Marx: Deconsecrate the State

From Miguel Abensour’s analysis of Marx in Democracy Against the State, pp. 32-33:

Marx denounces the repetition of religious alienation in a profane form, such that the product (the State) withdraws from its producers (human beings) and turns against them by establishing itself as a foreign power. Lodging itself in the place the criticism of religion left unoccupied (the place of theos) the State engenders a veritable self-idolatry. Reclaiming the human powers wasted in the heaven of politics; deconsecrating the State; reorienting emancipation with the help of the Copernican turn again, so that humankind no longer revolves around the illusory sun of the State and at last revolves around itself: these are the directions opened by this new phase of Marx’s criticism [beginning in 1843].

Abensour: Democracy Against the State

I am just embarking on a journey I have great hope for, a trip through Miguel Abensour’s Democracy Against the State. Abensour engages closely with the young Marx, and so he has already had the benefit of sending me back to (re-)read lots of Marx’s early work. So even if Abensour sucks, I still win. But I suspect he won’t, as suggested by this nugget from the introduction:

Marx was able to show as clearly as possible that the struggle against the State, as a form, is inscribed in the heart of democratic logic. Democracy is anti-statist or else it is not [democracy] (p. xxxiii).”

Abensour goes on to say that “contemporary thought…wrongly identifies democracy with representative government or the rule of law” (p. xxxiv), and so we must expose “the contradiction in terms that is the ‘democratic State’ ” (p. xxxiii).

The struggle against the State as a form. I like that part. Not the struggle against the bourgeois State, which implies that the State is a neutral container of power and is only a problem because the bourgeoisie currently controls it and uses it to maintain their class power. No. The State as a form creates political relations of oppression, of domination, of alienation, of hierarchy. Democracy must stand opposed to the State because it is opposed to those relations, or, better, because democracy relentlessly contructs political relations that are not oppressive, not dominating, not alienating, not hierarchical. Democratic politics are necessarily a struggle against the bourgeois State, sure, but they are also, equally necessarily, a struggle against the State as a form.

A Minimum Wage? Ehhh…

In the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Marx analyzes the deep human problems with capitalism, showing how it alienates people from themselves, from each other, and from their human excellence. The problem, Marx reminds us, is not low wages under capitalism, or a lack of good jobs under capitalism; the problem is the capitalist system of wage labor itself.

An enforced raising of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including that this anomaly could only be maintained forcibly) would therefore be nothing but a better slave-salary and would not achieve either for the worker or for labor human significance and dignity (p. 67 of the Simon collection)

And the stakes are high, Marx says: wage labor prevents us from becoming fully human. With all the talk of a minimum wage recently, and the sincere sense that a higher minimum wage would be an enormous leap forward, I think this text of Marx is worth keeping in the front of our minds.

Democratic Keynesianism? Bullshit.


It may be healthy sign, in the midst of the left’s active search for a way forward in the wake of the failures of State socialism, that all sorts of ideas are being bandied about. Perhaps the most uninspired are the calls (I feel like they are increasingly frequent these days) to just return uncritically to what we had right before neoliberalism: a big central State apparatus that intervenes actively to stabilize capitalism by redistributing some wealth to the working class.

In this case, it is offered (in The Nation!) as a solution to the troubles that have emerged in many places after the Arab spring. This article is just another variant of the unapologetically paternalistic idea that what the Arabs need is to be more like the West, to grow up and become an adult like the US and Britain, etc. With respect to democracy, this idea holds that the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, etc. were chaos, unrest, confusion, and what is required after such events is the famous “transition to democracy,” which is to say a transition to a stable liberal-democratic State regime, precisely like the ones we have in the West (The New York Times is the worst offender here).

This idea badly misconceives of democracy as a stable State regime, when in fact a democratic State is a contradiction in terms, as Marx is at pains to argue (in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). Democracy is not a stable State regime. Democracy is the uprising itself, it is the disruption of the ruling order (as Ranciere would have it), and, more, it is people themselves, in the caesura created by that disruption, discovering together what they are capable of, how they might live together differently, how they might govern their afffairs for themselves. Democracy is not the liberal-democratic State. And it is certainly not Keynesianism. When the two are elided, as they so often are, we have to call bullshit. And we have to reaffirm the very, very long tradition of democratic thought that sees democracy more clearly, as people themselves managing their own affairs together.

