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Originally published in Irish Anarchist Review #9

Extermination or communism is the choice – but this communism must be more than just the sharing of wealth (who wants all this shit?) – it must inaugurate a whole new way of working together. Felix Guattari & Toni Negrii

As I sat down to begin writing this piece, an article appeared in the Guardian titled ‘Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?’ii, whose central claim was that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution”. What was striking, to me, about this article was that it contained absolutely nothing new. Prophesies of impending disaster – not just climatic, but ecological, economic and social too – are common currency in contemporary society, and for most practical purposes vary only in the rhetorical intensity with which they restate the same basic truth. Everyone knows, at least in impressionistic terms, what is happening, and what is at stake: things simply can’t continue as they are if human civilisation is to survive, and what’s more this is no longer a question of securing a future for our grandchildren – it’s us, my generation, human beings that currently live on this planet, who are imminently faced with the disappearance of the necessary conditions for our existence.

Within 30 seconds, I had already clicked to another tab, and was scrolling through a Buzzfeed list of funny cat pictures. This is the absurdity of our condition: never in history has a civilisation been aware, in such detail and with such certainty, of the imminence of its own demise, and yet the dominant cultural concern of our society, around which our intellectual and technological capabilities are organised, seems to be the production, transmission and refinement of banal clickbait, the perfection of the meme as the ideal unit of contentless communication in a political economy of commodified mass distraction. Increasingly, the political and cultural forms that might allow us to grapple collectively with such crucial questions simply don’t exist. Never before have human beings had such a capacity to communicate collectively on the major questions that face us, and yet it seems we have nothing to say to one another on what is surely the central problem of our time: how to ensure not just the survival but the flourishing of the human species; how to transform a form of social organisation that is bent on self-destruction to make the Earth livable and life on Earth worth living.

What would it mean, collectively and politically, to face up to these questions? How do we come to terms with the traumatic knowledge of our own contingency, and transform this knowledge into a basis for empowerment? How do we confront the terror of ecological catastrophe, comprehending fully its implications, and yet meet it with defiance and hope? What are the conditions of possibility for such a collective encounter, and what can we do to bring them about? These are, clearly, enormous questions, to which I can only offer the flimsiest sketch of an answer. My more modest ambition for this piece is simply to pose the right set of questions, to argue for an understanding of what is at stake that refocuses the classic anarchist question “how do we create together a world that we would want to live in?” with a new emphasis and urgency. I will begin by interrogating some of the dominant mainstream and leftist political responses to the ecological crisis, against which I will then attempt to sketch a positive and radical (in the sense of grasping the root) political understanding of the issue.

Theosophies of catastrophe

The failure of culture to adequately deal with the problem of ecological catastrophe is hardly surprising, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, all of the main social, economic and political powers are directly dependent on the destructive processes of capitalist production to sustain their position, and are therefore highly invested in the promotion of all sorts of mystifications and non-solutions, which preserve the structure in the immediate term, even at the expense of human survival. The traumatic nature of the knowledge we are now confronted with also inevitably leads to displacements and sublimations as a means of self-defence: the problem is warded off by reformulating it in a more comfortable mode, thereby reducing anxiety. Moreover, ecological catastrophe is what Timothy Morton refers to as a “hyperobject”, that is, something so “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” that it confounds our regular ways of knowing and thinking about objects,iii forcing us to construct new and uncertain ways of thinking the world we now inhabit. It is due to the interplay of these factors, I suggest, that most individual and collective political responses to the ecological crisis have tended to revert to essentially religious modes of thought:iv

