One in a series of old texts that I am retrieving and collecting together, and sometimes reworking. Often this renewed effort exposes deeper, unworkable, internal contradictions. Sobeit!
‘Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.’
Capital’s dominance of the interactions it sets in motion is characterised by the introjection of the essence called value. Value is the measure and process by which every discreet object and activity in the world appears and functions within the capitalist social relation. The appearance of value as a quality of all objects facilitates the inclusion of every detail of the world into the economy – suddenly, there is nothing that is not bought and sold.
All objects become pregnant with value, all objects and activities, from strawberries to songs, from water to medicine, from ideas to babies, from vistas to the patch of earth on which you stand, from everything to anything. Every separated object, and all of its components and attributes, is allocated a shifting but measurable ‘value’ which may be realised in the moment of exchange. At the level of interpersonal interaction the productive process realises the motor force, the process of abstraction, which drives it. Abstract generality is made to appear at the most intimate core, and in every detail, of material reality.
The establishment of capitalist production as the dominant social relation reversed the relation of production to the world. From the moment of capital’s formal domination, the world ceased to function as the source, frame and ground of all natural phenomena. This environmental function was supplanted by that of the productive system which increasingly became the life-support machine for all life, and the arbiter of what existed and what would be announced ‘extinct’.
The material world, as the ultimate determinant of, and structure for, life, has become secondary, dependent, somewhat unreal, drawing its existence and significance from the threat to it imposed by the system of production. It appears to capitalism’s dependants that the ‘world’ is brought forth and so maintained, only because the abstraction process requires a material environment... as performers require a stage.
The world is produced and maintained but only as a by-product, a concretisation of production which otherwise always tends towards abstract, or non-physical, reality. Even as capital pursues the pure abstract realisation of value, the perfect frictionless mechanism where value (as both measure and abstracted quantity) and value only exists, it remains limited by the world which it must reproduce as its physical armature. Even as the abstraction process seeks to escape further into abstraction it must reproduce its world concretely, messily – it is lumbered with profuse detail because value may only be extracted from that which is otherwise valued as useful. Capital is bound to the world, even as it negates it, even as it struggles to rationalise it, and break free.
The abstractive process only produces things because such things carry, or give shape to, ‘value’, which is capitalism’s true product. The things of this world are accidental, they relate nebulously to human need from which they derive some degree of objectivity, but which are fundamentally counterfeit, displaced from how they should be, hollow and unsatisfying.
Social relations are falsified through the mediation of such counterfeit objects and are thereby expropriated as relations-as-objects and thus further falsified. Where a relation first sets in motion objects as symbols of that relation, the objects feed back into the relations and transform them, truncating them, causing the symbols to supplant the relations and thus furthering the advance of the algebraic discourse of abstraction as the most appropriate discourse of relations.
Objects gain this transformative power by linking into the general system of value production – where concrete relations are altered by abstract generalisation this is realised through the mediation of those relations by value saturated objects. Abstraction advances through the rationalisation and simplification of complex relations by means of substitution of symbols for bodies... if the symbols also carry a general value other than that of the symbolic representation of the relation, then every occurrence of the relation activates this other value.
Eventually, all that was specific to the specific direct relation, and thus to the symbolic objects expressing it, is suppressed – local significances are supplanted by the concrete relations of a universal value measurement. Where, before, the object-symbols represented actual relations between people, in capitalism actual relations between people come to represent abstract value. This causes captured relations themselves to become exchangeable – relations are reduced to reproducible objects subject measurement as vehicles of value.
The movement of pathological abstraction into concrete social relations occurs within every human interaction but passes undetected, as it is this very movement which has become the condition of such interactions.
Today, the ‘effect’ of capital is most evident in the rapid decomposition of ‘traditional’ societies – the overt contrast between ancient and modern forms of domination becomes, in itself, measurable by and of value as this is expressed through the projects of ‘conservation’ of what it has not yet spoiled.
The chasm between human beings for themselves, acting as the condition for their own existence, and human beings organised in themselves as a vehicle, a ground, a framework, an incubator of the movement of pathological abstraction into reality is so great that the latter condition has become wholly naturalised whilst the former is now utterly inconceivable.
Capital displaces the for-itself character of human beings and introjects its abstraction as the essence of social activity – an essence which announces the absence of essence. The introjected essence of abstract social relations automatically proliferates cells of ‘displacement’ in concrete interpersonal relations – essentialist essencelessness is made to appear even in radical discourses where ‘liberation’ is associated with the overthrow of ‘humanism’. The radical opposition to fixity and ‘repression’ has itself become a rictus of repression, a re-naturalised ordering.