Marx and Bakunin


My students have just read Marx (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and On the Jewish Question) and Bakunin (selections from God and the State and Statism and Anarchy), and there was a very distinct sense (in discussion and in their assignments) that M and B’s ideas therein made perfect sense to them.  Of course they have been trained to think that communism and anarchism are terrible and dangerous, but on actually reading some seminal writings, they found them quite reasonable and true.  This outcome made me feel quite hopeful, like my yearly ritual of making undergrads read the syllabus I make them readis not at all in vain, like they are taking in something that will serve them quite well in the decades to come.

Marx: Pretty Good Communist Thinker


My students just had an extremely insightful discussion of two chunks of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism.”  The class has to do with the idea of community, and so we pay attention not just to Marx’s critique of the current society, but also to his imagination of the community to come.  This latter element is underdeveloped in the Communist Manifesto, but it is actually, to my mind on this reading, quite robust in the chunk on “Private Property and Communism,” especially if we augment Marx with Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari.

Marx develops his critique of capitalism by arguing it alienates people from 1) the product of their labor (which is owned by the capitalist), from 2) their species-being (they are not fulfilled in their productive activity but sell it as labor in return for a wage), and from 3) each other (from other workers with whom they compete, and from capitalists to whom their productive activity has been sold).

Communism, Marx argues, is the positive overcoming [Aufhebung] of alienation, and, necessarily also, the overcoming of the relations of private property.  One form of communism, crude communism, is merely the universalization of the property relation, whereby each individual becomes able to participate in owning property.  The second form is one in which either the state overcomes private property (presumably through a form of state-socialism) or the state has been overcome but property has been left in place [this passage is short and not as clear].  The third form of communism is the full form: a “positive overcoming of private property as human self-alienation, and thus as the actual appropriation of the human essence through and for man…the restoration of man as a social, that is, human being” (p. 71 of the Simon collection).  This process, this overcoming of alienation and private property, this movement to construct communism, is “the riddle of history solved and knows itself as the solution” (p. 71).

Clearly the liberals would worry about this vision, assuming it entails a Rousseauian absorption of the individual into a single and undifferentiated social whole.  But Marx is quite subtle here.  He says, basically, that what it means for people to restore themselves as social beings is to realize that the individual is a fiction, an invention of bourgeois society.  The individual is always already a product of, connected to, and dependent on others; s/he is, in other words, always already social.  This is true in a biological sense: each person’s bodily existence is dependent on the procreative and nurturing activity of many, many ancestors.  Similarly, the creative/productive activity of a given individual is utterly dependent on a host of other creators/producers from whom s/he has learned.  The things I make, in other words, are not really made by me alone, but by something I call ‘me’ that is really more like a dense knot of ideas and skills (what Marx called “senses and aptitudes”) that only exist because of the creative activity of many thousands of other humans.  To an extent my body, my senses and my aptitudes are mine, but they are also, just as much, everybody’s.  This is a lot like what Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact…namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion. and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (Section 17).

This is the immediate inspiration for the view of Deleuze and Guattari.  For them the individual is an assemblage, a complex open system that is constantly exchanging matter and ideas with its outside.  For them each of us is an intensity on the plane of consistency: we all arise out of the same collective soup, and while we are distinct from each other, none of us is in any way self-contained or independent.  We are intensities that exist only as part of millions of other intensities scattered across the plane of consistency.  I think this is a good way to read Marx’s line that each of us “is therefore a particular individual” but also “equally the totality” (p. 73).  “The overcoming of private property,” Marx writes,

means therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and aptitudes [Eigenschaften], but it means this emancipation precisely because these senses and aptitudes have become human both subjectively and objectively.  The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object derived from and for man…Need or satisfaction have thus lost their egoistic nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use (p. 74).

So overcoming private property means overcoming Locke’s argument in Chapter 5, where he says that God gave the earth to humans in common, but he also gave us property in our own bodies, so that when I use my body-labor to produce a product, that product is entirely the result of my own efforts (actually he says 99%), and so it belongs entirely to me.  Locke posits that this individual with a proprietary body exists already in the state of nature, but Marx refuses this ploy.  Locke’s bourgeois, independent, proprietary individual is for Marx an alienated version of ourselves, one that obscures our true social, or human, character.

So for each of us, life in communism does not mean surrendering our natural individual freedom to a social whole.  Rather it means rediscovering the real condition of our lives: each of us is an intense accumulation of matter and ideas on the common plane of consistency.  We are each an assemblage that opens out onto other assemblages, that realizes itself only in common society with millions of other assemblages.

