Revolts of Futures Past: Cycles of Struggle, Technology and Neoliberalism

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In a previous essay, “Technology and the Path Dependency of Capitalism”, I looked at the way that capitalism exhibits a very specific paradox, one whose intricacy is forming into one of the key political questions currently facing us.  At the center of this paradox is technology, and its complicated relationship to the capitalist system. One on hand, capitalism develops a robust system of production, leveraging innovations in technology and science to boost the efficiency of its output, while also using these to develop new forms of innovations to be traded on the market. On the other hand, capitalism restrains technological innovation, selectively development those that actual as extension of currently-existing market demands. Following Carlota Perez, we can see that when capitalism “breaks” with its older forms of organization, what is taking place is the deployment of new technological artifacts, systems, and infrastructures that cannot help but drive the system into higher forms of complexity. At the same time, patterns of investment, class interest, and the revolving door between the private and public sectors allow these “technological revolutions” and “technological paradigms” to become bracketed and restrained, dominated by previous forms of value extraction, worker exploitation, and economic and political power.

For Perez, there exists a sort of ‘possibility space’ that technological innovation (differentiated here from technological invention due to its relationship to capitalist exchange) operates within that dictates the future forms it will assume. While she refrains from taking this to its logical conclusion (that capitalism implements a mild, or soft, determinism in order to assure its self-reproducibility), the analyses of techno-economic paradigms carried out by her and her long wave theory colleagues are deeply rooted in socialist – particularly Marxist – approaches to economics. If the charges of technological determinism can be applied here, it is of the a priori economic determinism that capitalism cultivates, conjoining the two in a spiraling dance of human and non-human agencies – agencies, however, whose beginning and end is the market itself.

Preempting this perspective while advancing his own interpretation of capitalist long waves, Ernest Mandel writes that there is “evidence that each of these revolutions in labor organization, made possible through successive technological revolutions, grew out of conscious attempts by employers to break down the resistance of the working class to further increase the rate of exploitation.”[1] He gives us three examples. The first comes from Marx’s own analysis of how the capitalist class, in response to the demands of the workers for shorting working hours, pursued a path through production relied on the integration of machines into the modes of production; the second concerns the rise of Taylorist scientific management, followed by the Fordist re-organization of production, as a counter to the growth of strong craft unions. The third example brings us to our current time, which has seen the rise of a semi-automated, globalized and flexible post-Fordist capitalism that undermined the increased volatility of organized labor in the period running from 1945 to around 1968.

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Here Mandel approaches the analysis developed in full by that tendency that now appears to be on the wane – autonomous Marxism. Commonly associated with forms of struggle that appear, in the face of hyper-precarity and ecological instability, to be increasingly outdated[2] (not to mention the absurdity of the “immaterial labor” theories of Autonomia’s most vocal proponent, Antonio Negri), the nuances of this vein of praxis have been pushed to the side – a misfortune, for they hold important insight into the nature of the political struggles that must be built.

A little history before we go down the autonomist rabbit hole: while this post-Marxist tendency is most closely associate with Italian militancy during the country’s “Years of Lead” in the 1970s, its origin stem back some twenty-plus years prior, to an American ex-Trotskyite faction known as the “Johnson-Forest Tendency.” “Johnson” was the pseudonym for C.L.R. James, a notable proponent of Pan-Africanism and historian of black Caribbean history, while “Forest” was Raya Dunayevskaya, a former secretary for Trotsky and the founder of Marxist humanist philosophy; the third member, meanwhile, was Grace Lee Boggs, a long-time veteran of Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Many of the former Trotskyite movements shifted to the Right in response to the violence of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. The Johnson-Forest Tendency instead pushed ever leftward, committing themselves to continuing the American tradition of radicalizing the rank-and-file workers toiling not only on the shop-floors, but the under the watchful eye of a union bureaucracy whose interests ran concurrent with the corporate bosses.

The Johnson-Forest Tendency asked two key questions: what is the nature of contemporary capitalism, and what is the relationship between working class struggles and crises within capitalism?

