Monday, March 30, 2009

Nancy On The Word

Communism, the Word
Jean-Luc Nancy
Notes for the London Conference
Birbeck College

Not the word before the notion, but the word as notion and as historical agent.

"Communism" is a word with a strange story. It is very difficult to rigorously trace its origin. Nevertheless, it is sure that the word "communist" existed already in the XIVth century, with the meaning of "people having in common a property belonging to the category of main morte – that is, not being submitted to the law of heritage": a monastery belongs to the community of the Monks, which is, as community, independent from the individuals. It seems that at the same time and even before, from the XIIth century, the same word designated some aspects of communal law and was linked to the communal movement which expanded as the beginning of a bourgeoisie.

Later, namely in the XVIIIe century, the word appears in a text written by Victor d'Hupay de Fuveau in 1785 – four years before the French revolution. It designates the project or the dream to found a community of life – which precisely is supposed to replace that of the Monks.

Here for example a quotation of d'Hupay :

Cette union et cette communauté de régime moral économique serait praticable par pelotons, dans tous les états, sans confondre les fortunes, eu égard au juste mérite de divers talents, moyen que n'avaient point encore voulu admettre les Zélateurs de la République de Platon. Elle fortifierait l'amitié humaine dans chaque profession, en excluant toute vaine et extérieure distinction, odieuse dans une même classe de Citoyens: rivalité puérile qui confond et entraîne ensemble tous les états à leur ruine et à tous les crimes. Tel fut l'abus funeste auquel remédia par ses simples Lois Somptuaires le bon Roi Idomenée, modèle de nos deux Henris. Les Agapes des premiers Chrétiens tendaient au même but, en réunissant les Hommes dans cet esprit de simplicité le plus propre à maintenir la paix et la religion. Il appartiendrait donc à un Prince qui voudrait mieux mériter le titre de Père de la Patrie, que tous ceux encore qui ont favorisé l'établissement des Moines, devenus inutiles aujourd'hui, placent ces vrais et nouveaux Modèles de tous les états, chacun relativement à leur fonction, dans les divers Monastères qui se dépeuplant tous les jours, semblent attendre une meilleure destination.

D'Hupay was a a friend of Restif de la Bretonne's, who is known to be the first to present, among the several kinds of government, the "communism or communauté." In his autobiography (Monsieur Nicolas), he expounds it as one among nine types of government and writes this one is only effective for some people of South America, who "work together in the morning and play together in the afternoon" (this is not very different from what Marx says in German Ideology).

A short time later, at the time of the French Revolution, (and this is well known), Gracchus Babeuf, taking part in the first "Commune insurectionnelle de Paris", used several times the word "communautariste" in the context of his thought about the Egaux and the phrase communauté nationale.

Beside the explicit use of the word, we have to remember how other nouns designated the same thing, for example in the doctrine of the English "Diggers" of the XVIth century, who spoke of the land as a "common treasure" and who belonged to the time of the first English Revolution, which ended with the creation of the first Republic under the name of Commonwealth which had at the time almost the meaning of res publica.

Actually, those historical data are unable to give us the origin and the meaning – or, even better, the sense – of "communism". No history, no etymology either, can produce anything like sense.

But there is something we may understand from those data: something has been at stake with this word, with the invention of it and with the attempt or the need which was involved in it. Something – which is still in front of us, which is still to be discovered, or which is still to come.

Communism – the word, again. The word as presence, as feeling, as sense (more than meaning).

To a certain extent, it seems strange that the inquiry or commentary about this word should be so rare. As if it were always considered as self-evident… It is, in a way – but in which way, this deserves a little more reflection …

Even if history is not enough to explain what we could call the "destiny" of this word, something seems to be positive : community - koinonia, communitas - emerges at times of profound social transformations and/or trouble or even destructions of social order. This is the case at the time before the Christian era as well as at the final time of feudalism or later at the time of the first industrial revolution. The first time was that of the transformation of the whole social and cultural structure of the antique world - that is, the final achievement of what had opened his antique world itself : the deconstruction of agrarian culture and of theocracy. Such a deconstruction makes clear, or pushes to the foreground what was hidden under or inside the construction : that is, the togetherness of people (admittedly, even of people with every other being like animals, plants, even stars and stones…). Before and out of the Greek - occidental - moment, the togetherness is given first. We call that "holistic society", supposing that such society understands itself as a holon, that is a whole. To the whole we oppose the parts - as parts taken out of their whole - or a togetherness of several wholes - that is, of individuals. In both representations the same question arises : what becomes of togetherness when a whole is not given, and perhaps even not to be given in any way ?

Thus arises koinônia or I would say the drive to it, the drive to community. It comes or it emerges, perhaps it constitutes itself because what it calls, what it names or designates is not or is no longer given.

Certainly, many important features or trends of common life – or, to be more precise, life in common - are already given with the first kind of mankind, as certainly as precisely the first kind of mankind is or has never been an individual but a group, a gathering of many. But as far as we can see, something of the togetherness is given - and is given with or through an aspect of the whole, of totality (which has nothing to do with what has been called totalitarianism).

If togetherness is given without this aspect, that is, if it is given as a society - an association instead of, say, an integration like the family, the tribe, the clan - then the association as such opens a questioning about its own possibility and its own consistency: how is it possible to associate those who seem not to want it or even to reject it. Society then is what its members - the socii - have to accept and to justify. Communitas on the contrary, or communio, is invented as the idea of what justifies by itself the presence and even the existence of its members.

Communism is togetherness - the Mitsein, the being-with - understood as the belonging to existence of the individuals, which means, in the existential meaning, to their essence. Society means an unessential - even if necessary - link between individuals who are, in the final analysis, essentially separate.

(I will not enter into the analysis of the word socialism neither in general nor in Marx's text. As we know, for several historical reasons but as well - this is my belief – on account of the strength and depth of the meaning of the word (of the image, of the symbol), communism alone took and kept the force of more than a political choice, a political line and a party.

This, for me, is the point : communism says more and says something else than a political meaning. It says something about property. Property is not only the possession of goods. It is precisely beyond (and/or behind) any juridical assumption of a possession. It is what makes any kind of possession properly the possession of a subject, that is properly an expression of it. Property is not my possession: it is me.

But me, I, never exists alone. It exists essentially with other existing beings. The with is no external link, it is no link at all : it is togetherness - relation, sharing, exchange, mediation and immediation, meaning and feeling. The with has nothing to do with what is called collective. Collectivity means collected people : that is, people taken together from anywhere to the nowhere of the collectivity or of the collection. The co- of collective is not the same as that of communism. This is not only a matter of etymology (munire versus ligare) . This is a matter of ontology : the co- of collectivism is a mere external "side by side" which implies no relationship between the sides or between the parts of this "partes extra partes".

The co- of a communism is another one. It is, in the terms used by Heidegger about the mit of the Mitsein, not a categorical but an existential with (mit, co-). A categorical one means, in a more or less kantian way, that it is merely formal and does nothing more than distinguish between with and without (you are here with me, but you could be here without me ; it does neither disturb the fact you are here, nor the fact that you are you as I am me). An existential with implies that neither you nor me are the same together or separate. It implies that the with belongs to the very constitution or disposition or as you may wish to call it - say : to the being of us. And there is more to it : only in this case is it allowed to speak of a "we" - or still better : only in this case is it possible that a we comes to be spoken. Or even better: if the we can only and each time be a speech act, then only a we existentially spoken may perform its significance (what is exactly this significance is another matter : for now, I note only that it implies a relationship, not a mere side-by- side).

(Another parenthesis - sorry ! It is not sure that there is, absolutely, something like "a mere side-by-side". Side-by-side is already taken in a relationship. But we may discuss this point later.)

By putting together the various arguments I have used so far, I can say : communism is the speech act of existence as it is ontologically being-in-common. This speech act claims (for) the ontological truth of the common, that is the relation - which ultimately is nothing else than sense.

