Novelty and Other Vexing Issues

Reflecting on historical consciousness, Marx once wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

A similar point was eloquently stated by Cornell West, when in a recent speech he pointed to the crowd and said:

And when I saw you take the picture together, I could see Nat Turner and John Brown. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I could see the workers’ movement in the 1890s. I could see the brothers and sisters on the corner in Watts 1965, in Detroit in ’67, in Newark in ’67, and 212 rebellions the night Brother Martin Luther King was shot down like a dog one year after he gave his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech to bring poor people together, bring a critique to bear on the viciousness of American imperialism.

These quotes speak to people’s need to view the present in the light of the past.  We use historical imagery to signify who we are, and to understand the challenges that confront us in our day. It is therefore not surprising today to hear the sound of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth” on the radio, young people in the street with long hair and peace signs, others waving red and black flags, and quotations from a thousand dead heroes on the people’s placards.  In revolutionary times the contending classes summon up the specters of the past to aid their respective causes. Yet there is a subsequent passage in Marx’s text that is often forgotten:

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.

This is a puzzling direction for Marx to take, for if we do not make our history as we please, but rather do so “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” then it would figure that the seed of our present revolutionary times was always contained in the past, only waiting to blossom during our time, and just as a flower is sustained by its stem and roots, so too should our present be sustained by its past.

However if one takes a flower and focuses upon its stem, slowly sweeping their gaze upward, the advent of the blossom appears as a radical and almost alien discontinuity with its stem – something only anticipated and never fully imagined in its preceding circumstances. Nevertheless, the blossom is the truth of the plant, it is that in which it attains its fullness.

In this botanical example then we can glimpse the two contradictory positions of history.  First, that the present is a natural extension of the past and second, that it represents a radical rupture with the past. The flower affords us the capacity to view either of them depending on our perspective, but never both at once.  It is only when we rise to the level of more abstract consideration that we are capable of attaining an understanding of the dialectical relationship between the two, and yet this enlightened perspective is difficult to maintain, and we tend to lapse into the more intuitive understanding which superficial consideration affords.

So it is with the organic intellectuals of our capitalist class.  Having seized power from the Ancien Régime they busy themselves trying to demonstrate the smooth continuity of the present with the past.  “Greed and selfishness!  These are the eternal virtues of humanity!” They declare in sober tones.  Servants of power such as Francis Fukuyama busy themselves attempting to prove that it was not Adam and Eve that begat humanity but rather Robinson Crusoe and his beloved ledger.  Yet it was the fires of revolution that gave birth to the bourgeoisie, and it is the fever of revolution that sustains it.  While myths of continuity sustain the rule of the capitalist class, they quickly grow bored with these stories.  As Marx and Engels quite right noted “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”  The path of social revolution having become unappealing, the bourgeoisie busies itself with perpetuating a never-ending stream of technological revolutions.

The steam engine, the transcontinental railroad, the telegraph, the airplane, the telephone, the radio, the atom bomb, the television, the space rocket, the VCR, the PC, the Internet, biotechnology, the iPhone…an endless procession of new technologies is reported to have changed history once and for all, to have brought a new dawn.  This is the significance of the outpouring of grief at the death of Steve Jobs.  Having been convinced that history consists of the development of a series of machines, the bourgeois mind is suddenly confronted with the emptiness of its furious technological obsession – the Great Man’s works amount to little more than yet another behemoth corporation.  “Who will be our Prometheus now!?” it cries, desperate for the existential solace of a product launch.

But we live in times where the iPhone’s newest launch is overshadowed by revolutionary events of a more significant social character. 2011 has been a year of uprisings, and it would seem that people the world over grow tired of the antics of the capitalist class.  The latest such uprising is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has lit up the imagination of people everywhere.

Perennial commentators on such events – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have recently contributed their analysis in an article titled “The Fight for ‘Real Democracy’ at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street.”  The main substance of Hardt and Negri’s article, namely that the global wave of “encampments” represents a general disgust with the institutions of representative liberal democracy and an attempt to build some kind of alternative, is hardly disputable – protesters themselves have been saying this for quite some time.  Hardt and Negri’s more contentious claims arise when they attempt to describe the movement in terms of the “multitude” framework they have developed out of Autonomist Marxism. The two authors were quick to claim earlier in the year that the Arab Spring validated their theories, and similarly have found validation in the current events in America.  It may be said that Hardt and Negri have accurately observed three fairly incontrovertible phenomena: 1) The use of digital media technology in the organization of the struggle. 2) The proliferation of decentralized egalitarian assemblies and 3) A rejection of the current system of representative democracy.  However in my opinion Hardt and Negri’s writing does more to illustrate the limitations of the Left and the serious challenges it is facing today, than offer a trustworthy analysis of where it is going.

