Keepsakes: a response to Ray Brassier

Keepsakes
– a response to Ray Brassier

This text is a response to Ray Brassier’s essay, Wandering Abstraction,1)Ray Brassier, ‘Wandering Abstraction’, Mute, 13 February 2014 http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wanderi…. written from one of the varied perspectives around the communisation problematic, as expressed in the journal Sic.2)‘Editorial’, Sic, International Journal for Communisation, No. 1, November 2011. http://sicjournal.org/en/editorial It does not intend to respond on behalf of Endnotes – the main target of his critique. Instead, its concern is to discuss certain premises of his text which, it is argued here, pose limits to the criticism of capitalist social relations.

 

The debate that has been raised with the ‘#Accelerate Manifesto’ around the modernist ideal of a rational, high-tech communist future,3)‘The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s “radical” left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action … Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery. This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment…’ Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, ‘#Accelerate Manifesto for and Accelerationist Politics’, Critical Legal Thinking, 14 May 2013, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accele…. and into which Ray Brassier has brought his discussion of Endnotes in his essay Wandering Abstraction, follows up on an old, perhaps hackneyed, debate within Marxism. On one side, we have a tradition of thought that begins with Marx’s own texts, in which the development of the productive forces, beyond a ‘senile’ capitalism that suffers from internal contradictions,4)While Marx rarely wrote of a rationally-planned economy and society, his writings left space for such an interpretation: if communism is the full development of the forces of production, and communism a more ‘advanced’ society, it could follow that what really overcomes capitalism is the technological development of productivity. Cf. Marx, Capital Vol. III, Chapter 15: ‘Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.’ provides the premise for the development of communism. From this, following Engels, sprang the notion of a rationally-planned, equitable economy and society, which still haunts the imagination of many a socialist or communist. On the other side, there is the tradition of the European Ultraleft, and of post-1969 critiques of work, productivism, and of the transition period, from which theories of communisation and Endnotes themselves descend.

The differences between the two perspectives are conspicuous, yet Brassier attempts to bring them to bear upon each other on a question of the relationship between knowledge and social form, which for him relates to communist theory’s traction upon class antagonism. It is the question of the ‘articulation of cognitive abstraction with social abstraction’, and

what exactly distinguishes ‘good’, i.e. cognitively virtuous and politically emancipatory abstraction, from ‘bad’, i.e. cognitively deficient and politically reactionary abstraction. How do the abstract categories of the Marxist dialectic – capital, labour, value-form, commodity, circulation, production, etc. – succeed or fail to map contemporary social reality when deployed in competing (and often politically antagonistic) explanations? What theory is fit to recognise ‘the real movement abolishing the present state of things’ in conditions of real subsumption?

The relationship between cognitive abstraction (knowledge) and social (or real) abstraction indeed concerns the ability to critique both capitalism and our own practice in struggles and everyday life. If the production of knowledge is determined by capitalist social forms, how far does this social determination go, and how is critique possible? Indeed, this is a problem that emerges quite glaringly if the social domination of capital is articulated as the subsumption of all social life under capital’s logic, as the ‘logicisation of social reality’, which tends to hypostatise social form. However, I want to show that, in following Endnotes’ line of thought and attempting to bring it to bear upon Accelerationism, Brassier commits a slippage. While recognising that it is practice which produces social abstraction, his discussion of cognition and theory identifies the question of how we can know which practices abolish existing social abstractions, but, as we will see, leaves out that of the transformation of cognition by revolutionary practice. As a result, the question of the validity of theory becomes one of not only distinguishing ‘good’ theoretical abstractions but also of distinguishing ‘between progressive and regressive social forms’. While communist theory, however, as the self-critique in the process of struggles, is tasked with criticising the oppressive practices the struggles themselves might produce, it is not meaningful for it to classify in this way existing social forms or ‘forms of mediation’.

