Personal Philosophy Politics

Antagonism, Class, and the Real Movement

I’ve recently been considering where my politics now stand, in light of studying a range of theorists and schools of thought beyond what I had previously had the time or opportunity to consider. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the work — on the one hand — of groups like Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee, and — on the other hand — Antonio Negri and his collaborative work with Michael Hardt. Despite Tiqqun’s clear distaste for Negri (to put it mildly), it’s illustrative that much of their work nevertheless functions only in and through the concepts which Negri provides us, particularly that of Empire and its relation to the biopolitical, the police state, civil war, etc. I don’t think their positions are as irreconcilable as might appear on the surface, particularly given that — their many analytical and rhetorical strengths aside — Tiqqun’s understanding of Marxism is disappointingly shallow.

At the core of what I’ve been trying to think through, and I think this is understood as an important problem by most of the contemporary left, is the relation between class and politics. There are also other issues which we will consider below. On the orthodox Marxist analysis, one’s class is a function of one’s position within the objective economic system, and can be reduced down to a relatively simple question: Must you sell your labour for a wage in order to survive? Of course, my characterisation is necessarily somewhat simplistic, even the most orthodox of Marxists recognise that difficulties endure in the petit-bourgeois, lumpenproletariat, etc. This is the question I have been rethinking.

One of the great virtues of Marxist theory is its central conviction that theory must be guided both by praxis and the world we really see before us. It’s the reflexivity of Marxist theory which marks it out as such a powerful tool of analysis; if the thesis is disconfirmed by empirical observation, the thesis must be eliminated or revised. This procedure was exemplified by Marx himself, both in the writing of Capital and, for example, in his analysis of the Paris Commune. Lukacs was correct therefore to consider orthodox Marxism a commitment to the method, rather than the specific conclusions, provided us by Marx. And it is in this sense that I think we — and by we, I mean Communists — need to take a rethinking of class quite seriously. This is far from a new assertion, of course, and I think we’re all quite tired of the unending stream of theoretical texts denouncing the inadequacy of Marxism in interpreting some radical new development in the development of Capitalism. And this is where Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Hardt and Negri enter the picture.

What Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee show, I think, is the inadequacy of a ‘class analysis’ reliant upon the orthodox Marxist conceptualisation of class; it brings back to the forefront the now somewhat unfashionable diagnoses of the havoc capitalism is wreaking upon human society and the individual; and that contemporary Communists need to shake off the last remnants of the notion that emancipation awaits only after the revolution which up-ends the class conflict by transforming the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into the dictatorship of the proletariat. Beyond this, they are also — as anarchists — highly skeptical of the very notion of ‘seizing state power’, and distrustful of the insistence that ‘this time it will be different.’ I think we can also take from them a lesson to be attendant to the real, existing movements out there on the streets today and learning from them, not legislating in advance how they must act, how their praxis must conform to our ideas, etc. Let me rephrase one of the central points here: if we are to conceptualise antagonism within contemporary capitalist societies, a reliance upon the notion of ‘the working class’ will not get us very far. In their words,

Historical conflict no longer opposes two massive molar heaps, two classes — the exploited and the exploiters, the dominant and dominated, managers and workers — between which, in each individual case, it would be possible to differentiate. The front line no longer cuts through the middle of society; it now runs through each one of us…

In a sense, this is to overstate the case. Certainly they are right in diagnosing the way in which capital has penetrated to the very core of our subjectivities — the role of any political-economic regime in subjectivisation having been long understood already, of course. But their analysis in the text poses almost existential questions about the character of late-capitalist subjectivities – the profusion of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions; the rugged individualism and endless incitement to self-improvement, efficiency, productivity, optimising your ‘free time’, and so on. Further, it does not seem that the antagonism between the dominant and the dominated has been in any meaningful sense weakened; if anything, it has continued to grow in intensity over the preceding decades. What has changed is the composition of the classes involved in this antagonism. And this is perhaps where I find Negri and Hardt most useful.

