Is communization theory a kind of political sideshow?
Kotelnichesky Bridge in Moscow, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kaneev, 1976
From Radical Philosophy:
Exit-communism is politically to the left of Badiou and Negri and the current debate on the Communist Idea. Although it draws on the same anti-statist and post-party connections as Badiou and Negri, its critique of political mediation is defined by an uncompromising non-identitary revolutionary politics. This takes two current significant forms: a weak negationism and a strong negationism. Weak negationism is perhaps best identifiable with John Holloway’s post-Negrian programme of interstitial ‘misfitting’ and guerrilla or localized resistance; and strong negationism with the politics of communization as process (the present rejection of proletarian identity as the determinate agency of proletarian emancipation), which currently really only exists as a theoretical programme and prefigurative claim on the future – although some writers within this framework currently believe they can see increasing evidence of this process at play in the generalized working-class flight from (official) labour politics itself. In these terms, such forms of exit-communism are the product of the same sense of historical crisis driving Badiou and Negri, and thus inhabit the same post-Stalinist, post-Trotskyist continuum. As such, all are indebted to the legacy of an anti-teleological Marxism, and to the same assessment of the current conjunctural deadlock: capitalism is unable to reproduce itself in its own bourgeois image, but the proletariat presently is unable to break through this state of non-reproduction in order to effect real change. But, in contradistinction to the Badiou/Negri axis, this very deadlock becomes the explicit agental content of the renaming of communism as a name in politics for exit-communism. For this blockage carries with it the immanent content of this current stage of workers’ struggles: the recognition of the limits of wage struggle and progressive ‘class identity’ as the potential or actual means to exit from labour-capital relations. That is, communization is identifiable first and foremost with this process of refusal.
In these terms weak and strong negationisms are essentially actionist anti-work responses to the crisis of the class-party-state nexus, and the crisis of worker identity, exchanging Negri’s almost classical Marxist affirmative immanentism for an immanentism of non-relation and withdrawal – with clear echoes of Mikhail Bakunin. As Holloway argues, regarding ‘the understanding of class struggle as the struggle of labour against capital’: ‘It is this form of Marxism that is now in crisis, simply because this form of struggle is in crisis.’ As Theorie Communiste – the leading theoretical grouping within communization theory, whose origins lie in 1970s’ left council communism – declare: ‘The unity of the class can no longer constitute itself on the basis of the wage and demands-based struggle, as a prelude to its revolutionary activity. The unity of the proletariat can only be the activity in which it abolishes itself in abolishing everything that divides it.’ As a result Theorie Communiste asserts that the proletariat has entered a qualitatively new period of struggle: the days of ‘programmatism’ and the realization of class identity, grounded in the vicissitudes of waged labour, is over.
These are enormous and controversial claims, even within communization theory. That is, what is taken as a tendency in Western capitalist countries – the weakening of the efficacy of wage struggles as redistributive mechanisms; the dissolution of working-class identity (low levels of trade-union membership, etc.) – are extrapolated to cover all countries and all industrial contexts. The idea that wage struggles in China, India, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa cannot produce successful distributive and socially transformative outcomes is clearly parochial. (See, for example, the monumental struggle of South African miners today.) As is the notion that the wage form has irrevocably broken down for most workers in the light of mass proletarian indebtedness. On the contrary, on a global scale credit is not the main basis of proletarian consumption. This only applies to some workers, in some countries, mainly the USA, the UK, Canada, Germany and Japan. Indeed, major indebtedness largely exists within the middle class in Western Europe and North America. Thus, despite the drop in working-class purchasing power, wages still have a hold on how workers think strategically.Moreover, the transformation of the undoubtedly real crisis of workers’ identity into a principle of revolutionary politics – without recognition of the unevenness of workers’ struggles globally, and the necessity of asserting workers’ identity in any transitional struggle against capital – becomes equally parochial, as if the exit from workers’ identity itself constitutes a process of (workable) communization.
The communization theory of Theorie Communiste, then, is constructed wholly at the level of supposition, placing the (admittedly key) axiom of proletarian self-abolition over and above real-world proletarian struggles. Bruno Astarian, author of he Travail et son Depassement (2002) and a communization theorist critical of the abstractions of Theorie Communiste, has put the problem of proletarian self-negation very well:
I don’t understand how a struggle, even limited and moderate, would not include a self-relationship of the proletariat. On the contrary, in any struggle against capital, the first content of the struggle is for the proletariat to assert itself and its presence in capitalist society. At the start, any struggle is an affirmation of the class against capital and hence a self-relationship (be it as a union action or a riot). It is only then that the question arises of what this affirmation develops. The forms of struggles that I grouped together under the term anti-work show that the affirmation has to convert itself into a negation.
