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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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.

Notes on Ciccariello-Maher’s ‘So Much the Worse for Whites’

las hilanderas - velazquez

If the face is in fact Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types, are racial: yellow man, black man, men in the second or third category…They must be Christianized, in other words, facialized. European racism as the white man’s claim…operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given places under given conditions, in a given ghetto, sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity (it’s a Jew, it’s an Arab, it’s a Negro, it’s a lunatic…). From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside.  There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 178)

      /1/. Between the Universal & the Particular: Politics
In his review of Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ George Ciccariello-Maher provides one of the clearest formulations of the seeming antinomy between the need to defend the rights and lives of exploited and oppressed social groups and the need to uphold the ideal of universalism that is so central to contemporary liberal-Democratic discourse. According to Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution was, ultimately, a truncated one insofar as it was a process of social transformation that culminated in pitting one part of the population (i.e. previously enslaved Africans) against another (i.e. previously slave-owning whites). However, as Ciccariello-Maher highlights:

For Buck-Morss, the rise of Dessalines, the slaughter of the whites, and the legislative uniformity of Haitian blackness all point in one direction: that of a simple inversion in which the last become the first but little else changes, yet another turn in the “recurring cycle of victim and aggressor. (Ciccariello-Maher, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ p. 30)

And with this it is said to have been demonstrated that the political process we call the Haitian Revolution was originally a revolutionary process whose content was truly universal and served the interests for all, but ultimately became a means for the previously enslaved populations to seek out a form of justice indistinguishable from revenge and by means of the physical retribution inflicted upon their white, formerly slave-owning, counterparts. By contrast, Ciccariello-Maher begins his analysis of Buck-Morss’ assertion of the existence of a betrayal at the very heart of the revolutions universal dimension with an altogether different set of questions. For Ciccariello-Maher, we would be wrong to begin by asking ‘Where did the revolution go wrong?’ or ‘Which actor or event marks the point of no return and the beginning of Dessalines betrayal to the revolution?’ Instead, we should begin any investigation into the universal aspects of the Haitian revolution by foregrounding the colonial situation: 

Why was it “the violent elimination of the whites” and not the prior elimination of various maroon and Vodou and other leaders that “signaled” a retreat from the universal? […] Buck-Morss reduces all identitarian opposition to brutality, which can only contribute to an interminable cycle of violence…As a result, she misreads the dialectical content of both Dessalines’ Manichaeism…and the universal blackness of all Haitians (as formulated in the 1805 Constitution). (Ciccariello-Maher, 28) 

Now, unlike Buck-Morss, Ciccariello-Maher finds Dessalines’ role in the revolution not only less problematic but also indicative of how the promises of Enlightenment universalism (universal humanity) are not obviated by the emphasis placed on particular identity groups within the context of political struggle. While Buck-Morss views Dessalines’ elimination of former slave-owners as the betrayal of the revolutions universalism, Ciccariello-Maher reads this emphasis on Dessalines identitarianism not only as an important pre-dialectical step in the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, but as containing a qualitatively different kind of universality than that espoused by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the European Enlightenment. For Ciccariello-Maher, the universality embodied by Toussaint L’Ouverture was a universalism that opposed any form of ‘racial identity that interfered with the establishment of formal equality in the here and now.’

In other words, Toussaint embodied a universalism whose content was a form of liberty and right that, when solidified into law, instantiated a new set of divisions and social relations within civil society. In place of the colonizer/colonized and slave-owner/slave relation, there would now be the relation between the public and the private,  the individual/collective, and the citizen and the non-citizen. If this type of universal emancipation remains insufficient for Ciccariello-Maher (as it did for Dessalines) it is insufficient for the very reason Marx gave regarding the distinction between political and human emancipation: the formal universalism of political emancipation only considers individuals in terms of their alienation from others and their social totality and thereby only grants them liberties and rights appropriate to their alienated existence as opposed to abolishing the conditions of alienation as such. As Marx wrote, 

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished. (‘On The Jewish Question’)

