Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (5)

Notebook 5

One of the main topics discussed in the Notebook 5 of the Grundrisse is the passage of transformation from the commune to the city. While the commune is, in a too simplified sense, a free gathering together, the city is a mandated and ruled gathering. While the commune “appears as a coming together, not as a being together, as a unification made up of independent subjects, landed proprietors, and not as a unity” (483), the city is the place of the sovereign, the walled community that hosts at its center the one who rules. While the distinction between state and stateless societies is important, Marx does not develop this in depth. For Marx land independence, or land appropriation and its usage, presupposes sovereignty and the figure of the sovereign. Something presupposes the nomos of the earth, so to speak. The commune escapes division, since “the land which cannot be divided if it is to serve as means of production in this specific form” (483).

To relate to the land without the necessity of a nomos, or a sovereign, Marx proposes that the individual proprietors refuse union. The fact that since the appropriation of the earth means the appropriation of the “natural conditions of labour […] as well as its workshop and repository of raw materials” (485), signals that the way we immediately relate to the earth presupposes a “relation of the earth […] always mediated through the occupation of the land and soil peacefully or violently, by the tribe, the commune in some more or less naturally arisen or already historically developed form” (485). This means that the first struggle of humankind is the strive for affirming live with and within a territory, a form of living that does not consider private property or private forms of working, but positive and affirmative gestures of existence and coexistence. While all this picture is idyllic, or utopian, the form of relationship that Marx is proposing to understand the organization of the commune signals a threshold where utopianism reaches its limit. Since no individual has any existence or life outside of the commune, because those who live in commune do not exist “for [themselves] except in the assembly of the commune members, their coming-together for common purposes” (486), then, the commune eludes the nomos, the state and its oppression, but it erases, in a way, individuality, difference. At the same time, the assembly of the commons, their coming-together, or movement towards each-other, announces the possibility of a commonality, of a commune, with individuals and groups, a pack a formation like the one of the nomads, for whom “what is in fact-appropriated and reproduced here is not the earth but the herd; but the earth is always used communally at each halting place” (491). The commune, then, is the project without plan that seeks social reproduction in an apotropaic way: eating what kills and haunts, while persisting and affirming existence. 

The task in the times of Marx and today is to work and create the commons. The commons are the necessary presupposition of labour, of the land, for humankind to exist. At the same time, the commons are what humankind is yet to become, a plastic moment that is habitual. There is something magical about “appropriation,” of encountering oneself with an instrument, a tool, a body, something, that is so different and yet so keen with one strives for affirming oneself. While in the bourgeois world the worker sees the realization of their social existence by the way their skill is expressed by the production line, in the commune, skill has no name, but has still a presence. The skill is “what posits [the worker] as the owner of the instrument” (499), if we are all posited in front of our “instruments” as owners, then, “appropriation” has found a way to let something from its magic to flee capitalist territorialization. To be in front of big projects in a capitalist society reaffirms our oppression but also our chance for building the commons. Marx mentions that, when dealing with the construction of highways, for instance, capitalism faces a point of exhaustion, because building a highway escape what capitalism can do, it even exceeds what the state is able to do. Building for the multitude is always “a necessary use value for the commune, because the commune requires it at any price” (526). In a capitalist society surplus time and value to build a road exist, there are the materials, and costs, but without the “concentration” of the masses, the project dies. Concentration is defined by Marx as “always the addition of the part of labour capacity which each individual can employ on road building, apart from his particular work; but it is not only addition” (528 emphasis added). Concentration is an addition that is not only addition of labour. This addition is something that is heaping up in the way the workers present themselves in front of the project. Addition is a concentration of bodies, an assemblage, the surplus of the commons. While, of course, a road, or perhaps any project that requires the presence of the masses, is always what capitalism demands, and not what the commons need, the desire of the masses stays still always subaltern to whatever domination expects from them. Capitalism will always speculate with its constructions as a way of realizing value, while “living labour creates value” (543) in unexpected ways.

Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (4)

Notebook 4

“Notebook 4” of the Grundrisse is, perhaps, the one that focus the most on the way capitalist production relies in “transforming labour,” or the ways into which labour is transformed. At the same time, this notebook is also about what some critics have identified as the backbone of capitalism, the general equivalent. Continuing with the way surplus value is produced, Marx states that one of the main ways to approach this is via “developing the nature of surplus value as the equivalent of the absolute or relative labour time mobilized by capital above and beyond necessary labour time” (385). With this, then, surplus value must always be placed in one side of an axis of equivalence. The other side of this axis is meant to be occupied by absolute or relative labour time. With this, then, surplus value appears to be as a mere addition of labour (absolute or relative). The problem with this, is that by force of equivalence, surplus value can only be equal to surplus labour. Since capitalist production presupposes a specific use of machinery by the bourgeoisie, and this use implies “the saving of necessary labour and the creating of surplus labour” (389), then, new capital will always be equal to the old capital plus a fraction of it [the old capital]. Capitalism only works when surplus meets surplus, and consequently, the division of labour is never a necessary attribute that labour comes naturally with: labour suffers an imposition for its division and its eventual conversion into surplus labour. 

