Friday, 22 March 2013

The timing of the shrew: on Blaumachen, the truncated critique of self-organisation, and the withdrawal of the world

As a preliminary note, readers should understand that this is a fictional composition of light and tinkling character. It is not intended to be read seriously. Perhaps, as a mere fantasy, an entertainment, a trifling bagatelle, it ought not, all things considered, be read at all.

These contradictions of community and property are most evident in projects that aim to ‘liberate’ public space, particularly in Athens. If a lovingly planted occupied park, intended to be a haven of collective solidarity activity in the middle of the urban jungle, is as much a public space as any other in the city, it will inevitably be a locus of the same social contradictions. It follows that there are few options to maintain what such a park’s organisers see as its integrity, beyond actually policing the space. Indeed, some of those who wish to defend such spaces do in fact police access to them by junkies and drug dealers – usually immigrants – and street clashes between those defending the space and those seeking to ‘misuse’ it are not uncommon.
Blaumachen At the limit: self-organisation in Greece

We may be thankful that this text supplies its readers with the necessary information for consideration of a particular marxist derived framing of the problematic of self-organisation which has preoccupied the ultra-left milieu for forty five years. After reading At the limit..., I cannot now think of a particularly pressing reason to read either Négation’s Lip and the self-managed counter-revolution or Théorie Communiste’s Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome, as Blaumachen’s text presents the same material in shorter, more generally readable prose, and with up to date examples.

Even so, it does not really present the problem of self-organisation adequately... or rather, it is a text still constrained by the inherited bourgeois categories of Marx’s thought and is further hampered by the current fad for the jargon of ‘value form critique’. That is to say, At the limit..., is an essentially theological text in that it constricts the content of its thesis by placing too much emphasis on the performative formation of its questions. For reason of its primary concern, i.e. its drive to conform to marxist ideological conventions, it forgets to give a general definition of ‘self-organisation’, and nor does it theoretically elaborate on the problems inherent to self-organising structures. The preoccupation with remaining within the reductive discourse of the ultra-left, and thereby reproducing its themes, reference points, and jargon as a badge of belonging, only serves to inhibit the presentation of how and why the human community might emerge:
The battle against self-organisation itself can emerge within battles in the name of a ‘better’ self-organisation, and find its limits, contradicting itself. The battle against state or corporate co-optation and legalisation, the defence by more combative elements against squats becoming ‘social co-operatives’, and the rebellion against managerial control in co-operatives, all boil down to the contradiction between, on one hand, the subjectivity and inter-individuality put forward as the most ‘positive moment’ of self-organisation, and, on the other, the separation of labour as a distinct activity, the production of value, the division between production and reproduction, and the autonomisation of the conditions of production as economy. In such battles, should they be generalised, the perspective of revolution could begin to move away from class self-affirmation and towards a self-recognition as a category of the capitalist mode of production. And this is a dynamic of rupture and not one of the continuity and growth of the self-organised sphere. It prefigures the self-supersession of the subject that previously found in its situation the capacity to self-organise.

The above paragraph gives no indication of the flourishing of human variety which communist consciousness is directed towards. On the contrary, it launches a discursive ‘expropriation’ of the concept of ‘rupture’ and, by carefully attenuating its theoretical reference points, presents a grimly conventional marxist diorama. However, before we investigate the predominately bourgeois characteristics of marxist theoretical categories, it would seem useful to give a free and easy, even veritably loose-fitting, definition to the concept of self-organisation – the concept as a sort of abolla, in the style that the philosophers used to wear.

