Endnotes 3 is the most recent product of the discussion group of ‘communisation’ theorists that go under the Endnotes name. In this article, I will attempt a sympathetic, but critical discussion of what I see as some of the central contributions of Endnotes’ writings, especially in Endnotes 2 and Endnotes 3. The Endnotes discussions, and perhaps communisation theory more generally, I think can fairly be said to develop two central ideas throughout their work. The first is that the history of the 20th century has been the historic failure of the workers’ movement as a workers’ movement, that is, as a self-conscious movement based on working class identity and the class position of the worker — the affirmation of the working class, including its associated concepts of ‘workers’ power’, the ‘workers’ state’ and so forth. This workers’ movement is seen to have failed to understand the abolition of classes required to abolish the value form: not an affirmation of working class identity, but doing away with such identity — a class position that is a “misfortune”. The central question is then, as Endnotes 2 put it: “The history of capitalist society is the history of the reproduction of the capitalist class relation. It is that of the reproduction of capital as capital, and — its necessary concomitant — of the working class as working class. If we assume the reproduction of this relation is not inevitable, what is the possibility of its non-reproduction?”
The second argument, the answer to this question, is then that the only possible form that a theory of revolution can take in the wake of the disappearance, or impossibility in the present, of this kind of workers’ movement and its failure in the form of ‘real existing socialism’ to actually overcome the law of value and move to a new kind of society is to achieve this complete overcoming of the law of value, of the commodification of life and labor and its reproduction under capitalism, in an immediate way. According to the Endnotes theorists, capitalism not only fully subsumes the working class under it, such that the reproduction of the working class qua working class is the reproduction of capitalism itself, but it also contains a tendency over time to multiply ‘surplus population’, Marx’s reserve army of labor: ever greater numbers of workers objectively unnecessary for the technologically transformed production processes, an accumulation of lumpenproletarians in slums and peripheries.
The ‘left communism’ of Endnotes, if that is the right term for its political implications and strategy, therefore expresses itself in two ways. The first is the rejection of, and opposition towards, any of the parties (big or small) that attempt once more to revisit the 20th century’s judgements and to revive attempts — through one or another programme of organization and revolution for and by the working class — to achieve the hegemony in society, achieve working class revolution, workers’ power, and all the rest. The second is the sense that the historic failure of these approaches — especially of course the historical legacy of the USSR as apogee and symbol of this form of Marxist incorporation of the workers’ movement — rests their incomplete comprehension of the totality of capitalist society and its law of value, which cannot be abolished on the basis of a mere negation of class power and a substitution of a working class party at the levers of the machines of state and civil society. Indeed, the contradiction between working class and capital is, and here Endnotes converges with Hegelian Marxism and value form theory, an expression of the contradiction between use value and exchange value in capitalist society itself. No Party or ‘workers’ state’ is able to abolish this by decree, or to have a socialism which contains at its heart this opposition. So far, so good.
Any revolution, if it is to be a revolution, must therefore be to the ‘left’ of these approaches, in the sense that it must attempt a more complete and radical overcoming. For Endnotes, this is their sense of immediacy. As Endnotes 3 states:
To speak of immediacy, with respect to the revolution, is merely a shorthand for the fact that the revolution abolishes the mediations of the modern world. To speak of the immediacy of communism is thus to affirm that, unlike the revolutionaries of the past, communisers will have to take seriously the coherence of the modern world. The worker, the machine, the factory, science and technology: none of these terms appears as an unqualified good, to be opposed to capital and the state, as unqualified evils. There is no neutral ordering of this world that can be taken over by the working class and run in its interest. Thus, the revolution cannot be a matter of finding new ways to mediate relations among workers, or between human beings and nature, the state and the economy, men and women, etc.
The previous issues of Endnotes have, through a ‘negative’ discussion of other left communist currents and a revisiting of this history of the 20th century paved the way; the third Endnotes is perhaps the first positive expression of a strategic outlook based on these ideas, it is therefore worth discussing further.
