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Communisation – reproducing life against and beyond capitalism
In recent years, communisation theory has become very popular among radical scholars and activists. Communisation refers to a specific social phenomenon as well as a theory about this social phenomenon. The social phenomenon in question is revolution. Communisation is a certain way to theorise, think about, and, most importantly, actually do revolution in the capitalist social formation. In the following, I will introduce communisation theory and its intellectual and political background.
Historical and theoretical context and background
Communisation theory is a certain type of Marxist theory. It can politically be situated within left-communist and ultra-left theoretical and political currents. It dates back to ultra-left milieus in France leading up to and in the aftermath of May 68’. Of special importance today is the French political theorist Gilles Dauvé and the group/Journal Théorie Communiste. From the 70ies up to today, a few individuals and groups from this milieu tried to grasp the changing forms of class struggle following the social changes in the 70ies. These attempts at establishing a theory of communisation were strongly influenced by, among others, the contemporary Situationists. Situationism was a radical political and art movement especially active in the 60ies and 70ies. According to Guy Debord, one of the main figures of Situationism, capitalism had at the time developed to such an extent that society had become a society of the spectacle, in which every social relation was dominated by relations between commodities: “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained total occupation of social life” (Debord 1967: thesis 42).
Influenced by the situationist analysis communisation theory developed an analysis of advanced capitalism after the 1970ies, in which capital had come to dominate the entirety of society, and what forms of class struggle were possible within this new period of capitalism.
Communisation theory was and is furthermore strongly influenced by even earlier left communist currents, mainly the German-Dutch council-communist tradition and the Italian left-communist tradition represented by Amadeo Bordiga, a leading figure in the inter-war period Italian Communist Party. Both were political currents on the left-wing of the communist movement during the inter-war period. They considered themselves representatives of a more genuine communist movement than the reformist Social Democratic tradition as well as the main current within the communist International. Council-communism and the Italian left-communist current were characterised by agitating for the abolition of capitalist social relations including the state here and now rather than gaining influence on state power in both its Social Democratic and Stalinist form in order to reform capitalism or establish a kind of state or bureaucratic capitalism as was the case in Russia during the 1920ies and 30ies.
It is important to note that in the wake of WWI, a movement of councils established directly by workers in their work places (factory councils) and in local areas (workers councils) emerged in most European countries. Council-communism based itself on this movement and rejected participation in parliaments as well as, in most cases, participation in traditional unions. Rather, the councils (in Russian: soviets) was seen as the main political form of the proletariat capable of acting both as a measure during a revolutionary period and as the basic unit of the future socialist society.The factories, work places and economy as a whole should be run neither by capitalist enterprises nor by a state bureaucracy, but directly by the workers themselves.
The Italian communist left and its main representative, Bordiga, also rejected participation in parliaments and elections and especially criticised the idea that socialism would be based on the continuation of both wage-labour and money, as was the case with both the Soviet system as well as reformist ideas of socialism. The continuation of wage-labour and money meant, according to Bordiga, the de facto continuation of capitalism. Communisation theory is influenced by both these early left-communist traditions as well as Situationism. The theory in its various forms carry on some of the basic principles of these traditions, but at the same time radicalises and criticises them.
Revolution as communisation
Communisation theory consists of two interrelated parts:
- a historical analysis of the development of the capitalist mode of production, especially the restructuring of this mode of production at the end of the 60ies and start 70ies and the type of class struggle intrinsic to these changes,
- a theory of the abolition of capitalism as a theory of revolution as communisation. I will start by introducing the latter.
The theory of revolution as communisation is, according to Théorie Communiste, firstly a critique of so-called programmatism. Programmatism is essentially a common name referring to the entire classical workers movement before WWII, in both its social democratic and communist forms. According to TC, the classical workers movement based itself on a certain “worker’s identity”, that is the idea of the worker as a social category with which one should identify and whose work should be liberated from capitalist constrains. The proletariat should affirm itself and seize power, whether in form of workers’ parties, parliamentarism, state bureaucracy, trade unions or worker’s councils. The idea was that building worker’s power through either one of these forms would enable the proletariat to realise its programme, which was essentially to generalise the working class condition itself. Labour should liberate itself from capital and assert itself as the basis of a new society. This was to be achieved through a period of “transition”, in which the working class had taken power but where capitalist social relations were not completely abolished.
However, according to TC this did and could not imply the abolition of capitalism. Capitalism is a society based on wage-labour and the accumulation of value in the form of money.This entails the constant development of productive labour in order to produce ever more value. Capitalism is, as Hannah Arendt called it, a “society of labour”. Thus, when the classical workers movement wanted to affirm and liberate labour or the working class rather than abolish it and socialism was thought of as a “republic of labour”, a society based on productive labour not exploited by a capitalist class, this did not imply the abolition of capitalism.
Also in its most radical expression, council-communism, did programmatism not entail the abolition of capitalism. Even if workers directly controlled work places and factories without a capitalist or bureaucratic class, capitalism in the form of accumulation of value would still exist. Workers cooperatives only imply a democratic management of capitalism, not its abolition.
Gilles Dauvé explains that what characterises most left-wing political groups, both old and new, is the wish to change the relations of power, e.g. by promoting “workers power”, “real democracy”, a “socialist government” etc. What these political demands to change the relations of power actually means is to alter the “decision – making apparatus” and not the social relations themselves. However, capital is a social relation which is not abolished by changing the way we make decisions and manage this social relation. Programmatism had too much focus on form, that is on decision making and management, rather than on content, capital as a social relation based on labour and value: “The purpose of the old labour movement was to take over the same world and manage it in a new way” (Dauvé).