With not much surprise, as in the same Grundrisse it is already mentioned, wealth “is disposable time and nothing more” (397), since the time that can be completely thrown away is already producing surplus in all its forms, value, capital, and labour. At times, it seems that all the exercise and display of mathematical formulas is but trying to depict several forms of disguises, or mystifications, that capitalism requires. We see then that when it is written that “capital, as the positing surplus labour, is equally and in the same moment the positing and the not-positing of necessary labour; it exists only in so far as necessary labour both exists and does not exist” (401), this ambivalent existence of capital, that of being positing and not-positing, or existent and non-existent, is precisely what could be called a disguise, or a mystification. The very fact that capital exists only in the act of being placed in a position of ambivalence tells more about the fact that capital is always acting, performing a role in disguise as it is in the process of becoming something else. Capitalism, then, is a territorialization of becoming.

In “Notebook 4” there is also a topic later developed by Rosa Luxemburg, that of the limits of capitalism. Marx notes that there is a point after the different processes of circulation, production, and consumption have held sway in which capitalism becomes a barrier for itself, and “hence will drive towards its own suspension” (410). This suspension means that capitalism takes a step back only to eventually push forward its drive, to go “beyond [habitual] production” (413). The logic for Marx, then, is not that capital will wait for processes of crisis to expand, as Luxemburg will expand, but that capital in its highest points of development is when it “more appears as barrier to [its own] production —hence also to consumption— besides the other contradictions which make it appear as border some barrier to production and intercourse” (416). The logic is that capitalism, as with its axis of equivalences that only accepts in both sides different, but equalized, forms of surpluses, follows a drive for self-realization that demands “excess [that] it posits surplus labour, then, as the condition of the necessary, and surplus value as the limit of objectified labour, of value as such” (421). The only rule in town is to always demand an equivalence of excess. While it is emphatically mentioned that surplus value presupposes surplus labour, it happens otherwise when Marx explores the notion of “living labour.”

The realization of living labour is stated to be a process that “at the same time [realizes and then adds] the de-realization process of labour. It posits itself objectively, but it posits this, its objectivity, as its own not-being or as the being, of its not-being-of capital” (454). Consequently, it is not surplus value what presupposes surplus labour, and neither the other way around. What presupposes the exchanges and equivalences, the disguises, is living labour. When placed in front of capitalist production, living labour is territorialized (realized) and at the same time deterritorialized (de-realized). The process of deterritorialization of living labour is, by the same token, the process of becoming and of flight off capitalist production. Capitalism relies in something that is alien to it, something that is outside of it, something that carries the possibility of ending the never-ending spiral of accumulation or of repeating it. Living labour is a force of repetition, what haunts the production of surplus value, “the condition and presupposition of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presupposes precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming” (459). Once capitalism has territorialized that becoming then the worker is negated from its products. But perhaps before it was different. 

As “Notebook 4” closes, Marx elaborates on different modes of production that did not require the disposition of the worker’s labour and its product to guarantee social existence. Perhaps this part is the one that most strongly influenced further explorations on what communism could be. At the same time, one might wonder if the exploration of these past commons (common land, labour, time, etc.) should not necessarily be the core of the search for the commons. That is, perhaps, the commons are already outside of the past, outside of history, repeating in many different ways, all the time always becoming. 

Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (3)

Notebook 3

There is something in capitalism that not only relies on the way it affects and habituates the masses. While Marx famously stated that religion was the opium of the masses, capitalism, could also be said, relies on a psychotropic force. When describing how capitalists are directly affected by the time a worker consecrates to production, Marx notices that “the struggle for the ten hours bill […] proves that the capitalist likes nothing better than for him to squander his dosages of vital force as much as possible, without interruption” (294). The squander of dosages speaks volumes of the addictive relationship that capitalists have with the labour of workers. With not a lot of imagination one can picture capitalists as characters from The Wolf of Wall Street: bodies addicted to everything that excites them. In the Notebook 3, It is not the only time that Marx uses images that allude to addiction, or sickness. Marx compares labour “as the living source of virus” (296). Dosages and viruses are not necessarily contradictory in themselves. They are, in fact, tied by the idea of toxicity and addiction that both terms evoke. 

