Its occurred to me that since Twitter is a shitty imageboard complete with random bans, tripcode users (the notorious blue tick), and unaccountable admins, I should probably backup whatever Twitter content I produce that shows a flash of insight. So here’s two recent threads people seemed to like. They are unmodified from the originals (warts and all).
Seeing those pictures of Mosul devastated, and seeing the same thing happening, on a smaller scale, in Raqqa has me thinking. Before the Great War we saw microcosms of the mass destruction and suffering that was to come in various colonies and other small wars. Concentration camps in South Africa against the Boers. Machine guns slaughtering massed infantry and cavalry, as witnessed by Churchill. Bombs being dropped for the first (and not the last) time in Libya. Many other such examples, point being it was all laid out before us, ready to be combined into a phenomenally brutal and traumatic event.
As people are saying, urban combat is now the norm not the exception as it was a century ago. Mosul does more than echo Stalingrad. It points the way towards average level of destruction that can be expected from any large scale war, in any city fought over. Daesh was resilient, well-organized, and fanatical. But they weren’t the best trained, equipped, or even experienced combatants. (In Mosul). All the same, the destruction required to root them out was excessive, the entire process costing 40% of Iraq’s spec ops. Never mind the civilian trauma. What we see in Mosul, soon enough Raqqa, is the future devastation of any European, American, etc. city. That is, if there’s another large-scale war. Not necessarily a World War, though it must be said all wars are essentially global now. Jihadis from the world over fought for Daesh, same as self-styled revolutionaries flocked to serve in Rojava’s international brigades. The US, from well over the Atlantic and Mediterranean horizon, intervened, as did Russia, Qatar, SA, Iran, Turkey, and many others. Few, if any, significant conflicts are fought in isolation from global capitalism and thus away from the eyes of its major states.
Urban combat is not new; what is unsettling is how ferocious it has become. Precision weapons are no small influence on this. Hypothetically, if the US and Russia were to marshal their forces on a flat plain and fight, the result would be Pyrrhic for any victor. The Soviets recognized this in the 1980s, IIRC, as a new military revolution in progress; one potentially more destructive than nukes. How so? Because there would be no restriction on the use of these precision weapons. Their mass deployment would result in mass destruction. Not the kind that churned the fields of Europe into a bloody pulp, but the kind that would render openly deployed armies mere targets. Aside from the usual stuff, like contesting air superiority, the only option was to enter an environment where you were less of a target.
Enter the city. Daesh learned the lessons of the Viet Cong very well in this regard (their love of tunnels), and many other conflicts. Walking through walls, “inverse geometry“, is a way of evading the sight of precision weapons. If the enemy uses buildings as, essentially, rhizomes, then it often becomes impossible to destroy the enemy without destroying their cover. “Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, the rhizome is made only of lines”—Deleuze and Guattari. “[T]he rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detatchable, connectable, reversable, modifiable and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight.” In this way, any city can become a rhizome in urban combat. Add tunnels in, and the result is a truly byzantine complex of death awaiting those who do not utilize mass destruction to compromise it.
The Israeli army was probably the first to assign post-structuralist texts like D&G in response to their experiences in places like Lebanon. Thousands of soldiers/guerrillas can maneuver through the urban rhizome but very few are simultaneously visible from the air. This is a marked change from traditional urban combat, which took place the streets, alleyways, lanes, and roads. What Daesh has demonstrated that even a relatively small number of soldiers crammed into around 250m2 can be tenacious. Provided they are 1) networked, and 2) operate in a rhizome, perhaps with tunnels to boot. Add their IEDs, drones and it’s a slaughter. This kind of combat simply impracticable outside of a city. Plausible in a jungle, as demonstrated in the Vietnam war, but not at its best. Daesh has been unable to hold vast swathes of desert and scattered villages with anything like the iron grip they’ve kept on many cities.
A December 2016 document highlights the increasing recognition by the US that combat in “megacities” will be a feature of future warfare. “[C]ities are in some ways a great leveler in warfare, negating many of the advantages of high technology”. The need for an “urban warfare” school is also on the agenda (as of April 2017). “The Army is fighting in cities today,” Spencer wrote. “It will find itself fighting in cities in the future.” What we are seeing, in Mosul, in Aleppo, in Raqqa, is not the future of urban warfare but its current reality. The mass destruction, the horrific toll on civilians, the increased ferocity, the perilous and ingenious traps, all in the urban rhizome.
