There is a common theme to what I feel is the most engaging way to think about contemporary politics and I would like to sketch it out here. The various expressions of this theme have significant differences, but for the moment I am going to elide this as gracefully as possible and focus on what they share.[i] First and foremost there is an (at times implicit) attempt to come to terms with a certain kind of loss, the loss of the kinds of traditional radical politics which opposed both liberal (formal-legal) rationality and communitarian politics. Secondly there is an understanding of a liberatory politics as necessarily opposing both those kinds of politics because both of them are simply different means of aiding and abetting what is variously referred to as oligarchic, authoritarian, post-fascist, or simply capitalist power and control. In other words, the typical kinds of politics are more kinds of policing. Thirdly, for each of the thinkers I am inspired by the characterization of a liberatory politics is tied to the way in which it stakes its validity without claim to a transcendent foundation. It is an unsanctioned claim to governance, seeking no legitimacy in God or race or expertise or country or property. Finally, liberatory politics is comprehended as neither an anti-politics of withdrawal or subtraction nor of the Big Bang nor as a social-democratic encroachment upon the state substituting the "good party" for the "bad party". In other words, the problem posed is a politics of liberation which is outside the normal coordinates of anarchism, council communism, social democracy and Leninism.
The problem of the split of citizen and bourgeois was a central feature of Marx's critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and his remarks in On the Jewish Question. The problems of the limits of political emancipation are made clear, though this by no means is the end of Marx's concern with the problem of politics. However, we have come a long way from the 1840's. We have behind us 140 years of struggle since the Paris Commune and Marx's recognition that the state cannot be taken over, but must be overthrown. Not only have we experienced the truth of this statement, but insofar as we have not been able to realize a situation in which the state no longer exists, we have yet to make this truth universal and actual. We have yet to overcome the separation of citizen and bourgeois, of public and private, which as Gaspar Tamas astutely notes is first and foremost a problem inherited from Roman Law (codified and modernized as the form of law in Continental Europe through the Napoleonic Code.) This problem is not rendered merely for law in that sense however, as ever since Kant the identity of Law and Ethics has been called into question. Kant was the first to pose the antinomic relation between Law and Ethics and seemingly all of philosophy since has fallen in with one side or the other of this antinomy. Even the anti-Enlightenment thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have accepted this divide, generally coming out on the side of Ethics and against Law (e.g. the revaluation of values.) This is after all another way of taking the side of Will against Reason. Thus the appeal of thinkers like Nietzsche, and the French currents who draw heavily on him (Deleuze, Foucault), for anarchists, who first and foremost reject Law.[ii]
The division of citizen and bourgeois is also the division of public and private, of politics and economy, of Law and Ethics (that is, the citizen is governed by Law, but as bourgeois their behavior is a matter of Ethics.) This is an eminently modern division because the spheres take on both a certain autonomy from each other, a separation which does not really obtain in other social formations. The only people entitled to be citizens in the city of antiquity were simultaneously men of property and standing. Law and Ethics were united in practice. In modern society the opposite takes place. We have the diremption of citizen and wealth. The tendency of the Enlightenment, noted by Gaspar Tamás in his two essays on post-fascism, has been to assimilate more and more people, within the confines at least of the nation-state, to citizen, to make citizen universal, a situation which also then entails the provision of a minimum quality of life.
This assimilation of citizenship to universal humanity has not been automatic or simply given, but has been the product of all manner of struggles. The general character of the workers' movement, of the women's movement, of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles, has been broadly universal. That is to say, these struggles have not been particularly communitarian, but have generated the recognition of the humanity and equality of the participants qua citizens. The goal of these struggles may or may not have been such recognition within the confines of this society, but the only way in which this society could accommodate those demands was the broadening of citizen as subject of the law: of who was a citizen, of what a citizen was entitled to. The shift which seeks to recognize communities as communities within the universal community of the state is actually a retraction, a retreat from, the universalizing tendency. The desire to be confirmed not as a human being but as a type is the central feature of the communitarian impulse, and multiculturalism is in exactly this way reactionary and a betrayal of the liberation movements. It is an accommodation movement which hopes to sacrilize the failure to universalize humanity.