The body of the addict lives and breathes that which addiction dictates it. If the capitalists are like addicts and “labour is the yeast thrown into it, which starts fermenting” (298), the capitalists need the liveliness in order to satisfy their thirst, their craves. With this, then, the whole process of production is a process that relies on live above all. What does, then, capital do? That is, if normally we associate capitalism with death, dispossession and destruction, why is it that the mogul addicts that feed the machine need so much of live? And more importantly, how is it that even consumption “which terminates neither in a void, nor in the mere subjectification of the objective, but which is, rather, again posited as an object” (300-301) still has some of the live that capitalism transformed? Perhaps a point of departure for understanding this is the fact that “production for unproductive consumption is quite as productive as that for productive consumption; always assuming that it produces or reproduces capital” (306). If capital, as in Notebook 2, is considered as something intrinsic to the way the body extends its power and its plan on something, then, capital is something unavoidable, something that is produced and reproduced at any times. The question, not new at all, is why does capital imply capitalism as a system to be easier to observe? 

For capitalism, capital is something that must be preserved. Outside capitalism, if today we can possibly picture that, capital is something that sooner or later will stop working. That is, if capitalism acts as an addiction, capital is always a reactivation of withdrawal symptoms. As “the value of capital has preserved itself in the act of production, and [after it] now appears as a sum” (315), the addict too, after withdrawal sees the sum of further doses as the only target. Preservation at all costs is the slogan of capital in capitalism, like euphoria or dysphoria for the addict. Form this it is visible that for the sake of preserving oneself, the worker gives life to a system that extracts affect from it. Labour is moved, then, by a process of addition, while capitalism is moved by a process of addiction. Addition is that which labour do as living labour, as something that “adds a new amount of labour; however, it is not this quantitative addition which preserves the amount of already objectified labour, but rather its quality as living labour, the fact that it relates as labour to the use values in which the previous labour exists” (363). While labour adds, capitalism dosages that addition turning it into addiction. The distinction between these two, addition and addiction, is blurry, and perhaps today impossible to tell. 

Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx (2)

“Notebook 2”

There is something special about money. The problem of money is that in itself it is something very abstract but also an object whose activity happens almost everywhere and in many different forms. Money is another commodity, but it is for certain that it is “the god among commodities” (221). The “Notebook 2” of the Grundrisse tries to explain money in capitalists societies. This explanation not only focuses in the many different ways that money is used, but also in the “particular” and specific way that makes money so special for capitalism. If money, as we read in the first pages of the notebook is so special, it is firstly because its possession “places [us] in exactly the same relationship towards wealth as the philosopher’s stone would towards science” (222). That is, money is responsible for placing the subject in the direction of what the subject thinks they want. Without surprise, then, money triggers greed “a particular form of drive” (222), that accelerates the speed travelled by the subject who approaches the object of their desires. To be against money, in capitalism, is to be against oneself, because only money can approach what we want and desire to us. 

At the same time that money is the oil that secures the function of the capitalist machine of exchanges and exploitation, money is also a scurrilous thing. While money is key to the production and accumulation of wealth, money cannot fulfill these duties on its own. “One is the richer the more of it [money] one possesses, and the only important process, for the individual as well as the nation is, to pile it up” (230). Money could easily be accumulated, because to accumulate is to “step back or outside of circulation” (230). But this has its risks. To display abundance and extraordinary wealth hoarding, or expense, reduces the way money circulates, and therefore, it reduces the way money is valued. To accumulate money is not based on a random greed-guided increase, but in a regulated competition because accumulation is completely dependent on circulation. If money has a close relationship to capital, then, as capital itself, money must be in constant movement, the moments it is accumulated it happens as a “wholly secret relation with the individual” (230). Of course, only sanctioned by society is the wealth (secret or not) of the individual valorized. 

Money is strictly tied to capital production because money, as a system, is the one that guarantees equality and freedom at the moment of exchange. The problem of the ideas of freedom and equality, that money promises, is that these two features soon turn out to be “inequality and unfreedom” (249). In other words, to be part of the system of capitalist exchange one must always be aware that as simple as an exchange might be, that simplicity is not a simplified relationship. In an exchange relationship an individual is not merely exchanging with another, but their exchange actually “expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand” (265). This is why the money inside of ones pocket is never the same money as the one that is in the banks, or speculated in the stock market. What the relationship of money and capital problematizes is the fact that certain activities are the same and exchangeable at the same time that they are different and alien to each-other. In this landscape, the world market appears as an always under construction edifice of an inside that faces its own reflection repetitively. The world market is “not only the internal market [of a country] in relation to all foreign markets existing outside it, but at the same time the internal market of all foreign markets as, in turn, components of the home market” (280). As it is difficult to determine the difference between money and capital in capitalism, so it is to determine the inside-outside relationship that the idea of world market suggests. 

