Party, Class, and Struggle

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As communist theory is first and foremost concerned with the project of emancipation, it must necessarily confront questions of social and political change. Chief among these questions are those concerning the nature of political organization and its relationship to the development of (potentially) liberatory struggles. Central to this discussion is the concept of the historic party. Indeed, the nature of the party dominates debates regarding communist organization. Its formal aspects, its role in revolutionary practice, its relation to the working class as a whole; these are all given great importance by radical theorists seeking to understand the possible anatomy of a successful anti-capitalist revolution.

Over the past century or so, the discursive hegemony of official Communism has led to the emergence of two theoretical camps, both of which, as I see it, have failed to properly engage with the question of the party, instead clinging to vulgarized conceptions of its connection to class struggle. These two theoretical models can be broadly referred to as the Marxist-Leninist approach (for our purposes this shall include all Stalinist tendencies: Trotskyism, Maoism, etc.) and the anarchist/councilist approach. Both approaches share a general framework which conceptualizes an ontological gap between the conscious vanguard (i.e. the party) and the working class proper. Where they diverge is their respective attitudes towards this entity, seen in both models as something that exists externally to the proletariat.

The Marxist-Leninist theory of the party holds that the working class on its own is incapable of developing the necessary political consciousness to mobilize itself against capital, only reaching the level of “trade-union consciousness” over the course of its economic struggles. For this reason, the intervention of a party in possession of the correct analyses and strategic outlook becomes necessary to inject revolutionary content into these struggles. The theoretical doctrine applied by the party in its leadership of the class movement is formulated by the professional revolutionaries that make up its membership, and need not emerge out of a direct engagement with the struggles themselves. The positions outlined by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? are representative of this approach to party and class:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. [1]

It should come as no surprise that such positions on the party’s role came to be consolidated within Soviet orthodoxy at a time when there was a need to provide theoretical justifications for the state suppression of the working class. By rejecting the idea of any communist potentiality existing within the class itself, it became possible to rationalize the concentration of power in the hands of a “revolutionary” minority. It should be noted that Lenin by himself cannot be held responsible for all of this, despite the integration of his works into Stalinist dogma. In fact, his political assumptions underwent significant development in the years following the publication of What Is To Be Done?. Indeed, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent emergence of a state capitalist regime played a much greater role in the evolution of this vanguardist model than anything Lenin wrote in 1901. Nonetheless, the above quote does encapsulate a type of thinking that continues to influence large parts of the left today.

In opposition to this first camp arose an array of positions characterized by a wholesale rejection of the party-form. The anarchist/councilist understanding also sees the party as existing outside of class, and must therefore be rejected along with all other perceived alien formations. Any type of centralized leadership structure is denounced as inherently counter-revolutionary. Only forms of self-organization that emerge spontaneously during intensified periods of class struggle, such as workers’ councils, are seen as proper mediums for the coordination of revolutionary activity. This cult of spontaneity proves problematic, however, when it comes to translating the theoretical model into a framework for concrete practice. A tension then exists within existing communist elements, as any large-scale class consciousness is viewed as a product of material conditions, which at some point compel the proletariat to act in its own interests. This must somehow be reconciled with existence of an already conscious minority, which must restrict its own activities in deference to the “autonomy” of the majority. Attempts to assume leadership of the movement are perceived as overly “authoritarian” or “hierarchical”.

The two camps just described are both deeply flawed in their approach, as they share an inability to understand the immanence of the party, as described by Marx and Engels in the second chapter of the Manifesto:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. [2]

For Marx and Engels, the party is something that arises from the concrete struggles of the working class, as the most politically advanced section of the proletariat organizes itself towards the aim of articulating an alternative social vision that can form the basis for a revolutionary transformation of said struggles. This party serves as the organ by which the proletariat asserts its political power and challenges the institutions of the bourgeoise, and is produced within the class itself by those workers who have come to see communism as the only possible escape from capital’s society of exploited labor.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. [3]

Thus, the party provides the means by which the proletariat constitutes itself as a class for-itself, by organizing on the basis of a united opposition to capitalism. Rather than some external faction attempting to assert dominance over the masses, the party facilitates the internal clarification of struggles. In this manner, the working class as revolutionary force, according to Bordiga, becomes “a reality, made manifest in its organ, the Party, without which it has neither life nor the strength to fight” [4].

Communists should not shrink away from the prospect of assuming leadership, hoping that their fellow workers will someday be forced to organize themselves against the bourgeoise. It is inevitable that the development of political consciousness will be uneven, and such hopes for its instantaneous generalization only lead to a deluded, passive optimism. If we seek to end the tyranny of capital, then we must be willing to direct the movement against it. To do so does not necessarily entail operating via small, conspiratorial cells, working to infiltrate and manipulate proletarian activities for the benefit of a single organization. Instead, through direct and open partcipation in these activities, communists can put forward a positive program for change, while drawing on these experiences to develop new analytical perspectives for the purposes of strategic evaluation. Through the rejection of the ontological gap, pro-revolutionaries can avoid lapsing into substitutionism, by understanding that the production of communist consciousness is only possible through an internal process: the striving of the working class to overcome the limitations and contradictions of its own movement. The party is the apparatus by which the class conducts this process.

