Emancipation Materials becomes the Emancipation Network

Comrades,

Thank you for following along with us thus far. Our project is changing shape—from a collaborative podcast and blog, and into a podcast network and research collective consisting of From Alpha to Omega, General Intellect Unit, and Swampside Chats, with an eye towards expanding our stable of associate-collaborators in the future.

We are still getting our bearings with how we will be using the podcast and the blog in the future, but immediate changes are as follows:

  • our new page, emancipation.network, is our new home
  • the podcast is on hiatus
    • the TSSI episodes have been deleted from the feed, since they can be easily found on the From Alpha to Omega feed
    • the class composition and antipolitics conversations are now accessible
  • the Patreon will now fund the network, not the podcast

Thanks for your attention and support,
(e)

RIP Erik Olin Wright (1947–2019)

“A starting point in envisaging the future function of the class-in-itself would surely be the imposing work of Erik Olin Wright, the greatest authority on class today.”

—G.M. Tamás, “Telling the Truth About Class”

#EOWtaughtme, a tribute hashtag
CaringBridge, his final blog entries
homepage, with incredible resources
our series on his Understanding Class

Notes on Terminology: ‘Surplus Population’ & ‘Lumpenproletariat’

The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

—Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)


There is widespread agreement among contemporary academic marxists that the term ‘surplus population’ is much preferable to ‘lumpenproletariat’. This had led many to think the two terms are interchangeable; perhaps that the former is just a “politically correct” neologism for the latter. For the sake of clarity, let us refute the previous sentence in the common sense, setting aside idiosyncratic attempts to improve the concept of ‘lumpenproletariat’.

For the following reasons, ‘surplus population’ is a distinct and superior concept to ‘lumpenproletariat’:

  1. While ‘lumpenproletariat’ denotes people who lack property in the same way that same way that proletarians do, it was used by early-mid Marx and the classical marxists as an opposed class to the proper proletariat, with class interests parasitic on the wages earned by proper proles;
  2. As with the concept of exploitation, the description of parasitic class interests embeds a moral claim—in this case, an unacceptably stigmatizing and naively sweeping generalization of the largest and fastest-growing section of the proletariat.
  3. What might be thought of as the classical “PC” response was the illegalist anarchist, anti-colonial, and post-maoist inversion of anti-lumpen moralism: valorizing ‘the lumpen’ into a revolutionary class by virtue of their exclusion and criminality—c.f. Mikhail Bakunin, Frantz Fanon, Huey Newton;
  4. These responses tend to lose the specific contours of the original class category, generalizing from ‘lumpenproletariat’ to ‘the lumpen’, but still maintain it as a discrete class with specific interests. So while more sophisticated variants were able to identify ‘lumpen petty bourgeoisie’, and this in some sense was an improvement on the classical usage, they still disguised the conflicting economic interests between ‘lumpen proles’ and ‘lumpen PB’;
  5. ‘Surplus population’ is an attempt to diffuse the moralism of classical marxism but also to avoid the “PC” valorization of ‘lumpen’;
  6. Most importantly, ‘surplus population’ is not conceptualizing a discrete class with its own interests; rather it overlaps with more general class categories and modifies their interest profiles. While one can still identify ‘surplus proles’ and ‘surplus PB’, their class interests can still be seen to conflict.

Antifa: Combat Liberalism?

Antifa—the strategy of direct physical and verbal confrontation with extreme right groups, in person and online—understands itself and its tactics as radical, in opposition to the liberalism of the mainstream.  Adherents of antifa believe that the mainstream, with its embrace of such liberal values as freedom of speech, has too soft a response to the existential threat presented by the far right.  Liberals don’t understand the zero-tolerance approach that is required to defeat neo-Nazi and other fascist or “alt right” groups. In fact, the criticism one will most often hear the antifa adherent leverage is, quite simply: “Liberal!”

That is why it is ironic that antifa, in its current manifestation, is liberalism. “Liberalism” is that political outlook which sees society as a collection of individuals.  Its original proponents, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, argued that society is not something organic, not some kind of fundamental relationship of interdependence, but is made up of the individual behaviors of individual people.

Liberalism thus stands in contrast to an approach that looks at how society is structured, and to whose benefit.  Such an approach would take stock of societal institutions and their functioning, to examine how this deploys relationships of power between different social groups….

Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones.  Contrary to antifa’s self-understanding, it is not distinct from liberalism but another form of it, one that has merely taken on a more radical veneer.

—Marianne Garneau, “Antifa is Liberalism”

antifa-john-brown-club

None of You are Free from Liberalism

By far the most common condemnation of the left against itself is the charge of liberalism. And very frequently, there is little consideration that our entire political context from Locke to Trump has essentially been a contest between factions of a liberal milieu.