Class remains the determining factor at work in the antagonism which plays out across the social field today. But Hardt & Negri provide a reconceptualisation of what class has to be understood as today. The Multitude (their concept) is an irreducible multiplicity in the properly Deleuzian sense; it is the molar mass of all those exploited and dominated by capital and who, in multiple forms, push back against it. Where there is power, there is resistance. It is a multiplicity – it is composed not just of the traditional working class but feminists, people of colour, activists fighting against anti-immigrant violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, racism, anti-ableism, etc. And it is in the nature of an irreducible multiplicity that these ‘axes’ cannot be reduced to each other. We cannot understand capitalism without understanding how it’s supported by, and reinforces, patriarchy, white supremacy, white supremacy without seeing how capitalism requires it, etc. And this needn’t be resolved into the usual liberal identity politics in which criticism of programmes for universal healthcare are lambasted as ‘insufficiently intersectional.’ It is a problem, as Hardt points out, the diagnosis of which goes back to Rosa Luxemburg and even further back still; as Luxemburg, Iris Young and pointed out, what is needed is not an external solidarity between Communists and Feminists, and so on; but an internal solidarity which fully recognises the necessary co-constitution of their struggles. This is still, unfortunately, an insufficient characterisation of their long and arduous work filling out the notion of the multitude, but it must do for now.

There are a number of points across these thinkers which strike me as persuasive and important. The first is the mutual refusal to lecture actual social movements on how they ought to organise their struggles, the proper objectives, methodological frameworks, tactics in pursuit of the ends, etc. We should learn from these movements, not lecture them. Doubtless they were and are flawed, but so is any movement. It should not be forgotten that, for all of the horrors which later ensued, the Russian Revolution was – as China Mieville points out – in many ways sparked by Russian feminists marching in the streets on International Women’s Day. The test of your theory is its practical results – for Marxists, or anyone indebted to it, this must be central. There can be no clear separation between theory and practice. And in a world, today, where Leninists sit on the sidelines, in ever-dwindling numbers, filled with nostalgia for the past, jaded and bitter at the clear indifference in which they are regarded by ‘the working class’, this must be the decisive test for the question of whether the Leninist analysis still holds purchase on, is still adequate to, contemporary capitalism.

If you’re wondering where the resistance to capitalism is, you’ve got your eyes closed. It’s already there, out on the streets. The Real Movement is visible, out in force, denouncing racism, police violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, anti-migrant violence, authoritarianism, inequality, ecological collapse. You just have to open your eyes and see it. They don’t need lecturing about the proper role of the vanguard, or how – if they just saw clearly – they’d realise not just that class is the overdetermining factor but that the working class is the only possible agent of true change. What we need to do is take a step back and learn from them. One of the critiques levelled against the so-called ‘New Social Movements’ is the lack of meaningful, lasting change, what Srnicek and Williams deride as a ‘folk politics’ obsessed with nostalgia, petit-bourgeois values and an almost neurotic obsession with the relation between means and ends. We can meaningfully ask two questions in response to this, however: First, to what extent Marxist-Leninism has been able to meaningfully and lastingly overturn the global development of capitalism and its destructive consequences; Second, whether the technocratic social democracy proposed by Left Accelerationists represents any meaningful departure from what we’ve already seen over the hegemonic neoliberal consensus of the past few decades.

The Real Movement is not simply protesting, in a futile demonstration of its own political impotence. This is to misunderstand the entire character of revolt. Aside from the assumption that protest itself is meaningless and unimportant, it relies upon a near-deliberate ignorance of the ways in which non-electoral strategies operate. These movements which we see today – against everything from police violence and racism to anti-immigrant rhetoric, sexual violence and the changing role of education – are setting up communities, support networks, reading groups, sit-ins and takeovers, redistributing resources, providing legal aid and healthcare, protecting public and common spaces. And what has to be understood is the transformative elements contained within these forms of dissent.If there is to be the possibility of any Communism worthy of its name, it must embody, protect and further what it is that we hold in common, against the forces of a Neoliberal Capitalism which increasingly emphasises precisely what is “unique” to each of we entrepreneurial individuals, but which is really nothing “unique” at all. And if we are to form any meaningful praxis which takes us closer to that goal, we first need to stop seeing it as a goal to be achieved in the sense that before the revolution we had capitalism, after the revolution we have Communism. What is needed is the intensive multiplication and proliferation of non-capitalist, of Communist, social relations between individuals and groups; perhaps what we could call groupuscules. And it precisely in the commons and in the public spaces which so many of these movements champion, defend, and weaponise that these relations can be nurtured, developed and broadened. The process of engaging in these kinds of processes – of staging an occupation, or joining a picket line, volunteering at street kitchens, and so on – is always already to act against the prevailing capitalist social relations. If Capitalist domination cuts across us, then it is through acts such as these that an anti-capitalist collective subjectivity can be formed.