The capitalism of their time was the Fordist system, particularly the Late Fordism form that emerged following the New Deal and the Second World War, with its quasi-Keynesianism interventionist state and strong class compact between labor and capital. As institutional economists like J.K. Galbraith and New Deal intellectuals like Adolf Berle has argued, this form of capitalism – be it at the level of the state or the firm – was organized around the principles of planning, something made necessary by the demands of the industrialized mass production system.[3] Furthermore, both had argued, this break with capitalism’s laissez-faire past made it bear certain similarities to the Soviet system; for Berle, the Soviet bureaucracy was little more than the organization of the capitalist corporation blown up to the size of a country. James Burnham assimilated these various theories into his 1945 book The Managerial Revolution, and argued that the Fordist-Keynesian system, the Soviet development through Five Year Plans, and the corporatist state of fascist Italy was the outline of an emergent society beyond capitalism. Formerly a Marxist, Burnham’s thesis was that it was not socialism – as Marx anticipated – but a governance by a managerial elite that emerged from within capitalism.[4]

Prior to his break, Burnham had notably been a member of the Workers Party – the Trotskyite faction that the Johnson-Forest Tendency had carried out their own break with in their leftward drift. It is unsurprisingly, then, that their own analysis of capitalist order bore remarkable similarities to Burnham’s own. The fundamental difference was that whereas Burnham argued that capitalism had been superseded by this new era of managerial organization, James, Dunayevskaya maintained that the movement towards planning was the inauguration of a “state capitalism” that maximized productive output in a rational manner while minimizing worker militancy through the ‘bringing-in’ of labor as part of capitalist governmentality.

By carrying out studies and participating in struggles taking place on the shop floor, the Johnson-Forest Tendency came to realize that while the top of the labor bureaucracy was compromised a radically different picture emerged at the bottom. Particularly in the auto factories of Detroit, the rank-and-file workers waged two-front battles against the corporation and the union alike. Against the slow movement of collective bargaining, wild cat strikes, sabotage, and work stoppage proliferated; as texts like The American Worker[5] revealed, these struggles unfolded directly into the context of the worker’s everyday life, denigrated by the tethering of their bodies to the patterns of the semi-automated machines of the Fordist factory. What this indicated was that the working class operated as an autonomous actor, struggling within and against the state capitalist system.

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The Johnson-Forest Tendency’s positions influenced leftist struggles far and wide, and could be felt in the nebulous space between praxis and critical theory. Raya Dunayevskaya, for example, carried out long correspondences with Herbert Marcuse, agreeing with him on the necessity of a Great Refusal while disagreeing on the pursuit of automation (Dunayevskaya opposed automation, while Marcuse called for its acceleration. For a look at Marcuse’s stance on automation, see my “Labor, Automation, and Refusal”). Boggs, meanwhile, opened a channel of communication between the Johnson-Forest Tendency and the Socialisme ou Barberie group in France, an offshoot of which would later become the Situationist Interantional. Cornelius Castoriadas, the founder of Socialisme ou Barberie, would co-author a book with Boggs and C.L.R. James titled Facing Reality: The New Society… Where to Look for It, How to Bring it Closer, A Statement for Our Time. This text “constituted an almost lyrical ode to the reality of working class imagination and power to craft a new society out of the present… Everywhere they claimed to see ‘new men, new types of human beings’ throwing off the encumbering prejudices and destructive hierarchies of capitalism to develop new ways of being.”[6]

In the early 1960s similar revolts rocked Italy’s auto-factories: without the consent of the conservative labor unions and even leading socialist parties, worker militancy reached levels that went beyond the American experience. Erecting fractures throughout the fragile tapestry of the country’s leftist movements, a handful of militant sociologists arrived in the factories to study the nature of this unrest. Armed with a theoretical arsenal drawn from translations of the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s writings, their goal was to develop insights into the rank-and-file outbursts with the goal of shifting the internal politics of the socialist parties. These intellectual activists – Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, Romano Alquati, and later Antonio Negri, among others – soon produced a praxis of worker-research, disseminated in journals and movements bearing names such as Quaderni Rossi, Classe Operaia, and Potere Operaio. It was this “workerist” tendency that became the foundations of what would later be called Autonomia in Italy, and autonomous Marxism abroad.

