Socialism and Surplus: Why Planning Cannot Overthrow Capitalism

blackboardAs the economic crisis continues along with militant action against it, the idea of socialist planning has emerged from the grave.  The beginning of the neoliberal offensive, along with libertarian Marxist currents, discredited state socialism for various forms of micro-politics. And yet, its contemporary resurrection has not proven itself a feasible historical project. It exists as a zombie that has lost the horizon of communism as revolutionary action. In its stead, planning has been misrecognized–and not only by social democrats–as if it were post-capitalism instead of a potential strategic avenue within capitalism. The old formulation of the latter has transmuted into the myth of planning as the realization of post-capitalist society itself. It is ultimately a regression in Marxist thought. It is a position that neither Marx nor that 20th century scion, Lenin, held–even though both could periodically fall prey to the illusion. At bottom, socialism is subject to the same compulsions as capitalism. Its planning is the planning of the management of surplus; the category which is the foundation of domination. If it might attenuate some of the most vicious results of the capitalist hell, it cannot help us escape it.

At bottom, socialism is subject to the same compulsions as capitalism. Its planning is the planning of the management of surplus; the category which is the foundation of domination.

It is precisely in the compulsion for surplus that dominating relations manifest themselves. Indeed, its collusion with stratification predates capitalism. Hunter-gatherers did not have permanent leaders since mobility required the minimization of material possessions. A reliable surplus helped some households accumulate larger shares over subsistence-centralizing leadership. In societies which did not have a surplus to consolidate, subject populations could not be integrated and thus hierarchy would crumble. Marx claimed that communism was that which realized human species-being. It would be the re-emergence of the most primitive in the most advanced. Species-being is impossible to realize with the compulsion of surplus since it is a logic which compels alien production.

Honing on this anthropological point is not merely an academic exercise. It indicates the literal lack of empirical evidence for planning as a means to abolish capitalism. The best retort to what is being argued is that efficient planning would equitably redistribute the surplus making it impossible to expropriate. Workplace democracy and the ability for people to take control of society through participation will prevent backsliding, or so we are told.

However, A theoretical and practical problem emerge for revolutionary thought. First, there is no actual material claim to prove that domination would not reoccur. The ties that bind society are, at best, the moral force of a social contract. The ideological delusions exhorting humanity toward its essential goodness are militated against by the system of calculation which must arise for the whole system to function. Calculation would not be the coordination and distribution of use-values. Such a calculation is qualitatively different than calculation in the area of production. The latter is inherently the regulation of socially necessary labor-time. The reduction of labor to planned labor-power reimposes factory discipline in order to regulate the input and output of a given factory. The abstract call for democracy is not as romantic as it sounds. It would only bring us to a world in which labor self-disciplines; the internalization of capital without capitalists.

The second argument follows from the first. An emergent bureaucracy out of capitalism would, despite all intentions, be subject to the compulsions of the economic. In order to demonstrate this point, Amadeo Bordiga’s critique of Stalinist Russia is important. Bordiga thought the problem with the Soviet Union was not in the despotism of the bureaucracy as a class but the laws to which it was ultimately subject. He looked at the social relations in the Kolkoz and Sovkhoz–the former a cooperative farm and the other a straight wage-labor state farm–to demonstrate that the state took the role of merely another firm among firms. Importantly, he argued the essential impossibility of realizing communism alongside calculation in money prices (or in ‘labor tickets’ as some recent scholars have advocated).

Communism is not planning but the overcoming of the “economic” as a functional category.

Communism is not planning but the overcoming of the “economic” as a functional category. Production would not be the creation of alien wealth in any form but the realization of human creative capacity. If the species must metabolize nature, it would not be in the service of production but in the conscious reproduction of basic material needs. The coordination of large-scale society is not planning and to maintain such an argument is to mangle categories. Planning is discipline at the site of production, which is necessarily the regulation of bodies.

And yet, socialism is not rejected as inherently evil. Uneven and combined development indicate the necessity for multiple mediations in the realization of communism. The problem to be isolated is the false belief in socialism as the abolition of capitalism itself. If there is room for socialism, then the situation is one of strategic retreat. Retreat is not used in a pejorative sense; revolution is not Pickett’s Charge. Rather, there is no such thing as a “victory for socialism,” just another step in the Long March* to communism.

*A strategic retreat necessary for a victory.


