As the global economic crisis spreads and mutates into a political crisis--with all the attendant, predictable attempts by the ruling classes to contain it through a combination of brute force and empty electoral politics--it would seem wise to review some of the ideas about resistance and strategy, both past and current, and to give our opinion on the relationship between anticapitalism and the state. It is unclear, at this time, whether a genuine “turn to the left” has occurred either in the field of popular politics or amongst the large numbers of people who refuse to participate in the present system. Certainly we share their disgust, and would offer whatever aid they feel is appropriate.
The primary source of this anger and profound near society-wide disaffection both here in the U.S. and in most parts of the globe is the continued control of vast sums of capital by finance, resources that could be used to rebuild and even to transform the economy. As a means of control, we would like to point out at the outset, finance is historically unstable and unconvincing. Control by finance has a long history of destroying the systems it was intended to help save. It is mostly a stop-gap measure, and an extremely contingent strategy, and it tends to unravel the moment large scale resistance emerges and applies counter-pressure. This accounts in part for the hyper-sensitive nature of power at all levels and in almost every country at present--expressed in the dual fixation with “security” (internal control) and “humanitarian intervention” (external control, or at least attempts by the Euro-American core to control certain developing areas).
We should also note from the outset that these analyses are meant as suggestions, and not hard and fast rules. In the words of Capt. Jack Sparrow and his compatriots: "They be more like a set of guidelines."
We should also reiterate here what we have said many times before: people should do whatever they think is right. The system is too large and too varied, and both the individual and group positionalities within it, and the modes of possible resistance too great in number and type to be able to allow for any effective centralization of resistance. Here we would go beyond Hardt and Negri. Here we are flagrant Deleuzians (with more than a hint of Bakunin), as we proclaim: Let the forms of resistance mutate and multiply in all their smashing glory!
From the farmer who stops his tractor in the road and refuses to budge, to the “rogue trader” who crashes exploitive markets, to the “security expert” who lets sensitive data leak, to the millions engaged in local, national, and global social movements…have at it!
There has never been a time when struggle was more important. And even pure, destructive, permissive, cleansing CHAOS is often underrated. Even the small-business, petty bourgeois classes, which are such an obstacle and such an annoyance right now, can be mobilized against capital, once they are made to realize by effort and by already developing conditions what the system has in store for them, and what absolute and impassable barriers exist to “going back” to some entirely imaginary period of relative class détente.
The Regime of Finance Capital
The control of finance is very simple (as we have said many times, power is not subtle, it is what is happening right in front of you): it’s a threat, let’s say a snotty threat, issued from the upper middle and ruling classes to poor and working people everywhere, and which says, in effect, “we” have a stranglehold on “your” money, and there’s nothing “you” can do about it. Indebtedness in Europe, both between countries and between classes (so called “personal debt”) is an attempt to keep political control at the top of the class structure. Likewise in America where indebtedness has penetrated even further into the social fabric, and the rape of the poor by those at the top has been sanctioned by large corporations and criminal government at every level and on both sides of the imaginary political “divide” in the aging, unproductive bourgeois system, debt is a shackle, it is never a solution or a “benefit.”
At the same time, internationally, America is increasingly the problem, as the buildup of reactionary opinion by a corporate media--fixated on right-wing ideas across the supposed political "spectrum," and supplemented with sadistic, reactionary pop culture--hides the almost totally moribund state of the productive economy and real-material social conditions: hollowed out manufacturing, large numbers of very poor service industry workers without unions or any mechanism for expression other than violence, a broken housing market, a 3-million-plus incarcerated population composed inordinately of minorities, a violent immigration system set on police-state tactics, and most disturbingly, an increasingly criminal small-business class that has turned to a Thermidorean, “defense of property” mode of politics, that is, to proto-fascism.