Faith – Numerous faith-based responses to the prospect of ecological catastrophe proliferate in contemporary culture. New Atheist scientism, transhumanism, green capitalism, the neoliberal cult of entrepreneurialism, and the like, all essentially produce the same response: scientific and technological innovation, coupled with the appropriate tweaks to market incentive structures, will somehow manage to save us just in the nick of time. The problem is thus effectively displaced onto the big Other, and our role is simply to trust in the institutions of capitalist society to deliver us from danger, or, perhaps, to mobilise to put pressure on these institutions to produce the correct set of reforms and innovations, without challenging the underlying social relations. In this understanding, technological development is intrinsically liberatory, the issue is simply that of reaching the appropriate level of technological development and of deriving the appropriate policy programme to utilise it. Of course, the fatal flaw of this way of thinking is that there is no intrinsic link between technological development and liberation. Technology is a social product: new technologies do not exist in an as-yet-unrealised form waiting to be discovered, they must be produced by a creative activity that is embedded in a set of social relations that determine its form and purpose. Moreover, technologies do not by themselves determine their use: that too depends on the kind of society that utilises them (in our case, a capitalist society whose orienting principle is the accumulation of capital). For example, the development of renewable energy technologies has not determined a shift away from the burning of fossil fuels: by all accounts, capitalist society seems determined to exploit fossil fuel sources to the point of exhaustion (with well-known consequences) as the current global push for the use of fracking technology surely demonstrates – renewables instead function alongside fossil fuels, allowing for greater expansion of economic activity. In other words, technological development cannot offer hope so long as society is organised according to a logic that ensures the willful destruction of nature: the subordination all life on Earth to the profit motive.

Anti-capitalist versions of this technological utopianism exist too, however, and are equally faith-based in their insistence on posing the problem of ecology as essentially a scientific/technological rather than a political problem. Perhaps the most lucid and exciting elaboration of this point of view in recent times is the #ACCELERATE Manifesto,v whose hypothesis, as summed up by Toni Negri, is 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”vi in order to produce “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate”.vii The most telling aspect of the manifesto is that the authors raise at the very beginning the problem of climactic breakdown, only to immediately push it aside in order to talk about technology, without even the most meagre attempt to hint at a solution. Clearly we are meant to conclude that this problem can be safely subsumed into that of liberating the technological potential blocked by capitalism, that the resolution of all existential threats to civilisation is simply the inevitable side effect of doggedly pursuing the technological promise that capitalism is incapable of delivering on. But is this the case? It would seem that the manifesto’s argument is underpinned by the same old teleological fallacy that Marx inherited from Hegel: that of the progressive movement of history towards ever greater liberation through the development of the productive forces – a relic of a time when the endless development of material production could be stated unproblematically as a goal because the Earth was still for all practical purposes infinite. The society we live in today, on the other hand, is one threatened with annihilation by the determinate limits of humanity’s domination of nature – a society that has a future only if it can find a way to break with the tendency towards the endless expansion of the world of things, and to subordinate the productive forces to a qualitatively different conception of the good. In the end, accelerationism is simply the mirror image of capitalist ideology’s veneration of technological innovation as good in itself.

Sacrifice – One of the major projects of neoliberal capitalism has been the progressive weakening of social ties, to produce increasingly isolated and atomised individuals, and with it, the demise of collective political agency. How does such an isolated individual respond to an existential threat that is so much larger than her? One of the oldest forms of religious practice arises out of precisely this problem: how does one gain control over that against which one is utterly powerless? The answer is: one performs gestures of sacrifice, ostensibly aimed at controlling the uncontrollable forces, but which in fact operate only to relieve one’s anxiety. Recycling, organic food, ethical consumerism, dietary veganism, reducing one’s carbon footprint, and, at the extreme, dropping out of society to live in closer harmony with nature: surely these are our modern day sacrificial tokens, our futile attempts to live wrong life rightly. We know, deep down at least, that these are utterly insufficient, that capitalism simply marches on regardless – indeed incorporates our gestures into the logic of accumulation by extracting extra profit from supposedly ethical consumption – that there is no plausible causal relationship between the acts we perform and the ends we imagine them to be producing, and yet we convince ourselves that by the sheer force of our will and our ethical rightness that we are achieving something, or, at least, that when civilisation finally tips over the brink that we are not the ones to blame (some comfort). The truth is that there are no individual solutions: we either find a way to intervene collectively and decisively to break with the present social order, or we are reduced to mere tokenism.