On May 5th a group of “artists, curators, critics, guard room, graphic designers, performers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers, journalists, art teachers, students, and everybody who works in the field of art and culture” occupied the Galfa Tower (Torre Galfa) skyscraper in the heart of Milan, Italy. We have been in touch with members involved in the occupation and they will be sharing things here on OE in English in the coming weeks. Below please find their first press release.


We are glad to declare the opening of MACAO, the new arts centre in Milan, a great experiment in building with a bottom up approach a space where to produce art and culture. A place where artists and citizens can gather together in order to invent a new system of rules for a common and participatory management which, in an autonomous way, will redefine time and priorities of their work and allow them to experiment new common languages.

We are artists, curators, critics, guard room, graphic designers, performers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers, journalists, art teachers, students, and everybody who works in the field of art and culture. We’ve been mobilizing for one year, meeting in assemblies where to discuss our situation as precarious workers in the fields of artistic production, entertainment, media, entertainment industry, festivals and the so-called economy of the event. A world increasingly hostage of the finance that exploits and absorbs the primary task of culture, which is being an economy of sharing.

We represent a large share of the workforce of this city that has always been an outpost of advanced service sector. We are the multitude of workers of the creative industries that too often has to submit to humiliating conditions to access income, with no protection and no coverage in terms of welfare and not even being considered as proper interlocutors for the current labor reform, all focused on the instrumental debate over the article 18. We were born precarious, we are the pulse of the future economy, and we will not continue to accommodate exploitation mechanisms and loss redistribution.

We open MACAO in order to let the culture strongly regain a piece of Milan, in response to a story that too often has seen the city ravaged by public procurement professionals, unscrupulous building permits, in a neo-liberal logic that has always humiliated the inhabitants and pursued a single goal: the profit of few excluding the many.

Since last spring, many citizens, artists and cultural workers have given life to new experiences through practices of occupation of public and private abandoned spaces. Such experiences are proving to last in time, by taking care of culture, territories, work, new forms of economy and new forms of collective intelligence. The artistic production must therefore be entirely rethought, we must take this time and this right in a serious and radical way, directly taking care of what is ours. Macao is this, a space for everyone, that must become an active laboratory where art, entertainment, culture, education and information workers are invited. Here artists, intellectuals, lawyers, constitutionalists, activists, writers, film makers, philosophers, economists, architects and urban planners, neighbourhood and city inhabitants should take the time to build a social, common and cooperative dimension.

We have a lot of work to do, we must transform these words into real practices, more and more constituent and effective, in order to build alternative models to those in which we live, and everything depends on us. We should not take anything for granted, producing competent inquiries, debates, analysis and confrontations concerning all the territories that produce inequality and expropriation of value, not to mention the new forms into which the capitalist ideology is disguising. We need to have joy and humour to transform this commitment into a human, collective and liberated moment. We should take care of this space so that it can host everyone. It is fundamental that in this space art and communication cease to be ends in themselves. On the opposite, they must explode and find their motivations in this fight, building new imaginaries and bringing into light the world that we see. Viva Macao and keep up the good work!

We fought alongside and within this network: Lavoratori dell’arte, Cinema Palazzo in Rome, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, Sale Docks in Venice, Teatro Coppola in Catania, L’Asilo della Creatività e della Conoscenza in Naples, and Teatro Garibaldi Aperto in Palermo.


For more information, please visit their Facebook page where they have been posting updates and more.


Starting from Year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political

via Unemployed Negativity

To consider what Occupy Wall Street has to do with philosophy, to Occupy Philosophy, is already to depart from one of the longstanding dictums of the relationship between philosophy and political invents. I am thinking of Hegel, who as much as he argued that philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought, also famously argued that philosophy can only comprehend its own time retrospectively, can only paint grey on grey once the ink has dried. Occupy, or OWS to use a preferred moniker, preferred not because it ties the movement to the hashtag, making it one of the many instances of the supposed twitter revolutions, but because it abstracts the movement from a specific place making it a general political transformation and not a specific occupation, is very much an active movement. Any statement about it, about its ultimate meaning, possibility, or limitations, must confront the fact that it is still in the process of shaping and forming.