Entrepreneurial ideologies assert that human beings ‘make themselves’ and make their own history; change becomes natural and inherent, unremarkable. ‘Change’ is thus represented in the form of a homeostatically regulated stasis – change, the malleability of the concrete under pressure of the abstract, appears eternal. The circumstance of ferment and innovation in society congeals into a moment of ceaseless transformation; movement becomes fetishised as the ruling principle of society.
Capitalist abstraction renders everything malleable and human beings more than anything else. Its very operation, its very movement of reciprocation between generality and intimacy seems to prove that there is no such thing as species being. The self-transformation of human types through market driven relations seems to prove that the only possible social generality is the value form. From Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach onwards, revolutionary theory has derived positivity from capital’s revolutionising displacement of static essence from human existence.
Ideological progressivism, or rank optimism, understands technological innovation and political reform as the objective, if alienated, expression of human need. Progressivism is an argument for the historical redeployment of technology away from profit and towards serving the interest of a fully developed human society. The idea of transfer of use assumes that the use-values inherent to technologies developed under capitalist dominion are accessible, if political and economic power is also transferred, to human society for-itself.
By implication, this position assumes that capitalism is a malign, but otherwise necessary, stage in the development of human needs. The progressivist critique of capitalism is one of obsolescence – from its perspective, capitalism, as the force of displacement, must in itself be displaced. Communist society, the displacement of human need from the periphery to the centre of society, is achieved through the displacement of the commodity form from the present to the past, by means of the imposition of communist distribution of existent technologies.
However, the progressivist narrative does not take into consideration the unswerving character of the commodity. The commodity remains unchanged even as it creates malleability within the objects which are its traffic. The commodity does not reciprocate, nor does it respond. Use-value liberated from profit is not a synonym of communism as use-value is itself a derivative of the capitalist social relation. The institution of use-value at the centre of communist society would preserve the antagonistic and alienated form of capitalist production – no matter which subject formation was managing its production.
Use-value is not the manifestation of objective human need under alienating conditions, it is in fact the vehicle of the commodity form itself, a fleeting secondary product of alienated labour, which may only be realised through capital’s continued dominance over production. Use-value and capitalism are inseperable, the former assumes the latter. In other words, after the brief liberation of ‘use-value’ through workers’ control of industry, the inherent, objective, social relation congealed within the factories would inevitably reassert itself and recommence, after a joyful interregnum, a reversion to production by alienated labour. The self-tying knot of post-capitalist productionism binds use as a product of alienation which is equally bound as a product of use – both threads lead to the knot of the other.
The tragic irony of the return to production for profit under workers’ control is that the workers’ government undertakes it as a temporary necessity, and as a means for protecting the integrity ‘use-value’. For workers’ councils, use-value and the question of its organisation is itself transformed into an ideological commodity.
Where is value absent? In what way do human beings, organised into society by capitalism, describe an alternative to it? Of course, there is no such alternative. Life lived otherwise to the present cannot appear within the conditions of the production of the present. The little nut tree cannot be made to bear both silver nutmeg and golden pear. Everything existent under capitalist conditions transports value for the economy, we now perceive that even use-value, which progressivists identify as an oppositional fragment to exchange-value, is entirely determined by the necessities of economised society.
But is there something else, perhaps something located on the far side of use-value, which points to a principle of human organising entirely separated from the conventional forms of political economy, and which thus would provide a rootstock for grafting communist society onto?
The Situationist International explored the limits of use-value in its practice called Détournement. This is a technique for liberating ‘reality’, ‘truth’ ‘usage’ from ideology, from pre-structured arrangements of objects based on exchange value. By means of the reusing of existing objects in situations for which they were not designed, and with an intention that ordinarily would not be associated with them, it was supposed that something other essential to human existence was conjured into the world.
‘For example, in a Détournement relation to the Spanish Civil War the phrase with the most distinctly revolutionary sense is a fragment from a lipstick ad: “pretty lips are red”.’ The situationists imagined that they were establishing a direct connection within existing productive relations between untrammelled desire and potential, suppressed, but historically possible use-value, ‘It is not a matter of putting poetry at the service of revolution, but rather of putting revolution at the service of poetry’.