When we talk about conditions where ‘liberalism’ can be hurled as an insult, the issue is easily is that overripe capitalist development feels regressed, rotted, and decayed, tending to turn on itself in hopes of ending its stagnation. You can call almost anything liberal in America and Western Europe and, despite the appearance and reality of conflict and opposition, be correct that it is liberal. Everyone is a liberal, and thus the sting of liberalism sticks to all and no one.

Let us look at one example of this trend and extrapolate a few general points through critique. Ritual Magazine has returned with Marianne Garneau’s attack on Antifa. Surely, in our age of clickbait, this one will be most effective. After all, liberalism is the leftist slur du jour. Antifa, in our current accelerated spectacle, was at once nearly universally praised on both the liberal and radical lefts, and almost immediately condemned for both its liberal and illiberal tendencies. Garneau makes many sound points about the over-focus on individual and not systemic action, and yet we find her framework problematic.

The way this liberal / non-liberal binary operates, to use the old Marxist canard, is undialectical. Her typology ignores the established tendency, at least since the late 1960s, for liberalism to appeal to structural factors and diminish the importance of individual behavior. Liberalism in the 2010s certainly considers structural determinism to be a starting gun in the wokeness marathon. The turn back towards individual agency in anglophone political philosophy represented by John Rawls is an exception to the recent rule, even if more in line with some classical sources.

Liberal aims were not enough for liberatory society or even to suppress “fascistic” urges, but Garneau’s states that “society is not something organic but is made of the individual behaviors of individual people”. She also strongly implies that a radical perspective does look at the structures as they emerge organically. While Locke’s notions of property do tend to treat the individual as sui generis and the individual role in that is primary, Hobbes does take this a step further. For Garneau to collapse them together does damage not just to liberal thought, but also to socialist thought.

Hobbes does start with the individual, but not for the same reasons or in the same way as most liberals. We at emancipation disagree over whether Hobbes is a liberal: he is either a reactionary liberal or not a liberal at all. Some of us would say that Hobbes starts with liberal assertions for profoundly illiberal ends. In any case,  conflating Hobbes and Locke on agency and structure demonstrates how misleading Garneau’s charge of ‘liberalism’ is. This passage of Leviathan could not be written by someone who ignores the way emergent social dynamics determine individual choice:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes, like Marx and unlike Locke, thinks history only begins beyond the individual, but his answer is that it has been manifested in an individual or entity—a sovereign. Even if this is a reactionary solution, this negative example moves us to the fundamental truth: systems are composed of social relationships. To counterpose this against some radical holist notion of an organically emergent system forgets that people are not just made by the system, but also make it:

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 only added element is historical, it is not “organic interdependence.” Even in Marx, history is the aggregate of individuals who can manifest interests as classes, not some kind of unified and organic whole. One’s interests as an individual are limited by the material relations hidden in the structures of society; to say that individual movements within these structures do not matter is to reify the structural abstractions as more real than the relationships that undergird (and undermine) them.

Yet Garmeu seems to realize the limits of this kind of critique, which is maybe why she does not condemn Antifa. As she says,

none of this is meant to argue that no one should ever punch or doxx a Nazi, or that counter-demonstrations against alt right groups should not take place.  It is merely an argument that those tactics, as well as the analysis that undergirds them, are liberal.

To this, one can only respond: so what? What is your alternative to liberalism?

Finally, many proponents of Antifa will read this piece and agree with the limitations of the tactics mentioned but declare their embrace of a “both-and” approach: we should build organs of working-class power (unions, block associations, tenant groups), while also confronting individual fascists and fascist groups. Such a “both-and” approach is not necessarily objectionable. Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones.

While the concessions Garneau makes at the end of her essay might be thought of as a cop-out from her provocative thesis, we find them refreshingly honest: Antifa is liberalism and I’m not necessarily opposed to liberalism. Even these concessions don’t adequately confront the apparent obsolescence of traditional left strategies to build prole class power. The author should have anticipated this critique since the antifascists in her organization (the Industrial Workers of the World) must have thrown it in her face repeatedly when making their case.

Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interest. Focusing on the systemic alone not only makes the individual locus of struggle a problem, it makes all intermediate stages, whether workplace organizing or organizing at a level of national or even transnational polities insufficient to fight a system. Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interests. Look at any locus of struggle within capitalist modernity and the logic can be applied. Let’s start with this chestnut:

Antifa is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses racism in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the racist (say, the neo-Nazi), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.

One merely has to change a few words:

[Labor organizing] is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses [capitalism] in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the [capitalist] (say, the [boss]), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.

This is explicitly not what Garneau intends, but the structure of the argument is recognizable to anyone familiar with anti-union marxism, from the most vulgar Socialist Equality Party tract to the most erudite communizer dissertation. At least Lenin’s accusations of trediunionizm” (usually translated as “trade-union consciousness”) didn’t condemn individual action in context because it doesn’t fully supplant the totality of capital. This substitution shows how this kind of thinking can cut against Garneau’s politics, and yet comes from the same sectors of Left Communism that also have historically critiqued Antifascism on the same grounds Garneau has supposed. We will return to implications of some of these parallels later.