Such a process should not be confused with the strategy pursued by “vanguardists”, who conflate the expansion of their organizations’ membership base with the spread of class consciousness. The goal of the party is not to incorporate as much of the class into its formal structures as possible; it only aims to serve as a focal point for proletarian mobilization by advancing a clear plan of action.  The basis for such a plan is derived from the historical lessons integrated by the party’s theoretical doctrine, a doctrine that only exists in close relation to the unfolding struggles.

If we conceptualize the party in this way, it becomes readily apparent that we must also affirm the intimate relationship between revolutionary theory and practical activity. As Mario Tronti once wrote, “there is no autonomous development of theoretical discoveries that is separate of their organizational practices. It is impossible to foresee the struggle when one is not in it. A command that does not understand the weapons to impose it is not a command. Such are the laws that govern the history of workers’ experiences” [5]. In order to articulate a unified program and strategy, the advanced sections of the working class must put itself at the forefront of any struggles it seeks to direct. We have made it clear that the voluntarism of the Marxist-Leninist model is incompatible with how Marx and Engels saw the vanguard, but it is also important to resist any lapse into economic determinism. If theory is informed by action, then the theorists themselves must take action, instead of sitting idly by, hoping to gain insights through the observation of periodic outbursts of class antagonisms. What use would such theories be if they did not contribute to the revolutionary development of struggles? Theoretical intervention must come before, and not after, the revolution.

Through a reassessment and revitalization of the party-form, radicals can equip themselves with the conceptual framework necessary to investigate the connections between communist subjectivity and the contours of class struggle. An organizational outlook that discards shallow formalisms and idealist notions of political development is necessary if we are to confront the questions central to a revolutionary project. By approaching the proletarian subject from a position of immanence, such an outlook allows for the realization of the class’s independent emancipatory potential.

References

[1] V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

[3] Ibid.

[4] Amadeo Bordiga, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism

[5] Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital

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Agent-Oriented Anti-Imperialism

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I recently found myself reading over the nascent CPRSJ’s principles of unity, and while I don’t really care to comment on the organization itself, I was particularly struck by the usage of a certain term in the document. The term was “subimperialist”, used in to reference to American and Russian allies in the Middle East (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran). It’s the first time I’ve seen this phrase used before, and, in my mind, it immediately conjured up images of evil minions in the service of a villain in some action film or video game. The idea of Israel as a sub-boss  you have to beat before you can take on the U.S. is an amusing one, but what is less amusing is that this simplistic conceptualization of geopolitics actually has held a great deal of influence in the Left for decades. Anti-imperialism is far too often equated with simple opposition to the actions of specific countries, deploying rhetorical phrases like “sovereignty” and “self-determination”. The nation-state is placed at the center of this discourse, which is why it’s so common to hear talk of American imperialism or Russian imperialism, but never of imperialism in itself.

International capital is a network of relations, and it is these relations that determine the ways in which its various components function. On both a national and international level, the actions of institutions are shaped by a number of social, economic and political factors. In this sense it can be said of international politics that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as the parts themselves can change and shift around without necessarily affecting the nature of the relations that form the structural foundation of the overall system. The political and economic systems that comprise global capitalism are made up of interconnected elements, and a proper understanding of these systems’ workings cannot reduce them to a patchwork of autonomous polities. If the nature of each polity is the result of its position within a larger framework, then positing the cause of its actions in a merely internal self-determinacy would be a serious misunderstanding.   This is a misunderstanding common among leftists, who exhibit what I call an agent-oriented anti-imperialism.

Agent-oriented anti-imperialism, as the name would suggest, emphasizes a perceived causal primacy in individual actors (nations) on the world stage. Agression on the part of a nation-state is understood as nothing more than an extension of national interests. This may seem relatively intuitive, but my point is not that countries do not act in their own interests, but that an agent-oriented theory fails to investigate the nature of these interests, and how they form in the context of a globalized economy. The danger of such an approach is that it inevtiably leads to a superficial reading of capitalist politics. Marx’s primary criticism of the bourgeois political economists was that they took the interactions and relationships they observed at face value, simply accepting them as part of a natural order. They drew their conclusions by viewing relations of exchange in isolation from a larger social context. As a result, they were unable to adequately describe the more subtle factors at play in the economy, especially when it came to production and its relation to exchange. Agent-oriented anti-imperialists make a similar mistake in their theories of international relations.

