Originally published here.
Daniel Spaulding is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art, Yale University. He works on postwar and contemporary art in Western Europe. With Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus he coauthored a response to a questionnaire on Occupy Wall Street for a special issue of the journal October in the fall of 2012. (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/OCTO_a_00122)
Daniel Spaulding: It’s senseless to answer this question except with reference to concrete instances of relations between the two. I’m not interested in defining the role of art in bourgeois society as such in the manner of, say, Peter Bürger. At the same time real instances of the interface between art and politics are unquestionably determined by the general forms of capitalist society – the commodity, the wage, exchange, and so on. From this basis one can indeed claim to deduce the category of art from the determinations of the value-form or more broadly from the whole complex of relations that make up the capitalist mode of production. The role of a Marxist art history as opposed to a Marxist aesthetic theory, however, must be to mediate between form-determination and form itself, between category and material artifact.
In that spirit I’m also going to be a bit unsatisfying and refuse to give a programmatic answer to your question. I will venture to say that the standard modes of “critical” post-60s art won’t cut it. This seems widely acknowledged even in the bastions of that very model: see for instance recent meditations on the “postcritical” impulse and the failure of the “anti-aesthetic” in journals like October and Texte zur Kunst. I’m afraid lot of this is just chewing the cud of “left” art history’s academicization. The impasse is real, however.
The vital question is how to articulate the totalizing impulse of critique – which I’d argue is still as important as ever, in the face of capitalism’s own totalizing force – with a poiesis necessarily fixated on the smallest point of ingress to the materiality of everyday life, or to put it differently, the smallest unit of affect or event in its difference from a reified situation. Art small-a. I’d be willing to bet that a materialist lyric mode is the closest thing to an avant-garde we currently possess. It’s no longer very interesting to say: “Look, I’ve divested myself of my subjectivity, I’ve laid bare the mechanism through critical mimesis, I’ve taught the petrified social forms to dance by singing them their own song.” Better for artists to ask: “How can I make something that speaks to my experience in all its fucked-upness and seeming inevitability; how can I produce anything at all without immediately reproducing capital; what representational or anti-representational claims can I make with regard to my own place in the violent hierarchy of class society?” But this is a kind of lyric that opens onto epic to the extent it necessarily folds totalization back into subjectivity, or history into experience.
Art is able to do this in ways that exceed the resources of critique alone. By doing so artistic practices conceived on this model also help get us beyond the antinomy of committed versus autonomous art. Art’s autonomy instead consists in its asymptotic approach to an autonomy of the social, that is, to communism. Whether this means a sublation of art into life or something quite different is not the most interesting question at this moment in history.
C.D.V.: You have written on the aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization in Occupy: do you see part of Occupy’s appeal as aesthetic?
D.S.: I think its appeal may have been aesthetic in the older and broader sense of the term. Occupy had a visceral sensory impact on the ground and even in its circulation through the image-world. Occupiers sometimes talk nostalgically about the distinctive smell at the camps. There’s obviously a danger of romanticizing this, but I think it’s right to say that Occupy among other things offered a glimpse of a different sensorium, that is, of a world in which matter and form are ordered not by the logic of capital but rather in the immediate reproduction of communal life. Of course Occupy’s world was precarious and frequently miserable, but in that, too, I think it was probably an accurate preview of what a break with capital will really entail.
This is a slightly different matter than the “aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization,” whatever such might be. (I’d like to keep the two terms separate, by the way. You can certainly have insurrection without communization, but whether you can have communization without insurrection is another question.) In the October piece I wrote with Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus we made a rather coded swipe at what we called the “aestheticizers of autonomy.” By this we meant, for example, artists or artist-collectives who take insurrection as a “theme” or even a procedure but at any rate as something to be injected into the gallery system, and thus into all its attendant circuits of valorization and exploitation. I don’t know if this is much different from the wave of awful “political” art that came out of the heyday of identity politics. At any rate Baudelairean neo-spleen is not much better than the same product that’s in all the other galleries.