As monstruous as this could look, the shaping and reshaping of capitalist society requires not only money and commodities in exchange between free individuals. What is missing the picture depicted so far by Marx is the presence of those who produce, the workers, bodies without value but with an almost infinite capacity to dispose their own labour: free as birds subjects. 

Notes on “The Grundrisse” (1939/1993) by Karl Marx

What follows are a series of posts on Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. 

“Introduction” and “Notebook I”

Perhaps the main topic of the notebooks that today we can call Grundrisse, by Karl Marx, is production. In fact the “Introduction” to the rest of the notebooks focuses on production overall. The question that starts these notebooks is: is production possible without a social structure that presupposes the exchange within individuals? That is to say, if exchange, production, circulation and the other faces of economy relay on capital’s sway. Marx states that “whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development —production by social individuals” (85). This means that whatever we perceive as individual production, the latter relies on a social production that presupposes it. More importantly, production is not something a part, or a step, in the way political economy works. It is then, that Marx states that everything that is related to production “requires an instrument [but not necessarily a machine] […] the instrument could be the body itself” (85). Thus, all human activity, in a way, is but a form of production. Production is everywhere and it can hardly be stopped, at best production is reshaped, dominated, controlled and triggered towards something that is not necessarily production’s target. 

In the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse there is an invitation to rethink production. Marx, after this invitation, proposes to start thinking production through money. If all possession presupposes an act of power, then, the question is to determine how that power was stablished. In a very simple term, from today’s perspective, one can think, why is it that money is so powerful? Why is it that we do things without acknowledging the dangers that might come afterwards? The problem of money, in fact, puts at stake what is really what value tells us when we buy, exchange, or produce things. What is at stake, then, in the first notebook of the Grundrisse is to determine how is it that value is produce and how is it that we all embrace it. 

For Marx all value is to be examined through labour time. A coin, or money, is but accumulated labour. That is, that “what determines value is not the amount of labour time incorporated in products, but rather the amount of labour time necessary at a given moment” (135). It could be argued, then, that value is but an abstraction, something that happened in the past but still, somehow, haunt us until today. The problem is now to examine why is money so special, why is it that money can serve as a third party that exchanges what was produced in another time?, why can money perpetuate the dead, or past, labour? 

When we buy things, we don’t really buy them. Perhaps this is obvious for anyone who reads this post, but what Marx proposed at the end of XIX century is that commodities (merchandises) are but values when they faced a process of exchange. “All commodifies are perishable money; money is the imperishable commodity” (149). What Marx means when he stated the latter is that perhaps what is at stake when buying and selling commodities in the bourgeois system is the reaffirmation of a third party. Everything that cannot be turned into money cannot be a commodity. A commodity, then, carries within a potential to become money and the other way around. Of course, this does not mean that money resolves all the processes that are part of production. That is to say, that money itself does not resolve the problems of circulation or distribution of merchandises. 

What is really at stake with money is another thing, not only the way exchanges are made. If for Marx are value is but an abstraction, and that abstraction comes directly from a head (144), whose head is that? That is, who is abstracting value for everyone else? Marx stablishes that the comparison between merchandises consist in a process of comparison, and this process creates money. Then, this “comparison, which the head accomplishes in one stroke, can be achieved in reality only in a delimited sphere by needs, and only in successive steps” (144). Thus, there seems to be a “head” that presupposes all general exchange. That head, a head of an unknown person, gets whatever it wants in a single stroke, a dull, or hard, blow. The head that presupposes value hits hard. This characteristic, then, is pure affect. Consequently, whoever experiences this hard blow has but no other choice but to replicate the first blow of the aforementioned thinking head. Soon, all idea of the general equivalent seems to be but the habituation of that single stroke, or a process that happens “little by little” (144) in the formation of capitalist society. 

Notes on Crack Capitalism (2010) by John Holloway

Crack Capitalism (2010), in a way, completes most of the reflections John Holloway started in Change the World Without Taking Power. While the first volume worries the most about the description of doing, a constituent force captured by labour that generates our common sense and our normal way of being into the world of capitalism. The second volume offers 32 thesis about the ways we, ourselves, build but also crack the system that oppresses us, how we are screaming and creating cracks in the system, how doing cannot be fully appropriate by labour. In another, perhaps, less obvios reading, the 32 thesis are, somehow, 32 steps into sobriety, into a life free of capitalism, but, would that addiction be easy to resolve?