(I can come back later or elsewhere on this identity of sense and relation - as well as the identity of truth and existential co-)

Further : the truth of the common is property. Property does not mean only the possession or the belonging. In a reverse way, one should rather say that possession or belonging may only be truly understood and determined if property is first understood.

Marx wanted to open the way for a property he calls "individual property" just as distinct from "private property" as from "collective property". Private and collective refer both only to the realm and to the category of law. The law knows only the formal and external links. Individual property means : property which is proper to the proper subject (we may call it "person" or even, as Marx does in this passage "individual").

Subject means the capacity of what we could call "properness" : the way to enter a relationship or to engage in a link, an intercourse, a communication, which has nothing to do with possessing something (but may be possible as well with things, objects). I am proper in so far as I commit myself as well as I communicate, that is, as the word makes clear, I am in the common (which in English can be the name for the common or communal place), I am made of it, by it, to it. Freud is the best way to understand it: as he states, the I or the ego is only a small disk, almost a point, emerging at the surface of the large it which is the totality of the other being of the world. Even in solitude, I am made of the whole world as it takes with "me" or as "me" a new singular point of sensitivity.

Communism, therefore, means the common condition of all the singularities of subjects, that is of all the exceptions, all the uncommon points whose network makes a world (a possibility of sense). It does not belong to the political. It comes before any politics. It is what gives to politics an absolute requirement: the requirement to open the common space to the common itself - that is neither to the private nor to the collective, neither to separation nor to totality - but without permitting any political achievement of the common itself, any kind of making a substance of it. Communism is a principle of activation and limitation of politics.

At this point it becomes necessary to question the -ism. Any -ism implies a system of representation, and a kind of ideologization (in the marxian meaning as well as in the arendtian meaning of ideology). Cartesianism is the ideologization of Descartes's original drive.

I do not want to go into the question of historical or so-called, so oddly called real communism. Communism is still exposed to the jeopardy of becoming an ideology and should lose its -ism. The word is commun without -ism. Not even commun - common, kommune, any thing that could be taken as something like a form, a structure, a representation - but com. The Latin preposition cum taken as the universal pre-position, the presupposition of any existence.

This is not politics, this is metaphysics or, if you prefer, this is ontology : to be is to be cum. (At the very moment I am writing this, I am surrounded by a singing crowd of futbol aficionados on a plaza in Madrid : there is there a multitude of symbols, problems, feelings about the common) But it asks politics this question : how is it to think about society, government, law, not with the aim of achieving the cum, the common, but only with the hope of letting it come and take its own chance, its own possibility of making sense – if, as I wish to suggest, any sense is necessarily common sense or, if not "common sense" in the common meaning of the word, then in the meaning that any sense is made of communication, of sharing or exchange. But of an exchange which is not an exchange of possessions, but an exchange of property : where my property becomes proper by its own commitment ; sometimes this is called "love", "friendship", sometimes "faithfulness", sometimes "dignity", sometimes "art", sometimes "thought", sometimes even "life" and "sense of life" – under all those names there is nothing else than a commitment to the common.


If the question of communism is the question of property - namely, the question of neither collective nor private property but of individual as well as common property, then it raises a double question :

1). what does it mean to be both "individual" and "common" ? How are we to understand "the individuality of commmonness" and "the community of individualness" ?

2). how are we to think of wealth and poverty in the realm of common-individual property?

To the first question I would like to answer by arguing that it has to be taken in terms of singular plural, which has other implications than "individual-common" ; I do not want to address this matter here (I have already written some pages about it) ; but to say the least here I would suggest that singular-plural avoids the jeopardy of the double substantiality which may be involved in "indidual-common")

As far as the second question, namely the one concerning wealth and poverty, the issue is clear as it is obviously presented to us: wealth means to possess more than common life needs, poverty to have less. The first commun(ist) command is obviously that of justice : to give to the common what common life needs. This need at the same time is simple, evident (in a way, it is included in human rights - which nevertheless may be discussed from other points of view) - and it is nevertheless unclear : from the need to the desire or to the wish, there is no simple nor clear difference. It is then necessary to think differently. We shall not only take a first step of "needs" and their "satisfaction" - even if, of course, we shall absolutely consider a level of elementary or minimal satisfaction. But we shall as well consider that infinity is involved in each need and as the very essence of it. Need is to be taken as an impulse to get something (like bread, water or space) but as a drive toward what is not a thing, and maybe is nothing - but infinity.

At this point we are close - again… - to capitalism, that is to infinity taken as endless accumulation of things (which are all equivalent, as measured by the very possibility of accumulating them, whose name is money - money taken itself as the endless process of making money). Capitalism is endlessness instead of infinity, or infinity as endless production of capital itself.

This has been, so to speak, a choice of civilization. At one point (even if this point is extended through some centuries) the western civilization opted for endlessness. This point was the one where infinity as the absolute given in each existence changed into infinity as an endless process toward accumulation.

Of course it has been connected with a change about wealth.

Control, regulation of the market is not enough. The challenge is not only about managing the system of production-consumption

It is about the meaning of wealth. Wealth and poverty may have two quite different uses and meanings. One can be accumulation vs disaccumulation, if I may say so, or getting rich vs. impoverishment. Another can be what I would name glory vs humility. ("The Humble", the name of a virtue became the name of poor people…).

Possibly glory and humility could not even be called wealth and poverty. They are related to each other not as the plus to the minus but like, let's say, a monk in his simple frock facing a golden altar. Or myself listening to Beethoven's quartets.

Possibly this relationship, whose proper name is adoration or worship, which names a kind of prayer as well as a form of love, never took place as such in society or was always already mixed with or transformed in the opposition between wealth and poverty. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, the couple rich/poor as such and as a philosophical as well as moral and religious theme or topic was formed precisely at the time of pre-capitalism, that is in Antiquity, between Plato - and the critique of money making sophistes - and Christ - with his strong rejection of wealth. This age has been the first, and in a sense maybe the last, time of the critique of wealth, that is of no longer thinking of it as glory. On the contrary, thinking of it as the fake brightness par excellence.

Our civilization is a schizophrenic one that thinks its own value, its main value is fake.

The question of property is the question about the proper property, which belongs to the proper "person" : that is, of the proper "wealth" (or "glory" - or, this is the same in a way, the proper "sense"). Such a proper property may only be common. As private, it makes no sense (sense for a single one is no sense at all) ; as collective it makes the same effect for the collective is a single - mechanical - unity, not the plurality of the common.

Common is the adequate word for the properness of being, if being means ontologically being "in common".

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Idiot Broadcasters: Who's Medium Wants This Message?

Alain Badiou being interviewed here by a lethally obnoxious (ie a 'normal' pompous twerp) BBC broadcaster.

In a BBC HARDtalk interview broadcast on 24 March 2009, Stephen Sackur talks to French socialist philospher Alain Badiou: "As the world's richest economies plunge deeper into recession could there be a whiff of revolution in the air? Alain Badiou has been an intellectual hero of France's anti-capitalist left since the Paris street protests of 1968. His recent book 'The Meaning of Sarkozy', in which he attacked the French President, has caused a storm in France. But does anyone beyond Parisian café society believe communism is the answer to the current crisis? Alain Badiou talks to Stephen Sackur."

Does anyone beyond the University of Chicago's cafeteria believe neo-liberalism, etc ...

Why haven't these ratmen been shot, yet?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nostalgic Advertising in Defence of Object-Oriented Philosophy

Miniature BritArt stick-people queueing at the 'tilt-shifted' Tate Modern

The prolific, effervescent speculative-realist philosopher Graham Harman over at his blog, Object-Oriented Philosophy, notices (real pictures that look fake) the increasingly Baudrillardian prophesied phenomenon of image infantilization, in this instance the by-now viral CGI practice of 'tilt-shifting', or perspectivally converting ordinary actuality photos/films into child-like scale-model visualized playthings. Soon all images may look like this in our metastasized hyper-reality. Though Dominic at Poetics coincidentally provides an example (The Little Engine That Couldn't)of an earlier attempt at achieving the opposite affects - fake videos that look real - in the video for The Smith's Ask, like the KLF before them. From the sublime to the hyper-real ...