Endnotes 3 consists of a number of somewhat disparate essays. Much of the work is taken up with the discussion of identity under capitalism, and what race and gender and such ‘identities’ of the working class would mean when seen from the communisation perspective. Although obviously central questions for the political and social life of the working class today, especially in the West, they deserve a more specific discussion, and I will therefore not go into them much here. In this case, I am more interested in discussing the meaning and implications of communisation: a theory of revolution as immediacy in the overcoming of the categories of (capitalist) value. First, let me say that there is much here that I sympathize with. The willingness of the Endnotes theorists, as ‘left communists’, to seek to find a more general theoretical analysis of the 20th century and to undertake an investigation into the (seeming?) ‘death of the left’ is admirable. Especially so since for Endnotes this goes beyond attempts to revive the programmatic communism of this or that moment of history or geography when the ‘real programme’ was found — as in the many attempts to revive the 2nd International, or the anarchism of the Spanish Civil War, or the ‘real Marxism’ of this or that canonical author like Lenin or Luxemburg or Trotsky.
Rather, the Endnotes writers approach the 20th century in the only true Marxist spirit, which is to say, ‘with sober senses’. Their discussion of the 20th century workers’ movement as an expression of the affirmation of working class existence, and thereby the reproduction of capitalism, is all the more interesting for the absence of an accompanying preconceived programmatic or strategic view of revolution — the lens of a ‘tradition’ through which all historical events are to be re-interpreted and which is to be used as a yardstick to judge real historical movements by. In my view, this puts their analysis of that ‘age of extremes’ head and shoulders above that of most left commentators.
I could add to this the systematic attempt at understanding the actual processes of production, working class (re)configuration, and the ups and downs of struggle these have produced — a certain debt to autonomism can be seen here, as in the discussion of ‘workers’ inquiry’ in Endnotes 2 — and the equally systematic insistence on the abolition of capitalism with all of its categories, not least the working class itself. To maintain this as the only yardstick that any communism could have, rather than the habitual romanticization of the working class in its own right, and as the only ‘real’ historical subject, differentiates it considerably for the combination of nostalgia and dogmatism that characterizes much of the Marxist party (sect) historiography of the modern era. (One can think here about the reception of Hobsbawm’s famous “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”, which has been seen entirely as a problem for the workers’ movement and the conception of this movement as the victory of workers, now seemingly and tragically ‘halted’; rather than the communisation critics’ perspective that the victory of communism can only exist as the abolition of the working class.)
However, in my view there are also some serious shortcomings of theory in this communisation perspective, and perhaps in the impetus of communisation in general—- ones which come out clearest, perhaps, in the more strategic analysis of Endnotes 3. In my view, the Endnotes collective do not themselves fully escape a certain romanticism in their own right. But this romanticism is not nostalgic, but, as I will try to argue here, bur rather idealist and insufficiently historical. I will attempt to briefly outline these objections.
The first is the consistent tendency to substitute for the romantic view — of the worker overcoming the restrictions of capitalism and achieving the workers’ paradise — an equally romantic perspective of the overcoming of capitalist totality into a dreamworld of the free play of signifiers. By this I mean Endnotes’ (seeming) use of immediacy, in the literal sense of overcoming of mediation, as both prerequisite and content of communism. For Endnotes, the substance of what they call communisation appears to consist of an irruption of opposition to the reproduction of capitalism including all its categories, an irruption in the here and now. This suggests that a communising revolution is one in which all categories of mediation of the present society are overcome and in which therefore there can be nothing from present society which forms the legacy of the future. This is especially clear in two essays of Endnotes 3: “Spontaneity, Mediation, Rupture” and Jasper Bernes’ “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect“. The former is loosely organized around a discussion of Rosa Luxemburg on the mass strike, and the latter discusses contemporary capitalist logistics — but both have strong commonalities. These rest in the rejection of the use of any of the mediating structures, whether physical (as in logistics) or mental (as in mediating categories) that exist under capitalism, for communisation or the socialist future.
