Tag Archives: communism

Salvage has a new article up that is being spread over FB. The article is by Alberto Toscano and focusses on the more or less forgotten Italian Marxist Franco Fortini. To continue my burst short and dirty posts I want to look at the Toscano’s gesture at a “communism without guarantees” and link it to Stoicism’s ethics.

A caveat: I am not a political theorist. I am not a politician. I am not even an activist any more. What I am is a worker whose job it is to never look away from suffering but to plunge directly into it.

The reason I draw attention his article is because of Toscano’s championing of Fortini’s conception of an ‘ephemeral and partisan’ Marxism. This isn’t the politics of accelerationist optimism or progressivist linearity so much undermined by our nihilist and/or pessimistic age. For Fortini Marxism was above all

a politics of unevenness, of a difference, an otherness, an antagonism that couldn’t be happily resolved, of ineliminable ‘anthropological’ dimensions of human suffering, of the tragic.

I suspect that for some the appeal to difference and otherness is already far too tiresome. We have moved into an era of Marxism obsessed with a subtractive generic humanity. For most people who read this blog- whatever your perverted reasons- I suspect this idea of otherness and difference will immediately seem not to go far enough. For this second group of readers the obsession circles around non-human animals, inorganic actants, ontological machines, a Great Outside. I don’t know how much group A and group B connect.

Regardless of how we parse this nothing of difference and otherness and whether we care much about antagonism or prefer acceleration there is a core insight in this quote that is absolutely indispensable: politics can only be based on an the ineliminable anthropological dimesions of human suffering. If we still believe in the functional capacities of ethico-political thought- and it is far from certain that we really do- then this has to be the underlying reason for doing so. Appeals to expropriation and to a fully automated luxury society are meaningless if they are not based on the promise of the eradication of the multiple forms of unnecessary suffering that continues to plague us. Of course this opens the problem of negative utilitarianism, although I’ll leave all that aside for now.

It does nothing to undermine the pleasure you might take in reading the full article if I jump to the end. The article concludes with Toscano invoking the idea that

the Marxist tradition can only be a tradition of discontinuity, of wagers and unevennesses – where our greatest allies may turn out not to be on ‘our’ side – and that communism can only perdure if it is a communism without guarantees.

This is a mature approach to politics. By that I mean that it rejects the childish insistence that there be clearly defined sides. Politics is not a morality play with good guys and bad guys. The world doesn’t fall into so neatly packaged categories. It is entirely possible that in the chaotic maelstrom of an ever increasingly complex nexus of causation that we cannot absolutely identify friends and enemies on the basis of the outcomes their actions or their putative intentions with any real confidence.

The insight from accelerationism that “the enemy” has all the tools and has mastered a kind of tactical and strategic competency that the left lacks is important. The angels of a purely prefigurative politics dance on the head of pin in a haystack the size of a galaxy. Their confidence in their methods and those of their allies, as well as in radical subjects like the trans or the working class, is hilariously idealist.

The truth is we don’t know how our actions will turn out. The complexity of a situation is too vast and reduces everything we do to a kind of gamble. This isn’t true only of political action, it is also true of any action we undertake in the world. It is that persist baseline level of hope that even the most ardent pessimist could never obliterate. As Cioran said, even breathing is a betrayal of pessimism’s absolute standard of disenchantment. We act and in acting we reveal a vanishing point of hope: we “hope for the best”.

Mark Fisher recently told me he thinks of me as a kind of anarcho-communist realist. To be honest I don’t know that I can lay claim to either “anarchism” or “communism” any more. But the idea of a leftist depressive realism appeals to me. A leftism that could accept the world as it is without protest. This doesn’t mean total resignation. It means adaptation to the complexity of the situation on the model of evolutionary adaptation to a given ecological niche. Of course part of human evolutionary success is our capacity to modify these niches. We aren’t resigned and don’t just accommodate ourselves.

This kind of leftism would understand that the world is what it is and is not. The left is pretty weak and it may be that every strategy is recuperable. If the left is to do anything, if it is to increase it’s capacity to act and thereby achieve any of its desired outcomes, it has to begin from the world as it is with an eye on the world that could be. I don’t mean this in the utopian sense. Instead I mean that the maximisation of capacity for efficacious action depends upon analysing a situation and discovering the affordances that exist in that situation. I suppose this is a call for a left pragmatism. Specifically it is a call for a left pragmatism that exploits any and all machines for maximizing the capacity for efficacious and effective action. Crucial to this is the development of normative and cognitive plasticity within recognisably leftist parameters.

