To get rid of evil or to be rid of class? A review of Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’

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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-hedonism14. 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 desire43. 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 classes66, 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.

Endnotes

[1] Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017, p.78.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p.85.

[6] Ibid. p.78.

[7] Ross Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’: On Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’”, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 27, 2017; https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170716180938/https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/

[8] Adamczak, p.1.

[9] 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.

[10] Adamczak, p.1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p.36.

[13] Ibid. pp.35-36. Emphasis original.

[14] Bini Adamczak and Jacob Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everbody’: An Interview with Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids”, Viewpoint Magazine, May 16, 2017; https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170715193729/https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/

[15] Adamczak, p.69.

[16] Frederick Engels, “Part III: ‘Historical Materialism’”, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[17] Adamczak, p.62.

[18] 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.

[19] Ibid. p.x.

[20] Adamczak, p.36.

[21] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[22] Adamczak, p.5.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. p.19.

[25] Ibid. p.21. Emphasis original.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. p.26.

[28] Ibid. p.51.

[29] Ibid. p.81.

[30] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Adamczak, p.71.

[34] Ibid. p.72.

[35] Ibid. p.74.

[36] Ibid. p.75.

[37] Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’”.

[38] Jordan Skinner, “Thought is the courage of hopelessness: an interview with philosopher Giorgio Agamben”, Verso, 17 June, 2014; https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170602163943/https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben

[39] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[40] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, London: Verso, 2009, p.77.

[41] Fredric Jameson, “An American Utopia”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, pp.1-96.

[42] Slavoj Žižek, “Forward: The Need to Censor Our Dreams”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.vii.

[43] Adamczak, p.75. Emphasis original.

[44] Jameson, p.41.

[45] Ibid. p.43.

[46] Ibid. p.42.

[47] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[48] Karl Marx, “Chapter I”, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[49] Adamczak, p.74.

[50] Ibid. p.85.

[51] Ibid. p.90.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid. pp.90-91.

[54] Ibid. p.89. It is, however, rhetorically framed as a question.

[55] Ibid. p.74.

[56] Terry Eagleton, After Theory, London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.61.

[57] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ruge: Kreuznach, September 1843”, in Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017. Emphasis original.

[58] Adamczak, p.73.

[59] Ibid. p.89.

[60] Žižek, First as Tragedy, p.64.

[61] Slavoj Žižek, “The Seeds of Imagination”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.283.

[62] Adamczak, p.94.

[63] Žižek, First as Tragedy, pp.125-126.

[64] Adamczak, p.89.

[65] Frederick Engels, “Part 1: Philosophy, X. Morality and Law. Equality”, in Anti-Dühring, 1877, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch08.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[66] Ibid.

[67] 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.

[68] Eagleton, p.175.

[69] Ibid. p.100.

[70] Ibid. p.118.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

Research note: excerpts from “Julian Assange speaks about AI controlled Facebook propaganda”, June 12, Wikileaks.

