The Party and the Popular Front



by McKenzie Wark

I am agnostic on the question of organizational form. As an ex-communist, I consider my “party” to be those who are also now in some sense “ex”: excommunicated, expelled, or just extremely indifferent to such experiences.

All politics is local, so I can only remark on what I can see around me in New York. I admire those who, like Jodi Dean, want to revive the party form. I also admire those who, like David Graeber, have thought and practiced contemporary forms of horizontality. Astra Taylor, Nick Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross, and others developed Strike Debt out of the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street, in various ways showing how activist scholarship can work. The journal Tidal is a product of this movement. But in an era when none of the once-mighty political forms of the left are functioning particularly well in New York, or the United States more broadly, it seems to me prudent to support all attempts to build something new in their wake.

However, it does seem timely to ask what might take the place, not just of the party, but of the popular front. I take seriously the view that the current situation is not just a form of neoliberalism, but of neofascism. The ruling class of our time does not see any reason to make concessions to labor, given its disorganized state, and has successfully disorganized and scattered the critical impulses of other class fractions. It is intent now on pressing its advantage.

It may have no choice. The engines of development of commodification appear in some ways to be stalled. The ideology of “disruption” and “innovation” and the “pivot” seem to be designed to mask the real absence of a coherent project of creative destruction on the part of the ruling classes. They can see no way forward but by cannibalizing those parts of the social formation in the over-developed world that are its support systems. Thus education, heath, public housing, transport, and social security—those social-democratic achievements which are also the conditions of viability of the over-developed world—are all one after another to be sacrificed to the perpetual growth engines of commodification.

This is where the Situationist term (also used by Paul Gilroy) of over-development has its uses. The United States, Japan, and Western Europe are not a developed norm against which under-development is to be thought. Rather they are an over-development, a process of commodification gone past some point where a qualitative transformation might have rescued these social formations from an impending neo-fascist fate.

Apart from their centrality to finance and capacity to project military violence, the states of the over-developed world may no longer be all that central to world history. It may be time to think the problems of living in them as problems of a periphery. I think it is the case that in the over-developed world, a new kind of vectoral ruling class emerged, one that tries to control the whole production and consumption chain through ownership and control of information. But it is not necessarily the case that this is a leading historical development. It may yet prove to be a reactive one.

It is crystal clear that as we go deep into the Anthropocene, a radical transformation of the means of production has to happen. This is not just a question of swapping out energy systems, but also a full deployment of information systems at least partly on a basis other than a market-based quantification. Abstraction has reached the point where it has commodifed, and thus alienated, all the resources of the earth. Thus while at one end the political question is always local, on the other we urgently need an approach to organization at the scale of the gamespace of global infrastructure itself.

How does one occupy an abstraction? That was the question I had about Occupy Wall Street as I was sitting in the middle of it. Unlike Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek I would not oppose the large-scale organizational question to the small-scale one. Thinking scale in this manner may actually be something that the development of an information infrastructure of the vectoral era has in fact quite transformed. This is an era where infrastructure is not a little network of big things so much as a big network of little things. The question is how to transform that in a direction that can sustain life, that can put an end to unnecessary suffering – to give the old Fabian formula.

Here the Marxist strand of geographic and urban studies may have its uses, in rethinking the spatial forms in which local and global, concrete and abstract might interact. Henri Lefebvre is a key figure here in thinking capital as the production of space. This approach was much criticized by Manuel Castells, who usefully maps the transition from a global space of places to a space of flows. Lefebvre was then revived by David Harvey, although all of this might contribute to the politics of the right to the city.

How vectoral power changes cities was already becoming clear in Mike Davis on policing, Sharon Zukin on gentrification, and Saskia Sassen on the service labor of the new global city. Andrew Ross has rather presciently shown how environmental justice plays out in a city like Phoenix, likely to be particularly hard-hit by climate change. Maggie Grey tracks the farm labor of upstate New York to show how the productive space on which the city depends extends way beyond it. Owen Hatherley’s revisionist history rescues from oblivion the achievements of social democratic public housing.

Rethinking forms of politics, or forms of action after politics, for the overdeveloped world might call for a placing of the city back in its geographic field, into what Gearóid ó Tuathail calls a critical geopolitics. While not explicitly Marxist, I think there is a #Marx21c aspect to the work of Keller Easterling and Benjamin Bratton. Here the old diagram of base and superstructure acquires new layers. Bratton’s concept of the stack shows how information technology functions to delaminate geographic, economic, and political layers. Easterling’s studies of free trade zones and broadband infrstructure outside the old metropolitan core shows how the patterns crafted by digital design embed themselves directly into vast tracts of territory, creating cut-and-paste urbanisms, sometimes overnight.

Thus in the dialectic between party and spontaneity perhaps what we are seeing is an effect of relatively new geographies over which the vector can articulate quite distinctive relations between the local and the global and between the abstract and the particular. A #Marx21c urgently needs tools with which to think the contours of the infrastructure in which all forms of social life are embedded—particularly at a time when none of them seem sustainable or resilient.

There are, and will necessarily be, many different kinds of #Marx21c. It is not a tradition, or an apostolic succession. It is a field of differences and similarities, which unfold outwards from the moment of Marx in all directions. The means via which contemporary Marxisms relate to the past is also plural. Not all take the form of quotation, that legitimating mark of academic modes of discourse. It will necessarily develop all four modes discussed in this essay (which probably map onto the four discourses Jodi Dean extracts from Lacan), but which may well create yet others.

What the times call for is not yet another Marxist theory, of whatever stripe. Rather, the pressing question is one of forms of communication between different practices in the name of Marx. For too long these have been captured and separated by academic modes of communication. Let’s invent a new theoretical practice as Althusser called it, but one where his rather controlling, top-down approach remains optional. Let’s have a proliferation of low theories instead.

Finally, let me hasten to add that the mapping offered in this essay is personal and provisional. It is based entirely on memory, and a closer engagement with any of the texts mentioned here will reveal resources not even touched upon in this account. We have hardly even begun to explore what these and other veins of Marxist work might yield by way of crystals of insight, when set to the task of understanding and engaging with the present situation.

Essay part 6 of a 6-part series. First published at Arcade | Creative Commons License
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About the Author:

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School. He is the author, most recently, of The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013). His book, Molecular Red is out in April 2015.