Finally, primitive accumulation is no longer the best way to frame the early history of capitalism, and this not because the epoch of commercial capitalism did not contribute decisively to the rise of modern production – it obviously did – but because that remains a purely teleological perspective and one that diverts attention from the real lacuna in materialist historiography, which is the study and, one hopes, ultimately a synthesis of the emergence of capitalism, which in the sporadic form that Marx described it as having was certainly in place by the thirteenth century. If the obscure early centuries of capitalism were defined by the ‘sporadic existence of capitalist production’, this was much less true of the fifteenth century, when a sort of merchant-controlled industrial capitalism was widespread in centres such as Genoa and led the way into the great watershed of the sixteenth century. The section on primi- tive accumulation sums up much of the history it deals with as the ‘period of manufacture’, but manufacture, as Marx knew, was a legacy of commercial capitalism, of the fusion of commercial capital with production, as indeed were the slave plantations. The ‘forms’ thrown up by the early capitalism of the Mediterranean were essentially those that continued to drive global history down to the expansion of large-scale industry and its revolutionary mode of production in the nineteenth century, so that the history of commercial capi- talism is no longer simply a prelude to industrial capital but more like an act (to retain the operatic metaphor), something that is best seen as a totality, a narrative with its own coherence, forms, internal periodisation, and concep- tions of empire. Marx was right, ‘the different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order’, only today, with so much more historiography before us, there is no compelling reason why this whole swathe of history should remain the compressed if brilliant histoire raisonnée Marx inserted into Volume I and not acquire the expansion of content it deserves.” – Jairus Banaji, Theory As History, p 44.
For those unfamiliar with this work by Banaji, I strongly endorse its general message that more work needs to be done on the specific modes of production and modes of political arrangement instead of instantly classifying huge parts of history into a simple, stagist typology. That said, this passage is a stumbling point for me. While Banaji does prove that “asiatic despotism” is a problematic historical category which has very little explanatory power, this condemnation of the idea of “primitive accumulation” seems harder to justify. Sure, hath is can degenerate into pure formalism that avoids actually having to know the actual historical developments in perspective regions related to social arrangement, but that is more of a reification error than a critique of an entire schema of historical understanding.
Is primitive accumulation purely teleological? If so, in what sense? Teleological tends to be used in a metaphysical sense meaning inevitable, but it’s original meaning, one that would not have eluded Marx, would progress towards a purpose. If the understanding behind primitive accumulation is that it was purposive for economic development and thus led to capitalism, even if it occurred in several places at different times, it may be teleological only in the second sense we are discussing, and not in the metaphysical or stagist sense but purely in an understanding that systems designed for a certain purpose while generally do certain things, particularly when Banaji is saying that it is an accurate description for the economies Marx was referencing.
Aftermaths and the Ashes of flyers: Between Communization and Accelerationism
As I write this a few weeks after visiting Oaxaca and watching students march through the main corridors of the Spanish Colonial streets of Ciudad de Oaxaca counting to 43 in chanted Spanish. On the walls of the Cathedral near the Zócalo once can see stencils for the Popular Front and “Viva Zapata” in bright green. The 43 are for 43 dead students killed under orders of major of a city in nearby state of Michoacán with the local government who worked with both the highly militarized police and the narcotics cartels. In the following months, several mass graves were found. Other nacro gangs, aid workers in the local church, and all sorts of unidentified locals and probably refugees from similarly violent cartel actions in central America. There is a lot of chanting.
This is a locus of political struggle, but the economic struggle here is clear too. Yet, as I visit the villages around Ciudad de Oaxaca, I mean people who are subsistence artisans. According to locals, aside from one microloan charity, no credit is available for small amounts at interests lower than 75%. Many of the men and women from one of the villages, Teotitlán del Valle, make handmade rugs. It is the entire skill set of the village and most of the people specialize in it. The rugs sell from 700 to 4000 Mexican pesos, roughly between 50 and 300 USD, and each of the weavers can be said to be doing well if a family of five or six sell four rugs a month. In another village, I meet people who are small agricultural workers—who in earlier and perhaps more honest times are people we would call peasants. A woman makes tlayudas, thick, crispy tortillas made with lime and corn as Zapotec and Mixtec women have done for generations. The oldest women we met speaks very little Spanish. They spent 5 to 8 hours making around 150 fresh tlayudas and make less than 50 pesos for their labor, not counting the costs of production.
