Revolutionary Desire

Communist Subjectivity and the Production of Production

Posted in Essays by deterritorialization on January 5, 2010

This is a “defect”, says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of communism; for if we are not to indulge in utopianism, we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any standard of right. Besides, the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic prerequisites for such a change. [1]

Lenin, at the helm of the Bolshevik party, set out to destroy the Provisional Government and conquer state power on behalf of the proletariat. He correctly sensed that the insurrectionary fervor which propelled his party to leadership, was the same revolutionary force with the potential to change the productive and social relations from exploitative, capitalist relations to communist ties free of class domination. Instead, a terrible repressive force was unleashed, and everywhere capitalist relations were strengthened. The Coming Insurrection: “Thus far, every impulse to ‘do politics differently’ has only contributed to the indefinite spread of the state’s tentacles.” [2] To counter this spread of domination, some have begun to ask whether revolution should not aim to immediately produce and disseminate communist social relations. The project, it turns out, requires a rethinking of struggle and its aims, as well as of the nature of class itself.

The Coming Insurrection “posit[s] communisation as essentially being the production, through the formation of ‘communes’, of collective forms of radical subjectivity.” [3] In this theory, the project of communisation produces inherently insurrectionary subjectivities and thus aims to produce a revolutionary rupture. On the other hand, capitalism and even the diffuse reformist and revolutionary organizations have also turned out to be producing repressive, capitalist subjectivities. John Cunningham, summarizing various approaches to this production of new social relations, or “communisation,” finds the project to be quite a-political: “the negation of contemporary political forms [. . .] I find most constructive, in a destructive way, within theories of communisation.” [4] The aim is not the conquest of state power, as in Lenin, but rather the immediate diffusion of communist social relations as widely as possible: the negation of wage labor, replacement of commodity economy by gift economy—both tasks which are no longer to be trusted to the dictatorship of the proletariat’s representatives. The proletariat must become the agent of its own negation.

Paolo Virno, putting forth a notion of Exodus as “mass defection from the State,” envisions “the subversion of capitalist relations of production henceforth develops only with the institution of a non-State public sphere, a political community that has as its hinge general intellect.” [5] Here, though, the prospect of creating new radical subjectivities is tied to the absolute negation of the state, as opposed to the Leninist overthrow and inversion (which is really not so inverse after all). Virno suggests violence aimed at conserving the “forms of life and communitarian relations experienced en route” on the flight of Exodus from the state. [6] What is strange is perhaps quite simply that Virno believes it is possible to exit from the state at all. He envisions the flight from the state establishing in its place Republic (which is not a form of state), yet he does not see this as a dangerous threat. A bit more caution is needed, though the escape from the grasp of the state is a correct aim. Every line of escape, though, will tend to reproduce the social relations it avoids: “The choice is between one of two poles, the paranoiac counterinvestment that motivates all the conformist, reactionary, and fascizing investments, and the schizophrenic escape convertible into a revolutionary investment.” [7] There is always the problem of balancing the negation of state power and capitalist relations with the matching threat of reconstituting and reinforcing them.

Virno’s Exodus formulation depends upon his reading of Marx’s notion of the general intellect, a combined social knowledge, which becomes a dominant force in production. Virno sees in the general intellect a realm already free of the state. Marx viewed the general intellect in the productive process as one of the means by which “objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital.”” [8] Virno envisions the general intellect as a progressive force because it could be untied from capitalist production and used in conjunction with genuine free labor. This is certainly a valid prospect. On the other hand, Virno’s perspective is a bit naïve: “a strategy of refusal and subjective break with capital [. . .] can give rise to a pre-emptive theoretical negation of any role as worker, suspending the fact that for most people a shit job is a necessity and the only exodus is the weekend.” [9] Workers cannot necessarily escape from being workers in the way a mechanical reading of Virno would suggest they should. Rather, what Virno is getting at is the need for genuine, free production in the here and now, which is always already political production: “Political action is unlike labor in that its sphere of intervention is social relations, not natural materials. It modifies the context within which it is ascribed, rather than creates new objects to fill it.” [10] What is perhaps unclear in Virno is why labor is not at all political action, albeit one that tends to produce capitalist subjectivity. Virno’s distinction between labor and political action is tenuous at best.

