The Main Currents of Communization: Interview With Benjamin Noys

by C. Derick Varn on June 28, 2013

Benjamin Noys (BSc, MA, DPhil) is a Reader in English at the University of Chichester and the author of Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (Pluto 2000), The Culture of Death (Berg 2005), The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory (Edinburgh University Press 2010), and editor of Communization and its Discontents (Minor Compositions 2011). He has published widely in contemporary theory, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, film, literature and cultural politics. He directs the interdisciplinary Theory Research Group at the University of Chichester. C. Derick Varn is an international writer and teacher, who has worked and done activism in places as diverse as the Southern U.S.A., South Korea, and Mexico.

Communization theory developed in France, soon after May 1968. Why has its reception in the Anglophone world been delayed until more recently?

This delay is an effect of translation, both in the literal and in the more metaphorical sense. It took some time for the work to be translated into English, and the texts are notoriously difficult. Also, the translation took some time in the sense of finding a context within which it resonated. Communization does not have a large audience in France, and the discussion in English has been more wide-ranging.

To explain this delayed and displaced reception requires a very brief history.

Communization in the strict sense emerged, as you say, from French ultra-left currents in the 1970s. These groups inherited the ultra-left suspicion of the existing forms of the workers’ movement. Under the pressure of new gestures of the refusal of work and the beginning of capitalist restructuring, communization theorists went further. These groups suggested that even alternative forms of organization like workers’ councils or self-organization might only put workers in charge of a system dependent on their own exploitation, thus reinforcing capitalism.

In the case of what would become Theorié Communiste (TC), the group that has given communization a definite expression, this critique was given a historical explanation. They suggested, following remarks by Marx in the unpublished sixth chapter of Capital, that capitalism had shifted from formal subsumption to real subsumption. Subsumption refers to the forms of absorption of the worker’s labor by capitalism. In formal subsumption, capitalism simply takes an existing form of production and uses it to realize value. For example, peasants work their own fields but then have to sell their produce in a capitalist marketplace to survive. Real subsumption occurs when capitalism reworks how we produce, such as the mechanization of food production and the development of agribusiness.

Turning this thesis into a historical account, TC suggested that real subsumption emerged around 1917, with the rise of the factory system and the establishment of the worker as a key figure. Of course, this was also the year of a revolution made in the name of the workers, suggesting the new phase incorporating the worker was a means to absorb or control this challenge. This was what TC called “programmatism”: the belief in a program to affirm the identity of the worker against capitalism. Then, in the early 1970s, in response to declining profits and workers’ struggles, a new second phase of real subsumption began. In this phase subsumption further absorbs the life of the worker and allows no separate place for the worker’s identity as an element of the capitalist relation.

Some texts from the early 1970s were translated into English and discussed in the ultra-left milieu. We could argue, however, that the most important translation took place with the emergence of this thesis through the work Endnotes, first published in 2008. Endnotes emerged from the journal Aufheben, which had also debated the work of TC. The group behind Aufheben had fractured concerning their reading of TC, and those in agreement with TC went on to form Endnotes.

We could also say the conditions of reading have changed. TC’s thesis that the workers’ movement and programmatism were both exhausted has become more self-evident. The defeat of the workers’ movement in the 1980s, the end of so-called workers’ states in 1989, and the general decline and crisis of unions and the left in general all confirm the crisis of the left. At the same time, emerging capitalist crisis put an end to the capitalist triumphalism that had dominated the 1990s. In fact, the reception of communization theory seems very much conditioned by global capitalist crisis. The diagnosis of the structural limits of capitalism’s reproduction has gained traction as those limits have become all too visible. Newly emerging forms of struggle, which seemed to operate outside the “traditional” forms of the left, suggest the resonance of communization arguments. From Greece to Northern California, groups drew on communization to theorize these new forms of struggle. Exhaustion with or skepticism of the post-autonomist discourse of the “multitude” might also have played a part. In some ways, then, communization provides a “traditional” but also innovative discourse of class.

Why do you often refer to communization as a “problematic”?

Those who identify with communization often suggest it is a “problematic.” This word problematique is taken from Althusser. I take it as meaning that communization is a particular way to pose the problem of what communism is at the present moment. For those who accept communization theory as posed by TC or who are in its orbit, this involves accepting that at the present moment we can present communism only in the negative sense. This excludes more positive forms of communization, such as those found in Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Karl Nesic. Communism, remaining true to Marx, is the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” If we can no longer identify communism with forms of workers’ identity—parties, unions, states—then we can have only negative prefigurations of what communization might be. This means that contemporary struggles constantly trace out the limits of capitalism and can suggest the rift (l’écart) at the limits. To take an example, if we can’t affirm our identities as workers and can’t expect to receive something back from capital, then we are forced beyond this identity in our struggles. These are what TC calls “suicidal struggles,” which are not literal calls for self-extinction but rather struggles to escape work, as work will no longer be provided. So, in the case of French struggles, workers no longer demand re-employment but rather increased redundancy payments that will allow them to stop working.