But, returning to the subject of this post's title, this advertisement for Kit Kat chocolate bars, from the 1990s, must be the best anti-correlationist, pro-speculative realism advert I've seen to date, the real of object integrity forever receding from our chronic ego-desire to capture and grasp it. I should imagine Mr Harman would appreciate the joke):

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shaviro On Hardt

Michael Hardt’s talk, “The Production of the Common,” at the London conference On the Idea of Communism, summarized a lot of his ideas over the last several years in a way that I found helpful. He defined “communism” as having to do with the common — as opposed to both private property and state property. And said he wanted to put the focus on political economy and on the question of property. (This in contrast to the other speakers on his panel, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward, who were both far-ranging and lucid, but foucsed rather of questions of political action and organization. Indeed, I have now gone to nine talks — with three more to come — and Hardt’s and Negri’s were the only two which so much as mentioned political economy. Quite odd for what is supposed to be a Marxism conference). I will try to summarize what Hardt said, with a little commentary.

In the 18th century, and still in the 19th when Marx wrote, capitalism was in transition from a form based mostly on immobile property, which is to say agricultural land, from which surplus was extracted in the form of rent, to a form of capitalism based on mobile property, which is to say manufacturing (since a factory can in theory be built anywhere), from which surplus was extracted in the form of profit (i.e., although Hardt didn’t express it this way, from the direct expropriation of absolute and relative surplus value). The landlords were losing out to the new industrial capitalists. Even still in Marx’s time, there were less industrial workers than there were agricultural ones, but industry was the dominant mode of production in the sense that it was the one that imposed its forms and methods of organization on all the rest (a “dominant,” as Jameson would say).

Today, Hardt said, we are in the midst of another transition, this time from industrial production to “immaterial production.” The number of workers involved in immaterial or affective production is still much smaller worldwide than the number of factory workers, etc., but immaterial production is the leading edge that imposes its forms of organization on the rest, just as industry was in the 19th century. (This, in part, was Hardt’s response to criticisms of the entire notion of immaterial production on the grounds that millions of people still work in factories, even if it is mostly today in the “underdeveloped” world instead of in the wealthy nations of the West, or global North). [Hardt didn't mention this, but his periodization fits in well with McKenzie Wark's idea of a movement from landlords to industrialists to the current "vectorial class" of the owners of property rights to "information." Hardt, like Wark, is focused on what Wark calls "the property question"].

Today, informatic or immaterial production is focused on questions of so-called “intellectual property” (this is my term, not Hardt’s), in the forms of copyright, patents, etc. A company’s physical products often have value, not because of any actual use, but because they are manifestations of a “brand” to which consumers are attracted, or with which they identify. Massive sums of money are gained from things like patents on genetic sequences, genetically modified crops, rights to copyrights on music, video, and text, to (often frivolous) patents on supposed inventions, to control of certain channels of distribution, to a company’s working methods and “trade secrets,” and so on. Even traditional hard-manufacture factories are governed by informatics, and profit comes as much or more from control of the informational organization that governs production, than from the physical items in themselves that are produced (as these latter are not sold for much above cost).

According to Hardt, all this means that immaterial production has more similarities to the pre-industrial capitalism focused on the extraction of rent than it does to the (pre-informatic, or perhaps Fordist) industrial system that focused on the extraction of surplus value as profit. The most dynamic sort of capitalist appropriation today comes in the form of a renewed “primitive accumulation,” or privatization of the common: one can see how both the patenting of genetic sequences taken from plants used by traditional cultures, and the copyrighting of “new” ideas and their expression, fits into this paradigm. This means that the struggle against capitalism must take on radically different forms, compared to those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Hardt, immaterial production qua primitive accumulation is more a case of the direct appropriation of the common by capitalists, than it is one of the indirect expropriation of the common through the sale and purchase of labor power as was the case under industrial capitalism.

Now, I am largely in agreement with Hardt (and Negri, and some of the economists associated with their position, like Marazzi and even to some extent Moulier Boutang) about the transformations in capitalism over the last fifty years, and especially since the 1970s. But I am not sure I entirely accept the framework through which Hardt interprets these developments. In particular, I do not think that immaterial production involves a more “direct” expropriation of the common than was the case when industrial capitalism extracted value. It is true, as I have already said, that a lot of this new source of capital appropriation comes from a kind of “primitive accumulation” — corporations are now appropriating the commons in the form of things like genomes and songs and procedures of working, in the same way that landlords appropriated the commons of land at the time of the enclosures. But I don’t think that this is either a novelty or a reversion. It is rather the case that “primitive accumulation” never went away; it is a continual structural feature of capitalism, and was at work in the industrial age as much as it was in the agricultural stage, and as much as it is still today. Capitalism always both appropriates to itself things that it didn’t produce — and this precisely by “privatizing” them — and extracts a surplus from the processes of production that it directly initiates and supervises.
That is to say, there isn’t that great a difference between, on the one hand, how industrial capitalism imposes “cooperation” on large numbers of workers simultaneously, and draws profit from the economies of scale due to this cooperation (which is a form of relative surplus value) as much as it does from the initial inequalities built into the process of buying and selling “labor power” as a commodity (which is what Marx calls absolute surplus value); and, on the other hand, the way that immaterial capitalism today draws its profits from turning employees’ collaborative projects, and the cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples, into “intellectual property” locked under copyright and patent. In both cases, there is a double movement: on the one hand, the appropriation of what would otherwise be (or what previously was) common, and on the other hand, the transformation of that “common” precisely into a commodified form that stores or embodies congealed “labor” and that allows for the “marketization” of the product. The transformation of home knitting into manufactured clothing is not that different from the transformation of a plant with medicinal properties into a patented drug, or into a genetic sequence that can be used for controlled production of the medicine.

So, the point is that primitive accumulation and surplus-value extraction go together, both in 19th-century industrial production and in today’s immaterial production. This is why I don’t accept Hardt’s claim that production today somehow involves a less mediated and more direct appropriation of the common than was the case in the large factories of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Primitive accumulation or appropriation doesn’t occur apart from those other techniques of the extraction of surplus value — and this is just as much true for immaterial production today as it is, and was, for industrial production.

If we are to see a difference in the capitalism of the contemporary era, this has to to with the fact that, today, capital has become even more mobile and abstract than it was in the age of heavy industry. The movement from industrial to immaterial production is an intensification of the movement from agricultural to industrial, an even further internalization of capitalist social relations, an increase in the “mobility” or “flow” of capital. Today we are coming closer than ever to the limit-condition of the real subsumption, instead of the merely formal subsumption of all of society under capital. There is less and less of an “outside” that capitalism can “primitively” accumulate, and more and more is included in the mass of what is directly managed by capital’s disciplinary and modulatory procedures. (But there is only an asymptotic approach to the absolute of “real” subsumption; such a totality is never fully achieved. There always has to be some outside that capital has not appropriated yet, and without such an outside capitalism would entirely stagnate — a point made as much by Schumpeter as by Marx).

To say that we are moving ever closer to real subsumption is equivalent to saying that now — under what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production” (although I think it is rather post-cinematic — which is a point I am still working on), or what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — surplus value is extracted in the processes of distribution and consumption as well as in the process of primary production. For Marx, circulation involved the faux frais of the capitalist mode of production, and had to be subtracted from profit. But today, in an “information economy” or ‘attention economy,” circulation is itself a direct source of further profit. Hardt and Negri are correct to associate this situation with real subsumption displacing merely formal subsumption. But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder. It just ain’t so. Digital technologies bring with them new forms of potential liberation, certainly; but they also bring new forms of control, new potentials for micromanagement and control via continual modulation (as Deleuze says in his great article on the society of control).