In the past, liberal logic was the (slow, evolutionary, legalistic) expansion of citizenship to more and more people as individuals without putting the social form itself at risk. The liberation movements, largely outside of political and economic power, sometimes putting the system itself at risk, but more often collectively seeking representation and rights within bourgeois society (that is, recognition as human beings within the terms set by this society). In most places, the communitarian tendencies resisted the expansion of citizenship to 'the rabble', the 'riff raff', the 'mob'. However, the communitarian tendencies also did not believe that all citizens were equally citizens, that there could be laws applying differentially to groups even though all of them were citizens. The laws enacted on the grave of Reconstruction in the U.S., which after 1896 were developed and adopted systematically in the southern U.S. as Jim Crow or de jure segregation, were one of the first examples of this shift backwards.[iii] The nature of communitarian politics as the creation of a dual state where some citizens were fully recognized and others were, without ceasing to be citizens, also outside the state from within, finds its first modern expression in this counter-revolution.[iv]
This is where what is unique about contemporary politics becomes evident. Both the communitarians and the liberals accept the creation of a dual-state, a regression from the expansion of citizenship at the same time as the universalizing tendencies extending the quantitative and qualitative boundaries of citizen have either disappeared or have become dominated by their own communitarian aspects. This is most evident in the way in which the public and the private are conceived. Both communitarians and liberals accept and seek to reinforce the privatization of the public space, but how they do so indicates their specific differences. The liberal position is that participation should be by individuals based on their rational faculties, with a rule of expertise and knowledge. The problem from this perspective is always one of the ignorance and mis-education of their opponents. Only rational individuals should be allowed to rule. The communitarian position argues that some groups are simply inherently superior; that the state belongs to them by right and that other groups must either convert or be excluded. The logic of this is evident, for example, in workers' rights, civil rights, and women's rights struggles in the past, but also in today's struggles around gay marriage or gay and lesbian participation in the military without being forced to suppress or deny their sexuality. For the liberal, the U.S. is a rational, secular state which should help by regulating excess and rationalizing the system. For the communitarian, the U.S. is a Christian/White/Male/Heterosexual/Nativist/etc. state in whatever combination one thinks makes sense.
Working class identity has dissolved, its universalizing tendencies giving way on one side to its liberal aspect, that is, the formal-legal side associated with unions as legal bargaining entities which accept the fundamental legal framework and pose no ethical challenge to capital as such versus the communitarian side in which "blue collar" becomes a cultural category associated with a volk-ish populism that elevates work to life's prime want, who enjoy the right to work of every individual, who "earn" their money, who are "responsible and law-abiding" patriots, generally religious and wedded to common sense. That is to say, the power of labor forced capital to accommodate the worker as consumer and to make and market to and therefore form a working class identity, but one associated with having "made it": home owner, car owner, etc. The formal-legal side of this bifurcation has been shrinking as its predicate was a workers' movement and a working class identity that does not quite match the transformation of the actual conditions of the capital-labor relation, that is, of the labor/valorization process. The communitarian side, in the meantime, having shed its universalizing aspects, has not surprisingly adopted the ready-made Southern conception of the worker: anti-union, individualistic, uneducated, conservative Christian, provincial, paternalisticially tied to the company, and militantly against state intervention which disrupts any of the aforementioned moments.
Similarly with the women's movement and the anti-racist\liberation movements. Identity politics oriented towards fixation of gender and racial divisions supersede the universalizing tendencies which sought to undermine the very validity and foundation of gender and race, that is, identity politics want to "empower" groups as minorities, in effect accepting as real and rational the very gender and race divisions that were rejected as social relations of domination. Where people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Steinem, to simply make use of archetypal public figures, explicitly did not seek a reversal of roles with whites and men nor an accommodation with a system of racialized or gendered relations, but the de-racializing and de-gendering of all levels of society (not only the state and civil society, but that most notoriously private domain in bourgeois society: the family), contemporary politics in both of these dimensions have tended to devolve into their liberal and communitarian dimensions as well.
For example, in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the demand for formal-legal recognition in terms of representation along racial lines leads to situations in which American cities with majority Black populations are reproducing equally racialized political apparatuses to those found in majority white cities, with the expectation that a 65% Black population should mean that 65% or more of the politicians are Black, under the assumption that only Black can represent Black, just as white racial politics always assumed that 'only like can represent like' in a system of formal racial parity which is also a system re-enforcing racial identity. If such racialized regimes of power were tragedy the first time around, they appear the second time as farce, that is, as a pauperized and diminished version of the urban racial regime.
The communitarian aspect which has given up de-racialization and de-gendering has taken the form of multiculturalism. Groups are culturalized and thereby naturalized. Race and gender difference are elevated to the level of givens which must be respected. The prior formal-legal attempt to overcome discrimination is revoked in the name of tolerance, a way of thinking the problem that actually suspends the ethical and the legal rejection of racism and sexism: the problem is not whether or not there is racism or sexism, inequalities of power, etc., just a question of tolerating minorities and women. The problems are reduced to those of personal attitudes and the education of private conscience, not matters of the public, social distribution of power and wealth.