The problem with this approach is that it posits a single decision-making subject (the subject of theory), and reduces the concept of social form to discrete elements that can be identified and separated from one another in capitalist society. First, it affirms the possibility of a theoretical decision by a uniform ‘we’ that predates a revolutionary moment, and in doing so it pre-empts the multiplicity of desires and conflicts that are unleashed in struggles, reducing them into decision-making to be carried out today (usually by intellectuals like us) as representative of a non-existent universal humanity. In being reductive of such a multiplicity, this is also a pre-emptive act of power in defining that humanity. The knowledge that provides answers to questions of mediation – how we want to live and relate to one another – cannot but be mediated by the struggles that transform the very meaning of the human, creating the very possibility of producing meaningful and practicable answers to such questions. Second, as will become clearer later in the text, this identification of the ‘progressive’ social form reduces critical thought to having to locate a hidden emancipatory element in the present, which must be preserved against what would otherwise be, it is argued, an ‘indeterminate negation’. The defence of antivirals that then appears towards the end of Brassier’s text, while appearing slightly disconnected from the preceding discussion, is not an accident but sheds light on what he has in mind when he speaks of emancipatory forms of mediation.

This project of locating emancipatory elements in the present is not merely an attempt to find something from which to begin, but is founded on the progressivism that has hampered Marxist thought for over a century. The warnings against ‘the repudiation of modernity’ and ‘cancelling the emancipatory potentials latent in technologies’ can be seen as attached to a conservative interpretation of the Hegelian concept of aufhebung.5)This argument is not interested in debating the correct interpretation of Hegel, but instead it targets the manner in which Hegelian concepts have often been used in Marxist theory. The point of criticism is the use of a specific philosophy of history to make an argument about how communist theory and practice ought to proceed: the supposition that because this ‘positive element’ must exist, theory is obliged to find it and promote its preservation. This is the idea that the overcoming of capitalism is not a total transformation, a negation of everything that exists so that something new might emerge, which will, inevitably, contain radically altered elements of the old world; rather, this overcoming must necessarily leave intact the ‘progressive’ elements latent within capitalism, because it is those elements that point towards its overcoming. Despite Marx’s best insights on historical determination only being applicable retrospectively,6)‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society.’ Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105. this approach wishes to locate the future in the present instead of producing it from the premises of the present. In this case, technology, science and reason are identified as the elements containing that potential for future emancipation, established by the argument that there must be some possibility of critical knowledge within capitalism, or else there is no possibility of an overcoming.

If we argue that such a ‘positive element’ or progressive force of capitalism is nowhere to be found, we do away with a supposedly unquestionable historical mechanic of an overcoming, not its possibility. We open the way for a criticism of all those elements of capitalism, hereto seen as objects of liberation, through to their very core. The ‘forces of production’, capitalism’s accelerating force, and even that ‘rationality’, are no longer to be seen as something good that has become ‘perverted’ but are to be critiqued as such. If the abolition of capitalism is possible, our questions are now forced to go beyond a defensive philosophy of history. We have to produce theory based on the struggles that take place today, when the notion of communism as progress has lost all social validity. The failure of past revolutions, the decline of the workers’ movement, the failure of social movements to make any significant gains in the past 40 years that would add up to a unifying ‘dynamic’ have killed off any delusion that history is on the side of proletarians. History has to be produced, everything has to be reconsidered.