Hardt said at several points that the restrictions of copyright, patent, etc., because they are privatizing the common, are thereby making immaterial or affective labor less “productive” than it could be — which isn’t altogether wrong, but also isn’t the right point to be making — since “productivity” (like “efficiency”) is a category of the private enterprise system and wouldn’t have the same meaning (certainly wouldn’t be measured in anything like the same way) in a world of communism, or of the unrestricted common. Part of the point is precisely that (as Hardt, together with Negri, says — and as Virno says as well) even the most individualized and particular acts of human invention rely so extensively on the whole past accumulation of human invention, that private property rights become absurd. I maintain my signature on this blog, for instance, but it would be utterly ludicrous for me to maintain that my ideas and words come from nowhere — in fact, they come from what I have heard and read and otherwise encountered in the society that I live in. My own personal spin on things is still a spin on what arises and exists elsewhere, or in many elsewheres. And people can make what they want of my words, including things that I absolutely detest, which disabuses me of the notion that these words are “mine” in any metaphysical, propertarian sense.

At best, my words here will become part of what Hardt beautifully called — quoting from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts — “the production of man [sic] by man” — this by way of making the point that those early manuscripts are anything from essentialist, since they see “human nature” not as something that exists once and for all as our basis, but rather as something that human beings themselves continually remake. Our very remaking of ourselves is at stake, and this is one further reason why the relentless privatization of the common is so obscene. But I am made uneasy when Hardt also calls this remaking a process of “biopolitical production” — because, once again, I think that this characterization is only valid under the conditions of capitalist appropriation, and that it would have to be characterized differently if it were truly to be, and to remain, common. I think that more than vocabulary is at stake here; Hardt and Negri’s terminology reflects what I see as their excessive optimism about how conditions for the common have (supposedly) already been achieved in the heart of capitalism itself.

One final word, on finance. Hardt cited the current financial crisis as an instance of capital’s inability to manage its own complexities in a useful manner. But things seem to me to be a little more complicated than this. Obviously, the system is dysfunctional; and obviously, the insane proliferation of derivatives and other “arcane financial instruments” is a symptom of informatics run amok. More orthodox Marxists often say that finance is merely fictive, since it is not related to, or backed up by, any actual production. But this “ungrounded” finance itself needs to be seen as part of the infrastructure of immaterial and affective capitalism; and as an effect of immaterial and affective labor. In such a context, “fictive” does not mean unreal or ineffective — as we are currently experiencing, the effects of delirious financial capital flows are all too material and evident. This is something that needs to be theorized much more than I am able to do here. I am still trying to figure things out; I would definitely say that, for instance, Christian Marazzi’s ideas about the linguistic nature of these types of finance is inadequate. But I haven’t found anyone yet who can explain it to me, or theorize it, better.

Re-Booting Communism and the End of Philosophy

Further commentary on the Idea of Communism conference; these impressions from Aditya Nigam at Kafila ...


Re-booting Communism Or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy - I

Today, 13 March, a whole galaxy of philosophers and theorists got together for a three-day conference "On The Idea of Communism" under the auspices of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London University. The Conference opened to a jam-packed hall where all tickets had sold out (no jokes, this was a ticketed show where the likes of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jean Luc-Nancy, Toni Negri, Jacques Ranciere, Terry Eagleton and many many others are to perform on the 'idea of communism'). The huge Logan hall with a capacity of about 800-900 was so packed that the organizers had made arrangements for video streaming in another neighbouring hall - and that too was half full! Very encouraging in these bleak days.

The conference began in the afternoon with brief opening remarks by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Badiou made his general point (see below) about the continuing relevance of the 'communist hypothesis'. Staid and philosopherly. And then, Zizek. Clearly, in the five brief minutes he spoke, he was the star - a rock star playing to the gallery and the gallery responding to him as it would to Michael Jackson (who, one of the organizers said was being given a run for his money by the communist conference, or so the Guardian said!). As a matter of fact Zizek and his audience seemed already tied in a bond of performing for each other. This once post-marxist but now relapsed marxist philosopher-theorist thundered, gesticulating with eavery word he spoke: "We must resist the temptation to act. We must refuse being told that children are dying of hunger in Africa or in the slums of India, for this is the philosophy of the present times. They don't want us to think." And he went on, amidst cheers from a hysterical audience, "We must do, you must do what Lenin did in 1915, after the war broke out, after th failure of  the Social Democratic parties. He went to the library and started to read Hegel's Logic. And this conference should be our moment of reading Hegel's Logic. How much polemic is compressed in this one statement was of course evident only to Zizek followers, for he was not just making the simple point about reading and thinking as opposed to mindless 'doing' that is the mantra of our times; he was also polemiciizing against all kinds of anti-Hegelians: Althusserians, postmarxists like Laclau and Mouffe, poststructuralists, Deleuzians and so on.

The background to the conference  is an ongoing exchange between Alain Badiou and Zizek on the idea of communism. Badiou's piece which kickstarted this debate appeared in the New Left Review shortly after Sarkozy's electoral victory in France. In itself a very ordinary piece, it seems to have quickly become a major reference point for Left-wing discussions as it argued - courageously in this day and age - for the continued relevance of the communist idea.  Badiou argued in this piece that Communism (or what he calls the communist hypothesis whose history stretches from the revolt of Spartacus to the present) was still relevant today. It was relevant however as a regulative ideal, not as a programme and that many of its earlier beliefs (like the party-form) had become redundant. Enter, at this point, the priest of Ljubliana, the new postmodern Stalin. Zizek, it may be recalled, rapidly reinvented himself after his initial post-marxist forays into theory. He took up cudgels on behalf of Marxism and revolution, claimed to 'repeat Lenin' and unabashedly claimed that the Truth of Marxism is only visible from the truly proletarian standpoint! Lest I be misunderstood, I quote here from the man himself: "Lenin's wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided." This ccould well be said of Islam or Hindutva - that its 'universal truth' can only be articulated or grasped through the partisan standpoint of the believer. And this is merely one of the many such statements that Zizek has made including his infamous 'plea for Leninist intolerance'.

How could this Zizek accept the mild philosopherli-ness of Badiou's position? So, he entered into a debate with Badiou. Communism as a mere horizon, without a programme? Isn't this a mere Kantian regulative ideal? Truth to tell, Badiou's piece itself is pretty orthodox, philosophically speaking, but Professor Zizek would have none of that. Communism is a programme, he had proclaimed. And the backdrop for the present conference was set up.

Today's sessions had three presentations: Michael Hardt of Empire and Multitude fame, Bruno Bosteels, editor of Diacritics and Peter Hallward. Hardt's presentsation was the only one that actually dealt with the 'real world' of contemporary capitalism and spoke about the new conflicts between two forms of property - material and scarce property versus immaterial and reproducible property. Hardt argued that some passages in Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts also talk about conflict between two forms of property - immobile like land versus the new capitalist property embodied in the commodity form. He underlined the need to understand the political econ0my dimensions of contemporary transformations as also to recognize how capitalism was once again bringing forth its own 'grave-diggers'. For an otherwise sophisticated presentation, it was strange that Hardt did not find it necessary to even refer to what happened to the earlier grave-diggers and whose grave was eventually dug! Partly this was the consequence of the atmosphere that prevailed there in a mehfil of the faithful.

Other presentations were disappointing. Bruno Bosteel's because it was an orthodox restatement of the marxist-leninist position, despite repeated gestures to philosphers' like Delueze, Agamben or Foucault. Peter Hallward's entire presentation was fixated on the experience of the French revolution and Rousseau, Saint-Just and the Jacobins.  At the end of the day, one marvelled at this discussion on communism in the twenty-first century which could conduct itself entirely with reference to a certain textual tradition and a certain European history. The idea of communism, if it has to have any relevance at all, can hardly be elaborated without reference to the 'real movements' of our times. The conference also displayed virtually no awareness of the fact that in our times, issues were much more complicated than mere capital-labour conflicts. Take for instance the new Left wing formation in South America where the indigenous leadership has led the re-emergence of the Left, represnting interests of indigenous people, cocoa growers and on issues such as water privatization. Islam and Empire constitute yet another pole of the contemporary which was far away from the miinds of both the speakers and the audience who asked questions (except one questioner). At which point I turned to take a look at the composition of the audience. Not one black in the audience. Some sprinkling of East Asians (four of five) and some South Asians in similar numbers.