In their analysis, the workerists began to dissect the nuances of worker’s struggles. When organizing into a collectivity, the autonomous workers carry out a composition of class that was capable of challenging capitalism’s organizations of production and labor. Capitalism, in turn, must re-act by carrying out a process of decomposition: since it requires labor, the system “cannot entirely destroy its antagonist” and so it must put into play new organizational forms, new technologies, and new techniques that disrupt the possibilities of this composition.[7] At the same time, these new organizations, technologies, and techniques open up new ‘possibility spaces’ for struggle, leading the worker’s movement to undergo recomposition and thus restart the process. This movement of composition to decomposition to recomposition and back again is the cycle of worker’s struggles – an ever-shifting borderland of autonomy and control.

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It was Mario Tronti who took these thoughts to their logical conclusion: that worker’s struggles are the motor of capitalist development. At once we become confronted with the limitations of autonomous theory, in that it marks a sudden reduction of critical analysis right when it bordered on an understanding of capitalism as a complex system composed of multiple variables. By positioning worker autonomy in terms of an absolute, we lose sight of the way in which different sectors of labor itself can be not only antagonistic to one capitalism, but to one another as well – a venue of study that require much consideration today, as reactionary attitudes of “us against them” in maintaining employment gain traction even at the level of presidential campaigns. At the same time, it smooths out the fact that there exists within the capitalist class rivalries between sectors (manufacturing and finance, for example), and obscures how these upper class rivalries can shape and be shaped by lower class rivalries. Both class agencies become absolutes, with an impossible cohesiveness applied to the workers and the ability of the capitalists to response in a manner that borders on conspiracy theory. Furthermore, it subordinates technological development to the position of the weapon of the rich, closely off a multi-valenced mode of analysis into machinic evolution.

Let us look, for example, at the stage that the Autonomists referred to the era of the “professional worker”, that is, the organization of labor around the craft worker that lasted from the mid-19th century until World War 1. In the United States the radical nature of the professional worker’s struggle led to a close relationship between labor unions and the Socialist Party, with the purpose of this unity being “built around the concept of the worker’s management of industrial production.”[8] The pinnacle of this composition was reached in Russia in 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution managed to throw off the domination of the aristocracy, formally opening what was essentially a feudal society to the possibility of industrial modernization that could be carried out (in theory, at least) in the hands of the worker state.

The Autonomists see the capitalist counter-offensive moving in immediately in the forms of Taylorist scientific management and the Fordist mode of production. In reality, the picture was a little more complicated. The Taylorist techniques of coordinating and enfolding the movements of labor and machine production were not deployed in the wake of the Soviet Revolution, but actually preceded it by nearly thirty years with its peak being realized in the years immediately prior to the uprising.[9] It did, however, have everything to do with limiting the worker’s autonomy – something that could not be applied to the introduction of Fordist techniques into production. While there is considerable debate to how explicit the relationship between Taylorism and Fordism was, it certainly trended towards the same state of affairs (the management of the worker’s activities by a rising proto-middle class of mid-level workers) and was a reflection of the same cultural conditions ultimately rooted in the drive to eliminate worker’s power (the so-called “efficiency movement”). Where they differed, however, was their scope: Taylorism, as a diagrammation of power, was localized, focusing on the relationship between the body and the shop floor. Fordism, by contrast, appears to have been a result of the “whip of competition”, and was non-localized, extending its regulation from the site of the body and the factory floor to the society as a whole.[10]

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The following period, which I refer to as “Early Fordism”, is for the Autonomists the era of the “mass worker” whose struggles take on a vastly different form than those of the craft worker. “No longer able to control production, he can still stop it.”[11] This is where the tactics of wildcat strike, work-stoppage, and industrial sabotage that the Johnson-Forest Tendency began tracing first emerge. In the stage of Early Fordism, this particular cycle of struggles finds its ultimate expression in the sit-down strikes in the factories of Flint, Michigan between 1936 and 1937, which saw General Motors plants seized by workers who then managed to prolong the conflict for forty-four days. Support for the strikes came from the United Auto Workers union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the latter of which was described by Raya Dunayevskaya as the formation of the worker’s party whose creation had been differed by the transition to Early Fordism.