Photo: Copyright Timothy Allen . http://humanplanet.com

Source: https://www.facebook.com/wikileaks/videos/1348789135156195/

“Human beings have always been influenced by sophisticated systems of production, of information and experience” which, in turn, shape the thoughts of human beings.
“What I think is probably the most important development happening as far as the fate of human beings is concerned, is that we are getting close to the threshold where the traditional propaganda function that is employed by BBC, Daily Mail, etc. […] can be encapsulated by AI processes.”
“When you have artificial intelligence programs harvesting [data uploaded to social media] and it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns 20-30 moves ahead this starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception. And once a computer augmented organization such as Google is able to engage in influencing human beings…beneath human perception there’s nothing we can do about it because we can’t see it”.
“[A]nd if you can do that more than others can do it, you win… so that’s where I think we’re going in terms of politics. If you look at that kind of prediction of the future, we’re all doomed from that viewpoint because reality becomes invisible. Reality becomes something that is unperceivable by us as individuals.”
“[T]he most immediate way of generating capital from artificial intelligence is to sell access to it. Just like Google sells access to Google search…[by] you sell[ing] yourself. You sell what you wanted to search and you sell your attention to Google by searching. That’s surveillance capitalism. You give a little bit of your insight to who you are to Google by searching and in exchange all the resources it has and its capacities you can use to get the result.”
“[I]nsofar it has a very serious increase in AI capacity it can lease that AI capacity to other organizations to get knowledge about those other organizations in terms of surveillance capital flow, or just for money. It’s a way getting profit fast for Google… [I]n that dynamic of acquisition of capital, exchange of intelligence capacity, who ends up winning?
You end up with, basically, [either] a diversification like is done to a degree with Google search, where every individual who has access to it effectively ends up with something like the ability that the state department once had. So you have access to enormous archives produced around the world.
Or, we move towards a situation where Google or an equivalent organization is able to acquire so much more in terms of capital flows, in terms of knowledge, about how organizations are working by collecting what they want to do with this AI capacity.
Then you can end up with very, very substantial [and] powerful organizations that are operating at a level beneath what human beings can perceive, and ultimately move into a situation where what human beings are interested in becomes totally irrelevant because you have computerized organizations and manufacturing processes, and automated transport flows, etc. which make human beings just inefficient and irrelevant… and [human beings] are treated like we treat irritating animals like moles, for example, that are getting in the way of our ability to use the land for something else.”
“[H]uman beings have been extremely foolish. Surveillance capitalism, as a model, has meant that we’ve all been in the process of putting our lives onto the internet… giving our lives over to these Silicon Valley companies, so Silicon Valley datastores now have a very, very rich description of reality as experienced by human beings, and some bits of data not experienced by human beings like stock market indexes and so on—and that is what artificial intelligences are trained on.”
“[W]hat we have done is given [Google, Facebook, etc.] Rosetta Stones, keys to how human beings think and how we manage our political structures and our social structures and our language structures—visual and word examples in the trillions—so it’s all there, the full description of humanity is all there in all its beauty, horror, and detail—it’s all there to be gleaned from, learned from, and extracted like an open cut mine. And you just need to construct various… types of artificial intelligence that simply mine this out—the collective digitized experience of humanity.”

For one, I think it perfectly illustrates the contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Social media is just that: social. Yet its ownership and administration is private. So is all the data produced by our interaction with each other digitally. It’s not used, by and large, for a social purpose but a private purpose: profit. What Google etc. are attempting is algorithmic automation; essentially, that’s AI. When algorithms can maintain and write themselves the less programmers and other support staff are needed. On the consumer side, the actual interests and emotions of the humans producing the data appropriated by these companies are irrelevant. Assange’s Surveillance Capitalism is the dominance of the producer by the product. I.e. social media dominating the individual. Every tweet on Twitter or post to Facebook is value production. It’s digital socializing as free labor-power. The old adage of “if it’s free you’re the product” rings especially true with social media, and just as it is with selling your labor-power to an employer, interacting with your family, friends, strangers etc. on social media is cloaked in the appearance of a free and equal exchange. Your time and input in exchange for access to the network. In fact, you are being exploited. But due to the nature of the exchange the exploitation is hidden. Further still, the value of your time and input and the value your time and input creates for the company “are two different magnitudes”, to cite Engels. The aggregate of that data, as illustrated by Assange, provides a rich source of income to Silicon Valley giants by them selling access to advertisers, for example, while the algorithms (perhaps AI eventually) can be leased to other enterprises, further expanding the market opportunities of the company. What you produce for the company is orders of magnitudes more valuable than what your input would suggest, especially the mundane details and dramas of your everyday life; and yet, you are producing value when these are uploaded to social media. More attention and more rigorous analysis is required to either prove or disprove these conjectures.

Research note on the relationship between State & Capital

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Preface

Just another signpost on another important question. Again, no citations and very rough. Special thanks to Jehu for asking the question in the first place via Twitter.

To what degree does the state control capital? Originally, the state was conceived in these terms – it was the instrument of capitalist exploitation (Engels) and the executive committee of the bourgeoisie (Marx). Many other Marxist theories of the state been developed since. Bob Jessop is one the of leading Marxist authorities on the state, just as an indicator.

Leaving that point aside, if monetary or exchange control is examined then the relationship of state to capital becomes a little more clear. The United States of America enjoys a privileged position in world politics due to the USD being effectively the world reserve currency. Many smaller states use the USD as their own currency, and the USD is traded and accepted globally as legal tender even in nations where this is not the case. US economic preponderance owes a lot to this development, and the US takes a dim view to states attempting to challenge it directly (e.g. China).

The EU is another case, where the Euro acts as the effective reserve currency of Europe and is legal tender in almost every member state integrated into the internal market (the UK being a notable exception). Similar to the US, some smaller states use the Euro as their own currency. The EU differs from the US in that it is a supranational arrangement where no one state, officially, dominates the agenda. In reality, the old Continental powers of France and Germany, particularly the latter, exercise inordinate influence in the EU. The Euro developed out of the European Economic Community, set up in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, which paved the way to the creation of a single internal market (the Eurozone).