Whereas Marx had distinguished between productive and unproductive types of intellectual wage labor by attributing the production of surplus value entirely to the former, perhaps we can rather accuse Marx of commodity fetishism for equating surplus value with the object-commodity produced rather than the process of production itself. Marx allows for forms of work in which “the product is not separable from the act of producing” yet because of this fact he does not believe they could be producing surplus value. [11] Virno simply disagrees, but Hardt and Negri offer a new concept of “immaterial labor, that is labor that produces immaterial products, such as information, knowledges, ideas, images, relationships, and affects.” [12] Immaterial labor is to be contrasted with material labor, the products of which are material. That is the fundamental difference. Virno’s confusion, then, rests upon the notion that work is not political, and it follows from a similar confusion in Marx, who followed the bourgeois error of equating the process of production with its commodity products, despite the fact of the immaterial labor that he himself performed!

Rather than starting with immaterial labor, as do Hardt and Negri, McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto specifically examines information, a form of property which, he argues, has become dominant after the possibility for its total abstraction from its material base through the emergence of technology which allows it to be shifted about fluidly. Information is no longer chained to the medium which carries it; this makes possible its expanded role in production so much so that it becomes the predominant form of property and production. “Information is the potential of potential.” [13] Not only is information produced, but it is itself the potential for renewed and increased production. (Machines add their value to the commodities produced, Marx says, only as they break down. Information, which Marx called the General Intellect, never breaks down, and for this reason it becomes a decisive factor in all production.)

The production of information is carried out by an entirely new class. Whereas the capitalist class extracts its surplus value from the workers through the monopoly on the means of production, the vectoralist class emerges by attempting to consolidate information—the means of production of information—under its ownership and the commodity form.

The representation and repetition of the singular hack as a typical form of production takes place via its appropriation by and as property. The recuperation of the hack for production takes the form of its representation to and within the social as property. But the hack, in and of itself, is always distinct from its appropriation for commodity production. Production takes place on the basis of a prior hack that gives to production its formal, social, repeatable and reproducible form. Every production is a hack formalized and repeated on the basis of its representation as property. To produce is to repeat; to hack, to differentiate. If production is the hack captured by property and repeated, the hack is production produced as something other than itself. [14]

This production of production, the hack, does create a surplus which is appropriated by the vectoralist class. Wark distinguishes between the “useful” and “useless” surpluses: useful surplus expands freedom from necessity, and useless surplus is “the surplus of freedom itself, the margin of free production unconstrained by necessity.” [15] Free production in the present: limited, of course, by the commodity form, this is what the hacker does. Insofar as hacking is already ongoing and exploited by the vectoralists, the hacker class does constitute a class of itself. Wark’s project, to construct the hacker class as a class for itself, requires, however, a broader awareness of class and specifically the experience of the other productive classes. “If hackers teach workers how to hack, it is workers who teach hackers how to be a class, a class in itself and for itself. The hacker class becomes a class for itself not by adopting the identity of the working class but by differentiating itself from it.” [16]

Hardt and Negri’s notion of the “multitude” is a proposition along similar lines. Hardt and Negri offer a new class and base this on an understanding of the Marxian “proletariat” as not only an empirical but also a political creation—not only an objective reality but a subjective construction. Whereas Wark’s hacker class is engaged in a specific form of production tied to a particular form of property, the multitude includes all the productive classes. Both theories, but especially Hardt’s and Negri’s, express a certain discomfort with the privileged position of proletarian subjectivity as opposed to that of the other producers:

The working class is thought to be the primary productive class and directly under the rule of capital, and thus the only subject that can act effectively against capital. The other exploited classes might also struggle against capital but only subordinated to the leadership of the working class. Whether or not this was the case in the past, the concept of multitude rests on the fact that it is not true today. The concept rests, in other words, on the claim that there is no political priority among the forms of labor: all forms of labor are today socially productive, they produce in common, and share too a common potential to resist the domination of capital. [17]