The new system of power that was coming into view would alter the terrain of these struggles. For the Johnson-Forest Tendency it was the system of state capitalism, and for the Autonomists it was the “Planned State”. I prefer to call its economical expression “Late Fordism”, and its complimentary stateform the “Rational State”. Neither development can be reduced to a response-mechanism for the antagonism of labor – though the role this played in assisting its internal development. The New Deal, for example, emerged to dissect the rising militancy from below, but it also sought to smooth out the internal contradictions that plagued the uneven development intrinsic to Early Fordism that had erupted into the Great Depression. It would ultimately be the Second World War and not the New Deal, however, that brought the Late Fordist-Rational State to its highest expression, with its massive destruction and recreation of capital, the opening up of export markets, and the establishment of the Bretton Woods system of international regulation.  For Antonio Negri, this marked the embrace by the establishment of Keynesian economic frameworks, which as he illustrates clearly is designed to stave off the dismantling of capitalism by a militant opposition.[12] However astute his observations into the nature of Keynesianism may be, it isn’t an accurate reflection of the New Deal nor the forms of liberal corporatism that followed in its wake: as I’ve shown elsewhere,[13] what America witnessed in this period was the implementation of institutional economics, which broke perhaps with the notions of capitalism’s innate superiority even more so than Keynes ever attempted. This disjunction exhibited here is surely something that needs to be developed more at another time.

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This diffusion of Fordist techniques across the whole of the social was matched by the Soviet’s enthusiastic embrace of scientific management and assembly line production in its Five Year Plans, effectively stripping away any vestiges of the worker’s state erected by the earlier Bolsheviks. In the United States, by contrast, a neutralization of working class autonomy – as a subset of this wider re-organization – attempted to integrate labor deeper into the structures of governance. The CIO was absorbed into the right-wing American Federation of Labor led by the rabid anti-communist George Meany; the newfound AFL-CIO operate in close proximity to the interests of both Washington and the business elite, and overseas worked closely with the CIA in curbing the growth of more left-wing labor movement.[14] Even the left-wing UAW, whose founder, Walther Reuther, was drawn into this complex.[15]

Despite these efforts, the matrix of struggle birthed in the early years of the “mass worker” only amplified, as a rising number of strikes began plaguing the system almost as soon as World War 2 ended. Writing of the one-time hero of the Flint sit-down strikes, Dunayevskaya wrote that “opposition to Reuther is now… total.”[16] Young people, for whom Late Fordism promised a world of affluence, began to push back against the system. In 1959, the League for Industrial Democracy, an organization closely aligned with the AFL-CIO leadership, used money from the union to launch a youth-wing headed up by a young student by the name of Tom Hayden. Instead of reinforcing the Late Fordism class compact, this youth-wing rebranded itself the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and began building a broad anti-capitalist students movement. A year later, the SDS joined the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address the question of Civil Right; this conference, in turn, saw the creation of the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While CORE and the SCLC would waver between moderate positions and radicalism (they too existed in the orbit of the AFL-CIO and its related institutions), SNCC would stake out more militant territories of struggle – establishing the gap between Civil Rights and Black Power while also bridging it.[17]

As they grew, the SNCC began to draw influence from the Third World movements that were rising to confront the persistence of capitalist imperialism; combining nationalism and liberation, the challenge these movements posed exploded into the Vietnam War overseas, setting off a rising anti-war movement at home. As the 60s wore on it became exceedingly difficult to untangle a sudden panoply of movements: students movements, anti-war movements, Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the feminist movement, the nascent ecological movement, and the hippie counterculture. For the Autonomists, Late Fordism has produced the “social factory”, whereby the logic of the factory extended across the whole of society. Under a networked movement of movements, this system of systems was being attacked across all scales. Soon to explode through Detroit, Paris, and other major cities in 1968, the cycle of struggles was coalescing into a situation that started “at multiple points… [to threaten] the whole intricate balance of the social factory.”[18] Looked at from a distance, this appears precisely how Antonio Negri has described it: an ideological exodus from the disciplinary society.[19]

It was perhaps the great misfortune of this culmination of struggle that have coincided with the collapse of its particular techno-economic paradigm. By the time that the protests were sweeping the globe, Late Fordism and its international order were splitting apart at the seams as a crisis of over-production reared its head. The Rational State, in its attempt to expand itself through welfare (Great Society) and warfare (Vietnam) generated a fiscal crisis that threatened to undermine Bretton Woods. The election of President Nixon, which began as a push-back against 60s radicalism, became the source of wide reconfiguration of the patterns of organization and class composition. Following his dissolution of Bretton Woods with the Nixon Shock and seeming inability to navigate out from the monetary crisis, the 1970s becomes a bewildering period that saw the construction of a global system of post-Fordist capitalism.[20] Once again, it was not working class struggle alone that generated this paradigm, but the complex interplay of militancy, crisis, and technological innovation that compels the system to new orders.