Both accept in certain fundamental ways that civil society and the family are fundamentally not political sites, but private sites, and that even at those levels public intervention should be the intervention of the state in the maintenance of matters of law and its prerogative to the monopoly of violence. Liberal conceptions may wish to see state intervention provide for universal programs, but they must be subordinated to market rationality. In this situation, rationality and control should come from elected representatives and the voluntary activity of enlightened individuals (Bill Gates, George Soros, Bill Clinton, and Warren Buffett come to mind). The Law is supreme and ethical action which contravenes the law is ultimately to be avoided, especially in those cases where it is argued that the rule of law is in effect. Communitarians may in fact find themselves thoroughly in favor of all kinds of state intervention, but only of the kind that extends their privilege or which punishes those outside the normative state. The issue is not rationality, but 'natural' orders and 'traditional' hierarchies and 'God-given' values. No wonder that it lends itself to a politics of ressentiment. Ressentiment is both a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, and the assignation of blame for one’s frustration on another who is even less culpable. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability and in order to avoid a conflict with a power which is both greater than it, and with which it identifies, a lot like a bully who abuses weaker individuals instead of confronting their victimization by and identification with an abusive father.
Anti-Politics and Communisation
The various politics of human liberation identified with the workers' movement were, certainly after 1917, dominated by the idea that revolution was primarily political, though not in the sense entailed here. Rather, it was political in the sense that its focus was on the conquest of state power by an affirmed working class and its political party/ies. The contradiction contained in Social Democracy prior to 1914 split on side into contemporary Social Democracy as the gradual democratic seizure of the state and the use of that power to usher in democratic control over civil society, and on the other side into Leninism as the smashing of the bourgeois state apparatus and its replacement with a proletarian apparatus which would usher in workers' control over civil society. Anarchism, the Communist Left, and councilism existed on the margins of these two tendencies after 1923. Each differed in key respects with both the contemporary Social Democratic and Leninist, however in all cases the affirmation of the working class and labor was the majority position, whether in the senses of "the workers' state", "workers' control of production", "workers' collectives", "workers' councils" or what have you.
Even as these politics have lost any credibility, what has emerged from several different directions is a conception of revolution which entails the self-abolition of the working class as revolution. However this new notion is itself split. On the one hand, the sort of notion of politics I have attempted to map out above, and on the other, a notion of a communising[v] anti-politics. What I would like to lay out below is a something of a critical analysis of the latter, which strikes me, despite its claims to being anti-(not a-)political, an essentially romantic and apolitical conception. Hand-in-hand with romanticism and apoliticism is a failure to follow through on the question of the abolition of labor.
There are several threads within the concept of communisation but some common points connect them. First, rather than focusing on the question of the capital-labor relation as a formal relation, they make exploitation primary, which actually naturalizes the social forms of labor and capital. Within this move, a therefore uncritical notion of labor generally is maintained: labor is the transhistorical social substance of human relations. What has to be undone is the exploitation of labor by capital and the focus becomes one on surplus value, rather than on value. The second aspect is a failure to reckon with form at the level of communism. As Gilles Dauve puts it directly, "Communism is a content", a view also shared by groups which otherwise have a critical relationship to both Dauve and TC, like Endnotes.[vi] The problem is that the notion of "form" in play here is primarily to be understood as "shape" or "exterior", not the sense in which Marx and Hegel both use form, where form is not the exterior, some contingent feature, but the necessary form of appearance of the essence. It is not exterior to the content and the content is not content except through form. The value-form is thus in no way the "shape" of labor, but the form of appearance of a labor which is itself already a form, the primary form of social relation in capitalist society. Thus labor could not be the content of any society, it can only be the content of a society where it is also the dominant social form. In other words, what makes capital unique is not surplus value extraction, but surplus value extraction, that labor takes the form of the primary social mediation and that labor and all products of labor take the form of values and hence are commodities. The capital form is the full circuit of this process, necessarily mediated by money as the perfected and most empty, the universal, form of value (as opposed to labor, constant capital, and the commodity, which all have a certain particularity.)
Inadequately taking cognizance of form and making a fetish of content leads to a devaluation of the formal aspect in politics. I do not mean organizational forms, like a party or group or even a council or soviet. Rather, since communism is a content, all that needs to be done is to realize that content in the right form. Far from escaping formalism, in treating form merely as shape, communizing tendencies fall prey to a vicious kind of formalism as well as to a predominantly ethical critique. The formal aspect here respects that there is no simple confrontation with the Other, no politics of Us and Them, nor some flight or escape. The former is merely a clean-shaven twin of Social Democracy and Leninism. The latter recognizes that capital is us, but at the same time we don't just stop being us by wanting or willing; we cannot flee ourselves. Splitting the world into 1% and 99% ignores the responsibility we all bear towards the 100%. 1% versus 99% is a complaint about an unjust distribution of wealth and power, but it does not take issue with the form of production of that wealth and power. Anarchists and communizers do not hold a fundamentally different view, albeit a more sophisticated one in which the grouping will be capitalists versus proletariat, and the exploitation of the latter by the former. Exploitation in the end is about the unequal or inequitable distribution of value produced, not about the social form as inherently one of domination which we help to reproduce. This does not mean that exploitation is not unfair or unjust, only that is remains a surface complaint.