This difficulty, the difficulty of saying something about a movement in process, is complicated by at least three other factors. First, there is the complexity of the movement itself. The fact that there are one, two, many occupations means that any one of the occupations may have very different characteristics, characteristics determined by local histories and reactions. Occupy Oakland with its militant “general strike” against the ports, its refusal of police cooperation, and its occupation is very different from the Occupations elsewhere, such as Maine or Cleveland, that have actively courted support from the local police. Second, any description of what Occupy means must confront not only this geographical complexity, but the complexity of orientations and interpretations that defines and divides each occupation. The political goals of occupation are diverse, from a destruction of capitalism itself and the creation of a new political and economic order through the general assemblies and commons of the occupation to political and economic reforms brought about through a left counterweight to the “Tea Parties.” The tactics are no less diverse, from direct attempts at the communization of existing private property to organized exodus of money from large international banks to local banks and credit unions. This strategic and tactical diversity can be seen as a symptom of a certain void a lack of dominant intellectual and political voice or organization to address the fundamental issues at the heart of occupy. Every issue addressed by Occupy, from the most reformist, the dominance of lobbying and big money in politics, to the most radical, the dominance of capital itself over all elements of life, is outside of the range of the dominant parties, unions, and mainstream political organizations in the US. Of course this void can be space of possibility, a space that has been kept open by the sustained attempt on the part of the occupations to not be coopted by a party or organization. However, this void is also a gap between the critiques of capital that have at the very least persevered (if not flourished) in various sections of Anglo-American academia and anything like a movement or political party. Just as the dominant political parties were caught off guard by people suddenly wanting to discuss the very issues that the immense political spectacle is meant to conceal, academics and intellectuals have been caught off guard by the idea that someone outside of a lecture hall or hotel conference room might actually want to hear and discuss what they want to talk about. So is not only Occupy difficult to discuss because of its active transformations and contradictions, talking about it involves speaking to new audiences, creating new vocabularies and new modes of transmission.

The difficulties and contradictions could be enumerated ad nauseam, but it might be possible to work through them, rather than use them as an excuse or statement of (false) academic modesty. What I propose here is to work through some of the tensions and contradictions. To begin with, and at the most basic level, it might be worth starting with a few of the things that differentiates Occupy from a long history of protests against wars and other government acts, that have vanished from memory almost as soon as they begin. First, we have the location itself, the occupation of Wall Street rather than another march on Washington. This entails a shift of focus, and a shift of an awareness of the locus of power, from the Capitol to the symbolic center of capital. As much as the focus is on Wall Street, on the center of financial capital, many of the signs and slogans refer to the decision of Citizen’s United, to the idea of corporations as personhood, not to the economic power of corporations, power over work and consumption, but to the political power of corporations, the power that corporations wield in the writing of laws, policy, and the election of candidates. The very slogan, “We are the 99%” is situated in the space between economics and politics. Statistically it refers to the 99% of the population that controls a dwindling percentage of wealth in this country, in contrast to the immense wealth of the 1%. However, it gets much of its rhetorical force from its appeal to majority rule, to the populist idea of 99% of the population excluded from political power. Thus, despite the focus on Wall Street, on inequality and wealth, the focus of Occupy Wall Street is on the political effects of the economy, not the economy itself. Hence the often repeated slogan of getting the money out of Washington and the goal of destroying corporate personhood, all of which are about the idea of not so much changing the economy, of contesting capitalism, but limiting its influence on the political process.

Another way to sum up these aspects of Occupy Wall Street would be to say that they are gatherings of citizens rather than workers. Their goal has been to reclaim a public space, a public space that is increasingly disappearing, rather than to politicize the factories, workplaces, and offices. Following Étienne Balibar and Bernard Stiegler’s work on Gilbert Simondon, we can define a citizen as a particular kind of transindividual individuation, a particular formation of collectivity, a “we,” and individuality, an “I.” The citizen is a transindividual individuation in which the collective and the individual reinforce each other, in which every claim for rights, even the rights to be left alone, unaffected by others, is dependent upon its recognition by others. The citizen is neither exclusively collective nor individual, neither simply equal or free, but the intersection between equality and liberty, what Balibar calls “equaliberty.”[i] This transindividual relation is thus always in flux, not just between the individual and the collective, but between its role as constituted power, function as the basis for state authority, and its constituent, or insurrectionist dimension, claiming the right to contest power and legitimate new structures. In the case of Occupy, we see a claim for the citizen as not only an insurrection, as a right to revolt, but one that claims the will of the people as the source of authority, against representatives and the perversion of the political process by corporations and money, the citizen against Citizen’s United. This is what differentiates the Occupy Movement, even in its most populist dimensions, from the Tea Party; the latter fetishized a founding moment, a founding document, as the source of authority, a source that we could only be viewed as having fallen from, while the former claims the right to revolt, to invent new structures and new relations in the present. Moreover, the spaces that are occupied are what remains of public space, parks, town commons, etc., which initially had a political as well as a recreational function. The conflicts over these occupations, conflicts over the right to occupy, have pitted first amendment principles against a series of laws against public loitering, public sleeping, and public urination aimed at the homeless and guaranteeing “quality of life.” Thus in this sense to, in the control of space, they could be understood as claims by citizens against the reconstruction of urban space around a public that is only a docile consumer.

