The fabric of struggles - Benjamin Noys

Introduction to 'Communization and its discontents' by Benjamin Noys

The Fabric of Struggles Benjamin Noys

I Barely twenty years have passed since the collapse of actually-existing socialism and now the crisis of actually-existing capitalism, in its neoliberal version, is upon us. The shrill capitalist triumphalism of the 1990s, or the bellicose equation of capitalism with democracy that defined the ’00s ‘war on terror’, ring more than a little hollow in the frozen desert of burst financial bubbles and devalorization. The commodities that make up the capitalist way-of-life have turned malignant, exposed as hollow bearers of debt servitude that can never be paid off. The cry ‘No New Deal’ goes up as wealth is transferred in huge amounts to save the financial sector. We are prepared for yet another round of sacrifice as structural adjustment and ‘shock doctrine’ return to the center of global capitalism after extensive testing on its self-defined ‘peripheries’. Whether this is terminal crisis, entropic drift, or merely the prelude to the ‘creative destruction’ that will kick-start a new round of accumulation, is still obscure.

In this situation new waves and forms of struggle have emerged in dispersed and inchoate forms. We have also seen a new language being used to theorise and think these struggles: ‘the human strike’, the ‘imaginary party’, ‘clandestinity’ and, not least, the strange and spectral word ‘communization’. The concept of communization emerged from currents of the French ultra-left in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but has gained resonance as a way of posing the problem of struggle today. It draws attention to the exhaustion of existing forms of organization that have tried to lead, dictate or pre-empt struggles, it contests the tendency to affirm or adopt an alternative counter-identity (worker, militant, anarchist, activist, etc.), and it challenges the despotism of capitalism that treats us as sources of value.

II This collection is dedicated to a critical questioning of the concept of communization, and in particular to analysing its discontents – the problems, questions and difficulties that traverse it. It is not easy to define what the word communization refers to, and it has often been used more as a slogan, a nickname, or even worse a ‘brand’, than forces together very different perspectives and analyses. What we find ‘in’ communization is often a weird mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, postautonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste and Endnotes. Obviously at the heart of the word is communism and, as the shift to communization suggests, communism as a particular activity and process, but what that is requires some further exploration. Here I want to give some initial points of orientation, which are explored further in the contributions that follow, by analyzing the communizing arguments that pose struggle as immediate, immanent, and as antiidentity. In each case I want to treat these points as sites of dispute, especially between the theorisations of the well-known contemporary French radical grouping associated with the journal Tiqqun, also publishing under the name ‘The Invisible Committee’ (henceforth I will refer to them as ‘Tiqqun’ for convenience), on the one hand, and the less-known but explicitly communizing currents of Théorie Communiste (TC) and Endnotes, on the other. What does it mean to say that communization is or should be immediate? It suggests there is no transition to communism, no stage of socialism required before we can achieve the stage of communism, and so no need to ‘build’ communism. This, however, has a very different meaning in different hands. For Tiqqun and others influenced by anarchist prefigurative politics this immediacy means that we must begin enacting communism now, within capitalism. From the commune to ‘commoning’, from cyber-activism to new ‘forms-of-life’, in this perspective we can’t make any transition to communism but must live it as a reality now to ensure its eventual victory. On the other hand, TC and Endnotes give this ‘immediacy’ a rather different sense, by arguing that communization implies the immediacy of communism in the process of revolution. In fact, they are deeply suspicious of a prefigurative or alternative politics, regarding such forms of struggle as mired in capitalism and often moralistic. 1 Instead, if anything, contemporary struggles can only be negatively prefigurative, indicating the limits of our forms of struggle and indicating only possible new lines of attack. These differences are also reflected in the posing of the communization in terms of immanence. The point here is that communization requires that we start thinking communism from within the immanent conditions of global capitalism rather than from a putatively radical or communist ‘outside’, but again this can lead in very different directions. Tiqqun regard capitalism as globally dominant, but also see it as leaving spaces and times through which revolt can emerge, or into which revolt can slip away from power. They regard capitalism as porous or, in Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation, ‘holey’.2 This kind of ‘enclave’ theory is a familiar strategy, ranging from the Italian social centers, to squats, to communal gardening, communes themselves, and other practices of ‘commoning’. This kind of formulation appeals to struggles in progress, to activists, and so links with the claim for a prefigurative immediacy. Again we might not be surprised to see that TC and Endnotes disagree. They too regard capitalism as dominant, but as a contradictory totality fissured by class struggles between proletariat and capital. There is no ‘outside’, or ‘line of flight’, but only a thinking through of this immanent contradiction and antagonism secreted within capitalist exploitation of labor to extract value. In terms of the contesting of ‘identity’, Tiqqun develop a new clandestine or ‘invisible’ identity of the militant that escapes capitalist control and capture. Refusing the ‘old’ identity models of Marxism, the working class or proletariat, as well as the ‘new’ models of identity politics, they instead prefer the language of contemporary theory: ‘whatever singularities’, or post-identity models that intimate new ‘forms-of-life’. In contrast TC and Endnotes retain the classical Marxist language of the proletariat, but insist that this is not an identity, but rather a mode of self-abolishing. We cannot reinforce a ‘workers’ identity’, or try to replace this with another identity. Instead, the negativity of the proletariat consists in the fact it can only operate by abolishing itself.