From here, we see ‘liberalism’ in Garneau’s hands become an analytical panacea, as she seems to have collapsed the dialectical tension within liberalism itself into a simple, exclusive binary of individual vs. systemic. That even a reactionary early modern thinker like Hobbes could have seen the relationship says enough. From social contract theory to the return of a materialist conception of politics, this is by no means an alien insight to liberal thinking itself. Garneau’s conflations get more totalizing  when trying to offer a systemic answer to this problem, she asserts,

[Antifa] identifies the harm of racism with an odious individual prick spewing genocidal ideas, rather than the systemic impoverishment and arbitrary criminalization of people of color—which are, it bears repeating, not the brainchild policies of individual racists but built into the very infrastructure of capitalism and American democracy.

The problem with this statement is that infrastructure of capitalism is equated as the same as American democracy and that she treats them as emergent beyond any individual. This conflation is not just rendering the totality of the capitalist system as an adjunct or, at a minimum, on parity to its particular development in the US, but it also seems to pretend that totalities were not actual policy and developmental choices made by actual individuals for both individual and class interests. In short, the move to systemic analysis serves to evade guilt but also doesn’t discuss the granular micro-development of how oppressive totalities emerged.

ca1

This World We Can’t Leave

Liberalismthe school of thought which seeks to establish or justify individualistsocial and economic orders, concerned with a separation secular and religious spheres, and largely concerned with free labor and free trade which emerge out of the European Enlightenmentbirths Marxism, most anarchism, Enlightened despotism, Bourgeois Democracy’s various ideologies, and French absolutism alike. The various schools of liberal and post-liberal thought historically emerge as contrary trends within Enlightenment thinking and, if one is not careful, can trip into pure anti-modernity.

One only needs to look at the example of former Bordigist turned into a scion of primitivism, Jacques Camatte. In “Against Domestication”, Camatte asserts that:

human beings have, strictly speaking, been outstripped by the movement of capital which they are no longer able to control. This explains why some people think that the only solution is flight into the past, as with the fashionable preoccupation with mysticism, zen, yoga and tantraism in the U.S. Others would rather take refuge in the old myths which reject the total and all-pervading tyranny of science and technology. (Often this is all combined with the use of some drug which gives the illusion of the rapid arrival of a world different from the horror we are now living through.) On the other hand, there are people who say that only science and technology can be relied upon to provide the answers — which would explain why certain women in the feminist movement are able to envisage their emancipation through parthenogenesis or by the production of babies in incubators. [quelle horreur!]

There are others who believe they can fight against violence by putting forward remedies against aggressiveness, and so on. These people all subscribe, in a general way, to the proposition that each problem presupposes its own particular scientific solution. They are therefore essentially passive, since they take the view that the human being is a simple object to be manipulated. They are also completely unequipped to create new interhuman relationships (which is something they have in common with the adversaries of science); they are unable to see that a scientific solution is a capitalist solution, because it eliminates humans and lays open the prospect of a totally controlled society.

For Camatte, accelerating Horkheimer and Adorno’s conclusions in Dialectic of Enlightenment, there is no out to the systems of capital and individualism. Human liberation has inverted into a society of total control.

Since any modular fight against an element of capital is destined to be subsumed into its systemic logics, there is no way to battle capitalism because nothing can enact the necessary “radical break.”  It is all liberal or delusional; all is vanity. There is no way through, but only out: an individual out. Thus Camatte takes the systemic critique to a reductio ad absurdum: individual anti-modernism—what isometric far-right tendencies call “riding the tiger”—becomes the only out. Thus this anti-liberalism leads to an even more regressed individualism than anything liberal concerns produce.

Furthermore, if one is to look at Camatte’s development of Bordigist thought, this totalizing tendency to collapse a priori distinctions matters. In a 1988 “Dialogue with Bordiga”, while he defending his development of Bordigism into proto-primitivism as consistent with Bordiga’s skepticism of democracy, Camatte states:

…we do not reject the contributions of [Holocaust deniers] Rassinier, Faurisson or Guillaume. For us, as we have said thousands of times, questioning the ideology that justified the Second World War, and therefore denouncing the propaganda of the Allies concerning the Jewish “holocaust”, basically goes without saying and cannot be a subject of dispute. The main thing—which is not found in the works of the authors cited above—is to try to understand why we have witnessed such a powerful resurgence of this nauseating ideology with its timid questioning and, certainly, to the degree that the West really integrates its recent history, to that same degree will it use the existential myth that replaces the various founding representations absorbed by capital.

Camatte equates discussions of the Holocaust as liberal propaganda. We understand that the legacy of the Holocaust can be abused, as has been a theme of radical liberal scholars such as Norman Finkelstein, but Camatte’s citations cannot honestly be read as ending there. Denying the Holocaust is said to be radical because the reality of Auschwitz supports liberalism and therefore capitalism. In search of the radical break with capitalist modernity, the post-Bordigist circle around Invariance compounds their namesake’s “Italian disease” with the anti-anti-fascism of Vichy contrarians.