Oneness with nature, the non-hippy version

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 Marxviii

[W]e make no distinction between man [sic] and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man. Not man as the king of creation , but rather as the being who is in intimate contact with the profound life of all forms or all types of beings… the eternal custodian of the machines of the universe.” Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattariix

Environmentalism: the question is posed wrong from the beginning. There is no external object called “the environment” to which another object called “society” must relate. The question of the environmental crisis cannot be posed separately from that of society, as if it were some alien entity attacking us from the outside. At every point in history, human society is that which we have forged from the transformation of nature, and nature is that on which we depend for our continued existence; nature is part of human society and human society is part of nature. We exist in a state of profound interdependence with all forms of life – a condition we are unable to transcend, but merely develop in one direction or another. Our relations to one-another are predicated on particular relations to nature. The waged labour relation that is fundamental to capitalism required our estrangement from nature: the violent dispossession and expulsion of peasants from the land, and the enclosure of nature, its constitution as an object to be dominated and exploited was the founding event of capitalist society, a process intimately linked with the suppression and enclosure of women.x

Traditionally, environmentalists have tended to pose the question of how to prevent catastrophe as separate from questions of how humans are to relate to each other. This has tended to mean that environmentalism has confronted us as a rather bleak, desperate and negative discourse:

‘We must act today to save tomorrow’ is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already! Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism.”xi

Indeed, this framing, due to its artificial restriction of the problem to be considered, has often tended to produce a push towards economism and away from the consideration of the intersecting forms of exploitation and domination that produce our social reality, towards compromise with authoritarian forms of organisation, and towards a joyless and debilitating seriousness in the name of urgency. Viewed this way, it seems obvious that all sorts of compromises must be made with systems of domination in order that decisive action be taken to “save the planet”.

The problem is, the question is posed entirely backwards. We cannot think of taking decisive action against the destruction of nature separately from the transformation of the social relations that both arise from and reproduce the domination of nature by humans. The question rather is: what form of society is consistent with the desire to live not merely from nature, but in and with nature? What kinds of subjectivities and forms of social organisation allow us to live not as exploiters of the natural world, nor under the exploitation of others? What desires and potentials exist in our current world that could form the beginnings of such a world? Clearly, we must have done with the negative environmentalisms that operate on guilt and fear, and that offer nothing but the postponement of death. We must have done also with all the false consolations of magical thinking that keep us invested in a political system that can only fail us. Clearly, what we need is an anti-capitalism, but it cannot be one that simply takes over production and runs it more democratically. (In any case what system could outmatch modern capitalism in the production of endless junk?) What we need, instead, is an environmentalism that can begin to articulate the creation of a world that is actively desirable, a world where we are freed from pointless toil by the reorientation of the values and purpose driving production and by the judicious use of technology, a world vastly enriched in its cultural life and its possibilities for pleasure because we no longer spend all our time at work or recovering from work, a world in which difference is not longer transformed into antagonism by apparatuses of violence and domination, a world in which nature is neither to be feared nor dominated but experienced. In short: a world in which humanity will finally become possible.


i Félix Guattari & Toni Negri, Communists Like Us, p.13

ii Nafeez Ahmed, “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”, The Guardian, 14 March 2014. The study itself seems to be based on somewhat dubious Malthusian reasoning, but my interest in it is primarily as a cultural element rather than as a scientific work. See Ian Angus, ‘What did that ‘NASA-funded collapse study’ really say?’ http://climateandcapitalism.com/2014/03/31/nasa-collapse-study/

iii Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.

iv I have ignored climate change deniers and the like here, as everyone should.

v Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #ACCELERATE: Manifesto for an accelerationist politics, http://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf

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

vii Williams & Srnicek, op. cit.

viii Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

ix Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.4-5

x See Silvia Fedirici, Caliban and the Witch.

xi Out of the Woods, Goodbye to the Future, http://libcom.org/blog/goodbye-future-24022014

Youth culture is constantly constructed as an object of contemplation and interpretation. There is a certain kind of journalist for whom youth culture provides a wellspring of material to be broken apart, reassembled, framed and offered up as a kind of diagnostic of the condition of society, always for a particular audience. This production of “knowledge” is always an exercise of power: youth are spoken about, interpreted, fretted over, represented, but rarely if ever included in the production of the discourse about them.