I also use problematic because of its colloquial sense that communization might be problematic or questionable. I don’t subscribe to communization, so referring to it as a problematic is a way of marking my distance and skepticism. I think, on the one hand, that communization rigorously poses the problem of the seeming extinction or defeat of previous forms of organization, including radical forms such as workers’ councils, affinity groups, and communes. On the other hand, I think that the global perspective of communization can make it difficult to grasp the “combined and uneven development” of contemporary capitalism. Some of the most interesting work being developed in the communization problematic is addressing this, for example, Aaron Benanav’s work on “surplus population,” the consideration of the value form, the forms of periodization, and work on gender. All this, I’d suggest, poses the need to refine and develop some of the blunter ways of posing the communization thesis.

While this is important, I do wonder what the effects of these dialogues on communization will be. If the central claims about periodization, such as the thesis of real subsumption, are revised, then we are back at the need for a more complex mapping, which might also revise the accounts of communization as a revolutionary process. Similar questions could be raised regarding the other issues I mentioned. I think the attraction of communization is the uncompromising sharpness with which it posed the crisis of workers’ identity and capitalist dominance. Reworking those identity issues would lead to potentially far-reaching effects on the nature of the problematic.

Is it fair to callcommunization theory a left-communist form of catastrophism?

While I am a skeptic concerning communization, I don’t think this charge stands up. Of course there are apocalyptic or catastrophic forms of communization, but much the same could be said of many strands of contemporary radicalism and also of mainstream politics. It’s not surprising that with the overlapping of ecological crisis, political crisis for the left, and capitalism’s own global economic crisis, an “apocalyptic tone” (to use Derrida’s phrase) might emerge.

Communization doesn’t assert that “capitalist crisis,” or hitting the limits of capitalism, will necessarily lead to revolution. Also, I don’t think it claims that catastrophic conditions imply some mass awakening to communization. It does suggest that hitting the limits of capitalism will lead to forms of struggle that confront the difficulty or impossibility of self-reproduction under capitalism.

I’d say if there is a kind of “catastrophism” in communization, it comes not so much in any belief that catastrophe leads to communism, but in some unconvincing statements about the process of communization as the revolutionary moment. The assertion that the rapid spread of communization will overcome the forces of the state and capital, and the assumption that deviations of the revolution will be due to tensions among the revolutionary forces, underestimate the violence of anti-revolutionary forces and the ease with which they might be overcome. Communization could answer that it is setting out conditions for what would be a truly communizing revolution, and this may not take place. While this may be true, I don’t think these descriptions convincingly account for how we might pass from moments of seizure and sharing into new forms of global production and distribution.

Another moment in which a certain catastrophism or apocalyptic tone might be said to emerge is in the supposed celebration or valorization of destructive struggles. Again, I think this kind of criticism is misplaced and overstated. Certainly you do see odd moments of apocalyptic thinking, a kind of “Flesh and Blood communization,” to refer to Paul Verhoeven’s 1985 film about a band of medieval mercenaries during a time of plague. These hyperbolic moments don’t have anything to do with the strict form of communization, although they might be symptomatic of the crisis of capitalist self-reproduction and the possibilities of regression and barbarism.

Instead of the charge of catastrophism, I am more interested in the return of the tricky question of class consciousness. If the emergence of communization out of crisis is not inevitable, if communization is not, as Gilles Dauvé suggested, a form of”‘proletarian structuralism,” then how will it emerge? That would seem to take some awareness, even if this is supposed to emerge through hitting the limits of existing forms of struggle. The key question then surrounds the spread of that awareness, bearing in mind the dispersed and fractured forms of the working class.

Does the dating of real subsumption to 1917 seem a little too neat in relationship to Marxist history?

Well, TC’s periodization of real subsumption is broader than the punctual date of 1917. They argue that real subsumption began around the moment of the First World War and that this first phase ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the pressure of workers’ struggle against work and capitalist reorganization in the face of a crisis of accumulation.