We cannot consider self-management in a historical vacuum. Today, self management is not a triumph but a last resort, seen as a solution to unemployment. Grassroots organisations, today, whether they organise on the basis of workers’ identity, or that of democracy and autonomy, or all three, they face the limit posed by the status of the class relation. They cannot be part of a class unity, because of the class fragmentation that is made even worse by precarity and unemployment in the crisis and economic restructuring. We see that the very capacity of the proletariat to find in its relation to capital the basis for constituting itself as an autonomous class and in a powerful workers’ movement has all but disappeared. This is precisely why self-management today is a last resort, rather than a revolutionary project.
What is the problem that ‘self-organising’ is trying to given express to? We can talk about addiction later, but for the moment it is enough to say, in the broadest terms, that a self-organising entity seems to appear as a ‘plea’ (directed where?) for special consideration of the unity of its distinguishable features as these appear in a relation of critical dependence upon external forces. That is to say, some of the components and organs of a complex or web of relations pass into a state of shock when that system passes the threshold, for whatever reason, of its established viability. At this point, particular organs or components react in shock by drawing an outline around themselves, as a preliminary gesture of self-preservation. 

In Greece, today, as the State withdraws from the reproduction of labour power in the form of welfare, replacing it with workfare and policing, while capital, small and large, is forced to withdraw from investment and production, throwing a large section of the population out of the labour contract and into informal/precarious labour and unemployment, there is a resurgence of self-organising activity as well as of interest in it, notably on the part of the state. This self-organising activity is a direct response to the removal of previous sources of reproduction (wages, pensions, welfare), presenting itself as a necessity. Not only is this self-organisation symptomatic of the crisis, but it is itself pervaded by it. 
The self-organised entity seeks its own survival as separate unit from the environment of which it is an expression. However, it does not seek a ‘self-sufficient’ state, it does not wish to close out the world and survive on its own terms. Self-organisation is always a prelude to the reintegration of surviving materials into another set of relations. The self-organised entity seeks to preserve the integrity of its materialised history as a store of wealth and potential which it teleonomically presents as sufficiently objectively worthwhile for it to be it to be plugged back into a different environment which will support it more reliably. In other words, the self-organised unit depends upon the transferable integrity of its unity comprised of an internal store and a distinct outline. The self-organised unit is specifically interested in the regulation of inputs and outputs, i.e. it strenuously polices external access to its internal components and processes. Fundamentally, the question of self-organisation presents the problem of immanence as this relates to smaller units set within wider environments – the cosmic flowing within flows. As Blaumachen observe, it is a very difficult proposition to maintain an outline, to fence off an interior where every component autonomically reactivates the entirety of environment from its simple functioning. That is to say, if the environment has not passed sufficiently into a state of crisis, then the resultant reaction of its discreet entities only performs the gestures of a seasonal or pseudo-shock. 
Commodity exchange necessitates money, it is not ‘dominated’ by it. Exchange, abstract labour, the division of labour, are all preconditions of the production of value, in other words, capitalism. They are not ‘genuine’ relations that then come to be appropriated by capitalists. 
What seems, from the symptomatic dropping of their leaves, like a separation of entities from the supporting environment, more often than not only indicates a processive seasonality – If winter comes, can spring be far behind? The problem of capitalist immanence, as Blaumachen describe above, lies in the revival of the environment from the autonomous activity of its self-separating units. 
The viewpoint of such practice, the reason its participants see it as a political project, while often being careful to recognise its ‘imperfections’, is that it looks towards the ideal of a society of autonomous, self-organised worker-producers, where commodities and surpluses are distributed equally and collective planning takes the place of capitalist competition. This view, the view of autonomy, supposes that the definition of the working class is not in relation to capital but is inherent to it, that the society of workers can exist without reproducing capitalist social relations, or that the continued production of value, of accounting, of imposing an abstract quantifying equalisation of activities, has nothing to do with capitalism. It essentially formalises what we are in our present society as a basis for a new society, which is to be constructed as the liberation of what we are – the liberation of the worker as a worker.
The circuits of capitalism form an environment of relations that are well-attuned to the turning of the seasons – the success of one enterprise depends upon the failure of those that went before –  to paraphrase Bataille, the condition of capitalism (life) is crisis (death). Capitalism is the only historical social relation which grounds its potential successes (capital accumulation) in loss and defeat (capital destruction). For this reason, autonomous, self-organising, units function pyriscently as essential components in capitalism’s fire ecology. Like the Mountain Grey Gum tree, which produces a flourishing of new growth after the conflagration has passed, the self-organised enterprise immediately begins to sprout those fabled green shoots if wider conditions are permitting of it. As Blaumachen acknowledge, economic recovery, i.e. the waking up of self-organised structures from dreams of communism in cold capitalist reality, has little or nothing to do with members’ intentions: 
The discourse of autonomy that underlies many of these initiatives views the self-management of production as its ultimate goal. While current attempts at self-management are not that many, they are increasing, again – and importantly – as a symptom of the crisis and efforts to avoid unemployment. These projects are, again, more dependent on the vicissitudes of the market than on their members’ decisions. To remain competitive, workers very often voluntarily work longer and harder, unpaid, viewing themselves as both worker and business owner, while, when there is surplus, they reinvest it in new self-managed ventures. The relation between labour and capital is still here, just not personalised as capitalist and worker, but still existing within the same subjects. So, despite the fact that these enterprises are not subjectively driven by the motive of accumulation, they still function as capitalist enterprises and are forced to face the question of self-exploitation.
In other words, a ‘higher power’ intervenes in the deep coding of self-managed experiments and triggers in them, against their will, ‘capitalising’ responses. The sap must rise. Blaumachen’s formulation here raises the question, perhaps unintentionally, of the nature of capital’s pathogens. It is assumed by value form critics that the removal of the main end and means of capitalist process, value extraction, will liberate the forces of production. However, it is likely, as capitalist relations must expand as a colonising force into that which they are not, that value is only one element in capital’s overall sociopathological mechanism. 