The question then: Does this composition say something about the direction in which our thought is going? Does the radicalism of the white liberal have anything to offer to the non-white? Some years ago I had heard Alain Badiou speak in Princeton. There the audience was not communist. And it was not a ticketed show but free. There were Palestinians, north Africans and many others in the hall and Cornell West on the dias. Badiou, the French radical philosopher found himself beseiged after his talk  - during the question answer session. Badiou had spoken grandly of why "9/11 was not an Event becuase it did not enunciate anything new" - a particularly Badiouan notion of event this. Half an hour into his talk, he was smuggling in old universalisms into his exposition, representing 9/11 as Evil. A woman student, possibly Palestinian, got up to ask him why then was Osama bin Laden considered a hero among a large number of people across the world. (By the way, I had been told just a few days ago by Sinclair Thomson of New York University, who had just returned from Bolivia that pictures of bin Laden and Che Guevara could be seen together in many places in the Bolivian capital.) Badiou, ably assisted by Cornell West tried in vain to answer her,  giving rise to more and more questions in the process till someone asked: "What then does your universalism say regarding this complete lack of ability to understand the other?"

No such questioning or interrogation was possible today. It was a comfortable gathering of similar people - brought up in the same traditions. The only other person who was to attend but was not allowed to because he had a single-entry visa in the US (so Zizek informed the audience) was Wang Hui from China. One wonders however, what a single token presence of Wang Hui could have done to the direction of the conference. (Jean Luc Nancy could not eventually attend as he was unwell.)

At the end of the first day, it already seems that for all the sophisticated philosophical language that was being used, most participants simply wanted to re-boot the machine - as though it was just an initialization problem! Maybe the software itself needs rewriting? That thought seems far from most people gathered for the conference.


Evangelist Zizek and the End of Philosophy - II

Today was the third and final day of the 'Idea of Communism' conference and it was the truly most bizarre experience - bizarre philosophical experience, I should say - of my life. Let me start backwards today.

The preacher from Ljubliana was in full form and he closed his own hour-long (or was it 55 minutes) presentation 'To Begin from the Beginning, Over and Over Again' with the following: "If the rumour that Gilles Deleuze was writing a book on Marx before he died, is true then this should be seen as a sign that after having spent a life time away from the Church he wanted to come back to its fold…We welcome all those anti-communist Leftists who have spent their lifetimes attacking us to come and join us." I may have missed a word or two here and there but this was it. This was also, if I did not miss the point partly aimed at Negri and Hardt, both of whom (Deleuzians of sorts, I should imagine) had reportedly left the conference by then. A questioner who actually took on Zizek on this and asserted the significance of Deleuze in terms of understanding 'the unconscious' not as a theatre of desire but as a factory and of desire itself as productive rather than as a lack, was quickly snubbed by him (in what his co-panelist Judith Balso had to term 'demagogic' style), by saying that you don't know that in many countries the capitalists claim that they are the real Deleuzians, mobile, rhizomic, nomadic etcetera - and that was supposed to be a refutation of Deleuze's philosophy. If this is a philosophical argument coming from one of the biggest superstars of philosophy, I think it is really the end of philosophy. This performance by Zizek was in fact the high point of the conference in many ways, for among other things it was a throwback to sometime four-five decades ago, with this doyen of philosophers openly arguing for terror: "We want a strong disciplinay terror" he said, citing fellow philosopher Alain Badiou's advocacy of proletarian terror as one of the four things that constitute 'the communist invariant'. And believe me, there was no irony in this - it was all very straightorward. But for the time being, let me rewind a bit.

Yesterday, 14 March, there were two sessions. The first was entirely a session of the Italian far Left with Alessandro Russo speaking on "Did the Cultural Revolution End Communism?" and Alberto Toscano on 'Communist Power/Communist Knowledge" and finally Toni Negri ("Communisme: Reflexions sur le concept et la pratique"). Negri spoke in Italian giving the gist of each point that was then read out from a translated text. The entire session was didactic and dry and amounted simply to a reiteration of faith in a somewhat philosophical language. Negri's presentation, true to his style and his now well-known positions, basically reiterated that 'for communists all history is the history of class struggle'! Those who do not understand do not realize that capital is itself a social relation and the struggle is embodied in the social relation. Among other gems of his thought was the claim that 'there is no room for narodniki any more' as 'there is no longer any outside'. 'There is no longer any outside to capitalism and exchange value, no longer any place for use-value'. All struggle is therefore lodged within capital. Thus all struggle is class struggle. QED

It is important to hold on to this point for it recurs in different ways through the conference. In the afternoon session we had a hall packed - easily the most crowded and packed session of the three days when Terry Eagleton, Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou spoke. Eagleton, whom I have always fancied as an English Aijaz Ahmad, at least displayed some typical British sense of humour - something that seemed to be missing otherwise. For the rest his talk was basically around Shakespeare and his character Gonzalo from The Tempest, as the exponent of the idea of communism. Fair enough. For Eagleton started by confessing that he for one did not quite see the need to hold this conference but 'Slavoj seems to be a philosopher of the impossible and would like to do impossible things as far as possible…' Ranciere was his unassuming best and spoke on the authority of his favourite philosopher - the ignorant schoolmaster Jacotot. He spoke of 'Communism without communists' - an irony that was passed over in somewhat embarassed silence by the audience and fellow speakers. For, Ranciere spoke of the 'communism of intelligence' - there is no superior intelligence hence no pedagogic enterprise, hence no communists! This was of course clearer in his title but in the talk it was put a bit elliptically. And then, at the end of the day we had Alain Badiou defining 'communism' and the 'communist hypothesis' for all of us. His speech was basically a recapitulation of his initial statements that called forth this conference in the first place. This was embellished with his larger philosophical take on the 'Event': 'An Event is the rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and languages', 'it is the opening of a new possibility' - such is the communist hypothesis - A Badiou-ian Event. The sheer metaphysics of it is mindnumbing till we are given its translation into ordinary language as the 'communist invariant'. This communist invariant is defined by radical egalitarain justice, a radical voluntarism with the enunciation of a new collective subject and finally of proletarian or popular terror!

One of the points of debate among the participants was the question of the state. Negri and Badiou of course are known for their anti-state positions. While Negri's is a more radically anti-state position Badiou does recognize the need for some kind of engagement - hence his formulation of acting at a distance from the state. Both however agree with Negri's formulation that for this reason socialism (which is a statist imaginary) can only be replaced by communism which is radically anti-state. However, Zizek struck a pragmatist note here to argue with Badiou and Judith Balso as to what, operationally, this 'at a distance' can possibly mean and how this is a pathetic anarchist recipe for marginality. It can never influence the main course of events. While there is some point to Zizek's argument at a theoretical level, it was an amazingly non-theoretical, pragmatic political and indeed stalinist reaffirmation of the state that repeatedly came through his interventions. This was also evident in an exchange between Negri and Zizek when the latter asked the former why he supported Lula (who Zizek claimed 'was a friend of Bush') and opposed Chavez (who was doing some radical things with the state? Negri's response was interesting. He said he had known Lula for thrity years and seen him at work and was deeply impressed by the way he built the party from within the workers' movement. He distrusted Chavez' politics as that was purely based on the state, he said and added: 'The temporal moment of renewal in Lula has stopped, I accept, but in Chavez it never started.' Clearly, the point was not of immediate politics where I suspect, Negri might support Chavez against the US but one of potentialities and possibilities. And to that extent, Negri's seemed to me to be a more philosophical assessment rather than a crudely political one that is moreover based on pure slander (a Leninist word that should gladden Zizek's heart, but what else is it to say that 'Lula is Bush's friend'!)

