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The use of queer as an umbrella term is not a description of an empirically or pre-discursively existing quality common to certain forms of difference, but a normative conception of how difference is to be understood: abjected forms of difference should be positively embraced not merely despite but because of the way they clash with prevailing social norms. Put another way: queer does not describe static pre-political facts about subjects who are essentially queer, but articulates difference-in-conflict with a society that seeks to dominate and constrain it.

There is no politically neutral act of naming. To name a collection of people queer is to impose a meaning on that collection of people that those people do not necessarily endorse. It is without a doubt an exercise of symbolic power. But this is equally true of any other name you might choose for anything. The term ‘gay’, for example, is not embraced by all of those for whom it is routinely used. There are plenty of men who fuck other men who do not call themselves gay, not simply because they are closeted or because of internalised homophobia, but because they do not see themselves reflected in the political, cultural and social dimensions of gay identity. Supposedly non-political merely-descriptive terms such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘men who have sex with men’, on the other hand, are often rejected precisely because they detach sexual practices from forms of community that give them meaning. Any attempt to aggregate a set of particulars under a common term involves an overwriting of their particularity. The coherence of any particular symbolisation is purchased through an elision of some dimension of reality, which is always infinitely more complex and heterogeneous than language can cope with. The alternative is to never have names for anything.

The terms we choose to announce ourselves collectively are never simply descriptive of pre-existing realities, but are attempts to produce forms of collective subjectification at particular historical moments to engender particular forms of solidarity and struggle, and as such are necessarily tied to the exigencies of organising resistance. ‘Gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transsexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘bisexual’ (as well as the ever-evolving alphabet soup names for The Community) are all terms insisted upon by particular political factions at particular moments in history as assertions of the positive social value of particular forms of difference against stigmatisation, criminalisation, violence and discrimination. Queer likewise is a response to a perceived need to develop new forms of self-definition due to the shift from repression to co-optation and assimilation in straight society’s strategy for our containment. It is a conscious project to outmaneuver the dynamics of co-optation through understanding ourselves not in terms of positive attributes we supposedly commonly possess but negatively and fluidly in terms of our common relation to structurally enforced norms. The repurposing of the slur ‘queer’ is inextricable from this definition because it is precisely from the position of abjection it implies that we choose to fight: we are the other that straight society must continually exclude in order to sustain itself and it is on that basis that we organise.

Clearly there is always a multiplicity of interacting factors behind any particular disavowal of queerness, but the debate over the term has oddly tended to proceed as if these always and everywhere originate in a pre-political innocence rather than being potentially strategic interventions by agents with their own divergent political commitments. Sure, there are those for whom the term itself is for them too strongly associated with shame and violence who do not embrace the label ‘queer’, but share a commitment to the kind of politics it implies. But equally, there are those who reject the term because their politics has an essentially conservative orientation: e.g. those in positions of power within the LGBT community who are threatened by the kind of political community queer attempts to bring into existence, those for whom the queer rejection of respectability undermines their project of securing acceptance through conformity and integration etc.

The act of naming is inherently contentious. It necessarily takes place in the midst of the contradictions of a particular point in time and involves decisions about how to respond to those contradictions. Calling ourselves queer is a political decision and not everyone is going to like it. Fine. Agitation for radically transformative change is never going to be about finding nice language that everyone can get behind. It’s inherently divisive, and ongoing debate is a necessary correlate. But that debate is between those who wish to define our collective experiences of difference in a hostile society in terms oriented to a particular kind of fight, and those who oppose and seek to prohibit that definition. Those in the latter camp have not chosen a neutral position and there is no reason to treat their wishes as sacrosanct.

 

Another college essay. I found writing this useful in clarifying my understanding of subjectification in Foucault, perhaps others will too.

[I]t is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.” Explain what Foucault means by this remark.

Foucault’s works are often read as theorising a kind of cold monolithic structuralism, in which power is determinate and human subjects are merely its passive products, whose conscious intentions are more or less irrelevant. (Heller, 1996, pp. 78-9) Indeed, when Foucault tells us, for example, that “individuals are the vehicles of power” and that “[t]he individual… is not the vis-a-vis of power… [but] one of its prime effects” (Foucault, 1980, p.98), it is difficult not to envision the human subject as merely a leaf caught in a storm, helplessly blown this way and that by monstrous flows that are essentially beyond her control. Does Foucault’s picture of modernity, as Habermas (1986, p.106) alleges, not simply reduce to “a senseless back-and-forth of anonymous processes of subjugation in which power and nothing but power appears in ever-changing guises” – power as the real subject of history, abstract and inhuman? And yet Foucault insists that his analytics of power is secondary to his interest in subjectivity. (Foucault, 1982, pp. 208-9) My aim here will be to offer an explanation of Foucault’s interest in the subject in the light of the apparent structural determinism that is so often attributed to him, which entails discussion of (1) the relationship between power, the subject and resistance in Foucault, and (2) Foucault’s approach to theory as a desubjectifying and transformative practice.