The main point of interest in Hardt and Negri’s article is how it highlights the Left’s vexed relationship to history.  The authors make the following claim:

The clearest clues lie in the internal organization of the movements themselves — specifically, the way the encampments experiment with new democratic practices. These movements have all developed according to what we call a “multitude form” and are characterized by frequent assemblies and participatory decision-making structures. (And it is worth recognizing in this regard that Occupy Wall Street and many of these other demonstrations also have deep roots in the globalization protest movements that stretched at least from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2001.)

Much has been made of the way social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been employed in these encampments. Such network instruments do not create the movements, of course, but they are convenient tools, because they correspond in some sense to the horizontal network structure and democratic experiments of the movements themselves. Twitter, in other words, is useful not only for announcing an event but for polling the views of a large assembly on a specific decision in real time.

Do not wait for the encampments, then, to develop leaders or political representatives. No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the occupations of Wall Street and beyond. For better or worse — and we are certainly among those who find this a promising development — this emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal participatory structures, without representatives.

Hardt and Negri’s bold claim that  “No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the occupations of Wall Street and beyond” seems premature, given that these movements remain in their infancy, and there is little evidence to support it, other than such leaders have not yet emerged.  Indeed the authors seem to be arguing that “the multitude” as a decentralized and egalitarian force for social change are unique to this “cycle of struggle” – a rather dubious claim.  For example, Leon Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, offers a description of the Russian “multitude” far more evocative than that recently written by Hardt and Negri, which is worth quoting at length:

…[I]f the Bolshevik Party could not guarantee the insurrection an authoritative leadership, there is no use talking of other organisations. This fact has strengthened the current conviction as to the spontaneous character of the February revolution. Nevertheless the conviction is deeply mistaken, or at least meaningless.

The struggle in the capital lasted not an hour, or two hours, but five days. The leaders tried to hold it back; the masses answered with increased pressure and marched forward. They had against them the old state, behind whose traditional facade a mighty power was still assumed to exist, the liberal bourgeoisie with the State Duma, the Land and City Unions, the military-industrial organisations, academies, universities, a highly developed press, and finally the two strong socialist parties who put up a patriotic resistance to the assault from below. In the party of the Bolsheviks the insurrection had its nearest organisation, but a headless organisation with a scattered staff and with weak illegal nuclei. And nevertheless the revolution, which nobody in those days was expecting, unfolded, and just when it seemed from above as though the movement was already dying down, with an abrupt revival, a mighty convulsion, it seized the victory.

Whence came this unexampled force of aggression and self-restraint? It is not enough to refer to bitter feelings. Bitterness alone is little. The Petersburg workers, no matter how diluted during the war years with human raw material, had in their past a great revolutionary experience. In their aggression and self-restraint, in the absence of leadership and in the face of opposition from above, was revealed a vitally well-founded, although not always expressed, estimate of forces and a strategic calculation of their own.

On the eve of the war the revolutionary layers of the workers had been following the Bolsheviks, and leading the masses after them. With the beginning of the war the situation had sharply changed: conservative groups lifted their heads, dragging after them a considerable part of the class. The revolutionary elements found themselves isolated, and quieted down. In the course of the war the situation began to change, at first slowly, but after the defeats faster and more radically. An active discontent seized the whole working class. To be sure, it was to an extent patriotically coloured, but it had nothing common with the calculating and cowardly patriotism of the possessing classes, who were postponing all domestic questions until after the victory. The war itself, its victims, its horror, its shame brought not only the old, but also the new layers of workers into conflict with the czarist régime. It did this with a new incisiveness and led them to the conclusion: we can no longer endure it. The conclusion was universal; it welded the masses together and gave them a mighty dynamic force.