When viewed in isolation, the geopolitical is made up of individual states, constantly shifting loyalties and forming new alliances, maneuvering against each other to maximize their spheres of influence. If we left it at that, then it would seem that the cause of imperialism lies in the nation-state, not capitalism. In that case, the nations displaying the most signs of outward aggression are those responsible for imperialism. It is the fault of Russia and China and the US that there is so much warfare taking placing across the globe. This isn’t wrong, of course. The US by itself  has staged hundreds of military interventions over the past century, leading to countless deaths. But it must be understood that all governments in the world engage in actions that ensure the reproduction of capitalist relations, thus perpetuating the seemingly endless cycles of exploitation and oppression that contribute to the collective misery of humanity. This isn’t an attempt at whataboutism; I agree that the world’s superpowers should be held accountable for their relentless campaigns against peace and the general welfare, but they engage in such campaigns because they are cogs in capital’s killing machine. Particularly large cogs, no doubt, yet their actions are driven by the same general logic that all politcal and economic entities are beholden to. This logic, the set of rules that govern human relationships in their current form, is what must be abolished if  world peace is to become a possibility.

Back to “subimperialist”: attempts to place various nation-states within a hierarchy ranked on the basis of some quantitative  measurement of which is “more” imperialist betrays a myopic understanding of capitalism’s role in international relations and leads down a dubious political path. If one starts at the assumption that such a hierarchy exists, instead of acknowledging that the nation state is an inherently bourgeois political form, then this can easily lead to a sort of lesser evilism, wherein one feels compelled to side with countries perceived as “non-imperialist” against the “imperialist” ones. This is certainly the case in the response of Western Stalinists to the situation in Syria, as they chose to voice support for Assad as a defender against Western imperialism. No doubt this same line of reasoning has lead to the development of the guilt complex that pervades much of the American left, which incessantly, compulsively obsesses over a perceived responsibility to broadcast the “correct” positions on happenings in the so-called Third World, although such positions are usually far from being correct from a communist perspective. These groups and individuals too often find themselves supporting bourgeois nationalism in the name of “sovereignty”, or independence from foreign interference.

It must be understood, however, that a certain kind of foreign interference is necessary for a society to be truly freed of imperialism. I speak, of course, of communism, the class-based movement that must necessarily interfere with the sovereignty of capitalist regimes, as the concept of communism is completely antithetical to all established forms of socioeconomic governance, regardless of nationality. Such a radical departure from the current order is a foreign notion to the mainstream political imaginary, and it is our task as communists to introduce a vision of anti-nationalist internationalism into contemporary discourse.

Spectacle and Simulation

A combination photo shows U.S. President Trump  trying twice to let go of a handshake with France's President Macron as Macron holds tight, before a working lunch ahead of a NATO Summit in Brussels

As Evan Puschack (a.k.a. The Nerdwriter) pointed out in his excellent video essay on cinematic violence, one of the most striking characteristics of action sequences in superhero movies is the seeming lack of consequences. The cityscapes in which the action is often situated exist as nothing more than ephemeral simulations, crumbling into rubble over and over again, only to re-emerge, unscathed, for the next sequence (or movie). Reality seems to be suspended, as punches fly and skyscrapers (usually conveniently evacuated) collapse, hordes of aliens are wiped out, and nothing happens. The choreography, for all its flashiness, is ultimately devoid of meaning. These fights seem more like ritualistic displays than battles for survival. Alright, now after I punch you in the chest, you’ll block my kick, and then I’ll tackle you into this building… Each blow is nothing more than an empty signifier, landing without any real impact. Of course, the point of these scenes is not to serve as a medium for the plot, moving it along to the next point. The “story” is an effect of the violence, a faint thread that links together the various pyrotechnic displays everyone expects to see in a superhero movie. The events of each film comprise a signifying chain, deferring meaning until the credits roll, and then, surprise surprise, there is no meaning. Don’t forget to stick around for the teaser scenes though! The violence in Tarantino films has been described as nihilistic, but Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros are clearly the much bigger culprits when it comes to that. Why did that thing blow up? Because people like explosions, that’s why. To quote Puschack, “they write themselves up to the brink, and then let the stunt coordinators take it from there”. Superhero violence serves a purely aesthetic function, conforming to a narrative logic that rejects narrative.

This fetishization of the “symbolic” (can something really be symbolic if it doesn’t represent anything?), the fixation on the signifier rather than the signified, is not limited to the silver screen. If cultural products reflect larger social trends, then it seems fitting that the superhero flick has been such a staple of the cinematic economy for the past decade or so. With the rapid growth of the Internet and its prevalence in our daily lives, the spectacle of the political has become increasingly streamlined and compressed, reducable to sequences of signals on a representational level. A tweet, a video or sound clip, there are now a plethora of available micro-actions in the politician’s arsenal. The affective salience of an action takes precedence over underlying meaning or intention. Perception is everything. It’s not that people don’t care about policy anymore, it’s just that policy these days is simply a matter of public relations. Politics is no longer action (if it ever was), but gesture. 