This is not to equate Bordigism, ultra-leftism, or most specifically Garneau’s thought with Camatte, but to grease the slippery slope of anti-liberalism and consider where collapsing all analysis into this categorical imperative may take us. While Garneau is right about problems of Antifa’s tactics and ways of thinking, she makes an enormous error of omission: contemporary Antifa does not limit itself to liberal justifications against incitement to shut down free speech and association but has made a show of attacking the principles themselves as inherently oppressive. What is the value of framing this as a critique of liberalism, other than the irony of Antifa also being derived from the same totalizing political sphere?

Antifa is liberal, so what? This will get clicks on social media surely, but it leads to other problems if one really works through the logic with any consistency. That isn’t really the crux of the problem. If everyone is liberal in some sense, it hardly matters. More importantly, these critiques will be ignored by the actors involved. Antifa will claim victory for the Alt-Right’s overall incompetence and will not combat their liberalism. How one gets beyond it becomes far more crucial question, and cannot be reduced to the taint of liberalism or even bad tactics.

The problem isn’t that Antifa is liberal. Almost everything is liberal in modern capitalist society including almost all leftism, and Antifa is arguably the loudest anti-liberal voice on the left despite its essentially liberal assumptions. The real problem with Antifa is their seeming unawareness of the way their assumptions conflict with their goals: something they share with Garneau.

No Cure for Politics

Recently, a piece was published by our collective attempting to ‘debunk’ the ‘anti-political’ perspective. We who adopt this outlook don’t believe that piece represented a critique of our views as they actually exist. Rather, attempts to ‘systemize’ emerging beliefs for us have, under the guise of empiricism, been a search for means of quickly resolving discomfort. Why else does it grant special attention and a need to be debunked, but that it actually explains the moment? Let’s break down a few points.

Tellingly, the Anti-Political people don’t use terms like ‘proletariat’ or ‘worker’ very often.

This is untrue: the hollowing out of workers’ parties and the relative shallowness of proletarian political participation generally is core to empirical evidence of antipolitics. The proletariat is also key to understanding what activity has social content.

The “Social Sphere”/Civil Society is cast as the base, and the entirety of the State/Politics is shoehorned into the superstructure.

This is an assertion that we have not read or personally stated anywhere. Can it be cited? We do think Tietze should do more to to dig into late Marx’s investigations of civil-society (and its own strictures, falsities and requirements, including the very existence of the political state: perhaps his upcoming book will go into it), but we have seen no indication he has revised base-superstructure (and he has poked fun at the SWP for doing so, i.e. they now put the state as part of the base).

But all this interpretation of Marx did for the anti-political faction of emancipation was to avoid the harsh reality of an extremely weak workers’ movement and rotting social institutions. It would seem there’s nothing wrong with the way things are right now in the “Social Sphere”—only issues with the political sphere and in particular The Left™. ‘The schools may be underfunded and falling apart, public spaces that were once the heart of communities may be in ruins, union membership may be extremely low, and birth rates may be low, but that’s all in your head. You are just projecting your doomy gloomy leftist worldview on the social sphere because you couldn’t possibly deal with the idea that society would be better off without you political types.’ When faced with the material foundations of social impotence, the most that Tietze & Humphrys and their followers will admit is that the institutions that tied society to politics have fallen apart.

The problem with striking the anvil of social decrepitude this hard is the incipient conservatism in it: not only because the proletariat is not going in the way the left wants it to (and there’s no acknowledgement as to why that may be reasonable), but because it fetishizes civil-social forms of the past despite the problems that presents. Eventually you get Robert Putnam denouncing “mass immigration” as “corrosive to social cohesion”. Or an odd assertion about birth rates (could read as a vulgarized Laschianism). The emphasis on trying to debunk the ‘unalienating’ aspects of social life betrays a misunderstanding of what makes social emancipation a priority and an advantageous strategy. Our point is not to fetishize.

Figuring out why social activity is weak and civil-social institutions are in long-term decline is an important question, but this analysis dodges asking why aside from acknowledging world economic shifts. It completely denies the role institutions themselves had in shoring up the failures of 20th century politics and thus the crisis of politics altogether. There’s no mention of the roles of labor unions in Stalinism and social democracy (the last two are mentioned only in their contemporary, decomposed forms). There’s also no considering that political crisis or hollowing out, and the social bases it relies on, predated neoliberalism (whether 1914 itself, Bolshevization, Stalinism, fascism, the “postwar settlement” tack of politics increasingly falling back on the state rather than on social bases, the collapse of the New Deal Coalition). Oddly, in this trying to defend politics and civil-social institutions that have historically acted as nexus points for politics, it implicitly defends historical Stalinism, even if it clearly was a corrosive force on the workers’ movements of the time, and loses many of the reasons to avoid working with contemporary ones as some of the worst dregs of the left. The 20th century has not been honestly grappled with.

