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This article was written for the forthcoming edition of the Irish Anarchist Review. It is much too long for the space available, but I wanted to publish the full version here before beginning the solemn butchery of editing it down.

Futurism or the Future: Review of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsi

The proliferation of computerised surveillance and security systems across workplaces has had the effect that now, in offices across the world, workers’ toilet usage is continuously monitored. You swipe your ID card to get in and out, producing a data event with a time and duration, which is quietly recorded by some computer. Upstairs, some horrendous bureaucrat ponders over all this data: How long does a shit take? How many shits is too many? Does she have a medical condition, or is she just slacking? Copropolitics: a new technology of discipline and a fresh form of indignity that was inconceivable as anything other than a cyberpunk nightmare (and a dull one at that) a couple of decades ago; the kind of technological revolution that no-one wanted, and nobody is particularly excited about, but which nonetheless happens. Of course this is easily explained entirely in terms of capitalist imperatives: remove a potential for unauthorised respite, produce a panopticon so total that it watches you shit, greater discipline, greater exploitation, more profit. If we don’t design/implement these technologies someone else will, and then we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage – the basic mechanism of capitalist technological development. Freud once told us that an obsession with excrement is a pathological manifestation of extreme greed. Today, at the highest stage of capitalist development, it is a mundane expression of bourgeois values, made possible by technological advances, or “progress”, as it is often called.

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsii (MAP from here on) appeared to considerable interest and excitement last year (with some apparent resonance beyond the too-cool-for-school, anti-academic academics who normally consume this kind of thing) to announce an “accelerationist politics” as a programmatic remedy for a Left mired in crisis and depression. Contextualising itself within a historical moment charaterised by a set of existential threats to humanity (“the breakdown of the planetary climatic system… [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves” etc.), by the stagnation of contemporary capitalism, which has embraced a “death spiral” of austerity policies, privatisation and wage stagnation, and by the retreat of the political imaginary, which is no longer capable of conceiving of a future other than more of the same, the MAP calls for a kind of ambivalent alliance with capital, as an alternative and more realistic revolutionary path to the “neo-primitivist localism” and “folk politics” of contemporary social movements, and the doomed fantasies of a return to Keynsianism clung to by various leftist parties.

Accelerationism argues that “the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt or critique… but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies”iii, that “liberation must occur within the evolution of capital; that labour power must move against the blockage caused by capitalism; that a complete reversal of the class relation must be accomplished by the pursuit of constant economic growth and technological evolution”iv in order to produce “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate”. Explicitly presenting itself as simultaneously a “political heresy”v and as recovering some suppressed true progressive core of leftism, accelerationism effectively asks us to stake the future of the human species on an uneasy and ultimately treacherous alliance with capital: we must navigate our way through the blockages and crises of capital, liberating its potential, but only so that, ultimately, it can be transformed into something that is not-capital.vi

The thesis is certainly seductive, not least due to the rhetorical bombast (one might say machismo) of its presentation, but also in its capacity to speak to the frustrations of contemporary leftists, and its insistence on resurfacing futurist and utopian themes of space exploration and the transcendence of the limitations of the human body. But is this the seduction of a liberatory politics or of a suicidal impulse?

My contention, for reasons that I hope to make clear, is that the MAP is the presentation of the latter as the former, and therefore is not to be taken seriously as a programmatic document. It is more useful, I think, to read it as a kind of provocation to an ecologically-minded left. The question is not “should we embrace accelerationism?” (to which I think the answer is a fairly obvious “no”) but rather “why not embrace accelerationism?” Why not throw your lot in with the massive abstract machinery and torrential flows of capital? If the revolutionary path is not to act within the evolution of capital, then what is it? What is it that we, the non-accelerationists, think can (1) actually effect the kind of transformations necessary to confront the existential threats and political-economic formations we face, and (2) recover the idea of a communist horizon designating the possibility of a world that is not only less oppressive than this one, but which is actually exciting in the experiences and possibilities it entails?

Cyborg-Lenin against the hippies

One of the strongest points of the MAP (or in any case, one which goes a long way towards purchasing credibility for its argument) is its withering critique of the Left, which speaks readily to the frustrations of a generation of leftists who had pinned their hopes to a set of anti-austerity movements and strategies which came, spectacularly, to nothing. The various Parties, both of the social democratic and Lenin-necromancing variety, are, rightly, castigated for their failure to think of any alternative to the neoliberal death-drive beyond an unlikely return to Keynsianism. The social conditions that enabled Keynsian social-democracy simply no longer exist and cannot be recovered: “We cannot return to mass industrial-Fordist labour by fiat, if at all.” And in any case, who would want to, given that the system relied on “an international hierarchy of colonies, empires, and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation” and condemned workers to “a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression” in return for security and a basic standard of living? I would only add that the Keynsian class-compromise didn’t work too well for us the first time round, leading, as it did, to the destruction of the trade union movement and the advent of neoliberalism, and we are unlikely to fare better a second time round given the present balance-of-forces between organised labour and capital.

“New social movements” and, implicitly, anarchists, are also singled out for critique by the MAP. Lacking transformative political vision, these movements fetishise “internal direct-democratic process and affective self-valorisation over strategic efficacy” and cling to “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism” which is utterly insufficient against an enemy that is “intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure.” No one who has been through a process like the Occupy movement could fail to recognise some truth in this characterisation, and the notion of process-as-politics (and its corollary insistence on radical openness to the point of paralyzing incoherence) certainly needs to go the way of flower power into history’s dustbin of nice ideas that don’t work, but it is certainly possible for similar movements to sharpen their understanding of the relationship between means and ends without embracing the crypto-vanguardism of the MAP’s attempted rehabilitation of “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion”.vii

Indeed, the MAP’s rather troubling solution to this problem is to dispense with the consideration of means altogether and define democracy entirely in terms of its end: “collective self-mastery… which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves… [through] a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality” in which “[t]he command of The Plan [is] married to the improvised order of The Network” – a kind of Leninism via Facebook, in other words. Abstracted from all considerations of process, what sort of theory of sovereignty grounds this “legitimate vertical authority”? No answer is given, but one suspects, given that for the MAP “collective self-mastery” means to align politics with the goal of understanding ourselves and the world, and given the emphasis on the decisive role of cognitive labour (which the manifesto itself acknowledges consists of “a vanishingly small cognitariat of elite intellectual workers”) in the process of acceleration, this amounts to rule by a scientific-technical elite counterbalanced by some system of cybersoviets. (The flaws with this are obvious and I have neither the desire nor space here to rehearse debates over the Russian Revolution through speculative fiction.)viii Moreover, democratic concerns aside, what the MAP proposes in terms of strategy essentially amounts to a Gramscian long march through the institutionsix a process surely far more tedious and self-defeating than the worst Occupy assembly.

More interesting and important is the anti-localism of the MAP. This is a significant and serious challenge to ecologically-minded leftists, many of whom are unfortunately trapped in an idealism which “oppose[s] the abstract violence of globalised capital with the flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy.” If capitalism is global so too must be our resistances and our efforts at social transformation.x History is not reversible, and globalisation means there is no longer any solution at the level of the nation-state, much less at the level of the locality, the “transition town”, the bioregion, or any other territorial conception of space; all localisms entail the disappearance of the complex webs of relations that constitute the spaces of a globalised world, and consequently lack a plausible path from this world to theirs. To take one example: modern food production and distribution relies on complex global networks, without which we would all starve within a matter of weeks. The practice of growing your own vegetables and building local distribution networks, which is commonplace in green milieus, and is often treated as if it were a radical ecological praxis, fails utterly to confront the complex logistical problems of producing enough food to feed everyone, and does not offer a scalable solution to the ecologically destructive effects of industrial food production. The accelerationists are right on this point: the material, social, biological, cultural, technological world around us is the only one we have to transform, and we either embrace the messy and contradictory task of making a livable world from it, or we perish.

Techno-Oedipalism

Perhaps the central contradiction of the MAP is that their pursuit of a radical orientation to the future requires the dusting off of an extremely old set of ideas. Marx’s historical materialism – the theory that capitalism, which begins as the great liberator of the productive forces, sooner or later becomes an impediment to further development as the relations of production become too narrow and constrainingxi – is reproduced without any significant alteration. Indeed, the manifesto’s basic diagnosis of the present social/political situation is precisely that capitalism, in its neoliberal form, has already become such a fetter on the forces of production:

Capitalism has begun to constrain the productive forces of technology, or at least, direct them towards needlessly narrow ends. Patent wars and idea monopolisation are contemporary phenomena that point to both capital’s need to move beyond competition, and capital’s increasingly retrograde approach to technology… rather than a world of space travel, future shock, and revolutionary technological potential, we exist in a time where the only thing which develops is marginally better consumer gadgetry.”

