on the theory of communization and its histories
I am going to try a slightly more analytical and less narrative approach in this piece, in order to better embody the content of the theory of communization. It is difficult to step away from the dark of history and into the light of abstraction, in outlining this theory, since it is a theory that suggests all theory is historically produced. The problem, however, is that this history is already split—a real history, producing a theory, inside of which one can also read history: 1918-21 seen by way of 1968-72. As the theory of communization evolves, so too does its sense of its past. From my vantage, as I hope has become clear, new continuities and new ruptures emerge. A narrative of narratives, then, in which the theoretical production of a future continually produces new presents, and new pasts.
We have seen that communization emerges as a response to a revolutionary problematic, a conundrum, which motivates a reassessment of the theory of the historical ultraleft, then at a highwater mark of reconsolidation. Sometimes communization theory is described, rather awkwardly, as the post-ultraleft, where the prefix implies both continuity and rupture. But which rupture and which continuity? Communization inherits from the ultraleft its critique of the undead “old workers’ movement,” which as Jan Appel and Paul Mattick and others describe so well, developed a strategic and tactical organization useful for improving the position of workers within capitalism, but entirely incapable of organizing a revolution against capitalism. Communization theory, in its most robust presentation, extends this critique to the ultraleft itself, suggesting that even its most maximal visions would likewise subordinate labor to the logic of capitalism. For Theorie Communiste, for example, both Leninism and the ultraleft are expressions of what they call programmatism, which forms the bedrock of the workers’ movement, spanning from left to right. The new workers’ movement is the old one in the shell of the new. Programmatism “is a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletariat finds, in its drive toward liberation, the fundamental elements of a future social organisation which become the programme to be realised.”
At stake also in this claim is the future as much as the past. TC suggest that there can be no continuity between the base elements of capitalism and communism but that texts like the GIK’s Grundprinzipien presume it. Which continuities in particular are at issue? In the GIK’s vision of revolution, there is no continuity of organization, neither of party nor union, nor continuity of state function, nor of value as such, nor profit, competition, law-directed economic activity. But some continuities do remain, what the KAPD described honestly in its 1920 program as “ruthless enforcement of the obligation to work” which is either presumed by the labor certificate and distribution through the workplace or, in its absence, renders them meaningless and ineffective as regulators. The wage-form, we might say, persists in some way, dragging with it a shadow of the law of value, still latent in the calculation of socially necessary labor time and abstract labor as a magnitude, a measure, if not a form run wild. The cell-form of impersonal bourgeois right, subject, and law is retained, as Marx notes. But it’s not clear to what extant the labor certificate is a contingent or essential feature of council communism—reading late Mattick suggests it is not essential.
Other continuities lay deeper still, and this is where communization offers something genuinely new, the rather slender claim that the enterprise-form and the given division of labor must be quickly abolished by the revolution, and that self-organization by the enterprise must give way to self-organization against the enterprise or fail. There can be no “councils,” then, if by council one means a given relationship between self-organization and division of labor. This is where we can speak of meaningful rupture, in historiography, theory, and history itself. The relationship between self-organization and the division of labor, its arrangement by enterprise and industry, has changed over the last several decades, such that a process of revolutionary expropriation of the means of production can no longer follow the grooves laid down by the division of labor, can no longer emerge simply as the linking up of self-organized factory groups that then transform into councils, because the very division of labor will become an obstacle to self-organization. The question we must ask is why. Why is this the case?
