1968-2018: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose(?)

may 68 barricade bordeaux

Transcript of my talk for the ‘’68 & its Double-binds’ conference at the University of Kent

Prefatory note: What motivated the writing of this presentation was the Badiou quote that was used on the CFP for this conference, which reads: “We are commemorating May ‘68 because the real outcome and the real hero of ‘68 is unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.” Upon reading this I felt compelled to revisit Badiou’s original essay, if only due to my immediate intuition that a conclusion such as this one strikes one as being at odds with the place reserved for May ‘68 in Badiou’s overall political thought and life. And if it sounds at odds with Badiou’s own thinking on this topic, it is because it is; for the the sentence directly preceding the quote just read reads, “There is also a second even more pessimistic answer [to why we are commemorating May ‘68 forty years after the fact].”[1] Now, the purpose of this anecdote is not to put anyone on trial but rather to revisit Badiou’s own analysis in detail and to inquire into whether or not his thesis remained true ten years on: can we still be said to be the contemporaries of May ‘68 or have the relations between the Left in 2018 and the Left of 1968 undergone a substantive transformation?   

[Introduction]

Today it appears that rather than the presentation of a solution or set of proscriptions, May ’68 persists in the form of a problem. For someone like Badiou, this problem of 68 belongs strictly to the order of politics insofar as the era was defined by, and preoccupied with, the question, “What is politics?”[2] while for those like Guattari, ‘68’s problematic was socio-economic in essence (“…one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”)[3] And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May reveals itself to be decidedly metaphysical in nature (“Democracy is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics.”)[4] Thus it seems that the fate of “May ’68” is to remain an eternal site of contestation, always irreducible to any single sequence of events.[5] Hence our suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more so a formulation of a set of problems. However, for us it is necessary to ask whether or not we still remain its contemporaries, as Badiou suggests. In other words, is it as simple as recognizing the fact that contemporary struggles continue to lack the relevant forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of capital and its attendant social relations?

In what follows, I would like to propose that our relationship to May ‘68 is more complicated than any straightforward affirmation or rejection of our contemporaneity with the political sequence that bears its name and date. And it is by understanding why it becomes difficult to simply affirming or denying Badiou’s claim that we are able to grasp how our relationship to ‘68 involves, by necessity, both responses. While it may be the case that what we share with ‘68 is our searching for an answer to a singular question – namely, what form will collective subjectivity take such that it is adequate to the abolition of itself and its present state of affairs? – what becomes clear is that the possible solutions this question solicited in 1968 are significantly different from those offered up in 2018.

[Badiou’s ‘Four May’s]

I would like to begin by asking a very simple question: why all this fuss about May ‘68…40 years after the event? There was nothing of the kind for the thirtieth or twentieth anniversary.6 Thus begins Badiou’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of the events of ‘68. And not without justification, for it is indeed strange that May ’68 becomes worthy of national commemoration only once 40 years of silence has come to pass. Beginning with this question what Badiou outlines two of the dominant modes of responding to this question.

On the one hand, there are a set of answers that can be said to be pessimistic & propose the idea that it is possible to commemorate May ’68 precisely because it no longer has any socio-political influence on the present .7 Or we could say that this commemoration is possible because what was really achieved through the events of May was the establishment of the conditions of possibility for neoliberalism.8 On the other hand, there are those answers that are decidedly optimistic – ranging from arguments that view this commemorative moment as a looking towards the past for the inspiration needed to change the present, to those who still hold on to a certain image of insurrectionary politics, which is said to contain the promise that another world is indeed possible. Now, in contradistinction to these positions, and by emphasizing what he takes to be May ‘68’s irreducibly complex character, Badiou argues that there are not two but four different May’s:

the reason why this commemoration is complicated and gives rise to contradictory hypotheses is that May ’68 itself was an event of great complexity. It is impossible to reduce it to a conveniently unitary image. I would like to transmit to you this internal division, the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ’68. There were in fact four different May ‘68’s. The strength and the distinctive feature of the French May ’68 is that it entwined, combined and superimposed four processes that are, in the final analysis, quite heterogeneous.[9]

So, in place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystifications, what goes by the name ‘May 1968’ was a political sequence that was effectuated due to the interplay of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general and wildcat strikes organized by workers, and (iii) the cultural protestations which arose most notably from young people and filmmakers. And it is for this reason, says Badiou, that it comes as no surprise that the symbolic sites of ‘68 are “the occupied Sorbonne for students, the big car plants (and especially Billancourt) for the workers, and the occupation of the Odéon theatre.”[10] Now, while each of these segments of ‘68 correspond to the first three iterations of May, what is it that constitutes this supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and the struggles of everyday life?

According to Badiou, this ‘fourth May’ is nothing other than the generalization of what one could call an ‘absolute refusal’ or ‘absolute rejection’ regarding ‘68’s movements relation to previous cycles of revolutionary struggle. This fourth iteration of May, was defined by the various social movements shared rejection of the Leninist outline of revolution (or what Badiou, in his essay on Sylvain Lazarus, calls ‘the bolshevik mode of politics’) – a vision of revolution that proceeds via workers’ parties, backed by labour unions, all while professional revolutionaries organize the masses in the bid for seizing state power.[11] And it was this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy characteristic of the fourth May that laid the ground for the unification of the student, worker, and cultural struggles active during ‘68. It is for this reason that Badiou will go on to define this fourth May as a collective attempt to construct ‘…a vision of politics that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision… [a politics] seeking to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism.’[12]

Now, in addition to this collective rejection of ‘classic revolutionism,’ the other aspect of the fourth May was the rejection of working-class identity as being the sole determinant of one’s revolutionary potential. And, for Badiou, this rejection, which was founded upon the idea that ‘the classical figure of the politics of emancipation’ to be ‘ineffective,’ had its validity confirmed by his experience of factory workers’ welcoming himself and his university colleagues during a march to the Chausson factory in Reims:

What happened at the gates of the Chausson factory would have been completely improbable…a week earlier. The solid union and party dispositif usually kept workers, young people and intellectuals strictly apart…The local or national leadership was the only mediator. We found ourselves in a situation in which that dispositif was falling apart before our very eyes. This was something completely new…This was an event in the philosophical sense of the term: something was happening but its consequences were incalculable. What were its consequences during the ten ‘red years’ between 1968 and 1978? Thousands of students…workers, women…and proletarians from Africa went in search of a new politics…A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other…At that point, we realized…that if a new emancipatory politics was possible…it would turn social classifications upside down [and] would…consist in organizing lightning displacements, both material and mental.[14]

 

Thus, for Badiou, to commemorate or reflect upon the events of 68 means to necessarily confront and understand it as a political sequence that was realized only because of students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups (youth, women, Algerians, etc.) sharing one and the same horizon of struggle – replete with its dual rejection of the politics of parliamentarianism, party led unions, and transitional programs; and the figure of the worker as the sole bearer of revolutionary potential. A sequence whose guiding question was the following: “What would a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like?”[15] And it is precisely in this sense that 1968 is said to mark the birth of a political subjectivity defined by a defiance of the social positions (‘places’) allotted to it by Capital. Thus it comes as no surprise that we can find Kristin Ross give a description of May ‘68 in a manner similar to the portrait of political subjectivity drawn by Badiou himself:

What has come to be called “the events of May” consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural “givenness” of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside—trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers’ housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and later against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics — moving it out of its…proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party.[16]

And so the notion of there having been not one or two, but “four May’s,” retains its analytical usefulness insofar as it allows us to conceive of ‘68 on its own terms; as a form of politics whose horizon of struggle was one that rejected past and present iterations of left-wing politics and gave consistency to collectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal ‘that links the other three [May’s].’[17] And in following Badiou we are necessarily led to the conclusion that it was only by virtue of the diagonal function of the fourth May that ‘68 succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself; a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line; no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left; no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production; and thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been said to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free.

[1968 – 2018?]

Today, however, things do not seem as clear as they did during 1968. With respect to politics, the radical left (at least in the United States and UK) is increasingly confronted by an internal split between that portion of the Left that has invested its energies and belief in progressive change, in candidates and parties on the parliamentary left (Labour in the UK, DSA backed candidates in the Democratic Party in the United States, etc.) and the extra-parliamentary portion of the Left, which remains ever skeptical of achieving the radical transformation of our social totality via presently existing political institutions and organizations. And this alone is already a significant divergence from Badiou’s assessment regarding our relation to the legacy of ‘68. For if we are the contemporaries of ‘68; and if ‘68 was truly defined according to the diagonal function of this ‘fourth May’ which united various social movements via the shared rejection of both the Party-form with its unions and the electoral process; then, from the vantage point of the present, this consensus forged during ‘68 has now been put into question.[18]

An analysis such as this was already put forward in 2015 by Plan C’s Keir Milburn. In their article ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands,’ they note how one of the key contributing factors that has led to this impasse is the failure of the movements of 2011 to bring about the desired and/or expected level of change. As they put it, “[A]n impasse was reached in both the pure horizontalist rejection of representative politics and the initial attempts to address the crisis of social reproduction autonomously from the State and capital.”[19] Reflecting upon SYRIZA and the limitations of a straightforwardly parliamentarian approach to radical change, Milburn, in my estimation, correctly underscores the fact that electing various Left leaning parties into power reveals what is inherently limiting regarding this reinvestment of the Party-form – and this largely happens either through compromises made between the elected government and the EU or by the EU’s, IMF’s, and World Bank’s, isolation of said government in order to elicit the desired set of austerity measures, thereby rendering it amenable to the demands of the market: “Neoliberalism…seeks to either replace points of democratic decision with pseudo-market mechanisms or, where this isn’t possible, insulate points of political decision from pressure and influence from below.”[20]  So what are we to take away from all this?

1). The Left: First, in terms of a collective subject whose consistency is drawn from a shared horizon with its principles and analyses, it would be more accurate to say that, today, we are witnessing the undoing of the ‘fourth May’s’ unifying function, which can be seen in the internal split between electoral and extra-parliamentarian approaches. And just as “we must not forget…that May ‘68’s last slogan was élections piège à cons [Elections are a con],” we must recognize that one possible slogan that could encapsulate the Left of 2018 would be the idea that ‘elections are a mode through which class struggle can again be waged.’

2). The Subject of Politics: Second, while the problem of constructing a form of subjectivity adequate to the current organization of capital remains as urgent as it was in 1968, this problem is, in fact, an insufficient ground upon which to establish contemporaneity since this was a problem that every historical period had to pose and answer for itself – regardless if the solutions to this problem assumed different names such as sans-culotte, the peasant, the slave, the colonized, and of course the worker. And regarding the current relation of Capital’s socio-economic structure to the possible existence of the long sought after agent of abolition, the prospects of the Left being able to determine for themselves the form and organizational structure struggle will assume appears to be even more difficult than 1968 – a milieu that, as we saw, was already characterized by the established parties and unions fighting both their electoral rivals and those who defected or exercised insubordination in the face of union and party officials. What is more, given the recent research on various forms of struggle such as Joshua Clover’s book on riots, it is worth emphasizing what he lays out so carefully: the strike and the riot continue to be, in large part, overdetermined by the accumulation and production of value – and this, in spite of everything that is redeeming in Marx’s notion of the ‘multiplication of the proletariat,’ which refers to the process that follows from Capital’s increasing turn away from production and toward circulation and consumption (reproduction) for the extraction of value. That is, the multiplication of the proletariat, for both Marx and Clover, is still a process of generalized precarity rather than the generalization of a collective and antagonistic Subject.