For the Right – the tabloids and the stuffier broadsheets – the archetypal narrative form is the moral panic. Youth appears always as the crisis of a liberal society gone too far: a destructive whirlwind of jouissance tearing apart all that remains orderly and good. Of course, the “youth media” – that is media produced by businesses and marketed at youth – is pretty much entirely a marketing apparatus, manipulating and producing youth cultures as revenue streams for various industries (music, fashion, etc.). In these cases, the operation of power is more or less transparent (at least, if viewed from sufficient distance).

But there is a certain type of left/liberal writing about youth culture – by trendy twenty-something journalists, for trendy twenty-somethings, both mutually invested in sustaining the delusion that they’re still part of the adolescent avant-garde – where the operations of power/knowledge are all the more insidious precisely because they represent themselves as sympathetic, and as occupying an “our man in the Orient” position simultaneously within and outside the culture they report on.*

* My own speaking-position on this subject is somewhat suspect also, as a 23-year-old who has never been in any way cool, and who mostly sits in his flat eating ready-meals and arguing about political theory on facebook.

A common feature of this kind of writing is a peculiar kind of historicism around the appearance of youth subcultures and countercultures. At every moment of history, Youth is expected to embody a spirit of rebellion against society, which I am calling the Punkgeist. The Punkgeist is the essence and historical mission of Youth: rebellion against the aesthetic/cultural establishment, the liberation of desire through the construction of a countercultural avante garde and new oppositional collective identities. Rock, punk, goth, rave, et al, are to be understood as particular manifestations of this eternal essence of Youth, which proceeds through a dialectical process: each generation produces its own countercultural forms, which over time are incorporated into the mainstream, becoming stale, clichéd, boring, repressive, only to be overturned by the aesthetic radicalism of the next generation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – Hegel reborn as a music journalist.

The puzzle then for those who assemble nostalgic misrepresentations of the youth movements of the past into a dialectic of history is why are the youth of today so docile, conservative, apolitical? Why are their trends not as cool and important as those that came before? This is the question that NekNominations (basically a viral drinking game) posed to one Vice writer, prompting him to write an article titled ‘NekNominations are what this generation has instead of punk or rave’.

The thesis put forward by the article is essentially this: the youth of today exist in a world where a technologically-enabled individuated eclecticism has replaced counterculture, and every rebellion is monetised and reincorporated into capitalism before it can even begin. But “there’s no way to monetise drinking a pint full of grasshoppers or getting your mates to pepper spray you in the face. They remain one of the last things in our society that are essentially unmarketable. Very few brands are going to encourage you to drink engine oil any time soon – they don’t want a shout out at your funeral, they want your money. NekNominate doesn’t, and it remains nihilistically enticing for that.”  The old is dying and the new cannot be born, so all that is left to teenagers is to drink, vomit and post the results on facebook.

I didn’t know quite what to make of the piece at first (hence why I’ve ended up writing a whole long thing about it). On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Capitalist Realismesque argument: culture is dead, authentic innovation and rebellion within art is now impossible, and all that remains is a depressive hedonism. (Although Adorno said much the same, and then the 60s happened.) But on the other hand, there’s something that feels really forced about the politicisation/intellectualisation of what seems to be a wholly apolitical and anti-intellectual gesture: the imposition of an interpretive framework that at the same moment patronises and gives far too much credit. “You might think you’re downing a pint of cider,” it seems to say, “but I know it’s really a desperate and nihilistic rebellion against postindustrial capitalism.” In any case, drinking games weren’t invented by teenagers in 2014, so I’m not sure why this one needs a special explanation, just because it happened virally on the Internet. (Seriously have none of the people writing the acres of columns on this topic ever necked a pint in their lives?)