III If there are disagreements in the forms which the analysis of struggle should take there seems to be initial agreement about what communization opposes: capitalism. Again, however, this is often a point of contention. Many in the communizing current adopt a variant of Marx’s distinction, from the unpublished sixth chapter of capital the ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’,3 between formal and real subsumption. Formal subsumption is the general form of capitalist domination, and involves capital subsuming an existing form of production ‘as it finds it’. For example, peasants may still work in the fields in the way they always have but now they are compelled to take their goods to market to realise value. In this mode of subsumption, Marx argues, capital generates absolute surplus-value, and can only do so by demanding extension to the working day. So, surplusvalue can only be generated by forcing work beyond the amount necessary for self-reproduction, although this compulsion does not tend to happen directly but through economic functions, i.e. you need to produce a surplus to generate income to live, rather than to pay off a feudal lord. This stands in contrast to real subsumption, in which capital revolutionizes the actual mode of labor to produce the specifically capitalist mode of production. Here compulsion increases relative surplus-value by the use of machinery, the intensification of labor and the remaking of the production process. It is real subsumption which produces a truly capitalist mode of production. Within communization, and especially for TC, Marx’s distinction is often taken as a model of historical periodization. While Marx, and others like Endnotes, see formal and real subsumption as intertwined processes that have developed with capitalism and take different forms,4 the periodizing argument suggests that we have shifted from formal subsumption to real subsumption. In the argument of TC this shift is linked to cycles of struggle. In the initial phase of capitalist accumulation we have formal subsumption, and class struggle expresses itself in the affirmation of a pre-capitalist identity and ‘moral economy’.5 With the advance of real subsumption, in the industrial form of the factory during the latter half of the 19th century, we see a new antagonism of the worker versus capitalism, which reaches its apogee in the Russian Revolution. In this new cycle of struggles central is the independent workers’ identity, and TC call this form of struggle ‘programmatism’. Here the forms of struggle actually become ‘internal’ to capitalism, as the relation becomes mediated through unions, social welfare, and other forms of Keynesian control. These ‘revolutions’ tend to reinforce capitalism, encouraging the passage from formal to real subsumption through ‘socialist accumulation’, and lead to the theology of labor and the oxymoron of the ‘workers’ state’. This ‘programmatism’ comes into crisis with the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, when workers now abolish their identities and flee the factory. The extension of real subsumption over life, what Italian autonomists called the ‘social factory’, generalises struggles. In the capitalist counter-attack, however, we witness a second phase of real subsumption, a re-making of the world in the conformity to capital and the crisis of the identity of the ‘worker’. This re-making was, of course, central to the project of neoliberalism.6 Such an analysis is shared by Jacques Camatte, Antonio Negri, and many other post-autonomists. It could seem to imply the pessimistic conclusion that ‘resistance is futile’, that capitalism is a monstrous alien subject that vampirically draws all of life within itself (to mix Marx’s gothic metaphors). Such a position was visible in the Frankfurt school’s positing of a ‘totally-administered’ or ‘one-dimensional’ society. It is taken today by certain currents of primitivism or anti-civilization anarchism, which desperately try to recover the few remaining fragments of ‘non-capitalist’ life and backdate the origins of oppression to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, or even to the origin of language itself. Communization, in contrast, regards the passage to the dominance of real subsumption as requiring and generating new forms of struggle and antagonism that entail the abandoning of the affirmation of the worker and ‘workers’ power’. Again, differences emerge at this point. Negri and the post-autonomists tend to argue for the emergence of the power of the ‘multitude’, which is always ready to burst through the capitalist integument and install communism Tiqqun stress new ‘singularities’ or ‘forms-of-life’, which escape or flee or declare war on the forms and structures of real subsumption TC argue for new self-abolishing relations of struggle as the contradictions sharpen and the ‘proletariat’ is no longer a viable identity in capitalism and so communism only really becomes possible now Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic prefer to see communization as an immanent possibility of struggles across the history of capitalism, an invariant of the capitalist mode of production,7 while Endnotes accept the diagnosis of the crisis of programmatism, but reject the bluntness of the periodization of subsumption by TC and others. Without wishing to collapse these important differences we can see the emphasis on the ‘horizon’ of capitalism as dominant, even in the moment of crisis. It is capitalism that forms the terrain and ‘fabric of struggles’ which communization tries to engage with and theorise. It is also class struggle and capitalist responses to that struggle that have re-posed the crisis of the workers’ movement and pose the need to create new modes of thinking contemporary struggles. That said, how we think and understand the form and history of capitalism is a crucial point of debate to develop forms of struggle against it, and different understandings lead to very different conclusions.