3). The Party, The State: However, if it is precisely a shared orientation defined as anti-state, anti-party, and anti-parliamentarian that is lacking from our present and whose absence is the felt in the Left’s division from itself, the solution cannot simply be calls of support for more ‘diversity of tactics,’ because when the parties of the Left end up in power what we have seen in the past and what may come again in the near future is the repression of all those extra-parliamentary groups struggles, whose very existence participated in building a political climate favorable to the Left as a whole. This is a tendency that realized itself  in post-’68 France and whose most well known example is that of the Italian Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise.’ And regarding the recent years leading up to 2018, we have also seen echoes of this from Corbyn’s Labour Party. For instance, in Labour’s 2017 manifesto one reads that the Labour Party will promise to rectify the damage done by Theresa May cutting funds to police and emergency personnel (Labour Party Manifesto, 46-47). How exactly? By placing an additional 10,000 more police officers on the streets to, ostensibly, “keep our communities safe.” And all of this while Corbyn was meeting with well known grime mcs (JME), all of whom come from communities that are at the highest risk of being harrassed, beaten, wrongfully stopped and searched, verbally and physically assaulted, or worse, by the police themselves.

Endnotes

  1.  Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, (Verso: London, 2015), 33.
  2.  Ibid, 39-40.
  3.  Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolutions, p. __“…one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”
  4. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy, p. 34. Or as Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas put it, “Democracy must therefore be thought as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible but can in no way be reduced to the political. As such, it is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics. It was May 68, Nancy argues, that demonstrated all this in an exemplary way and so deserves to be not simply remembered and commemorated but rethought and renewed.” Ibid, xi.
  5.  In other parts of the world, however, 1968 means something more than the struggle over historical interpretation. In 2014, 43 Mexican students who were kidnapped by police whilst in transit to Mexico City to commemorate the students and civilians massacred by the Mexican state in 1968. And to this day their families remain in the dark with only the repressive state to turn to for answers. For these 43 students publicly remembering the events of Mexico’s ‘68 is not simply a theoretical exercise. For them and their comrades, remembering 68 requires the courage of the militant Badiou often speaks of – since 68 in the global south is a game of life and death.
  6.  Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, (Verso: London, 2015), 33.
  7.  “We can now commemorate May ‘68 because we are convinced that it is dead. Forty years after the event, there is no life left in it” (Ibid).
  8.  “The libertarian ideas of ‘68, the transformation of the way we live, the individualism and the taste for jouissance have become a reality thanks to post-modern capitalism and its garish world of all sorts of consumerism…Sarkozy himself is the product of May ’68, and to celebrate May ’68…is to celebrate the neoliberal West…” (Ibid, 33-34).
  9.  Ibid, 34-5, emphasis mine.
  10.  Ibid, 39.
  11.  Or as Badiou recounts from his own experience of May, “At the time we assumed that the politics of emancipation was neither a pure idea, an expression of the will nor a moral dictate, but that it was inscribed in, and almost programmed by, historical and social reality. One of that convictions implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were site of power or intervention. There were certainly wide-ranging discussion about what the party was…But there was a basic agreement that there a historical agent, and that that agent had to be organized. That political organization obviously had a social basis in mass organizations that plunged their roots into an immediate social reality…This gives us something that still survives today: the idea that there are two sides to emancipatory political action. First there are social movements…[T]hen there is the party element…”
  12.  Ibid, 43.
  13.  Ibid, 44.
  14.  Ibid, 45.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Kristin Ross, May 68 And Its Afterlives, 25, my emphasis.  
  17.  Communist Hypothesis, 44.
  18.  For more see Keir Milburn’s essay, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands’ https://www.weareplanc.org/blog/on-social-strikes-and-directional-demands/
  19.  Keir Milburn, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands’

20.   Keir Milburn, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands.’ Additionally, it is important to recall Yanis Varoufakis’ anecdote regarding a conversation he had with Christine Legarde, head of the IMF. After Varoufakis informed Legarde that it would be mathematically impossible for Greece to repay its debt according to the austerity measures proposed by the IMF, Legarde in fact agreed with him but replied that it was something that must be done – a telling remark since it reveals the function of the Troika as the set of institutions who secure the smooth running of neoliberalism regardless of the material needs of those who live in debtor countries.

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May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground”

1 may taksim sqTaksim Square (May 1, 1977)

[An excerpt from Sakine Cansiz’s memoir Sara: My Whole Life Was A Struggle] 

The days crawled by, and May 1 [1977] approached. We decided to celebrate the workers’ holiday here in [the Buca] prison and discussed the program. In the outside world, preparations were running full steam ahead. In Istanbul all the leftist groups were planning to demonstrate at Taksim Square. I wondered how May 1 would pass in Kurdistan. Surely the friends would participate in the action at Taksim Square. In Kurdistan, police attacks were usually much harsher. I suspected there would be clashes. 