America, once the global leader, has become the biggest drag on the global economy and global politics. It was mostly overextended derivatives and other hedges, sold by American institutions to local entities, that has already in real social terms collapsed the eurozone and sent East Europe into deep poverty, just as these countries were beginning to emerge from years of failed neoliberal policies on the one hand, and frozen bureaucracy under “real socialism” on the other. Instead they moved from one form of state capitalism to another--from the ridiculous pro-business "soft conservatism" of dying social democracies, or the neo-imperialism of Russian diktats, to the unvarnished super-exploitation and global imperialism of EU-ECB-IMF diktats. The methods of control are different, but the present results, if anything, are much worse.
In this situation one is liable to vacillate between the ideologies on offer, and to point out that at least socialism only failed once, whereas capitalism has failed again and again in country after country.
But the rise of workerist and social movements, along with new political formations, in Latin America; the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring; and the recent swing to nominally leftist candidates--accompanied by large abstention movements--throughout Western Europe; and the sudden rise of labor politics in America around issues of public expenditure all suggest that something new is trying to emerge. We are witnessing the birth of a new form of resistance, which is also in some ways quite old, and which has come all at once front and center in the battle against global capital. This is the multitude.
On the Multiple Emergences of the Multitude
Today Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are the theorists most associated with the idea of the multitude, but it has a long history. Machiavelli speaks of the multitude in alternately hushed and disdainful tones, Spinoza picks up the concept in a radically different sense, and so it gets transformed, through a series of overturnings: from Hegel (the real driver behind Aufhebung, even if the idealist Hegel can’t see it), to Marx (proletarian struggle, the agency of history), even to Hayek (one of the narrowest conceptions of the multitude can be found in Hayek’s solution to the “coordination problem,” leaving the distribution of information squarely in the hands of the marketplace, that is, in the hands of private capital), and finally back to the Marxist fold via the postmodernists, the ever so tragic ex-left, and the ever useful deconstructionists. With such variety in conceptualization, a brief real-material history of modern emergences of the multitude is in order.
Michel Foucault describes in The Birth of the Prison how in the late Middle Ages the crowds of peasants once subjected to the spectacle of power in gory local executions began to take control of these events. They rose up all over and all at once throughout France and England. Sometimes they let the accused go, sometimes they punished them even more brutally. Sometimes they killed the attending officials of the crown and church. Sometimes they turned the event into a bacchanal and carried the central participants away on their shoulders, only to dump them in a ravine outside town. The authorities, fearing they were losing control of the impoverished countryside, and wanting to move in the direction of the mercantile classes, began to formalize legal codes. They built prisons, removed executions and other punishments to private spaces, and set about producing propaganda centering on the evils of crimes against private property. Confessions, once extorted in private by torture, were ritualized in public courtroom procedures. An air of “objectivity” developed around a previously blatant system. The exercise of juridical power remained unfair--indeed in some ways, through the further segmentation of the labor force and the unequal application of the new laws, it became more so--but it now responded, or at least pretended to respond, to “the people.” Power, in other words, yielded to the multitude, and a new phase of struggle began.
Again, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of struggles emerged that challenged the hegemony of capital. These modern emergences of the multitude yielded gains for some of the working classes in industrializing countries. New wage schedules, better working conditions, an expansion of the franchise, all these developments were due to the pressure exerted by workers through mass struggle. These were not individual achievements, despite the fixation in capitalist histories on certain labor leaders or on the activities of “philanthropists.” One of the greatest achievements in this era was the theorizing of capital by Karl Marx, who investigated its history from a scientific point of view, including tracing the most powerful trends within its own development that lead again and again to crisis and to economic and political paralysis. The multitude was once again the agent of history, and power was forced to respond. And yet again, a new phase of struggle began…
Indeed it is not too much to say that modern history itself can be seen as the back and forth, the tug and pull, between the multitude and power. In most cases the main actors on the side of the multitude were large numbers of organized workers and peasants, while power was represented by the agents and structures of capital. The law, it should be noted, was never an impartial observer--it was a participant, almost always on the side of capital.