In Bernes’ article, this comes out clearly. His discussion of modern logistics — the just-in-time delivery, the global production and distribution networks, the “subordination of production to the conditions of circulation”, and the “annihilation of space by time” that Marx and Engels already in 1848 foresaw the world market would entail — is exemplary. But rather than discussing the potentials and pitfalls of this ‘logistics revolution’ for Marxists, as is increasingly done by Marxists interested in the application of technology to socialist uses, Bernes simply sets himself in opposition to this phenomenon entirely. As logistics is driven by capital, and the globalisation of the categories of capital means the subjugation and ‘abjection’ of the working class, logistics is simply to be rejected as a ‘bad mediation’ among capitalism’s many. Why is this? Bernes gives a few practical arguments, all of which revolve around the impossibility of seizing power in a revolutionary way, such that the totality of the globalised logistics system could be controlled by revolutionaries. This is essentially the problem of ‘socialism in one country’: a technical as well as political question, and one that ought then to be discussed in its own terms, rather than assuming the answer known.
Bernes then adds to this the curious argument that the result of such a seizure of the levers of logistics, even if it were possible, would be the further obsolescence of Western service work: “The idea that 15% or so of workers whose activities would still be useful would work on behalf of others — as caretakers of a communist future — is politically non-workable, even if the system could produce enough of what people need, and trade for inputs didn’t produce another blockage.” Whether this is held to apply for a society that has ‘communised’, or for any communisation effort that is too partial against the totality of capital, is unclear. But for this reason, Bernes goes on, the realm of totality is that of capital, and we must withdraw from it: “the whole is the false, in this case, not so much because it can’t be adequately represented or because any attempt at such representation does violence to its internal contradictions, but because all such global representations belie the fact that the whole can never be possessed as such. The totality of the logistics system belongs to capital.” Instead, Bernes suggests, we should try blockade and opposition towards the global production and distribution system: the negative response to imposed mediation.
In my view, this is an unconscionable and unworkable concession to the romanticism of the local and to the essentially nostalgic impulses of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, although vastly more sophisticated in its understanding of the strategic question. It is a politics of pure opposition, but lacking one of Marx’s central contentions, namely that the very technological and organisational capacities of capitalism itself would make socialism possible — the premise of a socialism that is ‘scientific’, i.e. rooted in real developments, rather than ‘utopian’, i.e. opposing real developments with arbitrary ideal programmes. Bernes’ Endnotes article lacks, perhaps, the programmatism, in accordance with the general communisation critique of programmatic workerism; but it is therefore left with nothing but a gesture of rejection, the purpose of which is rejected by Bernes’ own analysis.
Indeed, if one cannot make the revolution everywhere at once (which is reasonable enough to assume), and “capital can fight us in every place at once, because capital is not in any sense a force with which we contend, but the very territory on which that contention takes place” — how then would a communisation from within be possible? From this analysis, it seems no more locally possible than globally, and indeed (as Bernes rightly points out) the very point of global logistics was precisely to circumvent local insurrections, strikes, revolutions, and other anti-capitalist engagement in the first place. The practical critique of all capital’s mediation seems to leave us with nothing but sabotage for its own sake — the politics of fin-de-siècle anarchism and nihilism.
This reinforces the impression, certainly from Endnotes 3, that the Endnotes critique is consistently one of sabotage, of blockade, of the negative and oppositional against the logic of value. This is, it must be said, a healthy antidote against the habit of some Marxists and parties to see the germ of The Revolution in every strike in a cookie factory in Peru, as long as some worker somewhere is wearing a red shirt. Indeed one may well accept that generally any of the activities of the workers’ movement as such have only tended to reinforce the working class as a subject class of capital, and so has the model of ‘transition’ offered by the Party Marxists. But the purely negative of communisation has its own downsides. It cannot comprehend how to get from A to B, other than by critique of the existing; against the unwarranted ‘self-help Marxism’ of the workerist 20th century Marxists, they offer a Marxism which is essentially gnostic — in which only irruptions exist against the logic of the material world, ones that must contain within themselves, spontaneously and wildly, the totality of the new world against the totality of the old. For Endnotes authors, of course, this can happen any time and anywhere and can never be foreseen — in this sense they are not nihilists. But while it bypasses the purely defensive Marxism, tailing labor unions and social-democrats, that effectively dominates the left today, and it shows no nostalgic tendencies, it has instead a purely oppositional Marxism, one which is maintains this romantic form, but is empty of its content. It has a message of hope, perhaps, rather than one of nostalgia — but one unrelated to its actual analysis.