The commodity form, as an actualising abstraction, attaches itself to other social components however these are understood (if we say use or needs that would not be so far from the mark), which are then realised in a distorted but ‘autonomous’ form. It would be naive to imagine that these monsters, having been manifested as part-objects of attachment and habituation, could easily be dispersed by pledges, principles and resolutions. Historically, wherever value suppression has been imposed, as in workers’ self-organisation, this has only resulted in a value-less productionism – i.e. in a situation where all other factors remain (as Blaumachen say, workers liberated ‘as workers). Marxist theory is itself an example of this in its deployment of value-stripped capitalist categories, which preserve the afterimage of bourgeois imperatives, even within the ritual of their denunciation. 
Perhaps in a different, broader situation of rupture encompassing the whole of society, in an all out conflict against the capitalist class and the state, where the mediations of money and exchange would be thrown into question, such organisations could acquire a different significance or dynamic. There again, new limits would emerge – for example the question of the power relations between doctor and patient and the division of labour, which both presuppose capitalist social relations.
The problem of asserting the imperative of rupture within the framework of realist continuity is a peculiarly bourgeois paradox which has dogged all attempts at the enlightened revolutionary reform of social institutions. Every enlightened revolt conducts itself as the extraction of a useful fragment from a decadent environment which is holding back the true potential of the arrivistes. If only the old ways could be suppressed, then the new would surely flourish. First, the problem was presented in terms of kings, then of democracy, then of property, then of class, then of minority identities – but every revolt undertaken in the name of rationality and against the constraints of ancien irrationality, every reconfiguration of social institutions, has advanced a more abstract, more penetrative, and less opposable, application of institutional domination. 

Marxist theoretical categories preserve the imperative of rationalising revolt, only pushing to a further degree, the already established impulse of bourgeois social reform. This reductive tendency is active in Blaumachen’s text where, following the convention, a depersonalised and objective discourse presents irrefutable findings. The text is set out as an intervention within a would-be official discourse, stripped of messy complexity, and deploying the motifs of realist aesthetics via a depleted lexicon and arguments in favour of an instrumentalising logic. The ruse of objectivism, the description which appears as explanation, is a strategy for discursive control. It is the voice of history revealed. Just as scientific popularisations appear in society to legitimise technological rationalisation and the instrumentalisation of life, so the categories of marxist discourse are directed at implicitly extracting a political authority.