The Grand Finale

So, this was the debate of sorts. Today there were three speakers slotted for the day: Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo and Judith Balso. But it was Zizek's day. Like Stalin at the end of a comintern conference, Zizek spoke almost as if possessed, leading the chair of the session too to remark that it was like a Sunday ecclesiastical session. He took everyone to task - everyone who he thought was deviating from the practical tasks at hand into vague philosophical definitions or elaborations of communism. The man who had begun the session with the classic 'We must resist the temptation to act' was now berating thought and every argument he made was to counter a philosophical theoretical one with a crude - well almost 'but the children are dying in Africa' kind of broadside. The main theoretical intervention by him was his take-off from Susan Buck-Morss' take on 'Hegel in Haiti', where he argued that the Haitian revolution was the 'true repitition' of the French insofar as it took the values and slogans of the French revolution more seriously than the French, thus giving the universalite to its ideals it only possessed potentially. The Haitian revolution was important for Europe's becoming Europe. This is true universalite…

Well so far so good. But then he went on to expound on the present, the ecological crisis etc . In this context he then ridiculed Evo Morales, and his apparent claim that all this destruction of the environment began with industrialization and the industrial revolution. Citing from a letter written by Morales, where he had said that therefore 'Mother Earth no longer exists', Saint Zizek proclaimed that if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that 'Mother Earth no longer exists' - amidst a slightly emabrassed applause from the audience. "We must remain resolutely modern" he further proclaimed. Brilliantly said, but as one questioner later asked him, what was his remedy for the ecological crisis except homilies (actually the questioner did not quite ask him this; it was Zizek who understood this to be his question). And Zizek answered in perplexity that he had after all said what his solution was: it was radical egalitarian justice! Now, did I get him wrong? We can be resolutely modernist, we must resolutely industrialize, see to it that every bit of the earth is transformed into a commodity and the ecological crisis will take care of itself simply because everyone will be made to sink to the sea in equal measure? But no, I confirmed from others. This was all that the great communist philosopher had to offer: ridicule for Evo Morales and some vague unthought masquerading as the philosophical resolution of the ecological crisis.

However, there is news for Zizek - as also for Badiou and Negri who think that 'there is no outside to capitalism' and that it s a good thing (I am not sure the latter two share this part though) that mother earth no longer exists. And the news is that at least in India, like in large parts of Africa and South America, mother earth still exists. The ferocious battles over land acquisition that have been and are still being fought in India are not simply because land is good livelihood but because it is mother earth. The further news for them is that whether they like it or not, whether they think it is regressive or not, a majority of people in countries like India - indeed large parts of Asia and Africa - live outside the dictatorship of 'exchange value' (why exchange value in itself should be a synonymous with capitalism is yet another question) in an economy of sharing, where 'the common' (a la Negri) is a way of life. This is not to romanticize these values in toto but there is something, a deeper connection with life and fellow beings that still exists. What is called 'piracy' in the language of contemporary capitalism and which has been taken over and valorized by radicals in the west is, in a manner of speaking an ethic of sharing that sustains our lives. And no Zizek or Badiou can ever tell me that it is regressive and that it is best that we should adopt the ways of life of Europe and the West that is focused almost exclusively around the figure of the possessive individual. And maybe some of them know this as well - just that it does not all fit into their theories very neatly. How else would one not attempt to theoretically reference either the Chiapas revolt or Morales' Movement for Socialism (India, Nepal etc are too far, I grant) in attempting a retheorization of 'communism' in the twenty-first century? After all, unlike Lula or Chavez, their sole reference points are not capital-labour relations or 'imperialism' in some generic sense. Theirs are questions that pose a serious challenge before modernist marxism, even though they continue to establish a link with the idea of socialism and communism. Maybe it might be better for philosophers to start looking at ways in which these struggles resignify 'socialism' or 'communism' before they start their flights of fancy.

And of course, finally we must state for the record that even apart from these issues, there are others - a whole range of them - that have nothing to do with the capital-labour relations or with 'imperialism' as such, but without an understanding of which such radical politics can only make sense to a very small, white western population. One of these is the Palestine issue, linked to which are a range of others that the sign 'Islam' for instance represents today. If the audience and the speakers at the conference were exclusively white and the speakers almost entirely male (with one exception) - with a very small sprinkling of Asians and NO blacks, then there is something seriously wrong with your radicalism Saint Zizek. It is of course beyond our comprehension why such scholars as Stuart Hall and Cornell West or the likes of Judith Butler or Chantal Mouffe, just to name a few, could not be included in the conference? Is it because they would have made you uncomfortable? Feminist issues, as an aside, have never been resolved by armed capture of state power. They have to be tackled at this level and if you cannot, then it simply means that you have no room for any other kind of politics except the one that you desire - masculine and state-centred.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Communist Power/Communist Knowledge

First of all, for the problem of communism and power to be even posed without falling into the usual traps, we need to overcome the apparent antinomy between communism as the name for a form of political organisation with social transformation as its aim and communism as a form of social and economic association with social equality as its practice. It is the least that one can say that in the twentieth-century the relations between crafting the means for the conquest of power and enacting the transformation of everyday life have been immensely problematic, and that the very notion of a 'politics of producers', to use the Marxian formulation, has been overwhelmed by historical conflicts that have left the legacies of commune, council and soviet, with some rare exceptions, in a state of abeyance.
Alberto Toscano: Communist Power/Communist Knowledge
[paper presented at the Idea of Communism conference at Birkbeck, 14th March, 2009. Via Infinite Thought]
For the purposes of this talk, I want to take Zizek's opening remarks yesterday about the 'patience of the concept' as a license to zero in on the question of communism's relationship to philosophy. I want do so in particular through the prism of what I'd like to call the politics of abstraction, a notion which I hope will be clarified as I proceed. As a cautionary note, this means that this paper will not address the immediate prospects of a communist politics, but simply consider what it might mean to be a communist in philosophy, and whether the idea of communism is indeed a philosophical idea. It also means that I will be engaging at various points in the quotation and discussion of Marx. This is not a matter of allegiance or authority – Marx is not a timeless standard of correctness – but stems from the need to define how philosophy was caught up in the very emergence of the idea of communism, and in what manner communism developed both from and against philosophy. This is a precondition, I think, for revisiting and possibly recasting the idea of communism today.

A philosophical consideration of communism is immediately confronted with two apparently opposed retorts. From the standpoint of its most inveterate detractors, communism is a political pathology of abstraction, a violent denial of worldly differences and customs, of the density of history and the inertia of nature. It is the doomed attempt to philosophize the world into something other than what it is. To employ Hegel's vocabulary, communism is a manifestation of fanaticism. That is, to quote The Philosophy of History, 'an enthusiasm for something abstract – for an abstract thought which sustains a negative position towards the established order of things. It is the essence of fanaticism to bear only a desolating destructive relation to the concrete'. In a world of differences, hierarchies and stratifications, how could an intransigent politics of egalitarianism be anything other than fanatical? Such views, which first gained momentum in reaction to the French Revolution, have continued to accompany the various instantiations of what Badiou calls 'generic communism'. This was (...and remains) the case in the literature of Cold War anti-totalitarianism, for which the desolations and destructions of Stalinism are to be referred, in the last instance, not to the logic of political and class struggles, or to the bellicose encirclement of the Soviet Union, or indeed to the baleful mechanics of bureaucratisation, but to the fundamentally 'ideocratic' character of political rule in historical communism. Abstract thought is to blame – as the very notion of 'ideocracy' suggests. As a very minor contemporary example take these lines from the review of The Meaning of Sarkozy in The Observer: 'So when he quotes Mao approvingly and equivocates over the rights and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution, it is hard not to feel a certain pride in workaday Anglo-Saxon empiricism, which inoculates us against the tyranny of pure political abstraction'.

But this reproach of abstraction is also – and this is my second point – internal to communist thinking itself, especially and above all in its Marxian variant. As early as his 1843 correspondence with Ruge in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher Marx was casting doubts on the emancipatory powers of a communism – the kind associated with the likes of Weitling or Cabet – which operated as a 'dogmatic abstraction'. As he remarks: 'it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it'. This is why, as he declaims, 'we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world's own principles'. Is this profession of critical and political immanence a mere abdication of philosophy? Far from it. The problem for Marx, the problem of communist politics and communist theory will remain throughout that of a non-dogmatic anticipation. And this anticipation will mutate in accordance with the conjuncture.