But this cannot be, deployment is not so easily achieved as expression – Wilde had already established a position in advance of situationists idea of ‘service’ with the slogan, ‘An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism.’ Use-value is determined by and facilitates the interest of the productive relation, therefore the claims for the use of Détournement should always be underestimated – Wilde again, ‘All art is quite useless’. His affected decadence is a more accurate guide to the content of Détournement than the situationists’ strategisation.
Wilde’s field of activity suggests the fanning out from the object of a field of affects, the full realisation of human existence conceived as a city of exquisitely alienated cells, each separated room minutely detailed. The situationists on the other hand fall into earnest generalisable (and abstracting) territory – tying the detourned object to decided activity and thereby retreating to a desolate plain whose only occupant, a contortionist, attempts a performance of the unity of theory and practice.
But even so, the magic trick of Détournement does illuminate something. We feel that it works, and if it is not a matter of use-value liberated from exchange-value, then what?
Despite their council communist utilitarianism, the situationists rediscovered in the act of Détournement the unquantified, ever-present, spirit of revolt. Revolt is an essence which every human may access through their natural antagonism to those conditions in which they find themselves. This essence is never overcome by any defined historical form, perhaps because it is ‘natural’, ‘static’, ‘magical’.
There is an innate capacity for revolt against conditions which is the preserve of human beings. Theirs is a revolt against nature, against second nature and every circumstance to which they are bound. Human beings separate themselves from animals because they express (they do not deploy) dissatisfactions with their environment. Revolt is theirs, it belongs to them between themselves, collectively, as a binding if negative relation. The capacity for revolt is not in itself ‘valued’, it is not a ‘will to communism’, a rejection of ‘injustice’, a movement towards ‘truth’ or ‘understanding’, or anything of that type. It is expressive but is not representational. It is a primitive, hostile response, or reflex, towards unconducive environmental factors. It is a response which may be activated at any/every moment in history.
The species being of human beings is discontent with circumstance. Species being is revolt. And the reason that revolt is ‘exterior’ to any given relation is because we must assume that the human species is naturally ‘social’, therefore its innate capacities are always to be thought of as surplus to any actual expression of them. The natural capacity for disgruntlement is never exhausted.
Humans will even revolt against communism, against the for-itself organisation of their world. They even refuse themselves. Perhaps they will revolt even more against a communist environment as communism would be structurally responsive to negative response. We can imagine how such a reflexive social-individual interface would enable the community to reset the parameters of social reality to individual sensitisation (Andersen’s story, The Princess and the Pea illuminates how a true nature is located.
In this case, communism is not so much an essence returning to itself at a higher level as an intensified registering of the constant rate of human negation – communism, a sort of landscaped garden in which distant trees are rearranged for the view from the breakfast room, is that environment which shifts its colour in response to the moods of the chameleon inhabitants.
The wretchedness of people, their unhappiness even amongst the wealth they have accumulated, is a ground for communist argument. Their revolt does not take the political form ordinarily recognised as revolt, it is not a matter of acceding to an abstract political consciousness, but even so, their capacity for negative and destructive reversion is never diminished.
Historically, within capitalist society, the working class comes into conflict with capital because, as a mass of human beings, it is split between its habituation to abstraction and its negation of its environment. If the mass of proletarianised individuals are naturally inclined to respond negatively to the the social relation, it is the social relation which determines the form this negation takes. Complaint begins in the immediate form of inconvenience.
The human capacity for revolt continues within capitalised social relations because it cannot be wholly contained within or expressed by the relation of exchange. The commodification of revolt itself induces a spiral of nuances in the rejection of its products. Revolt seeks an external vantage point from which to reject what exists, whilst social production seeks always to contain this external position as a more extreme niche market. Therefore, it is the relation of exchange which finally determines the manner in which revolt is undertaken.
Revolt exists beyond use-value, and it continues to be manifested beyond ‘useful’, ‘strategic’ or ‘political’ revolt. Revolt is pre-rational. It expresses what is human but not as a social value – it is the injured response of a self-separating creature. We may deduce that there is, amongst the production and exchange of commodities, a human real because of the unreconstructed register of pain which individuals preserve as the core of their existence. No matter the distractions and ameliorations produced to dull the sense of there being, this sense is only exacerbated – He is thus not assured of self-existence as his truth; he finds that his truth is rather the unessential consciousness, and the fortuitous unessential action of that consciousness.
Thus the essence of human experience is the recording of anguish as a rejection of conditions. All subsequent identity is formulated in revolt constructed out of the record of past traumas – that is, identity is the mingling of negation as essence with historical conditions.
