Posts Tagged ‘Alain Badiou’

Stateless society and the uprising in Egypt.

February 5, 2011 10 comments

Can the events in Tunisia and Egypt reshape the way libertarians, anarchists and communists think both about a stateless society and how this stateless society can emerge?

I think it should.

The popular uprising, somewhat discredited as a means of achieving a stateless society until recently, appears to be in vogue again. What makes it of particular interest to me is that the uprising is itself a voluntary cooperative act by members of society against an intolerable state machine. It doesn’t take much curiosity to wonder if this voluntary association can do more than simply challenge the existing order.

Can it replace the existing order as was attempted with the Paris Commune?

I have been reading the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s recent talk “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”. As usual, this monumental thinker clarifies a lot of things in my opinion. Just reading his talk aided my own understanding of the Egyptian uprising going on now.

Here is how Badiou analyzes the Tunisian uprising:

The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one…

The power of the uprising, Badiou argues, “is essentially negative (‘make it go away’)” All uprisings are acts of despair and desperation and this desperate act is a striking out against, and throwing off of, the intolerable burden of the existing State.

The problem with this act is that it does not, of itself, address the question: “What now?”

The riot is a desperate rage against an intolerable State, which, even when successful, has no affirmative design beyond getting rid of the existing order. Absent a positive conception of a new order to replace the old one it offers no obvious solution to the problem of the intolerable power whose overthrow it has just effected. The danger posed by the absence of a positive aim after the overthrow of the old order is that the old order merely reconstitutes itself in a new form. In a remarkable passage in which he identifies Egypt as a potential target, Badiou explains this reconstitution of the old order:

The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a Western desire. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali.  How this desire as such suggests a Western desire is very uncertain.

It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way whatsoever about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,* if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.

Without a positive conception of its aspirations the uprising will fall prey to the reconstitution of the old order that is not merely the Mubarak regime, but the empire headquartered in Washington, for which the Egyptian state is only the local outpost. The hallmarks of this reconstitution are constitutional reform, replacement of the most odious personalities, a reshuffling of the cabinet, and a promise of “free and fair elections” — what Badiou calls the “Western inclusion”. Beneath all of this reshuffling, however, the existing State continues undisturbed.

Badiou asks: “Is there another possibility?” He answers: “Yes.”

If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion.

If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing expected from the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections.

What is interesting about Badiou is he never feels the need to tack on some finishing touch to his analysis. He goes only so far as his analysis takes him and leaves it there. This gives his analysis the appearance of being unfinished, but it is actually his most powerful argument. Badiou simply tells us that, so far as he can see, there is no reason why an uprising has to end up with “free and fair elections” and the perfunctory reforms orchestrated by Washington. In the case of the Tunisian riots, he concludes only by stating that what the riot lacks in terms of an affirmative statement can only be discovered by studying the events themselves:

What is required is an patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division … will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: statements. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these statements, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new statements that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.

So, what can we learn from Egypt about the possibilities for a stateless society in light of Badiou’s analysis of Tunisia? In my opinion, the following:

In his inquiry Badiou poses the alternative affirmation as an essentially negative act: “an exclusion” or break with the West. It is expressed in the form of a declaration of intention by the uprising that is fundamentally incompatible with the existing order — with globalization and empire itself.

However, so far as I can tell, the uprising in Egypt is this negative act of exclusion already. By challenging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime the uprising called into question the entirety of relations of which Mubarak and his henchmen are only the local expression. Confirmation of my conclusion can be seen simply by reviewing Washington’s response to the uprising — the Obama administration certainly believes that its fundamental interest are at risk.

What Badiou demonstrates, therefore, is that the uprising must become aware of itself as an active challenge to “the West” — to globalization and empire. To become more than a mere riot, the uprising must recognize that it is the first act of a voluntary association — the first act by which this voluntary association establishes itself as a new basis for society. Badiou demonstrates that it is not a question of organization, but a question of consciousness on a mass scale that is wanting.