One of the functions of art in capitalism is to poach and domesticate radical energies from elsewhere in society. Art historians ought to be frank about this. A critique of art history, or a meta-art history, might be used to disqualify the circulation of vaguely “political” signifiers as the common currency of the art world. We can say: No, this isn’t political, this is the same shit as always, please stop fucking around. And this might be a way to redirect the desire for a better life that is currently railroaded into the art world back to the world itself.
Anyway, moving on. I would avoid saying that there is a specific aesthetic of communization or insurrection, unless there’s an aesthetic of communism itself. Undoubtedly there would be such but we can’t say in advance what it is. It isn’t Emory Douglas or Claire Fontaine, however much we might be interested in their work. On the other hand there’s certainly a visual imaginary of insurrectionism. It’s interesting that The Coming Insurrection ends on a narrative scene, really a sort of creative writing exercise: “visualize total collapse” as opposed to “visualize world peace.” I find that useful as far as it goes. We do need to view the current order from the standpoint of its anticipated collapse. This is the basic historical materialist insight, and it’s also the point of departure for the Marxist tradition’s thorny pairing of utopia with catastrophe. When the image of insurrection substitutes for its actuality, though, we’re back into mere ideology. I don’t mean this as an attack on any particular milieu and its styling. We simply need to be very careful to specify that revolutionary dynamics are at least as likely to be marked by their non-visibility as by a production of images, by their withdrawal from the aesthetic as much as their conquest of a public profile. Politics happens where genre fails.
On this note, Occupy was fascinating because there was a basic tension between an (exhausted) image-politics – “the media isn’t covering this!” or “let’s make this trend on Twitter!” – and a mostly subterranean challenge to the rule of property, to the police state, ultimately to what has to be described as the whole of capitalist society. Capital’s overwhelming command over the boundaries of the sayable and the unsayable predictably meant that the more profound challenge often came to the surface only in variously mediated or symptomatic shapes. The Marxist interpretation of culture has some work to do here because one of the areas in which it historically gained purchase was of course the method of symptomatic reading – scouring the surface of culture for traces of contradiction. What gave itself to appearance in Occupy demands the same attention. But in present conditions, art history, in particular, may paradoxically best do this by shrinking back from “the aesthetic,” if this is understood as identical with the historical institution of art. There are other kinds of practice that challenge the very coherence of the term.
For example, one of the great slogans that came out of Occupy was “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” This struck a chord with a lot of us because it hit on the predicament of trying to speak politically today: we are reduced to practical incoherence by the sheer wrongness of the world and of our lives, on what I’m tempted to call an existential level. Art has also sometimes been able to speak this inability to speak. The most recent Whitney Biennial was pitched to a very definite affective register, what David Joselit called “melancholy camp.” I think this might have been overplayed in the exhibition to the point of mannerism, but it does get at a very real sense of how we live now (with the caveat that “we” is of course parceled out by class, race, gender, and sexuality): now, we are very often in some way “camping,” improvising in the ruins of an order that can no longer promise a future, can no longer promise coherent structures of experience, in the end, can no longer promise its own reproduction and simple endurance. But did the Biennial register this situation in the most effective way, or the slogan? The latter, I suspect.
Art historians should recognize that art is not necessarily good at what it’s trying to do. Art as a practice may sometimes give us models of how to relate to the material world and to each other in ways that don’t succumb to the imperatives of value production. So do things like occupations and reading groups and riots, though, and it’s not obvious to me that art is currently doing a better job.
C.D.V.: What do you make the commercialization of some the aesthetic sensibilities around Occupy?
D.S.: To be honest I’m not entirely sure what you mean. There was an aspect of Occupy’s aesthetic presence that was always-already commercialized, so to speak, in that it aimed to propagate a political brand through existing channels of circulation. Meme politics and the like. I don’t have an objection to this per se. I like memes. But the limitations are clear and so is the tension between that strategy and the more intractable problems of subsistence, survival, and open class conflict that also surfaced in Occupy. I sometimes think of this tension metonymically as New York versus Oakland. That’s not very fair to either city, though. In fact all of the camps reproduced a gendered and racialized division between a self-appointed “99%,” who claimed the privilege of speaking for others, and the mass of the more profoundly dispossessed who continued to face state and economic violence on a daily basis and who often found themselves expropriated again in the discourse (and practice) of Occupy. This division was already recuperation from within. Unfortunately it was probably insurmountable in a context structured by white and male supremacy.