Thus, the project of communisation involves a heavy rethinking of the concept of production, and hence, of class itself. As Cunningham notes, this multitude proposed by Hardt and Negri is very inclusive. The Coming Insurrection offers a slightly different picture, for rather than embracing the producers it seems to rather encourage them to stop producing: “Today work is tied less to the economic necessity of producing goods than to the political necessity of producing producers and consumers, and of preserving by any means necessary the order of work.” [18] Whereas Hardt and Negri see the potential for common, collective work in the subjectivities of the producing classes as a whole (thus revising Marxism), the Invisible Committee see the subjectivities produced under exploitation as repressive. The basis for Hardt and Negri’s openness, of course, is Virno’s notion of the general intellect and of the multitude:

What we have here is a lasting and continuing reality, not some noisy intermezzo. Our new Multitude is not a whirlpool of atoms that “still” lacks unity, but a form of political existence that takes as its starting point a One that is radically heterogeneous to the State: public Intellect. The Many do not make alliances, nor do they transfer rights to the sovereign, because they already have a shared “score”; they never converge into a “general will” because they already share a “general intellect.”

The Multitude obstructs and dismantles the mechanisms of political representation. It expresses itself as an ensemble of “acting minorities,” none of which, however, aspires to transform itself into a majority. It develops a power that refuses to become government. [19]

Thus, in Virno the ultimate conflict comes down to state and nonstate. In the end this multitude—in Virno—is not really a theory of class at all.

Hardt and Negri, however, do claim to keep a class analysis and perspective. At the same time, they envision a kind of struggle that itself produces radical subjectivities, that is, the political struggles of the multitude are in fact the process of communisation. To understand how Hardt and Negri redefine class, it is helpful to consider the words of Guattari on Lenin: “Confronted with the failure of the Second International in 1914, will to power, he artificially built a new International and a new international working class, just like he built an artificial worker’s party out of students!” [20] Hardt and Negri’s project, then, is to correct for the disproportionate focus on industrial labor as opposed to other forms of labor, and create a class which can reflect this. They thus dispute that class is a purely empirical category: “The empirical claim of Marx’s class theory is that the conditions exist that make a single class of labor possible. This claim is really part of a political proposal for the unification of the struggles of labor in the proletariat as class.” [21] While on the one hand this could be taken as disparaging toward Marx’s vast efforts in Capital, it could also be taken as intensely loyal to his political task. Marx never lost sight of the proletariat as a primarily revolutionary force. And so in Hardt and Negri, class is an identity primarily derived from common struggle; the multiplicity is the collective of all the productive classes which resist capitalism and the state. Class is itself a subjectivity that is produced by unified action.

The multitude’s emphasis on class subjectivity, as opposed to objectivity, is partly picked up by Wark’s theory of class. Whereas all the producing classes share an interest in freeing production from appropriation by ruling classes, only the workers and farmers have the advantage of a historical legacy of resistance to oppression. On the other hand, the free production imagined in Marx’s vision of a communist world remains foreign to the lived experience of the workers and farmers, leeched as they are by rent and profit. Hackers’ production of production, distinct from capitalist production which is really repetition, undermines all the constraints the commodity form places on production.

Taking something of an opposite approach, The Coming Insurrection proclaims as a goal to “reduce growth. Consume and produce less. Become joyously frugal.” [22] These conclusions rest upon the assumption that the subjectivity of production (apparently in all its forms) is repressive and must be recreated. There is such an astonishing turning away from social production here, while workers’ wages and jobs are cut, and producers the whole world over struggle for better standards of living. Perhaps in abandoning their capitalist subjectivity the authors have mistakenly thought that their method is the only way of doing so. Besides, there is still a radical negation in Hardt and Negri, despite their optimism about the new forms of work: “resistance is primary with respect to power.” [23] Class lines are formed along the lines of the struggle against exploitation, not simply along the lines of surplus value appropriation. That is, they are political lines as well as economic ones: “all the strands of communisation are attempting to dissolve the worker into a more diffuse subject.” [24]