As much as Crack Capitalism offers an inspiring and optimistic way of understanding doing, as something inherent to the way human beings do things for the sake of doing them, because we like doing things, perhaps today one should hesitate to accept Holloway’s optimism. The hesitation is understandable, as Holloway hesitates himself, about considering that with our cracks we are but realigning our struggle back to the terms that provoke the struggle in the first place. That is, Holloway asks, “how do we avoid our cracks becoming simply a means for resolving the tensions or contradictions of capitalism, just an element of crisis resolution for the system?” (53). Today we probably saw the worst of this predicament. We have seen how contemporary struggles, contemporary cracks, have been turned into solutions for capitalism’s crisis. We have witnessed a pretended liberation of “labour” through a massification of part-time online platform jobs (I.e. uber, ubereats, etc); a liberation of sexuality and imagination through streaming services that reterritorialize sexual and imaginary expression, among many. If a crack is “the perfectly ordinary creation of a space or moment in which we assert a different type of doing” (21), why is it that most of these different types of doing are still feeding and serving the tyrant, why is it that we are still weaving our self-oppression and self-destruction? Why is it, that perhaps, more than ever, we are unable to resolve Etienne de la Boétie’s riddle, why are we fighting for our oppression and voluntary servitude? This is the starting point for Holloway, and, to a certain extent, the place where his argument finishes too. Why is it that we are running in circles when trying to solve La Boétie’s riddle? 

There might be hesitation when reading Holloway, but for sure, even in the worst scenario, one should acknowledge that more than resolving things a crack is the proposition of question. A crack asks. To that extend, the territorialization and domination of spare time by social media, for example, is a two-edged sword, a delicate terrain where an always unprepared “wake up to other possibilities” (32) haunt the way doing is constantly fighting against the domination, the abstraction of labour. Wasn’t this what happened with Donald Trump and the tiktokers? But also, wasn’t this what gave the place for the affect of the masses that entered the US Capitol early this year? A crack is an ambivalent movement, a touch yet not a touch. From cracks we just know that they break a surface and that they desperately seek for the lines of other cracks. In that sense, while the right seeks to cover the rifts of the struggle of doing, the left should should find where one crack begins and where another ends, where the “lines of continuity that are often so submerged” (35) that are about to touch themselves, but they don’t. To understand the crack is to understand that certain struggles need only to keep pushing until their cracks touch other’s crack’s rifts. To explain how these lines work, how the rifts and cracks communicate, Holloway elaborates a strict distinction between labour and doing, alienated labour and conscious life-activity, and abstract time and concrete time of life. 

All these dichotomies coincide in the understanding of the concrete doing as a “flow of life” (111). This flow is something that is always moving beyond and going through the rigid and oppressive shape of power, of labour. While capitalism wants labourers, “mutilated personification[s] of abstract labour” (122), the other world possible struggles for the dignity, the fragility and sacredness of everything that beats, of everything that lives. Doing, the flow of life, is the struggle of existence against its own conditions and possibilities of existence. That is, doing wants to desperately stop serving the tyrant, capitalism, without being able to completely abandon and refusing most of the tyrant’s structures, means, things. Doing is the praxis of knowing that we build our own tragedy, and our only way out is to “attack [and crack] time itself” (166). Only when time is broken, cracked, it will come to surface how the masks that capitalism via abstraction has given us, are but an empty container that oppresses the “shadowy figure (or figures) behind the character mask” (217). Once it all cracks there will not be, perhaps, distinctions, differences or the necessity to differentiate the multiplicity of ways of being that there is. Once it all cracks it will become obvious that radicalness starts by refusing, by a refusal of keep creating the weave that oppresses us and sustain us. Once it all cracks to what would we hang our anxiety to? How would we recover from that overdose of capitalism? 

Notes on The Theory of the Novel. A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Form of Great Epic Literature (1971) by György Lukács, trans. Anna Bostock

In the 1962 preface to his The Theory of the Novel (1971) György Lukács states his reasons and means of analyzing “the novel”. If “art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic” (17) as Hegel suggested it, for Lukács, it happens the other way around. That is, the aesthetic form cannot fully be complex because reality has forsaken it. That is why the problems of the novel, as form, “are here the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint” (17). The novel is, then, something that reflects a deterritorialization, but also an abandonment. It is then, that as another part of the social tissue, the novel always is a symptom of something that changes in the material conditions that allow sociality to be. At the same time, the novel is a form that comes from another. There is an evolution, or better, a history and a philosophy that explains the unfolding change and persistence of a form whose ancestor is the Greek epic. 