Focusing on the claims for citizenship, for the restoration of democracy, or even the invention of new forms of democracy, risk concealing the manner in which the economy, capitalism, figures in a more direct way in the politics of Occupy even if it does not take the recognizable form of past demands against capitalism, demands for increased wages and benefits, demands structured around the transindividual individuation of the worker. A quick purview of the “We are the 99%” tumblr site which emerged in the opening days of the Occupation, sees debt, housing debt, student debt, and the debt incurred through medical costs, appearing again and again as a central complaint. The centrality of debt begins to foreground a different relation between politics and money than the demand to simply remove the former from the influence of the latter. This is still not exploitation in its Marxist definition; the economic equation at the center of these protests is not framed between wages and profit, the exploitation that defines surplus value, but between wages and debt. This difference is immense, as students, unemployed individuals, and others burdened with massive debt calculate the gap that separates debt and earnings. These debts are not just quantitatively huge, qualitatively they are unpayable; houses are underwater, caught between a high mortgage and current devaluations, and students who took on massive debt to finance their education find that there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate. Or, to quote, After the Fall, a document produced by the wage of Occupations in the University of California, “We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have.”[ii] Or, to put it more succinctly, “No future.” Future is what debt, especially the debt of student loans, counts on, the promise of future earnings, and it is precisely this promise that appears radically foreclosed. The future appears to be sold off in advance.

Starting from debt, from the economics and politics of debt, offers another understanding of the intersection of politics and economics than the populist idea of democracy without capitalism, even if this idea is not articulated. In both case it is a matter of a fundamental blurring of the divides between economics and politics, private and public, but in the first case, that of the citizen against Citizen’s United, there is the idea of a possible reform, a restoration of politics without money, however flawed it may be. The focus on debt, however, changes the focus on both economics and politics. Economics is no longer restricted to the power of big business, of corporations, to lobby and influence politics, but is the exploitation of day-to-day life; in a similar fashion, politics is no longer democracy, either in its representative form, or in the invention of new direct forms, but is the control over life. As Gilles Deleuze states in his text on control, “A Man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt.”[iii] Which is to say that debt, student debt, housing, and the debts of health care is as much about control over life as it is an extraction of wealth. As Maurizio Lazzarato argues, debt “functions equally as an apparatus of production and a way to govern individual and collective subjects.”[iv]

On the economic side, debt is situated in the transformations of neoliberalism. With respect to the debtor, debt was able to augment the declining real wages of the last forty years, making it possible for people to still make the same purchases and maintain the same status, and it provided access to things such as higher education, even as state expenditure to such services declined. With respect to the creditor, we have an increase of the power of money, and the possibility to extract money from activities that were once expenditures. Declining wages and declining state services not only tip the balance from expenses to profits, as labor becomes cheaper and payments to the state is reduced, but become themselves a source of wealth. We can already begin to see the “subjective” dimension of this accumulation by debt as well. First, at the most basic level debt, in the form of second mortgages and credit card debt, makes it possible for people whose wages are declining to see themselves as still able to purchase the same things, as middle class. Middle class being defined less on a particular economic status, let alone a relation to the means of production, but on the capacity to purchase certain goods, homes, cars, and higher education. In the US much of the legitimacy of the political and economic order rests on the ability of the majority to identify with this class.

