The Reality Of Destitution is the Destitution of Reality: Notes for a Genealogy of Destituent Power

(trans. There are no people. There are only classes. Fuck the bourgeoisie!)

[[ What follows is a draft of a longer essay yet to be written on the genealogy of destituent power covering Bataille, Blanchot, and Tronti, as well as Agamben and the Invisible Committee ]]

During the 1970s, in Europe, a disenchanted but not hopeless generation came to the fore to lay claim to the political not as an autonomous and totalitarian sphere, but as an ethical community of singularities; history not as linear continuity, but a history whose realization has been deferred too long; not work as economically finalized toward the production of commodities, but an inoperativity deprived of end [priva di scopi] and yet not unproductive. (Giorgio Agamben)

Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things. (Invisible Committee)

What becomes of communism if it is said to be “the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things?” Does the substitution of “destitution” for “abolition” signal a principled divergence from the vision of communism found in those pages of the German Ideology and as intended by Marx and Engels? Or does this destituent movement mark a progressive refinement in light of the failures of historical communism and its various workers movements? As the above epigraphs already suggest, any beginnings of an answer to such questions can be found in the works of Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee; both of whom have perhaps gone farthest in reconceiving communism via the category of destituent power (or destituent gestures). With respect to Agamben, and as Jason E. Smith has already noted, when one reads Agamben’s more recent political writings alongside his 1993 text, ‘Form-of-Life,’ what becomes clear is that through his reworking of the set of ideas that came out of the workerist tradition, he is led to view society/social relations as asymmetric and antagonistic to the community that is the content of a form-of-life:

The workerist and post-workerist traditions understand the concept of antagonism in terms of the dynamic of capitalist social relations. This conflictual and asymmetric relation between living and dead labour is one in which living labour is always ‘primary,’…whose resistance to that form of capture drives capitalist development itself…Agamben’s rewriting of this scenario situates the antagonism less within the dynamics of capitalist production than within the relation between ‘massive inscription of social knowledge in productive processes’, on the one hand, and ‘intellectuality as antagonist potentiality and form-of-life’ on the other…Communist is the enemy of the social, that is, the objective or factual partitioning of society into classes…To the divisions of society Agamben opposes the multitude of community. The overcoming of capitalist society assumes the name not of socialism but of community: communism. (Smith, ‘Form-of-Life and Antagonism,’ 203)

It is for this reason, then, that Agamben goes onto reformulate the anti-work thesis of operaismo and autonomia as follows: “If the fundamental ontological question today is not work but inoperativity…then the corresponding concept can no longer be that of ‘constituent power’ [potere constituente] but something that could be called ‘destituent power’ [potenza destituente]” (‘What is destituent power?’ 70). Now, with respect to the Invisible Committee, what must be said at the outset is that their reconceptualization of communism as the real movement of destituent power may appear especially deceptive to some and thus leading to fundamental misunderstandings; for what could such an invocation of destituent power mean other than their tacit affinity and agreement with Agamben’s equation of the communal content of forms-of-life and the realization of communism as such?

As will be demonstrated in what follows, nothing could be further from the truth (for the Committee’s usage of destituent power/gestures actually finds common ground with the very figure (operaismo) from which Agamben sought to distance himself). If the Committee privileges destituent, as opposed to constituent, power it is not due to destituent acts being the very means of arriving at the pure potentiality at the heart of forms-of-life (the ‘antagonistic potentiality of forms-of-life’). Rather, communism as the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things since to destitute the present means (i) affirming the rupture with the current state of affairs in order to (ii) organize it and make it ever more real to the point that the crises and social problems that Capital has long since covered over become the open and public secret of social life that must be directly confronted precisely because it can no longer be avoided. And unlike Agamben’s left-Heideggerian revision to the workerist and autonomia movements, it is with thinkers such as Guattari, or even with Marx and Engels themselves, that we discover that which inflects the Committee’s own theorization of communism as destituent process.

Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Existence to Prelapsarian Life