This critique cannot be complete, cannot overcome the limitations of social determination, if it is merely theoretical. It is only when theory attempts to achieve a transhistorical objectivity beyond the limitations imposed on its vision by its social and historical determination and positionality that it has to provide proof of that objectivity. Brassier indeed identifies a problem in the lack of reflexivity implied in the statement that theory just ‘is’ the self-critique of struggles. Every theory takes a specific stance within struggles; the problem begins if this stance is elevated to a universal, ahistorical claim that ignores the knowledge produced by the historical process of impasses and conflicts within struggles and its own specific historical context. And it is particularly in this historical moment that the dialectic between theory and practice becomes a problem instead of an answer: revolutionary theories and projects can only with great difficulty avoid being gestural, because of the long-standing disintegration of traditional organisational forms in which intellectuals had previously played a decisive role. In this context, the question is how to discover the limits faced and possibilities produced in existing struggles, which are central to an analysis of the capital relation in this period. In doing so, we inevitably attempt to construct ways in which these struggles might begin to negate this world despite the enormous difficulty of maintaining such a perspective without descending into pure ideology. We then see struggles facing a state that no longer integrates demands (except if they concern policing immigration and sending women back to their ‘proper places’).7)Of course, the state never integrated all social demands, but it is worth making the historical comparison with the period and model of accumulation called ‘Keynesian’, ‘Fordist’ or ‘Social-Democratic’ to recognise the enormous difference between that social contract (wages-productivity deal) and the present one.Demands appealing to bourgeois ideals such as ‘we are citizens’; ‘we are hard working’; ‘we are also human’ confront a state whose main concern is to police and silence (if not kill) proletarians who are treated as an inessential appendage to capitalist reproduction. While these struggles can end with the empowerment of the most reactionary types of demands, we can sometimes also identify forms of (temporary) negation, which are usually blamed for being more destructive than they are ‘socially constructive’, for they tend to question (for example, by looting and rioting, but also by articulately defending their actions) oppressive forms of sociality implied by such bourgeois concepts and institutions as civil society, the nation, the community of citizens, rights and responsibilities, lawful political conduct and commodity exchange, as the weapons of state and bourgeois power in capitalist society.8)The uprising in both West and East Ukraine might be presented as an example here: rioting, and even war, against the state did not entail a critique of the state; in fact, the rebels themselves became the state, imposing wage and pension cuts and shooting down protesters (see http://libcom.org/news/social-protest-repression-donbass-19102014). Indeed, these purely negative moments referred to here might be the exception in today’s struggles, but it is a powerful and recurring exception. This criticism is negative (reaching levels of suicidalness) because the positivity of ‘communist society’ is today an unknown, the narrative that once led to it is defunct, and all we have is a limited criticism of the present through the practices of a fragmented proletariat with no ambition to unify or take power and manage anything at all. This criticism produces conflicts within struggles that seem insurmountable.9)Consider, for example, the intergenerational conflict that has emerged in the struggle in Ferguson. See R.L., ‘Intextinguishable Fire, Ferguson and Beyond’, Mute, 17 November 2014. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/inextin…. But this lack of unity and of a future is fully material, and not an ideological falsity that can be cognitively defeated. Theory cannot presume a decision-making revolutionary unity, because the latter can only begin to be produced in the process of abolishing the social divisions that fragment it.

The very premises of the question of categorising ‘oppressive’ and ‘emancipatory’ social forms and mediations are then mistaken. The question should instead become one of how objective and subjective relations and forms of being can transform and become other than, beyond, capitalist. This is a question of the process of a radical criticism of the present and of the possibility of overcoming the limits of who we are. It conceives of transformation through struggles and internal conflicts within them; not via the classification of the stuff of this world outside of the process that transforms it, and certainly not through looking in advance for something to preserve.

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The question is also posed in another way in Brassier’s text. In agreement with Endnotes, he criticises Camatte’s notion of the subsumption of life and subjectivity under capital, which leads the latter to propose an exit into a ‘genuine’ human community as the only way of dealing with a totalising capital. He pushes Endnotes on one point: subsumption does not mean that capital’s logicisation subsumes all of social activity, but only labour.

Thus capital’s logicisation of reality is itself conditioned by that reality; this is the bulwark against absolute idealism, which would hypostatise capital as a wholly autonomous, self-moving subject (a causa sui or self-causing being) floating free of material reality altogether

Indeed, there are valid grounds for this criticism of Camatte, as well as for the warning against formulations that overstate capital’s ability to give reality a conceptual form. The latter would entail the mystifying reduction of transformative practice to a notion of an impossible struggle against concepts (value, first and foremost). These points, however, cannot extend to rehabilitating the target of Camatte’s criticism: the ‘growth of productive forces as condition sine qua non for liberation’; communism as a ‘new mode of production’ (or the ‘free association of producers’); the mystification of both struggles and the class relation under capitalism. The concept of the subsumption of all social life under capital is not required to make this criticism. The critical concepts of fetish and real abstraction are sufficient. The fetishism ubiquitous in capitalism, its objectification that obscures mediation – the objectifying naturalisation of commodities and their exchange obscuring the social relation they mediate; the obscured mediation of capital’s expansion by an exploitative process of production – is produced through the very practices of social reproduction and in that sense it is socially valid. The problem with the adoption of the ‘growth of productive forces’ as the ultimate revolutionary end is not just that conceptual abstraction is socially determined, and hence always at risk of reproducing the fetishisms of capital, nor the supposed capitalist subsumption of all subjectivity, but rather that it presupposes the social practice that produces the real abstraction of abstract labour, upon whose management a society is founded, and most likely also a state, as a centralised mechanism that administers this ‘growth’. It is in this sense that the attachment to modernity must be criticised: not as a corruption of the eternal human community, but as a fetishism that objectifies and eternalises capitalist expansion, commodities, capitalist technology, knowledge and institutions, blind to the social mediations from which these are inseparable: the world-scale management and enforcement of exploitative social relations, and all the ensuing suffering and death. Indeed, as Brassier writes, in a corrective to certain formulations of Endnotes, ‘the key to the de-reification of abstraction is an account of conceptual form as generated by social practices.’ It is historically emerging, generalised practices of social reproduction that produce conceptual forms (real abstractions) adequate to social forms. These social abstractions can, again, only be abolished through the transformation of social practice. While our critical faculties might be able to identify these mediations and practices, it is only through a process of practical critical activity within struggle that that the question of non-oppressive forms of mediation can open up, and only through this process can the question of non-oppressive practices be answered collectively. These practices can become new social forms only when socially generalised. Beyond this context, life in capitalism still forces us, in our daily practice, to reproduce existing social forms.