However, even if we accept the criticism of Toussaint’s shortcomings in the project of political emancipation, how is it that Ciccariello-Maher can claim that this as a false or empty universalism; a universalism that Toussaint supported, just as the French revolutionaries before him and just like Buck-Morss’ today? Ciccariello-Maher’s answer is two-fold. First, the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave remains a wholly idealist dialectic insofar as Hegel presupposes each individual in the relationship entering into the process for recognition on equal grounding. In an implicit reference to Fanon, Ciccariello-Maher remarks that insofar as we are concerned with understanding the historical development of revolutionary politics we cannot satisfy ourselves with this Hegelian presupposition because

if we see struggle as the necessary precondition for this recognition (Hegel), and if more importantly we see one-sided, pre-dialectical struggle as the necessary precondition for even this Hegelian struggle for recognition (Fanon), then our understanding of the temporal structure of the dialectic shifts accordingly. For Fanon, the ontological blockage of white supremacy creates a more immediate perspective that foregrounds identitarian struggle in the present. Despite his own yearning for the universal…Fanon finds identity repeatedly forced upon him, and his universal is deferred into the distant future. (Ciccariello-Maher, 33)

     /2/. Decolonization Is Not A Discourse on the Universal
So, against the empty formalism that posits humanity’s equality to itself as something that while being true in theory can now become true in our lived reality, Fanon’s critique of Hegel reasserts the non-identical and different material conditions definitive of colonizer and colonized as the real grounds for any dialectical progression toward mutual recognition. Thus, the formal or political emancipation promised by Enlightenment universalism is empty since it seeks to realize in the world that which was already discovered in theory: the (abstract) truth of a humanity that is equal to itself and thus allows no room for discrimination or privileging certain differences over others. As Ciccariello-Maher writes

Much like the avenging angel Dessalines, the colonized returns upon the colonizer the “same violence…which governed the ordering of the colonial world,” and as though rejecting reconciliation outright, Fanon insists that decolonization “does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way…To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector” (5-6). As though responding preemptively to Buck-Morss’ approach, Fanon insists that decolonization “is not a discourse on the universal,” with emphasis on both “discourse” and “universal”: there is no convincing the colonizer in words, much less in the flowery words of human love that even Fanon himself often uses. (Ibid.)

Second, if Enlightenment version of universalism is said to be empty and limited by its formal equality, it is because it amounts to an approach that only grasps the universal ‘by negating, rather than truly passing through and inhabiting, the particular.’ To be sure, this grasping at universality by negating all particularity, is precisely what was missed and thus constitutes the betrayal of the Haitian revolution insofar as individuals such as Dessalines maintained their identitarian positions. For example, if freedom is said to be universal, it is because it something available to all persons without qualification. Thus, to propose freedom in a qualified manner; to struggle for the freedom of a particular group; presents a problem within the schema of universality Buck-Morss’ seeks to defend, since any struggle for the freedom of slaves or colonized peoples manifest themselves as a violation of freedoms universality, where universality here means ‘free of all particulars’.

Moreover, as Ciccariello-Maher points out in a series of rhetorical questions, it’s historically inaccurate to characterize the politics of individuals such as Toussaint, Dessalines, and Fanon as ‘identitarian’ or as thinkers who are not attuned to the intricacies entailed by defending a specific political identity: “Was Dessalines blind to porosity when he baptized some Poles and Germans as “black”? Was Fanon blind to porosity when he suggested that “some black can be whiter than the whites”? And was not old Toussaint performing the same maneuver when he mobilized on the basis of the nation, and even more so when he reputedly told his troops “leave nothing white behind you” (Black Jacobins, 288)?” For Ciccariello-Maher, then, liberatory struggles waged in the name of the particular are attuned to what is ignored by the tradition of Hegelian universalism: namely, that the universal is never given in advance and one reaches the universal insofar as one retains a commitment to all that is particular in a given situation. And in this way Dessalines appears not as someone who betrays the universal but as the one who makes the first real attempt at its historical, material, and therefore real construction. And so, it comes as no surprise that one finds in his recent text the following claim:

“…colonization and enslavement are not processes in which individuals and groups simply bump haphazardly into one another. Rather, they denote the sort of specifically one-sided operations to which Hegel was characteristically blind, the utterly nonreciprocal oppression of those deemed not worthy of recognition…and from whom only work, land, or simply death is desired as a result…colonial difference indicates a more concrete and precise way of grasping those oppositions not visible to a traditional dialectics but whose appearance does not mark the impossibility of dialectics entirely.” (George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics)

Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.