Last month, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump shook hands, and people lost their shit. Not because the new French president was engaging in an apparently cordial interaction with Trump; in fact all the fuss was for the exact opposite reason. The handshake was awkward, prolonged, uncomfortable. And for many, it was an act of resistance. Macron was lauded for his decision to shake Trump’s hands for a few extra seconds, praised as a potential “anti-Trump”. In the words of the man himself: “My handshake with him was not innocent. We need to show that we won’t make small concessions, even symbolic ones, while not overhyping things either.” He’s lying, of course. It’s all about hype. The art of politics is the art of turning the smallest non-event into a massive triumph, making history out of nothing. Politics is nothing but hype.

Macron does have a point, though. His handshake wasn’t innocent; nothing is. Everything’s political these days, as your annoyingly “civic minded” friends will tell you. That cup of coffee you had this morning is political, that t-shirt you bought at the mall is political, that text you just sent is political, your dog is political, everything’s fucking political. And how easy it this all is, when all it takes is one click! Click, you’ve signed an online petition, click, your Facebook banner bears the imagery of whatever cause is in vogue at the moment. If the world is at our fingertips, surely we can change it with those fingertips. Click, click, click. A million tiny gestures that amount to little more than a successions of virtual blips, disappearing into the cacaphony of a whole world of gesture.

Baudrillard’s comments on Watergate are applicable to the entirety of this regime of signification: “capital, immoral and without scruples, can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever revives this public morality (through indignation, denunciation, etc.) works spontaneously for the order of capital”. Politics is a parasite that leeches off our constant need to be outraged, draining that outrage of all its original affective meaning until it becomes something performed, rather than felt. Being angry is no longer a matter of being, but of doing. This doesn’t mean anger translates into action, rather, it only exists as an action. In its purely performative function, indignation does not have to be felt, it must simply be indicated. As Baudrillard points out, a simulated hold-up inevitably becomes a real hold-up. Simulated outrage becomes real outrage, because they can no longer be distinguished.

The most horrifying thing, however, is that we already know all of this. We know that a gesture is just that, a gesture. We know that access to capital’s communicative matrix does not amount to access to power. No one seriously believes that the flame wars they conduct in an article’s comment section are changing the world in even the smallest way.  The reason we can’t bring ourselves to disrupt this never-ending feed-back loop is that we see no way out. When serious, organized resistance to Trump fails to materialize, we are forced to content ourselves with uncomfortable handshakes. Gesture’s domination is not the result of the delusion that we can enact change in such a way. It is the result of despair, the belief that we can’t change anything. The spectacle triumphs in the absence of hope. The only way out is to believe there is a way out. Maybe some have begun to do so; only time will tell if the impossible dream of change will triumph over the bleak “realism” of political subjectivity.

The Practicality of Theory

In a 1972 discussion with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze said “practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall”. This understanding of the relationship between the two categories provides a useful alternative to the standard dichotomization often seen in debates regarding revolutionary praxis. It is usually understood that theory must be enacted through practical activity, implying the existence of hierarchal binary, with theory viewed as a incorporeal body in need of reification as action. In other, more extreme cases, the utility of theory is discarded altogether as irrelevant to the “real world”. Thus the two concepts are often presented in an oppositional relationship; “it’s one or the other”. Yet is it really possible to separate one from the other, and if so, would such an ontology even be desirable? I would argue that the answer to both questions must be a resounding “no”.

Perhaps the best way to articulate the need for a reconfiguration of the theory/practice pairing would be to turn to Frederic Jameson’s call for an “aesthetic of cognitive mapping”. Cognitive mapping, in Jameson’s words, refers to “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system”. Jameson argues that in the same way urban denizens try to visualize a spatial representation of their city for the purpose of navigation, anyone looking to take socially impactful action must generate a conceptual model that allows them to orient themselves within the totality of capital. If this model originates from the individual subject, then it must follow that its development mirrors that of the subject’s experienced reality. For Jameson, the danger of this reality is that it consists of a multiplicity of discontinuous levels, and thus attempts to confront them as a totality can prove to be disorienting, obscuring representational clarity. However, as he points out, the suppression of distance imbues the subjective experience of late capitalism with a sense of immediacy. Despite its dangers, this immediacy, the vast collection of sensory input stored within a rapidly expanding informational system, also provides prospective agents of change with raw material through which they can trace conceptual schemata that more comprehensively detail social totality.