One answer, which we have already encountered, we might call subjectivist, confirmed in the antiwork and anticonformist attitudes of the day. As a consequence of growth, of affluence, and of the postwar boom, working-class desire matured beyond wage demands, beyond struggles that could be satisfied at the worksite and beyond identification with work. The refusal of work emerges primarily as a consequence of the false utopianism of midcentury capitalism. Its promise of betterment that turns out to be, as Debord writes, merely an “augmented survival.” This explanation works well for May ’68 and the Hot Autumn/Creeping May of Italy, the rank and file struggle wave in the early 70s in the US, but less well for the cycle of struggles that picks up after 2008, which emerge in many cases in economic conditions of crisis, stagnation, and mass unemployment. Across the span of the long downturn, this subjectivity undergoes a weird modulation, as Theorie Communiste explain—the disidentification with work rests on a darker recognition, which is that with the reorganization of the labor process, struggle in the workplace becomes a struggle for capital, for the survival of a particular firm, occupation, or bailiwick. Workers self-organize in order to continue being exploited, fighting against layoffs and restructuring, under conditions in which most wage demands are illegitimate, foreclosed by the international economy’s anemic growth rates. This is clearest in the “suicidal” struggles that emerge in France after ’95, when workers threatened with liquidation took over their bankrupt, outmoded plants, not in order to self-mange them, but to get the best possible severance packages. In Cellatex, a chemical plant, they expropriated 50,000 liters of explosive chemicals, often leached into the surrounding environment, and threatened to explode the plant or dump the chemicals in the river. What they wanted, however, was money pure and simple, not to run the poison factory themselves. As
From these subjective indications, one must construct an objective theory of the developing composition of the working class, entangled at every level with the development of capital. The approach of Theorie Communiste and also Bruno Astarian, of Négation, took inspiration from the theoretical inquiry of Jacques Camatte into newly published texts by Marx, particularly the Grundrisse, The Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, and the “Immediate Results of the Process of Production,” sometimes referred to as the “missing sixth chapter of Capital.” In the last text, Marx makes a distinction between formal and real subsumption (or subordination, domination) by capital, two forms but also stages of the development of capitalism. In the first, capital subsumes an already existing labor process, through a change in property rights, which is to say, a formal change (formwechsel). In formal subsumption the labor process remains untransformed, but once ownership over the means of production has been effected, capital is free to introduce labor-saving techniques and equipment, the extra revenue from which will accrue to the owner. Part IV of Capital, arguably the center of the book, details these forms of real subsumption, of material subsumption which produce surplus value not only by lowering the costs of the reproduction of labor, rather than by increasing worker effort, but also by intensifying and multiplying labor, drawing from deep labor reserves.
Self-management, according to this account, is the political horizon corresponding to formal subsumption, in which the direction of the labor process still remains within reach and sight of the worker. Inasmuch as the underlying form of labor remains unsubsumed by capital, it is possible for labor to imagine throwing off the valorization process and producing directly for need. In real subsumption, when the productive forces have been reorganized in a manner adequate to capital, but not necessarily for humans, the very organization of the production becomes an obstacle. One can no longer throw off the valorization process, for the valorization process has subsumed the production process. One can only blow up the poison factory or suck it up.
There are problems with this history, however, chiefly the fact that the periodization offered, in which real subsumption only begins during the postwar boom, doesn’t actually accord with the history of capital. Real subsumption begins even before the emergence of large-scale industry in England in the 1820s—Adam Smith’s famous pin factory, with which he begins The Wealth of Nations, is an example of real subsumption, as is the four field/mixed husbandry crop system which made English agrarian capitalism possible centuries earlier. In fact, it’s hard to imagine formal subsumption as a historical stage rather than a logical presupposition of capitalist accumulation—it certainly does happen that precapitalist labor processes are subsumed without being materially altered—but this seems the exception rather than the rule, and in most cases of transition to capitalism, where capitalists take formal control they immediate translate that formal control into real control, real reorganization, material change. In any case, this means only that the first part of the claim, linking the project of workers’ self-management to a period of formal subsumption, needs to be complicated; it might nonetheless be true that the ongoing reorganization of the labor-process by production for profit reaches a point, eventually, where workers’ self-management is no longer intelligible as a horizon.
Narratives of real subsumption are often, as a result, forced to admits stages of real subsumption, a real subsumption followed by a realer subsumption, in which the mass worker of Fordism is replaced by the flexible worker of Toyotism, vertically organized conglomerates replaced by JIT and contract production. Often, what’s at stake in these expanded forms of subsumption is not reorganization of the labor-process qua labor but the subsumption of society, of infrastructure beyond the workplace, in order to meet the demands of valorization—schools, police, cultural institutions, etc. But this leads either to an expansion of the term “subsumption” or the concept of production and labor beyond meaning since most of these social forms had long oriented themselves to capitalist reproduction. What turns out to be more important for the writers within the communization stream who adapt this narrative is registration of a qualitative shift in the relation between labor-process and valorization process circa 1968.