Beyond this my impression is that instances of specifically aesthetic co-optation have been minor. Occupy never really generated a new vocabulary of forms, in either politics or aesthetics, and so there ultimately wasn’t much to appropriate. This is in marked contrast to the revolts of the sixties, to take an obvious example. Aside from “We are the 99%” even the slogans barely percolated into mass culture. Occupy’s impact was probably more effectively distributed in heavily mediated and more insidiously ideological manifestations, like the most recent Batman movie (which I didn’t actually see, but then, the noise in the vicinity of these media events is often more interesting than the thing itself). Of course there was also a tremendous amount of liberal normalization especially over the past year, reaching a peak of absurdity with the election. But to me this was just so much slime returning to the swamp from whence it came.
Again the issue pivots around what does and doesn’t take coherent form at the present moment. Occupy never made itself into Leviathan. There was no figure of sovereignty to gather it together, nor so much as a credible placeholder/analyst akin to the historical prerevolutionary Party. Contra the back-to-Lenin crowd I don’t necessarily see this as a failing. Contra the horizontalist tendency I also don’t see it as a strength. It’s simply the place we are at. This is also an aesthetic fact since the distribution of aesthetic as much as political forms depends on establishing oppositions of figure to ground, on the emergence of a gestalt. The coalescence of organized and representational anti-capitalist politics seems to be what is barred. This undoubtedly has its effects in the visual field. The crisis of capitalism today is far more severe than in the sixties, but in the present cycle neither crisis nor opposition lend themselves readily to images, except of the most disposable sort (memes again); the masses don’t meld into an image of unity, and the forces of reaction have had only limited success in appealing to the image of the nation or other more or less fascistic rallying points. (I don’t intend to minimize the threat of fascism, in Greece for instance, but rather to say that the threat is unlikely to play out quite like its twentieth-century predecessors.) This complicates the familiar cycle of revolt-representation-recuperation that’s often presumed to be the modus operandi of spectacle. If representation never truly takes place, it’s hard to know how co-optation can proceed – except perhaps by colonization at an exponentially molecular level. Which is perhaps what I mean by the “internal” recuperation I’ve already described.
That’s a dark thought and I don’t want to give it too much weight. The commercialization of oppositional culture obviously continues apace – there’s a riot video game in development, I’m told – but it seems unlikely that this will succeed in containing what it represents. To be clear: it’s not as if there’s something external to the commodity’s rule, in either art or politics, that then becomes vitiated through recuperation, but rather that events like Occupy point to immanent breaks in the reproduction of capitalist relations – including their image-structures – even if on a certain level they are undoubtedly already “captured.” Capital and the state then seek to plug the leaks any way they can. Clearly it’s worth paying attention to such strategies. But it’s also important to remain true to the point of rupture – to continue asking, with the late Chris Marker, “Pourquoi quelquefois les images se mettent-elles à trembler?”
If the question is about art, however, I can only repeat what I’ve already said. There exists bad art about Occupy. The phenomenon seems minor enough that it may still be conscientiously ignored.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Oakland Occupy narrative is so often contrasted with the New York narrative despite the fact that Oakland occupy itself was criticized for being racially problematic by minority leaders within the community?
D.S.: The point is not that one version of Occupy or another was better at dealing with race but rather that Oakland was undeniably marked by a higher degree of militancy. All of the occupations were fundamentally inadequate in their attempts to confront racism. The dynamic was very different in different places, however. Occupy Oakland would not have been what it was without the uprisings following the Oscar Grant murder, to say nothing of many decades of radical black militancy. The name “Occupy Oakland” itself ramified into “Decolonize Oakland” and the “Oakland Commune,” both of which indicate quite divergent self-conceptions. It’s thus better to understand the 2011-12 events as autonomous developments out of the city’s own radical tradition rather than as imports from New York. There was of course conflict around tactics that were perceived to be alienating. But it’s demonstrably untrue and deeply reactionary to claim that people of color universally disapproved of militant escalation.