I’m not sure if this would accelerationist or traditional Marxism. It might not even be Marxism. Only one thing would be certain: given that it’s fundamental orientation would be the elimination of unnecessary suffering it would view any tactical action that achieved that goal as a success. This is of course spatially and temporally scalable: a local victory doesn’t prevent catastrophic climate change.
I have said this politics might not even be Marxist. This is because I don’t locate its origination in the Marxist tradition whatsoever. For me it begins at the moment when Epictetus said that wisdom consists in knowing what is and isn’t under our control. It is possible that ultimately nothing is under our control- there is no free will whatsoever. That doesn’t mean there is no agency: it doesn’t stop the fact that collectivities nonetheless express causative potency. The goal is thus simply to maximize the left’s share of influence in the causative nexus. That is, the goal is to increase what is under our control.

So how does this tally with the idea of “a communism without guarantees”? It does so through the Stoic doctrine of the reserve clause. The Stoics knew that the world was messy, complex and that much of what we think of as under our control isn’t. They were also no strangers to politics, often to highly compromised politics. Marcus was Emperor of Rome, Seneca an advisor to another emperor, Epictetus a quietistic apologist for slavery. But none of that disqualifies us from exploiting what is useful to us in their work. What follows is a highly condensed version of the Stoics’ practical philosophy.

Whether we like it or not we must act in the world. The Stoics also had to act in the world despite having a doctrine of ethical indifference towards it. Externalities were considered as lacking value. Only the cultivation of wisdom through the development of a virtuous character held any value to the Stoics. They were focussed entirely towards the interior. And yet the recognised that they had to act in the world. They also recognised that they preferred not to suffer. There was no moral judgement made against suffering and no moral judgement made in favour of luxury, they just recognised that we tend to avoid suffering and seek out pleasure. The Stoic therefore had to guard himself against ruining his virtue whilst pursuing preferred externalities. To do so he would cultivate an attitude of indifference and fatalism to whether his actions succeeded or failed without going so far as to paralyse the possibility of acting at all. It is in this context that the reserve clause is deployed.

Marcus Aurelius writes that

That which holds the mastery within us, when it is in accordance with Nature, is so disposed towards what befalls, that it can always adapt itself with ease to what is possible and granted us. For it is wedded to no definite material, but in the pursuit of its aims it works with a “reserve clause”; it converts into material for itself any obstacle that it meets with, just as fire when it gets the mastery of what is thrown upon it. (Meditations, 4.1)

“That which holds the mastery within us” is reason. The reserve clause is thus what allows reason to adapt itself to any given situation. It is the kind of tactical reason that surveys obstacles in a given situation and without protest sets about assessing their value as affordances. Thus Marcus continues

Though a man may in some sort hinder my activity, yet on my own voluntary impulses and mental attitude no fetters can be put because of the “reserve clause” and their ability to adapt to circumstances. For everything that stands in the way of its activity is adapted and transmuted by the mind into furtherance of it, and that which is a check on this action is converted into a help to it, and that which is a hindrance in our path goes but to make it easier. (Meditations, 5.20)

As contemporary materialists we may not share this libertarian optimism regarding “voluntary impulses and mental attitudes” but even so we can recognize a kind of cognitive flexibility that refuses to dwell in paralysis or in reactive protestations that amount to impossible demands that the world not be what it is. The risk of the such demands is that one comes to see the world not as it is but as one’s in-group wishes it could be. It is this kind of perceptual error that resulted in the shock that took hold of the UK left following the General Election and which the left seems so prone to.

Many Stoics seem to talk as if this reserve clause amounted to a magical spell that made them invulnerable. Their psychic fortress become impregnable, no worldly disappointment or defeat could harm them. Of course this is itself a phantasy. But such a dream of invulnerability is only born from an acute awareness of just how vulnerable we are, and of how our every action is exposed to recuperation and corruption; to being ineffectual at best, and damaging at worst. A more sober version of the reserve clause is found in Seneca’s comment that

The wise man considers both sides: he knows how great is the power of errors, how uncertain human affairs are, how many obstacles there are to the success of plans. Without committing himself, he awaits the doubtful and capricious issue of events, and weighs certainty of purpose against uncertainty of result. Here also, however, he is protected by that reserve clause, without which he decides upon nothing, and begins nothing.

In a way this is a basic therapeutic insight. Stoicism has been used as the basis for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and REBT would go on to give rise to cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT is hated by the left. I am one of many people who have written critiques of its ideological noxiousness. And yet the core political issue with CBT is how it is deployed by certain interests for certain interests. The key insight of CBT remains useful and the therapy could easily be repurposed by an eclectic leftist psychotherapy. It boils down to a cognitive re-framing that eschews the “catastrophisation” in which every failure is total, and the cognitive rigidity in which everything short of revolution is useless reformism.