That the multitude, this new political subject, does not itself aspire to state power (in Virno), means that Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan does not have a category adequate to conceive of it. Whereas in Schmitt there is a distinction between real enmity and absolute enmity; the partisan is defined by absolute enmity toward the foe. “With the absolutation of the party [over the state], the partisan also became absolute and a bearer of absolute enmity.” [25] Even if this definition is accepted—since it is after all fair to say that the Bolshevik party became dominant over the mechanisms of the state—what is still unaccounted for is a kind of struggle which does not seek state power and thus needs, as Virno puts it, “a kind of hostility that does not aspire to shift the monopoly of political decision making into new hands, but that demands its very elimination.” [26] Absolute enmity does not go far enough; perhaps what is needed is not simply a new kind of enmity, but a new target as well. This, The Coming Insurrection illustrates well: an enmity not only for the chiefs of the enemy but also those who do not get out of the way. This borders on a contempt for the masses, what Cunningham calls a “phantom vanguardism”: “Making the paralyzed citizens understand that if they do not join the war they are part of it anyway.” [27] Certainly, believing in the immediacy of the collapse of capitalism—as do the Invisible Committee—would certainly lead one to draw clearer battle lines than with a softer outlook. Yet they still aim their sights essentially at converting the misled masses; their version of communisation. If, as Hardt and Negri argue, “The guerrilla foco is the vanguard party in embryonic form”, then it seems the communes imagined in The Coming Insurrection are simply guerrilla forces in embryo. [28] Underlying it all, there is still a potently dangerous vanguardism.

As even the Invisible Committee note, insurrection appears to be highly unlikely. “We’re setting out from a point of extreme isolation, of extreme weakness.” [29] Indeed, this is true, and the piece should be read in light of this fact. The Coming Insurrection substitutes its fiery insurrectionary language and “tactics of withdrawal, diffusion and sabotage” for the subjectivity produced by shared history of common, united struggle. The path of exodus is not always one to isolation, since it is clear that flight is never quite possible. The communisation represented by The Coming Insurrection, though, attempts to fly so far that it ends up reinforcing its own isolation and limiting its own radical subjectivity by closing itself off to the lived experiences of struggles, the bearers of which may not be yet insurrectionary but already are themselves the potential for insurrection. Ironically, Hardt and Negri’s criticism of Schmitt also partially applies to the Invisible Committee:

One of the gravest errors of political theorists is considering constituent power a pure political act separate from existing social being, mere irrational creativity, the obscure point of view of some violent expression of power. Carl Schmitt, along with all the fascist and reactionary thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, always tried to exorcise constituent power this way, with a shiver of fear. Constituent power, however, is something completely different. It is a decision that emerges out of the ontological and social process of productive labor; it is an institutional form that develops a common content; it is a deployment of force that defends the historical progression of emancipation and liberation; it is, in short, an act of love. [30]

In the name of fleeing oppression, it seems the Invisible Committee are prepared to abandon the emphasis on productive relations to the Marxists. What they fail to see is that all social relations are immediately productive relations, and therefore all social relations involve a flow of value. This is never totally horizontal. Hardt and Negri grasp the element of desire in the production of radical subjectivity. Their notion of multitude, then, provides a model for an infinitely layered struggle against exploitation and repression, not limited to a specific form of production. If all labor is productive, and immaterial labor tends “to blur the distinction between work time and nonwork time,” then perhaps all time is immaterial labor while some time for some classes is material labor. [31] Further, if immaterial labor always tends to produce subjectivity then it seems that both radical communist and repressive capitalist subjectivities are being produced in any given situation. Cunningham thus praises the Invisible Committee for their emphasis on “involuntary viral diffusion of communal and subjective disaffiliation from capital as a social relation.” [32] Perhaps a line of flight of some kind is always necessary to produce such a rupture in subjectivity. Yet it seems unrealistic to imagine that the isolation involved in this particular attempt at communisation would bring about an insurrectionary consciousness.