It is for this reason we can say that while the Autonomist’s ‘cycle of struggle’ theories need not be relegated to the dustbin, but put into dialogue with theories and analyses like those of Perez and other proponents of the long wave.[21] If this was carried out, it might reveal a historical diagram resembling this:

 

Period Techno-Economic Paradigm Organizing System Working Class Composition
1840s -1900s Railroad Efficiency Era, Progressivism “Professional Worker”
1910s -Late 1920s Electrified Mass Production, Automobile Early Fordism

(uneven Fordism)

“Mass Worker”
Late 1920s – 1945 Crisis and War: Great Depression and World War 2
1940-1968/72 ———- Late Fordism

(dispersed Fordism)

———-
Early 1970s-Early 1980s Crisis and War: Dollar crisis, Vietnam War, long-term stagflation
1980s – Mid-2000s Information-Communication Technology Post-Fordism, Neoliberalism “Networker”/”Precarious Worker”
Mid-2000 – 20?? Crisis and War: Financial crisis, long-running financial crisis

While the above chart would require a lot of work to bring up to proper analytic speed, we can glimpse the relationship between new techno-economic paradigms and the overcoming of crises that result from the contradictions in the preceding era. It is clear that the techno-economic paradigm can be felt not only in the circuits of production of consumption (either in the machinery of production itself, in the innovations on the market, or both) but at the level of the institutional infrastructure that upholds these systems. It is at precisely this point that the cycle of struggles enters the picture. In other words, the cycle of struggles in a preceding stage becomes assimilated into the dominant organizations of capitalism as both a neutralizing force and a reinvention of capitalist governance itself. The implementation of the New Deal, for example, required much of the groundwork laid by the close relationship between organized labor and socialist currents; even within its own organization, the New Deal ‘brain trust’ and its various bureaucrats exhibited a curious combination of the business and governmental elite and those sympathetic to socialism.[22] Likewise, the transformation of the left-wing CIO into the right-wing AFL-CIO, or the courting of the UAW into the official channels of the Rational State, both exemplify this tendency. While Late Fordism died a death in the multi-year collapse of post-war order, the battle for the soul of the left died its own death in the competition between George McGovern (representing, or more properly co-opting, the New Left)[23] and Henry “Scoop” Jackson” (representing the interests of the AFL-CIO and the old labor establishment) in their mutually-failed bids for the presidency. The cycle of struggle ended as the Fordist cycle of accumulation came to its conclusion.

And yet the events of the 60s, the movement of movements, came assist what came next. Writing as a member of the Trilateral Commission, an international organization launched in the 1970s to assist in coordinating global action in that period of transition, Samuel Huntington bemoaned that in the 60s there was an “excess of democracy” that had to be tamed if order was to be restored. This did not mean that democracy as a concept or even as political order had to be abolished – it had to be rebranded in a way that the extent that massive dissenting movements could no longer articulate themselves as they had before. While the Trilateral Commission looked to recreate postwar liberal corporatism on a global level,[24] Huntington’s further elucidations on this ‘new democracy’ helped lay the foundations for neoliberal governmentality. Citing the correlation between economic power, property ownership, and political power, he writes that “Political democracy is clearly compatible with inequality in both wealth and income, and in some measure, it may be dependent upon such inequality… Defining democracy in terms of goals such as economic well-being, social justice, and overall socioeconomic equity is not, we have argued, very useful.”[25]