And yet, just as self-organisation may be shown to be of capital, there is no reason to think that marxist discourse has succeeding in freeing itself from the bourgeois paradigms which it thinks it opposes. The rationalising tendency which drives revolutionary reformism, and which seeks to salvage whatever is useful (instrumentalisable) from all that is extraneous (socially unnecessary labour time) is found throughout all strands of Marxism, and is indicative of a non-rupture from Jacobinist roots. As an example:
Today, the task of those who would have once been revolutionaries is reversed: confronted by the disasters caused by the permanent revolutions unleashed by capital, the most important task is to “preserve” some of the essential acquisitions of humanity and to attempt to cultivate them so that they assume a higher form.
Are Free Individuals the Necessary Prerequisites for a Successful Struggle for Freedom?Anselm Jappe
A melancholy prospect. But here at least we can identify the attempt to assert both rupture (the cutting off of the profusion in fettering and wasteful mess) and continuity (the preservation of redemptive utility) as a toxic excretion of thought – and this in turn presents us with the opportunity for conducting some fascinating stool analysis. It is our historic role to discover what such thoughts have been eating for their breakfast. To this end, the first question of such analysis is, what do marxists mean by a ‘rupture’ with capitalism, when they take it as given that they are also seek to establish and preserve a historical continuity via their category of ‘activity’? 
This rupture and its generalisation, however, does not happen without organisation, without an upfront collision against the capitalist class and the state on a wider scale. It takes organisation when proletarians take on various tasks necessary for the development of their struggle: blocking roads, laying siege to police stations, blocking supplies to the forces of order, seizing essential commodities… and so on. The question here is not one of spontaneity versus organisation, but of expropriation versus the appropriation and management of what exists in the construction of a new economy.
 The ambivalent terms cleave to/cleave from may have proved a more appropriate choice here when so many bourgeois categories have been conserved. Even so, rupture as a concept may be illuminatively elaborated. We need to be clear that ‘rupture’ does not refer to a causal event but to an event within causality. A rupture does not set things in motion, it introduces from the outside, an unexpected break and is manifested at the level of a disruption in the environmental constraints of fixed processes. After the shock of rupture has been absorbed, causal relations, developmental processes, are re-established from remaining energisable materials – these rapidly adapt to fill the available terrain and then become fixed and predictable, a new set of constrained relations. The new established relations do not arise in relation to the rupture but from amongst available materials subsequent to the rupture event. 

Examples of rupture are common in nature and are perhaps more comprehensible. It might be illustrative to briefly note one of these. By the time of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which occurred 65-66 million years ago, and which included the extinction of the dinosaurs, shrew-like mammals had already been present on earth for 150 million years. The removal of the reptiles from the available ecological space resulted in an ‘adaptive radiation’ event, in which a rapid evolutionary diversification in mammal species (e.g. 130 genera and 4000 species in just 10 million years), was accompanied during the Cenozoic by an increase in size (e.g. a 9.1% increase in mammalian genera post-K-Pg extinction), numbers and dispersal. Mammals (obviously) played no revolutionary role in the K-Pg extinction, and yet can be seen as the obvious beneficiaries. Equally, no bolide, no mammal revolution – without that space rock, dinosaurs would have remained the fittest.  

Just as the clade of mammals passed the K-T boundary through no particular effort of their own so human beings wandered first into ‘prehistory’ and then into ‘history’ accidentally. Their appearance as conscious beings owes more to co-option, exaptation and even mal-adaptation than to ‘teleonomy’ or even basic natural selection . This is important when we come to try and engage with ideas of social change or self-change because both popular evolutionary theory and the society from which it emerged, has emphasised progressive adaptations, the march to complexity. In reality, accident has played a greater role in the evolution of species at the level of establishing terrain. Now, if we consider communist notions of ‘rupture’ these tend more to conform to bourgeois ideas of self-realisation than they do actual events of rupture. 