Perhaps the problem is this: the Punkgeist doesn’t exist. Perhaps rebellion is not the telos of youth. Perhaps there was always far more involved in counterculture than just teenage hormones. Perhaps punk was not just a generation acting out because they were young, but a far more conscious and political project, and perhaps this generation hasn’t come up with the new punk because punk was a deliberate intervention in particular historical circumstances that no longer exist. In any case, the pop-Hegelianism of the common-currency Punkgeist explanation for countercultural movements has tended to strip away everything authentically dangerous about them, reframing them as purely aesthetic rebellions, and as merely epiphenomena of the maturation of a generation: something to talk about at dinner parties (or in newspaper columns) when you inevitably grow up and get a proper job.

And maybe NekNomination is just a drinking game, not the spirit of punk returning in pathological form.

For one of my sociology classes I had to read, and write about, Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’This is the essay I wrote. Due to the constraints of writing to the course subject-matter, it’s not exactly what I would produce if I was writing for this blog. For one thing, the analysis is economistic, not particularly intersectional, and somewhat constrained to sociological problematics, rather than being specifically written with social transformation in mind. It also, due to the pressure of writing to a deadline, doesn’t cohere quite as well as I would like. In particular, the section on reification feels tacked-on and underdeveloped.

‘The  Eighteenth Brumaire’, in my opinion, exhibits some of the worst of Marx – class essentialism, economic determinism, the fetishisation of the urban proletariat – and demonstrates why an exegetical reading of Marx leads to an impoverished analysis of the world. No doubt some will feel that my reading of Marx is uncharitable, or perhaps insufficiently dialectical, but I think it is true to the text, which feels to me like a rather awkward and difficult attempt at analysing a real historical event, in which real human subjectivities were at play.

Behind every political force lies a coalition of class interests.” Discuss with reference to Marx’s conception of the links between social class and political struggle as presented in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

The concept of class is undoubtedly central to Marx’s analyses of history, social change and political economy. At the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, Marx tell us that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. (Marx, 2008, p.33) In this formulation, the juxtaposition of the word “struggles” with “class” is key: Marx’s conception of class is explicitly political and indissociable from real-world political struggles. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx applies his analysis of class struggle, and his methodology of dialectical and historical materialism, to the French coup d’etat of 1851 in which the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon, assumed dictatorial powers, demonstrating “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” (Marx, 1994, p.8)

This essay, taking The Eighteenth Brumaire as a point of departure, offers a critical account of Marx’s conception of the relationship between class and political struggle from a broadly Marxist perspective. I will begin by attempting to define what is meant by class, in the course of which I will question a particularly problematic concept in Marx’s writing and in The Eighteenth Brumaire specifically – that of the “lumpenproletariat”. Next, I will discuss the relationship of class to political subjectivity, through discussions on the validity of Marx’s base-superstructure model, and on the phenomenon of reification and its relationship to class consciousness.

The word “class” has, broadly speaking, two distinct meanings. The first sense is the taxonomical sense of the term: class as a system of categorisation of individuals on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, most likely distributive, whose problematic is social stratification. The taxonomical approach to class analysis is primarily concerned with discovering which classes exist in society, and only secondarily, if at all, with the relations between them. (Therborn, 1983, pp.161-7) The second sense see class as relational. This view of class is perhaps best summarised by E.P. Thompson:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens… in human relationships… [W]e cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other… [C]lass happens when some… as a result of common experiences… feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other[s] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. (Thompson, 1966, p.9)

Moreover, this relational view of class necessarily is also a dynamic one. “If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences.” (Ibid., p.11) In the taxonomical view, class becomes an object, a thing-in-itself, an identity category, from which necessarily follows the question of who belongs to which class and how do we decide? The latter view requires that we see class as embodied in processes in which we participate which produce our relations to ourselves, to the means of production and to one-another. Thus, “[c]lass struggle does not take place within the constituted forms of capitalist social relations: rather the constitution of those forms is itself class struggle.” (Holloway, 2011) It is precisely the centrality of these elements of time, movement and struggle which gives the relational conception of class its critical force.