In 1848, Marx made a similar diagnosisxii:

Modern bourgeois society… is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule… The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Spot the difference! Needless to say, bourgeois society has spent the intervening 166 years continually revolutionising the forces of production without too much difficulty. One might assume that the boy has cried terminal crisis too many times at this stage for anyone to seriously make such pronouncements anymore (particularly in a context that’s many orders of magnitude less revolutionary than that of 1848), but here we are. The MAP translates the argument from the language of Marxist dialectics to that of Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-dialectical focus on potentials, assemblages and multiplicities – we no longer have the forces of production straining at their fetters, but rather the latent potential of technosocial bodies that is blocked by neoliberalism – but the argument remains substantially the same. There’s a distinction between “acceleration” and “speed” – acceleration includes the concept of direction, and so accelerationism entails navigation and experimentation rather than blindly pursuing an already-determined direction – but this is simply a fudge to pre-empt obvious critiques. The physical concept of acceleration can have either a positive or negative value (i.e. can be an increase or decrease in speed), but this possibility is explicitly discounted as reactionary by the MAP – there is to be no slowing down of capitalist acceleration – the argument is every bit as teleological (i.e. the idea that history has an inbuilt tendency towards a goal, that of liberation through development of the productive forces) as the worst Hegelian moments of Marx. Worse, this translation into trendy Deleuzo-Guattarian terms totally ignores one of the major insights of their thought: that crises, far from sounding the death knell of the capitalist mode of production, are part of the dynamism of capital that allows it to continually revolutionise production, without any natural (i.e. inbuilt or automatic) terminal point: the more the machine breaks down, the better it works.xiii

Central to the MAP’s enterprise is the reconnection of the Left “to is its roots in the Enlightenment, in a rationalist and universal vision of collective human self-construction”.xiv To this end, 19th and early 20th Century modernist themes of Man’s mastery over nature are uncritically regurgitated, as if an entire century of critique had never happened.xv The MAP insists “that only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.” This Prometheanism is to be distinguised from classic Enlightenment chauvanism only in the sophistication of its science: “[t]he clockwork universe of Laplace” is replaced by complex systems theory, but the basic conception of the Man-nature relationship remains utterly unchanged. Nature is a stage for Man’s triumphs, a problem to be overcome, and a thing to be dominated by Man’s will. Such arguments made a degree of sense in the 19th Century when capitalism still retained a vast outside waiting to be incorporated (although this incorporation involved rather a lot of genocide, and required the invention of race and racism as its ideological complement) and the resources of the Earth were still for all practical purposes infinite, but become rather more problematic in the context of a society whose very existence is called into question by the unsustainability of its relationship with the world it inhabits.

One might expect, at a minimum, some argumentation as to how the accelerated pursuit of economic growth and technological development is compatible with an ecologically sustainable civilisation. The MAP has nothing to say on this point. Instead, the various imminent ecological crises are raised at the beginning, only to be immediately brushed aside to talk about technology. The implication, made explicit in Negri’s “reflections” on the manifesto, is that the question of ecology can be “wholly subordinated to industrial politics”,xvi or really to the politics of technology, since it is technology which is the central concern of the MAP, and not class struggle. This has two immediate implications, both disastrous. The first is the splitting of the human-nature relation from the relations of production, which ignores the “fundamental identity [of industry] with nature as production of man and by man.”xvii There can be no industrial politics that is not immediately also a politics of nature, since all production presupposes and produces a particular way of relating to nature. All forms of capitalism necessarily require the objectification of nature – its production as commodity and as property – which produces its unchecked exploitation as a necessary feature. The metabolic relationshipxviii of humans to nature is fractured through the subordination of both humans and nature to capital. It is with this process that the MAP insists we ally ourselves.

Second, in subordinating the question of ecology to that of technology, ecology is transformed from a political to a scientific-technical question. Rather than being a question of how to transform society to allow for a sustainable relationship with nature, we are asked simply to trust that liberating the productive forces can produce a technological fix. This is, at best, a massive gamble in the short to medium-term, in which the stake is the survival of human civilisation, and in any case, it fails to resolve the crises produced by our antagonistic relationship to nature, but merely displaces them in time, while deepening our entanglement with destructive forms of production in the meantime. Moreover, the manifesto fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the relationship of technology to society. Technology is neither to be rejected nor embraced as such: it is neither a route to liberation (as the accelerationists contend) nor a bringer of doom (as the primitivists contend), but must be understood in a way that fully subordinates it to social relations (i.e. what kind of society produces and utilises it). This is not the same thing as arguing that technology is neutral and can merely slot unproblematically into whatever social relations it encounters. Technology is produced under particular social conditions and is designed for those social conditions. As an objectification of the intellect of a particular form of society, its tendency is to objectify the social relations of that society as the facticity of the non-human environment, and thus to reproduce those social relations. This means that any communist movement is inevitably confronted with the problem of repurposing a technological infrastructure built for a capitalist world to communist ends – a task with no simple solution. The accelerationist response to this challenge, for all their out-of-context appropriation of Anti-Oedipus, is decidedly oedipal in form: the major work of producing a communist and ecologically sustainable future is displaced onto “the tendency” – capital-daddy and techno-mommy.

Back to the Future

Ultimately, all this talk of politics is simply a means to an end from the point of view of the MAP’s central concern: the recovery of the vector of the Future, and the sense of hope and excitement that entails. For the MAP, this entails the resurfacing of modernist dreams of extra-terrestrial travel, and the transcendence of the biological limitations of the human body (and specifically of the contingency and vulnerability of the human condition as a species within nature), and of sci-fi and cyberpunk concerns with cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and with the production of new an alien terrains of virtual and post-human experience. It is easy to mock dreams – this is probably the ugliest and most hollow of all intellectual activities – and there will be none of that here. In the context of a planetary deficit of imagination and hope that is the corollary of the contemplation of coming disasters that threaten our annihilation, and of a pervasive sneering postmodern sensibility that retains always a protective ironic distance from all belief, we urgently need to recover the capacity and courage to dream. The accelerationist reminder that within living memory generations of humans really believed that a better tomorrow awaited them (whether through the social democratic state, the inventive powers of the free market, or the coming communist revolution) is hugely important. Even a thoroughly bourgeois thinker like Keynes believed that one day automation would liberate the masses from drudgery. Now, after decades being bludgeoned with neoliberal ideology, There Is No Alternative is the new common sense, and our dreams have been quietly smothered one-by-one. To dream today is a radical act, and one crucial to our hopes of survival. But what are we to make of the particular dreams of the accelerationists?

Throughout the MAP, there is an unstable tension between the future as open and experimental space of as-yet-unrealised potential and the Future as a particular and historically-specific set of dreams to which we must return, that is, basically, between a future that is yet to be imagined and constructed, and futurism as a particular aesthetic and cultural mode of imagining the future, which by now amounts to a set of warmed-up Hollywood sci-fi clichés. “Remembering the future”xix is the unfortunate theme of acelerationism, and, through its conflation of futurism with futurity, it ends up producing an imaginary that, rhetorical packaging aside, is much too narrow and conservative. Other futures are possible beyond the endless accumulation of new technologies. Even the primitvist milieu (or “post-civ” as they now call themselves, having realised that a bunch of trendy white kids fetishising the ways of life of indigenous peoples is rather colonialist), for all their nihilism, have an idea of a future: instead of the safe and controlled virtuality of cyber-alterity, what about the actuality of wilderness as a space of excitement, exploration and danger?xx I’m not endorsing this – certainly better dreams are possible – my point, merely, is that technological acceleration is not the only vector to the future, that techno-utopians do not have a monopoly on libido, and that constraining our imaginings in advance to what is achievable through technological development does humanity a disservice.