We would argue civil-social organizations, by acting as a nexus point for politics, discredited themselves. It would certainly explain, in the US, the decline of public trust in labor unions starting from the 1950s onward¹, or Mai ’68, or the wildcat strikes of that era. Embryonic social activity is prone to being politically honeycombed, which explains most of what was witnessed in this sense in the 2010s in the United States (and not just by Democrats, but also the radical left and political entrepreneurs). Think Occupy, BLM/Ferguson/Baltimore, or the Wisconsin and Chicago public sector labor fights. Or outside of the United States, 15M/Podemos in Spain. This has not been properly accounted for. And what these are not are conspiracies: these are products of the limits the international workers’ movement hit a century ago, the material nature of politics, and how civil-society (and its institutions) requires a political state and tries to smooth out the cracks in it.

So rather than try to circuit back to politics (or ‘antiantipolitics’, which is supposed to posit…what?), or pretend that political representation is ever truly representative (it’s not, not even for the bourgeoisie as implied in the article, as the state is not simply their “tool” but, paraphrasing Marx, a collective insurance against their individual selves as much as the other classes: the realization of political representation as a falsehood is why we’re in an antipolitical epoch, that it is not simply the “tool of the bourgeoisie” is seen in the political class horror directed at vulgar bourgeois political takeovers), it’s time to think of what social organization looks like with buffers from political honeycombing. In this sense, antipolitics doesn’t just point to the social reality but at what is actually necessary at this point.

One last thing we will say about the lizards (which we haven’t used much as of late, really) is it actually needles at the waning social authority of politicos and their waxing incoherence and dysfunction — an inversion which actually flies in the face of Icke-ism or structural antisemitism generally. The Democrats have often been called the “graveyard of social movements”, but the point of political class co-optation once was to have a social base that could be sanded of its “rough” edges and commanded-and-controlled. This once had extraordinary power, even for institutions that had already peaked in power: the AFL-CIO going into DEFCOM mode in 1968 pulled Hubert Humphrey from potential third-place disaster to a near-win. Whereas today, there’s a clear and almost immediate negative relationship to political opportunism coming in command of activity, and social participation in it (one can see the trajectory in the social / class composition of Ferguson and Baltimore to BLM activity that isn’t tailing a localized outrage). Most importantly, this is not limited to Democrats, as seen clearly in fringe / sect / kook feeding frenzies at Occupy. While political opportunism still has the power to honeycomb social activity, it is from politics so weak and discredited they cannot even meaningfully mobilize and benefit from it, they can only rely on the core of their remaining rusted-on political base (one can look at the average participant in March For Our Lives²: rather than a teenager, they were almost 50 years old and almost certainly a Hillary Clinton voter). To the extent that a political class will always exist in civil-society, their problems are readily visible: the aim is to decipher how their ability to govern can be further impeded.

To Rip Off a Band-Aid

Marx is the only major writer in the history of theory whose reputation rests substantially on what he chose not to publish.

— Sheldon S. Wolin, “On Reading Marx Politically” (1983)

We at emancipation are split on the nominal “antipolitical” current in contemporary post-left thought.  The feelings that motivate this subcluster of the group represented here share in the disappointment and frustration with the left and politics as whole, and it has therapeutic value to take a rhetorical distance. However, in engaging with our antipolitical wing, it becomes clear that they are no more free from the obvious shortcomings that define the left in the current moment, from theory cultism to hostility towards dissenting opinions. Antipoliticos are leftists in the strongest sense.

One can always ask the key question before proceeding to this debate: why would anyone waste their time arguing about some online micro-tendency that barely exists outside of a couple of blogs and leftbook? Don’t we have better things to do? The vivisection of another left-wing groupscule seems hardly necessary. Two reasons come to mind: one, we all know what it’s like to watch intelligent people slowly slip into the dim and numbing incoherence of internet crankdom. Their good faith engagement gives way to continuous definition shifting and goalpost moving, no matter how politely you push at the limits of their framework. Two, antipolitics highlights a problem endemic to the left beyond the such micro-sectarian concerns: structural antisemitism.

What is Anti-Politics?

This is the million-dollar question. Given the osscalition between a broad and narrow conception of the term, I’m going to divide anti-political theory into two distinct definitions:

  1. Anti-politics is a description of the relationship between depoliticization(decreasing voter participation, etc.) and the rising tide of populism.
  2. An interpretation of Marx’s work that reads a primitive version of the base- superstructure divide into Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The “Social Sphere”/Civil Society is cast as the base, and the entirety of the State/Politics is shoehorned into the superstructure.  Among others, this interpretation owes a significant debt to Antonio Gramsci.