The same thing can be shown, I would argue, for their discussion of mediation in theory rather than practice — as in the essay on rupture, spontaneity and mediation mentioned above. While one would expect this discussion, which opens with a commentary on Rosa Luxemburg’s articles on the mass strike and spontaneity, would offer a strategic guidance, no such view emerges. Perhaps such would be too close to the programmes of the party Marxists. Instead, the central contention of the article — as of communisation in general — is to repeat that the previous communist movements, insofar as they were based on the workers’ movement, had no concept of ‘rupture’. But what then is this rupture? “The rupture forces every individual, who is engaged in struggle, to take sides: to decide whether they align themselves on the side of the communist movement — as the movement for the practical destruction of this world — or else, on the side of continuing to revolt, on the basis of what is. In that sense, the rupture is a moment of partisanship, of taking sides.”
This is well and good, but it could also be said of any military-style insurrection, or of guerrilla war, or even of an election. So what distinguishes this rupture from the programmes of the party Marxists of the past (and present)? “The difference between organisations and the party is, therefore, the difference between, on the one hand, committees of the unemployed, neighbourhood assemblies and rank-and-file unions — which organise the disruption of capitalist social relations — and on the other hand, groups of partisans — who reconfigure networks of transportation and communication and organise the creation and free distribution of goods and services. Communist tactics destroy the very distinctions (e.g. between employed and unemployed) on which proletarian organisations are based. In so doing, they initiate the unification of humanity.”
Here it is again: communism, for Endnotes, is essentially the abolition of capitalism’s categories in and of themselves. Now again, I would emphasize my fundamental agreement — and perhaps this is increasingly becoming consensus among ‘Western Marxism’ more generally — that any communism worth its name must indeed overcome the law of value completely, and that the revolution itself, to be ‘complete’, would entail such overcoming of capitalism’s categories as to put it into a fundamentally different set of social relations forever. But that has never been so remarkable as is suggested. The question has always been how this conceptual requirement, this overcoming of real abstractions, relates to the very non-abstract strategy of revolution itself. The shibboleths of the party Marxists are shibboleths of strategy, and all their theory serves only this purpose. (Which is one of the main objections I have to them.)
To this, Endnotes can tell us no more than that “the revolution today can only mean seven billion people trying to find ways to reproduce themselves, in non-capitalist ways”. Not only is this little enlightening, but it also seems to contradict the emphasis on totality being the realm of capital. Here, in my view, the need for abolishing all mediations of capital in the here and now runs clearly into the impossibility of doing so from a purely ‘negative’ viewpoint, i.e. from a standpoint that assumes a kind of prefiguration of this abolition. It is in essence a circular argument: the revolution must abolish capitalism’s mediations, and the only place it can be achieved is where capitalism’s mediations are abolished. Communisation begs its own question. My suggestion is that this is because of a subtle idealism and ahistoricity in the argument: a dislike of ‘transition’ turns into a dislike of temporality and of historical causation.
Now I must explain this in a somewhat roundabout way, as I want to make clear what I mean by these terms. The Endnotes authors rightly reject a ‘neutral’ or ‘reifying’ view of science, technology, the categories of working class difference (identities), and the naturalization of any aspect of class society as such. But in their thoroughgoing skepticism towards the history of the communist movement and its reification of capitalist categories — especially class, but not only class, as the logistics argument shows — the historicity of these movements themselves, their own attempts to harmonize the need for ‘rupture’ with the strategies of ‘revolution’, fade out of view. However ill-conceived the answers to that dilemma may have been at different times, this was a problem of which even the earliest Marxists were well aware, as shown for example by Lenin’s discussions of the Russian Revolution’s “state capitalism”, or the ill-fated ‘two stages’ view of first-socialism-then-communism, the Maoist emphasis on the persistence of bourgeois relations after the revolution, and so forth.