The war in Syria, the “civil” war, the small war, which has displaced millions and killed thousands upon thousands, is the current model. All you need to do is scale it up. Just as what could have been done a century ago. The evidence is right there in front of us. Instead of tens of thousands of soldiers, think hundreds of thousands, even millions. Think megacities like Tokyo becoming like Mosul. In a situation like this, where a megacity becomes an urban rhizome, where even precision weapons are blunted, what could be the outcome? What’s the easiest way to destroy the rhizome without engaging in what could potentially be the most protracted warfare since the trenches?
Do I need to say it?
That specter is still very much with us. It hangs over this small war in Syria, as the US and Russia jostle for position. I haven’t covered everything here, but I think the main thrust has achieved its purpose. We see an embryo of warfare here. Just as Engels saw the embryo of the Great War shortly before his death. Warfare that seems difficult to imagine. But Syria has shown us.
24 Jul 2017 — Proletarian and homeless in the Neoliberal city
“[T]he growth in pseudo-public spaces is a reflection of the neoliberal city“. The removal of the “urban commons”, “a new era of ‘urban enclosure’”. Except this time there’s no literal gates, just rules you don’t know. Only certain people are excluded, sometimes for being what they are (e.g. homeless), or for doing things that displease the landowners.
The land is open until the (arbitrary) rules are broken, which is usually the time it’s discovered that the land is private. In effect, outsourcing not only the ownership and administration of “pseudo-public” places but their policing as well. Challenge the security guards and then the police show up to enforce the landowner’s property rights. Otherwise the police aren’t needed. It’s “neoliberal” because ownership is hidden. Gate communities, which typified 19th century London, aren’t subtle. Rules-based ones are. You can find out if you bother to dig around and ask questions; but as this story showed the rules change from place to place. It’s a widespread development and yet so unnoticed that it has to be mapped, which suggests it has been very effective thus far.
My gut is telling me that this is some kind of process inherent to late bourgeois society. Hide authority, hide the rules, hide ownership. Cover it beneath a surface appearance of normalcy and openness. Deploy enforcement against those considered undesirables. (Those most people won’t bother noticing anyway.) Cover the iron gauntlet with a velvet glove and people aren’t aware it’ll strike them too. Broad exclusion—gates, police, signs—is replaced by targeted exclusion. The homeless demonstrate the barriers are invisible to most. Yet they are concrete. They exist, and they are social in nature. Thoroughly material. Those who do not move do not notice their chains. The homeless notice because they run smack into barriers other people can traverse unmolested. The homeless are aware of their chains.
Proletarians are as well, but not in the same way. Being forced to work is different from being excluded from certain spaces. If you don’t go to work, the company security guards don’t show up to your door to drag you there (yet). You’re simply fired. The difference is the proletarian is disciplined in a covert way. The homeless remain disciplined by overt force. Nonetheless, the homeless are aware of things proletarians are not. Being a proletarian is to be disciplined by covert (hidden) force. Being homeless, terminally jobless, is to be disciplined by the regular application of overt force. It’s a less advanced, older method. Proletarians only notice their chains once they move against capital and landowners (e.g. strikes, protesting, etc.). They only confront the older, overt force in open confrontation with capitalism. The covert discipline is scarcely noticed until a crisis. Otherwise proletarians remain unmolested through spaces the homeless cannot traverse. The homeless are ignored, but they shouldn’t be. What happens to the homeless is merely what will happen to the proletarian, once they notice their chains. Just some thoughts.
Bini Adamczak has written a very clever little book. It is no mean feat to make communism as a concept intelligible to all, while at the same time reviewing – in brief and simplified form – the numerous failures of the movement. One could do worse than to begin here. The question of what communism is, as acknowledged by Adamczak, remains “contested”1. Communism as a word “names a field of political conflict”2 not only in the wider political sense, but one involving critique between “communisms and other socialist utopias in a struggle over the future”3. The origin of these “many communisms” to Adamczak was “one communism”4. The progenitor goes unnamed. It could be interpreted to refer to communism’s modern form conceptualized by Marx and Engels, referred to as “Traditional Marxism”5, but this would be a mistake. Adamczak is very clear about what constitutes this “one communism” and why “other communisms”6 and utopias have failed. The first two parts of the book deal with the trial and error of a series of communisms as well as answering basic questions, like ‘what is capitalism?’ The third part, the epilogue, was added in 2014 by the author to reflect on its 10th anniversary7, and discusses both the content of the book and the author’s views on the future of the communist movement, the latter of which – in true communist form – should not be accepted uncritically. While Adamczak has performed an admirable service in penning such an accessible and clear introduction to a contested movement, the conclusions she has drawn in the epilogue are, at times, disquieting.