This reactionary perspective, tailored perfectly to the free-market philosophies being churned out by those affiliated with the Mont Pelerin Society and the embrace by social scientists of rational choice theory, does not appear to have anything to do with the 60s revolts, which had everything to do with economic well-being, social justice, and socioeconomic equity – but as always, things are more complex than they appear. What was at stake was the launching of a new cycle of accumulation based on the new techno-economic paradigm – that of information technology – and the ongoing reorganization of global labor relations. Finance capitalism, the ‘Silicon Valley capitalism’ of the tech sector, and the so-called ‘creative industries’ of advertising, marketing, and the arts were each developed as much as possible, obscuring a fragmenting labor pool being pushed into precarious, predominantly service sector positions. Organized labor as a political force was dismembered, even as the attitudes of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy of personality so cherished by the 60s counterculture became both the petri dish and the end product of proliferating and distributed culture industry. Dress-down ‘cool capitalism’ was the spectacular antidote for the division of labor between an upwardly mobile professional class and the failing of the former ‘middle class’ and lower classes into super-precarity.[26] For one of these classes, the position of the hyper-atomized ‘prosumer’ becomes attainable, and for the other, the meeting the barest minimums of subsistence is all too frequently unlikely.

Two French sociologists by the names of Luc Boltanski and Eva Chiapello have analyzed this phenomena by tracking the shifts in a managerial discourses following the events of 1968.[27] By the late 1970s, Barbara and John Ehrenreich had produced a theory of the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) that had arose in the Fordist period of organization; in their analysis, the PMC was the salaried class of non-owners that were antagonistic to both the upper classes and the traditional working classes.[28] The New Left of the 1960s, they argued, largely drew its ranks from radicalized contingencies of the PMC, which composed almost entirely the membership of the SDS. While the SDS pursued a radical and revolutionary politic, there was also an emphasis of transformation from within the professions – and it is Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism that illustrates the way in which this particular strategy became subverted. The classical Fordist corporation was vertically-managed, bound up in strict hierarchies; the post-Fordist firm, by contract, tends towards horizontalism and flexibility, where the chain of command becomes supplanted with team-based co-operation and innovation. Both production and management becomes an affair of networks governed by a language of creativity, of ‘super-empowered’ individuals and cadres who have autonomy in problem-solving. At the same time, this network formation comes to bear down on unions and other ‘traditional’ forms of the social, disrupting their ability to function by drawing on the artistic, theoretical, and philosophical models that were crafted to attack capitalism.

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And what of our current juncture? We find ourselves mired in a period of economic stagnation and warfare, dissimilar and at once congruent with the period of re-organization that existed between Early Fordism and Late Fordism, or between Late Fordism and post-Fordism/neoliberalism. We are not without a rising tide of innovations (though as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the corporate and/or state investments and research and development lags behind the rates seen in early developments, raising question as to the nature of any emergent techno-economic paradigms), and while they have not been as highly visible as those in the previous periods, there has been no lack of a cycle of struggles. Exploding across the 1990s and into the early years of the 2000s, the alter-globalization movement attempted to create the 60s style movement of movements, focusing their energies not on an ideological exodus from liberal corporatism, but on dismantling neoliberal globalism. After the events of September 11th, much of this critical energy went off in the anti-war movement, while others were dismantled either by hard or soft power. By 2009 these movements were on the march again with the California students protests, where students seized and occupied university buildings and issued pamphlets written from the perspective of communization theory.

In early 2011, thousands of union members and labor supporters took to the streets in Wisconsin to combat the continued neoliberal counteroffensive now being carried out by politicians representing the interests of the “Tea Party”. At the same time, the Arab Spring was getting underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; inspired by the seizure of public squares as a protest against unjust governance and economic austerity, movements formed across Europe, from the Indignants of Spain to the Democracy movement in Greece. In the United States, this cycle of struggles coalesced as Occupy Wall Street, starting in New York City but spreading far beyond under the more generalized banner of Occupy. And then, almost as soon as they started, many of these “networked” movements dissipated – be it under increased political instability and deferred revolutions (as in many cases of the Arab Spring) or under a combination of repression, lack of organization and burnout (Occupy).

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At the same time, we cannot properly say that these cycles have not been without impact – however marginal they may be at this stage. We can glimpse the specter of assimilation. In Greece, for example, the rise of Syriza can absolutely be read as the institutionalization of that country’s 2011 cycle, with the ultimate failure to break with the EU’s program of austerity revealing how profoundly un-democratic the current system is. Likewise, the appearance of Bernie Sanders in the US political scene must be contextualized in the cycle of 2011, from his talking points (the 1%) to his targets (the ‘billionaire class’, finance capitalism) to his demands (free higher education, regulation, strong social safety nets). The same goes for the UK’s new Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

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Normally, these elements would be analyzed in terms of decompositions, but as I have argued in “Socialism, Reform, and Revolution”, this is a pattern of decomposition that we must think critically about, and perhaps even amplify. At this stage too much is lost, the terra firma of struggle having dissipated beneath our feet. But it still isn’t enough; capitalism in its neoliberal mode is too entrenched, its hybrid powers still leaching through the depth of social life. It is unlikely we’ve reached a stage where government can be shifted into the most moderate of reforms. The task then is two-fold: to fight for reform, and to continue building for the long hall.