On May 1 we put on our best clothes. Red carnations had been sent to us from outside–we put them in cans and arranged them on the cabinets. At 9 a.m., out in the courtyard, we started with a minute of silence, then shouted slogans together. We heard slogans booming from other cells as well. We were loud even though we were only few in number. “Long live the first of May!” we cried, and in Kurdish: “Bijî Yeke Gulanê!” [long live
the first of May!]. 
Then, tensely, we turned on the TV news. State television was reporting mostly on police security measures, but sometimes it switched to showing crowds streaming into Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands were marching with raised eft fists and roaring slogans. It was a splendid sight, strengthening our belief that this mass of humanity could really carry out a revolution. We all murmured with excitement at each new camera shot. Never had I so much confidence in the working class and the prospects for revolution in Turkey. I was fired up, even as I ached with longing for Kurdistan [. . .] The sight of workers in smocks and overalls was impressive. Occasionally they showed footage of the leader of the DİSK revolutionary trade union confederation, Abdullah Baştürk, and the chairman of the TİP, the Turkish Workers Party, Behice Boran. I listened carefully for the slogan “Down with colonialism” and scanned the crowds for banners saying “Kurdistan Revolutionaries.” Suddenly a commotion broke out. Continue reading “May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground””

Au Revoir Aux Enfants… de Mai! (Abstract)

may 68 barricade bordeaux
working draft of an abstract for a conference on May 1968

In the December of 1968, Maurice Blanchot issued a warning that was to be repeated in the years to come: “May, a revolution by idea, desire, and imagination, risks becoming a purely ideal and imaginary event if this revolution does not…yield to new organization and strategies.”[1] And so, we find in an issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau, dated January 17, 1973, the following analysis by Félix Guattari: the events of May demonstrated that revolutionary movements could no longer proceed by assuming the existence of “one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”[2] And approximately thirty years after Guattari, it would be Alain Badiou’s turn to offer a similar line of inquiry: “What [would] a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other?”[3] Comparing these remarks reveals the kernel of truth shared by these thinkers: namely, that May ‘68 succeeded in forcing society as a whole to confront the problems which serve as the condition for its existence while also posing, to itself, the problem of discovering the necessary forms struggles must take in order to ward off state capture and its commodification by the market. In light of these remarks this presentation argues the following thesis: if one of the key double-binds of ‘68 is the dialectic between nostalgic commemoration and farcical repetition, its nullification will be achieved only with the realization of a form of collective struggle capable of substantially transforming the forces and relations of production. By beginning with a comparative analysis of Badiou’s, Guattari’s, and Blanchot’s analyses this presentation will show how, if left unresolved, the problems posed by the movements of ‘68 risk becoming the very limitations of contemporary struggles. For just as it was in 1968, these problems are all the more urgent in 2018 since the present cycle of struggle (at least in Western Europe) has again taken the form of federated networks of various local struggles where students take to the streets alongside workers, unions call for strike actions alongside strikes led by grass roots organizations and centered around social issues (transportation, gentrification, rent, the police, land). And so it appears that Badiou is right to underscore our contemporaneity with ’68 since we have yet to find an adequate solution to “the problem revealed by May ’68: [namely, that] the classical figure of the politics of emancipation was ineffective.”[4]


[1] Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings: 1953-1993, tr. Zakir Paul (Fordham University Press: New York, 2010), 106, my emphasis.
[2] Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, tr. Rosemary Sheed (Penguin: New York, 1984), 255.
[3] Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, tr. David Macey and Steve Corcoran (Verso: New York, 2015), 45.
[4] Ibid, 47.

Strike Till Retirement (notes on Precarias a la Deriva’s ‘A Very Careful Strike’)

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[Note on the translators introduction: Crucial for our understanding of the particular fusion of political activity with knowledge production that comes out of Precarias a la Deriva is their novel use of the Situationist derive. As they note in ‘First Stutterings of Precarias a la Deriva,’ “In our particular version, we opt to exchange the arbitrary wandering of the flaneur…for a situated drift which would move through the daily spaces of each one of us, while maintaining the tactics multisensorial and open character. Thus the drift is converted into a moving interview, crossed through by the collective perception of the environment” (34). One could even say that more than a mere modification of situationist methodology, Precarias a la Deriva’s methodology of the ‘moving interview’ combines the dérive (and its attention to the ways in which the reproduction of urban existence liberates or constrains the precarity that conditions the reproductive labour (unwaged, emotional, affective, sex, and care work), and particularly women’s labour) with the form of the ‘Worker’s Inquiry’ – the latter published by Marx in 1880 and was an attempt at gathering responses to 101 questions from workers themselves with the aim of achieving an exact and precise knowledge of what contributes to or detracts from working class struggle.]

 

  1. Sex, care, and attention are not pre-existent object, but rather historically determined social stratifications of affect, traditionally assigned to women.

Precarias a la Deriva begin their argument for a ‘very careful strike’ by understanding that the current form taken by unwaged reproductive labour (sex, care, attention) is the outcome of a long historical sequence. And the common element that binds contemporary unwaged labour to previous instances is the reproduction of patriarchal gender norms; these norms that split subjectivity thereby forcing upon it the choice between the good mother or the bad whore:

“The history of sex and care as strata is ancient. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, both were associated with a bipolar female model, which located on one (positive) side the Virgin Mary, virtuous woman, mother of god, and on the other, (negative) side Eve, the great sinner of the Apocalypse, the transgressor, the whore” (34).

Thus, if reproductive labour is a historical formation and not a natural given, then its chief accomplishment is what Precarias rightly call the ‘stratification of affect’ – the process of rendering certain modes of being (sex, care, attention) as attributes of some bodies (women) and not others (men). And following from the Christianity of the Medieval period we see the reappearance of this stratification of affect, but now in the period of the Enlightenment. The specific process of stratification of the Enlightenment period, however, would become something unlike that of the Middle Ages and would erect legal sanctions in place of religious doctrine in order to modify and reproduce these old divisions between the woman of virtue and the woman of vice and further distinguish one’s womanly virtue (loving-mother, loyal housewife, single-virgin) from her vicious double (transgressor-whore). And it is due to this substitution of secular right for religious judgment, says Precarias, that we can find in places such as the US, Great Britain, and Australia, the creation of laws aimed at regulating the exchange of sexual services for money, ‘which in many areas…included the regulation of the exchange of sexual services for money. It was in this manner that prostitution appeared in the way we know it today, that is to say, as a specialized occupation or profession within the division of labour of patriarchal capitalism, and how it was restricted to determine spaces and subjects (ceasing to be an occasional resource for working and peasant women)” (35). Moreover, and regarding our present moment, it is this historical formation of those strata of affect (sex-care-attention) that have entered ‘into perfect symbiosis with the bourgeois nuclear family that capitalism converted into the dominant reproductive ideal’ (35).