The above quoted extract from Blaumachen’s text usefully demonstrates the non-rupture which is present in so much marxist social dramaturgy. Whilst it presents dramatic events on stage, a social war conducted as a militarised ‘break’, this occurs within a conventional bourgeois stage-setting and narrative of historical becoming: it is a convention, and not revolutionary, to assert that human society is responsive to voluntary decisions and acts; it is a convention that organisation and planning produce their intended results; it is a convention that expropriation is fundamental to human society; it is a convention that that which is resisted, must first be understood (i.e. political economy); it is a convention that the appearances of divergent forces in society must be resolved by violent confrontation; it is a convention that the problem of social relations is an external phenomenon and may be ‘opposed’ as if it were an enemy; it is a convention that there has to be  a continuity between those acts of ‘organisation’ and ‘expropriation’ which are undertaken within conditions of class conflict, and the formation of communism. 

All this is symptomatic of neo-jacobinism; it has no specifically communist content. There is nothing in the proletarian roadblocks that Blaumachen advocate which was not in the vigilante roadblocks in Cairo during 2011. In reality, the general relations of communism cannot be asserted via class struggle; there is no continuity between class consciousness and communism; the social world will always be composed more from unintended consequences than achieved desires; violent confrontation only increases social problems and never resolves them. In short, a paradox faces every communist, it is that there must be communism (i.e. a communist umwelt) for there to be communism (i.e. lived relations). For their society to function adequately, humans should be born into that which has already been established. The proposed emphasis in communisation theory on living relations and the expropriation of dead labour to facilitate living relations, fundamentally misunderstands the necessity of a pre-formed world. 

A communist society will not result from proletarian revolution, still less from proletarian ‘struggle’. The rupture of the ‘revolution’, i.e. the collapse of capitalist relations, is in no causal relation to the establishment of communist relations – the two sequences, and the event which separates them, are quite distinct moments. The possibility of communism only emerges from the relations between the materials made available in conditions where the organisational constraints of capitalism are no longer operable – none of this can be predicted or factored into communist ‘strategies’. 

There is no continuity between the organisations, the mindset and its skills that are developed by the proletariat and the materials, and conditions, necessary to develop fully human social relations. To make this more clear, just as ‘self-organisation’ leads back to capitalist conventions, so the activities of communists are as likely, or more likely, to lead to something other than their stated purpose, i.e. are more likely to result in non-communism. It is as likely, or more likely, that something other than their principles and their ‘praxis’ will prove decisive in the outcome of their engagement with the conditions of their world. Given the history of communism, this has long been obvious to all of us (i.e. revolutionary reformism = where Marx was, the policy of liquidation follows), but few seem prepared to investigate the implications of this. We know but do not name, this other fatal power, this higher power, which seems always to intervene and drives elective projects from their course.

It might be a good idea therefore to examine the recursive character of ‘higher powers’ and how these might interrupt the coding of subject formations, and cause them to over-adapt to their host environment. Firstly we need to understand what ‘over-adaptation’ means. We can get to grips with this through the use of the concept of ‘higher power’ in the theology of Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction is the condition of dependence of an entity upon the continued presence of that agent which originally caused systemic disruption to the entity but which it has learnt to ‘metabolise’. 

Addiction is the desire to repeatedly process injury by a specific cause as a means to control the possibility of injury by unknown cause. Therefore, over-adaptation, as a form of addiction, is the dependency of an entity on a niche environment. The ‘higher power’ is a designation for the effects of the reward pathway which cause the entity to abandon its adaptability to a wide range of uncertain circumstances in favour of a specialised dependent relation to the particularity of this environment ( e.g. the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush).

In AA theology, the ‘higher power’ in the alcoholic’s life originally appears as alcohol but is supplanted by ‘god’ in his/her emergence from alcohol mediated existence. Just as alcohol establishes a metabolic regime of coping, so the replacement of alcohol by a habitual falling back onto ‘god’ establishes a path of return. It is clear here that ‘higher power’ does not refer to the intervention of an intelligence any more than there is a will or intent located in a bottle of alcohol. In reality higher power is not a ‘higher power’ at all but an external or prior power, i.e. a structuring which exists before the individual and which guides him/her as if it were a rail. We can see that the higher power operates by interrupting certain natural progressions of logic, i.e. the alcoholic at the height of his/her addiction will metabolise every challenge to his/her existence by reaching for the bottle. Similarly, during recovery, he/she will reach for the structure AA calls ‘God’. Both the bottle and God operate ‘pre-consciously’ or independently of the addict’s pledges and resolutions – they intervene before he/she makes a decision and persuade him/her down a pre-set route of metabolisation. AA seek an addiction to God as a means of side-stepping the addiction to alcohol. It is an ingenious, practical and profound approach without it ever attaining the status of a for-itself consciousness.