This perspective puts not only the cycle of struggle, of composition, decomposition, and recomposition, front and center, but also the question of the techno-economic paradigm. It is the collision of these two forces under the hegemony of the old that will ensure capitalism’s reproduction at the next stage. This means to think and act precisely where the technological is concerned, perhaps precisely in the ways that the accelerationists have recently outlined. It also means that we have to centralize, in any potential praxis, exactly what McKenzie Wark suggests: a politics of organization of society and work that not only sees labor as something within and against capitalism, but within and against an ecosystem that is becoming more and more unstable where the continuity of life itself is concerned.[29] The task may seem insurmountable, but it is all we have.

[1] Ernest Mandel Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Interpretation Verso, 1995 pg. 35

[2] At the same time, it might be unfair to blame the Autonomia for later developments such as Hakim Bey’s dubious “Temporary Autonomous Zone”. While the concept of the T.A.Z. clearly has autonomist roots, it perhaps distills down the concept of dissenting autonomy to the point where any possibility of a Marxist-derived praxis – the goal of autonomous Marxism – vanishes.

[3] See Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means The Corporation and Private Property Transaction, 1991; and J.K. Galbraith The New Industrial State Penguin, 1969

[4] James Burnham The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom Putnam, 1943; and The Managerial Revolution 1945

[5] Paul Romano and Ria Stone The American Worker 1947

[6] “Genesis of Zerowork #1 http://zerowork.org/GenesisZ1.html

[7] Nick Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism University of Illinois Press, 1999 pg. 136

[8] Ibid, pg. 147

[9] Jonathan Woodham Twentieth-Century Design Oxford Paperbacks, 1997, pg. 12

[10] See Antonio Gramsci “Americanism and Fordism” in David Forgacs The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935 New York University Press, 2000, pgs. 275-299

[11] Dyer-Witherford Cyber Marx, pg. 148

[12] See Antonio Negri “Keynes and the Capitalist Theory of the State” in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of State-Form University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pgs. 38-66

[13] See my “Socialism, Reform, and Revolution”

[14] For an in-depth analysis of the AFL-CIO and the US’s Cold War covert counterinsurgency, see Kim Scipes AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Development Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? Lexington Books, 2011. For a shorter treatment, see Beth Sims Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy South End Press, 1992

[15] Tom Braden “I’m Glad the CIA is Immoral” Saturday Evening Post 1967. Tom Braden was the CIA’s paymaster and organizer for their labor-related activities .

[16] Raya Dunayevskaya “New Stage of Struggle Against Labor Bureaucracy” News and Letters, July 22nd, 1955 https://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/works/1955/new-stage.htm

[17] For an interesting give-and-take between the SNCC, the more moderate contingencies in the Civil Rights movement, and the UAW’s Walther Reuther, see Charles Euchner Nobody Turn me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington Beacon Press, 2011 pg. 151

[18] Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Marx, pg. 152

[19] This is discussed at length in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt Empire Harvard University Press, 2000

[20] See my “Between the Transnational Capitalist Class and Global Civil Society: The Structures of Imperial Protocol”

[21] This precise proposition has been the center of Brian Holmes and Armin Medosch’s Technopolitics Group. See http://www.thenextlayer.org/Technopolitics

[22] Such a combination is precisely the sort of puzzling picture we get when studying the history of institutional economics as a whole. There is considerable debate, for example, to Thorstein Veblen’s own relationship to socialism. He readily adapted Marxist concepts into his own framework, converting them into his own idiosyncratic vocabulary. At the same time, a worker’s state was not Veblen’s ultimate goal.