I want to avoid misunderstanding: I’m not trying to valorize Oakland over New York or anywhere else. I do believe Oakland showed us possibilities and limitations that were never so apparent elsewhere in the United States. It’s an important case study as we try to anticipate future developments. A similar mix of alliance and friction between insurrectionary currents, organized labor, and established community leaders (who too often act as managers of racial and class domination) – to name only three among many actors – will undoubtedly play out with any number of local variations over the coming years. These tensions surfaced in New York as well but were more effectively subsumed under the figure of a downwardly mobile “middle class.”
Now I’m beginning to sound like an authority, though, which I’m certainly not. These are my impressions from knowing people involved and from following events at a distance. I’m just an art historian.
C.D.V. : Some context over what I trying to get at. I don’t think anyone has said that Occupy Oakland was universally condemned by people of color, but I do think it is very clear that leaders within Oakland’s African American and Asian American community did start to become hostile to it after two or three event dafter the “general strike”. The tensions were not over black bloc tactics as a whole, but the community writings in the Oakland local turned after the strong local support after Scott Grant attack. The support was lost because of a few threats to shut down airports and other things that the Oakland Commune honestly did not have the capacity to do, as well as the targeting of some local businesses seen as not related to corporate or government problems within the community. Support in the community for the General Strike was very, very high particularly because of the Oscar Grant killing, the protests over BART police, and the particularly high rate of homelessness there. The black bloc tactics themselves weren’t condemned in local papers at first, just some the aimlessness of some of the choices of targets until that meme became much more used in the liberal press.
I think, however, it should be dealt with that this disapproval was seized upon by large portions of liberals within the media to be able to distance themselves from Occupy Oakland/The Oakland Commune and to try to paint it as a San Francisco kids coming to Oakland with bringing within the “black bloc.” This stuff is all over the editorial pages of local Oakland papers. To make it more problematic, this idea as then pressed in almost every liberal net-newspaper outlet: Mother Jones, HuffPo, the Nation, and Truth Out.
The debates over the black bloc were interesting though, and this brings me to my next question: Why do you think the aesthetics of the black bloc has been so successfully used within left-liberal circles as a distancing point? I have been involved in discussions and debates about these things since my teens, and the Black Bloc was used to protect squatters from police and some local gangs in Atlanta prior to the WTO Protests* in 1998 in Seattle. After the WTO protests, there was a small storm in the left media about the Black Bloc tactics used there, but this largely disappeared during the Bush years as a debate after the G-8 Protests were minimal at Sea Island for the same movement. Only after the Oakland commune incidents did it come back into play, but the objections seemed largely about Public Relations and aesthetics (direct property violence versus indirect property violence is not really a moral choice, as their effects are equal. None of the left-liberal publications had strong problems with the General Strike shutting down the Port of Oakland, but they did have problems with smashed windows).
D.S.: Thanks, I see where you’re coming from now. My understanding of what happened in Oakland is broadly the same. All of this of course came to a head with Move-In Day on January 28 last year, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Hedges’ despicable “Cancer in Occupy” article. But already interventions by the “peace police” indicated that there was never unity of action between left-liberals and radicals – as of course was only to be expected. Incidentally I don’t think it’s the case that there were no strong objections to the port shutdown. Certainly the second action in December got a lot of negative attention. Even on the radical left there was skepticism about Occupy’s relation to ILWU, the longshoremen’s union. Cal Winslow, who is a member of the group Retort, had a piece in Counterpunch criticizing the port shutdown due to lack of support from union leadership, for instance. At exactly the same moment the communization-oriented website Bay of Rage posted an article urging the necessity of circumventing the union apparatus entirely. This is just to point out that the moment of unity was very brief if it can be said to have happened at all. But then, this is not what you were asking about.