This approach is not without its problems. But it attempts to be clear-sighted in undertaking a map of the present and developing the ability to respond to the present. I don’t know whether this left stoicism is a workable idea philosophically, but I think the spirit of it is workable politically. In the end my orientation is simply one of getting through the day. The ambitions of a social revolution that would usher into a concrete utopia are pleasant dreams with which to torture ourselves. I prefer to remain with Marcus:

For me, the present is constantly the matter on which rational and social virtue exercises itself.

Anything else would seem delusional. But I’m not a political philosopher or a politician or even an activist any more. What would I know about it? I work in a field that is in the end a pragmatism lacking a theory. You’re depressed? Schizophrenic? A drug addict? We’ll try some shit and see what works. You may never be cured but you’re life might finally be liveable.

A: Proletkult

Can we be infrapunks, builders of tiny bits of a structure of another life?[1]

I. Living in Shadows

Last month I made the trip from Louisville to Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capitol, to attend an annual rally protesting the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. A coal industry favorite, this process of extraction involves the rapid deforestation of the landscape, followed by the blasting apart of the surface layer rocks, defined as “overburden,” which is then most commonly moved into an adjacent valley. The coal removal can now take place, with excavator digging deep pits into the truncated mountain; when this particular mine is fully emptied out, it becomes the dumping site for the next overburden removal. It continues like this, large paths of ruined forest snaking through the Appalachian mountain country.


The environmental and social impact is immense and negative. The process of blasting dumps pulverized rock, dirt, and chemicals into the air, blanketing any towns or property that happen to be near the mining site. The processes of deforestation and the dumping of overburden in the valleys, where streams and rivers make their way through the landscape, obstructs the functioning of the regional ecosystems. The streams that aren’t cut off fill with minerals and chemical run-offs; aquatic biodiversity collapses and the toxins find their ways into the water table. The rates of pulmonary disease, physical deformities and birth defects, cancer, and heart disease are skyrocketing amongst the local populations. The purpose of this entire process, coal, is shipped across the country and burned for energy; as the third most common energy source – and perhaps the dirtiest – it accounts for the majority of America’s c02 emissions. The machine eating away at the Appalachian Mountains, and the eco and social systems that inhabit these spaces, is plugged directly into what we call the Anthropocene.

Shivering the winter weather, the rally moved through downtown Frankfort, ending on the steps of the Capitol building where speakers, many from the devastated regions, analyzed the multilayered crisis this paradigm has ushered in. Their talks were militant: one speaker spoke in the plain, familiar language of the everyday about dismantling the state’s current power structure, embodied by a senator with a thirty year tenure in office and enough dark money paths to keep investigative journalists spinning in circles for ages.[2] She linked the reality of this dysfunctional representation to the environmental degradation triggered by strip mining, and connected this further to her own experiences and those of others in Kentucky’s Harlan Country, where the coal industry sucks up not only natural resources but regional job markets. Like so many other places across America, Harlan County – once the site of the legendary 1973 “Brookside Strike”[3] – is an experimental neoliberal laboratory for living suspended between a dying ecosystem and a collapsing economy. Another speaker followed a similar route, emphasizing the need in movement building to connect the disparate strands between a varieties of struggles: no isolation between the fights for racial justice and economic equality, between environmentalism and the crisis of governance. This is the truth of being on the left in age of the Anthropocene: there can be no radical struggle that doesn’t hold the ecological as the foundation of its horizon.

As the Situationists once said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s minds.”

How could such a required transformation take place? The career politicians have posed vague solutions such as carbon capture storage; attempts to legislate plans such of these, perversely, have produced incentives and tax breaks for coal extraction to continue.[4] Going wide view, the efforts of cap-and-trade, originally the brainchild of conservative bureaucrat C. Boyden Gray, have done little to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; other environmental regulations have amounted to little more than reshuffling the deck of cards without any long-term impact. For all intents and purposes there is no compatibility between the current global economic paradigm and living conscious of the Anthropocene.

Mike Davis, best known for his outstanding work on global poverty in The Planet of the Slums,[5] attempts to unify the questions of labor and ecology in a vision of the urban environment as the place to prototype sustainable futures. He draws our attention to the development of the postmodern metropolis through the anti-democratic regimes and investment luring, resulting not only in our ecologically unsustainable infrastructure, but also a rampant “growth of peripheral slums and informal employment, the privatization of public space, low-intensity warfare between police and subsistence criminals, and bunkering of the wealthy in sterilized historical centers or walled suburbs.”[6] The point he is stressing is that today, more than ever, the spatial is the political (or, as Metahaven would have it, the ‘personal is geopolitical’). In my home state this is illustrated by the fact that the parceling out of public infrastructure is part of the same machine as the crisis of representation in the capital, along with the corporations that profit, the coal they extract, they carbon they dump into the atmosphere, the think-tanks that whitewash the effects, the money spent lobbying to carve up more public space…

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Who’s afraid of ruins? Disaster Communism?