The question we all have to ask ourselves at this point is simple: What separates the uprising of January 25 from the Paris Commune?

In the case of the Paris Commune, the uprising recognized itself as the solution to the intolerable burden of the State. It did not merely sweep away the existing order, but set about to manage society itself in voluntary association. It invited the rest of France to join with it.

Every local uprising like January 25 should aspire to become a non-local event – to declare itself as the new basis of social organization and to appeal to the oppressed of the world to join with it. The call for a transitional government, constitutional reform, new elections, etc., should be rejected. The January 25 uprising must avoid being defined as something of significance only to Egypt; it cannot win if it is confined to Egypt — it must strip off its national form. In response to the secret negotiations directed by Washington, the January 25 uprising will have to aggressively declare its intentions to go global.

If the January 25 movement does not acquire a consciousness of its own global significance it will be isolated and suppressed. It has to aspire to more than changing local personalities and declare that the empire, headed by Washington, is the enemy.

What is truly revolutionary in the uprising in Egypt is that it can become a universal event, spreading beyond Egypt – a general rising of the oppressed. To do this, the uprising will have to reject every attempt both to confine it to Egypt and pacify it with minor changes in the existing State.

The target is Washington and its empire; the aim is to replace this empire with the voluntary association of individuals.

Six reasons why Marxists and progressives need to oppose unemployment compensation

December 21, 2010 2 comments

I received this response to my post, What help for the 99ers? (Part four: It’s not personal), yesterday on GonzoTimes:

Turn your soul off. Turn your humanity off. Turn your brain off. And voila, you’ve turned into a Republican “pro-lifer” who says “screw the poor”. Genius!

The comment was a bit cryptic to me. Is the writer saying I have become a Republican pro-lifer who hates the poor? I could not be sure so I responded with this gem in a moment of anger:

If your cryptic comment is directed at me, I take offense — not with your remark, but with the phony humanitarianism hidden behind it. Giving the unemployed $300 a week does nothing to address the causes of unemployment, which is Washington itself. If you are moved by the plight of the 99ers, as I am, I suggest you link up and find ways to support them on an authentic basis, rather than mailing your support in via your taxes. But, more important, I hope you will be moved to fight to reduce hours of work to abolish unemployment and the system that creates it permanently.

You might also consider Badiou’s critique of phony humanitarianism in his book, Ethics.

I am not satisfied with this response. It was driven as much by defensiveness as by any positive statement on the situation of the 99ers. It, therefore, does nothing to convince those who really support the cause of the 99ers to take another look at their assumptions.

Am I a renegade? The question asked, of course, demands a complete response — not first to the commenter, but to myself. Am I on some slippery slope to the renegacy decried by Badiou? Definitely time for an attitude check, and a deep examination to make sure my humanity was still in working order.

I come away from this moment of self-reflection even more sure of my position and a more fervent opponent of unemployment compensation than before. I do not think my view is one of a renegade or heartless conservative, but one who remains committed to the aims I have stood for since I was a teenager and first encountered the idea of communism. I put forth below six reasons why I think it is the classical communist position to oppose unemployment compensation:

The question I asked myself is this: Would Marx have supported unemployment compensation in his day? And, my answer to that was, “Yes.” Without a doubt he would have advocated for it, and considered it a demand consistent with the aim of communism — a measure designed to protect the working class from the vagaries and misery of the business cycle. So, why am I advocating against it? This is not Marx’s day. In his day periodic crises were common enough and no more than temporary lulls between periods of expansion during which the productive capacity of society was being augmented by capital. The scale of production was being increased, and the numbers of laborers moving from agriculture into industry was, however subject to fluctuations and sudden fits and stops, progressively converting the labor process from that of solitary farmers into massive engines of immediately social production. The process was not pretty, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was moving society generally in the direction of the abolition of labor.

