The question of praxis

I’ve been reading Werner Bonefeld’s excellent new book in which he provides a very clear summary of its structure and main arguments, which I have reproduced below. I intend to write an extended review of it in due course, reflecting on the state of critical theory in education studies.

Bonefeld, Werner (2014) Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 10-12.

“Helmut reichelt is right when he argues that the time has come to reconsider the purpose of reconstruction, moving it on from an attempt at finding the veritable marx to the development of the critical themes and insights that the new reading of marx has established as fundamental to the critique of ‘the monstrous objective power’ of economic things. In distinction to the new reading, the development of the critical themes and insights rests on the acceptance that Marx’s account is fundamentally ambivalent, beyond reconstruction. This point is most strongly made by Michael Heinrich. He establishes that Marx’s revolutionary break with classical political economy is marked by the pains of transition, leaving a multi-layered argument that, say, in the case of the conception of abstract labour, which is the value producing labour, overlaps with naturalistic definitions that derive from the tradition of classical political economy.

This book develops the critique of political economy as a critical social theory of economic objectivity, beyond critical reconstruction. At its best, the critique of political economy thinks against the spell of the dazzling economic forms. It wants to get behind the secret of our world, to demystify its fateful appearance as a force of economic nature. Critical theory does not think about (reified) things. rather, it thinks ‘out of these things’. For this task, the insights of the new reading are fundamental, especially the argument that the capitalist social relations manifest themselves in the inverted form of objectively valid, seemingly natural economic abstractions. Yet, taken by itself, it does not explain the social character of economic objectivity. What is objectified? in distinction to the new reading, I argue with Adorno that the ‘movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’. Further, I argue that the critique of political economy is not just a critique of the economic form of society. it is also a critique of the political form of society, which I develop first by means of an argument about the relationship between world market and national state, and then by an account of the state as the political form of the capitalist social relations.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part contains a connected argument about the character of a critique of political economy. It contains a chapter (Chapter 2) on the meaning of a critique of political economy, which i develop with the help of the new reading. The chapter explores the difficulty of determining the subject matter of economics, expounds the classical marxist interpretation of economic laws and develops Marx’s characterization of his work as a critique of economic categories as critical theory of social constitution. Chapter 3 develops the implications of this characterization further into an argument about the capitalist forms of social practice, which I develop with the help of Adorno’s negative dialectics.

The second part develops the class character of the law of value in three connected chapters. In distinction to the new reading, it argues that the social antagonism is the logical and historical premise of the law of value. Chapter 4 argues that the hidden secret of the law of value is the forceful expropriation of the labourer from the means of subsistence. In this context I argue that the attempt of the new reading to develop the economic categories by means of logical exposition banishes the class relationship from the critique of political economy. In distinction, the chapter argues that the existence of a class of labourers with no independent access to the means of subsistence is the fundamental premise of the capitalist social relations. Chapter 5 develops this argument further into a critical theory of class as the objective category of the capitalist form of wealth and thus of the entire system of social reproduction. The law of value is premised on the force of law-making violence that established a class of surplus value producers who depend for their life on the sale of their labour power. Chapter 6 extends discussion of the creation and reproduction of a class of dispossessed producers of surplus value into an argument about abstract labour as the historically specific labour of capitalist wealth, of value. It argues that the value-producing labour manifests the force of law-making violence in the form of an economic dictate of a time-made abstract. Social wealth manifests itself in exchange as the labour of ‘socially necessary abstract labour time’.