The army had swollen, drawing into itself millions of workers and peasants. Every individual has his own people among the troops: a son, a husband, a brother, a relative. The army was no longer insulated, as before the war, from the people. One met with soldiers now far oftener; saw them off to the front, lived with them when they came home on leave, chatted with them on the streets and in the tramways about the front, visited them in the hospitals. The workers’ districts, the barracks, the front, and to an extent the villages too, became communicating vessels. The workers would know what the soldiers were thinking and feeling. They had innumerable conversations about the war, about the people who were getting rich out of the war, about the generals, government, czar and czarina. The soldier would say about the war: To hell with it! And the worker would answer about the government: To hell with it! The soldier would say: Why then do you sit still here in the centre? The worker would answer: We can’t do anything with bare hands; we stubbed our toe against the army in 1905. The soldier would reflect: What if we should all start at once! The worker: That’s it, all at once! Conversations of this kind before the war were conspirative and carried on by twos; now they were going on everywhere, on every occasion, and almost openly, at least in the workers’ districts.

The czar’s intelligence service every once in a while took its soundings very successfully. Two weeks before the revolution a spy, who signed himself with the name Krestianinov, reported a conversation in a tramcar traversing the workers’ suburb. The soldier was telling how in his regiment eight men were under hard labour because last autumn they refused to shoot at the workers of the Nobel factory, but shot at the police instead. The conversation went on quite openly, since in the workers’ districts the police and the spies preferred to remain unnoticed. “’ We’ll get even with them,’ the soldier concluded.” The report reads further: “A skilled worker answered him: ’For that it is necessary to organise so that all will be like one.’ The soldier answered: ’Don’t you worry, we’ve been organised a long time … They’ve drunk enough blood. Men are suffering in the trenches and here they are fattening their bellies! ’… No special disturbance occurred. February 10, 1917. Krestianinov.” Incomparable spy’s epic. “No special disturbance occurred.” They will occur, and that soon: this tramway conversation signalises their inexorable approach.

The spontaneousness of the insurrection Mstislavsky illustrates with a curious example: When the “Union of Officers of February 27,” formed just after the revolution, tried to determine with a questionnaire who first led out the Volynsky regiment, they received seven answers naming seven initiators of this decisive action. It is very likely, we may add, that a part of the initiative really did belong to several soldiers, nor is it impossible that the chief initiator fell in the street fighting, carrying his name with him into oblivion. But that does not diminish the historic importance of his nameless initiative. Still more important is another side of the matter which will carry us beyond the walls of the barrack room. The insurrection of the battalions of the Guard, flaring up a complete surprise to the liberal and legal socialist circles, was no surprise at all to the workers. Without the insurrection of the workers the Volynsky regiment, would not have gone into the street. That street encounter of the workers with the Cossacks, which a lawyer observed from his window and which he communicated by telephone to the deputy, was to them both an episode in an impersonal process: a factory locust stumbled against a locust from the barracks. But it did not seem that way to the Cossack who had dared wink to the worker, nor to the worker who instantly decided that the Cossack had “winked in a friendly manner.” The molecular interpenetration of the army with the people was going on continuously. The workers watched the temperature of the army and instantly sensed its approach to the critical mark. Exactly this was what gave such inconquerable force to the assault of the masses, confident of victory.

Trotsky’s description of the “molecular interpenetration of the army with the people” and lack of clear centralized leadership in the February Revolution bears considerable similarity to current descriptions of the “multitude,” which throws into question the novelty of the phenomena which Hardt and Negri describe.  Certainly digital communication media allow for novel channels of communication and have played a constant role in the “encampments,” but it is clear that the Occupy Wall Street movement did not seize the popular imagination until an assembly had physically congregated, and its most inspiring aspects (e.g. the rapidly developed organizational form of the General Assemblies, the use of the “Progessive Stack,” the disciplined non-violence of the protesters) occurred on site.  This suggests a certain degree of continuity with the past, for which numerous other historical examples can be found, not least of which is the family resemblance between the recently conceived General Assemblies and traditional workers’ councils.

Given these continuities one might ask why Hardt and Negri are so emphatic in arguing that the “encampments” are radically different from previous movements for social justice, revolutionary and otherwise.  Certainly the caché of being on the theoretical “cutting edge” might have something to do with it, and this perceived novelty might be a powerful motivator for its proponents.  Indeed, the notion of a movement that takes its poetry not from the past but only from the future is an appealing one.  However I believe there is a deeper motivation for Hardt and Negri’s position, and it is one that illustrates some of the dilemmas facing the Left today.