In the Summer and Fall of 2013, Giorgio Agamben delivered a series of lectures in central France and Athens under the heading, ‘What is destituent power?’ Now, despite the particularities to which Agamben was responding to in each lecture – the recent occupations and insurrections in Cairo, Istanbul, London, and New York (France); the necessity to think the end of democracy in the place of its birth (Athens) – what is consistent throughout is that, for Agamben, destituent power functions as a third term that is said to overcome the static opposition between constituent and constituted power (the former being counter-hegemonic practices and the latter being acts that defend or uphold the existing institutions of the state). And it is these series of lectures that mark a key development in Agamben’s overall thinking since destituent power appears as the means of realizing one of the central idea of his work as a whole: inoperativity, which is what Agamben discovers time and again, and regardless of the object of his analysis being that of theology, politics, or aesthetic and art practices. Whether it is with respect to St. Augustine’s reflections on the salvation of humanity where human nature is conceived as “blessed inactivity, which is neither doing nor not doing;” or Walter Benjamin who relates destituent power to Sorel’s proletarian general strike in his essay Critique of Violence; or regarding the relationship between poetry, communication, and language as such (“What is a poem…if not an operation taking place in language that consists in rendering inoperative, in deactivating its communicative and informative function, in order to open it to a new possible use?”); what is fundamentally at stake is how to conceive the reality of a form-of-life whose actions, when viewed from the vantage point of the existing order of things, cannot be understood as anything other than blessed/idle in essence, non-productive of value, and impractical for deliberation. However, the salient point here is that, for Agamben, these characteristics of idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity, are not understood to be products of history. Idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity are ontological facts of human existence; so much so that Agamben will go on to claim that it is precisely these attributes proper to the being of humanity that capital appropriates and exploits:

Human life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. And the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power. This is why feasting and idleness resurface continually in the dreams and political utopias of the West…They are the enigmatic relics which the economic-theological machine abandons on the shoreline of civilization; mankind returns to them wonderingly, but always uselessly and nostalgically. Nostalgically because they seem to contain something that clings jealously to the human essence; uselessly because in reality they are nothing more than the ashes of the immaterial, glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine during its inexorable, relentless rotation. (Agamben, ‘Art, Inactivity, Politics,’ 138.)

For Agamben, it is to humanity’s originary idleness/inoperativity that one must center in any engagement with the questions posed by politics. In other words, it is only by attending to what is allegedly ontological regarding humanity (originary inoperativity) that we can adequately determine how best to overcome the political fact of our alienation as imposed by history. Hence, says Agamben, the shape of the politics to come is not that of a struggle over the State or between counter-hegemonies and hegemonic forms. To the contrary, “the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity), that is, an irresolvable disjunction between whatever singularities and the state organization” (Means Without End, 88). Given such an analysis, one is led to the logical conclusion that the politics to come will be defined, not by its struggle with and over the State, but by the struggle between “humanity” (as the nonstate) and the State as various social forms of sovereign/governmental power, which pervert what we have always, originarily, been in truth: inoperative, idle, and therefore free.

However, confronted with a conclusion as bold as this (i.e. the coming politics begins by positing an originary idleness against history as a series of state-sponsored perversions of this essence) a few questions necessarily arise: Insofar as inoperativity and destituent power is said to be the essence of the being of humanity, does this not lead to an understanding of communist politics as a struggle between the ontological, on the one hand, and the historical and material, on the other? And to what extent does the notion of destituent power refer to what are allegedly the echoes of an ontological essence from which we have become estranged under capital? In any event, the crucial point to be emphasized is that what is operative behind such strong claims regarding the substance of humanity, is an equivocation between two conceptions of time: the time of eschatology and that of history. For it is this equivocation of eschatological and historical time that grounds Agamben’s understanding of inoperativity and destituent power as what is most essential to human being. And to make matters worse, one equivocation inevitably leads to another, but this time with respect to political analysis. For insofar as inoperativity/destituent power is said to be the originary substance of (human) being, the proletariat as the classical figure of revolutionary politics struggle is now nothing but a means of returning to our once innocent, unspoiled, prelapsarian life. In other words, for Agamben, politics is the price paid by humanity’s original sin of state-craft and the various, historical, forms of sovereign power, and each time realized as through a dispositif as its particular modes of capture: “The originary place of Western politics consists of an ex-ceptio, an inclusive exclusion of human life in the form of bare life. Consider the peculiarities of this operation: life is not in itself political, it is what must be excluded, and, at the same time, included by way of its exclusion. Life-that is, the Impolitical (l’Impolitico)-must be politicized through a complex operation that has the structure of an exception. The autonomy of the political is founded, in this sense, on a division, an articulation, and an exception of life. From the outset, Western politics is biopolitical” (‘What is a destituent power (or potentiality)?’ 65). That said, one may still wonder if we have been unfair with such a characterization of Agamben, for in his 2013 lectures Agamben goes on to provide further clarification to the way in which destituent power can be said to be the shape of politics to come; a politics made possible by virtue of

…living a life that a form-of-life can constitute itself as the inoperativity immanent in every life. The constitution of a form-of-life coincides…completely with the destitution of the social and biological conditions into which it finds itself thrown. The form-of-life is…the revocation of all factical vocations…It is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life…Inoperativity is not another work…it coincides completely and constitutively with their destitution, with a life. And this destitution is the coming politics. (‘What is a destituent power?’ 65)