The difference between the USD and the Euro is that the latter is a global reserve currency whereas the Euro is mainly, but not exclusively, regional. The Euro is the second most important currency in the world, which is nothing to dismiss. All other nations in the world are subject to the two reserve currencies according to various regimes – floating exchange rates and other monetary policies. In this sense, the difference between a superpower or a supranational union and a single state is significant indeed.

So what this means about the state and capital is this: in a superpower the state and capital are bound tightly together, control over monetary policy is ironclad, a cornerstone of its economic preponderance. Other states who cannot hope to match the superpower on their own must band together into supranational unions and develop a single internal market with a single currency. Lesser states who join that arrangement are subject to the influence of the larger states within, but aren’t as vulnerable as they would be on their own. The relationship between state and capital is diffused into a bureaucratic mechanism which mimics (unsatisfactorily) the arrangement of a superpower – tight monetary control. Other states, struck out on their own, have less control over their monetary policy and as a result less control over their own economies. More controversially, this melding of state and corporate power in the US and EU has distinct fascist overtones.

Consequently, a superpower and a supranational union are less subject to the whims of nominally ‘free’ market forces. However, when crisis grips their economies it effects the entire world; it threatens to collapse the global economy. This explains why Russia has made moves to construct its own Eurasian Union, though without much success, and why China seeks to construct its own international organizations which parallel the World Bank and the IMF. Both are attempts to secure greater control over their own economic conditions.

It can also be seen how the EU was an attempt by the national bourgeoisies of Europe to a) avoid another disastrous Europe-wide war, b) counter the economic preponderance of the US and thus the US bourgeoisie, and c) provide an economic bloc counter to the Warsaw Pact and the USSR. The relationship between state and capital is tightest where the greatest capital can be found. This should be possible to demonstrate in empirical terms.

Research note on the USSR & the Cold War

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Preface

I wrote this up in order to consolidate a few threads that have been dragging behind me for a while. I’m still far from being able to demonstrate all of this satisfactorily, and it’s undoubtedly wrong in some areas since this is constructed entirely from memory of sources I read (some of them years ago), but with those caveats in mind I decided to post it here as a kind of signpost of where I am in regards to the question of the USSR and the Cold War. It is extremely rough, and lacks citations, and I make no apologies for that seeing as it basically would have been hidden away in one of my notebooks if it weren’t posted here.

Lets nail something down first: the USSR’s ‘state capitalism’ != capitalism in the West. That’s a point so-called value form critiques ignore. It’s character was fundamentally different, i.e. there was a quantitative difference. Value form critiques ignore the significance of this because all they see is qualitative similarities, and thus capitalism in the form of the ideal total capitalist embodied in the Soviet state.

Another point: far from consolidating a new ruling class, the purges weakened the USSR to the point that, if Stephen Kotkin is to be believed, Stalin did not receive foreign intelligence reports for over 100 days at one point. I.e. he was effectively blind. In a roundabout way, the purges effectively set back the development of a semi-autonomous class by decades. It wasn’t their purpose, but that’s what it accomplished. This goes heavily against the accounts of a united and consolidated ruling class in the USSR from the time of Lenin onwards.

This doesn’t make Stalin a positive force in the USSR. Quite the opposite. Everything he accomplished could have been accomplished without him, and a lot more good Bolsheviks like Bukharin could have lived and achieved their full potential. Lenin set the whole thing in motion, all Stalin could do was run with it and set himself up as Lenin’s natural successor as the good student of the master. In turn, Stalin’s successors had to deal with this legacy. It was an endless accumulating weight of tragedy and historical inertia away from Lenin and the original Bolsheviks.

Case in point: the 1928 Five Year Plan was the last major attempt at economic reform in the USSR’s history until Gorbachev. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this. Everything outside of heavy industry (which incl. the military) was conducted on a shoe-string budget – even the space race. Light industry and agriculture suffered the worst, with well-known results: a crisis of overproduction in heavy industry and underproduction and underdevelopment everywhere else, which trading in hard currencies bartered from oil etc. could not change. In other words, the same ‘capitalist’ crisis with a different character.

