses of cap­i­tal­ism, rather than ana­lyz­ing its for­ward march through inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions and crises. Fou­cault con­cludes that, for both schools, Nazism rep­re­sented “the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal ‘Road to Dam­as­cus’… the field of adver­sity that they would have to define and cross in order to reach their objec­tive.” As for the polit­i­cal out­come: “his­tory had it that in 1968 the last dis­ci­ples of the Frank­furt School clashed with the police of a gov­ern­ment inspired by the Freiburg School, thus find­ing them­selves on oppo­site sides of the bar­ri­cades.”42 Neo-liberalism and its pro­po­nents seem to have emerged – from the bar­ri­cades and occu­pa­tions in Berke­ley, Paris or Frank­furt – the vic­tor of this his­toric clash of forces.

In Foucault’s view, actu­ally exist­ing social­ism rep­re­sented a hyper­tro­phied ratio­nal­iza­tion of exist­ing arts of government.It had pro­posed strong eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal par­a­digms but failed to pro­vide a “rea­son­able and cal­cu­la­ble mea­sure of the extent, modes and objec­tives of gov­ern­men­tal action.”In the absence of a gov­ern­men­tal art of its own, Fou­cault argues, social­ism was forced by its his­tor­i­cal strug­gles to con­nect up with lib­er­al­ism, on the one hand – as a “cor­rec­tive and a pal­lia­tive to inter­nal dan­gers” – or to a large admin­is­tra­tive appa­ra­tus and police state, as in the Soviet Union, on the other.43

3. The ques­tion of hys­ter­i­cal dis­course. Fou­cault refused hys­ter­i­cal discourse.He said it was sim­plis­tic, used by reac­tionar­ies, dem­a­gogues, and racists, and obscured the impor­tant his­tor­i­cal ques­tions. In con­fronting a car­i­ca­ture of his own thought, Fou­cault had to appeal to Marx. This moment in “Mesh of Power” epit­o­mizes Foucault’s intel­lec­tual tra­jec­tory after the cri­sis of 1976. Return­ing to Marx was far more cru­cial dur­ing a reac­tionary period than dur­ing one of rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval.

Like Engels at the close of the 19th cen­tury, Fou­cault spent his final years con­tem­plat­ing early Chris­t­ian move­ments and their prac­tices of free love.44 Foucault’s response to talk of bath­house clo­sures in New York, San Fran­cisco, and Mon­tréal was a prin­ci­pled stance rather than the hys­ter­ics that char­ac­ter­ized the main­stream gay movement’s responses. In an inter­view with Gai pied (Gay Foot) from 1982, Fou­cault did not require a the­ory of “het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity” to oppose gay bath­house clo­sures. It was sim­ply a mat­ter of oppos­ing this exten­sion of police power on principle:

it is nec­es­sary to be intran­si­gent, we can­not make a com­pro­mise between tol­er­ance and intol­er­ance, we can­not but be on the side of tol­er­ance. It isn’t a mat­ter of search­ing for an equi­lib­rium between the per­se­cu­tor and per­se­cuted. We can­not give our­selves the objec­tive of win­ning mil­lime­ter by mil­lime­ter. On this issue of the rela­tion between police and sex­ual plea­sure, it’s nec­es­sary to go the dis­tance and take prin­ci­pled posi­tions.45

A Social­ist Art of Government

Fou­cault appro­pri­ately con­sid­ered the “utopian dream” of neolib­er­al­ism to be an “enter­prise soci­ety,” a soci­ety which treats human life and its risks as income streams. It encour­ages own­er­ship and guar­an­tees a min­i­mum social safety net in order to pre­vent the for­ma­tion of a class in open rebel­lion against their tech­no­cratic mas­ters. Where these soft touches do not work, police power is deployed. Fou­cault iden­ti­fies the ide­o­log­i­cal basis of this polit­i­cal eco­nomic sys­tem as a “cul­ture of dan­ger,” a dark glamor in which the risks of this sys­tem pro­vide occa­sion for a mor­al­iz­ing dis­course. This is the stuff of the 24-hour news cycle and Andy Warhol’s “super­stars.” We are now observ­ing this utopian dream come to grief on its own con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity: the defeat of class strug­gles of the 1970s and dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of the West have cre­ated a pop­u­la­tion prob­lem inter­nal to advanced cap­i­tal­ist states anal­o­gous to that of the sur­plus human­ity in devel­op­ing coun­tries.46 This is the polit­i­cal hori­zon of the Occupy move­ment, and its pro­fessed sol­i­dar­ity with events in Tunis and Egypt is not merely hubris. The Left is once again caught in a tac­ti­cal stran­gle­hold, forced to defend the most mod­est of social safety nets – pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, wel­fare, pen­sions etc. – against neolib­eral shock therapy.

By return­ing to Marx’s prob­lem­atic of the pop­u­la­tion as a cen­tral con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal, Fou­cault pro­vides insights into our polit­i­cal moment. What hap­pens to power when human life becomes super­flu­ous to the mode of pro­duc­tion? The lessons Fou­cault derives from the expe­ri­ence of the 1970s sug­gest that such ques­tions will be decided by a strug­gle, but we need more than just strug­gle to chal­lenge neolib­er­al­ism. We need a new art of gov­ern­ment. The con­clu­sion to the above men­tioned lec­ture from 1979 is a chal­lenge to the his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion: “the impor­tance of the text in social­ism is com­men­su­rate with the lacuna con­sti­tuted by the absence of a social­ist art of government.”Foucault then asks, “What gov­ern­men­tal­ity is pos­si­ble as a strictly, intrin­si­cally, and autonomously social­ist gov­ern­men­tal­ity?” Doubt­ing that a social­ist art of gov­ern­ment can be found in the his­tory of social­ism or its texts, Fou­cault con­cludes: “It must be invented.”47

  • 1. Michel Fou­cault, “Chronol­ogy,” Dits et écrits I, 1954-1975, eds. Daniel Defert, François Ewald (Paris: Jacques Lagrange, 2001), 42. Trans­la­tions from French are mine unless oth­er­wise noted.
  • 2. Wal­ter Ben­jamin, “On the Con­cept of His­tory,” (1940).