As the twentieth century wore on and more countries were industrialized, these struggles were repeated in many places. Here we are looking at probably the only period in the modern canon where the idea of a linear, consistent development happening at different speeds in different parts of the world is a valid lens through which to view macro-historical events. As the system on a global level became more tightly interdependent, and more financialized, development began to look more and more alike everywhere it was taking place, and the local structures became less and less unique. Even in the Soviet system, from Kruschev on, there was an acceleration of private competition funded by large capitals associated with the state. On top of this, the so called “real socialist” countries were increasingly put at the service of a Soviet productive system dedicated to huge arms expenditures--just as upwards of 40% of manufacturing productivity in the U.S. was tied to the same enterprise--and this brought the two "cold war" systems together in the first genuinely global market, an arms market which spread massive amounts of weapons of mass destruction around the world, along with the wars that followed from their use. It is probably most accurate to view the so called “cold war” as the most profitable business arrangement in history. (See Michael Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War and Capitalism and Theory.)
During this period industrial workers in the U.S. and Western Europe, and certain favored layers of workers in the Soviet system, enjoyed a consistent (if unequal) level of patronage from local capital. As the arrangement aged, and the capitals became very large, they began with the assistance of finance to exert considerable political clout. By the end of the Soviet period, there was already a class of super-capitalists in Russia and many of the East Europe bloc countries, just as there was a group of multinationals and their investors in the West, who held a virtual veto over all economically significant political and financial decisions. Along with the rise in consumer spending afforded by the spread of cheap goods (through improved production, research, and the conversion of military technology to consumer uses) and growth in certain of the central players’ dependency states (especially Germany and Japan for the West) the “cold war” was enough to keep the global economy humming, and protect many workers’ gains, for about forty years. When the structures were no longer practical, they were discarded, along with their objectified ideologies and their networks of patronage. And financialized global capital, which had been building throughout the previous period, came forward as the main structure of economic, political, and social control.
This is the period we live in today, and the question we must answer is, “How will the multitude organize once again in light of the new masters and their new-old system?”
Already a number of social and political movements around the world have taken up the fight. From the anti-WTO battles in Seattle and Genoa, to the group of poor nations that stymied the WTO over farm subsidies; from the eco-movements against industrialized farming and the use of growth hormones, genetically altered seeds, and other questionable products and practices, to the massive work stoppages in France, China and other parts of the terra-zone; from the insurgencies against imperialist violence (masquerading as “humanitarianism”) that wage brave battles for basic self-determination around the globe, to the landless peasant movements that form the backbone of new political formations in Latin America, India, and increasingly (although often misidentified as “immigration rights” groups) in North America. All over and all at once what has been raised is a giant shout of “NO!” NO to global capital. NO to indebtedness. And NO to the increasingly brutal means used to keep the tottering system in place. (For a really thorough review of some of the most pronounced strains in the contemporary anticapitalist evolution, with excellent critical-historical gloss, see Chris Harman, “Anticapitalism: Theory and Practice” at http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/2000/xx/anticap.htm)
At the same time that some victories are being registered, it may seem like many of the hard-won previous gains are being taken away by power. But this has always been the case. In each new period of struggle, much of what previously existed, much of what was previously effective at holding back power and forcing a space to open up for the multitude, is swept away. Battles against enclosures and for a wider franchise would make no sense in Europe or America today. It may be that voting rights are being threatened, but that gives us a well developed, complex terrain on which to wage the fight. The important thing is not to get too distracted protecting certain “rights”--always a matter of legal articulation v. unequal exercise--and forget to make demands and push for changes that conform more to the present landscape. For instance…
Wages and work hour schedules (including regular overtime) are important things to defend. But does it really make sense to spend all our time struggling alongside large, well established industrial unions that represent mostly aging workers, and that have already given in to demands for two-tier wage systems for younger workers, when huge numbers of service industry employees don’t even enjoy organized representation? Aren’t the younger industrial workers in the same position now as the service workers? Who really represents them? Shouldn’t both groups form a common struggle, and their own organizations, to fight for themselves? And if the response to this is…“that would divide the working class”… or again… “service workers already have a union in the U.S.” … then maybe the counter-argument should be…really? Really? A divide in the working classes, along type-of-work and age lines, has already opened up. And the union that pretends to represent service workers in the U.S. today seems more set on currying favor with the U.S. government, a fully corporatized, totally hostile government, than it does on fighting back. The time for workers to organize in their own structures is long past. The old structures are still useful in some ways, yes, but they will never be able to meet the challenges of this new phase in the historical struggle, the tug-of-war, between the multitude and power.