Today it is otherwise. Society is drowning in its own productive capacity and we face a State that, for its own purposes, seeks to drive us under altogether. This requires we rethink all our assumptions. So here are my thoughts:

First. Today’s crises are not the mere interruption of an otherwise revolutionary reconstitution and enhancement of the productive power of labor. They are  failures of State measures to facilitate the constant expansion of completely superfluous labor. Supporting unemployment compensation today, when unemployment is no longer a temporary condition but a permanent feature of an economy drowning in a surplus population of able-bodied workers, and when the only effective policy to reduce this surplus population is to reduce hours of labor, is a travesty.

Second. Just as this crisis is not a momentary cessation between periods of expansion of capital, so it is not an accident, defect, or aberration. It has been established by economists that we are facing a long-term secular decline in Washington’s capacity to force the creation of new jobs. Washington’s tools of fiscal and monetary policy are gradually becoming ineffective in stimulating superfluous economic activity. It is also requiring more aggressive measures to produce the same effect — much like in the case of a junkie requiring larger doses of his preferred substance to achieve the same high. Washington is now creating massive amounts of new debt each month in a desperate attempt to keep this ugly Ponzi scheme right side up. The declining effectiveness of job creating measures stems not from lack of serious effort on Washington’s part, but on the very goal of the effort itself: to create work where there is no need for work.

Third. The strategy adopted by Washington to create unnecessary work was predicted to fail by many economists during the housing bubble; and at least as early as 1993, Hyman Minsky predicted a financial disaster was unfolding before our eyes. He warned of just the kinds of Ponzi schemes that Washington was facilitating in its deregulation of financial activities in its desperation to lengthen the working day by encouraging working families to accumulate unprecedentedly large personal debts. Despite these warnings, Washington, under the Clinton administration, and again under the Bush II administration, facilitated this accumulating family debt and even put in place measures to prevent working families from declaring bankruptcy to relieve themselves of it. Fully two thirds of all job creation during that period resulted from such debt accumulation.

Fourth. Beyond this, Marx and many other writers warned that a collapse of capital was inevitable. The growing output of industry resulting from improvements in productivity of social labor, Marx explained, was running into declining demand for productive employment of labor resulting from this improvement. In its drive to accumulate surplus, capital was making the ever increasing employment of superfluous labor into the necessary condition for the employment of productive labor. In time it would, he argued, become a matter of life or death for capital to find some means to increase the absolute waste of human labor in order to support profitable investment. That time arrived during the Great Depression when every industrialized nation suffered a catastrophic economic failure, and the State stepped in as the ultimate consumer of commodities and labor power rendered superfluous by overly long hours of work. Efforts by many to reduce hours of work during that period were defeated in Washington, which went on to erase the possibility of less work time from political-economic conversation.

Fifth. Despite all of the above, an argument could be made that we are nevertheless forced to support unemployment compensation because we have no power to change the situation in the short run. I think this argument is specious and even misleading: Unemployment compensation is exactly the wrong measure to pursue at present because it asks people to identify with the very cause of their unemployment. It is the political equivalent of asking people to lobby Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for handouts to ease their poverty. This “progressive” solution to the problem of the ever lengthening work day, which is the entire basis for the present unemployment, is to ask the very institution in society responsible for unemployment to ease the impact of the problem it created in the first place. We have to wake up to the fact that Washington is not a neutral actor in this play: it is the largest single consumer of surplus value in the society — and in human history; beside it, every other consumer — all “the rich” taken in their entirety — run a poor second. Washington not only knows the consequences of its policies, it fucking intends to create those consequences! The whole of its policies are designed to press the consumption of the mass of society to the lowest possible level in order that it may feed on the resultant surplus.