It would be an understatement to say that the 20th century weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the Left.  The perversion of the Russian Revolution into Stalinist bureaucratic totalitarianism was a horror with few parallels in human history.  While it is easy to point out figures such as those that indicate that a higher proportion of the US population is imprisoned today than the proportion of the USSR’s population that was imprisoned at the height of the gulag system, this does nothing to justify the monstrosities of Stalinism.  The collapse of the USSR into dictatorial capitalism, and China’s willing embrace of capital only added insult to injury with the socialist alternative appearing definitively defeated.  Even the high point of democratic revolutionary Left politics of the 20th century – the May Events of 1968 – was ultimately a failure, and is regularly used by establishment figures as an ideological club with which to browbeat Leftists into docility.  The establishment of global free trade regimes in the 1990s sent social democracies into full retreat, and rendered nationalizations politically unthinkable.

There have been essentially been two responses on the Left to this grim historical record.  The first was a retreat into political economy as a standpoint from which capital might be critiqued.  This movement contained within itself two tendencies – the first were the Post-Fordist tendencies which eventually lapsed into Third Wayism and pseudo-celebratory accounts of the sort offered by Manuel Castells.  The second tendency continued to maintain that Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s inherent instability was justified and could be demonstrated through careful analysis.  This tendency was divided over whether Marx’s arguments for the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall were justified, and its more moderate wing was represented by David Harvey, while the TRPF-adherents were represented by scholars such as Chris Harman.  Both those standing for and against the TRPF continued to argue that a supercession of capitalism was either highly desirable or historically necessary.

The second movement, which during the 1980s and 1990s was far more influential, pursued a cultural analysis of capitalism.  Faced with the overwhelming strength of capitalist hegemony following the counter-revolutions of the 1970s many Leftists turned to a Neo-Gramscian analysis in order to attempt to fight a more effective rear-guard action.  It cannot be said that this movement was terribly successful, with the Eurocommunism movement a catastrophic failure and other efforts largely co-opted into increasingly pro-capitalist social democratic or liberal parties.  However during the height of its influence this movement did make very significant progress in combating gender and racial discrimination on the Left, which had been fatal to the movement during the struggles of the early 1970s.  Furthermore, while it is easy to criticize the lack of commitment to anti-capitalist critique among this group, it cannot be said that the political economic movement was any more effective in combating capitalism, as it was largely marginalized during this period.

Hardt and Negri’s analysis falls between these two groups, combining multiple characteristics – a rejection of capitalism, a cultural analysis of capitalism, and a focus on technology characteristic of the Post-Fordist approach.  This approach has gained them widespread popularity, and their emphasis on the agency of the “multitude” to change society has helped to motivate activists and radicals since the dawn of the anti-globalization movement.  However Hardt and Negri’s analysis falls victim to two main deficiencies.  First its cultural analysis leaves it ill-equipped to interpret the current crisis, and second its emphasis on revolutionary subjectivities leaves it ill-equipped to suggest any kind of serious revolutionary strategy.  As David Harvey stated in an exchange with Hardt and Negri:

Enough of relationalities and immaterialities!  How about concrete proposals, actual political organization, and real actions?

It would seem that Hardt and Negri’s analysis thrived during the past decade because it allowed for a growth in anti-capitalist consciousness without confronting the troubling questions posed by the failures of the 20th century Left.  Capitalist hegemony was so powerful that questions of revolutionary organization and what exactly a revolution ought to try to achieve simply were not practical.  It was better to congregate around a cult of the novelty of the “multitude,” imagining a radical break with the failures of the past.  However the post-2007 crisis of capitalism and the subsequent “encampments” have re-established the salience of these questions and the Left has been found sorely lacking for answers.  Particularly symptomatic of this deficiency is the following statement by Hardt and Negri:

Occupy Wall Street should be understood, then, as a further development or permutation of these political demands [for real democracy]. One obvious and clear message of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not good for the country (or the world). A more significant failure of representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and political parties charged with representing the people’s interests but in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis — that is, the entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics has become subservient to economic and financial interests.

This may be largely consistent with the frames used by the protesters at the moment, but it is not a useful way to conceptualize systemic change.  Why is this the case?  The author’s framework succumbs to the ideological bifurcation of society and economy (that is, in Habermasian terms, lifeworld and system) within liberal thought.  It views the economy as an alien force which must be brought under popular political control.  If one takes this position as their theoretical starting point, then the only political options available are taxation and regulation – two traditional capacities of the liberal democratic state.  A properly radical critique understands (As Hardt and Negri no doubt do on some level) that the economic field, that is, the “system” is fundamentally political.