So the label of ‘state capitalism’ obscures more than it explains. Indeed it functions as a way to shut down debate about the USSR’s true significance and history. It cannot explain the Cold War. It’s classification of the USSR as a form of capitalism is correct, but it ignores fundamental differences and incompatibilities between the USSR and the ‘original’ form of capitalism in the West. Very early on in the Cold War, the US State Department, influenced by George Kennan, shut down the idea of economic cooperation between the two superpowers. Not only was it Russian “neurosis” that stood in the way but the fundamental fact that communists were “traitors”. The Marshal Plan was partially rejected by Stalin for the simple reason its multilateral economic features were incompatible with the Soviet economy; and in hindsight, it’s clear the US deliberately constructed the Plan in this way so it would be rejected. Containment, advocated by Kennan, was in motion from 1946 onwards.

Here we can see why the Cold War started between two ‘capitalist’ superpowers. From a fundamental economic incompatibility, which saw the Ruble remain worthless outside the Bloc states, to an ideological incompatibility – the USSR was rightly considered a form of Marxism, even with a particularly neurotic character. Value form critiques cannot account for this as they don’t consider Marxism-Leninism as legitimate. If the object of your analysis is a priori illegitimate, then any kind of conclusion will be shaped by this view – it’s bordering on the tautological.

A preliminary critique of Murray Bookchin

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Murray Bookchin’s works are experiencing a posthumous revival due to the integration of his theory into the praxis of the Kurdish PKK and PYD in Turkey and Syria, and in particular its implementation within the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Celebrated as a progressive figure, an examination of Bookchin’s 1985 polemic ‘Were we wrong?’ reveals Bookchin to be far more regressive in his views than expected.1 The purpose of this belated reply is not to focus on what is uncontroversial in Bookchin’s article – for example, the failure of the pre-WWII revolutions to produce the societies they set out to create – nor is its purpose to engage in a long-winded historical counter-narrative to Bookchin’s account of the “so-called bourgeois revolutions”.2 Instead, the focus will be on Bookchin’s regressive proscriptions and his view of capitalism as effectively against human nature. This will be detailed in five stages. First, Bookchin rejects Marxist historiography in favor of Karl Polanyi’s view of the importance of status over class; second, he advocates libertarianism as a moral movement with an ethical praxis over proletarian class struggle; third, Bookchin’s community originates from a core group of enlightened individuals instead of a Leninist vanguard; fourth, Bookchin’s account of the emergence of capitalism as effectively the result of a failure to control markets is examined; and fifth, the previous stages inform a perspective of Bookchin’s polemic as being structured around capitalism as “asocial”3 and what it means for his libertarian municipalism. Unfortunately, Bookchin’s ideas show regressive characteristics and an explicit rejection of Marx’s conclusions about capitalism. There is no plan to abolish capitalism, only to hollow it out through “libertarian traditions”.4 If there is a failure of classical analysis he does nothing to rectify it convincingly.

Bookchin has a clear idea of how pre-capitalist societies functioned. Rather than being class societies, they were societies of “orders” governed by “biosocial norms” revolving around “family and kinship relations”.5 These social hierarchies formed “the more basic substrate”6 of people’s lives. He takes this conception from Karl Polanyi, who argued that a person secured not individual interest but their status in society.7 Bookchin transforms this into the “paramount social tie”, and believes it is status which should be the “core for social analysis” not class.8 He believes it can be either libertarian or authoritarian in nature.9 Bookchin’s view that social hierarchies were more important than class shine through when he states “[o]ne’s community and the place one occupies in it is one of the most human attributes we posses”.10 There is a distinct view that masses are built around class interest while individuals care about status, and he claims the individual “tends to behave with greater decency than the mass”.11 Unsurprisingly, he rejects Marxist-influenced historiography as “crude economic determinism” and believes radical historians have denied “the moral integrity of the person in contrast to the role assigned to masses and forces in history”.12 The masses are also impersonal, which seems to offend Bookchin’s libertarian sensibilities. In opposition to the proletariat, “integrally tied up with interest”, he advances the community as “the only agent on which we can premise future radical change”.13 It is in this sense that Bookchin is regressive: “The only revolutionary era on which we can premise any future for radical change is the one that lies behind us”.14 What lies behind, according to him, is a pre-capitalist society of orders based upon status – the individual’s position in the community. Bookchin seeks to return to a type of society known before the advent of capitalist civilization, seeing in it a reflection of humanity’s natural condition.

