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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

This is an essay I wrote for my Critical Theory class. We had to respond to a passage from Marcuse (below). It’s a bit hurried towards the end and a bit messy in its organisation, but I’m generally fairly happy with the argument I make here. The extract:

6. The Happy Consciousness – the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods – reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behaviour. It is new because it is rational to an unprecedented degree. It sustains a society which has reduced – and in its most advanced areas eliminated – the more primitive irrationality of the preceding stages, which prolongs and improves life more regularly than before. The war of annihilation has not yet occurred; the Nazi extermination camps have been abolished. The Happy Consciousness repels the connection. Torture has been reintroduced as a normal affair, but in a colonial war which takes place at the margins of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war. And this war, too, is at the margins – it ravages only the “underdeveloped” countries. Otherwise peace reigns. (p. 84)

Who is the Marcuse of One Dimensional Man? That is: who is the subject that can pose, as critique of society, the proposition that society now forecloses all possibility of radical critique? It is my contention that this Marcuse is impossible: that one cannot coherently speak from the subject-position Marcuse claims for himself; that the mere fact of posing such a critique performatively contradicts its substance. (Or, at the very least, to claim such a position contradicts the materialist presuppositions of Marcuse’s critique, and instead takes us into the magical-idealist realms of a Great Man theory of philosophical knowledge.) And yet, in a certain sense, leaving historical details aside, Marcuse’s account of the closure of discourse, of thought, seems strangely apposite to the post-industrial, post-crisis, neoliberal context in which we read him today. Today “[i]t’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (Fisher, 2009, p.1). Our time is characterised by the seeming impossibility of conceiving of an alternative to the world of capital and by “the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen” (Ibid., p.3) to which only a pathological consumerist indulgence – a “depressive hedonia” (Ibid., p.21) – appears as a possible response. Today, it would seem that the total identification of the real, the rational, the good and the possible identified by Marcuse (2002, pp.87-8) or, somewhat equivalently, the domination of the social by an unquestionable spectacular reality in which “[w]hat appears is good [and] what is good appears” (Debord, 2004, pp.9-10) is more complete than ever. If Marcuse is on unstable epistemological ground, it appears he is nonetheless capable of expressing a truth. We are left with the question: how can one lament the disappearance of a possibility of which one holds oneself to be incapable of conceiving? How can one desire an escape from that which sets the very limits of the desirable? This, I claim, is the paradox of Marcuse’s Happy Consciousness, which will serve as the central problematic of this essay. My contention is that Marcuse offers a unitary conception of the fetisished forms of late-capitalist social relations, which fails to grasp the fundamentally unstable and contradictory mode of existence of these forms, leaving Marcuse trapped in the pessimism of the world of surface appearances, and that the resolution of this paradox is to be found in the apprehension of the dual character of these fetish forms.

For Marcuse, the transition to the consumerist phase of capitalism has brought about a great enclosure of thought and a massive expansion and development of the forms of administration and control – what he calls the “administered society” (2002, p.243) – and with it, the recession of the possibility of the revolutionary transformation of society. Capital has achieved what he calls “the conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness” or “repressive desublimation” (Ibid., p.59), that is to say, capital has effectively abolished the ability of culture to express an authentic protest against or critique of existing society by “the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality.” (Ibid, p.60) Capital no longer operates primarily through repression, but rather has incorporated desire into the process of accumulation by offering the fulfillment of human needs that it simultaneously produces. (Ibid., p.78) As a result, culture is no longer capable of articulating a need that capital cannot meet, so even apparent rebellions are recuperated into the univocal valourisation (in both senses) of the existing society: “reality surpasses its culture. Man today can do more than the culture heros and half-gods; he has solved many insoluble problems.” (Ibid., p.60) The gap between cultural and social reality, which in previous stages of development was a source of antagonism, collapses to a single dimension, and in the process destroys the dimension of alienation in art. (Ibid., p.73) Language too is impoverished, robbed of its immanent spaces and tensions, and therefore left unable to differentiate between “reason and fact, truth and established truth, essence and existence, the thing and its function”. (Ibid., p.89) The result is “The Happy Consciousness — the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods” (Ibid, p.87) – a new conformist subjectivity that is unable to conceive of its own alienation. Put simply: the proletarian subject, seduced by material abundance, is now trapped in the recuperative circuit of her own desire, robbing her of the possibility of developing a critical political subjectivity.

As a hermeneutical point, it may be useful here to reflect on emphasis Marcuse places on vertical relations throughout his elucidation of this thesis. For Marcuse, it was precisely the transcendent elements in higher culture (Ibid., p.60) which in previous phases of development gave art its revolutionary significance. Moreover, critical theory too, for Marcuse, must aim at adopting a relation of transcendence vis a vis social reality, albeit of a “rigorously historical” rather than “metaphysical” character. (Ibid., pp.xli-ii) This, to me, is indicative of a continuity with classical Marxism in thinking about class consciousness – e.g. Lenin’s claim that the proletariat is on its own capable only of a trade union consciousness and requires the Party to bring it to a revolutionary consciousness (Lenin, 1902), Lukacs claim that the Party is required to disclose the “appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ to a particular class situation” to a proletariat trapped in the world of reification (Lukacs, 1972, p.51) – that is, the proletariat is constructed as an external object by the theorist (who is somehow able to stand above society and apprehend objectively its relations) and it is deduced, in one way or another that it is incapable of achieving the correct form of consciousness, which therefore requires correct class consciousness to drop as a blessing from above (albeit, in this case, it is the artist or philosopher rather than the Party which takes the role of transcendent agent). Marcuse fails to grasp that the revolutionary discovery of the Enlightenment was precisely that of the “plane of immanence”, which placed the question of the direction of human society squarely in the hands of the multitude, to which dominant classes opposed a transcendental apparatus of capture. (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.70-83) What would it mean for Marcuse’s critical theory to take seriously the revolutionary potential of immanence and to conceive of the political subjectivity of the multitude not in terms of a vertical relationship between theory and practice (or rather, theorists and practicers), but rhizomatically, that is, in terms of connective, communicative, and immanent relations between a non-ordered multiplicity of heterogeneous singularities that form a collective assemblage? (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, pp.5-8) We will return to this question.