IV I want to baldly state some of the interconnected problems that seem to immediately face communization as a theory. The first is that the final collapse of actually-existing socialism in 1989, and the widespread disenchantment with social democracy, unions, and other ‘traditional’ affirmations of the worker as means of resistance, does not seem, as yet, to have led to any rebound to a self-abolishing model of proletarian negativity or the ‘multitude’, or ‘whatever singularities’, or other ‘new’ modes of struggle. While ‘programmatism’ is obviously in crisis a replacement is not evident. Of course, it could always be argued that these forms of struggle are still emerging, still nascent, or that their lack of appearance is a sign of a transition beyond ‘programmatism’, but in the context of capitalist crisis, and capitalist-induced ecological crisis, this doesn’t seem to offer much reassurance. While the workers’ states were often terrible and bloody failures, not least for the working class, the emergence of an alternative ‘real movement’ is hard to detect to say the least. Even the austerity of the TC position, which prefers to only negatively trace ‘emergent’ forms of struggle and their limits, still depends on a minimal teleology that implies new forms of possible revolution, and so still has to confront this problem.

A second problem, which I’ve already noted in passing, is that the triumph of ‘real subsumption’, which integrates the reproduction of the proletariat to the self-reproduction of capital, seems to allow very little space, or time, for resistance. Even if we don’t think in terms of real subsumption, but rather the global dominance of capitalism or ‘Empire’, we still have to confront the issue of whether it can be defeated, and how. The ways in which capitalism permeates and modulates the whole of life (what Deleuze called ‘the society of control’ 8 ) leaves us with little leverage to resist. In particular the end of the ‘workers’ standpoint’, the end of the classical proletariat, seems to deprive us of an agency to make the mass changes communization would require. While TC insists on the proletariat as conceptual marker, they have to struggle with its empirical non-emergence.9 The alternative articulations of possible agents of change, such as immaterial workers or ‘whatever singularities’, by other currents of communization are very thinly-specified. This leads to a third problem. While communization insists on immediacy and the abandonment of debates about ‘transition’ or teleology, i.e. debates on what we are aiming to achieve, it’s hard to see how it can coordinate or develop such ‘moments’ of communization globally across the social field (as it would have to, to destroy or counter a global capitalism). This is true for those who emphasise communizing now, in which case how do such moments come together and avoid remaining merely ‘alternative’? It is also true if we regard communizing as intrinsic to revolution, because then we must answer how the process of communizing can be coordinated in a revolution that will be a geographically and temporally striated, dispersed and differential? TC pose this question when they ask: ‘How can a “unity” arise, in a general movement of class struggle, that is not in fact a unity but an inter-activity?’, their unsatisfactory answer: ‘We do not know… But class struggle has often showed us its infinite inventiveness.’10

Pending proof of this ‘inventiveness’, there is a risk that communization becomes a valorization of only fleeting moments of revolt, of small chinks in which the light of revolution penetrates capitalist darkness; or that it become the promise of a total revolution that will achieve its aim in process, without any substantial account of how that might take place. This is not to call for a return to the ‘party’ form, or to rehash debates concerning Leninism (debates that might well be important), but rather to suggest that the difficulty in specifying agents of change can also flow into the difficulties in specifying the contents of change. Certainly, communization was right to critique the formalism of the left, what TC calls its ‘programmatism’, that could only ever argue that once we had the correct form (Leninist party, workers’ councils, etc.) communism would unfold. What is as yet unclear is what forms of struggle will make ‘the poetry of the future’. These are, of course, not only problems for communization, but for any attempts to make radical change. What I want to stress is the acuity with which communization allows us to pose these problems, and the stress it places on engaging with them, rather than presuming they will be dissolved in some rush to ‘praxis’. Communization as a problematic links together issues of the current state of struggle, and their seeming ‘disappearance’ in traditional forms, the nature of capitalism and the possible agents who might resist this social formation, and the strategic or tactical forms that resistance might or will take. It is to the necessity of thinking and theorizing these problems and others in the light of ‘communization’ that this collection is devoted.