As I write this, a TV advertisement for United Healthcare is promising to help people “navigate the complicated healthcare system”. That the American healthcare system is unnecessarily complex and confusing is, of course, a truism, but what’s useful about this ad is that it provides us with a nice contrast to the idea of politically-motivated cognitive mapping, instead offering the “easy way out” by letting consumers delegate a whole set of cognitive tasks to a service provider. Such helplessness, a result of being constantly bombarded by the immediate “presence” of capital’s processes is what Jameson describes when he speaks of the “postmodern body” wandering absently through space. Isolated bodies in particular are unlikely to maintain a sense of place without voluntary integration into a cooperative cartographic project. This brings us to the collaborative dimension of theoretical practice.

The individual’s phenomenal reality is (to a great extent) built by others, as their actions shape what occurs within the experienced world and how the individual experiences those events. It would be only natural, then, if the goal is a maximal comprehension of society’s totality, that such a comprehension must arise from a collective effort, in which a multitude of subjective realities converge to detail a map that reflects both the functioning of global capitalism and the affective impact of its processes. In this manner, theoretical activity is indeed pedagogical, with every participant existing simultaneously as teacher and student. This is not merely a “theoretical” proposition; these communal maps are necessary for any collective action to occur, for it is impossible to properly and efficiently coordinate with others if everyone is on a different wave length. Some sort of common perspective is needed to ground an active unity, and this need not take the form of a shared political vision. When workers go on strike, they all agree there are objectionable conditions present, that a strike is capable of exerting sufficient pressure to change those conditions, and that this pressure must be directed at the owners/management in order to be effective.

“Strategic thought”, writes Jasper Bernes, “is not external to struggles, but native to them, and every set of victories or failures opens up new strategic prospects — possible futures — which must be examined and whose effects in the present can be accounted for. In describing these prospects, theory inevitably takes sides among them. This is not to issue orders to struggles, but to be ordered by them.” Theory is a matter of practicality, for it allows us to organize our actions. By asking questions about our situation, we can begin to understand how best we can change it. Practice involves the production of theory, and theory involves the production of practice. Rather than attempting to divorce the two, they should be viewed as aspects of the same process. The theorist and the practitioner are one and the same, and to force them into separate categories is to doom the world to blindness.

Capitalist Retro-Utopias

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The limitations of the contemporary political imaginary have been put on full display in this most recent electoral cycle, with the left failing to conceptualize alternatives beyond the hegemony of capitalist relations. Instead,  it has, in various ways, oriented its political challenges to the neoliberal order by looking backwards, appealing to a mythological Fordist past. This retro-utopian vision takes the form of an economic nationalism paired with institutional labor politics, dreaming of a return to an era of industrial wage-labor mediated by the combined might of trade unions and a paternalistic welfare state. The clock is wound back, and globalism recedes before the emergence of an economics of sovereignty, with nation-states re-establishing themselves as autonomous and self-governed territorialities, freed from the greed of multinational “corporate” capitalism. From Sanders to Mélenchon to Corbyn, electoral “resistance” to the status quo has relied to a large extent on this fantasy. It is telling of the current state of affairs that no currently relevant political actors have been able to look beyond the apparently endless of horizon of capital. This inability to respond to crisis with something other than nostalgic escapism only further proves that the ballot box (and those who organize around it) remains firmly ensnared in the clutches of capitalist ideology.

That anti-neoliberalism is not synonymous with anti-capitalism should come as no surprise, and yet for many on the left, the only viable course of action appears to be opposition to a particular modality of capitalist organization, be it embodied in the EU or free trade agreements. This opposition shares with its right-wing counterpart the assumption that a re-localization of capital is both possible and desirable. Characteristic of this crypto-nationalism was Bernie Sanders’ call for a “corporate patriotism” that prioritizes American jobs over outsourced labor. This was a recurrent theme in his presidential campaign, which was supported by many on the left as a potential force for positive change. Both he and Trump were consistent in their repeated calls for a reversal of the policies that lead to the de-industrialization of the Rust Belt, making it clear the crypto-nationalism of the left is not far off from from the politics of the populist right.

What many fail to realize is that the Rust Belt extends beyond its geographic existence and into the political psyche, a decrepit, desolate space filled with little more than dust and cobwebs. This intellectual Rust Belt is the result of the atrophy of the radical imagination in the face of the evolving landscape of capital. The contemporary left is more reactive than it is revolutionary, only capable of mounting a response to the horrors of the present order in the form of an alternative capitalism, rather than an alternative to capitalism. With this inability (or refusal) to dream of anything but variations of the current nightmare, is it any wonder that such reactive politics become recuperated by forces of reaction? As the late Mark Fisher pointed out, “any opposition to flexibility and decentralization risks being self-defeating, since calls for inflexibility and centralization are, to say the least, not likely to be very galvanizing”.