I have to say I’m not eager to jump into another discussion of the Black Bloc. By now the debate is so ossified that I wonder if much remains to be said. I take a longer perspective on the matter because in my own work I happen to study art and politics in post-‘68 West Germany. That’s where the Black Bloc was first developed, taking cues from the Dutch Provos and other street-fighting contingents of the New Left. It arose as a combat tactic at a time when you could still reasonably expect to fight the cops in pitched battle and win, as indeed happened on a number of occasions. Thanks to the Autonome scene and a massive squatting movement there were sizeable chunks of Berlin and Hamburg where the state effectively had no authority. In those circumstances the tactic made a lot of sense and indeed marked an important innovation after the decline of both late-60s mass mobilizations and of the armed struggle groups following the “German Autumn” of 1977. Absent these conditions the Black Bloc is something else entirely. I could say much on the subject but I would likely only duplicate arguments from elsewhere without making any particular contribution of my own. At any rate it’s an odd moment for us to be considering the question, given that we’re now in a comparatively dormant phase (with the unanticipated exception of the emergence of an Egyptian Black Bloc in February, about which other parties are surely far more knowledgeable than I).
The role of the Black Bloc in the liberal imaginary and in the media, especially “left” media, is a different matter. It does bear repeating that from the point of view of capital the loss millions of dollars in a blockade is far more serious than the loss a few thousand as a result of direct property damage. Nobody actually cares about bank windows. So clearly the Black Bloc induces hysteria because it’s taken as a threat to social stability and property rights far in excess of its immediate impact. For any right-thinking anti-capitalist this would presumably be a plus. But huge segments of the “left” are afraid to make capitalists afraid. Granting the existence of internal problems within anarchist and other milieux, I therefore think it’s correct to say that the ideological distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protest – a distinction that itself unavoidably produces complicity with state violence – can be laid primarily at the feet of “left” commentators who bow to the supposed necessity of positive media messaging. This is a catch-22: capitalist media will never grant positive coverage to anything that seriously threatens class rule. The problem is real of course but it’s worse than misguided to believe we can solve it through better behavior at protests. The Black Bloc is a convenient bête noire on which to pin censure of any desire for radical negation whatsoever. If it wasn’t ready to hand something would have to be conjured up to take its place – either that, or visible anti-capitalist contestation would cease to exist. So the reason the Black Bloc is an effective way to split movements… is because it’s an effective way to split movements. Left-liberals distance themselves from the Black Bloc because it’s a convenient pretext to distance themselves from radical opposition to capitalism.
Rather than fulminate at greater length I’d prefer to move on, though. The “aesthetics” at issue here are extremely interesting in their own right, whatever reformists make of them. What I’m about to say stinks of recuperation, but I do think the Black Bloc is a worthy object of study for art historians. It’s another moment – neither necessary nor privileged, but significant – in the long retreat from representational politics and its privileged image-structures in post-60s capitalism, a theme I’ve gestured towards already. The Black Bloc is nothing if not an embodied (anti-)politics of (anti-)visibility. Is it an image or an anti-image? Well, that’s a good question for art historians. And I believe its implications extend to any number of artistic practices as well.
C.D.V.: What do you make the long slow death of the middle brow represented by things like the neo-liberalization of NPR?
D.S.:I wish it were a little less slow.
A bit more seriously: I think in the case of something like NPR (which I never listen to, anyway) the decline can probably be attributed to an increasing divergence between the experience of its mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly petty-bourgeois audience, and the station’s attempts to reflect that audience’s consciousness back to itself. The postwar era in the United States could be defined in terms of the apparent cultural hegemony of the “middle class”; in fact, of course, the petty bourgeoisie in no way held true political or economic power, but the culture mirrored back to them their own sense of autonomy. Middlebrow organs like NPR or the New Yorker attempt to continue that function for a smaller class fraction, one that perhaps until recently felt itself immune to economic precarity. With the catastrophic rise of student debt and narrowing horizons for college graduates this self-image has become increasingly threadbare. So instead middlebrow culture now more and more has the immediate task of shoring up neoliberalism “with a human face,” so to speak.
C.D.V.: Do you see the so-called hipster aesthetic as a different manifestation of the same tendency?