Brassier’s criticism of Camatte for his ‘appeal to a human community whose basic expressive modalities remain constant across millennia’ is also justified. While the abolition of capitalism, however, cannot be an undoing or a wish that ‘capitalism never happened’, it also cannot be a ‘realisation’ of a progressive ‘promise’ that capitalism holds within itself. At the very least, this promise is not an identifiable ‘emancipatory’ element of modernity that needs to be ‘released’ instead of being critiqued. If there is a problem with a dialectic of alienation that prescribes a reunification with an idealised nature and a naturalised, a-historical humanity, this is not overcome by the rehabilitation of a concept of modernity that merely needs to be unfettered from the corrupting domination of value in order to become true to itself. History is not produced ex-nihilo, but it is also not a ‘realisation’ of a pre-existing element, whether that is conceived as natural or historically determined. History can only be narrativised as some kind of ‘realisation’ retrospectively.

The appeal to a human community can also not be satisfyingly countered by reaffirming a concept of society. Ray Brassier argues in favour of the necessity of mediation ‘on a planet of seven billion people’, so that a real universality, ‘a maximally expansive human solidarity’ can exist beyond parochial communitarianism. He reminds us of the concept of ‘species being’: ‘understood not as a biological category but as the capacity for collective self-transformation (beyond self-reproduction), that staves off the divisive identifications of individuality, ethnicity, nationality’. It is worth considering this interpretation of species being beyond the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts – whose theme of alienation can be considered as problematic as Camatte’s authentic community, particularly if ‘life activity’ is not deciphered from labour, posing restrictions on what the human can be.10)‘The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. … In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from man. … For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life.’ Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, ‘Estranged Labour’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/m… If such a universality could then involve multiple and singular ‘life activities’ that collectively transform the human, the question of how social ‘human activity’ could one day be something different than the abstract labour mediated by value is again extremely hard to answer.