In any case, there is something strikingly hollow in all this technological speculation. All this brushed aluminum cyborg novelty is all well and good, but its a rather mono-dimensional image of the future. What happens to the ordinary – that dimension of mundane everyday experience that, no matter how far we push the horizons of technology, persists, reconfigures itself, and insinuates itself constantly into our lived-experience?xxi In its rush to escape the ordinary and pursue the alien, the MAP neglects this vital dimension of human experience, and de facto abandons a crucial concern of the Left (particularly the post-68 Left): the liberation of everyday life. There is little discussion of, or concern with human relationships, in the manifesto; social relations are understood as essentially a problem to be overcome, a blockage to technological potential, and the task of their re-arrangement is basically subordinated to the project of neo-Enlightenment mastery. Never are social relations considered in themselves, in their meaning or importance for the human subjects that enter into them. This is crucial. One of the most commonly occurring themes in science fiction is that of a technological utopia that, on the surface, offers all sorts of fascinating and novel experiences, but whose obscene underbelly is that, in the sphere of everyday human relations, the same old repressions, the same violence and exploitation, the same misery, remains. (Indeed, from a certain historical point of view, that is precisely the world we already live in.) What the MAP misses, above all else, is that what is oppressive and experientially miserable about capitalism is not its frustration of technological progress (that all that develops “is marginally better consumer gadgetry”, say), but that, because we are determined to relate to one-another another always through the abstract machinery of capital, we have so little real experience of one-another. We spend our entire lives living and working together in utterly alienated ways and even the new communications technologies which supposedly bring the world together only function to trap us more totally in the prisons of our selves. What unexplored potential lies blocked by the alienated ways of working together that capital requires for its reproduction? What might we experience and achieve together if we were free to explore new ways of relating? These questions are left unexplored by the MAP, but, to paraphrase the manifesto’s rather cringey nod to Deleuze, surely we don’t yet know what a social body can do?

i Some of the arguments in this review were developed through a discussion with WSM members and supporters. The audio of that discussion is available at: http://www.mixcloud.com/workerssolidarity/a-chat-about-the-manifesto-for-for-an-accelerationist-politics-wsm-dublin/listeners/

ii Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #ACCELERATE: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, available at: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ (All quotations are from the Manifesto unless otherwise stated.)

iii Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, ‘Introduction’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.4

iv Antonio Negri, Some Reflections on the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/26/reflections-accelerate-manifesto/

v Mackay & Avanessian, op. cit.

vi The authors noticably shun the word ‘communism’ in favour of ‘post-capitalism’. This is hardly incidental, given that MAP is concerned with the transformation of social relations for the purpose of unleashing supressed productive and technological potential, rather than instrumentalising technology to the production of an egalitarian society. This distiction is significant.

vii The main problem with vanguards, from the point of view of social movements – and this is hardly a moralising critique – is that their tendency is to fuck things up far more often than they steer their troops with uncanny insight and prescience, and to leave a wasteland of bitterness and division in their wake. “Relentless horizontalism”, exhausting though it may be, is generally preferable to being steered or manipulated by the blunderings of some tinpot Lenin.

viii One of the recurring ironies of the MAP is that amidst all its supposed novelty, some very old and worn-out ideas keep popping up. They even manage to reproduce the absurd practice of sticking in a tenuously relevant Lenin quote to authorise their argument.

ix Patricia Reed, ‘Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.523

x Of course, everything remains localised to the extent that it happens somewhere and not elsewhere – even cyberspace is still a space, albeit one with a weird rhizomatic geometry – it is not a question of producing One Big Movement that unites the whole world, but of building linkages between geographical localities based on an understanding of the increasingly non-geographical nature of social space. This, I think, is the only useful interpretation of the slogan “think global, act local”.

xi “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” Karl Marx, Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859

xii Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

xiii “The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.181

xiv Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and Armen Avanessian, #Accelerationism: Remembering the Future, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/10/accelerationism-remembering-future/

xv There is a truly vast body of critique on this theme, spanning the Frankfurt School, ecofeminism, postcolonial theory, virtually all ecological thought, postmodernism, post-structuralism, and doubtless many more radical critical traditions. I’ve used the term “Man” deliberately to emphasise the strongly gendered nature of the opposition between humans and nature, and of the notion of mastery over nature.

xvi Negri, op. cit.

xvii Deleuze & Guattari, op. cit., p.4

xviii “Man [sic] lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts. See John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, pp.125-9 for more depth on this point.

xix Srnicek, Williams & Avanessian, op. cit.

xx This point on danger could do with further elaboration, if space permitted. For now, let me simply ask: what if the end result of mastery over the conditions of human existence, and the transcendence of all contingency and vulnerability, is not liberation, but a new and intolerable kind of boredom that comes from being the kept pet of a benevolent and omnipotent machine intelligence? What if the abolition of all that keeps us weak is also the abolition of the danger and uncertainty that makes life interesting?

xxi Robert Jackson’s Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism is an inspiration for this point, albeit a rather dull and turgid kind of inspiration. Available at: http://furtherfield.org/features/articles/ordinaryism-alternative-accelerationism-part-1-thanks-nothing

This was my first attempt to write about intersectionality from an anarchist perspective. Originally published in Irish Anarchist Review #7

As class-struggle anarchists dealing with the relations between gender, race and class, we must, in theory and practice, pick a path between two pitfalls. On one side is economic reductionism – the reduction of all political questions to the social relations of production – which erases the perspectives and struggles of women, queers and people of colour; submerges their voices within an overly generalised class narrative, in which the idealised Worker is implicitly white heterosexual and male; or consigns their struggles to a secondary importance compared to the “real struggle” of (economic) class against class. On the other is a stultifying and inward-looking liberal-idealist identity politics, concerned fetishistically with the identification of privilege and the self-regulation of individual oppressive behaviour to the (near) exclusion of organised struggle, which, while amplifying the voices of the marginalised, consigns them to an echo chamber where they can resonate harmlessly.

While both poles described are actualised within the anarchist milieu, we should not make the mistake of thinking that both pitfalls are equally imminent. White supremacism and patriarchyi are hegemonic within our society and this is reflected in anarchist spaces: dismissive “critiques” of identity politics are far more common than over-enthusiastic engagement. Therefore this piece will not offer yet another of these critiques, which more often than not function only justify the continued ignorance and inaction of those unwilling to destabilise their privilege.ii

Rather this piece deals with a more difficult question: “How does one reconcile the diverse political perspectives of feminists, queers and activists of colour with the tradition of class-struggle anarchism?” I do not offer a complete or authoritative answer, but rather attempt to move forward a conversation which seems to be perpetually re-iterating its own beginning: “we must begin to talk about gender and race issues”. Indeed we must, but we must also move beyond beginning.

The traditional approach

Most class-struggle anarchist understandings of the inter-relation of gender, race and class allude in one way or another to the Marxist base-superstructure model of society, that is, that the relations of production are the base of society, which generate the political superstructure which includes the state, culture, gender and race relations etc. A vulgar Marxist idea of the base-superstructure model holds that the base determines the superstructure absolutely and the superstructure is unable to affect the base. The implication of this is that no specific agitation on gender or race issues is needed: if women, queers or people of colour wish to improve their position in society they should simply participate in the class struggle which will necessarily and automatically result in the dissolution of all hierarchies. A particularly crude but somewhat instructive example of this thinking tells us:

In any class society—thus, in any society in which the state and the economy exist—only the ruling class can be truly said to have privilege… [S]o-called privileges are nothing more than a minimal easing of the conditions of exploitation experienced by people in these specific social categories. They are intended to convince these people that they have more in common with their exploiters than with those not granted the same “privileges” and to convince the others that their real enemy is not the ruling class, but rather those granted a less intense level of exploitation… Since only the ruling class truly has privilege, the destruction of privilege will only occur when we destroy all rule.iii

This sort of utopian thinking denies that gender or race have any autonomy from class: patriarchy and white supremacism are merely tools employed by the ruling class to divide the workers. Of course, in reality, the establishment of a communist economic system does not preclude the continuation of patriarchy or white supremacism. One can easily imagine, for example, a communist system where women are held to be the collective sexual property of men, with sexual access ensured by systematic rape and battery, whose economy is perfectly functional.

More sophisticated variants of this model, often accompanied by some dialectical flourish, acknowledge the necessity of specific anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic agitation, lest these dynamics persist “after the revolution”, but still understand gender and race issues as being essentially forms of bigotry fostered by the ruling class to divide workers against themselves to prevent the realisation of their collective “objective” interests as a class. Gender and race struggles are thus positioned as ancillary to the class struggle, even if they are formally considered “central” to it. Patriarchy and white supremacism are not understood as constituting systems in their own right and forms of power other than the economic are rendered invisible. The pertinent question here is not whether this picture is correct in some “objective” sense – whether metaphysically all power “really” resides in the means of production – but rather: which voices are amplified by this framing and which are muted? What forms of action are opened and foreclosed by choosing this framework at the expense of another? Who among us has the power to define the “objective” interests of the working class?