D.S.: I guess I do, although there are different layers here. I also have no patience with hipster-bashing. A lot of what’s identified as hipster culture is an improvisational response to the contradictions of petty-bourgeois precarity. It’s self-styling for those who for the most part don’t work very much or don’t have much security at the jobs they do have – not much of a future – but who are nonetheless forced to maintain an ability and readiness to work at any moment: a kind of unmoored professionalism. The insufferableness and tragedy of hip life is a function of its scramble for cultural autonomy within the most abject dependency on the attenuated wage-relation. As opposed to earlier counter- or subcultures (punk, say), the moment of negation is perpetually deferred. Needless to say I’m not talking about the stereotypical trust-fund hipster here but rather the mass of mostly post-collegiate individuals in the global North who have been socialized as middle-class workers but who now find this way of life inaccessible, whether temporarily or permanently.
C.D.V.: Do you see hipster bashing as a form of distinction in Bordieu’s sense of the term?
D.S.: I suppose it must be, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over the question.
C.D.V.: Let’s completely shift gears: Why do you think communization theory has been subject to complete misrepresented in a long of left-wing critiques?
D.S.: As a fairly recent convert myself I can say that even with the benefit of a passable background in Marxism my initial encounters with communization theory were characterized by misrecognition and missed connections. I became aware of this body of literature in a major way with the protests and occupations at the University of California in 2009-10. If you weren’t paying attention it was possible to misinterpret what was happening as undifferentiated radical escalation and hence to miss what was so distinctive about the texts coming out from Endnotes or Research and Destroy, to name two important collectives involved in the resurgence of communization theory. So I can understand the tendency in others, as well. And indeed too much of the discourse is stuffed with needlessly convoluted Hegelianisms, even if it ultimately does, as a rule, make sense. The work of Théorie Communiste for example is perhaps the most profound analysis of capitalism today, often delivered in truly unfortunate prose.
After a certain point the misinterpretations seem to become willful, however. I believe the problem is not that the basic insights of communization theory are especially difficult to grasp but rather that they fluster the left’s basic assumptions in ways that can’t readily be parried by creaky arguments against anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you. Incidentally this is not in any way annexable to a Platypus-style thesis on the deadness of the Left. Communization theory as I understand it reaches its conclusions not by way of the political superstructure but instead in a thoroughly materialist interpretation of changes in the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. (This is for the moment to put aside debates within the communization current over invariance, subsumption, and all the other words that give people like me a reputation for opacity.) Communization theory at its best is in fact an extremely rigorous engagement with the basic problems of Marxism; it pursues this engagement with a ruthless focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of the present moment, and hence derives findings that are deeply uncongenial to any form of political nostalgia. The usual defense mechanism is then to reduce communization theory to something it’s not, namely anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that “communization theory” is a single thing or even a thing at all. The term has oddly come to designate an extremely varied set of perspectives unified by perhaps little more than a common origin in the European (mostly French) post-’68 ultraleft, with its forebears in the Situationist International, left communism, council communism, certain strands of anarchism, etc. The differences between, say, Tiqqun and Léon de Mattis and Jacques Camatte are vast enough to destabilize the label altogether. Most recently there’s been some confusion about the relation of communization to value-form theory, which has quite different roots in the late Frankfurt School and the German “New Reading of Marx.” Confusion of this sort might not be such a bad thing; certainly it’s good that “communization” does not exist as an endlessly disputed point of doctrine in the manner of “Leninism.” It would be a huge error to reify one theory or another as the only true essence of communization. That said, my own views are most in line with the perspectives articulated in the second issue of the journal Endnotes, in case you were curious.
C.D.V.: What do Theorie Communiste understands that a lot of other Marxists don’t? And why does it lead to awful prose?