That said, this does imply a critical analysis of the Russian Revolution. For the historic ultra-left, the Russian Revolution was critiqued for not maintaining forms of proletarian democracy, such as the soviets. In the case of TC, their argument is that these failures were not simply political but an effect of the period of real subsumption: the Russian Revolution affirmed the worker and labor as the antagonistic pole of capital. This affirmation belonged to the moment of capitalist recomposition that included labor as the pole of accumulation. In this sense, TC would say we cannot simply talk of the “revolution betrayed” but of the revolution’s hitting the form of capitalist accumulation’s limits in this period of real subsumption.

This is perhaps best understood through the debate TC had with Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, which is collected in Endnotes issue 1. While Dauvé and Nesic insist that communization is a kind of “invariant” that previous revolutions have approached but failed to live up to, TC argues that this critique is fundamentally moral or ethical in its failure to recognize the limits of forms of struggle in the period of real subsumption. In this analysis the failure of the Russian Revolution was the failure of an affirmative strategy of identifying with labor against capitalism. This was not a moral or political failure but a confrontation with capitalism that resulted in the reworking of accumulation to further include labor within what Marx called the “moving contradiction” of capitalism.

This does not involve a dismissal of the Russian Revolution as such but rather suggests, if we follow TC, the necessity to place and analyze the revolution in the context of capitalist forms and social relations. The difficult question that remains is whether we accept a periodizing account of real subsumption, which is discussed in an article in Endnotes 2. Marx suggests that formal and real subsumption refer not to different periods of capital but to overlapping processes that emerge and re-emerge in capital’s processes of accumulation. If we abandon a strict periodizing hypothesis, it seems that we have two options: first, we could argue that real subsumption is still a dominant tendency, which would reflect the vertical and horizontal dominance of contemporary capitalism as a mode of accumulation. The end of programmatism, which belonged to the first phase of real subsumption, suggests a deepening of subsumption that no longer requires the pole of the worker. Second, we could argue for a more fine-grained consideration of processes of formal and real subsumption that would track more closely the uneven forms of domination. Of course, these two options could be linked together.

Again, I think a problem for communization theory is that if we rework the thesis in this direction of increased complexity, then some of the elements of implicit teleology would have to be rethought, such as the emergence of a truly negative proletariat capable of abolishing class now.

How does communization compare with pre-1914, post-1917, or even post-1968 tendencies, such as accelerationism?

“Accelerationism” is a critical name I coined for those tendencies that bank on the acceleration of capitalism as the means to break through to communism. I would say there is a certain moment in common between accelerationism and communization theory, even if divergent conclusions are drawn.

In my critical account, accelerationism originates as an explicit theory in the early 1970s in three main works: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972), Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974), and Jean Baudrillard’s Symbolic Economy and Death (1976). The common origin lies in the recognition that capitalism forms the dominant horizon, subsuming not only forms of life but also strategies of opposition. Accelerationists, however, draw very different conclusions to the communizing currents. The closest link is probably with the work of Lyotard, as Lyotard had been a member of the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie from 1954 to 1964, after which he became a member of the splinter group Pouvoir Ouvrier, leaving in 1966. Lyotard shared communization’s skepticism of the existing workers’ movement, and while he was in those groups he focused on the self-activity of the working class as an alternative. His theorization in Libidinal Economy eliminated even this alternative by claiming that only capitalism formed the horizon of libidinal economy. In a notorious statement, he stressed the working class’s enjoyment (jouissance) of factory labor and the destruction of their organic body by the alienating forces of capital.

Acceleration through the forces of capitalism, as the means to dissolve it, was restated by Nick Land and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at Warwick in the 1990s, and more recently, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This current draws much more on Deleuze and Guattari’s account of deterritorialization to argue that we need to accelerate and replicate the solvent force of capitalism to dissolve the last remnants of the bourgeois ego. In the case of Srnicek and Williams, they try to oppose speed, which they argue simply replicates capitalism, with acceleration, considered as a critical post-revolutionary strategy to develop and encourage the forces of science and production beyond the limits of capitalism. However, I think they still concede too much to an image of capital as productive force.

While currents of communization accept the dominance of capitalism, they do not regard this as the closure of our horizon per se. In the case of TC, they are skeptical of “alternativism,” i.e., prefigurative forms of living and practicing communism within capitalism, but this does not mean accepting the acceleration of capital. This is because capitalism remains a contradictory social formation that still draws value from living labor, even as it squeezes that labor out of our production. Hence they insist that class struggle continues, even if it takes “suicidal” or “strange” forms (from a programmatic perspective). In no way does their work suggest we reinforce capitalism but that we work to struggle against it, even as we encounter limits to struggle that have to be overcome in new forms.