Bookchin is determined to create a libertarian movement. He is not a reactionary despite what the above may imply. Instead, his focus is on the “hidden libertarian tendency in history”, exemplified by various populists and anarchists who stand as “striking examples of highly moral social movements”.15 Note how these movements were moral, not class movements, to Bookchin. He believes that the proletariat with its class interests “precludes the ability to voice broadly human concerns. Hence, no possibility ever existed that the proletariat…could ever speak for the general interest of society”.16 Only libertarian movements can do so, united as they are by their collective morality and “a shared ethics”.17 Bookchin believes the libertarian community will transcend status and class based interests. Driven by “the moral power of their libertarian beliefs”, the community is the hidden tendency made concrete, but it is based on a presumption that “solidarity outweights [sic] status or class interests”.18 Bookchin is somewhat vague on what constitutes the ethics of this community and how they are imparted. He describes them abstractly asthe ever-present act of an ever-dynamic effort of public and self-assertion that yields a sharp sense of selfhood”.19 More concretely, “the melding of traditional groups into a public sphere, a body politic…imbued with a sense of cultural and spiritual continuity and renewal.”20 In other words, communal selfhood will be inoculated against any individual or class interests by direct participation in the community. All individuals will be bound together by their positions in various traditional groups and their common political purpose in the community. Bookchin’s alternative is the emphasis on direct, communal ties and politics with the individual as its basis.21 It is this retreat to the individual, their place and status in society, which Bookchin advocates.

There must be a beginning to Bookchin’s community and that too is founded on an individual basis. It will “be created out of smaller units – groups of people for whom the cultivation of consciousness is a calling in its own right”.22 At the root of it all is something like a Philosopher King who then associates with like-minded individuals. In a way, Bookchin is substituting the Leninist vanguard – “a party of conscious revolutionaries”23 – for one of his own, though with a different mission. The vanguard is supposed to “provide the self-reflexivity”24 needed to succeed in revolutionary conditions. For Bookchin, however, “[s]elf-reflexivity cannot be separated from self-administration without reducing the group to a cellular academy at one extreme or an affinity group at the other”.25 The fate of the Leninist vanguard was effectively the latter. Bookchin is not denying the “role of consciousness” for such a group: he is relying on it, and considers it “decisive”.26 He is adamant that it must be founded on a different basis if it is not to betray its purpose: “Politics consists as much in the attainment of self-reflexivity of goals and processes as it does in the social functions it performs and the forms of freedom it institutionalizes”.27 The only way to ensure that kind of self-reflexivity is to spread it out in a participatory fashion amongst everyone. “The formation of a collective subject…is thus attained in the crafting of subjectivity as a participatory enterprise”.28 Consequently, Bookchin eschews a vanguard to lead a mass movement; instead, his association of enlightened individuals provides “the means of mobilizing people for a new praxis”.29 This praxis is new in the sense it is opposed to status and class interests and organized around absorbing their “centrifugal”30 forces. It is in this way that Bookchin takes an older way of life and gives it a libertarian gloss, updating it in order to counter mass interests in class and individual interests in status.

Bookchin’s view of human nature is most directly exposed in his account of capitalism’s emergence. While Marx believes human nature is “the ensemble of the social relations”31 rather than an individual abstraction, Bookchin believes that capitalism could not have emerged out of this ensemble. He sees a “malignancy”32 rather than social change. Bookchin makes a Feuerbachian mistake when he resolves biosocial norms into “the human condition”,33 rather than accepting that those norms are mediated and shaped by material social relations. As a result, Bookchin cannot adequately account for the epochal changes which swept the feudal order into the dustbin of history. He believes that capitalism represented a decisive break with all pre-capitalist societies, from “primarily a society of orders”34 to a class society. It is here that Bookchin begins to extrapolate wildly: “it is necessary to reject altogether the idea that capitalism as a society of classes could have emerged organically within the ‘womb’ of feudalism, a society of orders”.35 Describing capitalism as “the uncontrolled market” juxtaposed to the “carefully integrated” markets of precapitalist societies, capitalism to Bookchin becomes a market-based “cancer” which was “always a dormant system in the larger precapitalist social orders” – and like cancer it was waiting to “essentially burst upon the world”.36 What triggered its emergence he does not say, but it is strongly implicated that it was due to “a general erosion of all mores”37 which thus eroded control over the market. “No precapitalist world was equipped to deal with the formidable social and cultural irresponsibility that an uncontrolled market economy would foster”, he claims.38 The emergence of capitalism was a kind of moral decline which reached its apogee in the “social vacuum” of the 18th century – the “decay in history” which fed “cancerously on the corpses of traditional societies”.39 Capitalism was not a development of human social relations, instead it was the result of flaws inherent in human nature which lead to a failure of pre-capitalist societies to control the market.

