A time of riots and oligarchs

By Alberto Toscano21.05.2014Global Policy

We trust in capitalism to solve the ills caused by the capitalist system. Does one need to say more to make clear why we still need communism?

One of the most jolting moments in Chris Marker’s alternatively melancholic and invigorating cinematic record of what he termed the “third world war” between 1967 and 1977 – “Le fond de l’air est rouge” – is an interview with a senior manager at Citroen. Pressed on the possible imposition of workers’ self-management, the technocrat wryly asserts that even come the revolution, his services will still be in demand. What would it be like to live in a time when even the avatars of order could envisage the possibility of a sea change in social relations?

Though the futurological reports of intelligence agencies (always seeing revolution on the horizon) and the intensifying militarization of riot police suggest that the doldrums of the radical Left may not be entirely justified or interminable, we certainly seem to be experiencing an extreme ebb in the popular imagination of consequent social change. Yet how could this be, when all around the world the velvet gloves of debt-fueled consumerism are coming off, revealing the iron fists of exploitation, privilege and repression?

An unfeasibly utopian demand

To begin to answer this question, we should abandon a certain historical common sense, whose resilience is no proof of truth. There is no automatic link between systemic crisis and anti-systemic contestation. Consequences such as passivity, reaction, and disorientation are just as likely, if not more so. The “red decade” that straddled the sixties and seventies burst in a period of relative buoyancy and heightened expectations and was eventually exhausted in conjunction with the first years of capitalism’s “long downturn”, whose effects still echo in our “great recession”. Similarly, the surge in “anti-globalization” protests in the late 1990s was not the subjective product of an objective crisis.

And yet our own time is also, to use an expression shared by the anthropologist Alain Bertho and the philosopher Alain Badiou, a “time of riots”, of concurrent outbursts of antagonism in the most far-flung locales, some of which segued into ongoing processes that some have deemed revolutionary. Is communism then the “idea” that could come to turn this pattern of insurgency into a truly coordinated opposition? And what might this idea entail for the actually existing European Left (understanding this term in its most generic sense)?

There’s not much need to belabor the point that most of what passes for the Left in today’s Europe – and this is hardly a recent phenomenon – merely represents the feeble wish to domesticate capital, to magically channel the increasing commodification, dispossession and exploitation of laborers and livelihoods towards collective betterment. As social democracy morphs, in the best-case scenario, into social liberalism, self-avowed communists are likely to take up more reformist demands. The Tsipras candidacy to the European Commission could be seen in this light, as the attempt to reinvent a kind of radical reformism. Yet what might be meant by reformism today, when the meaning of the classical dichotomies of twentieth-century anti-capitalism (reform or revolution, revolt or revolution) is no longer transparent?

We’re in a peculiar predicament: what some years ago may have appeared as reformist to a radical Left now looks like an unfeasibly utopian demand (public education, welfare provision, mildly redistributive taxation regimes, etc.). Part of the reason for that is quite concrete: notwithstanding its plunderous excesses, even if these were duly reined in, it’s not at all obvious that contemporary capitalism could provide the livelihoods we associate – depending on our nostalgias – with the postwar “welfare state” or with the (debt-fueled) “growth” of the nineties.

The distinction made half a century ago by the French radical thinker André Gorz – between reformist and non-reformist reforms, the latter posing a fundamental challenge to the rationality and reproduction of the social order – is perhaps losing its validity. Any actual reform starts looking non-reformist when – very much unlike in periods of capitalist growth and the “recuperation” of radicalism – “business as usual” demands unusual levels of intolerance and inflexibility.

As Marx quipped 170 years ago, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” Turning to the political sphere, the latter seems in short supply. And the labor movement is not in great shape either. But perhaps we need a perspectival shift.

What contemporary riots and revolts have made evident is that in its continuous effort to emancipate itself from the working class (as the Italian Marxist Mario Tronti once put it), capitalism is increasingly making the reproduction of work, of social relations, of human beings precarious. Proletarianization means less and less the creation of a laboring capacity and more and more the production of disposable people. Today’s communist activity – by which we can simply mean activity aimed at exercising control over social life on the basis of needs, rather than the “bottom line” of profitability – is increasingly to be found in struggles over social reproduction: occupying homes against eviction, impeding the closure of hospitals, defending (or rather trying to enact) the idea of public education, or, as we recently saw in Brazil, appropriating the means of transport.

Spaces in and against capitalism

Though inequality is the violent rule, in this time of riots, which also presents itself as a time of oligarchs, communism cannot be conceived simply as the assertion of equality – especially when our imagination of equality is constrained by liberal individualism or monetized notions of equivalence. And though its nineteenth-century emergence has bound it to the fate of industry, we cannot think of communism today as arising solely at the “point of production”. The enigma of the present is that increasing swathes of the planet find it increasingly difficult to reproduce themselves (their labor, their livelihood, their relations) under capitalism, and yet they can only reproduce themselves through capitalism.

That is why the harder crisis bites the more difficult it seems for some to think of any other life than this increasingly immiserated one. This is also why, when the condition of making surplus capital is to produce surplus populations, any talk of communism today needs to attend, with both intransigence and humility, to those practices of reappropriation and survival that are creating spaces in and against capitalism.

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