D.S.: Why it leads to awful prose I don’t know. It may simply lead to hasty translation, though to be fair the original texts seem gnarled as well. One could probably attribute this to having worked for decades in near-total obscurity. In these circumstances the development of the collective’s own terminology and self-understanding undoubtedly often took precedence over making themselves clear to others. There’s also the more problematic fact that Théorie Communiste have little interest in building a mass political project of any sort and hence don’t feel the need to explain themselves. Their writing is diagnosis and critique in a rather classical sense of the latter word: it aims to root out the conditions of possibility for thinking communism at all in the present day, but offers no strategy by which to achieve it in a given conjuncture. I find this frustrating myself. Understanding their intentions nonetheless helps to pre-empt the inevitable “Yes, but what do you do?” question. You can only say: in any given situation, whenever it’s feasible, you communize. How that’s supposed to happen can only ever be specific and improvisational; it might involve seizing public squares, or it might simply be turning to existing forms of sociality as a new basis for survival in the absence of capital. Between the logic of theory and the praxis of communism lie whole ranges of hybrid forms of organization that are neither condoned nor excluded a priori by the analysis. In our own lives dealing with these forms will necessarily be paramount. Contrary to the usual accusation, then, communization theory is not inflexibly anti-organizational; rather, it tends to indicate why certain ways of organizing are unlikely to work now and is in that sense immediately practical. But I don’t deny that there’s a hermeticism to some of the writing.
Théorie Communiste are useful to me because they ground the reproduction of class and capital in cycles of struggle that are understood to fundamentally alter the class relation itself. In the most abstract sense they argue that the era in which the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles tended towards the affirmation of the class within capitalist social relations – either in social democracy, or in production under state socialism – comes to an end when the proletariat’s entire being as a class is subsumed under capital: when institutions like the Party or the Union or the Council have been wholly defeated or assimilated to self-exploitation; when capital’s own offensive reestablishes control but at the cost of destroying its very condition of realization, that is to say, the continued reproduction of labor. Class identity then no longer appears as the basis from which to pursue an affirmative politics of autonomy but as an obstacle to be overcome. It’s only by failing to grasp the dialectic here that such a claim can be attacked for supposedly upholding capital as the only subject of history. From a Marxist perspective it should be obvious that the proletariat is a class of capital just as capital only valorizes itself in labor: capital and labor reproduce each other mutually, but capital’s drive towards ever-greater subsumption (through the colonization of everyday life, increased mechanization, neoliberal revanchism, and a host of other devices) progressively eliminates the reserves from which a positive identity for the proletariat might be elaborated and affirmed. Crisis is therefore defined as a breakdown of reproduction that forces workers to encounter their class identity as something external, something to be negated; the revolutionary class is then understood to be the class that negates itself and capitalist society not by its universalization under a dictatorship of the proletariat but rather in its immediate self-abolition, the destruction of the value-form, and a move towards other means of subsistence – communization. The point here is not necessarily that this process has happened or will happen in the conceptual purity of the above presentation but rather that this structure constitutes an explicable tendency that may be expressed in all sorts of chaotic or contingent events.
Théorie Communiste are not the only authors to have made these points, and in many local instances I have strong disagreements with their conclusions. But I do believe they’ve zeroed in on the predicament of our moment with greater force and consistency than perhaps anyone else. Their version of communization theory allows us to recognize the present as an impasse and yet historicize that impasse; it helps to explain the collapse of the left without melancholy for lost powers, lost representations, without despair in the face of a supposedly inalterable totality, and without need for an “idea” to provide direction; it also points towards a practice by which we can move forward even without a grand project or a vaguely theological guarantee of success. Their work has also proved generative for thinking in other directions. Its recent intersection with the concept of social reproduction in materialist feminism is particularly exciting to me.
To return for a moment to your previous question, though, I’d like to say something about another possible source of confusion. Recently I have become more aware that communization theory moves in a very odd temporality. The emphasis on immediacy, the lack of an anticipated transitional phase, “communization in the present tense” – communism as something to do rather than a program to enact – can easily lead to the impression that communization theory conceives of revolution as necessarily both imminent and punctual. In fact I see no reason why this should be the case. Communization theory instead elucidates a spatiotemporal logic within any revolutionary process conceivable on the basis of the present form of the contradiction between labor and capital. It doesn’t provide a timeline, and it doesn’t claim that no other processes may take place concurrently. All real politics are contradictory and unevenly developed. I can imagine communization as taking place over the course of a century, at many levels, at many speeds.
*Originally, read “G-8 protests” due to the confusion of the interviewer and has since been corrected.