‘Scientific socialism’ and subjectivity

No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. – Mikhail Bakuniniv

A particularly egregious influence of Marxism on anarchist thought is the supposed need to understand the world systematically – to render the world objectively knowable through the development of a theoretical system, which totally describes reality, and provides a set of objective truths against which other understandings of the world can be compared – related to the failed project of “scientific socialism”. Anarchists (Bakunin in particular) have long recognised the authoritarian nature of this project: a movement mobilised according to scientific theories can only be a movement of “experts” leading the masses – the “false consciousness” of the masses can only be directed to revolutionary ends by the Party, which, by some unknown means, comes to be the bearer of true consciousness backed up by objective scientific facts.v

Objective or universal knowledge is impossible. We exist within a web of social relations and only a god would be able to view the totality of social relations as an objective observer. What we see and what we do not is dependent both on how we are positioned relative to others and in which directions we choose to look. The systems we develop for understanding the world are therefore products of the particular web of power relations in which we are situated; are necessarily at best partial, subjective and tentative; and reflect both the oppressions and privileges to which we are subject. Their proper function is as working theories that enable us to act as effectively as possible within our social context, not as dogmas to which reality must be made to fit. Claims to objectivity and universality are nothing other than a power grab; what is considered central to the struggle for human liberation is a reflection of who has power within the movement. The centrality of economics to our theory, and our particular conception of what class struggle entails and what it does not must be critically re-evaluated in this light.vi

Intersectionality and privilege

[T]here is an important value in overcoming the fear of immanent critique and to maintaining the democratic value of producing a movement that can contain, without domesticating, conflicting interpretations on fundamental issues. – Judith Butlervii

Feminist theory provides useful theoretical tools for analysing the inter-relations of gender, race and class. Critiques of second-wave feminism, particularly from women of colour, highlighted the role of universalist feminist narratives in the marginalisation of working-class women, women of colour, and those whose gender expression or sexuality deviated from the norm: the idea of a universal female experience in practice meant the universalisation of the issues of the most privileged sections of the feminist movement. The theory of intersectionality was developed to address the issue of how a movement could begin to accommodate the incoherency of perspectives entailed by the abandonment of universalism and still continue to function effectively.viii

Intersectionality recognises that these incoherences are not merely intellectual disagreements, but rather reflect real differences in the experience of oppression from different subject-positions. We are all oppressed and privileged in various ways within various systems, and these systems interact in complex ways to produce a totality within which gender, race and class cannot be disentangled and approached as distinct objects: ones positioning with respect to race, for example, changes qualitatively what it means to be a certain gender. We must therefore reject the notion that the class struggle is or could be the same for everyone, and turn to the more complex task of treating class as contingent on other hierarchies.

Dare to look at the intersectionalities. Dare to be holistic. Part of the heart of anarchy is, dare to go against the grain of the conventional ways of thinking about our realities. Anarchists have always gone against the grain, and that’s been a place of hope. – bell hooksix

Examining intersectionalities means not just developing an understanding of the different forms of oppression and the struggles against them, but also means asking certain questions about the ways in which they intersect. To illustrate, let’s examine two seemingly distinct areas of recent WSM activity – the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), which is a particular tactical engagement in a more generalised struggle against austerity, and the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland, which forms part of a wider struggle to maximise reproductive choices for women – and ask: what is the relationship between austerity as a generalised imposition on our class and the restriction of reproductive choice as a particular imposition on women? What are the common forms of social control mobilised in these two seemingly discrete spheres?

Both are biopolitical projects; that is, both aim, at the level of the individual and of the population at large, at producing certain kinds of people and not others in the furtherance of particular objectives. Austerity, which is commonly understood as a mechanism of extracting capital from the population and transferring it to a capitalist class in crisis (which is true), is also a project aimed at reshaping our lives to produce austere subjects: idealised workers primed for participation in neoliberal markets, who provide a maximum of productivity at a minimum cost, living lives with a minimum of material comforts, a restricted sphere of social activity, whose activity is continually aimed at maximising marketable skills, actively seeking job “opportunities” etc.x The restriction of reproductive choices, while often seen as merely a result of backward religious moralism, must also be understood in this way: by denying women access to abortion outright and ensuring that access to contraception is expensive, sexual activity (and the social activity surrounding it) is disciplined toward the production of life within certain normative contexts (i.e. the stable monogamous relationship, called marriage in its ideal form) while other forms are precluded.xi Both involve the mobilisation of many of the same mechanisms of social control: the police, the judicial system, the contraction of the welfare state (in particular the cuts to child benefit function to prevent problematic sections of the working class from reproducing and placing a burden on the state, while imposing a particularly cruel form of discipline on those that do), the taxation system (VAT on condoms, for example), education, public health etc.

An intersectional approach thus reveals the deep interconnections between superficially distinct spheres of political activity. Women’s struggles and the class struggle are found to be inseparable. The slogans “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” and “My Body, My Choice” resonate deeply with one another, as both involve a refusal of biopolitical control and an assertion of the right to live self-directed lives autonomous of the demands of the powerful. Intersectional praxis involves, in part, uncovering these interconnections and writing them into the public discourse.

Speaking and listening

As anarchists, we are not immune to the effects of being formed within a social context in which women, queers and people of colour are sytematically oppressed. Practices of dominance and submission are deeply ingrained into our culture and habituated within normative forms of social interaction, and cannot simply be dispelled with the performative declaration: “I am anti-racist”, I am anti-sexist”, “I am an anarchist” etc.xii Put simply: if left unexamined, our subconscious habits in social interactions will reproduce the marginalisation of the already-marginalised within the anarchist movement.

If, as I have argued, the building-blocks of anarchist theory and practice are the subjective perspectives of those who experience oppression directly (as opposed to ready-made theoretical systems) then an awareness of the ways in which privilege manifests in inter-personal relations is of particular importance.xiii The ability to contribute to shaping the direction of the movement is predicated on the ability to speak and be listened to by others within the movement. The ability to speak from an authoritative position, with the expectation of being listened to, understood and treated seriously, the ability to rely on certain culturally-specific assumptions (common sensexiv) in making a point, and so on, are more readily available to those who are already privileged by power structures than it is to those who are not. Awareness of privilege, then, is an important counterbalance to social forces which produce marginalisation, which allows us to organise more effectively against those forces. This is the precise opposite of the liberal-moralist theory of privilege, which elevates privilege awareness to the status of an abstract good.

The class struggle

At this point one might be wondering what precisely the implication of this argument is. Do I mean to say that class must no longer be at the centre of anarchist politics? Or am I saying that class is understood in a way that is too narrow? I am saying both of these things, or, more precisely, both are valid ways of parsing the same argument. If class is understood as being simply a matter of economics, and particularly those aspects of capitalist economics that appear most pressing to white heterosexual men; if class-centricity means that a deep understanding of the way in which capitalism produces capitalists and workers is essential for all anarchists, while deep understandings of the way in which patriarchy produces men and women, and white supremacism produces white people in relation to a multiplicity of (in)subordinate racesxv, are not; worse still, if it means that obscure historical knowledge of failed revolutions and exegesis of the texts of dead theorists takes precedence over the experiences of living people, then class must be removed from the centre of our theory. If, however, class is understood as encompassing the totality of hierarchical social relations, as being the product of many systems acting sometimes in concert and sometimes autonomously of one another, and moreover as bringing together a diversity of experiences and struggles in a spirit of solidarity and mutual recognition, then this is precisely the heart of anarchism.


i I am using these terms in a broad sense for the sake of readability. White supremacism encompasses all oppressions on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality and migration status which function to empower whites. Similarly, patriarchy includes the oppression of women, queers, trans* people and others oppressions on the basis of gender.

ii For a balanced critique, see “The Poverty of Privilege Politics” by by Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure, Shift Magazine, http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=679

iii “A Question of Privilege”, Venomous Butterfly, http://www.geocities.ws/kk_abacus/vb/wd8priv.html

iv Quoted in Michael Bakunin (1961) by E. H. Carr, p. 175

v Within the Marxist tradition, this attempt to attribute the “perspective of totality” to the Party has been criticised by John Holloway. See Change The World Without Taking Power, p.35, http://www.edtechpost.ca/readings/John%20Holloway%20-%20Change%20the%20World%20Without%20Taking%20Power.pdf

vi At the risk of stating the obvious, I am not advocating here a rejection of science as a methodology or the embracing of irrationalism; rather we should embrace a certain epistemological modesty and reject the power effects of positioning a particular set of ideas as scientific/universal/totalitarian.