Sixth. We should be completely offended by the very concept of State aid for unemployment in any case. The entire argument for it, as offered by progressives and Marxists, rests on the image of the unemployed as helpless victims who must be protected from the vagaries of economic forces. As Badiou might argue, this image is completely isolated from its social context. The image of the suffering victim does not ask us how this pathetic creature came to be in her circumstance, nor does it seek to identify who caused her suffering. We are left with the need to do something — anything — to end the suffering. But, what? It is all too easy to write your congressperson or senator demanding an end to the suffering, and then sit comfortably at home watching the progress of the bill on the Rachel Maddow Show — self-satisfied that you did your part, and outraged at those who didn’t.

I am sorry, but I do demand you do something — something real, something authentic! I demand you go out of your house and find 99ers, create a network of support among folks in your community to support all 99ers. Make their plight your own in voluntary association with others. And, demand Washington cease to exist.

Badiou’s “Communist Hypothesis” Considered (Draft version)

December 5, 2010 3 comments

(This is only a draft version. I am looking for comments.)

We must confess to being completely unaware of Alain Badiou until recently discovering his work through word of mouth on the internet. As we tend to work in isolation, we are not surprised to find, here and there, one or another voice critical of the existing order with which we are completely unfamiliar. Yet, having discovered Alain, we were eager to see what he had to say, since, among a number of circles, his work is being eagerly digested and reviewed.

That said, after reading his piece in the New Left Review from 2009, The Communist Hypothesis, we walked away from it very confused by the clamor. Halfway through a first reading, we found his “sequence” history of communism quite suspect. We are skeptical that anything like a history of communism as a series of “sequences” exists. These alleged “sequences” leave out much of the rich history of communism; and, what is included is less critically examined than simply dismissed. This, of course, was only a first impression. The more we actually delved into his ideas, the less we were convinced that there was anything of substance being offered to those whose hunger for the critical examination of capitalism has been whetted by the present crisis.

However, leaving our conclusions to the end, we report on our investigation of Alain Badiou’s ideas, and confine ourselves to his ideas as laid out in the article.

A quick recap of Badiou’s history of the communist hypothesis:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

This communist hypothesis has, according to Alain, passed through two “sequences” since the outbreak of the French Revolution. The first, from 1792 (The French Revolution) to 1872 (The fall of the Paris Commune) saw the hypothesis posed as a historical task on mankind’s agenda. The second sequence– which Badiou dates from The Russian Revolution in 1917 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1976 — consisted of many attempts to realize this agenda. Between the two sequences is a period of some forty years, during which, Badiou alleges, “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable…”

We note, briefly, that it is clear from this timeline Badiou is subtly revealing the emphasis of his presentation: we expected a discussion of communism as what Marx called, “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”; instead, we get a history of communism as the history of a particular trend within this movement. It is precisely during the period of what Badiou labels, “an interval dominated by the enemy, when new experiments are tightly circumscribed,” that many working class parties were in fact emerging, and the pivotal struggle for the eight hour day was born. All of this rich history is dismissed by Badiou and relegated to a mere interval between his sequences. Badiou, thus, never subjects this entire period to any critical examination.

In particular, Alain directs our attention to the “second sequence”:

It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of the possessing classes; how to organize the new power so as to protect it against the onslaught of its enemies? It was no longer a question of formulating and testing the communist hypothesis, but of realizing it: what the 19th century had dreamt, the 20th would accomplish. The obsession with victory, centred around questions of organization, found its principal expression in the ‘iron discipline’ of the communist party—the characteristic construction of the second sequenceof the hypothesis.

The second sequence of communism succeeded where the Paris Commune failed, establishing several beachheads in the face of stiff reaction. But, these successes carried from birth the defect of their origins:

The party had been an appropriate tool for the overthrow of weakened reactionary regimes, but it proved ill-adapted for the construction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the sense that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the transition to the non-state: its dialectical ‘withering away’. Instead, the party-state developed into a new form of authoritarianism. Some of these regimes made real strides in education, public health, the valorization of labour, and so on; and they provided an international constraint on the arrogance of the imperialist powers. However, the statist principle in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective. Police coercion could not save the ‘socialist’ state from internal bureaucratic inertia; and within fifty years it was clear that it would never prevail in the ferocious competition imposed by its capitalist adversaries. The last great convulsions of the “second sequence”—the Cultural Revolution and May 68, in its broadest sense—can be understood as attempts to deal with the inadequacy of the party.