The first definition is the most interesting of the two, since it is tackling an obvious sociological reality. The modern resurgence of populism is fueled by a deep frustration with conventional politics on behalf of almost the entire voting population, who act and believe as if their interests have no chance at being represented. Most people in the western world do not like thinking about politics, and when they do, it’s usually pretty hostile towards the people who are in charge. Though this hostility is not particularly coherent, it takes on a populist logic, gravitating towards politicians that seem like outsiders with respect to “business as usual”. This is what most commentators mean by  “anti-politics” outside of communist theory.

However, this is problematic to the various Marxian antipolitics cadres that have developed, since they would rather not have something like the election of Trump or the rise of Bernie Sanders associated with The Real Movement. We know what The Real Movement means in terms of Marxology: the workers’ movement against all that exists. Tellingly, the Anti-Political people don’t use terms like ‘proletariat’ or ‘worker’ very often. They talk about “the social sphere” or “civil society”.

But what do they mean by the social sphere? Tad Tietze, the most visible theoretician of Marxian antipolitics¹, will tell you that the social sphere is connected to civil society (think schools, churches, families, communities, etc.) According to him and co-theorist Elizabeth Humphrys at the Left Flank blog, these parts of society are incubators for emancipatory desire, and in that they are in irreconcilable conflict with the “Political Sphere”: the state and anyone who is even vaguely positively disposed towards it.

This is all drawn, supposedly, from Marx’s work. The young Marx’s critique of Hegel is admittedly very interesting work, but in context with Marx’s overall body of thought, we find that it was blip on the map. Something that could be dismissed as Marx just starting to form his worldview, laying into Hegel before developing his conception of proletarian class struggle. In later works, Marx focuses on the proletariat and the inner workings of capitalism rather than the distinction between civil society and the state, although he planned on getting back to state theory after completing Capital. Famously, he didn’t even complete Capital. Marx was the kind of thinker that wrote “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” while writing several programs.

Whether or not Tietze’s reading is reflective of where Marx ended up is besides the point. If this reading leads to a more accurate description of the material conditions that define our current moment, than the marxology of it would be a secondary concern. If historical materialism means anything, it’s describing social relations as they actually exist and speculating upon said conditions to pursue human emancipation. If this were to mean admitting that Marx was either blind to or wrong in certain areas, then we should not deter to do so, as we are not prophets interpreting the word of God. This should go without saying, but it bears repeating when among true believers.

But all this interpretation of Marx did for the anti-political faction of emancipation was to avoid the harsh reality of an extremely weak workers’ movement and rotting social institutions. It would seem there’s nothing wrong with the way things are right now in the “Social Sphere”—only issues with the political sphere and in particular The Left™.

The schools may be underfunded and falling apart² ³ , public spaces that were once the heart of communities may be in ruins, union membership may be extremely low , and birth rates may be low, but that’s all in your head. You are just projecting your doomy gloomy leftist worldview on the social sphere because you couldn’t possibly deal with the idea that society would be better off without you political types.

[re: “low birth rates”, the main author wishes to highlight a breakdown in social cohesion, not to promote patriarchal natal-reproductivist ideology —ed. ]

When faced with the material foundations of social impotence, the most that Tietze & Humphrys and their followers will admit is that the institutions that tied society to politics have fallen apart.

While the main thinkers of antipolitics take a more Gramscian view of civil society against the seductions of the “integral state”, their followers have taken to extrapolating the young Marx’s notion of civil society as the other term of an inherently bourgeois antagonism: more of a friend to the state and politics, more of an enemy of the general social sphere. Many of the institutions that compose nominal civil society are literally part of the state—like public schools—or are directly linked to political institutions—like unions and churches.

But once this distinction is made, little coherent social power remains outside of civil society. All this talk of the “social sphere” conceals a precious pro-social optimism that cannot withstand the withering conditions of its existence. We find ourselves in the same prayer for spontaneity that ultimately negated communization, but without the sobriety and self-consciousness of its better wing. While everyone involved with emancipation feels jilted from our awful romance with leftoid sects, some of us still remember the social incoherence that led us to that cliff.

The Band-Aid of Structural Anti-Semitism

Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. … The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.

—a young Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1843)

Why would a group of intelligent people slowly drift off into this Lovecraftian madness, the theoretical equivalent of non-Euclidean architecture? How does an analysis drawing from a younger, more Hegelian Marx prevent itself from backsliding into Althusser’s suffocating vision of that “integral state” incorporating everything in capitalist society? Surely it would if it was more realistic, for many of the same reasons that left communists felt compelled to migrate “beyond the ultraleft”¹⁰.

We find “structural antisemitism” a convincing diagnosis. Marxian antipoliticos want to shift focus from the weakness of the workers’ movement towards the Left and the state. It was not the Left or the state that fatally weakened the working classes at the point of production, nor was it merely a Mont Pelerin cabal of neoliberals. Marxist analysis roots the strategies of political actors in economic conditions. Anti-Political people, like the rest of the Left, forget that the capitalism is not a conspiracy of capitalists but a system that is self reinforcing, limiting the agency of not only of individuals, but collectives. While this does not mean we are completely ensnared in this horrible web, it does mean that explanations that overestimate the agency of a small elite are misguided at best, and actively harmful at worst.

