Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The capitalist swine at our door

Mike Davis, with a characteristic blend of systemic mediation, apocalyptic poetry and a plea for the necessity of socialism.

Or, how 'the Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty' reveals 'the planetary catastrophe of industrialized and ecologically unhinged livestock production', and how the 'Ponzified risk management' of capitalist disease control is no match for a planetary socialist rationality.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lenin's testament, or, When money will indeed be shit

[An homage to the Socialist Lavatory League]

Reading recently the late Georges Labica's defense of Lenin's utopian moment in the acts of the 1975 Cerisy colloquium on utopian discourse (quite a gem), I encountered this superb quotation from 'The Importance of Gold Now and After the Complete Victory of Socialism', a Pravda article from late 1921, where Lenin argues for the necessity of market "reformism" while keeping the horizon of real communism in full view:

When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world. This would be the most “just” and most educational way of utilising gold for the benefit of these generations which have not forgotten how, for the sake of gold, ten million men were killed and thirty million maimed in the “great war for freedom”, the war of 1914-18, the war that was waged to decide the great question of which peace was the worst, that of Brest or that of Versailles; and how, for the sake of this same gold, they certainly intend to kill twenty million men and to maim sixty million in a war, say, in 1925, or 1928, between, say, Japan and the U.S.A., or between Britain and the U.S.A., or something like that. But however “just”, useful, or humane it would be to utilise gold for this purpose, we nevertheless say that we must work for another decade or two with the same intensity and with the same success as in the 1917-21 period, only in a much wider field, in order to reach this state.

In his Memoirs, Nikita Khruschev, recalling a dinner with American capitalists in New York, returns to Lenin's concrete and (e)sc(h)atological utopia, clearly rejoicing in the ease with which he can profane the yankee religion:

One old man, who was quite decrepit, but who was very wealthy and influential, as I was told, kept asking how much gold we produced and why we didn’t trade with America for gold. … I said: “Mr. So-and-So (I don’t remember his name), I will answer your question about gold. Are you familiar with the statement made at one time by our leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that we should hold onto our gold for the time being? At a certain stage of development of human society [Lenin said] gold will lose its value, and therefore gold should be kept in reserve, to make public toilets out of. That’s what we’re keeping our gold for, and when the time comes and communist society has been established, gold will lose its value as a means of exchange, and then, to carry out Lenin’s testament, we will use gold to decorate the public toilets under communist society. That’s why we’re holding on to our gold.” (Nikita Khruschev, Memoirs of Nikita Khruschev, volume 3: Statesman [1953-1964], edited by Sergei Khruschev, Penn State Press, 2007, pp. 178-9.)

One possible definition of communism: that society which, by carrying out Lenin's testament, will both verify Freud's contention, in 'Character and Anal Eroticism', that money is shit*, and free us from the scatological neuroses of the value-form, as well as from the "retention" of gold.

* "In reality, wherever archaic modes of thought predominate or have persisted - in ancient civilizations, in myth, fairy-tale and superstition, in unconscious thoughts and dreams, and in the neuroses - money comes into the closest relation with excrement. We know how the money which the devil gives his paramours turns to excrement after his departure, and the devil is most certainly nothing more than a personification of the unconscious instinctual forces." (S. Freud)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

'And he himself had become unplaced'

I have often felt unsettled, and further unmoored from national allegiance (were that possible or necessary), upon visiting those uncanny establishments where compatriots caught between languages, in some kind of congealed gastronomic time, serve food that somehow connotes 'Italianness' here in Albion. But I never thought metaphysical insight could be garnered from such locales, until coming across this remarkable passage from Conrad's The Secret Agent:

On going out the Assistant Commissioner made to himself the observation that patrons of the place had lost in frequentation of fraudulent cookery all their national and private characteristics. And this was strange, since the Italian restaurant is such a peculiarly British institution. But these people were as denationalised as the dishes set before them with every circumstance of unstamped respectability. Neither was their personality stamped in any way, professionally, socially or racially. They seemed created for the Italian restaurant, unless the Italian restaurant had been perchance created for them. But that last hypothesis was unthinkable, since one could not place them anywhere outside those special establishments. One never met these enigmatical persons elsewhere. It was impossible to form a precise idea what occupations they followed by day and where they went to bed at night. And he himself had become unplaced.