vii “The End of Sexual Difference” in Undoing Gender by Judith Butler, p. 176

viii See “Refusing To Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon & J. Rogue, http://www.anarchist-studies.org/node/339 for an account of the history of this development, as well as an excellent exposition of intersectional theory.

ix “How Do You Practice Intersectionalism? An Interview with bell hooks”, Common Struggle, http://commonstruggle.org/bellhooks

x In particular, various reforms of the social welfare system have a particular aim of disciplining the unemployed in this way.

xi The fact that this project is increasingly an abject failure producing an assortment of individually and socially problematic situations is besides the point here.

xii See, for example, “Towards an Anarchist Anti-Racism” by Dónal O’Driscoll, http://www.wsm.ie/c/toward-anarchist-anti-racism

xiii For another class-struggle anarchist perspective on “Privilege Theory”, which takes a somewhat different approach from mine, see “A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory” from the Anarchist Federation Women’s Caucus, http://www.afed.org.uk/blog/state/327-a-class-struggle-anarchist-analysis-of-privilege-theory–from-the-womens-caucus-.html

xiv “Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was “common sense” in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. Common sense, moreover, is not always “common” — the idea that lesbians and gay men should be protected against discrimination and violence strikes some people as common-sensical, but for others it threatens the foundations of ordinary life.” “A `Bad Writer’ Bites Back” by Judith Butler, https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/wash/www/butler.htm

xv See “Abolish Whiteness” by Noel Ignatiev, http://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/AbolishWhiteness.pdf for a development of this point.

 I

The genie will not go back into the bottle. The recent Cambrian explosion of critiques of the Left – deploying the concepts of intersectionality and privilege – is not a reversible process. The old and comforting unities that have been disaggregated by these critiques cannot be reassembled – or at least not in the same way. Whether one is happy about this or not, intersectionality is now an active element of the Left, and the pre-intersectional Left cannot be recovered, even if one wished to.

 II

Those who insist upon rejecting intersectionality in toto – whether due to nostalgia for previous compositions of the Left from previous phases of struggle, or to utopian visions of what the Left could be – have retreated into idealism. They construct transcendental standards of what the Left must become (once again) against which the Left is compared and inevitably found wanting. Such an approach cannot succeed. The immanent self-development of the Left can only be a process of self-transformation reckoning with and utilising the material of the actually-existing Left.

 III

Intersectionality is not a ruling class conspiracy to destroy the Left. It is a critique of the Left from within the Left. Or, as Foucault would perhaps put it, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” within the Left. (Society Must Be Defended) It is the collective discursive assemblage deployed by minorised subjects within the Left to combat their marginalisation – a cutting tool to break through the ossified exclusions of Left theory and practice. Those who respond by waging a rhetorical war of annihilation against intersectionality and privilege have, as Mao might say, clearly gone wrong.

IV

There are no purely creative or productive transformations. Creation always entails a measure of destruction. The Left must continuously be destroyed in order to be produced anew. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany)

This does not, however, mean that all destruction is also creation. There exist negations that are not dialectical. An atomic bomb does not produce a resurrection after it destroys.

V

If intersectionality is to be a force of revitalisation of the Left, how could it proceed but through negation? If the collective assemblages of the Left are ineffectual, stultifying, exclusionary, they must be broken apart – and parts thrown away, perhaps – before they can be assembled differently. The expectation that the intersectional transformation of the Left proceed only through pure positivity is in effect the demand that it not proceed at all.

VI

If one is working on an old house, one is likely to uncover elements of toxicity and decay – asbestos, mould, rats, damp, cracked walls, rotting beams, even shaky foundations. While it might seem as though the problems uncovered have appeared as a result of the work undertaken, the truth is they were there already. The Left is an old house.

Intersectionality as a process has uncovered relations within the Left that are toxic. These are often unpleasant to deal with. But putting the carpet back down does not stop the floorboards rotting.

VII

Fixing the Left is not an end-in-itself. It is not enough to get all of our internal relations in perfect balance. We are building a war machine, not an ornament.

VIII

The Left has always been angry. The Left has always been animated by the anger of the oppressed and exploited, as well as our hopes, desires, loves and aspirations. A Left that is not angry has succumbed to centrist capitulation, bureaucratic drudgery or hippy escapism.

The Left has never been unified. There has always been conflict and disagreement, sometimes bitter, because our divisions matter. A Left that has done away with all internal conflict is a Left that has given up all serious ambitions of transforming society and retreated into pantomime.

Why then has the presence of anger and conflict within the Left suddenly become intolerable?

IX

Anger is political. It is gendered and racialised. The question of when, how and by whom anger is to be expressed is a matter of political contestation. One might reasonably be troubled at the intensity of anger within a discourse, but any remedy to the problem must not involve resubmerging the anger of the oppressed beneath a cold ocean of silence.

X

Anger is more than a mere feeling: it is an energy, a potential. It is a creative moment of an individual. It is not enough for that anger to find expression and recognition – that is a circuit of containment – it must be allowed to flow – to produce, transform and overthrow according to its own immanent truth – and not merely diffuse. It is a matter for the individual to develop such an ethical relationship to their anger, and not for any external apparatus of policing or mediation.

XI

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (Assata Shakur)

Moralism is not the same as ethics. The former is based in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a resentment of the powerful that accepts the inevitability of one’s own powerlessness, and aims only at constraining the actions of the powerful, while valorising the condition of powerlessness. Moralism operates by setting up transcendental standards of good and evil which by the force of their ethical rightness are expected to determine the behaviour of individuals. In this sense it is an ineffectual idealist approach to ethics that can challenge power only in the abstract, rather than transforming the material conditions that enable that power.

For those struggling to make justice a material reality, moralism is a condition to be escaped or warded off. This does not, however, entail an abandonment of ethics, or a rejection of micropolitics. Any social movement that aims at being transformative must produce and practice a counterethics that aims at displacing and abolishing the dominant ethics by sweeping away the material mechanisms of the dominant ethics on all levels (individual, intersubjective, and social). Rejecting moralism in no way implies that we must compromise on our ethics, but rather that we develop a materialist and transformative approach to ethics – a counterethics conceived of as a component of a revolutionary machine.

This is a response to the piece Exiting the Vampire Castleby Mark Fisher.

I don’t know anything about Mark Fisher. He wrote a book, called Capitalist Realism that a lot of people seem to like, but I have no idea what’s in it or if I should care. But I do know Mark is afraid of me. He is afraid of me, because I am an anarchist, because I engage with “identity politics”, because I think the Labour Party is a load of bourgeois shit, because I believe that influential figures should be held to account for oppressive speech-acts, and because I (occasionally) go to university. Moreover, he is afraid of me because I am destroying something precious to him, something to which he has attributed meaning and invested desire – the Left; a figure, an image and a real assemblage, which produces intense affects in those who believe in its necessity and potential, and whose evident failure to intervene decisively at this moment of capitalist crisis has induced flows of despondancy across the entire social body.

How does one deal with such intense negative affect, with frustrated desire, with a pronounced, emasculating political impotence, which threaten to overwhelm the subject? What happens to the revolutionary breaks and flows of the communist machine when there seems to be precisely no way to productively intervene in the political situation? One possible line of flight is to retreat into nostalgia, pining for a workers movement of yesteryear, which was powerful and decisive and unified, while conveniently forgetting that it was this same workers movement whose failure allowed neoliberalism to claw its way into every last nook and cranny of social existence. Another is to project one’s negativity onto a scapegoat, a monstrous vampiric Other, which can be blamed for sucking the vitality and hope out of the Left.