In contrast to this, for Endnotes historiography rests then in the understanding of the 20th century as a ‘century of mistakes’, a rise and fall of a (communist) workers’ movement that never fully understood what it would entail to overcome the law of value. Equally, their view of the current century is then rather romantically one of the possibility of this idea manifesting itself, somehow, somewhere, in the assertion of freedom against the determinations of capitalism. (Endnotes suggests this is now possible because the process of proletarianisation is complete.) But if such an analysis is merely an expression of a Blochian kind of hope for freedom, it is bereft of the content of the ‘real movement that abolishes the present state of things’.
This real movement is not to be identified with the workers’ movement in the traditional sense, it is true, nor with an empty signifier of The Party in a nostalgia for the 2nd International, but for Marx’s historical expectation of revolution to work it requires a real movement nonetheless. And ‘real’ here is precisely in the same sense as ‘material’ in ‘historical materialism’: i.e. roughly speaking, one based on political economy and its very real substance of goods, technology, work, survival and reproduction through production and consumption. It is precisely these mediations that are not simply to be negated: categories which, however ‘mediating’, are not purely historical to capitalism and are not only ‘real abstractions’ in the way class, gender, race, and the other misfortunes are, but which pose questions for every imaginable society that suffers scarcity.
After all, it is only when scarcity is abolished in some sense that the real ‘realm of freedom begins’, not before that; and this is a material requirement, not a question of distribution, nor a question of abolishing the mediations that represent this scarcity to us. The question therefore arises how before this is achieved (and however it is to be achieved), real existing humans get from A to B, from their present state of social relations of production to another. A merely negative answer, which rightly rejects the workerism and nostalgia of the present Marxisms, but does not offer an answer beyond the irruption of the revolution as the Event of freedom, indeed fails to go beyond some of the oldest anarchist views of spontaneity and rejection as the revolution itself. The history of pure negativity as opposition to capitalism, whether through fin-de-siècle anarchism or the Frankfurt School, is no stronger on this point than is the history of all the workerist programmes from Mao to Eurocommunism. In this sense I would argue that while Endnotes asks the right questions — and some of their descriptions of the relationship between labor as a commodity, the law of value, and capitalist society as such are among the best out there — their answers to these questions fall back into an ahistoricism and romanticism of the ‘persistence of an idea’. One cannot, however, bring old mole to the surface again without a good deal of burrowing into the existing earth.
In much a similar way as Endnotes appears to maintain, with apologies to J.L. Mackie, an ‘error theory’ of 20th century history, so their concept of capitalist society seems for them based on a logical mistake. By this I mean that the social relations of production of capitalism produce bad mediations because they are based on the ‘wrong’ opposition between exchange value and use value. As they write: “Capitalism is a set of separations, or ontological cleavages — between human beings and their innermost capacities — that are subsequently mediated by value and the state.” Perhaps it is a poor formulation, but to see capitalism as primarily based on ontological cleavages, and only analytically subsequently mediated by value and the state and all the ‘real abstractions’, is a curious approach — one which indeed suggests capitalism as a category error that has (by accident?) arisen in history. For this reason, it is not sufficient for communisation to bring about a realm solely of use values, but for the Endnotes writers, it is a society that must overcome all the mediations and all the categories of this ‘formal logic’ of capital altogether. This logic is one that does not humanly work — as if we are dealing here with a false proof, an equation that fails.