One of the fundamental insights of Marx was that under the capitalist labour process the working class actively produces the conditions of its own domination, in addition to those material goods which are commodified and sold on the market.  Not only does the sale of worker-produced commodities realize surplus value for the capitalist class, which can be leveraged to ensure their class power in any number of ways, the expansion of capitalist industry inevitably leads to crisis, which requires “adjustment” in the form of workers being thrown into unemployment.  Furthermore, the success of one company thanks to workers’ efforts often leads to the failure of its competitors, and success one day can mean failure the next, as fixed capital accumulated during the good times becomes a burden in accumulating relative surplus value while it is being amortized.  Even popular campaigns to reduce unemployment through government intervention actually increase capitalist class power in the long term, as they help overcome barriers to accumulation by expanding infrastructure and the consumer market.  The fundamental fact of the capitalist mode of production is that because workers do not control the means of production they have no choice but to spend their lives producing these conditions of their own domination. As Marx states:

We have thus seen that even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion.

If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profit of capital rises disproportionately faster. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social chasm that separates him from the capitalist has widened.

Finally, to say that “the most favorable condition for wage-labour is the fastest possible growth of productive capital”, is the same as to say: the quicker the working class multiplies and augments the power inimical to it – the wealth of another which lords over that class – the more favorable will be the conditions under which it will be permitted to toil anew at the multiplication of bourgeois wealth, at the enlargement of the power of capital, content thus to forge for itself the golden chains by which the bourgeoisie drags it in its train.

These issues cannot be addressed through regulation (which works at the fringes of capitalist production) or taxation (which adjusts the distribution of surplus value after the fact of capitalist exploitation).  The only way that this oppressive relationship can be ended is for the working class to seize and maintain control of the means of production.  Only then can the working class liberate itself from the fundamental insecurity and oppression which defines it under capitalism.  In other words, what is required is not the rule of the people as a generality over the economic sphere (the social democratic dream) but rather the radical politicization of the economic sphere.  This is to say the direct establishment of workplace democracy. However much such an initiative summons up all the ghosts of the 20th century, these ghosts must be confronted, rather than alluded to and otherwise ignored.  While workplace democracy could be achieved through a number of different specific methods, it is the only way that systemic change can be implemented and the problems of capitalism that plague us today abolished.  However much we might wish to believe that horizontal networking might somehow, as if by magic, overcome this problem of its own accord, the networks of today must confront the dilemmas of the past.

Hardt and Negri may be the most strident in their avoidance of history, but the Left seems generally unprepared to answer questions as to what the content of an alternative to capitalism ought to be. Neo-Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked this deficiency in this week’s column, where he stated:

[The Occupy Wall Street] members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

Brooks went on to mock the Left as “milquetoast radicals” compared to the radical libertarians of the American Enterprise Institute and other right-wing think tanks for which Brooks acts as a mouthpiece.  In a sense Brooks is correct.  Libertarian radicals are willing to inflict vast cruelties upon their fellow human beings in order to secure their pro-capitalist agenda, and have considered concrete measures by which they can effect a final dismantling of the welfare state.  These groups must be fiercely combated to ensure a better future.

The fallout of the post-2007 crisis and the  “encampments” movement have blasted open a hole in capitalist ideological hegemony.  While the movement is still in its infancy and can be expected to grow this weekend, the possibility that it will stall and falter without a clear agenda remains real.  The cultural analysis of capitalism must now be married to political economic analysis and a vision of how a socialist future we would actually like to live in can be achieved.  Some figures such as Richard Wolff and Michael Albert have done work in this regard, but a far broader discussion needs to take place.  This discussion should not seek to find false solace in a vision of the future blissfully ignorant of the horrors of the past, but rather should create a dialectical bridge between the frustrated hopes of the past, the knowledge of its failures, and our dreams of a better future.

NOTE: Edited 10/13/2011 @ 2:44 PM to better explain my critique of Hardt and Negri.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Novelty and Other Vexing Issues

  1. robert

    This is a fantastic post – highly lucid and convincing. I share your lack of faith in networked subjectivities forming the base of radical change. I would say though that the “We are the 99%” is a highly effective discourse that is both grounded in fact and pregnant in potentiality. It gets at the central political problem with poststructuralist and post-Marxist obsessions with difference; as Zizek has said “the right to be defended today is not the ‘right to difference’ but, on the contrary and more than ever, the right to Sameness.” In other words, old fashioned solidarity needs to come back into fashion. In other words I can see why Hardt and Negri may be gloating a bit b/c “we are the 99%” is just a more direct way of saying we are ‘the multitude’, but the multitude better figure out how to work together, and fast.

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