It is tempting to identify the taxonomical approach with functionalists and positivists, and the relational with Marxism, as Therborn (1983, pp.162-3) does, but in reality Marx’s own writings often equivocate between the two. This is particularly true of The Eighteenth Brumaire, where classes appear here and there as discrete definite objects with fixed and determinate relations to particular material situations. To give one example, in describing the June Insurrection, Marx tells us:

On [the side of the bourgeois republic] stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpenproletariat organized as the Mobile Guard, the intellectual lights, the clergy and the rural population. On the side of the Paris proletariat stood none but itself. (Marx, 1994, p.23)

This account is almost laughable in its contraposition of an absurdly heterogeneous rag-bag of sub-classes on one side to the singular unity of the proletariat on the other. One cannot help but sense that Marx’s schema of classes here is motivated at least in part by the theoretical necessity that the proletariat is necessarily and uniquely the revolutionary force in any given political conflict, particularly given the rather protean role the figure of the “lumpenproletariat” plays at various locations in Marx’s oeuvre, allowing Marx to “explain away parts of the proletariat which failed to behave in a proper revolutionary fashion” (Cowling, 2002, p.230) and thus to “[fit] events to theory” (Hayes, 1988, p.448), while at the same time privileging certain forms of resistance to capital as properly revolutionary, and positioning others, such as the refusal of work, as merely lumpenproletarian, and thus external to the dialectical conflict between classes. (Denning, 2010)

While we thus have cause to question Marx’s particular taxonomy of classes, nevertheless, class antagonisms are clearly operative in situations of political conflict such as the coup of 1851. To argue otherwise would require either the endorsement of a hard separation between the spheres of political and economic conflict, or the outright denial of the reality of class struggle. We therefore encounter the problem of understanding the relationship between class and political subjectivity. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx tells us that:

Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity… And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves, from their reality. (Ibid, p.47)

Two important points should be noted here. First, Marx does not imagine that all political actors self-consciously pursue their own naked class interests; rather, class interests are embedded in ideological formations, which may render the underlying class interests mysterious to the subject herself. Second, the conception of the relationship between economic relations and subjectivity here presages Marx’s formulation of his base-superstructure model in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here Marx tells us that:

[T]he economic structure of society [is] the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (Marx, 1992, p.425)

The evident economic determinism here is one of the more problematic of Marx’s claims. It would seem to suggest that, ontologically, economic relations are both in some sense separate from and prior to politics, culture and subjectivity. Moreover, there is, from the perspective of Marx’s methodological materialism a problematic conflation of the material with the economic, and a concomitant denial of the materiality of culture. However, in reality, no such distinctions can be made. Economic production is dependent on the existence of appropriate forms of culture and modes of subjectification as much as cultural forms are possible only in conjunction with economic production, and indeed the two are inseparably bound together in the activity of production itself. The appearance of the economic and the cultural as separate spheres is an effect of an operation of abstraction specific to capitalist production. (Butler, 1997 , pp.42-3) Instead the economic and the cultural must be seen as two terms of a dialectical contradiction within the social totality, which is entirely material. Put another way, rather than endorse a thoroughly undialectical model of linear causation between base and superstructure, we should instead understand that particular economic forms and cultural forms constitute the conditions of one-another’s existence, and thus both codetermine one-another. (Althusser, 1963) Marx’s over-emphasis of the economic here is perhaps explained if we understand it not merely as an attempt to understand society but as a political intervention. Much of Marx’s theoretical work exists in dialogue with the idealist philosophy of the Hegelians, for whom it was consciousness itself that moved history. Moreover, Marx makes explicit that The Eighteenth Brumaire was written in part as a riposte to those such as Victor Hugo and, to a lesser extent, Proudhon whose accounts of Louis Napoleon’s coup occluded the crucial role of economic interests in events. (Marx, 1994, p.8)