Additionally, Marcuse inherits from Freud a problematically essentialist theory of desire which underpins his historical thesis. In his History of Sexuality: Volume 1, Foucault (1990) offers a devastating critique of the “repressive hypothesis”, which holds that previous historical periods were characterised by an overall repression of sexual desire, from which we are now beginning to emerge. Rather, Foucault demonstrates how sexuality has in different periods been actively produced through the incitement to discourse (from the confessional, to sexology, to psychoanalysis) and through the effects of disciplinary power which involved “refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification”. (p.11) If we admit this discovery, it renders impossible any distinction between one’s “true” desire and that which is constructed by consumer capitalism – desire can only be understood as a contingent social product of a particular historical conjuncture. “Need”, which has a somewhat ambiguous relation to desire in Marcuse, must also be understood as a properly historical product. The “manipulation of needs by vested interests” (Marcuse, 2002, p.5) is not a peculiar feature of late capitalism, but is in fact precisely what occurred in the “deterritorialization of the socius” that enabled the encounter of “decoded flows of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flows of labor in the form of the the ‘free worker’” which birthed the capitalist mode of production. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p.33). Simply: in order to “destroy the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle” (Fedirici, 2004, p.11), a process of violent dispossession was unleashed by the ruling class, producing particular relations of need (essentially, workers with no means of support other than to sell their labour) which produced the conditions for the ascendance of the bourgeois class and of the capitalist mode of production. The above problematises the historical rupture detected by Marcuse: if the relations of “need” and “desire” were always already contingent on the development of class struggle then this cannot be a new innovation of capitalist domination particular to late-capitalism. Since its inception, capital has manipulated need and desire to diffuse class struggle and to ensure the continuation of the accumulation of capital. If this is the case, to source the impetus for revolutionary struggle in the supposed “authenticity” of pre-social need is wholly ahistorical. The question then presents itself: whence the impetus for class struggle?

It is crucial to understand the fundamentally contradictory and unstable nature of capitalist social relations. What may appear as a unitary edifice of domination is founded on an ontological division which capital is necessarily unable to resolve. Capital is the product of the fracturing of the social flow of labour, which is necessarily also the fracturing of the subject (Holloway, 2010, pp.28-31), the becoming-alien of a portion of our subjectivity that becomes objectified as a commodity (it is of no significance here whether the commodity is a material or immaterial product of social production). The constituted forms of capitalist social relations, including fetishised forms of thought, therefore, are never merely established facts, but are dependent on the continuous reproduction of this division, the continued reiteration of a subjective violence. (Ibid., pp.88-91; Holloway, 2011) What Marcuse presents, therefore, is only one face of a duality: the apparatus of reterritorialisation that reincorporates our lines of flight into the logic of capitalism, but not the movements of deterritorialisation that challenge and disrupt the prevailing codes, which characterises the schizophrenic dynamic of struggle in capitalist society. (Guattari, 2009, p.52) It is hardly surprising that for Marcuse “[t]he critical theory of society… remains negative” (Marcuse, 2002, p.261) when it is predicated on a monist ontology that sees only the uninterrupted history of domination that progressively entraps the subject, but not the agency of the subject that pushes back against its cage – the occlusion of the “transcendental” representation of alienation in culture, but not the immanent division of the social and the subject itself that renders the spectacular “pseudo-justification for a counterfeit life” (Debord, 2004 ,p.23) always minimally unsatisfying. It is not the didactic pedagogy of art or philosophy that in the end pushes us into antagonistic relations to capital, but the frustration of our own potencies and desires which capital cannot avoid, which is then, perhaps, represented or communicated through art or philosophy.

Reading Marcuse in the light of the conditions of contemporary capitalism, it is clear that Marcuse’s pessimism suits the dominant affective composition of society, and the paradox of Marcuse’s critique is also that of much contemporary critical theory. In the age of real subsumption and the social factory we live in greater intimacy than ever with capital, and its destructive and constrictive impact on our consciousness is certainly similar to that described so vividly by Marcuse. But paradoxically, this situation also increases the potential for liberation (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.43-44), as the colonisation of social life means that resistances that were once marginal now strike at the omnipresent centre. (Ibid., p.26) “[I]f the capital relation is now reproduced everywhere, then capital is contested everywhere” albeit in “low intensity conflicts” rather than dramatic confrontations. (Free Association, 2001) In assessing Marcuse, then, one might say that Marcuse has only interpreted the conditions of late-capitalist ideology, but the point is to disrupt them.

Bibliography

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