In other words, proletarian self-negation as a fixed principle of revolutionary negation divorces communization from any viable strategic bearings. In producing a radical immanentism solely through the crisis of the wage form and the crisis of working-class self-identity, it locks self-negation out from self-relation, in another, and familiar, version of ‘pure’ proletarian politics. The recent collection of communization literature Communization and Its Discontents (2012), edited by Ben Noys, is very much attuned to this question. As Noys says: ‘it’s hard to see how [Theorie Communiste’s theory of communization] can coordinate or develop … “moments” of communization globally across the social field.’ Or, as Alberto Toscano puts it in a similar register, in his contribution to the collection, the ‘paucity of strategic and political reflection within communization’ produces a peculiar depoliticization’.This depoliticization is expressed acutely in communization’s lack of any discussion of intra- and inter-class relations, as if the very notion of proletarian self-abolition will itself dissolve both the internal divisions within the proletariat and the divisions between itself and its key adversary and ally: the petty bourgeoisie. Three sets of related problems in Theorie Communiste’s ‘communization’ arise as a consequence. The chronic failure on their part to recognize – as a result of their abandonment of transitional theory – that self-abolition prior to and during revolutionary transition leaves the social field open to capital and to the recrudescence of petty-bourgeois ideology as a solution to the social question of production: petty-socialized production for the market. The need, as a consequence, for proletarian self-relation to override self-abolition in any transitional period in order to prevent the breakdown of production, social anomie, counter-revolutionary desertion, and so on. (The situation today is vastly different from the situation in 1917-18 in Russia, but workers similarly will have to maintain the factories and keep them open as a condition of the revolution’s very survival. That is, it will be as workers that workers will secure social reproduction during this stage). The failure to recognize how proletarian self-abolition, in the current period, is ideologically double-edged: it is both the outcome of the political crisis of the wage form, as Theorie Communiste and Endnotes rightly argue, and also the result of the rise of petty-bourgeois ideology (entrepreneurialism; individualist solutions to collective problems; ‘creativity’ above political relations) to a position of cultural hegemony. It therefore reflects how petty-bourgeois ideology in its current neoliberal form is not just class-specific – the operational ideology of the new middle class, so to speak -but operates in a Lukacsian sense, deep within and across class relations. That Theorie Communiste fails to address this leaves self-abolition at the mercy of petty-bourgeois notions of ‘class-lessness’. The overall picture, then, is a ‘[wanton indifference] to the gargantuan obstacles in the way of negating capital’.
Even after this brief survey and limited analysis, one can see how much of the work on the communist idea and communization in its reconceptualization of communism in philosophy and in politics is fighting an uphill struggle against the encroachment of abstraction, given the absence of communist practice as the ‘real movement of things’. Thus, we might say that the tendency to weak abstraction – or the primary reconstruction of communism as a speculative name in philosophy – is a consequence of the aporetic condition of communization as theory of politics in the present period. This is why sectarian denunciations of this abstraction are, in a way, beside the point, as if ‘better’ philosophy will issue in better politics. In conditions of the renewal of communism as a name in philosophy and in politics within a period of general retreat, political indeterminancy will of necessity condition the nature of the debate, inflating various real-world tendencies and symptoms into empty prefigurations. Similarly, Theorie Communiste and Endnotes are quick to argue that communization theory is not as yet an organizational politics, but a set of theoretical propositions and presuppositions that prepare the ground for future (major) struggles. Yet to accept this is not to turn away from the obvious problems here. Communization, as it moves into the formalization of proletarian self-abolition, moves easily into chialism and gnosticism, recalling the very thing that communism’s enemies have continually set out to demonstrate: communism’s essential apocalypticism. The groups Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee (author of The Coming Insurrection) – both discussed at length in Communism and Its Discontents – and the writers associated with Krisis in Germany, do little to dissuade us from this reading. All abdicate the need to rebuild proletarian self-relation as a condition of revolutionary transformation.
It is worth, then, putting on the brakes at this point and indulging in a kind of severe counter-rationalization. Why should we take this writing seriously? Is this theory not a kind of political sideshow? Is de-temporalizing proletarian self-abolition not simply an overcompensatory reaction to the legacy of statist triumphalism and workerism? For it is hard not to imagine communist workers and activists, looking on aghast or even pityingly at this growth in (European) communization theory.