To explore and take stock of the relationship between communism and (philosophical) abstraction, I want to begin by exploring this question of anticipation. Taking Marx's 'Introduction to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right' as emblematic in this respect, it is possible to suggest that the anticipatory function of philosophy is inversely proportional to the revolutionary maturity of the situation in which it intervenes. Famously, Marx's plea for radicalisation is insistently contextualised in terms of German backwardness. What is perhaps most arresting about this text is precisely how the most generic of programmes, universal social emancipation, is meticulously and strategically situated in a very singular political predicament. Having lyrically encapsulated the results of the critique of religion, which he regards as having been 'essentially completed' for Germany, Marx is confronted with the obstacles preventing the prolongation of the unmasking of religious abstraction into the vanquishing of social and political abstraction, of 'the critique of heaven ... into the critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, the critique of theology into the critique of politics'. But the retrograde character of the German situation impairs the role of critique as a productive, immanent negativity. In Marx's acerbic words: 'For even the negation of our political present is already a dusty fact in the historical junkroom of modern nations. If I negate powdered wigs, I still have unpowdered wigs'. Or, as we may echo today: 'If I negate subprime mortgages, I still have mortgages'.

What is the critical philosopher to do when faced with an anachronistic regime that, as he puts it, 'only imagines that it believes in itself'? The German anachronism is double: on the one hand, the farce of restoration without revolution in practice; on the other, the anticipation of the future in theory. It is the latter which alone is worthy of the kind of immanent critique that would be capable of extracting, from the productive negation of the purely speculative image of 'future history', the weapons for a genuine overturning of the status quo. In other words, the radicalism of philosophy – that is of philosophy's existence as the self-criticism of philosophy – is dictated by the paradoxical coexistence of practical backwardness and theoretical advance. In order to be properly radicalised, the situation surveyed by Marx is thus compelled to pass through philosophy. Neither a practical repudiation of philosophy nor a philosophical overcoming of practice are possible: 'you cannot transcend philosophy without actualising it', nor can you 'actualise philosophy without transcending it'. Again, it is important to stress that though these may appear as universally-binding statements, they are specified by Germany's anomalous retardation, its odd admixture of political anachronism (its powdered wigs) and philosophical anticipation (Hegel's Philosophy of Right as the most advanced articulation of the modern state, a state which of course does not actually exist in Germany). This anomaly even permits Marx to hint at Germany's comparative revolutionary advantage, when he asks: 'can Germany attain a praxis à la hauteur des principes, that is to say, a revolution that will raise it not only to the official level of the modern nations, but to the human level which will be the immediate future of these nations?'

But, notwithstanding Marx's faith in theoretical emancipation and his conviction that theory is not a mere collection of ideas but 'an active principle, a set of practices', philosophy's practical conversion appears thwarted by the absence of the 'passive element' or 'material basis' for revolutionary praxis. This basis would ordinarily be found in the domain of civil society, in the sphere of needs: 'A radical revolution can only be a revolution of radical needs, whose preconditions and birthplaces appear to be lacking'. In other words, the 'theoretical needs' that emerge from the immanent critique of philosophy do not translate into 'practical needs'. The sheer immaturity and disaggregation of the German polity means that the 'classical' model of partial and political revolution is inoperative. But Marx could not countenance a praxis simply determined at the level of essence or of philosophy. As he unequivocally put it: 'It is not enough that thought strive to actualise itself; actuality must itself strive toward thought'. This embryonic version of Marx's later 'method of the tendency' dictates that radical emancipation find its objective or 'positive possibility' in 'the formation of a class with radical chains', the proletariat, that the impossible become real. The point of this brief excursus is to stress that, even as critical attention shifts from the limits of the political state to the mode of production and its laws of motion, the demand of a non-dogmatic anticipation will continue to define Marx's work, as will the need to reassert the difference between this approach and that of dogmatic anticipation, especially when the latter takes the form of 'philosophical fantasies' of a truth which would serve as the standard against which to judge social change – Marx and Engels's main accusation, in The Communist Manifesto, against utopian socialism.

This figure of philosophical anticipation, initially framed in terms of actuality striving toward thought, and later enveloped and surpassed in the knowledge of capitalism's tendencies, has important consequences, I want to argue, for our very idea of communism. The specificity of communism stems from its intrinsic and specific temporality, from the fact that, while never simply non- or anti-philosophical, it is an idea that contains within it, inextricably, a tension towards realisation, transition, revolution. I now want to briefly draw the consequences of this argument in terms of four interlinked dimensions of the notion of communism which challenge the philosophical sufficiency or autonomy of the concept: equality, revolution, power, and knowledge. You will note that in some manner these are dimensions which philosophy sometimes defines by contrast with the vicissitudes of communist politics and its associated critique of political economy. Thus, economic equality is sometimes treated as the counterpart to equality as a philosophical principle or axiom; power, especially state power, is regarded as a dimension external to philosophical questioning about communism; knowledge is juxtaposed to truth and revolution is regarded as an at best enigmatic and at worst obsolete model of emancipatory change.

Let's begin with equality. The affirmation of equality, both as a political maxim and as a social objective, lies of course behind the age-old view of communism as a dangerous levelling force, a violent abstraction unleashed on a world of embedded customs and refractory differences. But communism – in its own words, so to speak – has also, at different times, articulated its own criticism of equality as abstraction. Consider the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and the commentary on that document in Lenin's State and Revolution. Faced with a truly 'economistic' theory of justice (the social-democratic ideal, pushed by the likes of Lassalle, that equality signifies 'fair distribution', 'the equal right of all to an equal product of labour'), Marx retorts – in passages whose significance for the concept of equality have yet, one might argue, to be fully assumed – that the notion of equality implied by this distributionist vision of communism is still steeped in the very abstractions that dominate bourgeois society. Speculating about a communist society that emerges from capitalist society – and is thus, not just its negation but its determinate negation – Marx notes that the abrogation of exploitation and the capitalist appropriation of surplus-value would not yet end the forms of injustice that inhere in the domination over social relations by the abstraction of value. In a nascent communist society, distribution is still 'governed by the same principle as the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for the same amount in another'.

Equality in such an embryonic, transitional communism is still beholden to the domination of a standard, labour, which is itself the bearer of inequalities – of capacity, productivity, intensity, and so on. The equal right so blithely invoked by the social-democrat is thus 'in its content one of inequality, just like any other right', since 'a right can by its nature only consist in the application of an equal standard' to unequal individuals. In other words, a political and philosophical notion of equality as a right, founded on the idea of an abstract and universal measure or standard, still bears the birthmarks of a form of social measurement based on the value of labour. In Lenin's gloss, 'the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society ... does not remove the defects of distribution and inequality of "bourgeois right" which continues to dominate in so far as products are divided "according to work"'. What philosophical lessons are to be drawn from this for our idea of communism? First of all that, to the extent that communism is the determinate and not the simple negation of capitalism – i.e. to the extent that it is not a 'dogmatic abstraction' – the problem of its realisation is inherent to its concept. The communist problem of equality is the problem of an equality, to quote Lenin, without any standard of right – which is to say an equality that does not perpetuate the inequalities generated by the domination of social relations by the measures of value, by the labour-standard in particular, which pertain to capitalism. Such a 'non-standard' equality can only be thought as an outcome of revolution and transition.

From a philosophical standpoint, we could ask whether the very notion of equality is still in effect. Rather than either affirming the principled equality of human beings or promising their eventual levelling, communist 'equality', involves creating social relations in which inequalities would be rendered inoperative, no longer subsumed as unequal under an equal standard or measure of right. This idea of equality beyond right and value is of course in its own way profoundly abstract – but it demonstrates, first, how the philosophical contribution of communism involves a struggle against a certain type of abstraction (the kind which is derivative of the capitalist form of value and the standards the latter imposes), and second, how the question of realisation is intrinsic to the idea of communism. In effect, I think it would be more appropriate, when it comes to notions such as Marx's view of equality to speak of a problem rather than an idea of communism, in line with Deleuze's definition of a problem, in his Bergsonism, and with reference to Marx, as something that 'always has the solution it deserves, in terms of the way in which it is stated (i.e., the conditions under which it is determined as a problem), and of the means and terms at our disposal for stating it. In this sense, the history of man, from the theoretical as much as the practical point of view is that of the construction of problems'.