The moment where acceleration does get used by communization is in the need for an acceleration of struggles in the process of communization—that is, revolution. The stress of TC is on spreading ”wildfire” struggles that would constitute the dispersed but spreading process of communization as immediate revolution. A similar model of accelerating and spreading struggles is also at work in Tiqqun or the Invisible Committee’s formulations, although they stress that these struggles are taking place now as the instantiation of communism in embryo against the capitalist mode of production. In both cases this is not accelerationism in the strict sense, although the faith in accelerating struggles overcoming obstacles is one that I find a little abstract and unconvincing in terms of overcoming the material, political, and military forms of the state and capital.

You have implied that the teleology of communization is a weak point in the theory. What do you see as the origins of this teleological framework?

Well, the tricky thing is that the teleology at work in communization is seen by communization theory as the teleology of capitalism. The implied teleology is that these tendencies force struggles into new forms and modes that can confront only the limits of the old affirmative workers’ struggles, and so put communism, as communization, on the table. In the case of TC and associated groups, they are keen to stress that these limits of struggle do not imply a normative critique. Struggles can’t live up to communization as a utopian or normative frame but join or are forced into it through the process of struggle. As old forms of struggle like self-organization fail, either we go further into communization or else we don’t achieve communism. This is, they would insist, a contingent process. We can always fail.

My skepticism concerns what forms and forces of organization and struggle can achieve these transitions and the degree to which the multiple contradictions and forms that capitalism generates will lead to a potential unification of struggles. Also, I find it hard not to see that there remains some implicit normative element in the description of struggles that might negatively prefigure communization.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with teleology as such. Gramsci pointed out the motivational force of teleological thinking for Marxism: the belief that we will necessarily win makes it possible to win. So, while Gramsci was a critic of this belief in automatic communism, he recognized that we face difficult questions of motivation, organization, and struggle if are to achieve a contingent communism. I’m not sure that communization, so far, has provided adequate answers to these questions.

Do you think any immediate, practicable politics can come directly out of communization theory as it currently stands?

In terms of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, even though one of their texts is called This Is Not a Program, they have a fairly ready answer. They would stress that the forces and forms of contemporary capitalism subsume life, but in doing so generate a “residue” that can generate resistance. This practice revolves, at least as it has been outlined, around new forms of communal practice, invisibility, and traversal of the “emptiness” of life as it currently stands. The question, which has often been raised, is how this might intervene at the point of production rather than circulation.

In the case of TC, they have stressed, for example, in their analysis of the situation in Greece, how contemporary struggles are focused on reproduction and cannot break the “glass floor” into production. This could be seen as a simply negative judgment. However, I think they would argue that it is actually a matter of confronting limits and overcoming them in struggle. In this case the kind of struggles they’d be interested in would be ones that posed the limit of work and self-reproduction in contemporary capitalism. They also stress the need for theoretical analysis and, in Sic 1, suggest the need for a kind of “theoretical practice” (to borrow a term from Althusser) that would define or refine these possibilities.

The difficult question of the normative arises again. TC would say that the current form of struggles as suicidal or hitting the glass floor is a structural effect of capitalism’s organization and worker resistance. In a sense, it seems, we eventually are forced to struggle in that way. Of course, this seems to disqualify more traditional forms of struggle. While TC argues that these older forms of struggle have to confront their limits and have to develop into something new or else fail, that involves a disavowed normative element, which perhaps needs to be thought through or discussed further: How are we to sustain and generate forms of mass struggle if the previous forms of party, union, or state don’t or can’t operate?

I consider communization worth debating due to the rigor with which it poses the problem of the present moment. It does so, I think, without simply conceding that class struggle has ended or been absorbed. Rather than simply abandoning categories like the proletariat, it stresses the need to rethink what that might mean, without turning to voluntarism—for example, in the work of Nathan Brown (PDF). In this way the analysis of capitalism is still essential for struggles. I think this is crucial, whatever the limits of this analysis of capital. Crucial areas of debate surround issues of surplus population, the struggles by “abandoned” workers, the danger that worker struggles can take racist forms, right-wing populism, the divisions of the proletariat, and the uneven forms of capitalism’s spatial and temporal forms. In this process of debate, I think communization will have to confront some of its own limits, perhaps losing some of its appearance of austere rigor. I don’t think it’s possible to predict the results, but a messier communization theory will likely result in further debate and engagement.

  • Kirk Hill

    I like this. Nowadays, in the West at least, the utter exhaustion of progressive and worker forms of identity and organization are quite evident, indeed undeniable. This abstruse theorizing takes a shot at addressing the dreadful reality. Thomas Wolfe said it, You can’t can’t go home again.

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