These students in Oaxaca are not talking about these people, but they are thinking of them. Mixed in the graffiti, one sees indigenous languages and appeals not only to Zapatistas in Chiapas as well as Zapata’s faction in the Mexican revolution. The tlayuda maker, however, does not think about this much. She thinks about feeding her daughter. She worries about the fact most of the men had gone to the states and had only begun to come back. She worries about her family’s cargo, the community duty that indigenous under take in their autonomous relationship to the Mexican federal government based on census government. While this seems ideal and progressive, it is also a way for the federal government to under-invest in rural communities of Southern Mexico.
These experiences are not uncommon for my life here in Mexico, and yet Mexico is a country with a fairly high GDP. (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/mexico/gdp ) This growth is not going to the large majority of Mexicans. Three years prior, I took a flight from Seoul to Washington, DC, and then to NYC. I arrived in the dead of winter, and in NYC, stayed at the apartment of a communist in Brooklyn who wrote primarily on arts and the historical development of communism. We met a few German tourists interested in Adorno, and I spent time drinking with members of the anarchist group Crimethinc, and several Trotskyists. As a Southern with a state school education, I felt class envy with a few of those around me, but the class-character was mixed as there were also high school dropouts at the table and a young woman who come to New York after studying French but was trying to make it as a writer. My life was much less precarious than hers—while I have saved up for the trip by my work in Korea for a year and half, I could afford transcontinental flight to see my closest friend. All of us were a million years from the even communities I had seen in Appalachia where there were houses in the mountain without electricity in the 1980s. Now, many of those communities don’t exist as they are second homes in the mountains.
In 2014 in Mexico, I am watching the boiling over of a long simmering political struggle, but one that is not likely, as of yet, to be successful. In 2011, in New York City, I was visiting the lecture circuit around Occupy. It reminded me of a visit I had made to Seattle in 1999. My first real trip to the West coast of the US, and one that I used all the savings I had to go on. I wanted to see the anti-WTO protests, and my memory of them at 18 is unclear. It seemed remarkably off focus. Occupy had already broken its occupation by the time I had gotten to New York, but it still had a lecture schedule. Koreans were asking me about Occupy. Occupy Seoul and Yeouido, a park in the financial district of the city, had a few marches, been endorsed by an ailing Kim Jong Il, and morphed into an rather nationalistic and isolationist anti-free trade protest. The focus, while legitimate, had moved from inside Seoul to a foreign power. Something more exciting to hate, but also something no one could do much of anything about. This was the context of someone in NYC telling me to read Gilles Dauve and another friend asking me to read Nick Land’s pre-dark Enlightenment work.
One of the most fascinating things about that visit in reflection is that I had now watched three major social movements die in my life time. In 1999 to 2003, in my home state of Georgia, was the Sea Island protests. Despite anger of the rightward turn of the country in after 9-11 and despite a growing anti-war movement, Sea Island’s protests were muted and remarkably controlled compared to Seattle’s “battle” (which was more just arrests and minor property damage). The 30th G-8 summit was not even mildly inconvenienced. Several of the friends who had encouraged me to go Seattle and even planned to go Sea Island decided at the last minute to go to see a Suicide Girls burlesque show in Atlanta.