It is, I think, no coincidence that Mark Fisher chose this historic moment of deficit (the opposite of a “moment of excess”) to dust off an old and conservative discourse, give it a new psychoanalytical gloss, and to use it to rhetorically storm the “Vampire’s Castle” he’s built in his head. Its resonances, both positive and negative, across the left seem to me to be symptomatic of the current (de)composition of the Left as a social force, where old antagonisms along identarian lines have been invested with a new urgency by the collapse of organised resistance to the present capitalist assault. It is the confluence, I think, of a number of affects specific to this period of crisis, some, perhaps, understandable and forgivable, others thoroughly unpleasant and reactionary, which produce the libidinal underpinnings of this discourse, which, following Judith Butler, I shall call “neoconservative Marxism”, namely:

  1. feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness, and directionlessness, that result from witnessing one’s organising efforts come to nothing

  2. a sense of an urgent need for unity to compensate for the evident weakness of the Left as it stands

  3. a sense of the urgency of class struggle at this particular moment, combined with a sense of competition with non-class struggles for increasingly scarce resources

  4. a felt need for robust, “no bullshit” discourse, which also has the side effect of producing a masculine affect

  5. a need to participate in the psychodrama of conflict at a time when there seems to be no way to hit your enemies where it hurts

  6. concomitant feelings of discomfort around the difficult and patient work of rebuilding, rethinking and re-orienting left resistance, and

  7. a jealousy towards the relative vitality and vibrancy displayed by intersectional/feminist discourses

One might recognise oneself in this characterisation, or one might strongly resist such psychological speculation. My purpose here was to demonstrate that the neoconservatism evinced by Fisher could also be analysed as a “libidinal-discursive formation”. But it also, I think, demonstrates why Fisher’s decision to position himself as analyst and to interpellate numerous comrades, as analysand, is both rather presumptuous, and a piss poor form of argumentation. It allows the author to negate the subjectivity of his opponent, and whatever arguments they might marshall in support of their position, and instead indulge in a patronising performance of “I understand why you think the way you do” faux-insight.

Perhaps it would be better to interrogate the substance of the argument.

The Worker and the Vampire as Gothic horror

Exiting the Vampire Castle is ostensibly an attack on the essentialising tendencies of something called “identity politics”, a style of argument that has been rehearsed often enough to constitute a genre in and of itself. This time, however, the usual genre tropes are given a distinct Gothic twist. The hero, as usual, is the ordinary British (i.e. white) working class man, this time played, somewhat incongrously by Russell Brand. The worker, trapped in a castle made out of political correctness gone mad, is stalked and preyed upon by vampires: bourgeois liberal academics posing as leftists, who hide in the shadows waiting for the worker to say something mildly sexist so they can sink their fangs of guilt and shame into the worker’s lovely neck. Once bitten, the worker is subjected to a horrific fate: he is essentialised as a sexist. The vampires may claim that they are interested in things like liberation, justice, solidarity and collectivity, but their bloodlust, it is revealed to our horror, is motivated by something much darker: petty bourgeois class interest. It is only by re-asserting the primacy of class that the vampires can be slayed and the worker can finally escape the castle and carry out his historic mission of abolishing capitalist society.

As is often the case, poorly-conceived horror morphs into camp comedy. Russell Brand, with his millions of pounds and his habit of subjecting women to public and sexualised humiliation, is hardly convincing as the hapless victim. Indeed, what else is there to do but laugh at a class analysis in which a working class person can be a multimillionaire comedian and film star and retain their working class identity, but a worker who becomes an academic and pursues an interest in Cultural Studies is inevitably possessed by a petty bourgeois essence which structures their discourse according to a subconscious desire to own a prosperous corner shop. One might also wonder in passing whether a worker might be a woman, or queer, or not white, which might recast our tragic male hero in a more ethically ambiguous light, spoiling the dramatic effect.

Neoconservative Marxism as identity politics

There are rather obvious contradictions at the heart of Fisher’s argument: How can one rail against essentialism, while essentialising (and therefore dismissing) a whole family of left discourses as petty bourgeois, and academic? How can one oppose identity politics by valourising a working class identity that is apparently independent of one’s material situation? How can one oppose the supposed suppression of class struggle on the left, while putting forward a view of class as essentially a cultural attitude abstracted from actual material struggle?

These contradictions resolve themselves if one considers Fisher’s intervention not as an opposition to identity politics per se, but as a territorial dispute over which identity politics should have primary status on the Left. For Neoconservative Marxists, the real problem with ‘intersectionality’ and such ‘identity-politics’ discourses is that they are seen as introducing division into the left, fracturing the a priori unity of the working class. Political struggle is seen as a zero-sum game: there can only be one historical Subject, and it must be the worker. Since the worker is now positioned as the sole political subject, aspects of feminism, anti-racism, and queer struggles which cannot be assimilated into an analysis of economic struggles must be something else: ethics, not politics. Therefore, those women, people of colour and queers who refuse to play their allotted role in the class struggle are infecting the workers movement with a debilitating moralism, rather than participating in a (sometimes tense and difficult) negotiation towards a recomposition of “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”.

Perhaps the most useful lesson to take from Fisher’s piece is that, while it’s relatively easy to produce a critique of identity politics, it is far harder to transcend in practice. It might be accurate to say that intersectional discourses work with reified identity categories (although that too would be an oversimplification), but to understand that reification as merely an illusory effect of intersectionality or identity politics, rather than a material reality, is idealist in the extreme. One does not transcend identity categories by performative critique. Unity pursued through the repression of difference, is only ever purchased through the exclusion, marginalisation and domestication of gendered and racialised minorities within the left. Truly democratic unity, which in any case is never perfect and is always merely a productive conjuncture of difference, is always the effect of a successful prior coming-together on the basis of respect and mutual recognition. The revolutionary force that finally sweeps away this oppressive system is only going to be materialised in a tense coalition of heterogenous political subjectivities: workers, environmentalists, feminists, queers, people of colour, punks, anarchists, socialists, communists, liberals (even). The most prudent form of intervention on this question, then, is not to insist on collective identities that flatten out differences, but to work to build coalitions that honour and respect difference, which become unified through a collective project or vision for social transformation. Interventions like Fisher’s only serve to accentuate divisions. It doesn’t actually advance any kind of project of recomposition.

The focus of much of my writing (1 2) and thinking over the past year has been on bringing intersectional theory and theories of class struggle into a productive dialogue with one another in a way that neither collapses one into the other (by, for example, suggesting that intersectionality provides nothing more than a way of making the class struggle more cognizant of ‘particular’ oppressions that are thereby positioned at the periphery of political struggle; or, in the other direction, by converting class into a mere analog of gender and race, problematically rendering the three political spaces precisely isomorphic to one another) nor dismisses one on the basis of the other (intersectionality is simply the latest incarnation of middle-class/academic/liberal identity politics, class struggle is merely another colonialist metanarrative which empowers white men, etc.) but that, at the same time, does not assume that the two can be simply and unproblematically stapled together as if there were no conflicts and tensions. Rather my aim has been to treat these tensions as sites of productive inquiry which pose important challenges to our theorisations of political struggle, which so often only sustain internal coherence as the result of troublesome excisions and occlusions.

My motivation in this undertaking is partly pragmatic: intersectional discourses have displayed a vibrancy and vitality in recent times that has been largely absent from a stagnant and marginalised revolutionary left such that increasing numbers of (particularly young) activists are learning to express political ideas through the language of intersectionality (and its theoretically impoverished cousin ‘privilege’) and, indeed, evaluate political movements and organisations on the basis of their practical and theoretical engagement with intersectionality. In this context, having nothing to say about intersectionality, or worse having something trite and dismissive to say (sorry love, your oppression is the product of determinate economic forces, not “patriarchy”) is a recipe for reproducing our own irrelevance. At the same time, the proliferation of identitarian and liberal theories of class through intersectional discourses risks entrenching what are, in the end, pro-capitalist political theories within the left and requires proactive but careful engagement. On a less instrumentalist level, I feel that engagement with intersectionality by the revolutionary left has the potential to open us up to important new political possibilities. At a minimum, intersectionality and privilege theory provide useful insights into the micropolitics of social movements and heuristics for minimising the reproduction of oppression and marginalisation within movements. (In this regard, privilege theory’s lack of theoretical sophistication is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its simplicity makes it easily understandable and generalisable, and provides practical shortcuts which avoid messy and involved theoretical debates when dealing with specific issues. On the other hand, the tendency to treat privilege as a thing-in-itself leads to a reification which occludes the workings of power, treating manifestations of systems of domination and exploitation as if they were the systems themselves. Privilege thereby becomes its own cause and effect and undue emphasis is placed on particular privileges enjoyed by privileged groups rather than the systems which produce them.) However, intersectionality’s real value, in my view, is that it offers an approach to theory-formation and practice which holds the potential to recover the possibility of a collective self-emancipation of the oppressed and to escape the labyrinth of postmodern particularisms. Intersectionality insists that we theorise systems of oppression always in the light of one another, that we abandon the quest for the one ontology to rule them all and instead begin to recognise the heterogenous multiplicity of antagonisms that divide the social sphere, and therefore that we embrace tensions, contradictions and incoherences as occasions for democracy and the deepening of insight, rather than producing neat theoretical resolutions which so often are merely exercises of power.