The “immobilization model”, according to Fisher, “amounts to a demand to retain the Fordist/disciplinary regime”. The proponents of this model wish to roll back the development of new systems of control, and return to the industrial enclosure. Neoliberalism, not capitalism, is the primary enemy of the immobilizers.

The problem is that the economic nation-state doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the way many would hope. Global capitalism treats all regions as sites for economic development, regardless of whatever flag they may bear. It would be a grave theoretical error to try to isolate the world into autonomous political-economic units, as everything has becomes interconnected by the deterritorializing and reterritorializing flows of capital. And yet, those who align themselves with the cult of capitalisms past continue to try and do so. All we must do is dismantle neoliberal institutions and implement protectionist policies, they say, and we can protect our respective working classes from the ravages of international trade. So not only do theorists of the immobilization model fail to see the increasingly apparent obsolecense of the traditional nation-state, but also see fit to divide the working class against itself. They fail to see, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue, that “the forces that contest Empire and effectively prefigure an alternative global society are themselves not limited to any geographical region. The geography of these alternative powers, the new cartography, is still waiting to be written—or really, it is being written today through the resistances, struggles, and desires of the multitude.” Any effective assault on global capitalism must be built around a common vision of a radical re-organization of society on an international level, rather than a push for economic isolationism. Visualizing a new world requires an affirmation of the potential of an international proletarian movement, one that is capable of adapting to new political and economic developments, without needing to appeal to ideological nostalgia.

Designed Incoherence: Populism and Discourse

The apparent peversion of authority delineates the limits of legitimized power within a given ideological field. When authority comes up against the boundaries it had previously set for itself, the contradictions of authority’s foundational systems become apparent. As a distruption of the established politico-cultural hegemony, Trump expresses these contradictions, and reveals the limitations of existing ideological structures when it comes to maintaining homeostasis. It is Trump as representative of this phenomenon, not Trump as an individual, that serves as an important subject for any critical theory of contemporary society.

The most obvious example of institutionalized resistance to Trump(ism) finds its genesis in the mainstream Left, the #Resistance. This isn’t at all surprising of course, with the presence of certain objects against which the “progressive” ideology is organized. The set of signifiers that constitute the expressive structure of this ideology are primarily formulated on the basis of opposition. Opposition to a somewhat vague, generalized enemy, usually seen as manifested in Republican Party. The idea of a great reactionary entity on the other side of the aisle allows people to coalesce around a specific code of values. American liberalism does not stand on its own, but relies on its avowed hostility towards the Other Side. The same can be said for conservatism. Differentiation is a crucial component of a pluralist democracy, no matter how superficial it may be.

Doubtless, many a protest will be raised by the notion of liberalism and conservatism as mutually reinforcing formations, most likely on the basis of differing policy viewpoints. The problem with such an argument is that it ignores that both groups seek to defend the same social order. The difference lies in their approaches to responding to the problems of capitalism. They may disagree on how to do it, but both are trying to do the same thing, i.e. save capitalism and all its exploitive relations. As they struggle to assert their competing visions of how to properly manage these relations, the two groups reproduce each other through the construction of an ideological discourse that attempts to contain any attempts at structural change.

An innate feature of politics is the building of monstrous enemies to be torn down, the projection of images of a dangerous, foreign Other that must be resisted. In this process of generalized contrasts, both fantasy and nightmare can be equally nebulous while maintaining their efficacy. Both sides appeal to concepts of “freedom”, “equality”, and “democracy”. The fragmentation of meaning here, the loss of common definitions in the midst of mutual application demonstrates what Slavoj Zizek calls the “signifier without signified”. Appeals to such high ideals are most effective when they are left without explicit description. We can all get behind the concept of “freedom”, right? But what does “freedom” even mean?

This question seems relatively straightforward. And yet, situated in political discourse, a field in which communicative agents speak past each other by design, any clear answer is elusive. It is similar to when a politician says “those people are ruining this country!”. “Those people” are a faceless abstraction, ready-made to have anyone’s fears projected onto them. Immigrants, bankers, racists, criminals, conservatives, liberals, even other politicians could all fit nicely into that nebulous non-object, “those people”. Each “side” is just a team of techinicians specializing in the manipulation of signs for a certain audience. The real goal of politics is to find a common ground through mutual misunderstanding.

The populist shares certain similarities with Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic. He slips in and out of different states, frusturating theoretical or ideological schemas through the scrambling of codes, deterritorializing as he pleases. To try and pin him down, to trace out a definitive identity, proves impossible. The populist constantly slides along the spectrum, shaking hands and kissing babies. He is the politician accelerated and imploded, shifting across different thresholds with ease.