The alleged defect of this second sequence of the communist hypothesis – the party-state — is acknowledged by Alain, but never explained by him. We are left to wonder why, at this point in his essay, he doesn’t evaluate 20th Century Communism from the standpoint of the criteria he drew from the Communist Manifesto; i.e., from the agenda set forth during the first sequence. Instead, Alain offers us only the conclusion that we cannot go back to the methods of the second sequence:

Since the second sequence came to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the adversary in the ascendant once more. What is at stake in these circumstances is the eventual opening of a new sequence of the communist hypothesis. But it is clear that this will not be—cannot be—the continuation of the second one. Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state—all the inventions of the 20th century—are not really useful to us any more. At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consideration; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable. The second sequence is over and it is pointless to try to restore it.

So, not only is the “interlude” between Badiou’s first and second sequence dismissed uncritically, the entire so-called “second sequence” is likewise ignored – reduced to the authoritarianism, bureaucratic inertia, and corruption of the party-state. At this point, we have sufficient gronds not only to challenge Badiou’s critique of the so-called “interlude” between the first and second sequence, but to call into question his characterization of the first sequence itself, and, with it, his entire critique. Indeed, since the failure of the second sequence is his departure point for a revival of the communist hypothesis, what are we to make of his characterization of our present circumstances – i.e., the entire period since the death of Mao?

Alain, however, quickly moves on: calling on us to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode. A task he acknowledges is complex:

We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.

What lessons can be drawn from the “second sequence”?

Alain leaves us with little to go on regarding what lessons, if any, we might be able to salvage from the failed second sequence of the communist hypothesis. In this sense, we stand in somewhat of an inferior position to the men and women of the second sequence, since they at least had Marx and Engels to draw some lessons from the first sequence. Among the most widely acknowledged of these lessons, of course, was the conclusion, arrived at by the Commune, that it was not possible to merely lay hold the existing state machinery — it had to be broken.

Drawing on Alain’s restatement of the communist hypothesis, we can offer a tentative outline of four lessons from the so-called second sequence:

  1. “…the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome.” 20th Century communism demonstrated that it is not only the subordination of labor to capital, but also the subordination of the members of society to labor itself that poses the crux of the matter.
  2. “…a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour.” While indeed, the inequality of wealth was eliminated, in its absence a universal poverty was established, leaving the division of labor more firmly entrenched than it had ever been.
  3. “The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear.” Private appropriation and inheritance indeed disappeared, but this was replaced by a far more implacable opponent: public property — a form of property whose defect was that it could be totally indifferent to inheritance since, unlike individuals, it had a potentially unlimited lifetime.
  4. “The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.In 20th Century communism the division of the coercive state and civil society was eliminated, but the elimination took the form of the absorption of civil society into the state, which state, having become a totalitarian organism, resisted every attempt by society to realize an association independent of it.

To sum up: the abolition of private property proved not to be identical with the abolition of property. Nor was the abolition of wage labor the same as the abolition of the subordination of society to labor and the division of labor. Finally, the abolition of the cleavage between society and the state proved not to be the same as the voluntary association of its members.

Insofar as the communism is considered, the replacement of private property by public property and its management according to plan, and the replacement of wage labor by the principle “to each according to his work” was only the beginningthe initial phase — of communism. While the second sequence was a clear advance against private property and wage labor, in that it achieved this minimum, it failed to go beyond it: to replace property, labor, and the state with the voluntary association of the members of society.