For reasons of revolt’s perspectival/emotional character, it only very rarely coincides precisely with political formulations – more often ‘revolutionary politics’ appropriate it, and ‘give it a voice’. Most ‘revolutionary’ theory thus misrepresents discontent and grievance by containing it within an ideological framework of useful works for rational goals ... but with, at best, only temporary success. Revolt also revolts against revolution. Human essence overruns, and so thwarts, all understanding of it.
The decomposition of capitalist social relations runs parallel to the decomposition of the proletariat’s capacity for the work upon which capitalism depends. Up to this moment, the affective revolt against work has been variously recomposed and contained within both medicalised discourse and commodified forms of ‘escape’, but the tendency to decomposition is relentless. Revolt is an acid that corrodes all reason.
No matter how ‘revolt’ is codified within the commodity form, there is a structural requirement in the form’s coding for its own reproduction as a structure for indexing such objects (i.e. if revolt is contained it must be contained as a commodity). No matter where discontent is contained or how it is codified the rot sets in, and things begin to fall apart.
The significance of the interpellated individual’s disfunction is objectively marginal to the environment but the mass aggregation of such pathologies has a cumulative effect. How and where the middens off discontent are collated is a significant question and might be approached by rethreading it through the marxist disjunction between concrete and abstract labour.
If the value form is dependent for its realisation on the category of abstract labour, the produced world is an outcome of alienated concrete labour. It is not clear where or how corporeal proletarian disfunction appears within the value extraction process but it is easily understood how an accumulation of system blockages and errors will effect the material production of the world. Wherever ‘noise’ exceeds ‘information’ within a processive system, the coherence of that system itself comes under significant threat.
The struggle to express immediate revolt as disfunction therefore does not map onto the mechanism of value production, which is frankly merely contingent to the struggle of consciousness against perturbing matter. The site of the capacity to establish a for-itself sensitisation is always directed at the material production of its host environment. For this reason, the struggle of the proletariat is not directed at the category of ‘abstract labour’ or the process of ‘value extraction’ but is sets against the manifestation of abstraction within the material world in the form of alienated concrete labour activity.
The historical purpose of the proletariat, as discovered by Oscar Wilde, is to become quite useless. Its struggle is to channel the sensitivities of the corporeal body in opposition to the desensitisation and habituation process (i.e. the surplus reality principle) which is the fundamental prerequisite of world production based on concrete labour activity.
If this is the case, it would then seem feasible to hypothesise that somewhere along the line the metabolic process of recoding and containing the proletariat’s decomposition (the accumulated physical manifestations of disfunction amongst millions of individuals) will lose its own elasticity – and at it will become incoherent as a homeostatic system and thus begin to deteriorate more rapidly (the less capacity there is in the system for re-coding disfunction as containable, the more disfunction will be recorded as uncodable).
The individual’s innate and intimate struggle against social environment never decreases in either quantity or quality, but it does adapt itself in its expression to conditions and is thus manifested in innumerable forms. For example, at the present juncture there is a tendency amongst the proletariat to express the rejection of capitalist relations through prolonged sickness, depression, obsessions, fanaticism, drunkenness, interpersonal violence... rather than say by marching through the streets on ‘protest marches’.
For the left this recomposition of struggle into an intimate bodily response feels like a retreat. However, the affective turn of revolt is actually some sort of ‘advance’ – it is a step closer to the proper ordering of perspective and significance, a step closer to the de-ideologised nature of instinctive revolt.
Revolt is an intimate relatedness to the world, and therefore most real at the level of immediate feeling which functions to orientate the individual in a potentially toxic environment.
The role of impossibilist communists within the realm where gut feelings are manifested is not so much to prescribe politicisation as some form of higher response, as it is to invite naturally discontented others to therapeutically reflect upon the meaning of their own personal anguish, and thereby recognise the contradiction between themselves and their environment. By this means the eternal stance of revolt might be clarified, the realisation of which would feed into the development of a field more appropriate for its expression.
Impossibilist communism is an environment within which reflexive sensitisation between self and the processes of environment is taken to the extremities that are found in the story of The Princess and the Pea – it is in such circumstances that the natural tendency to self-alienation in consciousness finds itself most at home (that is, affirmed by its material conditions). It is the destiny of humanity to search out a world which affirms it in the full amplitude of its negations. Therefore, impossibilist communism should be understood above all as an environment which re-colours in response to the mood of its chameleon inhabitants.