A passage such as this merits our interest for at least two reasons. On the one hand, destituent power is now said to be something innately bound to, yet distinct from, humanity’s originary inoperativity. And while it remains the case that it is by destituent means that we are returned to our non-alienated inoperative living, Agamben qualifies this previous iteration with the inclusion of forms-of-life as that previously missing mediator capable of overcoming the dilemma of capital’s historical separation of humanity ontologically considered and alienated being, which takes the form of bare life. Now, says Agamben, destituent power is accessible only through this experience of living a life inseparable from its (communal) form: “the destitution of power and of its works is an arduous task, because it is first of all and only in a form-of-life that it can be carried out. Only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (Ibid, 72). That is to say, it only by means of a collectivity that it becomes possible for individuals to “return it [the human activity that is the substance of value production] to the potentiality from which it originates” (Ibid, 73). And on this account it would appear that destituent power is no longer simply the immediate recuperation of alienated human being and rather an always latent possibility of non-alienated living perpetually deferred and rendered increasingly impossible. Thus, and put it a more direct relation to the prior ontological formulations

Contemplation and inoperativity are…the metaphysical operators of anthropogenesis, which, freeing the living being from every biological or social destiny and from every predetermined task, renders it open for that particular absence of work that we are accustomed to calling ‘politics’ and ‘art.’ Politics and art are neither tasks nor simply ‘works’: they name…the dimension in which the linguistic and corporeal, material and immaterial, biological and social operations are made inoperative and contemplated as such. (Ibid, 74)

Significant in this account of destituent power is the fact that Agamben now appears capable of addressing the issue of how originary being and our future inoperativity can be said to have any relation (insofar as it is the history of sovereign governmentality that has successfully functioned as that which perpetually obstructs our non-alienated living). That said, what is gained in logical consistency is simultaneously lost in terms of its concrete specificity. For while Agamen conceives of the destitution of capital as the process of transforming an overdetermined set of possible forms-of-life into an underdetermined set of possible forms, the potentiality that is (re)discovered through destituent processes cannot be attributed to human being alone; and whether considered ontologically, or historically and materially. Thus we are led to wonder, is a non-ontological conception of destituent power possible?

Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

According to the Invisible Committee, destituent acts or gestures are realized according to the fusion of the positive/creative logic of founding the conditions for an other world in which many worlds fit and the negative/destructive logic of ending, once and for all, the present world fashioned in the image and likeness of Capital. That is, destituent gestures abide by a logic where ‘the One divides into Two’ (“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture”). That is, destituent gestures create and destroy in one and the same act. Moreover, these collective gestures belong to that class of acts, which rely upon the temporality proper to social reproduction and are actualized in times of decision, which is to say, in times of crisis. And what is ultimately realized along the way; in the bringing about an end to this world; is an altogether different solution to the two fold problem of the estrangement of bodies and fragmentation of worlds. However, destituent power is said to resolve the issue of separated bodies and of the discontinuity that structures the possible worlds of every form-of-life not by rehabilitating some sense of ‘unity,’ conceived as the coming-into-being of a still underdetermined (though latently possible) counter-hegemony of the Left. To the contrary, destituent acts resolve the crisis of estrangement and fragmentation through the construction of a different organization of the ongoing fragmentation of forms-of-life and their worlds. “Here is the paradox, then: being constrained to unity undoes us, the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world. There is a certain mental position where this fact ceases to be perceived in a contradictory way. That is where we place ourselves” (Now, 46).

What, then, is intended in this redefinition of “the real movement” as a process that abides by a destituent (as opposed to an abolitionist) logic? According to the terms that determine a properly destituent political logic, the virtue of any struggle against the state and capital is to be found in the potential harbor within each action that suggests a future that has finally done away with everything that encourages us to “hate Monday’s” when it is capital that is the cause behind the whatever-object of our lamentations. That is to say, actualizing destituent power is to give material reality to the potential of establishing the distance between movements and established institutions, in order for the former to better desert, or flee, or take flight from, everything that is involved rendering vacuous the relation we maintain to ourselves, to those we call comrade, friend, or lover, and to the world insofar as it is made in the image and likeness of capital. That is to say, and as a fellow accomplice recently pointed out with respect to the situation of the gilets jaunes movement in France: “It is not the radicals who are making the movement, it is the movement that is radicalizing people.” So, unlike those collectivities which tend toward “constituent” or “constituted” power and situate their strategy within the dialectical relation of recognition/negotiation with the ruling authority (in the hopes of taking possession of the state), collectivities that abide by a destituent logic adhere to, and seek to actualize, the vital need to disengage and distance itself from the dialectical trap of constituent-constituted power. But what would this alleged other form of unity mean, when conceived as a collective ‘abandonment’ of the economy and ‘disengagement’ from the dialectic between constituent and constituent power? At the very least, says the Committee, it would mean the reformulation of the communist question itself; for the equivocation that began with Lenin regarding the terms “socialism” and “communism” has given rise to a more profound confusion whereby liberal economists, socialists, and Marxists all have agreed that the question with which we are confronted is nothing but “a question of management” (Ibid, 138).