We argue that, despite their signal victories, the communisms of the 20th Century were based on isolation and scarcity. As such, impressive though they may have been, they were merely “local events”, enforced by the isolation from, rather than a connection to, the universal intercourse created by the world market. True, unlike their forebears, the Utopian experiments of the 19th Century, these communes assumed control of entire nation-states; but, for all of this they remained local events threatened by every advance of the world market.

We offer the above tentative observations because we think they might help us to understand why Marx arrived at the following conclusion when he examined the rationale underlying attempts to create communist associations during the early- and mid-19th Century:

This “alienation” (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an “intolerable” power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless,” and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.

In this passage, Marx seems to be saying for a voluntary association to emerge naturally out of the activity of the members of society, the development of the world market already would have placed them in such a situation that no other possibility existed for any other form of state. Marx follows this up by emphatically distancing himself from any attempt to substitute Utopian plans for this process:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

Badiou’s Proposal for a Third Sequence

The inadequacy of Badiou’s critique of the second sequence finds its expression in his sketch of a potential starting point for a “third sequence” of the communist hypothesis. Badiou proposes that we counter the globalistic logic of capital with our own ‘universal truth’:

What might this involve? Experimentally, we might conceive of finding a point that would stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’. Any point, so long as it is in formal opposition to such service, and offers the discipline of a universal truth. One such might be the declaration: ‘There is only one world’. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, of course, that it has created a global order; its opponents too speak of ‘alter-globalization’. Essentially, they propose a definition of politics as a practical means of moving from the world as it is to the world as we would wish it to be. But does a single world of human subjects exist? The ‘one world’ of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelming majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. They are locked out, often literally so.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the world’s wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in favelas, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The ‘problem of immigration’ is, in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other countries provide living proof that—in human terms—the ‘unified world’ of globalization is a sham.

Indeed, far from creating a unified world, globalization is simply the perfection of universal competition between all members of all nations within the world market. However, it is important to recognize that “the brutal division of human existence” consists not only, or even primarily in the division “into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions”, but, more important, in the division of the conditions of existence generally. As Marx described it:

First the productive forces appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals: the reason for this is that the individuals, whose forces they are, exist split up and in opposition to one another, whilst, on the other hand, these forces are only real forces in the intercourse and association of these individuals. Thus, on the one hand, we have a totality of productive forces, which have, as it were, taken on a material form and are for the individuals no longer the forces of the individuals but of private property, and hence of the individuals only insofar as they are owners of private property themselves. Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals, because their intercourse itself was formerly a restricted one. On the other hand, standing over against these productive forces, we have the majority of the individuals from whom these forces have been wrested away, and who, robbed thus of all real life-content, have become abstract individuals, but who are, however, only by this fact put into a position to enter into relation with one another as individuals.

The only connection which still links them with the productive forces and with their own existence — labour — has lost all semblance of self-activity and only sustains their life by stunting it. While in the earlier periods self-activity and the production of material life were separated, in that they devolved on different persons, and while, on account of the narrowness of the individuals themselves, the production of material life was considered as a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that altogether material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity), as the means.

The lesson of the second sequence is that it is not possible for society simply to lay hold of these productive forces and end the indifference to individuals as individuals. These productive forces are themselves nothing more than the productive capacities of the men and women who compose society. Simply laying hold of these forces and managing them reduces communism to a planning board (or, a central bank) and the increasingly totalitarian administration of social life by the State. The administration of these productive forces can only be the work of a voluntary association of members of society, and the rest reduced to the mere management of things.

It is fairly clear from our reading of Marx that an association of individuals must replace labor, property and the State. And here Marx offers a clue: labor is the only remaining connection between individuals and their own independently existing productive forces. This labor is the negative form of the self-activity we hope to achieve. To achieve this self-activity requires that we sever this labor connection between ourselves and our own productive capacities and existence.