Brassier proposes that ‘impersonality, impartiality and objectivity’ should not just be seen as correlates of alienation, but also as ‘positive resources for expanding the horizons of socialisation’. The association of the concept of universality with the impersonal, the impartial and the objective, however, again appears one-sided and insufficient, sounding like the all too familiar principle of bourgeois legal judgement. Laws and legal procedures are established to apply to the abstract individual ‘objectively’ and ‘impartially’, although of course these values leave unquestioned the principles and social relations the laws reproduce.11)The application of a law equally, objectively and impartially to ‘all’ is what courts do. If it is mostly proletarians that end in jail, if cops get away with murder, this is not caused by the judges’ bias but by the very content of the law. What is socially defined as ‘criminal’, however, is an act of power, and the result of very partial social struggle. The notion of a true impartiality and objectivity would imply the resolution of all struggles and debates, but is this not precisely what courts assume as true when they apply the law? Bourgeois equality, just like abstract labour, is founded on precisely this kind of impersonality: individuals devoid of content and particularity, and most importantly, devoid of materiality (bodily or economic) in a political sphere that is by definition blind to it. So ‘fairness’ is translated into meritocracy: if you can’t, you don’t deserve – it’s nothing ‘personal’, you are just not good enough, ‘objectively’. Letting the homeless die is the apotheosis of the bourgeois notion of equality. The emphasis on the indispensability of ‘impersonality’ only presents itself as a given necessity and as an ideal because, in capitalism, the ‘impersonal’ is the level of law and right, of society, while the ‘personal’ is supposed to be identified with pre-capitalist forms of community. In reality, power operates within capitalism at both impersonal and personal levels, if the gender relation is not set aside as a pre-capitalist social form, and capitalism’s overcoming must also be thought at both levels. The ‘personal’, apart from a form of social power, also designates the social level at which the singularity of each person in their full material dimension, in their difference, can be recognised.12)Here, the recognition of singularity or difference is counterposed to the separation, classification and hierarchisation of individuals according to their capacity to labour or to consume, their ‘usefulness to society’, and according to the division of labour, through the production of the social distinctions of gender, race, age, health and more. The latter is consistent with a notion of universality based on the abstract ‘man’ that presupposes ideal norms (young healthy white man) and ‘exceptions’ (female, non-white, old, disabled and more). Implied here, in contrast to Brassier’s Kantian notion of freedom, are the concepts of recognition, self-determination and freedom based on an interpretation of Hegel proposed by Richard Gunn. See Richard Gunn, ‘“Recognition” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit’, Common Sense, Issue 8, March 1988: ‘A common “world”, or in other words a “valid external world” which could prechannel recognition into authoritative configurations and which could serve as a shared touchstone to which interacting individuals might refer, is just what the play of mutual recognition excludes. The (Revolutionary) demolition of such a “world”, and of the role of definitions inhering in it, was required to effect the transition from a misrecognitive to a mutually recognitive terrain … radical insecurity is the sole statute under which mutual recognition can come into being, and through which it can sustain itself.’ (p. 58). Here the point is absolutely not a democratist prescription of ‘mutual recognition’ in processes of struggle. Rather it is the conception of communism as a state of radical insecurity, if the abolition of constraining social categories is to not merely reproduce the rigid universality of ‘man’, but instead open up a process of radical self-re-definition as a dialectic between the universal and the particular. The process of recognition is never a neat one-off abstract classification but always under contestation of both recogniser (the social) and recognised. It also means that the meaning of ‘human’ is multiple and open-ended. This dialectic is impossible under a notion of universality that gives primacy to the impersonal and to the closure of objectivity.
It should be clear that ‘expanding the horizons of socialisation’ is itself not an unequivocal ideal. Particularly when, in capitalism, as much as in socialist (or ‘state-capitalist’ as some prefer to call them) states, it has meant the socialisation of labour and the unification of ‘individuals’ under the state. We agree, then, that ‘mediation’ is a problem, but are wary of the usual answers. How can universality be prevented from becoming a bourgeois universality, a legal universality, based on the rational classification of empty individuals that sacrifices or oppresses the exceptional or unclassifiable particular for the benefit of ‘society’? How can it not become an impersonal, oppressive social unity akin to that imposed by the bourgeois state? Rushing to identify ‘good’ mediations and abstractions within capitalism risks falling back to automatic answers: bourgeois law, labour time, the state.

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Based on Endnotes’ formulations that appear to suggest the absolute constitution of subjectivity by capital, Ray Brassier identifies ‘the paradox of self-abolition’ and raises the question of agency in the process of communisation:

Since the ‘we’ is constituted by the class relation, the self-overcoming of the ‘we’ is the overcoming of the relation that constitutes it. This is certainly theoretically uncompromising (and admirable because of it). But it is also paradoxical, and its paradoxical character exacerbates its status as a claim that articulates conceptual and social abstraction at an ontological level. The paradox is the following: if ‘we’ are constituted by the class relation that we have to supersede, then the supersession of this relation is also the overcoming of the agent of the supersession, and therefore the cancelling of the supersession and the re-instatement of the ‘we’. Since ‘we’ have no position apart from the class relation, ‘we’ are nothing outside of it. But then the moment of the abolition of this relation is also that of the abolition of its abolition.

The paradox is of course only valid if we accept the logicisation of reality and subjectivity of which Brassier accuses Endnotes, or make a literal interpretation of the statement that ‘we are nothing outside the class relation’: if the subject of struggle abolishes itself, who will be left as agent of communisation? The statement should not be taken literally, abolition should not be understood as obliteration, and obliteration should not be understood as abolition. Proletarians can literally die outside the class relation. This does not mean the social category ‘proletarian’ is abolished. Conversely, abolition is a transformation of subjects, not their physical or mental death. ‘Nothing outside’ means that proletarian identity cannot be affirmed today, not because capital is an absolute subject whose ‘logic’ determines reality and subjectivity to the extent that struggle and history no longer exist, but rather because proletarian reproduction is now entirely dependent on capitalist reproduction and the present model of accumulation treats labour-power as a mere cost. Not only is a flight no longer possible as proletarian life entirely depends on accumulation (at the same time as any guarantees of such life are defunct),13)On the question of the integration of the circuits of capitalist and proletarian reproduction, see Screamin’ Alice. ‘On the Periodisation of the Capitalist Class Relation’. Sic, no. 1 (November 2011): 171–96. but proletarians are also unable to find a positivity in themselves as part of accumulation. Self-abolition then emerges as a possibility when the self-affirmation of class identity becomes no more than the affirmation of a category of capital, variable capital, whose disposability and fragmentation erodes the class’s capacity for organising politically to affirm itself in demand struggles. Only the practical criticism of one’s position as it exists and is reproduced in capitalist society, then, has the potential to abolish the relation of which it is part.