Bookchin’s view of capitalism’s emergence and his proscriptions for fighting it are directly linked. If capitalism, almost as a force outside of humanity, resulted from a failure to control the market then its re-integration is necessary. He sets out to construct a blueprint for a society capable of controlling the market through “ethical, cultural, and institutional constraints”.40 As capitalism is a class society he takes inspiration from the previous society of orders, which demonstrated an ability to embed markets into peoples’ lives without it dominating them. Being a libertarian, however, this must be done without social hierarchy, which is the true root of the moral failure and thus social collapse of feudalism. Bookchin’s view of human nature is classically Western in the sense that the individual must be embedded in a community which constrains them as well as enables them. It makes perfect sense, then, that Bookchin wishes to resurrect the polis as the model form of his libertarian municipalism. He adopts the politics of the polis in order to abolish social hierarchy by direct democratic participation, ameliorating the struggle for personal status, while class struggle is absorbed by the social solidarity of ethical praxis and the moral force of libertarian beliefs. As his libertarian community is effectively founded by a group of Philosopher Kings, we can see that Bookchin has a very Platonic view of politics. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether Bookchin’s solutions can endure against status and class interests. Plato (or Socrates through Plato) would argue that any polis is many poleis – one in our era of proletarian and bourgeoisie, and within those classes reside many other contending groups.41 Bookchin has not demonstrated, beyond a personal belief, that his libertarian municipalism is capable of succeeding where the classical polis failed. Most concerning of all, he shows little interest in articulating how capitalism can be fought except in the realm of consciousness.

Bookchin cannot accept capitalism as a result of human sociality. It is around this core that his entire polemic revolves. Capitalism is described as a malignancy that lurked within market economies, kept in check by social orders more in tune with human nature. The moral decline of feudal social orders set capitalism loose on the world. His libertarian municipalism refuses to acknowledge that capitalism as a class phenomenon requires a class perspective. Bookchin’s individualism and disdain for political economy precludes such a perspective. As a result, his community-based participatory praxis is focused on improving the human condition over directly fighting capitalism. Consciousness is important but it is material social relations which are decisive, and which help shape consciousness itself. If the core relations of capitalism, epitomized by wage labor and capital accumulation, are not abolished then any libertarian project lends itself to regression – its morals will decline and its ethics will be eroded. The centrifugal forces of capitalism cannot be absorbed by ethical praxis and libertarian moralism. The great contradiction is Bookchin readily acknowledges the ability of capitalism to wear away traditional cultures, all mores, personal ethics, and yet somehow believes that participatory and community-based politics offer a kind of inoculation against these forces, and even further, that such politics will erode capitalism itself through moral force and personal grounding in the individual. Erosion will never be as forceful as abolition, and should capitalism be as terrible a “blight”42 as Bookchin believes it to be, then no quarter should be given and no risks taken which merely result in capitalism’s incubation within a libertarian society. It would be a sad irony for a libertarian project to experience the same kind of moral decline that Bookchin imputes to feudalism, with capitalism steadily overwhelming all resistance, destroying everything so many had fought so hard to build.

Endnotes

1. Murray Bookchin, ‘Were we wrong?’, Telos, vol. 65, Fall 1985, pp.59-74.

2. Ibid. p.70.

3. Ibid. p.68.

4. Ibid. p.71.

5. Ibid. p.64-65.

6. Ibid. p.65.

7. Ibid. p.64.

8. Ibid. p.64.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid. p.65.

11. Ibid. p.71.

12. Ibid. p.69, 71-72.

13. Ibid. p.71.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid. p.70.

16. Ibid. p.71.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. p.71.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Bookchin alludes to this when he states that “[c]ollectivity thus melds with individuality to produce rounded human beings in a rounded society”. Ibid.

22. Ibid. p.73.

23. Ibid. p.60.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid. p.73.

26. Ibid. p.72.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid. p.74.

29. Ibid. pp.73-74.

30. Ibid. p.71.

31. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, 1845. Accessed Jan 2017 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

32. Bookchin, p.65.

33. Ibid. p.70

34. Ibid. p.64.

35. Ibid. p.65.

36. Ibid. pp.65-66.

37. Ibid. p.66.

38. Ibid. p.64.

39. Ibid. pp.65, 68.

40. Ibid. p.65.

41. Plato, Republic, Book 4, Section 422e-423a. Accessed Jan 2017 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D4

42. Bookchin, p.70.