The subjective dimension of debt is not limited to the way in which it extends class belonging, patching over a decline of wages. There is a dark side as well; debt infuses this belonging with insecurity, and isolation. There is a qualitative difference in going to college because it has been made affordable by public funding and financing an education through loans. The first is won and maintained collectively as a social good, the second is not only maintained individually, but individuates, subjecting people to their debt. This individuation takes many levels, some of it takes place beyond one’s back, in the form of a credit score and the multiple ways one’s activity can be tracked online. In other ways it is directly manifest in actions and relations. This can be seen in student loan debt. As students take on more and more loans to fund their education, their education changes form. Anyone who teaches at a University is perhaps aware of the chilling effect that student debt has an intellectual inquiry and education. Students do not ask themselves the questions: what interests me? And what discipline or field do I show talent for? But ask instead: what will get me a job? What will the market demand? Debt is the future acting on the present. The idea of future debt, of the cost of student loans, acts on the present, determining choices and limiting possibilities. Debt is mode of governmentality, a way to restrict and curtail actions; a mode that is all the more effective in being internalized.

Student debt can be understood as a transformation of the educational experience and the university, one that uses the power of the state, taxation and the allocation of funds, to restructure the university from below.[v] Indebted students, students desperately seeking wages adequate to their debt, are less likely to demand courses and programs engaging in critical thinking, let alone engage in the political activism that made the “student” a political transindividual individuation, defined by its liminal position between home and work. Debt produces students who are desperately try to match their actions to the mercurial job market, rather than rethink society and their place within it. The politics of debt are produced from above, but the effects are felt from below in the daily actions of not only students, who ask only “how can this course get me a job,” but also an increasingly precarious adjunct teaching faculty forced to tailor their teaching to whatever can get them work.

In an early text by Marx this internalization of credit is described as transformation of morality and human relationships. With debt, everything that was outside of the monetary relation, particular skills, talents, desires, and aptitudes, becomes part of it. As Marx writes,

Credit is the economic judgment on the morality of a man. In credit, the man himself, instead of metal or paper, has become the mediator of exchange, not however as a man, but as the mode of existence of capital and interest. The medium of exchange, therefore, has certainly returned out of its material form and been put back in man, but only because the man himself has been put outside himself and has himself assumed a material form. Within the credit relationship, it is not the case that money is transcended in man, but that man himself is turned into money, or money is incorporated in him. Human individuality, human morality itself, has become both an object of commerce and the material in which money exists. Instead of money, or paper, it is my own personal existence, my flesh and blood, my social virtue and importance, which constitutes the material, corporeal form of the spirit of money. Credit no longer resolves the value of money into money but into human flesh and the human heart. Such is the extent to which all progress and all inconsistencies within a false system are extreme retrogression and the extreme consequence of vileness.

As Lazzarto argues, the entire economy of debt is implicated within a work on the self, in which the individual is governed by the idea of maximizing value and managing risks in a series of choices that are not only radically individuated but moralized. Morality is not the subordination of economic concerns to moral criteria, to some concern with the individual person, but the reverse, the subordination of morality to the economy, the subsumption of morality to the economy. Trust, responsibility, and obligation become concepts of the moralization of the economy, the point where economic relations become moralized. Debt is a mutation of homo economicus: it is no longer, as Marx argued, the subject of “freedom, equality, and Bentham,” but the subject of obligation, inequality, and Becker.

The subject of debt is isolated, separated from others, who are no longer seen as part of a collective condition. With debt there is only one’s responsibility, one’s isolation, one’s fears up against an economic situation of abstract calculation. It is very difficult to say “we” debtors, in the way one could say “we” citizens or “we” workers. Part of debt passes beneath us, in the calculations, quantifications, and aggregations that make up our digital self, our virtual identity, and is this respect we cannot even say “I.” But even that part that individuates us, the part that we carry with us as a burden, does not allow for the creation of a “We.” This is because debt is seen less as a collective condition, as part of a new regime of accumulation and a new governmentality, than as an individual fate. Debt splinters into its myriad kinds, student debt, mortgage debt, and consumer debt, and the various individual relations to it, the choices made and risks taken. Viewed in this way debt, or financialization, is perhaps only an extreme point in the neo-liberal economy. Its general characteristics are, as we have seen, an extraction of wealth from relations outside of the worker-capital relationship, as not just production but reproduction become the basis for debt and wealth, and a production of subjectivity, that is oriented towards isolation, fragmentation, and inequality. In this manner debt is consistent with transformations of labor in the thirty years, which have lead to short term contracts, temp work, limited union membership and collective bargaining. It is also consistent with the rise of digital technologies that create new possibilities of individuation in consumer profiles, tailored advertisements, etc. all of which transform consumption and leisure into ways of capturing attention and generating profits.