In the case of the concept of equality, we can thus see how a communist philosophy or theory might 'anticipate' a communist politics, not in the sense of producing its own futurological standard against which to measure instances of communism, but by delineating the problems and lines of solution that communism calls for. As I hope to have suggested with reference to the concept of equality, while communism should not be envisaged in terms of ossified programmatic principles or anachronistic refrains, it can be usefully conceived in terms of problems that orient their own resolution. Communism, to quote a useful, rather minimal definition from Engels's Principles of Communism, is 'the doctrine of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat'. Precisely because doctrine and conditions are not immobile, communism is never exempt from the need to formulate its protocols of realisation. This has important consequences, to my mind, for the philosophical debate about communism, which cannot but also be a debate about communist power. By power I mean the collective capacity both to prefigure and to enact the principles of communism. Too often, in recent discussions, reacting both to the grim vicissitudes of communist politics in the short twentieth century and to meanings given to the idea of power in the social and political sciences (from Weber's domination to Foucault's governmentality), there has been a tendency to think that the philosophy and politics of communism need to separate themselves from power, to think a dimension of politics removed from questions of force, control and authority. But precisely because communism cannot be separated from the problem – rather than the programme – of its realisation, it can also not be separated from the question of power.

This is a vast debate, to which I cannot do much justice here, but I think a couple of points can be made. First of all, for the problem of communism and power to be even posed without falling into the usual traps, we need to overcome the apparent antinomy between communism as the name for a form of political organisation with social transformation as its aim and communism as a form of social and economic association with social equality as its practice. It is the least that one can say that in the twentieth-century the relations between crafting the means for the conquest of power and enacting the transformation of everyday life have been immensely problematic, and that the very notion of a 'politics of producers', to use the Marxian formulation, has been overwhelmed by historical conflicts that have left the legacies of commune, council and soviet, with some rare exceptions, in a state of abeyance. But the problem – of thinking together these two aspects of communist practice, organisation and association – remains. To reify them in the separation between politics and the economy is deeply unsatisfactory, precisely because, as I indicated vis-à-vis equality, the problem of moving beyond right and beyond value is inextricably a political and an economic problem; indeed it directly upsets the very distinction between these. In trying to overcome the antinomy between organisation and association, between the instruments and the everyday practice of communism, we cannot but address the question of power. But we cannot merely reduce this question to the dimension of the state. The rather sterile doctrinal disputations over the evils and virtues of the seizure of state power tend to obscure the far greater challenge posed by thinking revolutionary politics in terms of the splitting of power – not just in the guise of a face-off between two (or more) social forces in a situation of non-monopoly over violence and political authority, but in the sense of a fundamental asymmetry in the types of power. This is why the problems posed by the classic notion of 'dual power' remain, as various political conjunctures around the world suggest, of such political, and indeed philosophical significance – despite the fact that they cannot be conceived in ways congruent to their Leninist formulation in the interim between the February and October revolutions.

The challenge of the notion of dual power lies in the asymmetry that it introduces into the concept. Power is not a homogeneous element to be accumulated, but a name for heterogeneous and conflicting forms of practice. Thus, the power wielded by the soviets is incommensurable with that of their bourgeois counterparts, however 'democratic' they may be, because its source lies in popular initiative and not in parliamentary decree; because it is enforced by an armed people and not a standing army; and because it has transmuted political authority from a plaything of the bureaucracy to a situation where all officials are at the mercy of the popular will, and its power of recall. With its paragon in the Commune, this power is both organisational, in the sense that it incorporates strategic objectives, and associative, in the sense that it is inseparable from the transformation of everyday life, but more to the point, because it is in and through the practice of association that the political capacity to organise is built up. The notion of a 'prefigurative communism' has its place here. This is especially significant today because finding the means of making the communist hypothesis exist, in Badiou's formulation, means finding efficacious ways of fostering such a political capacity.

Perhaps the most difficult problem for a philosophy concerned, to repeat a term introduced at the outset, with the non-dogmatic anticipation of communism, involves linking this subjective demand to build power qua political capacity, with the question of the knowledge of the tendencies that traverse the conjuncture of contemporary capitalism. If – and these I think are preconditions for the intelligibility of communism as a concept distinct from those of equality or emancipation – communism is to be understood as a determinate negation of capitalism and its concrete forms of abstract domination, and as concerned with the 'conditions of liberation' that Engels spoke of, what role for knowledge? After all, the communist notion of revolution – regardless of the particular form it takes – lies at the intersection between, on the one hand, the idea of a political capacity and force, and, on the other, the idea that, from the partisan perspective of that organised capacity, it is possible to know and to practically anticipate the real tendencies in the world that communism seeks, determinately and determinedly, to negate. Without some such articulation of power and knowledge, the notion of communist revolution is unintelligible.

But what does it mean to demand that communist politics find or create its concrete foothold in real dynamics without, as the young Marx seemed to do, postulating an 'inner logic' whereby 'actuality strives toward thought'? If a communist philosophy is preoccupied with the preparation and anticipation of politics, what relation does it bear to those forms of anticipatory knowledge – the kind of partisan knowledge that the later Marx sought to produce – which seek to delineate the contemporary field of realisation for the problems of communism? Is it the case that, as Mario Tronti has noted about Marx's partisan epistemology, 'science as struggle is an ephemeral knowledge'? If the idea, or the problem of communism is inseparable, as I believe, from the problem of its realisation – with the important consequences that this has for philosophy's relationship to communism – then the question of how to connect the prospects of communism to a partisan knowledge of the real and its tendencies, without mistaking these tendencies for a logic or a philosophy of history, becomes crucial. This task is especially urgent in a world such as ours which, to recall Marx, 'only imagines that it believes in itself'. In 1842, in the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx wrote: 'The fate which a question of the time has in common with every question justified by its content, and therefore rational, is that the question and not the answer constitutes the main difficulty. True criticism, therefore, analyses the questions and not the answers. just as the solution of an algebraic equation is given once the problem has been put in its simplest and sharpest form, so every question is answered as soon as it has become a real question'. This is our task today, to turn the question of communism into a real question. We will then get the answers we deserve.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Constructing A New Collective Subject

Žižek's presentation at the conference eclipsed that of Badiou, his ostensible master. It was necessary to begin again, Žižek said – echoing Badiou's call to rediscover 'the communist hypothesis' as if for the first time. Badiou remains a scalding and bracing critic of the present managerialist restoration of power and privilege, but it is difficult to be confident that he is orientated towards thinking the future. By contrast, Žižek's focus, like that of Negri and Michael Hardt, was very much on how current (apocalyptic) conditions – ecological catastrophe, the crisis of private property brought about by digitization, the impact on human identity of neuroscience and genetic engineering – may lead to new possibilities. Žižek is ready to affirm the emancipatory potentials brought by science-fictional capital's liquidation of territories and identities. If what most of the conference speakers still wanted to call 'communism' is to be achieved, it will require nothing less than the construction of a new type of human being. (Something that this conference, with its punitively long sessions, also seemed to demand: maintaining concentration through three 45-minute papers in a row exceeds the tolerances of the human organism.) As Toscano and Hardt made clear, concepts such as equality and the abolition of property only appear to be self-evident; in fact they are at the moment only dimly thinkable. Theory, in its destruction of the very 'workaday Anglo Saxon empiricism' which treats private property and commodities as natural and transparent concepts, must play a role in the construction of this new collective subject. 
-----> Mark K-punk Fisher on the Idea of Communism conference, writing in Frieze Magazine.