The Girl With the Bomb, The Guardian of Dynamite: Notes on the politics of becoming-woman

poetical licence

Excerpt from a piece on D&G, gender, struggle, and communism as the ‘real movement’ of abolition

 

1. Identifying the Girl of Russian Terrorism

In the tenth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘1730: Becoming-intense, becoming-animal…’, one is presented with a sequence of memories drawn from such a diversity of individuals and conceptual-personae that the sequence itself appears to make very little sense if read as one single extended argument for Deleuze and Guattari’s particular understanding of becoming. In place of the expected rational demonstration of the being and function of becoming, what we encounter instead are the memories of a Spinozist, a theologian, a sorcerer, and a plan(e) maker, among others. However, buried near the middle of the chapter, in the section entitled ‘Memories of a Molecule‘, where we encounter a discussion on the role of becoming-woman and the figure of the (universal) girl as they relate to both becoming in general and becomings within the domain of politics and history, our authors briefly, though suggestively, pose the question of “[T]he special role of the girl in Russian terrorism: the girl with the bomb, the guardian of dynamite?[1]

While it is clear that, at least for Deleuze and Guattari, the girl of Russian terrorism played the role of the guardian of the bomb and of dynamite, what is not at all clear is the reason for why they attribute this special role to the girl in the first place. Is it simply a case of elevating what is particular (in this case to Russian history) in order to treat it as a general principle or maxim? And should it not strike us as strange that Deleuze and Guattari give any example at all–let alone that of the girl of Russian terrorism–since it would present what is tempting in the error of conflating becoming with imitation or role-play, and instead of employing the girl as the means of instituting a break with one’s present material conditions (and which one of us hasn’t encountered a situation where they start to desire, whether from desperation or insomniac exhaustion, a revival of the Red Army Faction or Red Brigades? Or succumb to the hallucination that abolishing capital can be achieved simply through replicating the structure and organization created by the Zapatistas or even the YPG?).

One possible interpretation would be to try and locate the reasons and causes that lead Deleuze and Guattari to attribute speciality to this ‘role of the girl in Russian terrorism’ wholly within the political movements and traditions of Russia itself. The temptation of this reading is that it’s method leads one directly to a rich and largely forgotten dimension of the individuals and organizations that helped pave the way for the atmosphere of the 1917 revolution. Proceeding in this manner, one immediately encounters women such as Maria Spiridonova:

On 16 January 1906 at the Borisoglebsk railroad station in Tambov province, 21-year-old Mariya Aleksandrovna Spiridonova, daughter of a non-hereditary noble and member of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, shot and fatally wounded provincial government councilor Gavriil Nikolaevich Luzhenovskiy, the security chief of the Borisoglebsk district as well as a leader of the Tambov branch of the right-wing Union of the Russian People. The Tambov SR committee had sentenced Luzhenovskiy to die “for his criminal flogging to death and excessive torturing of peasants during the agrarian and political dis- orders” of the autumn of 1905, as Spiridonova afterward explained in her deposition to Tambov court authorities. “In full agreement with this sentence and in full consciousness of my action,” she stated, “I took it on myself to carry out this sentence.”[2]

However, as an unintended consequence of this view is the very discovery that what was so special about the girl of Russian terrorism is the simultaneous neutralization of her haecceity. For if this quality only belongs to Russian terrorism between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, what are we to understand when Deleuze and Guattari write that they are “certain that molecular politics proceeds via the girl and the child”?[3]

Alternatively, one could read this ‘girl of Russian terrorism,’ and that function proper to her, as a function relative to the more general war-machine of which it is said. That is to say, the part played by this girl of Russian terrorism can also be found in struggles outside of the Russian context. Consequently, the special role would simply arise from the requirements of any struggle undertaken against the State. On this view, what is special about the girl exceeds the historical cases of armed struggle and direction action against a Tsarist State that one may find in Russia at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. What is special to the girl in Russian terrorism is only what allows her to institute becomings in the midst of overall capture by the State and its generalized stratification in accord with the universal axiom of capital (produce for the market). As Deleuze and Guattari put it, “The girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable term, man, woman, child, adult. It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is becoming-woman that produces the universal girl.”[4] 

The salient function proper to the girl of Russian terrorism, then, is the fact that she functions as that which maintains or initiates processes of destratification, deterritorialization, molecular becomings, and searches for what is potentially liberatory within lines of flight. Thus, it is true that the quality proper to this girl of Russian terrorism is a general feature of the kind of subjectivity defined as a war-machine; it is seen in every action taken by the war-machine and confront the (actual or virtual) State by means of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘the three virtues’: the impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible. If only to further emphasize the irreducibility of the girl’s significance with respect to the historical and material conditions at the turn of the century Russia, we turn our attention to another instance where we encounter, once more, this special role of the girl (but now as a literal instantiation of the girl as the guardian of explosives): the anti-colonial struggle undertaken by the Algerian National Liberation Front (F.L.N.).