  1. Our journeys across the city…have led us to abandon the modes of enunciation that speak of each of these functions as separate and to think…from the point of view of a communicative continuum sex-attention-care.

Given the historical stratification of these affects it is not hard to see why, for Precarias, they belong to one and the same continuum, to the same historically formative process (and all the better to emphasize “the elements of continuity that exist under the stratification…in concrete and everyday practices”). However, Precarias also give another justification for their understanding of these stratified-gendered affects: their ‘journeys across the city’ and placing their ‘precaritized everyday lives’ under close examination. And what is discovered is that it not solely the work of history that certain affects have become seemingly natural attributes of particular subjects. In addition, what is discovered is the increasing complexity by which this historical stratification is carried out. Hence, “a continuum because…the traditional fixed positions of women (and of genders in general) are becoming more mobile, and at the same time new positions are created. The whore is no longer just and only a whore…the sainted mother is no longer such a saint nor only a mother.” For Precarias a la Deriva, the stratifications of affect proper to the present cannot and should not be understood in light of its previous iterations (i.e. via mere substitution as in the Enlightenments replacement of theological doctrine with secular law). Today, the stratified (re)production and (re)alignment of social functions such as sex, care, and attention can only be understood on the basis of their increasing ‘mobility’ or ‘diversification.’ But what is exactly mobile and diverse about the contemporary gender division of labour? The present stratification of affect is

  • diverse due to the increasing variants of the classical ‘sexual contract.’ This ranges from traditional matrimony and sex-work (prostitution) to the renting out of women as surrogate mothers, to the well known phenomena of spouses for hire (‘mail order brides’). And with this transformation in the sexual contract (i.e. the social relations that regulate sex, sexuality, and reproduction) follows a transformation of the model of the Fordist nuclear family (‘and the proliferation of other modality of unity…monoparental or plurinuclear homes, transnational families, groups constituted by non-blood bonds…’).

[and]

  • mobile insofar as what once was accomplished in the home is now outstripped and accomplished by the market (“many of the tasks that were previously conducted in the home now are resolved in the market”) – e.g. fast food/ready meals, which accomplish a mother’s daily task of meal preparations, or  middle-, upper-middle class, and wealthy (white) women (residing in the global north) are relieved of their duties of childcare by hiring women from the global south to carry out what once were her traditional roles of caring- and domestic-labour, and so on.

In the end, Precarias are right to emphasize the novelty of this novel stratification-(re)articulation of the gender division of labour, since this stratification is a process whose outcome is the condemnation of more and more individuals to live under conditions of an ever deepening uncertainty. And just as the increased variations of the sexual contract corresponds to a crisis of the traditional nuclear family, so too does the ‘externalization of the home’ correspond to, what Precarias call, ‘a crisis of care’ – and a crisis that begins with the decline of the Welfare State. So, along with the ‘crises’ (or transformations) in the forms of familial and domestic labour, there exists a corresponding transformation in the very ‘physiognomy’ of precarious labour and realizes itself the now common phenomena of one’s “lack of time, resources, recognition, and desire for taking charge of nonremunerated care.”Moreover, says Precarias, these crises – of the family, domestic labour, and of lack – are circumscribed by a fourth and final problem: “In last place, we have urban question: the crisis (and destruction) of worker neighborhood and their strong sense of community has given place to a process of privatization of public spaces.”

  1. Care, with its ecological logic, opposes the security logic reigning in the precaritized world

Now, just as this socio-economic stratification of the sex-care-attention continuum as ‘capitalist axiomatic’ (i.e.all degrees of difference along the continuum are convertible into value) the contemporary norm of governance on the part of nation-States is that of a ‘macropolitics of security,’ which realizes itself in the ‘micropolitics of fear.’ For Precarias, it is in light of the logics of security and fear that govern everyday life that precarity finds its other meaning:

In this context of uncertainty…precarity is not only a characteristic of the poorest workers. Today we can speak of a precarization of existence in order to refer to a tendency that traverses all of society…Precarity functions as a blackmail, because we are susceptible to losing our jobs tomorrow even though we have indefinite contracts, because hiring, mortgages, and prices in general go up but our wages don’t. (‘A Very Careful Strike,’ 39)

Thus we have a dual-process where the ‘externalization of the home’ is coupled to what we can call the ‘externalization (or generalization) of precarity.’ In other words, if Precarias are right to conceive of precarity as a general tendency of society, it is because precarity is a process that continuously produces ever greater conditions of uncertainty for a greater number of workers; particularly with respect to their lives as conditioned by the demands of (re)production. Thus the question naturally comes about: what to do in situations such as this one? how to go on living when “we don’t know who will care for us tomorrow”? Precarias a la Deriva propose a project of “recuperating and reformulating the feminist proposal for a logic of care. A care that…in place of containment, it seeks the sustainability of life and, in place of fear…bases itself on cooperation, interdependence, the gift, and social ecology.” And in order to implement such a project, Precarias provide us with four key principles for organization and collective struggle: affective virtuosity (attempt to break the racialized and gendered sex-care-attention continuum and view each affect as an essential and creative aspect of life as a whole), interdependence (mutual aid according to the logic of the gift), transversality (refutation of any fixed and clear distinction between labour- and leisure-time), and everydayness (local instantiation of care as a form of social organization). Without distracting ourselves from the exigency of precarious life, it is helpful to highlight the fact that Precarias a la Deriva’s list of principles adopts one of Guattari’s key terms: transversality or what he sometimes calls ‘transversal connections.’ And so it is no surprise that for both Precarias and Guattari the category of transversality fundamentally means the (collective) development of ‘a political struggle on all fronts.’ Alternatively, we could use the language of Guattari and define transversality as a concrete rule for effectuating abstract revolutionary machines of desire and whose function is the coordination of various struggles taking place across the Full Body of Capital. In other words:

There is not one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospitals, yet another by students in the universities. As became obvious in `68, the problem of the university is not just that of the students and the teachers, but the problem of society as a whole and of how it seems the transmission of knowledge, the training of skilled workers, the desires of the mass of the people, the needs of industry and so on…[So] this dichotomy between social reproduction and the production of desire must be a target of the revolutionary struggle wherever…repression works against women, children, drug-addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, or any other disadvantaged group. (Guattari, ‘Molecular Revolution and Class Struggle’)

  1. In the present, one of the fundamental biopolitical challenges consists in inventing a critique of the current organization of sex, attention, and care and a practice that, starting from those as elements inside a continuum, recombines them in order to produce new more liberatory and cooperative forms of affect, that places care in the center but without separating it from sex nor from communication.

Why is the transformation of the current order of sex-attention-care seen as a ‘biopolitical’ challenge? And what would it mean to “place” care at its center? The social transformation of situations of precarity into the means for collective emancipation is biopolitical to the extent that it emphasizes the the conditions by which every day life under capital perpetuates and sustains itself; these conditions that, with the aid of mechanisms of control, surveillance, and repression, make life ever more consistent with market demands. Thus, it is because Precarias see the task of social transformation as being waged in sites of (waged and/or unwaged) reproductive labour that ‘placing care at the center’ becomes imperative. And it is care, says Precarias, is actually the emancipatory underside to understanding what reproductive labour could become. What Precarias will go on to call a ‘careful strike’ envisions a coordinated diversity of struggles centering on sites of reproduction and organized so that those who have been historically tasked with society’s extra-socially necessary labour time can refuse to satisfy their social function without the threat of incurring some penalty, be it material, legal, social, or otherwise. As Precarias eloquently write,

[T]he strike appears to us as an everyday and multiple practice…there will be those who propose transforming public space…those who suggest organizing work stoppage in the hospital when the work conditions don’t allow the nurses to take care of themselves as they deserve, those who decide to turn off their alarm clocks, call in sick and give herself a day off as a present, and those who prefer to join others in order to say “that’s enough” to the clients that refuse to wear condoms… there will be those who oppose the deportation of miners from the “refuge” centers where they work, those dare – like the March 11th Victims’ Association (la asociación de afectados 11M) – to bring care to political debate proposing measures and refusing utilizations of the situation by political parties, those who throw the apron out the window and ask why so much cleaning? And those who join forces in order to demand that they be cared for as quadriplegics and not as “poor things” to be pitied, as people without economic resources and not as stupid people, as immigrants without papers and not as potential delinquents, as autonomous persons and not as institutionalized dependents…Because care is not a domestic question but rather a public matter and generator of conflict. (43)  

5. Utopia & una huelga de mucho cuidado

The caring strike: the means for collective struggle centered on questions historically seen as irrelevant – and precisely to the extent that they were the very conditions of possibility for the ‘relevant’ issues to be addressed. The caring strike: identifying as one’s own the problem of discovering the means of acting in concert with different and perhaps distant movements (e.g. the recent wave of teachers strikes throughout the United States, the development of the ‘social’ strike and what Precarias/Guattari would see as its transversal set of relations incarnated in their platform  – though in its current form, however, these transversal relations largely exist within Western, and to a lesser extent Eastern, European countries). The caring strike: putting an end to one’s participation in a labour, which makes us strangers to one another, and is especially addressed “to the men – “are we going to end with the mystique that obliges women to care for others even at the cost of themselves and obliges men to be incapable of caring for themselves? Or are we going to cease to be sad men and women and begin to degenerate the imposed attributions of gender?”

The caring strike, then. For it is not only men, or capital and the various human forms it takes (bankers, presidents, police officers), who dream of kingdoms. Like all exhausted people, precarious workers imagine utopias of rest.     

 

 

 

What would it mean to love as a Communist? To love as a comrade?

proletariat of the world who will wash your socks?

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This is a modified excerpt from a forthcoming publication of a roundtable discussion with Jules Joanne Gleeson, Andrew Culp, and myself. The full transcript can be found here.

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We must remember that only a code of sexual morality that is in harmony with the problems of the working class can serve as an important weapon in strengthening the working class’s fighting position. The experience of history teaches us that much. What can stop us using this weapon in the interests of the working class, who are fighting for a communist system and for new relationships between the sexes that are deeper and more joyful?

– Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle’ (1921)

One of the key contributions of Marxist Feminism has been the development of a theoretical framework that affords us new ways of conceiving and understanding the relationship between work and sex, and how their relationship bears on the possibilities for love; and all on the basis of how it has been able to deepen the specificity of what exactly a communist politics promises and entails. The example that immediately comes to mind here is Silvia Federici’s seminal essay,  ‘Wages Against Housework.’ It is in this essay where Federici makes a comment that appears as nothing but a passing remark; a statement that is less a materialist description and more a declaration regarding just what exactly is entailed and implicitly asserted in the project of bringing about a communist future. And so, in the course of her analysis, Federici writes: ‘[W]e want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known.’ Given Federici’s insight, and inquiring into the the opportunities afforded to us by Marxist Feminism, we could begin by attempting to understand the precise sense in which Federici makes this remark. In other words, is it the case that Federici is implicitly arguing for a view that seeks out the meaning and social relations of love, intimacy, and familial bonds, insofar as they are stripped of their determinations by the social relations of Capital?