To destitute or ‘abandon’ the economy, then, not only means acknowledging the illusory gains of constituent power in theory. To abandon the economy implies an organization of collective struggle founded upon the fact that “capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations” (Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, 107). Thus the need for an other mode of organization and struggle other than that of constituent power (a form of struggle, which poses the problem of the abolition of the present state of things as being a question of management); and precisely since:

Communism is not a “superior economic organization of society” but the destitution of the economy. Economy rests on a pair of fictions, therefore, that of society and that of the individual. Destituting it involves situating this false antinomy and bringing to light that which it means to cover up. (Now, 137)

Thus, it can be said that destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.” So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to cause the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” to appear in every day social reality, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect the whole of society. What is more, it is precisely through the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore mean, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat:

In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto)

Thus, we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem the Humanity from which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of proletarian development centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations. And it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization struggle takes when founded upon communist social relations that it comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue a decidedly anti-Agambenian statement as the following:

Only be means of this type of confusion did it become possible to imagine that a subject like “Humanity” could exist. Humanity – that is, all human beings, stripped of what weaves together their concrete situated existence, and gathered up phantasmally into one great something-or-other, nowhere to be found. By wiping out all the attachments that make up the specific texture of worlds, on the pretext of abolishing private ownership of the means of production, modern “communism” has effectively made a tabula rasa-of everything. That’s what happens to those who practice economy, even by criticizing it. (Now, 136-37)

For the Committee, then, such appeals are possible only insofar as one assumes that the lives of individuals are adequately defined in isolation for the attributes it comes to assume in the course of living; that is, insofar as one follows Agamben in confusing what is ontologically possible with what is actually an historical and material potentiality. At stake, then, in this debate regarding destituent power is the material possibility of directly appropriating the forces and relations of capitalist production. Moreover, and in contrast to Agamben’s understanding of destitution in relation to law upholding (constituted power) and law establishing violence (constituent power), the Committee conceives of destituent power as being ‘against the economy’ insofar as the question isn’t that of appropriating the means of production and rather poses the question of how to go about constructing the relations of social reproduction measured by something other than labour-time (or what is required for production). That is to say, for the Committee, what becomes evident is that given the present organization of global society vis-a-vis Capital, any politics geared toward the reappropriation of the forces of production will continue to fall short of abolishing the relations of production that organize and form daily life:

As we know-Trotsky pointed it out long ago in The Revolution Betrayed-the Russians have always imported their technology from the west; but since Khrushchev’s day, they have also taken their economic models from there too […] Obviously it will not be by importing models of desire…that the Soviet bureaucrats will escape the fundamental impasse they have got themselves into, with their endless Five-Year Plans of which absolutely everyone is sick to death. Not merely are they starting no institutionalizing process by importing prefabricated car factories, but by the same token they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism, a hierarchization of technological functions proper to a society based on individual profits, a split between research and industry, between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form. (Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’)

Destituent power, then, is a mode of collective struggle that prioritizes transforming the way in which individuals relate to the production process such that the distinction between labour-time and leisure-time is no longer that which structures and organizes everyday life. And it is for this reason that the Committee will claim the following:

The traditional revolutionary program involved a reclaiming of the world, an expropriation of the expropriators, a violent appropriation of that which is ours, but which we have been deprived of. But here’s the problem: capital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence…It has configured, equipped, and made desirable the ways of speaking, thinking, eating, working and vacationing, of obeying and rebelling, that suit its purpose. In doing so, it has reduced to very little the share of things in this world that one might want to reappropriate. Who would wish to reappropriate nuclear power plants, Amazon’s warehouses, the expressways, ad agencies, high-speed trains, Dassault, La Defense business complex, auditing firms, nanotechnologies, supermarkets and their poisonous merchandise?…What complicates the task for revolutionaries is that the old constituent gesture no longer works there either. With the result that the most desperate, the most determined to save it, have finally found the winning formula: in order to have done with capitalism, all we have to do is reappropriate money itself! (Now, 85)

To seek out the organization requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself” (ibid, 80); for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (ibid, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the time of labour and the time of “leisure.” As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves.” For the Committee, then, destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that are not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living; or what the Committee simply call “community:” Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Out need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation (Now, 133).

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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.