The formulation based on a ‘we’ also assumes a given unified subject in the beginning of the process, which, as argued above, does not exist today. Instead, the theory of rift has attempted to theorise the possibility of self-abolition arising in today’s conditions of class fragmentation. It has paid attention to moments where internal conflicts within struggles emerge because the identity of those who struggle cannot be affirmed and itself becomes a limit. The ‘we’ that is abolished in this conception is then not just any collective subject, and certainly not a universal human subject, but the material subjectifications of the relations of exploitation and power in capitalist society: proletarians, capitalists and the multiple positions in the division of labour; women, men and other classifications of gender; racialised groups. These subjectifications already exist, and struggles are already based upon them. The question is what happens next, that is, how subjects can overcome what they are by abolishing the relations that reproduce these subjectifications. The universality and singularity that could emerge from this abolition is not the same as the particularity of the subject that carried it out (itself only emerging in the process of struggle): if proletarians abolish ‘proletarian’ as a valid social category, if they abolish the class relation, they are no longer proletarians; women are no longer women – their bodily difference has no oppressive social significance – ‘blacks’ are no longer ‘blacks’ and so on. They produce themselves as something else that is both singular and universal, creating the possibility of self-definition and of the re-definition of what is human,14)See footnote 9. inventing new ways of relating to one another and to the world. It is the something else this abolition produces, the de-subjectification which objectively overcomes the limit of what one is, that the paradox seems to rule out.

This, however, is the conception of a potential transformation, not the application of a logical necessity. The concept of self-abolition is conceivable not as a logical unfolding but as a potential that we can decipher in the present historical conjuncture because of the decline of the politics of affirmation. We could, of course, be proven entirely wrong.
There are some even more important problems concerning self-abolition: How can proletarians struggle without forming into a self-affirmative subject? What are the practices that would suggest a self-negating subject? How far can this self-negation go? This is not a question posed abstractly at the level of subjectivity, but it emerges in the process of struggle: the burning of factories can seem to be a rejection of labour, but it is often part of demand struggles in places like India, Bangladesh or Vietnam. Rioting and uprisings can be part of the affirmation of a national identity, as we have seen in the Ukraine. Women and men demonstrating against rape can, at the same time, through their demands, be affirming the state and the family, as we saw in India. We can say that these are the internal limits of struggles, and that these very limits are their dynamic (Théorie Communiste),15)See R.S., ‘The concept of cycle of struggles’, Meeting, Revue Internationale pour la Communisation, Summer Meeting 2008 archives, http://meeting.communisation.net/archives/summer-m…. but often there is hardly any dynamic towards the overcoming of such limits. And of course, struggles do not occur in a vacuum. Apart from internal limits there are also external ones, such as the force of the state, with its police and army, as well as the necessities of survival. Finally, the ‘we’ that should be problematised is not just the ‘we’ of self-abolition, but also the ‘we’ that builds a society, the very conception of the universal and of what ‘society’ is, as discussed above.

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Endnotes’ argued lack of distinction between conceptual and real abstraction is said to lead them to a wholesale rejection of technology’s ‘function’ as such. Bringing up antivirals as an example of ‘emancipatory potentials latent in technologies whose functioning is currently subordinated to capital’, Brassier recognises the envelopment of these technologies in capitalist social forms, but conceives of their function as something that can be separated:

A suitably abstract conception of function will allow for its transplantation, and where necessary, repurposing, across social contexts.