Rather, The Coming Insurrection’s exodus or line of flight is a defensive one emerging from a long period of defeat; the project is not only to produce new subjectivities, but to insulate from the danger of the repressive subjectivity of work. In this sense, the piece fails to grasp the need of the producing classes to emerge in a common identity, not simply a common exodus or flight, and not simply a withdrawal from work, but rather the common identity of a class that finds itself in motion against a common enemy: class society. This is intensely destructive:

Annihilating this nothingness is hardly a sad task. It gives action a fresh demeanor. Everything suddenly coalesces and makes sense—space, time, friendship. We must use all means at our disposal and rethink their uses—we ourselves being means. Perhaps, in the misery of the present, “fucking it all up” will serve—not without reason—as the last collective seduction. [33]

The seduction that should be imagined, then, is one shared between and among all of the producing classes. The unity of action and situation among the singularities of the multitude gives rise to a historical consciousness of that which it resists. “The intelligence of the swarm is based fundamentally on communication.” [34] As a swarm of bees or school of fish, the multitude interlinks, spreading not the tentacles of the state but the web of the masses.

Yet, Hardt and Negri’s multitude, inclusive as it is, does not do justice to the objective dynamics of class relations. Wark, on the other hand, views the production and existence of the farmers and workers as an objective process. That the producers are products, a perspective sharing quite a bit with Reich and Althusser as well as Deleuze and Guattari, illustrates the hack in practice, producing the producers of renewed production. Moreover, though, this production of the producers is the production of their subjectivity. Thus, hackers are perhaps the class posed directly with the task of the production of social relations or at least the embodying of their potential in information. Communisation, then, is a project that is quite worthwhile; it is a hack. Free production for its own sake, wherever possible designed in order to challenge the reign of the commodity: this the class-conscious hacker can practice, and this is the revolutionary potential of a society in which information is monopolized. What makes the “hacker class” revolutionary, as opposed to the multitude and as an idea rather than a body for itself, is that it bridges the divide between subjective and objective, recognizing the need for radical subjectivity while acknowledging the objective reality of hacking and production. To hack beyond property and the commodity form: this collective seduction is the culmination of the revolutionary struggles envisioned by Hardt and Negri, the insurrectionary declaration of war issued in The Coming Insurrection, and the diffusion of communist relations shared by communisation theorists of various banners.


Notes
[1] V.I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” 264-351 in Selected Works One-Volume Edition (New York: International Publishers, 1980), 332. Available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev.

[2] The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 95. Available online at http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/texts/the-coming-insurrection.

[3] John Cunningham, “Invisible Politics: An Introduction to Contemporary Communisation,” (29 September 2009), http://www.metamute.org/en/content/invisible_politics_an_introduction_to_contemporary_communisation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paolo Virno, Virtuosity and Revolution, 196-7.

[6] Ibid, 206.

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane, 341.

[8] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch13.htm#p693.

[9] “Invisible Politics.”

[10] Paolo Virno, Virtuosity and Revolution, 190.

[11] Quoted in Ibid, 191.

[12] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 65.

[13] McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 128. A shorter version is available online at http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors0/warktext.html.

[14] Ibid, 160.

[15] Ibid, 164.

[16] Ibid, 86.

[17] Multitude, 106-7.

[18] The Coming Insurrection, 49.

[19] Virtuosity and Revolution, 201.

[20] Félix Guattari, “The Bourgeoisie Is the Overcoding Class,” in The Anti-Oedipus Papers (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), ed. Stéphane Nadaud, trans. Kélina Gotman, 171-2.

[21] Multitude, 104.

[22] The Coming Insurrection, 68-9.

[23] Multitude, 64.

[24] “Invisible Politics.”

[25] Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2007), trans. G. L. Ulmen, 93.

[26] Virtuosity and Revolution, 205.

[27] Quoted in “Invisible Politics.”

[28] Multitude, 75.

[29] The Coming Insurrection, 96.

[30] Multitude, 351.

[31] Ibid, 66.

[32] “Invisible Politics.”

[33] The Coming Insurrection, 112.

[34] Multitude, 91.

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