Marx’s commentary on communism

Thus things have now come to such a pass”, says Marx“that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence.” And, he outlines how the inherent logic of our present circumstances compels us to act:

This appropriation is first determined by the object to be appropriated, the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse. From this aspect alone, therefore, this appropriation must have a universal character corresponding to the productive forces and the intercourse.

The appropriation of these forces is itself nothing more than the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production. The appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is, for this very reason, the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves.

This appropriation is further determined by the persons appropriating. Only the proletarians of the present day, who are completely shut off from all self-activity, are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the thus postulated development of a totality of capacities. All earlier revolutionary appropriations were restricted; individuals, whose self-activity was restricted by a crude instrument of production and a limited intercourse, appropriated this crude instrument of production, and hence merely achieved a new state of limitation. Their instrument of production became their property, but they themselves remained subordinate to the division of labour and their own instrument of production. In all expropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all.

This appropriation is further determined by the manner in which it must be effected. It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.

Labor has to be transformed into self-activity, and this transformation can only be accomplished by the same act as that which abolishes property, and, in which the State is replaced by a voluntary association of individuals, i.e., by the abolition of labor itself. Marx argues:

In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society.

We wonder why Alain neglected this extensive commentary by Marx on the nature of communism. It is particularly disturbing since he himself identifies the need to “stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’.” And, what could be further outside the service of wealth than abolishing labor itself. Indeed, in Capital Marx calls the mere limitation on hours of labor the “modest Magna Charta” of the working class, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”

Most if not almost all of those who consider themselves in some way inheritors of Marx’s critique of capitalist society — and here we include such faint variants as European Social-Democracy and progressive thought in the United States — do not recognize the role labor plays in his critique of capitalist society, nor the conclusion that labor itself is not salvageable, but must, of necessity, be replaced by voluntary association. While the findings of certain writers, such as, Moishe Postone, attempt to recapture Marx’s critique of labor, this attempt has gone almost unnoticed by the vast majority of even the most extreme critics of the current social order.

According to Postone, under capitalism, labor does not simply refer to the act of production nor simply to the interchange between mankind and nature, without which our existence is impossible. Labor does these things, but it also actually constitutes (creates, determines and brings into being) the very social fabric of capitalist society itself. Says Postone,

To sum up: In Marx’s mature works, the notion that labor is at the core of social life does not simply refer to the fact that material production is always a precondition of social life. Nor does it imply that production is the historically specific determining sphere of capitalist civilization—if production is understood only as the production of goods. In general, the sphere of production in capitalism should not be understood only in terms of the material interactions of humans with nature. While it is obviously true that the “metabolic” interaction with nature effected by labor is a precondition of existence in any society, what determines a society is also the nature of its social relations. Capitalism, according to Marx, is characterized by the fact that its fundamental social relations are constituted by labor. Labor in capitalism objectifies itself not only in material products—which is the case in all social formations—but in objectified social relations as well. By virtue of its double character, it constitutes as a totality an objective, quasi-natural societal sphere that cannot be reduced to the sum of direct social relations and, as we shall see, stands opposed to the aggregate of individuals and groups as an abstract Other. In other words, the double character of commodity-determined labor is such that the sphere of labor in capitalism mediates relations that, in other formations, exist as a sphere of overt social interaction. It thereby constitutes a quasi-objective social sphere. Its double character signifies that labor in capitalism has a socially synthetic character, which labor in other formations does not possess. Labor as such does not constitute society per se; labor in capitalism, however, does constitute that society.

Essentially, Postone’s argument must lead us to the conclusion that both Property and the State are constituted by Labor itself, and not the other way around. In this sense, for instance, the ‘full employment’ mandate of European and American governments which arises from the universal competition pitting workers of every nation within the world market against each other, and which drive anti-immigrant demagogues, are themselves social relations constituted by labor itself. To propose this deeply embedded determination can be countered with a ‘universal truth’ is, frankly, unrealistic.