On New Formations, and New Problems
It is very difficult to discuss strategy and be engaged in it at the same time. The world is not really a giant chessboard. As popular discontent has emerged in many places at once, the responses of capital, and the discussion of strategy on all sides, have often been overridden and engulfed by the spontaneous actions of the participants “on the ground.” The Egyptian Revolution provides one of the most dramatic examples. The continued unrest, even after some cosmetic reforms were instituted, an old-generation despot was removed, and new elections were called, is difficult for the regime of global capital to interpret. These are the only measures that make sense to it. On the other hand, old style leftists and anti-imperialists are dismayed by the lack of political organizing on the part of large sections of workers, the poor, and students, those who formed the main body of defenders of the uprising. The wildcat strikes, flare-up protests, and continuous agitation in services and state sectors confuse and tend to frustrate the believers in traditional class struggle. The participation of religious elements further complicates the picture. But this is a society in a revolutionary state. Nothing has calmed down, or refocused, under the military junta’s rule. Why should it? The multitude has been activated. Theorists, politicians, generals, cadres, union bureaucrats, piss off.
However, even in this buzzing, often manic set of global conditions, a few things are clear…
1. Capitalism, on a worldwide scale, is not making people happier or freer. Or, to put it another way, capital is not happy. For we experience capital as both the moment and its encompassing situation. Capital is everywhere. And, slowly, but without pause, even during one of its worst phases of crisis, it is filtering into everything. Even our ethics are up for sale. It’s only a matter of time, so let’s get the question out of the way: How much will our votes cost in the future? What kind of system of democracy do we want?
2. The political situation is much worse than the most apocalyptic critics think. That’s because they picture a future without stability, and that’s the worst thing they can imagine. These critics belong to capital. They would prefer terrorism, including the terrorism of the state at home and the global terrorism of imperial powers, to revolution. However, what we know from history is that it is the reformers who come to power in the aftermath of the failure of the system to solve the crisis--to “right itself”--who act as the most ruthless agents of suppression. The Thermidoreans are on the way. They will provide the intrinsic failure of the system with plausible cover, and make those who feel their voices have not been heard during the initial spasm of resistance that there is HOPE FOR CHANGE. Of course this is nonsense within the current limitations of power. If the slogans of today’s pseudo-left in America were not so obvious, it would be out of keeping with an age of obviousness, an age when capital feels no need to hide its shams and crimes. All the images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have been accurately described by intelligent critics as “power porn,” or simply the system showing off. One should add the videos of the NYPD brutalizing protesters at the Occupy encampments, and the people being beaten in Tahrir Square and the streets of Bahrain, to this category. And all this is just the system, and the multitude, warming up. (See Alain Badiou’s essay on the historical Thermidoreans in Metapolitics for some clue as to what is on the way.)
3. Acquiescence is no option, either. To all those followers of Chomsky and the ex-left who emphasize continually the overwhelming power and violence represented by the contemporary state, we say, “Do you really think that not trying to abolish the state will work!?” To acquiesce--and anything less than trying to abolish it is interpreted by the state as acquiescence--is to assume a supine position from the vantage of the state. And anyway, this is now considered a threatening stance as well. If you play dead, the state, which is not a subjectivity that can be appealed to, will come and find you. Especially you, because the response will be that much more extreme. For those who play dead, the response of the state is simple: “Better make sure they’re not up to something, and make them really dead.” Remember, even in its subjectless status, the state is the most paranoid of the paranoiacs, and nothing sets off paranoia quite as much as being partially obeyed.