At the time, a few activists I met in anti-war protests, organized around antiwar.com received me at Sea Island. A few of the more liberal members had been signers of the Euston Manifesto, which they encouraged me to sign. I did. For a while I abandoned “the left.” The left, however, was focused largely on the anti-war and opposing Bush. I remember conspiracy videos in circulation nearly constantly. Many friends who defended what I know believe to be oil-rent social democracy of Venezuela also would talk for hours about how 9-11 was an inside job. We discussed and poorly practiced polyamory. We lived in a giant house. We drank too much whiskey. I moved from writing ‘zine articles about politics and reading commentaries on US foreign policy by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Aviva Chomsky to reading economic reports, the Volokh conspiracy blog, books on Spanish magical realism and constructivist pedagogy. I wrote on marginal religious movements instead of marginal political ones.
My life was de-politicizing. From an embrace of “left” liberalism to an embrace of anti-war paleo-conservatism to just not caring. My friends prattled on about Kerry then Obama. I just shrugged. I realized that I had misunderstood the locus of the political struggle, but I couldn’t put my hand on where.
Then 2008 happened and I was a public school teacher.
The conflations of time here are deliberate. There is no reason to write in two genres like this without making a point. My life and the context of that life was normal, middle class. The kind of life that a first generation college-educated white-skinned dude would have in many ways. There are instances about my identity that are atypical, but the development and the relationship to this kind of left-wing politicization is actually fairly standard. The zooming in and out of such a narrative is important: my subjective experience was not of my choosing and yet I also saw the attempts at several social movements in a decade and a half despite myself.
By that trip to New York in the aftermath of Occupy, I wanted answers. I had read Marx, Delueze, Hegel, Foucault, Adorno, and the rest in college. I had read critical theories of law and education stemming from that. I had been talking to colleagues in my graduate program about these theories solely in terms of fiction. It was back of my cognitive apparatus, but not part of my material conditions. Even in libertarian-esque period of my life, I still quoted Adorno and sometimes read Mao.
I went through many theories trying to contextualize the failure of the left. I remembered the Cold War but was not of it like my parents. The failures of liberal polity to successfully undo even the most problematic elements of the post-9-11 state seemed to me to be reflective of prior “left-wing failures.” I wanted to understand my own failures. In a way, this was still part of a foolish attempt at self-discovery through the discovery of the failure of the “left.”
Duave in one sense and Nick Land’s early work served as an intervention. I went back through all the communist works I have read and read them in a historical context, and then I tried to put my experience of 1989, 1999, 2004, 2008, and 2011 into a context beyond a string of years or a self-gratifying narrative, part of which you have just read in brief. In the context of my work in education, I was now privy to seeing things that only resonated with me prior as abstractions, reifications, mere statistics.
In a sense, I want to personalize my point in other to depersonalize it in the instance of the telling. When one struggles to contextualize the failures of the left, new theories of identity both as individual and in relationship to the entire social sphere emerges. In this kind of unveiling of pox marks in the ideological structure of liberal capitalism, the tendency to move towards more and more abstractions not only makes sense, but is probably a natural progression of thought. Why does anyone wonder why theories such as accelerationism and communization would come of such a historical context? Those two theories, along with a few other ones such as third-worldism and stand-point theories, emerge to explain not only the failures of what was prior, but also the failures of the instance of those ideological creation. That Lyotard and Deleuze were developing accelerationist in a specific context while Camatte was beginning to develop ideas leading toward communization makes before sense. In the confusion of Mai ’68 resolution without a shot a fired, such theories are natural developments from particular historical conditions mixed with a push to understand things beyond a mere fidelity to certain events. In the ashes of the fliers of Occupy, is it any wonder that both tendencies are being rediscovered, reinvented, and have increasingly cache among activists and formerly partisan Marxists within Occupy and the European anti- austerity movements?
Every idea has consequences because of its origins in social history as much as its own answers to those historical problems. If that tortilla maker going to get answers to feeding her daughter from #accelerate or from Endnotes? Probably not. Yet as a note in a totality of social relations, she is very much one of the implied subjects and her class identity as well as her identification or lack thereof makes that part of the social subject both communization and accelerationism are trying to address. As we address these ideas, we should keep that fact in mind.