This line of thinking seems to dovetail quite nicely with Hardt & Negri’s idea of the common, and in particular Marx’s idea of our aptitudes being common resonates with H&N’s argument that the most important ‘common’ that is being produced today is the common intellect: the ideas, codes, affects, languages, norms that work best when they are freely shared [Marx seems to offer (here in EPM) a shadow of the “general intellect” idea that is most often thought to be found in the Grundrisse.  In addition to the discussion of common sense and aptitudes, he talks of “general consciousness” or “generic consciousness” (p. 73)].

This argument is certainly not yet fully formed in my mind, but I think I am clear on the point that in thinking communism today, we should very much  return to Marx (and especially the early work), not just as a formal historical exercise, but because he offers a rich kernel of ideas that are strikingly concordant with the way communism is being thought today.

OMG! Ubuntu! Free activity, FOSS, and me


I just finished installing Ubuntu, the Linux-based operating system, on my computer. I am in heaven (as of now). Everything (more or less) is open source, everything is free, and overall everything looks and works just great. It was a bit of a hassle getting Ubuntu installed because the new Windows 8 machines have a new security system installed that makes it hard to install an open-source operating system. But Microsoft’s attempt at enclosure only gave me more energy to find a way around it. And it didn’t take very long. I was able to track down this version of Ubuntu, and it installed just great after I disabled Microsoft’s fences. To do it, I had to learn about bios, hard drive partitioning, write a little code, and just generally take a more active role in managing my computing habitat. It took a bit of effort, but there was a payoff: a feeling of being in control, of not just letting Apple or Microsoft do it for me, of taking the time to understand better how things work and how to shape them so they meet my needs. And there is also the feeling of being connected to many, many others who are on the same adventure I am, an adventure in which the desire to create is not fuelled by the desire for money, but by curiosity and the delight that comes with having created something that works and then sharing that creation with others. As I learn more about how my hardware and software works, and as I turn to others to help me solve my problems, I am coming to know very well how limited my own knowledge is, and how dependent I am on the knowledge flowing through the network. And that knowledge is flowing because many smart people are doing lots of free activity (as Marx called it) and then sharing the results of their activity, giving it away for free. I am utterly dependent on others, but not on profiteering corporations, I am dependent on a network of knowledge-and-labor-in-common. Anyone can avail themselves of what others have achieved and shared, and no one has to pay for the privilege. To be sure, I am just beginning the journey. But I couldn’t be happier I started walking.

Ubuntu 12.10 (Secure Remix)


Firefox 18.0

Thunderbird 17.0.2

FocusWriter 1.3.6

All of it’s free, and all of it kicks ass. Or at least it kicks equal ass when compared to its locked-down and privatized counterpart.

More from Bakunin: Against Marx


From “Critique of the Marxist Theory of the State,” in Bakunin on Anarchism, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, Knopf, 1972, pp. 330-331):

“If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable – and this is why we are the enemies of the State.

What does it mean that the proletariat will be elevated to a ruling class? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? There are nearly forty million Germans. Can all forty million be members of the government? In such a case, there will be no government, no state, but, if there is to be a state there will be those who are ruled and those who are slaves.

The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.

Ultimately, from whatever point of view we look at this question, we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority. The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people. Those who doubt this know very little about human nature…

The Marxists are aware of this contradiction and realize that a government of scientists will be a real dictatorship regardless of its democratic form. They console themselves with the idea that this rule will be temporary. They say that the only care and objective will be to educate and elevate the people economically and politically to such a degree that such a government will soon become unnecessary, and the State, after losing its political or coercive character, will automatically develop into a completely free organization of economic interests and communes.

There is a flagrant contradiction in this theory. If their state would be really of the people, why eliminate it? And if the State is needed to emancipate the workers, then the workers are not yet free, so why call it a People’s State? By our polemic against them we have brought them to the realization that freedom or anarchism, which means a free organization of the working masses from the bottom up, is the final objective of social development, and that every state, not excepting their People’s State, is a yoke, on the one hand giving rise to despotism and on the other to slavery. They say that such a yoke – dictatorship is a transitional step towards achieving full freedom for the people: anarchism or freedom is the aim, while state and dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses of people, they have first to be enslaved!

Upon this contradiction our polemic has come to a halt. They insist that only dictatorship (of course their own) can create freedom for the people. We reply that all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation, and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people, and by a voluntary organization of the people from the bottom up.”