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.