The (sadly, recently deceased)  German marxist Moishe Postone describes this sort of thinking as “structural anti-Semitism”, drawing on the role of Jews as the historical scapegoat for the cold and faceless entity of capital…

[Antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews¹¹.

In an attempt to avoid the nihilistic conclusions implied by their premises, politicos begin to seem less like “character masks” of capital than capital incarnate. Antipoliticos within  emancipation adopted the meme of “lizard people” to refer to political agents and their attendant “lizard brain” ideological thought-worlds,  referencing David Icke’s infamous conspiracy theory about the world being run by extraterrestrial reptilians. The Jewish members of (e) have mixed feelings about this usage: it’s too much a gesture towards its antisemitic origins, but an amusing abstraction from them. But what remains clear is that it reproduces the fetishism of the actor that conspiracy theorists level at Jews.

We do not wish to collapse into hyperstructuralism that makes “betrayal” impossible. History is a contingent process with absurd consequences. Stalinists and Social Democrats alike exhibit a distracting hypocrisy that seems to attract lost little lambs and world-weary wolves.  Even so, proletarians are as structurally deprived of politics as they are justifiably disinterested in them. Functional representation of interests can only take in the walled-gardens of the salaried company town, whereas any public space in proletarian life fills up with dysfunctional misery.

The big paradox for antipolitics is how the lizards continue to keep their social position amongst the meltdown if they are so weak, and why the spectacular inroads of the social into the political sphere always seems to fizzle. The reemergence of wildcat labor tactics in West Virginia is a glimpse of what a twenty-first century class struggle could look like. If we grant that this is not merely an echo of the past, what would still be needed is a negation of the antipolitical moment in a qualitatively different way than what the political sphere could ever muster: an anti-antipolitics, in that questionably vague Hegelian sense that all marxism relies on for hope. The loss of momentum in “red lizard” circles indicates that the extant left is not likely to play a significant role in its formation, but without its emergence we have no cause for social optimism.

(☭) | 2.2 | anti/politics II

materials:

Mike Macnair, “Law and State as Holes in Marxist Theory” (2006)

Hal Draper, “The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in Marx and Engels” (1987)

Adam Przeworski, “Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon” (1985)

Sheldon S. Wolin, “On Reading Marx Politically” (1983)

 

(☭) | 2.1 | anti/politics

materials:

Ian Hinson & Donald Parkinson, “Fashionable Incongruity” (2017)
Tad Tietze, “Why Better Politics Can’t Make Anti-Politics Go Away” (2017)

Tad Tietze & Elizabeth Humphrys,
“Anti-Politics and the Illusions of Neoliberalism” (2015)
“‘Anti-Politics’ and the Return of the Social” (2014)
“Anti-Politics: Elephant in the Room” (2013)

Derek Sayer, “The Critique of Politics and Political Economy” (1984)

After and Before Science

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
—Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919)

“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
—Marx, Preface to the French Edition of Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)

What other body of thought could say that their every conclusion can be dead wrong without implicating how they got there? “Nevermind that our most cherished claims are in ruins,” our collective marxist self-assuredly smirks.

“We’ve got a system.”

After Science

Why is it that academics come to such fragmentary, deflationary conclusions about the Marxian canon? The mathematically literate and innumerate alike regard Marx’s value theory and crisis theory incomplete at best, mathematically bunk at worst, and—in any case—locked into an archaic bourgeois logic. The specter of the “transformation problem” haunts any attempt to use Marx’s theory as written, should one attempt such a fetishistic folly. There are many answers to the ghost of transformation, but they are mutually exclusive.

Historians, sociologists and anthropologists cannot systematize a Marxian theory of history or class without collapsing into whether Marx projects what he intends to critique—capitalist categories—onto the european past and inappropriately onto the non-european world. Every attempt to extend Marx’s insights appears to recreate the problem of making contemporary relations out to be eternal, even if Marx himself is frequently spared from this criticism.

What we can say about history seems to dig us even deeper. The historical context for socialism and its momentum have dissipated. The workers’ movement Marx identified as the proletariat’s vehicle for liberation has all but disappeared—even though the scope of the proletariat within worldwide capitalism has expanded. When the labor movement existed as an historical actor, it was compelled by structure and circumstance to execute counter-revolution as often as revolution. Every attempt at a proletarian transitional state towards a classless society ended in atrocity, disaster, and expropriation that almost always prefigures capitalism—even North Korea has a donju road unfolding before it.

While marxists throughout the twentieth century busied themselves with apologizing for or brushing off these developments, the wide-eyed utopians we once could count on to draw up our blueprints and quixotically model the possibility of communal life have abandoned us for more subsumed libertarian horizons.