For Theorie Communiste, this turns out be something like the “subsumption of struggle” not just the subsumption of the class in-itself, but also the class for-itself. TC’s schematic histories owe much to the post-Althusserian Regulation School, who break capitalism into a successive labor regimes characterized by relatively stable structures. Thus, the class compromise of the “Fordist” period, itself a reaction to the threat of revolution after WWI and its collapse in the 1930s, falls apart in the long May and gives way to a new labor regime in the restructuring of the 1980s. If the first is characterized by national agreements linking working-class wages to (high) productivity growth, in which the massifying working class was seen as a partner in accumulation, the second is characterized by a new delinking of wages from (slower) growth, and a new requirement, dictated by the demands of production for profit, that all returns from growth accrue to capital, and all wage-demands be treated as an impediment. In this new era it’s not just labor that has been subsumed, you might say, but class struggle itself, at least class struggle on the shop floor. The ruling class no longer needs to compromise—it can grab all the chips on the table every day. The class struggle that does emerge is a survival struggle, competing for the right to be exploited, or fighting against the squandering of working-class pensions or other social wages paid in decades ago and dissipated. The new situation is one of a “reciprocal implication” between capital and labor in which the proletariat’s own positioning as labor has become an obstacle to struggle, up to and including revolutionary struggles, rather than a lever to be used by them. But which comes first? Is the illegitimacy of wage demands the cause of the reciprocal implication of capital and labor or is it the other way around? This seems like a question worth asking because our original test cases—Italy and Argentina—both feature situations in which, because of crisis, working-class demands are legitimated. One therefore needs a narrative capable of subsuming all these instances.
A version of that narrative can be found in the history provided by Endnotes, which instead of seeing history as a series of successive regimes, highlights a single predicate which cuts across all the regimes: industry, that is to say real subsumption of the labor process by the factory, and particularly the continuous flow factory, and the demographic and economic transitions it indexes. Endnotes takes from Theorie Communiste the notion that something has changed in the nature of class struggle but manages to extend the frame of reference beyond the narrow purview of the shopfloor. Though Marx and his followers like to imagine that the workers’ movement is generated by the technical composition of the workplace, its divisions and aggregations, this was always something of a wishful thought. The shopfloor united workers but only by dividing them against other workers. Broad durable unity where it existed either emerged as the consequence of the necessities of struggle or had to rely on other mechanisms: political program, moral indoctrination, or cultural institutions. The places of greatest conflict were not only where semi-skilled workers were aggregated in large workplaces, though this was important. Explosive conflict, rather, was mostly likely to occur when these workers already had shared some common identity—in the Hot Autumn, as many have noted, the most rebellious workers were migrants from the south, identified with each other by the racism of the north, and bringing a repertoire of violent tactics from the moral economies of the south. Many such cases, but perhaps now fewer than ever before.
The workers’ movement was tasked, therefore, with solving the composition problem, producing class unity, strategic and tactical, in situations where the class was actively divided by class struggle itself. This required a project of working-class autonomy, not just in the shopfloor, but most particularly in proletarian community. This was the role of the party, the union: to produce a world, and from that world to launch a revolution. Michael Heinrich’s attempt to distinguish between worldview Marxism and critical Marxism doesn’t recognize that the project of the second and third international-era Marxism wasn’t just to produce a worldview but much more importantly a world. The problem, however, was that when it came time to make revolution, those who were willing to do so had to destroy the proletarian world, break with it, whereas most hoped to retain that space within capitalism, precisely because it seemed an easier path to a better life. Those institutions that did not conform after the failure of the global revolution were destroyed, and the ones that remained retained their autonomy in name only. Autonomy was no longer quiet from this moment on; it could be found only in molotovs and occupations, fought for, constructed in the middle of riots and in radical ghettoes. Proletarian culture was subsumed by the market and the nation-state.