Adamczak’s book draws a sharp dividing line between what the communist movement is, and is not; therefore, what communism is emerges out of this negative critique. The first sentence of the book presents in plain language what Adamczak considers the core of the movement. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today in our society under capitalism”8. As Ross Wolfe noticed, this is repeated no less than four times9. Fortunately, she is quick to assert this does not mean the elimination of all evils: “it’s no cure-all. It’s only a remedy for the evils caused by capitalism”10. Walking the reader through the essentials of life under capitalism, she eventually arrives at a critical juncture. “[T]he best kind of communism is the one that can get rid of the most evils”11. This and the opening line are eventually repeated together on the final page of the first part12, highlighting their central importance. Immediately preceding this repetition is a defining section:
The people now know two things. First, they know that capitalism doesn’t make them happy, and second, they know that communism does. So they decide to try communism. But it’s not so simple. Since true communism has never existed in the entire history of humankind, no one has any clue what it looks like. What the people do have are various ideas of what a communist society should look like13.
Its true significance is revealed through exploring the trials of the people as they attempt communism. In an interview with Viewpoint Magazine, Adamczak labels these “social democracy, syndicalism, state socialism, luddism, and some form of techno-hedonism”14. Unmentioned by her is the sixth and final trial, what might be considered the beginning of “true” communism. The main clue is the illustrated people rising up against the narrator and asserting that, now, they are “making history ourselves”15, recalling a line from Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that, in communism, “[t]he extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself”16. Adamczak believes the “main question” that communism as a movement addresses is “[h]ow do we want to live?”17 It is this question that “other communisms” ignore; undermined, in the main, by their focus on things over relations between peoples. Louis Menand, in his 2003 ‘Forward’ to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, asserts that the “deeper attraction” to communism, especially in its Marxist form, “was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself”18. History “holds the key to the meaning of life”19 and thus the answer to Adamczak’s question. Nonetheless, what this answer means remains obscure; it has to be worked out amongst all peoples. “No one really knows unless they try it out”20, and of the previous attempts none achieved the elimination of all the evils of capitalism suffered in society today. Neither did they abolish class.
Adamczak reflected that the book “started as a theoretical exegesis of Karl Marx’s ideas on the future”21 and that much shows, with one notable exception: class struggle is completely absent. The great strength of this book is its focus on capital – “it’s called capitalism because capital rules”22 – but the price of its insistence that “people no longer rule over society”23 is the disappearance of the bourgeoisie and their opposite, the proletariat. Throughout the first part it is the factories, not people, who speak “with [their] own special voice”24 – illustrating the operation of value production in capitalist society. It is the factories who “tell us how we should produce, what we should produce, and how much we should produce”25, and it is also the factories who decide “how much everyone should get in return for doing all this work”26. There is “a boss person who makes sure everybody does what the factory wants them to do”27, yet they are no more in control of this process than the workers. The book acknowledges the existence of state bureaucrats – “pot people”28 – while the role of the bourgeoisie and their position in class society are conspicuously absent. The outcome is Adamczak ignores the existence of class itself, which is why it is not the proletariat attempting to build communism in the six trials, just people. This is a deliberate choice on her part. “[T]he problems of surplus value production and the reproduction of classes… are not touched on here at all”29. Without the exploitation of one class by another, class itself disappears from view; without class, a fundamental antagonism of capitalist society is absent. Adamczak frames each trial as “introduced to overcome the flaws of the one before”30 in the absence of class struggle. The effective denial of class struggle, and its importance in the history of communist failures, demonstrates that while she started with Marx’s ideas she did not follow through entirely. This has the result of robbing the book of any kind of narrative power, the overcoming of collective exploitation through solidarity in class struggle. Whether Adamczak omitted the bourgeoisie for the purposes of simplification, or to keep the focus on capital as the evil to be rid of (not capitalists), the book consequently lacks any real sense of urgency or danger as people calmly and methodically work their way through trial-and-error communisms. In that sense, Adamczak has presented a true fairy tale.
