David Harvey: lazy, slow-moving

This handout picture from the Venezuelan


Add David Harvey (in Rebel Cities) to my list (which is short and not really very actively maintained) of old-timey radicals who think the state should remain part of our political vision. Harvey admits (p. 153) there is “immense contemporary skepticism” about the state, but he never reveals that this skepticism is largely a reaction to the totalitarian horrors of China and the Soviet Union (and Cuba). He seems to think (p. 124) that the failures of actually existing socialism were economic (they couldn’t compete against the capitalist economies) rather than political (they brutalized their populations). Having missed that glaring problem (how?!), he is unconcerned about the dangers of a future socialist or communist state entity: “mechanisms can surely be devised to prevent dictatorship or authoritarianism” (p. 152). My God. Really? Unlike the line that runs from Bakunin through Nietzsche through Lefebvre/D&G and on into the Italians, he just seems to be entirely blind to the massive dangers of state rule. And his argument for the state is feeble. He does a brief flyby of Iris Marion Young’s worry that without an overarching entity to prevent it, inequalities could develop among localized autonomous communities. From this important concern he concludes unthinkingly that “the only way to avoid such outcomes [inter-locality inequality] is for some higher authority to both mandate and enforce” redistribution (p. 152, my emphasis). It is the same old lazy argument: we have to have a state because without the state there would be some problems. At least Hobbes had a compelling blackmail (bellum omnium contra omnes). Harvey just gives a shrug and tells us the state “cannot be avoided” (p. 153). But of course it can: we just have to move a bit quicker than Harvey does.

Obviously this is an issue worthy of careful thinking, and we should not fall into an unhelpful anti-state dogmatism that rejects all political efforts that are in any way associated with the state. Obviously we should experiment with state-like structures, form organizations and institutions, try them out, strive to make them as democratic and horizontal as we can. But what we don’t need is Harvey’s lazy acceptance of the state. We must always remember our Bakunin, and always pay very careful attention to what political life was like under Stalin and the CCP (and Castro, and Chavez for that matter).  If we choose to work with the state, we should do so wearing HAZMAT gear.  Even as we form state-like structures, we must never settle down in them. We have to make sure we never lose our itch to flee.

Zizek: Stalinist, Leninist, or…?

In his contribution to the book The Idea of Communism, Zizek again repeats his provocation:

one of the mantras of the postmodern left is that one should finally leave behind the ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm of centralized dictatorial power. Perhaps, the time has come to turn this mantra around and admit that a dose of this ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm is precisely what the left needs today…

Either he really believes this, or he is being a provocateur.  Either way he needs to stop.

But then he goes on to make a fairly interesting point: the disaster that was the Communist Party-State (in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba, etc.) was above all the failure of anti-statist politics, of direct forms of self-organization like factory councils, because those alternative forms weren’t strong enough to force the new state to wither away.  He says the true task before us now is to “make the state work in a non-statal mode.”  The goal of revolutionary violence, he says, is not to take over state power, but to transform it radically into new forms of power that are constituted through popular participation. Okay, here there’s something to consider seriously, a different way to approach the state.  It does not wither away of its own accord; rather it is forced by the power of popular energy and mobilization to transform radically, so radically that it is no longer clear if we could even call it a state anymore.  This is a kind of Leninism, and one can see more than an echo of Lefebvre’s work on the state (which is itself inspired by State and Revolution).  Maybe he’s got a point.  But I would be more sympathetic to this line of argument if he didn’t couple it with his clownish pining for centralized dictatorial power.

Antonio Negri: No to Socialism, Yes to Cities

Two things so far from Negri’s Goodbye Mr. Socialism (2008[2006]), which is a conversation with Raf Scelsi.  One, he lays down the law with this zinger:

Socialism isn’t anything other than the statist transformation of capitalism (p. 43).

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the sooner we can accept this point the better, so we can move on to more fruitful concepts like communism, democracy, and anarchism.

Two, he has a whole riff in Chapter 2 about the importance of the city and the urban, almost as though he has discovered Lefebvre 35 years after the fact.  “Today,” he remarks, wide-eyed,

the city is itself a source of production: the organized, inhabited, and traversed territory has become a productive element just as worked land once was.  Increasingly, the inhabitant of a metropolis is the true center of the world… (p. 35).

“Where there is mass, there is energy,” he says, and “this is a fundamental principle of the common” (p. 36).  Because cities are machines for concentrating masses in space, they have great potential to intensify the energy of the common.  In this light, he is very enthusiastic about the strikes in Paris in late 1995, which he says, “directly involved, in a participatory way with displays of solidarity, the entire metropolitan population of Paris” (p. 33).

To see a great metropolis like Paris act this way…to see it withstand (relying on itself) almost three months without public transportation–well, it’s like being confronted, really, by a small commune (p. 39).

“Long live the metropolis and its multitude!” (p. 36).  It seems he has gotten religion.  Amen.

People’s Declaration from Syntagma Square

This is from last year, of course, but on reading it again I was struck by its power.  It is impassioned yet restrained.  Determined yet joyous.  I am particularly taken by the line, “We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.”  A political call to arms that it seems to me is true to the depth and power of Lefebvre’s right to the city, in an era when the idea is often mouthed but rarely meant.


Subcomandante Marcos on democracy

We are not those who wait, naively, for justice to come from above, when it only comes from below; for liberty, which can only be achieved with everyone; for democracy, which is the ground for all and is fought for all the time.

He is very similar to Lefebvre here, who said that democracy

is nothing other than the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy is the movement itself. Many democrats imagine that democracy is a type of stable condition toward which we can tend, toward which we must tend. No. Democracy is the movement. And the movement is the forces in action.  And democracy is the struggle for democracy, which is to say the very movement of social forces; it is a permanent struggle and it is even a struggle against the State that emerges from democracy. There is no democracy without a struggle against the democratic State itself, which tends to consolidate itself as a block, to affirm itself as a whole, become monolithic and to smother the society out of which it develops.


Subcomandante Marcos (2001). Our Word Is Our Weapon. J. Ponce de Leon, Ed. New York, Seven Stories Press, p. 159.

Lefebvre, H. (2009). State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Translated by G. Moore, N. Brenner, and S. Elden. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, p. 61.

Situationists on free time


A useful return to some older arguments about free time and leisure in this piece just posted on libcom.  I particularly liked the suggestion that “when the revolutionary proletariat manifests itself as such, it will not be as a new audience for some new spectacle, but as people actively participating in every aspect of their lives.”  Free time as active engagement with the world and with others.  I wonder if the tension between free time and leisure could be fruitfully taken in new directions using Aristotle’s notion of schole.  It is usually translated as “leisure,” but if we give it just a slight young-Marxist nudge it means something more like the serious effort we engage in to fulfill our species-being.  I haven’t worked this out yet, but I am pretty sure there is something there, something that would speak quite effectively to Debord’s concerns about passivity, as well as Ranciere’s critique of Debord, not to mention Lefebvre’s engagement (or lack thereof) with the question of people becoming active…