According to communisation theory the ideas of programmatism and the old workers movement still has an immense influence on how the left-wing conceive of revolution today. But not only did programmatism in theory not imply the abolition of capitalism, in practice it became the new managers of capitalism in either its Stalinist form or in its Social Democratic form, the latter culminating in the Keynesian social – and welfare state period after WWII. Therefore, today a new concept of revolution is needed.
This new concept of revolution must focus on the content of the capitalist social relation rather than on the form. This entails that revolution have as its immediate goal not only a change in decision-making structures but also the abolition of the fundamental determinations of capitalist social relations. According to communisation theory capitalism is not only a decision-making structure in which one class dominates the other. Capitalism is a specific kind of class domination based on wage-and productive labour, value, money and the state. Thus, revolution must have as its immediate goal the abolition of work, value, money and the state. Without this immediate goal, the revolution will amount to nothing but more or less minor changes in the management of capitalism. Therefore, there can be no “period of transition”.
This is what the term communisation refers to: not a programme to be realised in the future after taking power, but the movement that immediately abolishes capitalist social relations. As Dauvé explains, immediate does not mean instantaneous. Not everything will be changed at once, but only through a period of struggles that immediately tries to abolish work, value, money and the state and simultaneously develops new communal, social relations. This entails the free circulation of goods, a type of production not based on the productivity of work but on communally defined needs and desires, and relations not dominated by power structures like the state or ideological structures like the nation.
The historical conditions of communisation
Théorie Communiste emphasises the importance of understanding how exactly this theory of revolution as communisation historically became possible. We cannot understand programmatism and the idea of socialism in the classical workers movement as simply bad faith or lack of a specific theory. We must understand it as product of the development of capitalism and as an integral part of this development. Likewise, we have to understand communisation as the product of specific historical changes. Only at a certain point in history did communisation become possible as the horizon of class struggle.
To do this TC draws on Marx’ concept of subsumption. In Capital, Marx defines capital as value that becomes more value in the form of money. Marx explains how capital needs the labour-power of the working class to produce and accumulate ever more value. Labour-power can be used to all kinds of purposes, but capital needs to subsume labour-power and direct it towards its own purpose: the accumulation or valorisation of value. This subsumption of labour under capital implies the rising productivity of labour in order to be able to produce more value. However, this poses a problem for capital: on the one hand capital needs labour-power in order to produce value, on the other hand the rising productivity of labour renders still more labour-power superfluous.
TC uses this concept of subsumption from Marx in order to understand the historical development of capitalism. Before the 70ies, capitalism was characterised by the combination of rising productivity of labour and the simultaneous geographical and social expansion of capital. All sides of social life were subsumed under capital in order to make a profit and still more parts of the world became integrated into the capitalist world system. Capital needed labour-power in order to expand itself. The rise of productivity of labour went hand in hand with the rising need of labour power. This of course, was only a general tendency disrupted by periods of crisis, unemployment and war.
It was, however, in this situation that the classical workers movement formulated the idea of socialism as a productive community of workers freed from the capitalist class. This made sense in so far that in this period of capitalism the working class became larger and more productive. But, why should the working class produce a surplus to a capitalist class when it could produce only to itself? This was the question of programmatism. According to Théorie Communiste this did not theoretically nor practically imply the abolition of the fundamental capitalist social relations, but rather culminated in post-war Keynesianism where rising growth went hand in hand with rising wages and the development of the welfare state in several western countries. Thus, programmatism was never a movement for the abolition but rather an integral element in the development of capitalism.
In the late 60ies and 70ies capitalism entered into a crisis. This was not the typical temporary crisis but a more fundamental one. Growth decreased rapidly, inflation increased and debt exploded. This happened while labour had never been more productive. According to TC, the cause of this fundamental crisis should be found in the development of the subsumption of labour under capital. This subsumption had reached such an extent that it had become too difficult for capital to accumulate wealth at the same rate as before. Value had accumulated to such an extent that the rate of accumulation, and in the end growth, could only diminish, while labour had become so productive that less labour-power was needed. The result was not only diminished growth and rising unemployment but also a more fundamental restructuring of capitalism, which usually go under the name of neoliberalism. Larger parts of the population became detached from productive work while those still lucky enough to be part of the productive sector experienced an increasing precarianization of working conditions. This meant the need for austerity in order to control state budgets. Precarianization and austerity is still the order of the day, implying that capitalism has not recovered fully after the crisis in the 70ies and the following restructuring process.
In the period of restructured capitalism, class struggle necessary takes another form than in both the early classical and in the Keynesian period of capitalism. In this period, the proletariat has become a fundamental problem for capital, a class which it needs but which it is not able to fully reproduce. Whereas the proletariat under Keynesian capitalism was able to be reproduced through the wage-relation, sometimes enough to cover a whole family, in restructured capitalism the wage-relation is in crisis. The wage is today usually not enough to cover the reproduction of the proletariat resulting in an explosion of private debt, which will only deepen the crisis.
Where reformist demand on higher wages, less working hours, more welfare and so on could be negotiated and fulfilled in Keynesian capitalism, today such demands seems impossible.Therefore, the proletariat acquires a new experience in restructured capitalism: the problem is no longer that a capitalist class appropriates too much of what the working class produces. The problem is the proletarian condition itself. Because the reproduction of the proletariat becomes increasingly difficult in restructured capitalism, the problem is not to negotiate a fair wage. The problem is that the proletariat can no longer reproduce itself within capitalism. The proletariat, however, is a category of capitalism, one side of two in the capital relation between capital and labour. Thus, in order to reproduce itself it has to abolish itself as a class and start reproducing social relations beyond the capital relation.
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