Of course, a major part of the background here is the resistance — already first voiced by Marx in response to the very real events of the Paris Commune — to the idea that one can simply lay hold of the existing machinery of capitalist society and use it ‘for workers’ power’. This is justified in itself. But the consequence of this for the communisation perspective is that they seek to combine the overcoming of all existing categories from within, without in any way reproducing these categories; and the only answer to such a riddle they can provide is essentially the negation of the categories. Insofar as this has theory, it has no historical causality. It is not an expression of historical movement and possibility, but a philosophical objection. (One could also note here the odd adaptation of some of the methodological assumptions of public choice theory and liberal institutionalism, as in the depiction of revolution as a collective action problem. For Endnotes this may be the basis to reject the fake optimism of party Marxists, but it suggests their categories have not been fully examined.)
But Marx insisted on historicity, including such transhistoricity as required to compare one mode of production with another — even sometimes as crudely as in his statements that the hand-mill gives you feudalism, the steam-mill capitalism, and so forth. To my mind, this historical materialism, and the sense that capitalist value relations are a particular expression (a very bad one!) of a more general problem, matters. Not because I want to praise the virtues of an alternative Whiggism, a long history of socialist technological progress to substitute for the liberal one. But rather because to see the ‘real movement’ as a movement of free will against determination through categories is to see the problem at the level of ontology, of the ‘ontological cleavages’ mentioned — in other words, at the level of ideas. If the critique is centered on this, it is essentially a revival, in a Marxist form, of the Young Hegelian critique of the opposition between the freedom and equality of citizens and their subjugation through the sources of social alienation — religion, capital, and so forth.
This is the perspective Marx shared at least in his early writings — but before he put political economy and what has come to be known as ‘historical materialism’ central, arguably. (And one does not have to endorse the whole Althusserian apparatus of the ‘epistemological break’ to say this.) Of course, Endnotes does say that one must destroy these mediations through destroying the entities that underlie them. But then the question becomes: what is it that we must destroy, and how to destroy them without it being counted a loss for the future society we have in mind? In their veering between the critique at the level of categories and the ‘destructive’ critique of their underlying entities, Endnotes still evades the historical problem that faced the Marx-inspired workers’ movement and that was, in my view, the basis of the actual experience of the 20th century. The USSR, the social-democratic ‘deviations’, the development of Eurocommunism, and most importantly, the history of the 20th century left as what I have elsewhere called the ideology of the ‘developmental state’. Much of this was wrong, much of it never led to the overcoming of value, and indeed perhaps all of 20th century communism has been the wrong answer to these questions. But they were answers nonetheless — none of this was an accident, a contingency, or a category mistake.
Whether or not Stalin was wrong about value theory, and whether or not Trotsky was a ‘productivist’ and a whip of working class discipline is really neither here nor there. The pattern of the 20th century, however much an ‘age of extremes’, is far too uniform and independent of the will and motives of the individuals concerned to depend on a category mistake or an inadequate understanding of real subsumption. If Stalin had been able to read Dauvé, this would not have mattered. I say this not to be pedantic, but to emphasize that what seems to me missing in the Endnotes analysis is a sense of historical causation. Communisation becomes a Marxist substitute of what the sublime was for the Enlightenment and early Romantic thinkers — the coming together in freedom of all the disparate elements previously chained by causation, the becoming-whole by becoming-free of what was fragmented and unfree-by-determination.
This is certainly in the spirit of the Marx of ‘being a hunter in the afternoon and a critic in the evening’, the Marx of overcoming scarcity and the division of labor itself. But without wishing to revive the two-stage model of ‘socialism’ and higher ‘communism’, it should be clear that one cannot have a ‘real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ that is not in some way part of that present state of things and remakes them within the confines of its present mediations — something that cannot be overcome by mere force of will, or it should have been done by Keats and Shelley, long ago. What one can say of Endnotes then is that in asking the right questions of the left in the period since (say) 1871, they do not provide an answer. This is no great flaw, for a known unknown is a great advance in its own right. Perhaps there is not yet an answer — it may well be that the very ‘real movement’ is currently not sufficient to provide us with one that can go beyond an immanent critique of its categories such as Endnotes provides to a positive form of knowledge, a socialism neither of pure certainty nor of pure hope.