Even so, we can associate the intervention of AA’s higher power with the higher power of capitalism as this causes projects of self-organisation to metabolise a return to the reward paths of capital – these pre-set pathways being the most familiar to them. Again, ‘capital’ here is not an intelligence. It is not a ‘higher power’ at all, it is a molecular disruption of intelligence and higher functioning. Just as lead poisoning, or alcohol, or dementia causes the disruption of higher functions from below, so capitalism undermines the high ideals of self-organisation (and indeed communism). The struggle against capital does not occur at the higher functioning level of physical confrontation against an external enemy (i.e. where the bourgeois subject appears as historical protagonist) but at the level of divergent metabolisations of environmental disturbances. 

The addictive environment of capitalism must be disrupted before over-adapted humanity is to break free of it, but the overcoming of addiction does not suppose a confrontation with the addictive substance. On the contrary, it involves the realisation of another environment to which we may adapt ourselves –  unfortunately for we ‘who are powerless’ over capital - and whose lives ‘have become unmanageable’, this other environment may only be realised by a ‘higher power’. 

No doubt, this raises questions of ‘ourselves’ as that higher power, of ‘ourselves’ as other, but all that is for another day. Instead, I shall make the assertion that the  extent of environmental crisis must be measured by the withdrawal of that environment’s system of integrated relations from its units, and this in turn is measured by the rate and degree of ‘shock’ (i.e. withdrawal symptoms) that is registered in such units. Where established general relations are not reinstigated as ‘green shoots’ of recovery in the specific activities of the units (i.e. where entities do not autonomously recommence the construction of the pre-set forms of their environment) then these have either been shed by the general relation, or (more positively for our purpose) they are indicative of another energy distribution network (another higher power) that is sustaining them and is emerging, articulating itself, through them.  

However, return is always more likely than rupture. The discreet entity does not ‘belong’ in its environment, it is a specific embodiment of that environment’s general relations. Sphagnum moss, the exmoor pony, the raft spider, the stone-curlew, the sea-buckthorn, the tunbridge filmy fern, the mole cricket, the purple emperor, the purple laver, the goldcrest, the dormouse, are all identifiable as discreet entities – but they do not exist abstractly. They cannot be said to be what they are if extracted from their environment. That is to say, a zebra is not a zebra if it is standing on an iceberg, and there are no lions in the zoo, but only lion shapes. 

For this reason, successful self-separation by means of voluntary activity of entities from the environment within which they had been immanent is always an unlikely outcome, particularly if the environment itself is not collapsing. If the Large Blue butterfly is found in Site X on Dartmoor then Site X is no less to be found in the Large Blue. Neither a cog nor a seed, neither a call nor a beak has a separate life. By definition, an environment is established through the feeding back and conservation of the modification of discreet components into the general net of energy distribution within which they are immanent. That is to say, there are no communists in capitalism, but only communist shapes. The one who purposefully revolts is more likely to return himself, by his own exertions, and by virtue of his exertion, to that which he has revolted against, than the one who merely drifts. To finish this on a downbeat note, lets lament for generosity:
Capitalism is not only not actively opposed or ruptured by communities of sharing, but it is a condition of the existence of such autonomous communities, which inevitably depend on capitalist commodity production and exchange for their survival (except if there are primitivist communes). Sharing has no intrinsic meaning independently of what is being shared and under what conditions it is being shared. It could evade money at an individual level, but is not intrinsically against it – it can equally be an outcome of friendship or an ingredient of capitalist production.

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