If one looks beyond the focus on lobbyists, on the claims for citizenship, to the anxiety about debt and precarious labor, then it is possible to begin to understand a different relationship with the economy and politics. Yes, it is true, the various occupations are not organizing as workers, in terms of the identities, tactics, and spaces occupied and this has lead some to dismiss the occupations as simply populist movements with no real critique of capital. We should not rush to conclude that the lack of the worker as transindividual individuation to be a negative thing, there is, after all, a long tradition of writing in the Marxist tradition, which has argued against the ideal of critique capital from the perspective of workers. This tradition, beginning with Mario Tronti and the autonomist tradition and continuing through the idea communization, has stressed that the politics of such a critique can only be a politics of reform, a struggle for better wages and benefits. “To abolish capital is at the same time to negate oneself as a worker and not to self-organize as such: it’s a movement of the abolition of enterprises, of factories, of the product, of exchange (whatever its form).”[vi] From this perspective we should not spend too much time mourning the lack of the worker as an identity organizing Occupy Wall Street, or hold out hopes for unions to be revitalized. Such actions can only lead to reforms, to better wages and more work, and would return us to the division of worker and student, waged work and unpaid reproductive work. There is a positivity to this absence, a positivity that only takes an inchoate form in not just the politicization of debt, but also in the global nature of the protests, a positivity that recognizes the full spectrum of exploitation.

The question remains, however, as to how to articulate this nascent critique of capital that is framed in terms of debt and insecurity and how to organize this mass of debtors, unemployed, and precariously employed. Some writers, such as David Graeber, have turned to the long history of debt to see the current situation as yet another chapter in a long history of debt revolts. In this five thousand year history, the struggle over wages and exploitation, appears only as a brief chapter in a long durée of struggle of debtors against creditors. The present is the time of jubilees. Opposed to this return of the past there are those who argue that we find in the contemporary production process an entirely new subjectivity, a new conception of politics, a multitude or precariat. As work becomes increasingly oriented towards the reproduction of social relations, knowledge and affects, it also becomes increasingly vulnerable as the boundaries between waged and unwaged become even more permeable. The present is understood as either the reflection of the oldest inequalities, or to be made up of new exploitations. This same contradiction between the new and the old can be found at the level of liberation, at the level of the possibilities for organizing: some point to the resilience of the oldest tactics, direct democracy, direct action, and even espouse an ideal of locality as a goal, as the general assembly becomes the new democratic model; on the opposite side there are those who point to the role of facebook, twitter, and social networking as the central organizing tools, placing these actions, like the revolts in the Arab world, under the rubric of twitter revolutions, as new political possibilities opened up by networks of communication. Exploitation and liberation is caught between the old and the new. Rather than reconcile these two points of view in a sort of on the one hand and then the other, or attempt to find some kind of dialectical sublimation of the two, it is necessary to examine the contradictions and limitations of the Occupy Wall Street movement through an examination of its composition.

Composition in this sense follows the work of the Italian autonomists who emphasized the examination of class composition. This work, which began with the early autonomists such as Mario Tronti, was intended to move away from taking class as a given, as a subject forever poised between the in-itself and the for-itself of the “now hidden, now open” class struggle. In its place there is an examination of both the way in which class is constituted, according to its technological and political components, the division of labor and the level of organization, and constitutive, reshaping capitalist accumulation through its struggles. I would add to this, following the worker of Franco Berardi, Stephven Shukatis and Maurizio Lazzarato, that this composition the subjective composition, the affects (hope, fear) ideas and images that motivate and drive individuals and collectives. We have already seen how these three elements combine in the case of debt: debt is dependent upon a new technological regime of surveillance and data sharing, is part of a political strategy of neoliberal governmentality, and perpetuates a subjectivity of isolation and anxiety. A fleshed out compositional analysis would examine this not just in terms of debt, but also work, consumption, and the relation to the state. I can only provide a few notes in that direction here.