2. When becoming-woman transforms into collective imperceptibility

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With the F.L.N., we encounter once again the phenomena of how girls with bombs act as partisans of an anti-colonial war-machine. In other words, if the girl of Russian terrorism effectuates a becoming-woman that is also at work in the context of the F.L.N.’s struggle against Algeria’s colonial occupation by France it is because becoming-woman is fundamentally an attribute belonging, not to any particular historico-political movement, but to the deterritorializing function of the war-machine wherever it takes hold. It is only by understanding how it is only in the presence of a war-machine that we may speak of becoming-woman as one of its constituent parts. It is in this way that we get a better sense as to why Deleuze and Guattari claim that the becomings that constitute political struggles against the State find ‘their necessary condition [in] the becoming-woman of the warrior, or his alliance with the girl, his contagion with her’; to understand why it is that ‘the man of war is inseparable from the Amazons.’[5] 

In scenes such as the one above, taken from Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo shows his audience how F.L.N. women succeed in infiltrating the French quartiers of Algiers–a task made especially difficult since these areas of the city were surveilled and protected by French police checks. Thus, this scene’s significance is due to its depiction of the necessary relationship between the girl-as-guardian-of-the-bomb and the war machine in itself. Now, regarding such scenes, Peter Matthews proposes one possible reading of this function of the young-girl:

The acid test of this comes in the unforgettable sequence where three Algerian women plant bombs at various crowded hangouts in the French quarter. Masquerading as loose-living Europeans, carrying mortality in a shopping basket, they would be sinister femmes fatales in another context…If we can accept the grievous necessity of these deaths, then we consent to everything. Pontecorvo has penetrated our Western self-absorption and let in the harsh light of reality.[6]

Now, aside from the fact that Matthews’ sentimentalism regarding the actions of the three Algerian women, his is a reaction that is of no use for understanding the relationship between gender, sex, and revolutionary struggle. It must be said, however, that what we find misleading in Matthews’ account of the FLN’s very own ‘femme fatales’ is the claim that affirming the violence enacted by the FLN means that we affirm a politics that ‘consents to everything’ by necessity. Allying with the FLN isn’t to consent to a situation where anything is permissible. Rather, the logic of the FLN war machine is precisely the logical steps colonized subjects must take since theirs is an intolerable situation. Thus, the “horror that we consent to everything” masks the fact that it is only by going to war that the colonized has any chance at liberation. More than some fear regarding the loss of morality in colonial contexts the reappearance of Russian terrorism’s jeuene-fille finds herself far from Russia and on African shores; here she runs and hides in the alleyways of the casbah in order to evade capture and continue the anti-colonial struggle.

But what is a becoming-woman in all of this? And the ‘special role’ of the girl related to the aims of the war machine? If it is the case, as D&G claim, that waging war is the best means of warding off state, then the function of becoming-woman is to aid the war machine in ensuring the non-existence, or abolition of, the State:

…just as Hobbes saw clearly that the State was against war, so war is against the State, and makes it impossible. It is should not be concluded that war is not a state of nature [an error that grounds Matthews’ fear], but rather that it is the mode of a social state that wards off and prevents the State.[7]

Unlike Matthews, D&G understand it as imperative, in the confrontation between the FLN and the colonial violence of France, to differentiate the actions of each from the other in order not to confuse or conflate both. Consequently, for D&G, this means that we lack any right/legitimacy in saying that only a state of nature exists (as implied by Matthews) between the war machine and the State since it’s a confrontation the nature of which ‘consents to everything’; a confrontation wherein the actions of both the FLN and France can only be treated as having equal ethico-political value. If the FLN constructed its own war-machine and correlating becoming-woman, it means, then, that the actions of the FLN and France are not only unequal, but fundamentally incommensurable. And as seen in the passage above, it is the State that seeks to prevent war while it is the war machine that seeks to prevent the existence of States. So… if the actions of the FLN and the State cannot be treated as equal, it is because their respective political projects involve the mutual exclusion of their opposite. And while it may be the case, objectively speaking, that the colonial context held open a number of possible resolutions to anti-colonial struggles (liberation, neo-colonialism, genocide), for the FLN liberation was always the only legitimate option.