Communism for Kids was written during a specific period of time where, according to Adamczak, “we had to reopen a utopian perspective”31. The book’s “task” was “to reinvent the future during the end of history”32, the “narrative” of which “gave expression to a certain undeniable reality”33 – “instead of hope for a better future, there’s only a totalizing fear of a worsening present”34. To counter this, she urges “a form of desire capable of jamming images of a better world into every fracture of daily life”35. Refashioning the utopian impulse into a communist desire “against every compromise”36 goes hand-in-hand with the historical defeat of communism on the field of class struggle. As Wolfe remarks, “[r]evolution will not result from merely wanting it more, and the idea that it will is usually a sign of desperation”37. Appropriately, Giorgio Agamben argued that “[a]ny radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation”38. Adamczak asserts that her book “is about the availability and desirability of radical dreams”39; in other words, utopias. She is not the only one advancing utopianism as the vanguard of a rehabilitated communism. Žižek laments that “rare are those who dare even to dream utopian dreams about possible alternatives”40, while Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia41 acts as a provocation to take the construction of positive utopias seriously. Žižek frames Jameson’s utopianism as “to change society one should begin by changing one’s dreams about an emancipated society”42. Adamczak similarly writes, “[p]erhaps some kind of prophetic prosthesis is required to transform the desire for communism into a communist desire”43. Jameson argues we are experiencing “a political time in which politics must again begin by igniting individual fantasies”44; more than that, “the task of utopianism today is rather to propose more elaborated versions of an alternate social system than simply to argue the need for one”45. For Jameson, anti-utopianism is potentially synonymous with anti-communism, as the concept of utopia itself “has again changed its meaning and has become… a virtual synonym for socialism or communism”46. This is the terrain in which Adamczak treads when she writes a book that “addresses the reader as one who can dream radically”47 rather than one who can engage in class struggle. The regression of the communist movement back into a speculative utopianism closes the circle which began with Marx and Engels’ critique of the utopian socialists who had preceded them. Perhaps this resurgence of utopianism will, in turn, give rise to a new ‘scientific critique’. The only hope is, this time, we manage to escape Marx’s dictum “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”48.
In retrospect, the utopian tone was set by Adamczak’s very first sentence, and reinforced by her assertion that the communist movement revolves not around the contradictions of capitalism and their negation, but the construction of a communist desire: a dream of how we are to live. She is well aware, however, that whatever dream that emerges from this utopian desire “cannot truly be the thoughts, ideas, and images of a different reality, a different organization of society”49. Critiquing previous critiques of capitalism as various forms of anti-capitalist utopianism – including Marx’s critique, which she labels “productivist anticapitalism”50 – she concludes that “our only possible standpoint lies in the future”51.
The hope is that the absurdity and unnecessary brutality of capitalist society will leap out to the people of future generations, the same way that the binary gender system or flatness of the earth seems crazy to us today52.
One is reminded of Kafka’s expression that there is plenty of hope, infinite hope—but not for us. This is a position that denies the possibility of struggle, here and now. It is with no small amount of irony that Adamczak advances
[t]he paradox that the eternal standpoint cannot be taken up and yet must be taken up protects us from fetishizing our own criticisms, and thus saves us from the illusion of utopianism: the fantasy that we can already show, here and now, what a liberated society looks like. In short, the unattainability of the communist viewpoint guards it from occupying capitalist ground53.
But the only ground communism as a movement has known is capitalist ground. The entire critique emerged out of the development of capitalism and its struggle against the feudalism which preceded it. Utopianism is not only a fantasy but an eternally unattainable standpoint, one which constantly reinvents itself in order to construct a positive image of the future. Adamczak acknowledges she seeks a “place of no-place in capitalism”54. What “saves us” from the utopianism of “ideals” – “[a]n image of the future becoming a model for the future”55 – is an intrinsically utopian communist viewpoint. Ultimately, Adamczak does present a paradox – critiquing communist illusions with a viewpoint completely detached from capitalist social relations – but not the one she first proposed. A better position would be recognizing, as Terry Eagleton argued, that “[t]here is no need to struggle out of your skin in order to make fundamental criticisms of your situation”56. Furthermore, Marx already identified the role of critique itself in preventing the fetishism of any particular standpoint: “if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists”57. A negative critique and the construction of a positive, constantly mutating utopian desire seem distinctly at odds; indeed, this is the point. Adamczak wishes for “communist criticism… to move beyond its habit of bitter negation”58. Having critiqued various anti-capitalisms as “latently capitalist”59 she ignores how desire has been fetishized as having qualities capable of resisting capture by the capitalist present. Unfortunately, utopian desire undermines communist critique, especially if Jameson’s suggestion that anti-utopianism equates to anti-communism is taken seriously.