[23] According to McGovern’s campaign manager, the entire campaign was based on a strategy of “co-opting the left.” See Lance Selfa The “Sanders Trap” Jacobin, May 30th, 2015 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/bernie-sanders-president-socialist-primary/

[24] See William Tabb “Social Democracy and Authoritarianism: Two Faces of Trilateralism Towards Labor” in Holly Sklar (ed.) Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management South End Press, 1980, pgs. 308-323

[25] Quoted in William I. Robinson Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony Cambridge University Press, 1996 pg. 55

[26] A good side-by-side would be Thomas Frank The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism University of Chicago Press, 1998; and Barbara Ehrenreich Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Picador, 2011

[27] Luc Boltanski and Eva Chiapello The New Spirit of Capitalism Verso, 2007

[28] For a full discussion of this see Pat Walker (ed.) Between Labor and Capital South End Press, 1979

[29] McKenzie Wark Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene Verso, 2015

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8 Responses to Revolts of Futures Past: Cycles of Struggle, Technology and Neoliberalism

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    Hey buddy, been a while… so you’re actually moving toward a more centralized power structure? “This means to think and act precisely where the technological is concerned, perhaps precisely in the ways that the accelerationists have recently outlined. It also means that we have to centralize, in any potential praxis…” We’re seeing the bureaucratic worlds of liberal democracy becoming the problem rather than the answer it seems to me. This sense of the old progressive reformism? Capitalism is at odds with democracy, based as it is on profit and exploitation. This notion of the accelerationists of the Left seems dubious at best. I’ve yet to read Srnicek’s latest collaboration ( I need too!). Either way I think the world is entering a new era of civil-war and collapse. A time of strangeness. The idea of imposing order from above or from a center seems to go against everything happening around us. It’s not working in EU or America. The rest of the third-world is just trying to survive the best it can. No leadership. No vision. No direction. And, most of our academics seem to marginalized at the moment in too many speculative realms that have as yet produced nothing of transport for the common man on the street, the proletariat worker.

    I’m not pessimist about it anymore, just a little bit realist now. It’s going to be a long haul and struggle, rather than some centralized fix or reform.

  2. edmundberger says:

    Hi Steve! That’s actually really poor wording on my part, which makes my position look a little vague and borderline authoritarian… What I meant was not that we must built praxis from a centralized position, but to put at the center of potential praxis a “politics of organization of society and work that not only sees labor as something within and against capitalism, but within and against an ecosystem that is becoming more and more unstable where the continuity of life itself is concerned.” So its about building from a different vantage point, a labor point of view, that doesn’t centralized knowledge and practice, but finds common linkages between them whilst ‘keeping an eye on the ball’, that is, that our actions are fundamentally bound to the complexities of an ecological world system. In that sense its also about abandoning academic approaches and engaging with the material relations of the world, right in the materiality of nature. As of late I’ve been less engaged with philosophy and more with local and regional social movements, from socialist groups to worker’s rights groups to environmental struggles. At the same time, been studying economics in depth… It’s giving me what I feel to be a wider perspective than philosophy could allow.

    I agree that liberal democracy is problem – and has been, given that it bolsters the relations of capitalism at the expense of the worker. The big shift though is that very one we analyzed for so long: the one towards a control society, a post-Fordist system of neoliberalism. Liberal “democracy” persists inside it, but its functionalities have been reformed. It takes the Austrian School’s reading of information theory and applies it: it seeks to impose the logic of the market the logic of society as a whole. This counter-offensive has stripped the people of powers beyond anything imaginable, and as we both agree this is driving us headlong into collapse. So from that perspective I think that reform is absolutely necessary: not as an end goal but as something that could open up the possibility for wider changes, and afford people a little relief from being ground down.

    I really like Srnicek and Williams’ book, though I find a lot problematic with it. I guess in some ways I’m an accelerationist with a little ‘a’. I sketched out a few thoughts on what a minor accelerationism might be like here: https://deterritorialinvestigations.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/labor-automation-and-refusal/

    • S.C. Hickman says:

      Thanks for the clarification! Yea, I thought something was strange in the wording. Good you’re not changing your actual stance 🙂 Yea, I need to read the book. Going to read your notes now…. I need to wander the blogs more, been reading so many books of late its been tough to catch up on your back long of excellent essays. thanks!

  3. Pingback: Altermodernity and Modes of Knowledge | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

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