4. We are at war with the state. We would go so far as to say that the basic situation of subjectivity in today’s society of global capital, a society overdetermined at every level by this subjectless presence, is a being-at-war-with-the-state. Furthermore, this is always already the case. It is not a choice, one cannot say, “No, I do not want to be at war with the state.” To utter this is to witness a disappearance, a self-disappearing act. One ceases to exist in any meaningful way. There is only struggle, and non-existence.
5. So what is the state? Is it the officers in a police cordon facing down protesters as part of the daily routine in any of a dozen countries at present? No. It is the presence behind the officers, it is what animates them. But what is this presence, this activity without a subjectivity? It is a phantasm. A poltergeist, to be more specific. It is a reactive, dangerous spirit-substance. The state, in our time, is an evil ghost.
Ghostbusters, or “What is to be done?”
WE THINK THAT THERE IS ONLY ONE HISTORICALLY PROVEN COUNTER TO THE HEGEMONIC RULE OF CAPITAL, AND THAT IS THE REAL HISTORICAL DREAM OF GLOBAL COMMUNISM. THERE IS NO OTHER IDEA THAT CAN EFFECTIVELY COUNTER THE ONSLAUGHT OF CAPITAL FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME AT THE REQUIRED LEVEL OF INTENSITY. IN ORDER FOR ANY SIGNIFICANT RELIEF AT ALL FOR THE VAST MASS OF PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET FROM THE UNIVERSALLY CONSTANT AND UTTERLY DESTRUCTIVE PRESENCE OF CAPITAL, THE DREAM OF GLOBAL COMMUNISM MUST BE REVIVED AND EXPANDED TO INCLUDE THE DESTRUCTION OF GLOBAL CAPITAL AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A REAL GLOBAL SOCIALIST STATE. THIS NEW STATE, THIS STATE WITH A SUBJECTIVITY, MUST BE CONTROLLED BY THE WILL OF THE VAST MASS OF PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET, FOR SOCIAL NEED AND THE SOCIAL GOOD. THIS PROJECT PRESUPPOSES THE ABOLISHING OF PROFIT AS THE MOTIVATING FORCE OF HISTORY, AS WELL AS THE ABOLISHING OF THE CAPITALIST STATE IN ANY FORM WHATSOEVER. END OF COMMUNIQUE.
Not the End
But that is not the final word. It is only one beginning. Here's another...
In their study, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Hardt and Negri state that it is war that has become the main obstacle to the emergence of a new global form of democracy organized by and around the multitude. They discuss ways in which war has become spatially and temporally unlimited, and how it has expanded to become both internal and external to the state. At the same time the arguments for war have been reorganized around fighting a “just” war against an “evil” enemy, a concept alien to modern realistic-political philosophy, which supposedly the modern state attempts to adhere to. (We realize that our conception of the state differs from the more familiar one being deployed by H&N here, but then, in other places in their work, they deploy something very similar to ours. Besides, we're uninterested in academic consistency, we want maximum effectiveness, whatever the expressions used.) Modernity, then, according to H&N’s critique, has been abandoned, or rather, put in permanent suspension pending the outcome of endless warfare. In this sense, H&N picture postmodern conceptions of the “clash of civilizations” as part of an essentially anti-modern attempt to prevent a new form of global democracy from coming into being.
In the next post we will examine what H&N's work has to teach us about this present situation of endless war, and how to struggle both against and within it to reach our final goal.
Video of Alex Callinicos and Jane Hardy at the 2012 International Socialist Journal Conference, discussing the crisis and its sources and the different strategies being deployed to solve it (or make it worse, depending on your point of view):