Foucault claims that the central concern of his work is to produce “a history of the different modes by which… human beings are made subjects”. His work focused primarily on three inter-related modes of subjectification: (1) the modes of inquiry (sciences) which produce the human subject as an object of knowledge, (2) “dividing practices” which divide the subject both within herself, and from other subjects according to a binary logic of norm and deviance, and (3) practices of self-governance by which the subject (re)produces and transforms herself as subject. Within these modes of subjectification, Foucault detected a form of power for which traditional modes of inquiry lacked adequate analytical tools, that is, a form of power whose effect is to attach the subject to her own identity: “a form of power which makes individuals subjects”. (Ibid., p.212) For Foucault, the analysis of this subjectifying power entailed a shift to the outside in relation to traditional understandings of power. The conception of power as coextensive with the will of the sovereign (the juridicial conception of power, as it appears e.g. in Hobbes’ Leviathan) is rejected by Foucault, (Foucault, 1980, p.97) as it the theorisation of power based on the immanent logic of institutions (the conception of power in terms of the problematics, functions, and objects presumed by institutional logics). (Foucault, 2009, pp.117-8) Rather, Foucault seeks to analyse power in terms of strategies, but insists on a form of strategic analysis in which strategy is not conflated with the intentionality of a subject: “Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective… they are imbued, through and through, with calculation… but this does not mean [they] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject”. (Foucault, 1998, pp.94-5) Power relations are an immanent feature of human relationships, and arise wherever one acts on the action of others to constrain or direct the present or future effect of potential of that action. (Foucault, 1982, p.220) There is no power as such as a kind of universal substance, but rather powers which are immanent to relations between subjects and exist only through their application (Ibid., p.219)

Thus, in contrast to phenomenology, for which the subject is a kind of primary transcendental substance (Foucault, 1991, p.31), Foucault’s subject is always already implicated in circuits of power, an emerges in the context of a strategic field where she is always simultaneously undergoing and exercising power, and it is within this context of the strategic interplay of power relations that “certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires come to be constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p.98) – a kind of folding or doubling of the field of force relations, in which the subject is always the product of the interiorisation of her relations with the Other. (Deleuze, 1988, p.98) Foucault’s subject, then, is neither a radically free or self-originating agent nor the passive interpellate of some overdetermining structure, but is always in some sense an active participant in the interplay of power relations which produce her as a subject. Consequently, resistance is always possible – the exercise of power is always vulnerable to reversals, disruptions, refusals – but resistances never originate from a position of exteriority to power, rather a plurality of points or strategies of resistance exist within the web formed by power relations, as its immanent and irreducible opposite. (Foucault, 1998, pp.95-6)

Foucault’s interest in subjectivity, then, can perhaps be summarised as seeking to understand the power relations which form us as subjects and the strategies by which we might seek to transform the power relations to which we are subject and thus transform ourselves as subjects. Theory itself, for Foucault, can be such a transformative strategy. Inspired by the works of Nietzsche, Blanchot and Bataille, Foucault conceives of theoretical practice as a kind of desubjectifying “limit experience”, such that the subject is torn from herself and produced as something other than herself. Foucault’s historical inquiries (however rigourous) are concerned only secondarily with the production of truths – the primary concern is that of the experience of history as a transformation of the self, as the production of new understandings and new relations to the present. (Foucault, 1991, pp.30-6) “A book… is a little machine” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, p.2), and Foucault’s machines are built with a particular purpose in mind: that of allowing the subject to transform her relations to the games of power in which she is constantly and inextricably implicated. This is the second sense (which ultimately produces the first) in which Foucault is a thinker first not of power but of the subject: the analytics of power is always motivated by the problematics of our existence as subjects within particular constellations of power. “Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” (Foucault, 1984, p.88)

Bibliography

Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. US: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. U.K.: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword: The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. eds. Michel Foucault: Structuralism and Hermeneutics. US: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1984). “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Rabinow, P. ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1991) Remarks On Marx. Trans. Goldstein, R.J. and Cascaito, J., US: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. UK: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Habermas, J. (1986) “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present” in Hoy, D. ed. Foucault: A critical reader Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller, K.J. (1996) “Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”. SubStance, Vol. 25, No. 1, Issue 79, pp. 78-110.

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

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

Debord, G. (2004) The Society of the Spectacle. UK: Rebel Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus. US: University Of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Fedirici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. US: Autonomedia.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. UK: Zero Books.

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin.

Free Association (2001) ‘Anti-capitalist movements’. Available at: http://freelyassociating.org/anti-capitalist-movements/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Guattari, F. (2009) Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews, Lotringer, S. ed. US: Semiotext(e).

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. US: Harvard University Press.

Holloway, J. (2010) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2011) ‘Class and Classification’. Available at:

http://www.johnholloway.com.mx/2011/07/30/class-and-classification/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Lenin, V.I., (1902) What Is To Be Done. Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Marcuse, H. (2002) One Dimensional Man. US: Routledge.

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.

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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