 

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 277
[2] Boniece, ‘The “Shesterka” of 1905-06’
[3] ATP, p. 277

[4] Ibid.
[5] ATP, p. 278
[6] Matthews, ‘Bombs and Boomerangs’
[7] ATP, p. 357

On the End of History & the Death of Desire (Notes on Time and Negativity in Bataille’s ‘Lettre á X.’)

 

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To continue from our conclusions regarding the question of what it would mean to love as a communist, we begin from the idea that abolition is what necessary binds communism as real movement to problems encountered in the life of desire, of the heart, of the family. And one key consequence of this would be the following: if communism, as the real movement that abolishes both itself and the present state of things, is what allows us to truly pose questions pertaining to sex, love, and family life, then the political and the libidinal, which have been historically treated as two distinct phenomena, are now revealed as inseparable and necessarily bound to each other. Thus, and as we will see Bataille write in response to Kojève, ours is a time wherein Desire’s libidinal activity can no longer be thought of, and even more so understood, as independent of the economic ‘base’ of the capitalist mode of production. So, if last time we saw that questions of sex and love are revealed to be inherently socio-historical and not merely personal and private, then the very notion of desire is given a new, and hopefully truer, meaning. Moreover, this new understanding of the life of desire also brings about a shift in our theoretical and practical perspective – from a position that has been comfortable in thinking desire as solely belonging to pertaining to private (as opposed to public) life to a view that finds it impossible to think through problems of libidinal life independent of their socio-political and material determination.

Given this more nuanced position, however, we are still confronted by the following question: what is the nature of desire in both its libidinal and politico-economic determination? If it is said that, now, Desire’s proper place as the ‘base’ and not ‘superstructure’, what, then, does this mean about Desire and its subjects? What kind of subjectivity is as political as it is libidinal such that it is simultaneously constituted by, while expressing itself through, the very forces and relations of production? This is to ask, in another way, about the meaning of a desire that is inherently irreducible to fantasy, dreams, or the physical act of sex?

Bataille & Kojève: A Meeting At The End of History

What is the nature of a desire that is both sexual and political; a desire that is at once psychic and socio-historical? On way of approaching the question of the sexual/psychic and political/socio-historical features of desire is that of Bataille; and particularly his treatment of desire in ‘Lettre á X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel…’, a letter written to Kojeve in light of his seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Sorbonne. While Bataille’s letter does not treat the question of libidinal economy explicitly, he does take up the question of desire as it is linked to negativity, and what a desire with negativity at its heart would mean for the very notion of negation/negativity as such. And it is this treatment of desire’s inherent negativity that is instructive for our purposes since the abolition that binds communism to problems of sex, love, and gender is a relation that has negation at its center.:

In truth its no longer a matter of misfortune or life, only what has become of “negativity out of work”, if it is true that it does become something. I am there in the forms which it engenders, forms not at the outset in myself but in others. Most often negativity without power becomes the work of art…In what concerns me, the negativity which belongs to me didn’t give up work until that moment when there wasn’t any work: the negativity of a man who has nothing more to do, not that of a man who prefers to talk. But the fact – which seems incontestable – that a negativity turned away from action would express itself as work of art is no less charged with meaning given the possibilities remaining to me. It shows that negativity can be objectified […] the man of “negativity out of work”… He is in front of his own negativity as if before a wall. Whatever ill he suffers from this, our man knows that henceforth nothing can be avoided, for negativity has no issue. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 49) 

The task, then, is to see whether or not Bataille has good reason to posit a relation between desire, negativity, and the fact that to love as a communist means to love via the real movement of abolition.

The Economy of Abolition; The Economy of Desire

If Bataille shows that the problem of interpreting Hegel’s claim to an ‘end of history’ is not resolved with Kojève’s call for the ‘re-animalization of Man.’ Rather, if there is an ‘end of history’ it is a riddle solved in the attempt to delineate a different kind of negativity; one no longer tied to a notion of a productive activity that progressively attains its historical telos. Contra Kojeve, what the end of history forces us to think is a negativity no longer characterized as laborious. The negativity of desire, at the end of history, has exhausted itself of all productivity and is thus left with nothing to do. As Bataille writes regarding this non-productive negativity of desire:  

If the act (the “doing of things”) is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question then arises as to whether the negativity of one who has “nothing more to do” disappears or is subsumed under “negativity out of work” [négativité sans emploi]. Personally I can only decide on the one sense, my own being exactly this “negativity out of work” (I could not define myself better). I wish Hegel had foreseen that possibility: at least didn’t he put it at the outcome of the process he described. I imagine that my life – or its miscarriage, better still, the open wound my life is – this alone constitutes the refutation of Hegel’s closed system. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 48)  

Desire as negativity without work is nothing but its unemployment. If the essence of desire is this unemployed negativity, then we are confronted with the paradox of imaging a desire whose particular products and effects are generated through non-productive means; a negativity that can only live and create by means other than that of a life lived according to the dictates of labor. But why does Bataille maintain that, at the end of history, Desire continues to be productive in spite of the fact that Desire can no longer continue to be the labor of negativity?