(to be finished in the book if it is ever finished)
Recently, Douglas Lain asked me to consider writing a book “on the history of the left.” After all, he told me, “you have done many, many interviews on the topic. You run two podcasts on the topic with three different co-hosts. You co-edited a couple of left-wing internet publications. You have done research into it tangential to your literary research. Why don’t you just buckle down and write a book.”
I first thought: “Do I want everyone to hate me, and aren’t there like 100 books on the history of the left”? I am not a professional historian and I do host three podcasts and have a full time job as well as works of poetry. Then it occurred to me, this would be a good way to develop a lot of the writing I have done, to formalize the research I have done for Diet Soap, Pop the Left, Former People, and the upcoming Symptomatic Redness. I dashed off something to serve as an intro as a means of clarifying what I want to do. Sure, some of the book will come from articles and kernels of writing on this blog so some of the book may be workshopped on this blog. Furthermore, blogging parts of it (although not nearly all of it) may be a way to discipline myself into writing it.
So here’s what came out of thinking about the nature of the project (Foot notes removed).
Symptomatic Redness: An Attempt of a historiography of the idea of the left.
A Prologue with Caveats
The specter and the rash.
The specter that once haunted Europe is now more often treated as a rash on the skin of history. A symptomatic redness growing slowly various revolutionary centers in Europe and in areas of conquest and colonialism. An inflammation that emerges with the emergence of capital itself. At the moment I write this, we see “class struggle” and the “the left” reemerging in the popular discourse as well as attempts to clarify what “the left” is? Is it the more socialistic, communitarian, and identitarian elements of popular liberalism as has developed in United States? Is it the worker’s movements of the early 20th century whose traces we have extended to the current? Is future oriented strain of the Utopian critique of the present? Was it the communist movement as understood in the Soviet Union or The People’s Republic of China? The indigenous community rebellions in the Americas? The national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia? Is it merely “the left of capital”?
The questions of definition are nearly infinite. What becomes clear as one writes this down is that “the idea of the left” is something that is as historical as the idea of the capitalism or the idea of the nation-state. In its history, however, the very fact so many tangentially related strains show up in any discussion of “the left” indicates that something in the reification of the idea has obscured a more concrete meaning. Furthermore, while it does etymologically arise out of very specific social and political relations in the French Revolution where the Jacobins sat to the left of the other clubs, even that is contested legacy. Is this truly the origin of the left? Or what it earlier in the early modern period concurrent to the obscure early moments in the develop of capital. Is the revolution of the United States truly pre-left/right dichotomies? Was it a counter-revolution as some have claimed? An unfinished revolution as Marx wrote to Lincoln?
Yet, clearly, speaking of Roman slave revolts or peasant uprisings or Zoroastrian, Christian, or Buddhist religious condemnations of private property is anachronistic. When Mazdak the Younger called for the ending of private property and a return to agrarian communalism in the Sassanid Persia in the reign of Kavadh I the birth of the left is that beginning? Or in his conversion of Kavadh I? Clearly, we begin here we must ignore the semi-feudal underpinnings of the Sassanid empire and the metaphysical dualism of the Mazdak’s particular vision of Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, Mazdak would have been predated by “intentional communalism” of everyone from Epicurean gardens to Buddhist monastic sangha to the Qumran community. All of these having “primitive” communistic tendencies, but also come from contexts clearly divorced from the modern world.
Or do we begin with Plotinus as Leszek Kolakowski in book I of his Main Currents of Marxism which he wrote in the transition away from Marxism, or the Marxism-Leninism dominant in Soviet Poland. Kolakowski, like Popper before him who laid it all at the feet of Plato, places the idea of the left as feet of rationalist idealism of those who believe in an Absolute. Even in his earlier, more clearly Marxist-Humanist writings such as “The Concept of the Left” in 1968, one sees the focus on the left as a constantly moving ideal type. A focus in the conception of history which exists mostly in the mind. Kokakowski admits “The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.” Yet defining itself on the level of idea is often in direct contradiction to the Marxian imperative that one is left defined in response to material conditions of social life. Furthermore, this purely ideal view of the development of the left removes even more context than our first Mazdakite example.