Jodi Dean points us to:

To speak of disaster communism is not to express a preference for a post-apocalyptic style. It is a sober realisation of the irreversible climate change which is being locked-in by present day development. Neither is it to claim that disasters are particularly fertile grounds for communist rupture. It is true that property relations do tend to break down in disasters (self-organised mutual aid is usually labelled ‘looting’), and contrary to sensational reports of war of all against all, mutual aid does tend to predominate. But it’s hard to claim devastation as a sufficient, or even desirable, basis for a communising insurrection. That’s the case even if it does draw class lines, and brings looters into conflict with the state (as with Hurricane Katrina), or provides space for self-organised disaster relief (as with Hurricane Sandy).

Rather, to speak of disaster communism is to recognise the Earth we inherit is one where the ice caps are melting, the glaciers are retreating, the sea levels are rising, the oceans are acidifying, food webs are collapsing, the rate of extinctions is growing, storms are getting stronger, flooding is becoming commonplace, and where agriculture will struggle to adapt to changing climate. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth is driving climate change. But even if it is overthrown, even if that happens soon, we’ll be living with the consequences for centuries, or even millennia. That is, if we’re living at all. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report notes dryly that “unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.”

Strange days indeed…

Happiness is a kind of madness
Look around you. Examine the world you live in. Give it a cursory glance. How could you not conclude that happiness is a delusional state? In the abstract to a 1992 paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, experimental psychologist Richard P Bentall put this idea on the table for real:

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant [1].

As Bentall explains in his Madness explained: psychosis and human nature, he intended to suggest that happiness was a psychiatric illness as a satire on the medical model that was, and continues to be, the dominant paradigm through which psychiatric practice is concieved, planned and organised. While Bentall intended this as a cutting spoof, a few media outlets and psychiatric journals took him at his word and cited it as evidence of the madness of psychiatry in its pursuit of relentless pathologisation, or painting scientific research as so completely detached from everyday life, so totally “ceased living in things”, as to be absurd. One newspaper even running the headline “Top Doc Talks Through Hat”. Bentall even uses his mocking article to bring the question of happiness into contact with political economic terms, coolly reporting that

Interestingly, despite all the uncertainty about the epidemiology of happiness, there is some evidence that it is unevenly distributed amongst the social classes…

Bentall’s cutting paper uses humour as a weapon to slash the pretentious throat of biological psychiatry’s classificatory system, a fetish that I’m sure has also been sardonically cited as evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, this piece isn’t primarily about psychiatry or taxonomic reductionism; this is part intended as a response to a post by anthropologist and synthentic_zer0 fellow traveller, Jeremy Trombley. In a post titled “Happiness and Struggle“, Jeremy raises some questions on the subject of the relations between happiness and struggle, hedonism and eudaimonia, before finally connecting happiness and “healthiness”. In what follows, I want to add to what Jeremy has written, and to examine some of what lurks beneath and beyond these questions.

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AUDIO: David Harvey ‘Seventeen Contradictions and The End of Capitalism’

In this lecture drawing on his new ‘Seventeen Contradictions and The End of Capitalism’ David Harvey will explore the way capital works, how systemic contradictions are socially and spatially constructed, and ask whether these contradictions and inequalities generate new political and cultural pathways beyond capitalism.

Over the last four decades David Harvey has illuminated a new geographical and cultural understanding of the way capitalism operates. Beyond his extraordinary scholarly contributions however perhaps what is equally remarkable is the public reach of his writing and teaching. David Harvey’s recent online lecture courses and interventions not only reassert the legacy of Marx’s theory, his work inspires something quite new – a spirit of autodidactism, organic learning and a sense that the public realm is a field of education and political optimism.

Noam Chomsky responds to a caller’s request for his thoughts on socialism, during a 2003 interview by Brian Lamb, for C-SPAN’s “In Depth” program. He describes how socialism was equated with the Leninist model of the Soviet Union by both the USA and its allies on the one hand, and the USSR and its allies on the other.

I agree with Chomsky that the term ‘socialism’ has been so warped and abused that it is now pretty much useless in the context of modern political discourse, especially among the less engaged citizens.

Full interview available: here

I also recommend the following video, where Chomsky further describes the double-sided anti-socialist propaganda (beginning @ 7:55): here

“They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?” 

— Friedrich Engles, On Authority