However, my suspicion is that the question with which Federici is occupied is one that is as difficult and profound as it is simple and concise: What would it mean to love as a communist? To love like a comrade, or to love as someone who is in solidarity while simultaneously as someone who loves within a romantic partnership? And finally, what are the modes of loving, both ourselves and others, that are made possible only by virtue of communism? This is to inquire into the possibility of an image of communism as one that is irreducible to its being the solution to the riddle of history. So, if what is implied by Federici’s remark is that communism is the historical condition upon which questions of love and sexuality can be posed, in its most profound and meaningful manner, then what is potentially discovered within the tradition of Marxist Feminism more generally is a vision of communism as something more than historical resolutions; a communism that was to be the very condition through which the meaning and function of love no longer derives its sense or value through its participation in a time no longer defined as that of labour or of leisure.

And so, regarding the connection between love and the form of time adequate to it, and with respect to Federici’s insistence on the political necessity of maintaining a clear separation of the time of work from that of sex/love/life, we catch a glimpse of how this Marxist Feminist analysis of the relationship between production and reproduction are immediately related to Marx’s own position on the differing forms of time proper to capitalism and communism.  For example, Marx makes a relevant observation in the Grundrisse when he writes that: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time‘ (Grundrisse, tr. Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, 708). This disposable-time that is said to be the true measure of the wealth produced under communism; this time with which we can do as we please and that structures one’s life as a life defined by this form of time that can only be attributed to communism; this time, then, is the form of time that not only corresponds to Federici’s separation of sex from work but does so in a way that moves beyond the brute opposition of labour-time vs. leisure-time (which is simply unwaged time put in the service of reproducing labour-power). In this way, one would be able to see how disposable-time is the form of time adequate to communism; adequate because it is only through disposable-time that society’s negotiation of the questions/problems/experiences of love and sexuality can be determined in a specifically communist manner (and communist because disposable-time is a form of time the existence of which necessarily implies the abolition of any notion of time as the measure of value). It is in this way that we can say that disposable-time is a properly communist time since in its abolition of life organized according waged and un-waged activity it also creates and organizes social life according to the time it would take for everyone to rediscovery what love can be independent of the obligations to satisfy either waged or unwaged labour, and would allow for, as Federici yearns for, the creation of sexualities we have never known. To put this in terms favored by someone like Dauvé: Disposable-time is the time of communism because ‘[T]ime is…the dimension of human liberation, providing the measure of time does not turn into measuring the world and us according to time.’ Disposable-time, then, is nothing but the measure of human liberation whereas the forms of time appropriate to capital are those which measure ourselves and the world against a standard that is, in essence, other-worldly and in-human. And so, to engage in class struggle is not simply to engage in a process of increasingly equitable distributions of the total surplus-value of capital. It also means to struggle against situations where our lives are measured according to capitalist Time instead of Time being measured according to the life of human societies and the world it requires for its self-reproduction. 

And yet… 

Problems immediately present themselves regarding the position I have just outlined since it is a reading that proposes Federici’s insights taken in connection with Marx’s comments on disposable-time as a form of time distinct from that of labour- or leisure-time, are important and useful for thinking through possible determinations or meanings regarding the content of expressions of love or sexual relations. However, my above comment is actually an account that responds more to the question of a life determined under communist social relations (i.e. what are some of  the material and symbolic effects of loving relations under a communist society?) and less to that of sexual lives and love lives formed in the midst of the real movement that abolishes both itself and the present state of affairs (i.e. what are the relations of love and care required for communism understood as the real, abolishing, movement?). And, perhaps to make matters worse, I feel myself almost guaranteed to fail at giving anything close to an adequate answer to configurations of sex and love that are contemporary with revolutionary struggle. However, on this question of love and sex in times of struggle, there are at least some examples from past cycles of struggle to which we can return to in light of these questions. And one example that immediately comes to mind is the phenomena that came to be known as ‘forest wives’ – which was a temporary social relation whose legitimate invocation pertained only to periods of revolutionary struggle, and particularly to the cis-male guerrilla fighters of the Hukbalahap, which served as the armed wing of the Partido Kommunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). The phenomena of ‘forest wives’ is relevant for us insofar as it presents an historical example of how a communist party and its armed wing embarked on devising explicitly communist solutions to the problems that guerrilla’s inevitably faced in the countryside and/or jungle (loneliness, alienation, sexual frustration, desire for intimacy with another person, etc.) n light of how best to integrate the desires of its guerrilla cadre: the Hukbalahap (the guerrilla army’s full name in Tagalog being ‘the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon,’ and in English translates as ‘the People’s Anti-Japanese Liberation Army’). 

In 1950, the party drafted a document with the title “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem” – and it is in this document that the PKP sought to consider the so-called ‘sex problem’ (in addition to questions surrounding marriage and family structures) as they were objectively determined by the requirements of an ongoing guerrilla struggle against the Japanese and then later against the United States. Thus, in an effort to begin  to think through the relations of sex and love afforded by communism understood as a collective and abolitionist struggle, I would turn our attention to the work of Vina A. Lanzona’s, and particularly her significant text, Amazons of the Huk Rebellion. It is here that Lanzona’s historical research into how questions of sex and gender were treated by the PKP and Huk guerrillas demonstrates at least one possible approach of what sex and love mean in a time of resistance and/or struggle. As Lanzona shows, it was clear that the PKP viewed problems of sex and family life as primarily social in nature as opposed to individual or personal matters. And it is for this reason that the party sought out explicitly social solutions instead of viewing these as the problems that plague bourgeois sentimentalism regarding the betrayal caused by desire and/or private, as opposed to public, matters of the heart:

The policy set out in this document permitted married male guerrillas to have extramarital relationships with single female cadres as long as they followed strict regulations. Claiming “biological necessity,” the frustrated male cadre could present his problem to his superiors and…[A]fter an unofficial review he would be allowed to take a forest wife as long as both his legal and forest wives were aware of the arrangement and he agreed to settle down with only one woman at the end of the struggle […] In their efforts to negotiate relationships between male and female members, party officials moved issues of sex and family from the private to the public realm, weighing the “private” interests and desires of individual cadres in relation to the collective interests of the…movement…personal matters that had once been negotiated solely by individual men and women were now discussed and regulated by the revolutionary movement. (Amazons of the Huk Rebellion, 13-14)

What is evident in the PKP’s solution to the ‘sex problem’ is its inability to (i) critically distance itself from conflating sex with gender and (ii) its ignorance to the way in which sex is labour, and therefore leisure-time is nothing other than unwaged labour-time that acts as another constraint, historically considered, on the material lives of women under capitalist social relations. Such is a position taken by Jeff Goodwin in his essay on the libidinal-economy of the Huk Rebellion. As Goodwin writes, it would turn out to be the case that the PKP’s official response in legitimizing of relations between cis-male guerrilla fighters and their ‘forest wife’ counterparts culminated in a situation whereby the very ‘affectual ties’ outlined by the party ultimately  ‘eroded the solidarity of this…movement. The libidinal constitution (i.e., the structure and “economy” of the affectual ties) of the Huk movement’s [sic] predominantly male activists…undermined their collective identity and discipline’ (Goodwin, 53). However, despite these blind spots the significant contribution we are forced to acknowledge and as outlined in the “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem” is the attempt made at resolving problems that arise within relations of sex and love from a decidedly materialist standpoint. Materialist, because despite its shortcomings the PKP occupied the position that began from the admission that both the essence of, and material basis for, problems arising within relations of sex and love are products of a process that is equally historical and material. In other words, the problems posed by sex and love are fundamentally social and not individual because the social relations that govern how we have sex and love ourselves/others are determined, in the last instance, by the fact that the social relations of capital are simultaneously gendered. 

All of this to qualify my initial answer in order to make the following clear: if what we understand by communism is the real movement of abolition, and if what we are asking when we inquire into what communism makes possible for the life of desire, then the example of the PKP’s ‘revolutionary solution’ to the so called ‘sex problem’ is important. And equally with respect to the PKP’s framework which lead it to understand that it is of the nature of problems to be social and political prior to being private and individual; additionally, it was due to the PKP’s understanding of the lasting effects of colonization (Spain) and imperialism (United States) that their framework implicitly asserted the claim that problems are generated out of historical and material processes and produce specific gendered social relations that also function as what determines the particular problems of sex, love, and family life for all individuals under the gendered social relations constituted by, and constitutive of, a life lived according to the dictates of capital’s raison d’être (i.e., the development ad infinitum of both the means and relations of production placed at the service of satisfying the obsession that lies at the heart of capital’s logical self-development: the continuation of primitive accumulation and unemployment as guarantees for the existence of a global reserve army of labour as well as the existence of lucrative nation-states for the realization of value and therefore a guarantee for one more revolution around the globe for value-creation). In other words, if anything is to be taken from the PKP’s “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem”, it is more historical than practically useful. And it’s historical significance lies in the fact of this party document that renders coherent the relationship between sex, love, and family life vìs-a-vìs what is required by a period of struggle and whose grounds and conclusions presage what would come to define the values and discoveries made by the second wave (white-European) of feminist movement. The significance of this attempt at actualizing a revolutionary solution the sex problem is in its having avoided, in theory and as early as 1950, prioritizing the false problems/debates that would arise and that would lead some elements of the Left to view questions regarding ‘identities’ (and specifically gender and sexual identity) as having nothing but a divisive consequence for the overall unity of the proletariat as the agent that determines the outcomes of the real and abolishing movement against the present. 

In the end, the PKP’s missed opportunity remains painful since its failure to remain faithful to an intersectional analysis translated into its failure to realize what is revealed as common to the nexus of sex, gender, and communism: Abolition. So to bring this rambling comment to a close, and from within the present conjuncture, it is only by relating communism to notions of sex, love, and gender through the category of abolition that the questions of ‘What it would mean to love as a communist?’ and ‘To love as a comrade?’ move beyond the limitations of the PKP as well as forecloses any possible legitimacy of positions supported by TERFs when speaking of communist politics. And since Jules has already articulated how abolition serves as the vanishing mediator between communism and questions of sex, love, and gender I will simply end with what her own words towards the end of an essay entitled ‘The Call for Gender Abolition: From Materialist Lesbianism to Gay Communism‘:

Trans womanhood in this respect constitutes womanhood existing in its own right, and against the wishes of a considerable body accustomed to the prevailing heterosexual order. Politically, this can be a point of pride. Our inability to bear children is cited by traditionalists and radical feminist ‘abolitionists’ alike as grounds to disqualify us from womanhood, demonstrating at once the fixing and fragility of womanhood as a sex class. For as long as women remain often defined by their relationship to biological reproduction, trans women can only be considered inadequate imitations. Abolishing womanhood, as defined by Wittig, could be furthered by inclusion of trans women in that category as currently constituted. If co-existence can not be achieved, abolition is inevitable. This struggle will surely be a refiguring and visceral one, challenging and overcoming arbitrary demarcations in embodiment through diverse and unrelenting means (surfacing in hospitals, street corners and bed rooms). In reclaiming this abolitionary drive towards unchecked expressiveness, revolutionary trans feminism has much to learn from the gay communist and materialist lesbian traditions.