The third part develops the critique of political economy as a critique of the form of the state. I reckon that the law of value has no independent economic reality. It does not dominate anything and anyone, nor does it instantiate itself – just like that. Value relations are relations of political economy, and political economy presupposes the force of law making violence as the premise of its – civilized – appearance as an exchange relationship between the sellers and buyers of labour power as equal legal subjects, governed by the rule of law. Chapter 7 establishes the world market as the categorical imperative of the capitalist form of wealth. The world market asserts itself as a coercive force over labour in production. However, coercion is not a socio-economic category. It is a political category, which characterizes the state as the political form of bourgeois society. I argue that the world market society of capital entails the (national) state in its concept. Chapter 8 focuses on the state as the political form of bourgeois society. In distinction to traditional accounts that derive the state from the economic, I hold that the law of value is premised on depoliticized exchange relations, and I argue that the state is the concentrated force of socio-economic depoliticization. Fragments apart, Marx’s promise of a critique of the form of state did not materialize. The chapter therefore develops its account with reference to Hegel’s political philosophy and Smith’s classical political economy and its further development in neo-liberal thought, to make sense of Marx’s characterization of the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. The conclusion returns to Marx to argue that the state is the political form of capitalist society.

The fourth and final part assesses the anti-capitalist implications of the critique of political economy as a critical social theory. Chapter 9 presents forms of anti-capitalism that personalize the critique of capitalism as the power of money or the power of imperial force, or both. Here, the critical notion that the social individual personifies the economic categories regresses into the condemnation of hated forms of capitalism that are identified with the interest of particular persons. The personalized critique of capitalism entails the elements of antisemitism from the outset, which the chapter explores as a perverted critique of capitalism. Chapter 10 is the final chapter. It summarizes the argument by exploring Adorno’s demand for a praxis that fights barbarism. Contrary to the rumour about critical theory, its entirely negative critique of existing conditions does not entail an impoverished praxis. Rather, it entails the question of praxis – what really does it mean to say ‘no’ in a society that is governed by real economic abstractions?”

Digitising Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists

Last week, I wrote to Werner Bonefeld, seeking a couple of articles that were published in Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists. This journal is pretty hard to come by these days. Back-issues are limited and relatively few of the articles exist on the web. It was published from 1987 to 1999, over 24 issues of about 100 pages each. As you can see from the image, early issues (one to nine) look more like an A4, photocopied zine than an academic journal, but later issues take the more traditional form and were distributed by AK Press. A few articles were collected and published in 2003.

In my email to Werner, I mentioned that if I could get my hands on whole issues of the journal, I would digitise them for distribution on the web. As an editor of the journal, Werner was grateful and said that copyright was not a problem. I didn’t realised that Werner would send quite so many issues of the journal, but yesterday 15 of the 24 issues of Common Sense arrived in the post, along with a copy of his recent book, Subverting the Present, Imagining the Future.

My plan is to create high quality digital, searchable, versions of every issue of Common Sense over the next few months and offer them to Werner for his website, or I can create a website for them myself. I’ve done a lot of image digitisation over the years but not text. If you have some useful advice for me, please leave a comment here. I’ll also seek advice from the Librarians here, who have experience digitising books.

I have issues 10 to 24 (though not 11) and issue five. To begin my hunt for missing copies, I’ve ordered issues 1,2 & 3 from the British Library’s Interlibrary Loan service. An email this morning told me that the BL don’t have copies of the journal and are hunting them down from other libraries. We’ll see what they come up with. If you have issues 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9 or eleven, I’d be grateful if you’d get in touch. It would be good to digitise the full set and I’ll return any copies that I’m sent.

Why go to all this trouble?

Well, Common Sense was an important and influential journal “of and for social revolutionary theory and practice, ideas and politics.” In issue 21, reflecting on ten years of Common Sense, the editorial stated that:

Our project is class analysis and we aim to provide a platform for critical debates unfettered by conventional fragmentations of knowledge (either into ‘fields’ of knowledge or ‘types’ of knowledge, e.g. ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’). This continuity in the concepts of class struggle and social change flies in the face of most interpretations of the last 10 years.

When the journal switched from A4 to A5 size, in May 1991 with issue ten, the editorial collective reflected on the first few years of the journal.

Common Sense was first produced in Edinburgh in 1987. It offered a direct challenge to the theory production machines of specialised academic journals, and tried to move the articulation of intellectual work beyond the collapsing discipline of the universities. It was organised according to minimalist production and editorial process which received contributions that could be photocopied and stapled together. It was reproduced in small numbers, distributed to friends, and sold at cost price in local bookshops and in a few outposts throughout the world. It maintained three interrelated commitments: to provide an open space wherein discussion could take place without regard to style or to the rigid classification of material into predefined subject areas; to articulate critical positions within the contemporary political climate; and to animate the hidden Scottish passion for general ideas. Within the context of the time, the formative impetus of Common Sense was a desire to juxtapose disparate work and to provide a continuously open space for a general critique of the societies in which we live.