As the editors of Bataille’s letter helpfully clarify: “Bataille thinks this question [negativity] through by discussing what he terms expenditure. Expenditure may be either productive…or unproductive [and] … it is to this second sense of expenditure that Bataille reserves the term ‘expenditure’ sans phrase” (‘Lettre á X.,’ 47). It is for these reasons that Bataille will maintain that the end of history force’s Desire to undergo a substantial transformation: the labor of the negative, and this negativity as productive activity, do not persist at history’s end (and for Bataille this also means that if the labor of the negative was the motor of desire it was only because of historical and contingent factors). At the end of History, humanity isn’t forced to re-naturalize itself into what is animal (a la Kojève). Rather, we are forced to find ways to live the new found life of negativity, obliged to live a life no longer tied to labor or productive activity. With Bataille, it is as if the fate of humanity was to eventually see itself in a new light; as if, history was simply the first act in humanity’s reckoning with itself as a negativity now unemployed; as if what is instantiated is a form of subjectivity whose very possibility for existing is now constituted by the simple fact that it has ‘nothing more to do;’ at History’s end, then, the only thing we are left with is Time.

After History, Time

Now, with Bataille’s interpretation of the real and Subjective consequences brought about by the ‘end of History’ two things are clear. First, we are able to understand that there exists the persistence of negativity after History; even if negativity will persist in an altogether different form and be of a different nature. Second, and this is what will become important for this section, the unemployed negativity of desire may have been born at History’s closure but its life is lived in a world where there is ‘nothing but Time.’ So it seems that just as negativity persists after History, Time, too, continues on after History’s closure. Thus it is this question of the Time that emerges at the end of History that is at issue since, it is our intuition that the negativity of non-productive expenditure does not simply belong to a world where there is nothing but Time. What is more, this negativity will be said to have its own form of Time proper to itself (and the least we can say is that, for Bataille, Time and History are said to exist independent of each other, since it is the only way by which History can be resolved while Time presses onward). However, if these two consequences that follow from Bataille’s position are of any significance it is due to the fact that, when taken together, we begin to understand that the end of History doesn’t not mean the absolute exhaustion of Being and rather that Time and negativity persist beyond History (and we should add to this that they accomplish this only on the condition that they are constituted by a new relation, which determines and guarantees their mutual persistence).

Putting aside, for the moment, other possible consequences we may draw from the contents of this letter, we can at the very least say that the implicit but crucial thesis of Bataille’s letter is that of the ontological independence of Time and negativity from History. That is, if Time is said to be what determines non-productivity as the form Desire must take, it is only because the Desire, which comes at the end of History is the one that finds itself with “nothing left to do.” This persistence of negativity, that is to say, of Desire, is forced to confront itself by virtue of its post-Historical circumstance as a form of Desire that has at its disposal, and when aiming to secure its persistence after History post-Historical existence, nothing other than Time. To be sure, at the end of History Desire does in fact die even though it is made to be reborn in the persistence of this unemployed negativity.

And if we were to inquire deeper into just what exactly this time of unemployed negativity could be, we quickly finds ourselves returning to Marx; for it was Marx who already gave unemployed negativity a name when, in the Grundrisse, he spoke of disposable-time as a form of time that is irreducible to capital’s division between labor- and leisure-time (where the real difference is between waged and unwaged labor). Moreover, says Marx, disposable-time reveals itself to be the real meaning of wealth since it implies the development of the capacities, knowledges, and well-being of society as a whole: ‘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). And lastly, we saw that disposable-time as the time of communism also made possible attempted resolutions to questions/problems of sex, gender, and love since those relations can be created and recreated without the threat to the material- and/or social well-being of those involved. Loving takes time, or at the very least learning to love takes time and it is an education the temporality of which must be disposable. 

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.