The Greek world as depicted by the epic was a round and total world. This world where error “can only be a matter of too much or too little”, knowledge “the raising of a veil”, creation “the copying of visible and eternal essences”, virtue “a perfect knowledge of the paths” (32) is completely homogeneous. There is in the epic a certainty that things have their right place. The Greek epic is the grammar of totality, that is “the formative prime reality of every individual phenomenon” that “implies that something closed within itself can be completed” (34). There are no false ends, no wrong meanings in the epic, there is only a form whose main task is to question “how can life become essential?” (35). To answer this, the epic requires a question from the tragedy, “how can essence come alive?” (35). The epic’s bubble, its totality, is crashed when the tragedy’s globe rises. In other words, art is a sphere that holds and supplants the “natural unity of the metaphysical spheres [when these] have been destroyed forever” (37). While only the epic was able to completely carry the metaphysical homogeneous unity, “the totality of life”, drama (tragedy) testifies for the “intensive totality of essence” (46). That essence persisted because drama makes intelligible the “I of man”, but the totality of life of the epic vanished, the empirical “I” cannot find its correspondence in form. 

While it is easier to see the progression from tragedy to drama, it is harder to see the thread that connects the epic to the novel. At the same time, in the novel it persists the necessity to tie the empirical with the metaphysical, yet the novel cannot cover a totality it “succeeds only in mirroring a segment of the world” (53). The novel still thinks only about life as totality, but it fails and it succeeds at the same time: the novel is a contradiction that tries resolve the riddle of life. If the problem of life is “an abstraction”, in the novel tries to solve it by introducing and relating characters. At the same time “the relationship of a character to a problem can never absorb the whole fullness of that character’s life and every event in the sphere of life can relate only allegorically to the problem” (53-54). The novel is always fragmented, partial and incomplete, it shows a hole but not a lack. That is why “the epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life” (60). The novel is always defined as something that it “cannot” something that differs in relation to the epic. At best, the novel appears as always that is “in the process of becoming” (73). 

With all these imperfections, the novel could be described as the summatory of the objective failure of maturity in comparison to childhood. The novel is an erasure and a (re)writing “the paradoxical fusion of heterogeneous and discrete components into an organic whole which is then abolished over and over again” (84). The task for the novelist is to master form so that failure after failure the novel finds a way to reaffirm its presence, its (lost) connection with the epic. In modernity a writer is someone in society that is “adopting and accustoming themselves to one another” finds a way to write as “a rich and enriching resignation, the crowning of a process of education, a maturity attained by struggle and effort” (133). All this, however, faints. At the same time the novel found a way to bloom and flourish in its imperfect form, at least for Lúkacs, in the twentieth century the novel is cracking up, it is losing its successful ability to fail. At the same time, perhaps, what Lúkacs witnessed was another beginning. 

Notes on Marxism and Form. Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971) by Fredric Jameson

Some of the main ideas of Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious (1981), as we are reminded several times by Jameson himself, were already presented in Marxism and Form. Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971). To that extend, without Marxism and Form, we hardly would have read in The Political that the task of critique was to unmask “cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts” (The Political 20). Marxism and Form introduces some of the main critical works of dialectical Marxism on the arts and culture of the XX century. Jameson presents his readings of T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Georg (György) Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre. While Adorno, Lukács and Sartre have chapters on their own, Benjamin, Marcuse (read along Schiller) and Bloch are grouped in a chapter called “Versions of a Marxist Hermeneutic” (Marxism 60). The book finishes with a chapter that could bridge Marxism and Form and The Political Unconscious, “Towards Dialectical Criticism”. In this chapter we read that our “estrangement” or fascination towards literature is an affect related directly to the way art form is worked, since what our senses experience are “but manifestations in aesthetic form and the aesthetic level of the movement of dialectical consciousness as an assault on our conventionalized life patterns […] an implicit critique and restructuration of our habitual consciousness” (374). The Adornean sense of this affirmation is the same frame that will circle the canvas where the political unconscious will seek its task for unveiling myths and to give back, at least, a glimmer to consciousness and the real substratum (the formless of existence) that moves the engines of history. 

Marxism and Form not only presents but also challenges some of the main postulates of the authors reunited in the book. Yet, the challenge is more a comparison. As it is written in the “Preface”, the book intension is to present to the American reader the fact that when analyzing German and French dialectical literature one cannot but “take yet a third national tradition into account, I mean our own: that mixture of political liberalism, empiricism and logical positivism which we know as Anglo-American philosophy” (x). Thus, more than three perspectives we face two, that of the Anglo-American philosophy and that of the Franco-German dialectics. It is not surprising that at the end of the book, Jameson illustrates the importance of a dialectical method for analyzing literature with an analogy of the missile development and atomic research competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. With this example Jameson makes transparent how useful and accurate may a dialectical hermeneutics be. If dialectics is the method that glimpses the dominant categories that trigger the movement of history, in the 70’s what a better way of making a living than to learn how to read the board and the clock of the twilight struggle. 