The communizing tendencies are therefore very much akin to an anarchist critique, which also seeks to evade the law. Law does not refer to particular legal forms in the sense of a court room, nor law as regularity of repetition of a conditional phenomenon in the natural sciences. Law here pertains to the public as against the private in the sense used in the first section of this essay. Law deals with the problem in modern society of representation. Anarchists and communisers alike would seek to escape the problem of representation, hence the frequent critique of democracy as representational, which we have sought to go beyond here. Theirs is not surprisingly a world beyond mediation, a directly social world, that is, one where the individual is immediately the universal. Hegel has already had his say about this immediacy in his writing on Absolute Freedom and Terror. The charge I am making is that this direct sociality amounts to psychosis, a world of pure ethicality without mimesis, without representation, without Law. It is thus not accidental that the champions of these ideas should appear to be akin to the Law of the Heart (anarchists, Occupy X), or the Knight of Virtue (Monsieur DuPont), or the Beautiful Soul (John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld) and pine for Absolute Freedom.
These tendencies lack the capacity to comprehend the point that the only thing worse than the law is the absence of the law, but this is exactly the political crisis which we face in a period where the dominant trend is that of both a liberal and a conservative post-fascist politics which would reverse the extension of the power of the public over the private and subordinate state, family, and individual to the power of civil society. Fascism was in effect civil society let loose, Prometheus unbounded. Communisers can discuss the content of communism endlessly, but they lack the capacity to comprehend the particularity of the present.
A common mistake is that of Theorie Communiste and some of its followers, who believe that formal and real subsumption refer to historical periods, instead of being analytical distinctions which obtain within capital at all times. This sort of categorical error indicates the most fundamental kind of confusion.
Even more widespread is the conflation of the class relation with actual social classes, as if capitalism were dependent on a capitalist class to walk the commodity down to the market. Alas, this reference to Capital doesn't understand that the commodity walking itself down to the market is labor, the individual selling their labor-power. As long as there is labor, all the other commodities can move around just fine, they have no need of a capitalist class or individual capitalists per se.
Communism is not an infinite possibility that has always been waiting to be realized. It is not a formless, unchanging content seeking its adequate form. Communism is the real movement because communism is one mode of existence of the potential within the actual, one way in which the potential can be made actual. It is not a flight from what is because that flight leads nowhere because there is nowhere else to be. Only people who do not live in their own lives can simply imagine that they can walk away or like a Beautiful Soul, talk as if they can but act knowing that they cannot. Neither can such people make a different life, lacking the material potential out of which a new actual might be brought into being. Communism is also not an indefinite future because either it is now or it is not ever. The mere seizure of power by a group (a party) which claims to represent another, larger group (a class) is only ever a change of who whom.
[i] The list of thinkers is quite diverse: Gillian Rose, Gaspar M. Tamas, Jacques Ranciere, Nicole Pepperell, the blog Permanent Crisis, to mention only those I am most immediately concerned with.
[ii] A further investigation of the French embrace of the side of ethics and will in the 20th century might wish to investigate the relation between the conception of reality as marked by a fundamental lack or absence and Catholicism's emphasis on Original Sin, as the ontological stain which we cannot get past. Is it an accident that Lacan in particular has been picked up, and his reading of (the Jew) Freud so welcomed, in predominantly Catholic countries? As Ian Parker suggests in his monograph on Slavoj Zizek, Zizek is from a deeply Catholic nation (Slovenia), and some of his favorite films and texts to cite are those of English Catholics: G.K. Chesterton and Alfred Hitchcock. He also suggests that Zizek's reading of the relation of Judaism, especially in relation to Christianity, is essentially the view of the Catholic Church. One could go further and argue that Lacan's very notion of the role of the analyst is a secularized priest (and in Zizek's case, The Revolutionary Party as well.) This view of the world as fundamentally marked by lack or absence is, in the end, the view of the Unhappy Consciousness. What Zizek lacks, in his hard hearted condemnation of the Beautiful Soul, if we take Shannon Hoff and Richard Gunn seriously, is forgiveness.
[iii] Anti-Semitism had been a persistent feature of European society throughout the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, but the broad tendency even there had been assimilation and extension of political equality, of Jew qua citizen, starting in the 18th century.
[iv] Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, Nancy MacLean, 1995 Oxford Univ. Press.
[v] There are several concepts of communisation, or rather several communizing currents, most notably those associated with Theorie Communiste, those associated with Gilles Dauve and Troploin, and those who draw on those and various other sources. There are also those who argue for a new commons, like John Holloway and Mariarosa Dalla Costa who can also be broadly be considered as part of this tendency.
[vi] "Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content." Endnotes #2, 2010