V The chapters, or better interventions, which follow, speak for themselves, and certainly, and deliberately, they do not speak in the same voice. If communization is a way of stating a problem then there is no requirement for agreement on what that problem is, or even agreement that communization is the best way of posing it. Also, of course, this collection itself is in process – it is certainly not exhaustive, what collection could be?, and it doesn’t aim at closure. But I do want to provide some general indications of the ‘drift’, to use the word in the Situationist sense, of these interventions. We begin with the ‘moment of communization’ – a series of texts that frame the competing definitions of communization, and especially the conflict between those associated with TC/Endnotes and Tiqqun. Through the sharpening and analysis of these contrasts it becomes possible to assess the nature and originality of the communizing hypothesis. The next section is ‘Frames of Struggle’, which deals with how we conceptualize our contemporary political situation and how we conceptualize capitalism itself. The aim here is to reflect on the problem of the contemporary forms of capitalism, and to assess how we might understand the horizon of a seemingly ‘totalitarian’ capitalism, especially of capitalism in crisis, alongside the unevenness of capitalist power. The section ‘Strategies of Struggle’ considers how communization has drawn on and re-tooled ‘traditional’ modes of struggle, especially the ‘barricade’, the commons and the question of revolutionary violence. Again, it is in the re-working of more familiar concepts that we can assess the originality of the communizing hypothesis. Finally, the section ‘No Future?’ takes the slogan that was common to both punk and neoliberalism and turns it into a question. This is the question of the possible futures of the project of communization in regards to two key areas of our contemporary situation: the problem of gender / sexuality, and the problem of the new models and forms of digital practice. The aim of this section, and the collection as a whole, is not to provide a new reified recipe book for revolution, but rather to pose as a problem the kinds and forms of political (or non-political, or anti-political) action that are possible today. VI In his story ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ Jorge Luis Borges describes the competition between two kings to construct the perfect, and so impossible to escape, labyrinth or maze.11 The first king uses the traditional method of constructing a highly-complex series of tunnels, resulting in a terrible labyrinth which the second king only escapes from by the intervention of God. In his turn the second king lays waste to the first king’s lands and casts him into a labyrinth impossible to defeat: the desert. The impossibility of this labyrinth lies not in the choice of paths, but the absence of any paths. For Tiqqun we are living the ‘deepening of the desert’, the neutralisation of means to orient ourselves and escape the ‘labyrinth’ of capital. 12 This certainly overstates the case. Capitalism is not a ‘featureless’ terrain or ‘smooth space’, but in its combined and uneven development, including in the moment of globalized crisis, it is proving to be a labyrinth that is hard to traverse.

Communization is not our compass, and this collection does not exhaustively map this labyrinth. Many other paths are possible, in fact in the desert we face not so much a ‘garden of forking paths’ but the infinite multiplicity of paths we cannot even yet trace. So, this collection is merely, but essentially, a posing of the problem. To start to find what paths there might be, to not accept the (capitalist) desert as ‘natural’ phenomenon, and to begin to detect the struggles that will (re) make this terrain.

  • 1. See Endnotes, ‘What are we to do?’ and Leon de Mattis’s ‘Reflections on the Call’, in this collection, for ‘communizing’ critiques of Tiqqun on these grounds.
  • 2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. and intro. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pp.413-415.
  • 3. Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, intro. Ernest Mandel, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 941-1084; for the distinction between formal and real subsumption see pp. 1019-1038.
  • 4. For the emphasis on the continuing co-existence of formal and real subsumption see Endnotes, ‘The History of Subsumption’, Endnotes 2 (April 2010): 130-152, http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/6.
  • 5. See E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class [1963] (London: Penguin, 1991) for this argument.
  • 6. This was presciently explored in Michel Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics (actually on neoliberalism) given between 1978 and 1979, and now published as Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, trans. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008).
  • 7. For the debate between TC and Dauvé and Nesic on this point see the collection of texts in Endnotes 1 (October 2008), http://endnotes.org.uk/ issues/1
  • 8. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ [1990], October 59 (Winter 1992): 3-7.
  • 9. ‘How can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism?’, TC, quoted in Endnotes, ‘The History of Subsumption’, p.152.
  • 10. Théorie Communiste, ‘The Glass Floor’, riff-raff, http://www.riff-raff.se/wiki/en/theorie_communiste/the_glass_floor.
  • 11. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 263-264
  • 12. Tiqqun, ‘Call’, http://www.bloom0101.org/call.pdf.