This might be mitigated if marxists could discuss the severity of this situation with one another. Yet no honest interrogation of our tradition appears to be in the cards. Marxists—a scene composed chiefly of teachers and grad students—insist on talking past each other to rehash elaborate schemas from sacred commentary. Cooperating on a systematic attempt to make these theories understandable, scrutable, or compatible seems out of reach.

For an illustration of the problem: can you argue against the claims made in the first paragraph? Are you literate in economic theory, linear algebra, cultural anthropology, comparative political science, German philology, and the plethora of other disciplines that have become necessary to engage in the defense or the attack for these debates within—and without—marxism? How would you be able to judge if any of this was true—or useful? Textual exegesis and empirical data have their place, as do the analytical and dialectical methodological traditions. That is, when they are not reduced to hand-waving motions in desperate reverie to avert communication.

The panicked insistence that marxism is “a science” is straightforwardly bankrupt, and its claim to having a unique methodology appears now more than ever as special pleading at best and turning marxism into an instrument of mystifying class domination at the worst. Nominal marxism is many methodologies, and while some are internally consistent, almost none are consistent with one another. Such competing methodologies and historiographies cannot be said to be scientific in any unified sense. Nothing remains of marxism’s claim to critique at the root of things—”radically”—other than sophistry toward contradictory extremes on any manner of subject.

Even this “ruthless critique” has been sufficiently abstracted from a communist context, where the methodological specificity of critical theory can be leveraged as a seemingly radical critique in any field whatsoever and without any pretense of offering a glimpse beyond capitalism. What is out of the question is the possibility that marxist thought might be coherent enough to be true regarding any subject on which Marx wrote.

“It was thenceforth no longer a question whether this or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, in accordance with police regulations or contrary to them. In place of disinterested inquirers there stepped hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics.”
—Marx, Postface to the Second Edition, Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)

Before Science

Anyone who lays claim to this burdensome tradition must have approached it by process of elimination, and—it must be assumed—a normative commitment to classless society. Positivistic claims with political implications are always suspect, but none more especially as those that read our further atomization and domestication as prefiguring communism. Most importantly of all, marxists have annihilated both the scientific standing and the moral high ground of communism by conflating ethics and science.

Yet marxism is nothing if not an emancipatory philosophy of science: a rational interrogation of the supposed necessity of class society, capitalism, wage-labor, the state and its borders. Even if we admit ethical commitments towards remaking the entire world that resemble nothing so embarrassing as justice, as ineliminable from marxism is its insistence that a belief in how the world should be will never be enough. We have to argue to the best of our abilities that communism is not only desirable but possible.

In order to do so, we must set aside the neurotic cornucopia of debilitating leftist skepticisms: the common sense that There Is No Alternative, the shoddy scholarship of one million hardened Party Men and undisciplined wishful thinkers, an unending fishbowl of ideology from which no grasp of the truth is possible, a dialectic of enlightenment where instrumental reason is destined to consume its siblings, an epistemic jail where all relevant problems are intractable, the suspicion that all thought is domination-in-waiting, and so on.

Yet we must hang onto two of our suspicions as guiding principles: that our communist commitments may allow us to entertain hopeful absurdities in a religious fashion, and that both opponents and exponents of marxism are heavily incentivized to pass off weak or distorted interpretations of texts and theories. In that spirit, we cannot pretend to grasp the full philosophical truth of things, but instead we must find ways to prove the importance and truth of a new scientific socialism on normal epistemic grounds. Only on the level of reintegrating marxism with libertarian and democratic impulses must we engage in myth-healing, to begin to wash the blood of innocents from the hammer and sickle and scrape away the rust. Otherwise, our task is primarily heuristic and not hermeneutic: more problem-solving than grand interpretation.

In that spirit, the ineliminable role of textual interpretation in reviving the marxist research program should take on a pluralistic tone. Which interpretations of texts are consistent and plausible? How do these interpretations cohere with available data? Theories of value, crisis, history, imperialism, social change, human behavior, and explanation should be lovingly extracted, compared, and reconstructed from Marx and marxists in whatever academic or autonomous settings we can get our hands on. From this angle, even attempts to recover “the rational kernel within [Hegel’s] mystical shell” in what Marx called his own “dialectical method” should be articulated and evaluated—just not with the traditional kids’ gloves and wizard hats.

The incentives of the academy are unlikely to line up with communist priorities, so our emphasis in the ivory tower should rest in deepening our commitment to understanding the normal practice and the strongest critiques of scientific norms in a given discipline. We are unlikely to master more than one as individuals; we must seek each other out, find ways to collaborate, and share our hard-won expertise with the world in rigorous and accessible ways.

Whether we valorize every Marxian thesis is neither here nor there. Can we sustain any form of communist commitment by rational means whatsoever? That is our research question.