Depending one’s inclination one can begin with any number of points and see any number of conclusions. As a historical and historicizing concept, how one defines “the left” determines where one begins and conversely, how one begins can limit what one sees as “left-wing” action. The focus on our understanding the pathology of “the left” and its possibility as grounds for liberation is not a problem of history, but also historiography. It is my contention that as these ideas both emerge from and help shape any understanding of a political event since the development of capitalism and the ends of the Enlightenment as a “tradition” in Western thought. It is also to contextualize the ideas of “left-wing” anti-capitalism in terms that are allow for the historicization of the process of understanding. In a strict sense, this analysis is both rooted in history of social movement and is thus materialist in its orientation while also being meta-cognitive. How has the various left’s thought about themselves and how should we think about those self-justifications? But the purpose here is not just academic, but also in terms of praxis.
In short, what is to be done with all the “What is to be done”s?
The tension between descriptive and normative can seem overwhelming here. In one sense there is a tendency to go “No True Leftist” and delineate the terms to strict rubrics aligned to one particular thinker’s idea of “the left,” or the “socialist left,” or the “communist left,” or the “anarchist left,” etc. The permutations are almost infinite. In another sense, there is a tendency to function purely descriptively and say “anything that has adopted the mantle of leftwing such be considered leftwing” be it the Soviet Union, Japanese anarchists, Thomas Paine, socialistic populists, anti-colonial fighters, feminists, the civil rights movements, and religious movements with an egalitarian bend. This, however, conflates and smooths in the hands of some thinkers as well as gives license to unilaterally condemn large swaths of thinkers in another. For my purposes, I find neither approach strictly speaking useful.
There is a dialectical tension between often directly opposed ideas in the history of social movements. Simple, reified concepts such as “liberty” and “equality” are as amorphous. The legacy of Marxism is contested by liberals and anarchists as well as competing schools of Marxists. The legacy of anarchism is similar. The legacy of liberalism and its relationship the “left” is probably the most contested. I see no simple answer to those equations and our interest in adjudicating them should be largely to understand our own historical development, not come up with easy transhistorical answers.
How does one find an aufheben between a normative and a descriptive approach. One may not be able to, but perhaps focusing on the justifications of historical movements and their relationship to recent developments begins to give us a serious methodology. Furthermore, such understanding is not just for itself, but for the ability to clarify contradictory movements now. There are plenty of histories of “the left”—this is a both more and less.
In search of a praxis
This is a book about thinking in terms of action. It will necessarily be as idiosyncratic as its author. As a person who has actively participated and commented on “left-wing” movements since the battle for Seattle in 1999, it comes from a particular perspective. Since 2009, I have been more active in writing and publishing on developments in the left and now do two separate podcasts on the topic as well has been a managing editor at the web reincarnation of the North Star and a blogger for a group blog on the topic, particularly since the flash-pan of Occupy. This is a prolegomena towards an understanding of “the concept of the left” that arises out of the research and observations of the last six years. It’s context arises from watching political struggles and developments in my various homes: The United States, South Korea, and Mexico, and the history I have learned to contextualize those struggles.
It is necessarily incomplete. It is a series of historical/theoretical fugues that aim beyond the specific instances they are aimed it. As such, the book is likely to move between genres and to move topically more than in linear progressions of history. The history of the development of left will necessarily be fragmentary, pluralistic, and frustrating. It’s actual history and theoretical development mirrors that.
I have been very busy with work. Former People has had a lot of work behind it as we rolled out the podcast to go along with the vidcast. Finals for my students have been happening. I took a trip to Oaxaca and saw a lot of the protests around “Faltan 43.” Douglas Lain and I resurrected Pop the Left wish has had two episodes now and will restart after the Holidays. My own podcast with Amogh Sahu, called Symptomatic Redness, where I do interviews on various things related to politics or philosophy will be coming out this month. I have been working on poetry, etc.
So you must forgive me. I will have more to say here soon, but it may be after the holidays.