Current technology’s ‘emancipatory potential’ or ‘function’, however, is not merely something mechanical. It is evidently grounded on its use value today, since the whole point in maintaining a ‘function’ is its utility. But the emphasis on the very question of keeping a useful function is a holding on to how we live today that sets limits on its criticism. Following the example of antivirals, why should we assume today that, in the future, survival from illness would have to involve medicine as it exists today? And even if this is the case, how is it possible to extricate this ‘function’ from its system of production, the complex, oppressively hierarchical divisions of labour and power relations (between the ‘specialist’ knowledge-producer and the human ‘objects’ of medical science; between the researcher and the factory workers) on which today depend the production of medical knowledge as well as the commodities based on it? Further, is it conceivable to extricate this ‘function’ and its social usefulness from the very definitions of ‘health’ and ‘illness’ and the social hierarchies they imply? The use value this argument attempts to extract as an ‘emancipatory potential’ from within capitalist commodities cannot exist as a mere mechanical or biological functionality that can be separated from the social, the capitalist mode of relating in the process of its production and consumption, even less so from its subjection to exchange value. This is the fetishism that reduces a commodity to the natural or mechanical properties of a thing, blanking out the social relations and processes its existence depends on. Antivirals (and other medicine and medical techniques and technologies) are, today, produced as commodities, and this shapes both their social and material aspects, because use value is the other side of exchange value, which drives the production of commodities. Taken as far as it can go, this criticism of use value is the condition of possibility for the production of new forms of knowledge or technology, which are not guided by value, nor by labour as the universal quality of humanity, but by an entirely different logic of relating.

Refusing to keep this abstract notion of function, Brassier objects, ‘abolishes the capitalist present at the cost of cancelling the post-capitalist future locked up within it. Foreclosing the future, blinkered negation cannot but wish to re-instate the past. It becomes the longing for a previous state of things’. From this perspective, the current anti-development struggles against the very material form and function of mines and factories, high-speed trains, airports, etc, often despite high local unemployment, could be dismissed as localist, or attached to a ‘past’ way of life. And, in a sense, they are. Here is the contradiction: Mines are highly polluting, and they involve punitive forms of labour, so much so that for many communities agriculture is strongly preferable. Mines also provide the raw material for most of today’s advanced technology. If the enjoyment of a forest, or the use of its water for agriculture, can be conceived as desiring a ‘previous state of things’ over the advances of capitalist mining, this only shows that the ‘achievements of capitalist modernity’ presuppose forms of technological function which, particularly at the points of production, are not universally welcome despite their usefulness. Equally unwelcome would be a ‘repurposing’ that would fall short of a complete transformation of such technology, including the form and logic of knowledge production it is based on, its process of production and the purpose to which it is put; that is to say, a complete transformation of its function. In every case, the question of technologies, and not just of products but also of the production technologies on which they are premised, is and will continue to be (in any potentially revolutionary situation) a point of conflict and struggle, which cannot be forestalled by a rational decision that claims to represent all sides of the conflict.

More problematically, the concept of ‘repurposing’ presupposes an agent that manages production, having appropriated capitalism’s infrastructure. While Brassier does not appear to subscribe to the Accelerationist notion of a central, rational planning authority that would be able to accelerate the forces of production to exceed everything imaginable under capitalism, the question remains of how the production of all the technologies whose ‘functions’ are still ‘useful’ would be managed in the future society he imagines, if not through a central authority or a state. If social unity is to be founded on complex global-scale production, and if such production is to continue functioning with today’s effectiveness, this would require a complex and hierarchical division of labour, which presupposes social divisions, as well as a centralised power that would ensure that things function, that everyone who is able to ‘contributes to society’ by working and everyone is ‘fairly’ remunerated. Beyond the difficult problem of mediation (what would be the measure of ‘fairness’ here?), there is also the question of how this could take place without the specialisation of management, and by extension social management.

If ‘determination is not constitution’, if the articulation of social and theoretical abstraction remains an open question, it does not follow that theory should be oriented towards conserving ‘the achievements capitalist modernity’. The danger of assuming that the problems outlined here are solvable rationally or scientifically, the problem with placing existing ‘technological advances’ at the centre of communist thought is that, in effect, the old society risks being reproduced within the purportedly new one. Criticism targets an abstract notion of the subsumption of cognition, but falls short of addressing the system of production implied by each one of today’s ‘useful’ commodities, and fails to acknowledge existing and historical struggles against forms of centralised social management and the state, against the hierarchical division of labour and the social divisions implied by it; against work (particularly factory work); against a notion of the social that is centred around production; against the enforced inclusion into the social via a law based on an abstract universal Man, against the very kind of socialisation effected by capitalism, all of which are premises of today’s forms of knowledge, technology, and rationality. Capitalism’s overcoming cannot be founded upon these forms, but will have to negate them also, before new forms of knowledge production emerge on the basis of a different social relation.