Conjunctural TV: David Harvey on the G20 and the Crisis

The right to the City

In the stringent materialist spirit of ‘not telling oneself stories’, K-punk and Owen (and here) raise some urgent questions about the coherence and efficacy of actions such as yesterday’s ‘G20 Meltdown’ (fated to be followed by today’s G20 muddle-through). I am fully in sympathy with the suggestion that struggles at the point of appearance, so to speak, are hamstrung at best and spectacularly functional at worst, and that action at the point of production must play a crucial part in any viable strategy of opposition and emancipation. But there’s also a danger in thinking that factory struggles can have anything like the role they did at high points of struggle in the past, not just because of transformations in what the autonomists used to call the technical composition of labour, but because the physiognomy of the present crisis requires articulating forms of struggle that concern claims lying beyond the wage (housing, debt, credit, pensions, health, etc.). David Harvey’s recent intra-Marxist challenge to think the specificity of financial struggles is very significant in this respect. The whole piece is very much worth reading, but this passage in particular deserves rumination (and organisation):

There is another point we have to consider, which is that labour, and particularly organised labour, is only one small piece of this whole problem, and it’s only going to have a partial role in what is going on. And this is for a very simple reason, which goes back to the failure of Marx and how he set up the problem. If you say to yourself the formation of the state-finance complex is absolutely crucial to the dynamics of capitalism, and you ask yourself what social forces are at work in contesting that or setting it up, labour has never been at the forefront. Labour has been at the forefront of the labour market and the labour process, which are important moments in the circulation process, but most of the struggles that have gone on over the state-finance nexus are populist struggles.

The concrete demands which have been voiced, such as those formulated by Robin Blackburn in the New Left Review, go in this direction. The question is of course that of which forces, and with what means, could even begin to fight for such transitional, reformist policies (rather than angrily demand or blandly petition).

It’s rather trite, but it seems only new forms of syndicalism/trade-unionism, decoupled from the legacy (and legality) of merely sectoral or corporativist struggle, and entirely separate from party structures, could build a transversal front for a kind of radical reformism. I think this would require quite a revolution in the mindset and modes of action currently employed by unions. (Incidentally, this also concerns the question of ‘climate change’ the response to which, if it is not to elicit a dubious plea to the benevolence of State or Capital, will require real participation by organised workers and citizens, lest ‘solutions’ mean ‘restructuring’ individuals into obsolescence: Soylent green capitalism.)

On a lesser note, though evading the kettle, and the specularity of which it is a part, would be wise, I think there’s still a glimmer in gatherings like yesterday’s of a crucial aspect of any politics, what Harvey, again, has called the ‘right to the city’, a right which ‘is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves’.

In a more lyrical vein, the Italian critic Furio Jesi wrote the following lines, in a brief political pamphlet on Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre written in the wake of May ’68 (incidentally, it is from Jesi that Agamben lifted his notion of ‘anthropological machine’, as deployed in The Open):

You can love a city, you can recognise its houses and its streets in your most remote and secret memories; but only in the hour of revolt is the city really felt like an haut-lieu [a high place] and at the same time your own city: your own because it belongs to one but at the same time also to others; your own because it is a battlefield you and the collectivity have chosen; your own, because it is a circumscribed space in which historical time is suspended and in which every act has its own value, in its immediate consequences.

A mere glimmer, I repeat, since yesterday’s vaguely ludic presidium was mostly marked by an odd combination of observation-overload, (kettle-enforced) tedium, uneasy wait for ‘something to happen’, and carnivalesque gestures which, at least in my jaded eyes, did not really transfigure the City’s space. But the ‘hysterical’ dimension, or better the anxiety of not really knowing what one wants (or what ‘it’ – the protest, the crowd, the event – wants), need not be cause for despair. The challenge, as ever, will be to combine a reflection on concrete claims (rather than demands) and the forces that might bear them, a new politics of popular interests capable of channeling what will otherwise turn into ugly reaction, with the creation of spaces where some kind of utopian inquiry and experimentation can take place. We don’t know what we want (exactly, yet), but it’s never too early to struggle to change ourselves (and what we want, or need) by changing our cities and workplaces (whether factories or otherwise).