Unsurprisingly, given the hegemony of liberal intersectionalities within the broad left and the revolutionary left’s reluctance to engage with intersectional theory, largely due to a paranoiac fear of being drawn into “identity politics”, the nature and location of class within an intersectional frame has been a recurring sticking point. Regarding class intersectionally, we are told, necessarily occludes some key metaphysical quality of class and thus effects a retreat from class struggle in some sense. Intuitively, I don’t think this is true – intersectionality as a mode of analysis doesn’t strike me particularly as imposing a particular form on the systems which it proposes to theorise together; in fact, I would argue the imposition of a universal structure on all forms of struggle is precisely not what intersectionality is supposed to be about – but the intuitions of others appear to diverge sharply from my own. I think an important and, unfortunately, often unacknowledged complicating factor in this and other debates on the left is the polysemy of ‘class’ as a signifier, which makes pinning down precisely what object this term ‘class’ refers to intensely difficult (that is, significantly beyond the inevitable failure of all signification to fully represent the signified). The signifier ‘class’ always effects multiple significations, both at the level of the subject and of discourse between subjects. Put simply: class has a variety of different meanings both to different people and coinciding within the same person, which often cannot be reconciled.

The point of this semiotic excursion is to say something important about the limitations of theory. Territorialistic* theoretical defences of particular conceptions of class, whatever their sophistication, whatever the force of their argument, and whatever productive new becomings they effect in their readers, do not collapse the semiotic constellation ‘class’ into a single meaning. (To argue otherwise is, in my view, to place an undue faith in the performative power of language and in the humanistic notion of the rational thinking-subject.)

Situating ‘class politics’ in relation to ‘identity politics’, then, requires us to consider not just what we would like the term ‘class’ to mean, or what it might theoretically mean, but how the term ‘class’ is really embedded in the discourses of the left and the full range of meanings to which it relates. Particularly, we need to recognise the specific history of class-as-identity within the revolutionary left, which situates class (at least partially) on the plane of identity politics as a competitor for the privileged status of the universal Subject of historical change. In other words, we need to recognise that it is not just pro-capitalist liberals who participate in an identity politics of class. This tendency has a clear relationship to representational modes of politics where political ideologies and movements are supposed to “represent” the aspirations and interests of some identity category or other, which, I would argue, can only operate through the the territorial ‘marking out’ of a particular set of aims, concerns, goals etc. as legitimate to that political project, and delegitimisation or deprioritisation of those which fall outside of that particular political territory. That is to say: ‘working-class politics’ can only ever secondarily be concerned with feminism or anti-racism, and only insofar as those things can be demonstrated to be the proper concern of The Working Class.

Representationalism (and, by extension, identitarianism) is quite obviously embedded in the politics of both the parliamentary and vanguardist revolutionary variants of socialism, where a particular political organisation attempts to capture state power “on behalf of the workers” and to pursue working class political interests through the state machinery. But the hegemonic nature of representational politics exerts an orienting influence even on those with a formally anti-representational politics. While anarchists might reject the representationalism of the state socialist (what we might call ’embodied representation’ – representation embodied by an actual group of people who aim to represent the working class) there remains an impetus among anarchists to develop a politics that authentically represents a working class political subjectivity (which I’m calling ‘abstract representation’ – representation through ideas that needn’t be materially embodied). The notion of class as an immanent antagonism of capital is never quite as distinct in practice from class-as-identity as it might be shown to be in theory; ‘class politics’ easily mutates to become ‘working class politics’ which then becomes ‘the politics of the workers’ movement’, and, through this kind of metonymy, we end up reproducing the same identity politics of “the workers” which we purport to have rejected. Note, for example, the central role afforded to the trade union movement in the recent online debates (1 2 3 4 5) over the efficacy of the WSM and of anarchism as a political practice and near total absence of any discussion of pro-feminist, pro-queer or anti-racist work. How effective we have been at intervening in the trade union movement appears to be central to judging the WSM as an organisation in a way that questions of race and gender politics simply are not. What does this signify? Some ethical failure on the part of the individual contributors to the discussion? Or perhaps that we continue to be shaped by the workerist baggage of a revolutionary left centred around an exclusionary and identitarian conception of class struggle?

It is here that we must recognise the necessity of intersectionality (even in its most reductively identitarian form) to the rebuilding of any kind of effective left. Intersectionality, by insisting that systems of power are always theorised together, and, what’s more, by insisting that this be an embodied practice and not merely a theoretical outcome, forces us repeatedly into the difficult and “divisive” discussions which we must have if we are ever to afford issues of gender and race the respect and significance they deserve.

* The notion of ‘territory’ is used in this piece to convey both the notion of a space with borders, and a proprietary relation to a space, with an associated attack-and-defence mindset, which I think describes a common and problematic approach to political/theoretical questions. I intend to write a fuller account of this in a subsequent piece.

3daxes

I have a piece in the next issue of Irish Anarchist Review that offers an epistemological, metaphysical, political and  pragmatic justification for the adoption of intersectionality by class-struggle anarchist groups. This post attempts to address a common objection to intersectionality that came up repeatedly in discussions on the topic, namely, that class is in some way special and  different to other “axes of oppression”, and therefore to regard class through an intersectional lens minimises its importance and fails to grasp its unique character.

The reflexive response that privilege discourse conditions us to make is that this objection is merely a case of privileged people trying to exclude challenges to their privilege within the anarchist movement. I think that response is both unhelpful and unfair. Unhelpful, because it places intersectional theory above criticism, and unfair, because those making the objections are often sincerely concerned with avoiding the marginalisation of women, queers, people of colour, etc. within the movement. Nonetheless, the discourse of “class exceptionalism” often has precisely that effect (a point I’ll return to later).

The following two examples give a fairly clear exposition of the exceptionalist position. The first is Slavoj Zizek:

The third thing to underline is the fundamental difference between feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and other such struggles and the class struggle. In the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference (the peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, to turn class differences into class antagonisms… What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other – even if not a direct physical annihilation, it aims at wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and realize its goals. In one case, we have a “horizontal” logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp. 33-4

(Interestingly this analysis seems to be copy-pasted almost word-for-word from an earlier essay that is available online.) The second is Paul Bowman in the last Irish Anarchist Review:

Otherness is socially constructed. Through socialisation we become either man or woman, white or black, straight or queer, normal or other. In the social construction of otherness, both poles of the relation must be explicitly present. The normal defines the other by projection in ways described by feminist or queer theory authors or Edward Said’s criticism of “orientalism” or Deleuze & Guattari’s becoming-other. These mutually defining poles of subjectification multiply and proliferate in the social sphere and can be combined through conjunction.

But class, as we have seen, is not an identity, nor a socially constructed role. Hence the conjunction of otherness breaks down at the class line. There is no contradiction in the conjugation of othernesses when a person identifies, for example, as a woman AND as black AND as queer. We understand that each category of otherness neither wholly encompasses nor wholly excludes the others, that their conjugation is a process of defining the overlapping of these sets that are inscribed within the same social plane that constructs identities and particular oppressions through the operation of polarising normativities in contrast to othernesses. But when we try to add class to the chain of conjugation – woman AND black AND queer AND working class – something jars. Consciously or not, we perceive that something about the last term in the conjugation does not fit with the previous ones. Society not only does not contest that the speaker is a black queer woman, it asserts it before she even speaks. In drawing attention to these identities the speaker is only re-asserting what is already socially constructed, or imposed, as fact – even if the speaker is challenging the meaning of these social facts, or the power that constructed them. But in relation to class there is no such social recognition forthcoming, on the question of whether class is a social fact in the same way as femininity, blackness or queerness, there is only silence. And as Derrida taught us, we must listen for the silences because they teach us most of all.

Without pursuing that further, at this stage, we see also that there is a problem with the process of defining class on this basis, which after this conjugation is made, must, retrospectively, be carried out in an analogous manner to other particular oppressions. Because otherness is defined through exclusion and oppression, then class in turn must also be so defined. The experience of class then becomes reduced to social exclusion – the snobbery and exclusivity of the “middle class” – and the oppressions of economic deprivation – poverty. But to reduce class to a relation of economic oppression by poverty, is to reduce economic life to that privileged sphere of capitalist universality – consumerism. So long as class is reduced to economic oppression which is in turn reduced to relative deprivation in command power in the market for consumer goods, then it loses any meaning in relation to exploitation, the production of surplus value and the valorisation of capital and, ultimately, the active production of the totality of social relations. It becomes a passive category, a doubly passive one when we take on board the failure for it to be actively constructed by the dominant social discourse, as already noted. Reduced to this doubly passive status, the category of class becomes a mere ghost compared to the identities actively produced by the discourses of power, and must ultimately fade into the universalist background.