If Trump appears as a disruption of previous forms of discourse, a departure from business as usual, it’s certainly not because he’s “telling it like it is”. He doesn’t subscribe to any truth, so how can he tell any? The really peculiar thing about him is his existence as a political non-entity. He lacks a firm commitment to any particular set of political beliefs, making things up as he goes. All politicians are flip-floppers, of course, but unlike them, Trump has no starting point. He doesn’t change positions because he doesn’t have any positions to change. When he appears to take a stance on something, it’s just a representation, a still image of a moment in his constant movement. We should stay out of Syria, we should attack Syria. This mass of conflicting actions and statements expresses the impossibility of Trumpian policy as a coherent program.

Self-parody is perhaps the most apt description of this new administration. It utilizes much of the same usual tropes, but exaggerated to an absurd level, without any sense of self-awareness. Bloated and clumsy, it stumbles about, sticking its fingers where it shouldn’t. The breakdown of the old spectacle, the growing instability of the political sphere, are side-effects of capitalism’s increasingly frantic attempts to prevent its own disintegration. The fall in industrial employment and the continued growth of a surplus population (among many other things) puts a continous strain on class relations, forcing the mutation of political horizons in order to keep up.

Ernesto Laclau saw the emergent precedence of what he called a “social logic of equivalence” as a condition necessary for the rise of populism in a given situation. The accumulation of unsatisfied social demands forms an aggregate, coalescing as an “equivalential chain”. A unity is found in the common frusturation of demands, producing a new political subject, which Laclau designates the “popular” subject. The popular subject rejects the established routes for the satisfaction of specific demands, favoring a break with existing institutions. According to Laclau, “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture”. In the field of political discourse, a particular demand may come to consitute the medium through which the whole equivalential chain is articulated, assuming a represenational role. In the case of Trump, the call for the expulsion of illegal immigrants and/or the expanison of border security serve this purpose. A growing feeling of socioeconomic marginalization was expressed via anti-immigrant positions.

Laclau’s illuminating examination of populism provide important insight on how it capitalizes on societal trends, harnessing anti-institutionalism for the benefit of certain factions. It also allows us to see that populist sentiment develops as the result of the failures of a democracy to maintain an equilibrium. The current decomposition of political categories is emblematic of this problem. The binary dynamic of old is no longer sufficient when it comes to integrating dissent into an institutional framework. New tools are needed. Populism becomes the system’s only recourse as the old methods prove inadequate to prevent further disruptions. The irony of any populist political strategy, of course, is that it utilizes resentment towards institutional failures to reinvest public sentiment into those institutions, through the application of cosmetic changes. Such strategies allow systems of domination to evolve with changing circumstances.

The morbidly comedic manifestation of this latest populism in the form of the orange tryant further prove the precarious position of the state, as it flounders amidst the rapidly intesifying antagonisms of capital. Its agents leap from point to point, trying to encircle the expanding and increasingly diverse collection of grievances against authority. It’s becoming clear that even this strategy is seeing diminishing returns.

Only time will tell if this rupture will remain a political crisis or become a crisis of politics itself. Such an escalation would be dependent on the rejection of populism’s insitutionalized anti-institutionalism, and the independent action of a unified working class. Not unified by adherence to particular political formation, but by the struggle to end the reign of capital and give rise to a world free from exploitation. Such a struggle is beyond the scope of (electoral) politics, as it must seek to overcome the ideology of democracy and capitalism.

On Paranoia and Its Political Applications

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In the aftermath of their own failures, the champions of American liberalism have embarked on a mission to find the perfect alibi for their role in the latest electoral catastrophe. And, lo and behold, everywhere they turn, a multitude of phantom enemies spirng forth, extending their talons to grasp hold of our fragile democracy. Our defenders of liberty stand transfixed by the dance of twisted shadows across the halls of power, contorted, terrifying shapes that strike fear into their hearts. They take it upon themselves to enlighten their fellow Americans on the dangers of these shadow figures, these terrible monsters that hide in plain sight.

From racist hicks to Russian hackers to left purists, the list goes on. A procession of horrors that have come to wreck havoc on our much-revered institutions. Our liberal friends express virtulent outrage at these intruders, vowing to resist their advances at all costs. This fascade of righteous anger serves a very specific purpose, of course, redirecting any lines of questioning regarding the possible complicity of the liberal/moderate establishment in all of this. This acts to not only deflect criticism of a certain political faction, but of the system as a whole.

Trump is often accused of embracing a disintegration of the truth (“post-truth” is what all the cool kids are calling it now), but what he really does is present a destabilization of truth in the political realm. In the age of the Internet, information proliferates and accelerates at a growing rate, allowing for a greater multiplicity in narrative. However, it’s clear that this constant flow often congeals into huge blobs that overtake and swallow up everything else. This is the marvel of corporate news media, which has, despite facing new challenges, managed to integrate itself into this non-structure, maintaining a strong claim to the Truth™. These entitites produce a constant stream of experts and data, suffocating alternative perspectives  with phrases like “journalistic integrity”.