Anna O’Lory

References   [ + ]

1. Ray Brassier, ‘Wandering Abstraction’, Mute, 13 February 2014 http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wanderi….
2. ‘Editorial’, Sic, International Journal for Communisation, No. 1, November 2011. http://sicjournal.org/en/editorial
3. ‘The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s “radical” left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action … Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery. This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment…’ Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, ‘#Accelerate Manifesto for and Accelerationist Politics’, Critical Legal Thinking, 14 May 2013, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accele….
4. While Marx rarely wrote of a rationally-planned economy and society, his writings left space for such an interpretation: if communism is the full development of the forces of production, and communism a more ‘advanced’ society, it could follow that what really overcomes capitalism is the technological development of productivity. Cf. Marx, Capital Vol. III, Chapter 15: ‘Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.’
5. This argument is not interested in debating the correct interpretation of Hegel, but instead it targets the manner in which Hegelian concepts have often been used in Marxist theory. The point of criticism is the use of a specific philosophy of history to make an argument about how communist theory and practice ought to proceed: the supposition that because this ‘positive element’ must exist, theory is obliged to find it and promote its preservation.
6. ‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society.’ Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105.
7. Of course, the state never integrated all social demands, but it is worth making the historical comparison with the period and model of accumulation called ‘Keynesian’, ‘Fordist’ or ‘Social-Democratic’ to recognise the enormous difference between that social contract (wages-productivity deal) and the present one.
8. The uprising in both West and East Ukraine might be presented as an example here: rioting, and even war, against the state did not entail a critique of the state; in fact, the rebels themselves became the state, imposing wage and pension cuts and shooting down protesters (see http://libcom.org/news/social-protest-repression-donbass-19102014). Indeed, these purely negative moments referred to here might be the exception in today’s struggles, but it is a powerful and recurring exception.
9. Consider, for example, the intergenerational conflict that has emerged in the struggle in Ferguson. See R.L., ‘Intextinguishable Fire, Ferguson and Beyond’, Mute, 17 November 2014. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/inextin….
10. ‘The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. … In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from man. … For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life.’ Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, ‘Estranged Labour’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/m…
11. The application of a law equally, objectively and impartially to ‘all’ is what courts do. If it is mostly proletarians that end in jail, if cops get away with murder, this is not caused by the judges’ bias but by the very content of the law. What is socially defined as ‘criminal’, however, is an act of power, and the result of very partial social struggle. The notion of a true impartiality and objectivity would imply the resolution of all struggles and debates, but is this not precisely what courts assume as true when they apply the law?
12. Here, the recognition of singularity or difference is counterposed to the separation, classification and hierarchisation of individuals according to their capacity to labour or to consume, their ‘usefulness to society’, and according to the division of labour, through the production of the social distinctions of gender, race, age, health and more. The latter is consistent with a notion of universality based on the abstract ‘man’ that presupposes ideal norms (young healthy white man) and ‘exceptions’ (female, non-white, old, disabled and more). Implied here, in contrast to Brassier’s Kantian notion of freedom, are the concepts of recognition, self-determination and freedom based on an interpretation of Hegel proposed by Richard Gunn. See Richard Gunn, ‘“Recognition” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit’, Common Sense, Issue 8, March 1988: ‘A common “world”, or in other words a “valid external world” which could prechannel recognition into authoritative configurations and which could serve as a shared touchstone to which interacting individuals might refer, is just what the play of mutual recognition excludes. The (Revolutionary) demolition of such a “world”, and of the role of definitions inhering in it, was required to effect the transition from a misrecognitive to a mutually recognitive terrain … radical insecurity is the sole statute under which mutual recognition can come into being, and through which it can sustain itself.’ (p. 58).
13. On the question of the integration of the circuits of capitalist and proletarian reproduction, see Screamin’ Alice. ‘On the Periodisation of the Capitalist Class Relation’. Sic, no. 1 (November 2011): 171–96.
14. See footnote 9.
15. See R.S., ‘The concept of cycle of struggles’, Meeting, Revue Internationale pour la Communisation, Summer Meeting 2008 archives, http://meeting.communisation.net/archives/summer-m….