What Postone’s ingenious insight into Marx’s analysis of labor allows us to understand is that labor itself is reproducing the divorce between the members of society and their own productive capacities, spitting up these productive capacities, setting them into opposition with each other, and leaving the members of society under a universal existential threat. Labor itself, directly as the negative form of self-activity, and, as the negative activity mediating both the existing state and property relations, has become an intolerable power against which the members of society must struggle on pain of catastrophe.

It follows that any effort to create a new society must begin with the universal demand for the abolition of labor through voluntary association. It is entirely of this demand that communism consists.

Can labor be abolished today?

The demand for the abolition of labor, of course, would be only an idle dream were the actual state of material development of society insufficient to realize it. As Marx suggested in the conclusion we previously cited, such an abolition presumes a very high level of development of the productive forces, a mass of the population in all countries who have been rendered propertyless over the course of this development, a high degree of intercourse within the world market, as well as a high concentration of wealth. Given these conditions, there is reason to debate whether society has arrived at the point where the abolition of labor can be transformed from a mere slogan to an actual program undertaken by society.

Again, Moishe Postone, in his analysis of Marx’s work, offers us a possibility that labor may, itself, be concealing significant hidden potential that make its abolition more possible than is apparent at first consideration. Postone finds this in his examination of Marx’s concept of superfluous laborlabor which, in a bizarre twist, serves only the function of creating demand for labor.

Says Postone:

Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx’s analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations [necessary labor time and surplus labor time] defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.

Postone makes clear, that, in his use of the term superfluous, he is not here making a moral judgment of, for instance, the relative merits of war expenditures versus universal education, nor any other such simplistic notions echoing the nonsense spewing from progressives or Tea Partiers, but of an economic category.

It should be clear that “superfluous” is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx’s analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, “superfluous” is the historically generated, immediate opposite of “necessary,” a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one.

Finally, Postone shows the purely negative character of Marx’s concept of labor superfluity — that as a category of political-economy, it cannot, of itself, provide us with an answer to “what comes next”, but merely point to itself as unnecessary, and, hence, to the possibility that capital itself is no longer the necessary form of mankind’s development:

My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite—historical nonnecessity—which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.

The historic nonnecessity constituted historically as capital is, of course, nothing more than the unnecessary labor time of billions made necessary through the fiscal and monetary policies of every national government in the world market. These unnecessary hours of labor generally observes no iron law; and are subject always to conflict between capital and the working class. Even if the abolition outright of labor is not possible, that portion of labor time which is superfluous to socially necessary labor time — in its double sense, as outlined by Postone — can and must become the focus of a mass movement to limit hours of work.

From Marx:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. [emp.] Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

In particular, Marx showed that the struggle over the duration of labor and the imposition of limits on the working day is not only essential to limiting the brutality of existing social relations, it gives working people, in the words of Engels, “a moral energy which is directing them to the eventual possession of political power”.  The reduction of hours of work is, at the same time, the expansion of “Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity…” — that is, of time for precisely the opportunities for the voluntary association which must replace the existing state.


In comparison to Marx’s rich description of communism, its premises, and the nature of labor — and the efforts of researchers like Moishe Postone, who have done a great service by reconstructing and rehabilitating Marx’s work — Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis has all the content of a soft drink commercial — a banal construct of ideas assembled halfheartedly — to what end?

Badiou’s piece is historically suspicious, superficial, uncritical, and appears for all the world to be a marketing ploy for his book of the same name. It would one thing to arrive at the opinion that Alain got it wrong on substance, but here there is too little of substance to even make the argument. It is, in our opinion, quite shocking that this article received the rush of excitement and acclaim among those interested in the pressing problem of creating a world beyond capital, in the midst of its most profound crisis in history. As an answer to the question, “What is to be done?”, it offers nothing of value — even by negative example — for those with an interest in communism.

If this is what remains of Marxism, as a distinct tendency among communism, Badiou gives confirmation that it is not only dead, but rotting.