The change in form that occurred with issue ten was a conscious decision to overcome the “restrictive” aspects of the minimalist attitude to production that had governed issues 1 to 9, which were filled with work by ranters, poets, philosophers, theorists, musicians, cartoonists, artists, students, teachers, writers and “whosoever could produce work that could be photocopied.” However, the change in form did not mark a conscious change in content for the journal, and the basic commitment “to pose the question of what the common sense of our age is, to articulate critical positions in the present, and to offer a space for those who have produced work that they feel should be disseminated but that would never be sanctioned by the dubious forces of the intellectual police.” Further in the editorial of issue ten, they write:

The producers of Common Sense remain committed to the journal’s original brief – to offer a venue for open discussion and to juxtapose written work without regard to style and without deferring to the restrictions of university based journals, and they hope to be able to articulate something of the common sense of the new age before us. Common Sense does not have any political programme nor does it wish to define what is political in advance. Nevertheless, we are keen to examine what is this thing called “common sense”, and we hope that you who read the journal will also make contributions whenever you feel the inclination. We feel that there is a certain imperative to think through the changes before us and to articulate new strategies before the issues that arise are hijacked by the Universities to be theories into obscurity, or by Party machines to be practised to death.

Why ‘Common Sense’?

The editorial in issue five, which you can read below, discusses why the journal was named, ‘Common Sense’.

Hopefully, if you’re new to Common Sense, like me, this has whetted your appetite for the journal and you’re looking forward to seeing it in digital form. In the meantime, you might want to read some of the work published elsewhere by members of the collective, such as Werner Bonefeld, John Holloway, Richard Gunn, Richard Noris, Alfred Mendes, Kosmas Psychopedis, Toni Negri, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Massimo De Angelis and Ana Dinerstein. If you were reading Common Sense back in the 1990s, perhaps contributed to it in some way and would like see Common Sense in digital form so that your students can read it on their expensive iPads and share it via underground file sharing networks, please have a dig around for those issues I’m missing and help me get them online.

Cheers.

Common Sense

The journal Common Sense exists as a relay station for the the exchange and dissemination of ideas. It is run on a co-operative and non-profitmaking basis. As a means of maintaining flexibility as to numbers of copies per issue, and of holding costs down, articles are reproduced in their original typescript. Common Sense is non-elitist, since anyone (or any group) with fairly modest financial resources can set up a journal along the same lines. Everything here is informal, and minimalist.

Why, as a title. ‘Common Sense’? In its usual ordinary-language meaning, the term ’common sense’ refers to that which appears obvious beyond question: “But it’s just common sense!”. According to a secondary conventional meaning, ‘common sense’ refers to a sense (a view, an understanding or outlook) which is ‘common’ inasmuch as it is widely agreed upon or shared. Our title draws upon the latter of these meanings, while at the same time qualifying it, and bears only an ironical relation to the first.

In classical thought, and more especially in Scottish eighteenth century philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ carried with it two connotations: (i) ‘common sense’ meant public of shared sense (the Latin ‘sensus comunis‘ being translated as ‘publick sense’ by Francis Hutcheson in 1728). And (ii) ‘comnon sense’ signified that sense, or capacity, which allows us to totalise or synthesise the data supplied by the five senses (sight, touch and so on) of a more familiar kind. (The conventional term ‘sixth sense‘, stripped of its mystical and spiritualistic suggestions, originates from the idea of a ‘common sense’ understood in this latter way). It is in this twofold philosophical sense of ‘common sense’ that our title is intended.

Continue reading “Digitising Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists”

Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001. 1)http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie. 2)See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis. 3)Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 Translated into English 2010 http://cybernet.jottit.com/

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2
2. See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/
3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/