We inherit the composition problem but not its solutions. We no longer have even a putative, practical class unity from which to begin. Class unity is projectual at best (when it isn’t simply repressive) and also always, it seems, when voiced with any strength, tainted by interclassism: Occupy’s we are the 99%, or the gilets jaunes focus on cost-of-living, both based on sociological conceptions of class that have little do with the proletariat as such. Or it’s articulated by quantifiers existential and universal: black lives matter, water is life, all cops are bastards, forms in which the proletariat speaks its name through the modalities of capitalist dispossession, through the violence of the state which always appears at once necessary and excessive.
What Endnotes added to this conversation, in particular, was an ability to put the workers’ movement in relation to easily observed economic particulars, across the span of decades and centuries, and to do so both rigorously and without needless academic chatter. At the core of their story is an identification of real subsumption with a transitory social process, industrialization, which revolutionizes and rearranges labor and people, country after country, but in an increasingly rapid time frame. The compressed demographic and industrial transition observed in Italy after WWII is repeated on a larger and even more impressive scale in Japan, then the Asian Tigers, and finally China and India. But each time this process inherits the full set of technological capacities, meaning output rises more and swiftly. Now that even China and India are deindustrializing in aggregate terms, as Chinese capital moves to Africa and South Asia and beyond, this process may be over. Seen from space like this, the history of capitalism does seem to have a beginning, a middle, and what looks now to be a shorter or longer end. Inasmuch as the proletariat and its projects are products of capitalism, then so too is the workers’ movement expression of this structure of accumulation and growth, its possibilities realized on the upswing whose downstroke now explains the terrible position of the world proletariat, and the changed balance of forces since 1965.
To this story, I bring some new details, perhaps, and some further speculation. Most of my interest is in the implications of this theory for our revolutionary prospects today. It is only on the basis of an analysis of the tendencies and structures of capitalism that we can project any pathway out of capitalism. The story that Theorie Communiste tells emphasizes the dialectical entanglement of capital and labor in and through proletarian struggle; Endnotes, for their part, emphasizes the tandem development of capital and the workers’ movement. Between the two one observes that capital across the long downturn has not borne the crisis passively. The shrinking horizon of real subsumption, the diminishing returns of the millions of laborers sacrificed to the idol of productivity has sent capital into a frenzy, structuring the global factory around access to the cheapest labor possible, instituting a division of labor specifically designed to inhibit workplace organization and with effects that explain, at a phenomenological level, the waning of class belonging. This by no means indicates the end of class existence, class identity, nor of workers and the working-class. But increasingly workers find it difficult to struggle as workers rather than as proletarians, as dispossessed people, as such. The explanations for this are technological and organizational, not mention subjective, as I note, in effect unifying the different levels of analysis presented above. The result is that today, as Joshua Clover has outlined in Riot. Strike. Riot. class struggle tends to unfold in the space of circulation, outside the fortress of the worksite.
The last decade has provided powerful confirmation of all these theses, more or less. There is no major uprising of the last decade which was not in some sense a circulation struggle—from the plaza occupations of the Arab Spring, the movement of the squares, and Occupy, to the freeway blockades and riots of the Ferguson and George Floyd uprisings, to the occupied roundabouts of the gilets jaunes and the swarm tactics of Hong Kong. At the same time, these struggles very much seem to reinscribe themselves within the limits established by the communization analysis rather than overcome them. Politics is back, even as the tenor of the time remains markedly antipolitical. The austerians of tomorrow present themselves as the reformers of today. The emancipatory struggles of the early 2010s have spurred a grim reaction, as populism, nationalism, and revanchism, if not outright neofascism, show the ability to mobilize if not the capacity to redirect state power. None of these things were well-anticipated by the original analyses and as such deserve real thought.
Nonetheless, the tendencies of capitalism enumerated by the theory of communisation still hold. The theory of limits and obstacles to revolution has been confirmed. But the theory of communization is also a theory of how, based on these observed, characteristics a future revolution must unfold. In other words:
The fundamental problem to which all theoretical production must return, that must be confronted and to which it must find a resolution, is the following: how can the proletariat – acting strictly as a class of the capitalist mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within this mode of production – abolish capital, therefore all classes and therefore itself; that is to say, produce communism?
An analysis of tendencies is just the first step in answering this question. Between the tendencies of capitalism on the one hand, and the test of communism on the other, lay the tasks of the revolution, the theory of rupture, swerve, breakthrough, communist measure.