It is not that Jameson is capturing dialectics and then surrendering it to the “American Imperialism”, but his argument is that dialectics as a tool for understanding reality is already caught up in American Imperialism. If Academia as Jameson pictures it, following C.Wright, is a system who endorses pleasure under capitalism, as something that “is simply the sign of the consumption of an object: it is thus relatively extraneous to the object’s structure or use, since it can attach to any kind of object, and is at the same time gratuitous to the degree that it serves no collective function beyond that of encouraging further consumption and making the system operate at top capacity” (395). Jameson, then, agrees with Adorno that in order to stop/sabotage capitalism’s jouissance dialectics must be “unpleasurable in the commodity sense” (395).  Criticism becomes a task that, as Jameson puts it in the eloquent closing of Marxism and Form, must “compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgement on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future” (416). While in 1971 the idea of a concrete future was still foreseeable, in the following years of that decade that idea melted and both concreteness and future dispersed in the air. Did dialectics did too? That is yet one of the questions to ask.

Pre-Prison Writings II

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsThe Gramsci of these pre-prison writings would probably surprise readers whose acquaintance with Gramsci’s thought is only casual, however much they may quote one of two of his bon mots (“pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will”; “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”) or even however much they deploy the concepts associated with him, from “hegemony” to the “subaltern” or the notion of “organic intellectuals” and so on. In fact, it may well turn out that the vast majority of those who quote Gramsci are casual acquaintances at best, who might be unpleasantly surprised if they were ever to read a little more. This in itself need not of course damn either Gramsci or even those concepts. As I suggested previously, it is hard to see Gramsci as a particularly systematic thinker (which is not to say that he didn’t see himself as such), and maybe that’s a good thing, too. We could take what we want from him, without having to buy into everything else that might come with it. Indeed, at this point perhaps that’s the only way to read Gramsci productively: selectively, unfaithfully, even treacherously. Rather than trying to reconstruct “what Gramsci thought” by careful attention to history or philology (this is the approach of many of the faithful few careful readers of his work), he merits rather something of a smash and grab raid. Or, as Deleuze famously said of his critiques of the philosophical tradition (Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibniz, etc.), it would be a matter of taking him “from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.”

The biggest surprise in this early Gramsci is, I think, his emphatic economic determinism. It may be that this shouldn’t surprise us… he is a Marxist, after all! But given especially that our Gramsci is so much shaped by cultural studies and particularly by Laclau and Mouffe, who explicitly champion him for going the farthest (if not, for them, far enough) in renouncing all determinisms–this, they tell us in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is the basis of their theorization of hegemony, whose history they chart in terms of a tendency to renounce the priority of the economic–the bluntness here of Gramsci’s economism is surely a bit of a shock.

At the outset of his essay “The Factory Council” (of June, 1920), for instance, Gramsci gives us what is essentially a version of Marxism 101, which is worth quoting at length:

The proletarian revolution is not the arbitrary act of an organization that declares itself to be revolutionary, or of a system of organizations that declare themselves to be revolutionary. The proletarian revolution is an extremely long-term historical process that manifests itself in the emergence and development of certain productive forces (which we may sum up by the term “proletariat”) within a certain historical context (which we may sum up by the terms “regime of private property, capitalist mode of production, factory system, organization of society in a democratic-parliamentary State”). At a certain point in this process, the new productive forces are no longer able to develop or organize themselves in an autonomous fashion within the official framework of the human community of the time. It is in this phase that the revolutionary act occurs. This consists in a violent effort to smash apart this existing framework and to destroy the entire apparatus of economic and political power within which the revolutionary productive forces had been trapped. It consists in a violent effort to shatter the machinery of the bourgeois State and to construct a new kind of State within whose framework the newly liberated productive forces can develop and expand; whose organization provides them with strong defences and the necessary and sufficient arms to eliminate their enemies. (163)

There is not much of the “war of position” or the struggle for “hegemony” on the terrain of “civil society” to be found here! And again, I wonder how many of today’s “Gramscians” would happily sign up to this description of the revolutionary process (if indeed they would sign up to any notion of revolution), which Gramsci simply presents as established fact.

As for politics, Gramsci similarly gives us what he himself describes as a “fundamental (and elementary) canon of historical materialism,” that “Any form of political power can only be historically conceived and justified as the juridical apparatus of a real economic power” (168). “Real” power is always and only economic. It is, to use Marx’s famous formula in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the base or “real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” The economic is primary; the political is very much secondary. Hence (back to Gramsci) “the revolutionary process takes place on the terrain of production, in the factory” (164). The revolution will not come about by political decree: “Communism as a system of new social relations [. . .] cannot be introduced by legislative or administrative means” (177). There is little if any room for any autonomy of the political.