It is the nature of our informational systems that there remains a porousness to any formation, and there is always the danger of a rupture (or series of ruptures), opening up new paths and gateways that render the old hegemonic blobs obsolete. This necessitates a constant movement on the part of their defenders to patch up any new openings, safely subsuming any dangerously sharp objects into the greater whole, where they can be dissolved or reconstituted. It is no wonder then, that there has been so much hand wringing and dramatized hysteria over the threats of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth politics”.

That is not to defend anything placed within those categories, but simply to point out that those categories are generated in order to reconsolidate a pre-existing order in the face of a perceived threat to its dominance. This returns us to the related phenomenon of legitimized conspiracy theories. Such narratives are forged as weapons for a renewed epistomological crusade.

Vanity Fair recently published a hilarious self-parody titled “Why the Alt-Left is a Problem, Too”. In it, James Wolcott conducts a brave and principled defense of Meryl Streep by lumping Jacobin, Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard, and Cornel West together under the neologism “alt-left”. It gets better, though; Wolcott goes on to insinuate that these “dude-bros” and “purity progressives” are in some ways akin to the alt-right. Now, while there’s a whole lot of solid criticism to be levied against these figures, to imply that their refusal to defer to the guidance of moderate Democrats makes them somehow fascistic is laughable. But wait, there’s more! Characteristic of this previously unknown section of the American left is a “disgust with identity politics and a climactic reckoning [read: revolution]”. The author’s aspirations to comedy writing aside, this article provides a clear view of authority’s current strategy. The marginalization of political alternatives becomes absolutely essential in such delicate times, and horseshoe theory seems to provide a useful tool for this. “You’re either with us or against us” becomes “you’re either with us or a Nazi”.

The word “alternative” itself has now become a subject of revulsion. To suggest any deviation from the homogenous plane of dialogues that monopolize the public sphere is to suggest a retreat from rationality, a movement towards delusion and madness. The only acceptible “critique” is a parroting of toothless platitudes, most of them involving the inevitable triumph of love and unity over hatred. Preferably, we’d all sit in front of our TVs and seethe at each new outrage, maybe occasionally retweeting our congressperson.

The concoction of various conspiracy theories is ridiculed, while others are embraced wholeheartedly. Liberals laugh at the idea of a deep state, some shadowy organization operating from within the government. Instead of this parasitic vision, they prefer one of obscene intercourse between two governments, the US and Russia. If you ever spot a panelist on CNN or MSNBC masturbating furiously on live television, it’d be safe to infer that they’re picturing an anthropomorphized Kremlin mounting the White House, laughing lustily as it deflowers our democracy. The Russian obsession has become so ingrained in the liberal defense that it’s been transformed into an erotic fascination. Indeed, a quick online search will provide a plethora of depictions of the two heads of state engaged in various lewd acts.

The fear of a foreign other ensnaring our political institutions has become an indispensible trope, with those elusive Russian hackers being thrown like a veil over each new debacle. On Real Time with Maher, Malcolm Nance called Wikileaks a “landromat for Russian intelligence”, refusing to actually discuss the content of the leaked DNC emails. To the puppets of the political machine, it doesn’t matter what comes to light about that machine, as long as the information can be somehow linked to a covert Russian propaganda campaign.

Putin may have meddled with the elections, but it is really the public, we are told, who are responsible for this. The foolish, ignorant masses who bought into all the Russian lies, remaining stubbornly in the safe confines of their demographic bubbles. If the stories are to be believed, much of the United States is filled with savage hordes of raging bigots, intent on resurrecting the Third Reich in North America. Why blame a growing disenchantment with the state of politics and the devastation inflicted by the economy, when there are rednecks to be scapegoated?

Politics have always involved the production of fear. Designing this fear to fit a certain version of the truth is a well-honed skill among politicians, to whom the construction and circulation of specific narratives has become of second nature. They play segments of the populace against each other, disseminating terrifying images that drive people to the ballots, hoping to ward off the nightmares they’ve been shown.

We already live in another sort of nightmare, one in which truth is an objectified monolith wielded as a means of domination. Reason is a political product, one that comes with clearly marked borders; cross them, and one becomes a pariah. There is no thinking outside the box, because the box is all there is, a self-contained reality that constrains both discussion and action. The insides of this box are constantly shifting their appearance, reflecting back mysterious apparitions that shriek and wail. Wherever one walks, some terrible monstrosity is waiting around the corner, or so it would seem.

Information is everywhere, but it’s no good unless it tells the right story. The guardians of the status quo push and nudge, guide and authenticate, reject and marginalize, factualize and qualify. Fake news, fake news, it’s all fake news. Don’t let the Russians fool you! Oh, you have a question, do you? What are you, a racist? A dude-bro? Move along, move along. Stick to the program. Nothing to see here, folks!