Within Adamczak’s ‘utopianism of the desire’ lies not a movement but an Idea. Žižek, explaining the concept of desire from a Lacanian perspective, notes “that the question of desire, its original enigma, is not primarily “What do I want?” but “What do others want from me?””60 In other words, the question is not so much “how do we want to live?” but “how do others want me to live?” This is a far more difficult question to answer than the one first posed by Adamczak. Revisiting the concept, Žižek argues that “[d]esire is always a desire for its own nonsatisfaction: its ultimate aim is always to reproduce itself as desire… i.e., desire is a gap, a void, in the heart of every demand”61. Adamczak’s desire is ultimately a demand: “Communist desire: the desire that misery finally comes to an end”62. This is a direct contradiction of her early assertion that communism is only a remedy for the evils of capitalism, not misery itself. What’s more, the desire at the heart of this demand is insatiable, at least according to Žižek’s view, transforming communism into something “eternal”, a “Platonic Idea”63, rather than a movement contingent on the negation of bourgeois social relations. Adamczak’s “critique of critique(s)”64 is thus undermined by her misplaced fear of the material bedrock of capitalist social relations and her subsequent utopianism. A provisional answer to the aforementioned question (“how do others want me to live?”) becomes complicated by the need for the desire of others to end misery for people in general, not only themselves. The Idea of communism is swiftly “passing into absurdity”65. It has become emptied of what should be its “real content”, argued by Engels as “the demand for the abolition of classes”66, not the end of capitalist evil then extended into the end of misery, which is necessarily precluded by the insatiability of desire. Constant self-criticism cannot overcome this particular impasse67. Eagleton once asserted that “[t]he role of the prophet is not to predict the future, but to remind the people that if they carry on as they are doing, the future will be exceedingly bleak”68. He also argued that “imagining a more just future may confiscate some of the energies necessary to achieve it”69. In Adamczak’s case, much energy will be spent constructing and self-criticising an individual’s or group’s utopian (yet still communist) desire. The great strength of the communist movement has been its clear aims, articulated on a class basis, not a politics of desire that diverts the attention of those who can struggle.
The current fascination with utopia will hopefully run its course and prove only to be a product of that moment in history which drove Adamczak to write Communism for Kids. It may seem slightly absurd to write such a lengthy critique of a very short book. By no means is this an unimportant book, however, especially with its translation into English. It is a book written to address a specific zeitgeist, and its conception of communism, due to its accessibility, is one that could serve as a beginning for many young communists today (their children too). Brevity is also no barrier to the kind of theoretical sophistication that Adamczak demonstrates in writing it, especially the epilogue. It is hard not to admire the fearlessness with which she has pursued some very difficult questions. The quality of her answers, however, is something which must be examined, and a critique of those is what this review has attempted to accomplish. It has hopefully been demonstrated that, while Adamczak has an understandable frustration with the popular inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism, the foray into utopianism and a politics of desire will not fundamentally change anything. In fact, it leads down a blind alley, confronting not the emancipatory potential of desire but its devouring insatiability; an insatiability that finds greater kinship with that she wishes to undermine, capitalism. For capitalism “has a Faustian horror of fixed boundaries, of anything which offers an obstacle to the infinite accumulation of capital”70. An insatiable desire confronts accumulation without boundaries. Utopianism offers no barrier, either: “Materiality is what gets in it way. It is the inert, recalcitrant stuff which puts up resistance to its grandiose schemes”71. What is needed is something more fundamental, which Adamczak has purposefully excluded. The kind of solidarity she imagines as “not just an instrumental means of social change… but also the goal of emancipation, of communism”72 has to be found in a renewed class struggle.
 A minor quibble: it could have been better presented without a certain redundancy. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today under capitalism”. In fact this redundancy is eliminated in later repetitions (e.g. p.36), making it a frustrating choice on the part of the translators.
 Louis Menand, ‘Forward: The Historical Romance’, in To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, auth. Edmund Wilson, New York: The New York Review of Books, 2003, p.xiii.
 Adamczak argues that “by making use of our broadest historical knowledge and deepest theoretical criticism, we have to constantly ask ourselves how such desires might lead to impasses that could be avoided”, p.75. Emphasis mine.