Indeed, any political organization may call itself Communist or revolutionary all it likes, but so long as its activity is not premised on the economic base, specifically what is going on in the factory (as the most advanced expression of material forces), it hinders rather than furthers the goal of real social change. This, then, is the point at which Gramsci breaks from the Italian Socialist Party, as he criticizes all such organizations–even “revolutionary” organizations–that “have grown up on the terrain of bourgeois democracy and political liberty, as affirmation and developments of this political liberty” (164). Here, “the traditional structure of the Socialist Party is no different from that of any other party which has grown up on the terrain of liberal democracy” (174). It is, as such, overly invested in politics, in that its “lifeblood” is “the desire to win a majority in the popular assemblies [. . .] and to win this majority by the method that is proper to democracy–by reeling off generic and muddled policies to the electorate (and swearing to put them in practice at all costs)” (174-5). Politics, in short, is part of the problem; the effort to win over an electorate is a distraction from the real matter at hand. It is retrograde and even barbaric: “The Assembly[,] the form of political association that corresponds to the State based on territorial boundaries [. . .] is a continuation of the arrangements of the barbaric peoples who expressed their sovereignty by beating their pikes on the ground and howling” (175). If anything, any true revolution will be a revolution against politics, certainly against any politics that is not immediately rooted in the economic and material base.

Gramsci’s position thus far seems far from what is usually taken to be the struggle for what will become known as “hegemony” (a term that Gramsci is still not using at this stage), which tends to be identified not only in practice with the construction of electoral coalitions but also in theory with political autonomy and what Louis Althusser will come to describe (in part, following what he saw as Gramsci’s lead) as “overdetermination.”

In fact, the revolutionary process that Gramsci describes here often (if intermittently) has more in common with posthegemony than hegemony. Beneath consciousness and evading representation, it develops “in the darkness of the factory and in the darkness of the minds of the countless multitudes [delle moltitudini sterminate] that capitalism subjects to its laws. The process is not something that can be controlled or documented at this stage” (164). It comprises, moreover, “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life [i sentimenti, le velleità, le abitudini, i germi di iniziativa e di costume]” (164). Affect, habit, multitude. Almost all the elements are here. Moreover, “initiative” in the essays of this period tends to replace the notion of “spirit” that, in his earlier writings, indicated the expansive movement of something like constituent power.

In fact, Gramsci refers explicitly to a constituent impulse in an article on “Two Revolutions” that is perhaps the most interesting piece in the collection so far, and which also contains the germ of what will come to be a theory of hegemony. For it is here that the Communist Party is described as something more than an appendage to forms of organization that arise, quasi-organically, within the factory. Here, indeed, the party’s role is to bind together the “two revolutions” of this article’s title. The first of these revolutions is political, or even anti-political in that its energies are directly primarily against political institutions. It “tends to be prevalently anarchic and destructive in character: to take the form of a blind explosion of rage, a tremendous outpouring of furious undirected passions” (169). But it is not solely destructive: it may lead to a “constituent assembly”; “it may go so far as to create soviets, the autonomous political organization of the proletariat and the other oppressed classes” (169). Yet this is not enough. For this merely political revolution is not yet the Communist revolution, whose shape is determined by the relations and conditions of production. It is this second revolution that establishes the factory (not the assembly) as “the basic unit of the new State” and “build[s] the new State in a way that reflects the industrial relations of the factory system” (170). And it is then the Party’s role to articulate these two revolutionary impulses, the political and the economic: to “create the conditions in which the revolution as destruction of the bourgeois State can be identified with the proletarian revolution, the revolution that is to expropriate the expropriators and initiate the development of a new order in the relations of production and distribution” (171). And surely this then is the struggle for what will become known as hegemony, the project to “create the conditions in which the proletarian revolution may be identified with the popular revolt against the bourgeois State” (171). Neither strictly speaking political, nor the direct emanation of economic forces, it is the role of the Party as would-be hegemonic power to bind economics to politics.

I will leave to one side how faithfully this is later transcribed or translated in the early work of Laclau (in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory) into an articulation between the “people-power bloc contradiction” and the more properly economic contradiction between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But suffice it to say that the necessity for this articulation reveals a problem in the basic assumptions of the base-superstructure model that Gramsci otherwise never questions. For the Party, and its hegemonic project, appears as a supplement that does not derive fully from the economic processes inherent to the new forms of organization within the factory system. Gramsci can neither live with determinism nor can he relinquish it. Ultimately, Laclau’s path will be to drop any priority of the economic, to usher in a vision of the world in which everything is politics (and all politics is one modality or other of popular revolt). But surely there are other options.

If we are to recover a posthegemonic Gramsci, perhaps a first step would be to refuse the dichotomy that he asserts between politics and economics. After all, it is only because he sees such a stark distinction between the “two revolutions” he describes that he feels the need to call upon the Party to suture that gap. But it may be even more to the point to observe that the “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life” are neither fully political nor fully economic, though they may be both the consequence and condition of politics and economics alike.