The question remains as to how class relations relate to political subjectivity. While Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire is compromised by economic determinism, the basic point that political actions both take impetus from and advance particular class interests remains salient. The concept of reification – i.e. that through the alienation of the worker from their activity at the point of production, “the social form of labour appears as a form of development of capital, and hence the productive forces of social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism” (Marx, 1976, p.1054) – is crucial in understanding class-conscious. The process of reification invests fetishised forms of social relations with “a ‘phantom objectivity’… that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” (Lukacs, 1972, p.83) The world comes to appear as a fragmented world of definite and natural things (objects, identities, etc.) separated from their social origins, thus giving the world of capitalist production a natural appearance. (Holloway, 2010, pp.62-4)

For bourgeois and proletarian alike, the world appears reified. (Lukacs, 1972, p.149) However the former “feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own powerand has in it the semblanceof a human existence” (Marx & Engels, 1845) and thus there is nothing to impel the bourgeois towards the perspective of totality, which would denaturalise its class position and reveal its transience. (Holloway, 2010, p.81) Thus, the bourgeois comes to believe that “the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided” (Marx, 1994, p.50) (Marx is speaking here of the petit bourgeois, but it is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the bourgeois proper). Consequently, bourgeois political subjectivity may aim towards a vision of universal freedom, but it remains trapped within the reified world and thus within modes of thought which ensure the reproduction of the class system.

For the proletarian, however, her social existence “is far more powerfully affected by the dialectical character of the historical process”. (Lukacs, 1972, p.164) In the process of producing capital, the proletarian must transform herself into a commodity, an object, but yet navigates their own social reality as a subject, and thus encounters the central contradiction of capitalist society as an immediate aspect of her reality. (Ibid., pp.165-6) The proletarian is thus, unlike the bourgeois, driven beyond the reified world; her experience is “at once fethishising and de-fetishising”. (Holloway, 2010, p.81-2) While Thompson insists it is meaningless to talk of “the class-consciousness which [the working class] ought to have… if ‘it’ was properly aware of its own position and real interests” (Thompson, 1966, p.10), for Lukacs the immediate self-awareness of the proletarian is insufficient to produce a revolutionary subjectivity, and requires mediation, since “the unmediated [self-]consciousness of the commodity is… precisely an awareness of abstract isolation and of the merely abstract relationship – external to consciousness – to those factors that create it socially”. (Lukacs, 1972, p.173) Lukacs therefore introduces a distinction between the empirical psychological consciousness of the proletariat and the “appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’” to a particular class situation (Ibid., p.51), which therefore requires the Communist Party as a “deus ex machina” (Holloway, 2010, p.83) bearing correct class-consciousness. Holloway argues instead that no individual nor party is capable of fully transcending the reified world and fully apprehending the social totality. Rather it is the fact that proletarian consciousness may “aspire towards totality” which gives it its revolutionary potential. (Ibid., pp.83-8) I suggest it is this immanent contradiction of proletarian consciousness – the tension between fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies – together with the heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world, rather than the insufficiency of organised forms of political mediation, or the existence of the “lumpenproletariat”, which explains the contradictory roles played by sections of the proletariat in situations of political struggle.

To summarise, I have argued that Marx’s central contention – that class antagonisms underlie situations of political conflict – is essentially correct, and that moreover the class perspective is essential to a critical theory of political struggle in capitalist society. At the same time, the specific analytical framework of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, along with several other of Marx’s theoretical claims reflect specific prejudices and blindspots in Marx’s thinking, and therefore must be treated carefully rather than merely adopted at face value. In particular, it is essential to avoid an operation of reification which would reduce the antagonism of class to constituted classes, as well as an economic determinism which would reduce political subjectivity to a merely superstructural effect of economic relations, which combined would lead us to a reductive and deterministic understanding of political struggle.

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