….

The attempts by some to create a mono-dimensional category of “intersectionality” where particular identities/oppressions intersect with each other, and class as another identity, within a unified plane of oppression, are driven by the search for a universal category. By projection, they assume that those defending the particularity of class, must equally be proposing it as a competing universal category. Indeed, there actually are some – the “class reductionists” – who make that very mistake. However the argument between the “intersectionalists” and the “reductionists” over whose category is the truly universal one, is simply a competition within the same framework – that of universalism itself.

Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower

While these two quotes may superficially appear to be saying the same thing, there are important differences that should be recognised prior to a response. Most significantly, Zizek offers a much cruder essentialist analysis. There are, for Zizek, races that will survive the demise of racism, and which have “cultural, political and economic strivings” collectively. In Paul’s analysis, otherness is socially-constructed and can therefore presumably be deconstructed and eradicated. The purpose of including both is to tackle both the essentiallist and social-constructivist versions of the argument. In addition, Zizek’s picture of class struggle is simplistic: the class struggle is a struggle of two antagonistic classes of people, contradicting his exposition in the previous chapter of the possibility of “capitalism without a bourgeoisie”, which rests implicitly on the assumption that the proletarian struggle is fundamentally with capital (an inhuman force) rather than with the bourgeoisie as such. (Consistency doesn’t seem to be much of a concern in his writing.)

It’s also worth noting that neither analysis precludes revolutionary organisations from struggling on issues of gender, race, sexuality etc. – indeed Paul goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of such activity in his piece. Nonetheless, I have three responses to exceptionalist position:

  1. Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.
  2. The class-struggle is not the same from all social locations, and therefore something like intersectionality is necessary to allow a deeper theorisation of class.
  3. Even if (1) and (2) do not hold, there are pragmatic reasons to adopt an intersectional mode of analysis.

1. Theorising gender & race: beyond identity

As Richard Seymour points out “the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution” and it’s usefulness “depends entirely on the wider theoretical articulations that the concept is embedded in”. Liberal proponents of intersectionality often make precisely the error of reducing class to classism and poverty, which can then be recited as part of a list of “isms” – bad or discriminatory ideas – which we must combat. (One of the frustrating things about Patricia Hill Collins’ recent lecture in Dublin was that she did this repeatedly.) This liberal reduction of class to classism functions to strip class of its transformative potential, confines class politics to the realm of state policy and cultural values, and reinforces the privileged role of academics in developing state policy to mediate social conflict (liberal capitalism doesn’t, for the most part, function by brute domination: amelioration of the conditions of the lower classes is permitted to a certain degree and many supposedly dissident academics feed into this) – pace whatever discourse of “social justice” it is articulated within.

My contention here is that, just as it is reductive and depoliticising to consider class struggle and classism to be identical, it is equally so to see in gender and race only identities (whether essential or socially-constructed), to fail to theorise gender and race as social relations pertaining to systems of social organisation, exploitation and domination, to see both merely in terms of “mutually defining poles of subjectification” as if both were free-floating artifices with no objective component, or to limit the horizons of these struggles to the “full recognition of the other” rather than “wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function”. I will sketch the argument here that gender constitutes a system in its own right that is neither reducible to identity, nor entirely contained within nor isomorphic to class. A similar claim can be made in the case of race, although I don’t feel I am able to do the argument justice at this point (I haven’t learned enough).

Regarding Zizek’s implicit claim that there are two sexes which might one day come to fully recognise one-another, I have three responses. First, as Judith Butler argues, there is no “sex” that is not a product of social construction – that is, a result of a socially-constructed categorisation of bodies according to their perceived (or socially-assigned) function. Neither is there a meaningful distinction between sex and gender, whereby some deterministic process “inscribes gender meanings on anatomically differentiated bodies” that does not ultimately reduce to “the biology-is-destiny formulation.” (Gender Trouble, p.8) Second, as Monique Wittig argues, “sex” as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. “It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.” (The Category of Sex) Third, even if we attempt to reduce sex to some politically-neutral observation about bodies, as Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, bodies themselves are at least in part materially socially-constructed by disciplinary mechanisms. Thus it is meaningless to talk of what sex or gender would look like after the success of feminism. (I give a slightly more detailed argument on this here.)

The above argument already hints at my main point: there is something deeper going on here than just “identity politics”. In fact, what we are looking at is what Foucault termed “biopolitics” – the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings by political powers –  and in particular, the social organisation of sex as a key concern of biopolitics. In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ Catherine McKinnon lays out the argument:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

Understood in this way, it is clear that while identity is an aspect of the gender system – perhaps the most obvious aspect, or the aspect most immediate to one’s experience – it is not the whole picture. Gender identity is in fact constructed according to one’s role in an economy of sex in which the sexuality of one sex is expropriated. While clearly the logic of the political space is not identical to that of class, the condition of women’s liberation is clearly not the mutual recognition of each gender’s social role but the annihilation of the socio-political role and function of men and women. (I think it is important to point out here that just as the bourgeoisie are constructed by capitalism, men are constructed by patriarchy, and neither are necessarily conscious of their role as dominants and exploiters. I think it is incorrect to conceive, as some radical feminists do, of patriarchy as being the conscious construction of men as a class. Rather, it is an inhuman system which produces men and women in antagonistic relations to one another.)

2. Class struggle? Whose class struggle?

One of the key insights of intersectional theory is that in any resistant politics, questions of race, gender, class etc. are always-already posed. The totality of social relations is composed of interlocking, mutually constructing and supporting systems of oppression, which combine to produce any particular experience of the social world. It is therefore impossible to develop a generic class politics, separated from any analysis of race or gender, which holds in all social locations: the class struggle simply isn’t the same, in either its subjective or objective dimensions for all observers.

When we conceptualise The Worker as an ideal type around which to build a theory we already have somebody in mind. Even if, like a more radical Rawls, we attempt to produce a “veil of ignorance” in our heads behind which is a disembodied, genderless, raceless, abstract proletarian and attempt to imagine the class struggle from their perspective, we find ourselves in a web from which we cannot untangle ourselves. Gender and race are so embedded in our thought and language that they cannot be overcome: they are preconditions for legible humanity. Our Worker is always-already inflected with racial and gendered meanings whether we are conscious of them or not: if he is not a woman he is by default a man; if he is not of some particular race he is by default white. The dominant category is understood as universal, the subordinate as particular; the post-gender, post-race subject is beyond the limits of our imagination at this moment in history.

This is not merely a problem of imagination, however. The unity of interests presupposed and embodied by the idealised Worker is a false unity established through the occlusion of real antagonisms within the class. To take a concrete example, both the racialised undocumented migrant worker and the white unionised worker are both basically of the same class, but experience a very different class struggle. Moreover, there are real antagonisms between both; the power of the union which protects the white worker may well be undercut by bosses exploiting undocumented migrant labour, while the racialised migrant may well be excluded from the same union. The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides ignores the reality that the immediate goals of one are not the same as the other, and may in fact contradict. Which set of interests are most likely to win the race to become those of the generic worker?

Intersectional theory tells us that any movement of workers must learn to act with those contradictions intact, without domesticating either (by, for example, adopting an on-paper opposition to racism, while in practice focusing on the struggles of more privileged groups of workers), or it will continue to reproduce various forms of marginalisation in the name of unity.

3. Discourses and their effects

In Society Must be Defended, Foucault asks the following questions of Marxist proponents of “scientific socialism”:

What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.’ What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?

By analogy, we should ask whose interests, experiences and politics can more readily be spoken through the discourse of class struggle? What precisely are the power-effects of refusing intersectionality and insisting on class exceptionalism?

Moreover, if the discourse of class centricity can adequately accommodate the political demands of feminists, queers, people of colour etc., then adopting an intersectional position offers no threat. If it can’t, then why bother defending it? Does the theoretical project of proving that class is special move us closer to the eradication of relations of domination and exploitation? If not, what good is it? The empirical fact of the continued marginalisation of these groups within even the most progressive of anti-capitalist movements speaks to the need for something like intersectionalism, in the sense of adopting a conscious practice of analysing class always alongside race and gender, even if we can do without it in theory.