The various relations to the kinds of debt, housing, student, and consumer, is one of the constituent dimensions of the occupations. As such it defines both a commonality, a common grievance against Wall Street, against the power of finance, and a point of contradiction and division. As I have already stated this division concerns the various types of debt, student, housing, and consumer, all of which are endlessly individuated according to risks and choices, responsibility as fragmentation. It constitutes an economic and affective commonality, but one that is experienced in terms of individuation. The fragmentation and isolation of debt, with its individualization through surveillance and anxiety, is mirrored in the sphere of production. Work has been restructured through temporary contracts, loss of collective bargaining, and generalized insecurity all of which lead to similar isolation and individuation. Work, even the work at a given office, call center, or distribution site, is no longer that of a “we,” of a collective identity, but is individualized into temporary contracts, continual performance reviews, and dispersed incentives. To call this an “I” with all of its connotation of independence and autonomy, is not entirely accurate. As with debt the balance sheet of any one’s particular performance and hard work remains completely outside of their efforts. People are hired and fired not because of their efforts, but because of the balance of profits and losses, and the cost of wages halfway around the globe. Despite this the “work ethic” remains, or it is perhaps all that remains. Work ceases to be the predominant productive force, displaced by the general knowledge of society externalized in various machines, what Marx called the “general intellect” but it remains the enforced measure. All that remains of work as it loses its central economic function and its transindividual dimension, constituting the basis for collective belonging and individual identity, is its disciplinary function, the demand to “be professional.” Thus to some extent work goes full circle: it began with the protestant ethic, with a discipline without guarantee, a work on oneself to remind oneself of one’s chose status, and it ends that way as well.[vii] All one is left with is a dogged determination to keep working, to take out another loan to learn a new skill, to maximize one’s potential.

The transformation of work from an economic necessity to an ethical or disciplinary imperative is reflected in some of the opposition to Occupy Wall Street. The first real reaction to Occupy Wall Street, the “We are the 53%” tumblr site not only shifted the entire idea from exploitation to taxes, but the various testimonies stressed the idea of hard work, often including testimonies of people who worked multiple jobs. That these individuals had to work multiple jobs, or worked long hours, was not presented as a critique of the economic system but a testament to their individual worth and virtue. This idea, or at least an inclination of it can be found in all of the counter-protesters who some up their opposition by yelling, “Get a job!” As much as this critique carries with all of the old ideological ghosts of welfare queens, of people living off of the public, it also expresses a kind of disciplinary injunction. The “job” is not so much an economic imperative, but a moral and political one, a job is understood as precisely what keeps people off the street, keeps people from protesting, keeping them too buy or too tired to do anything but work. The idea of everyone doing their job and nothing but their job, the fantasy of Plato’s Republic returns as work is shrinking. What we are dealing with is not the work ethic living on long past its economic usefulness, an imperative to work haunting an economy that automates and out sources jobs, but an intensification of it. As work disappears especially in the face of a mounting recession, it becomes all the more imperative at the level of ethics and morality. The unemployed are told to blame themselves, for some failure in their attitude, rather than look to the economic and social conditions of their situation. This insistence of the moral over and above the economic can also be seen in terms of debt as well. As much as it might make political and economic sense to offer some kind of debt forgiveness to those burdened with mortgages or students facing loans that they cannot pay, it is argued that the moral risk is too great, forgiveness would corrupt the foundations of the republic. The moral imperative to pay one’s debts and to work hard outlasts the economic imperative and possibility. If the obligation to pay one’s debts and the work ethic are ghosts, remnants of another economic era, then they are angry and vengeful ghosts, becoming more intense as they become more impossible.

To complete the picture of the current historical moment, one would have to add punishment and the penal regime to debt and work. Punishment and law have also combined the individualizing techniques of surveillance and the moralizing rhetoric of individual responsibility to impose a new authoritarian regime. Individual responsibility has become the lynchpin linking debt, work, and law. Any discussion of social conditions, especially the social conditions that have driven people into debt, left them without work, makes the drug trade the only possible economic activity for some, is excluded in advance, all that remains is individual responsibility. Collective action to remedy these conditions is thus also excluded, and when government acts it can only act to further discipline individual responsibility. This moralizing lynchpin is absent when it comes to discussing the collapse of the economy, all accountability disappears in the supposed complexity of the economy itself. It is for this reason that Loïc Wacquant describes the contemporary state as a Centaur, with fundamentally different rules for those who find themselves at the top or bottom. “Actually existing neoliberalism extolls ‘laissez faire et lasser passer’ for the dominant, but it turns out to be paternalist and intrusive for the subaltern, and especially for the urban precariat whose life parameters it restricts through the combined mesh of supervisory workfare and judicial oversight.” [viii]

The common denominator of debt, work, and punishment in the current conjuncture is not only that of their ethical dimension, their existence as individual imperatives rather than collective economic condition, but of insecurity and precariousness. This precariousness is often branded, which is to say marketed, as autonomy and freedom. The lack of collective bargaining contracts, of stable commitments, and of social provisions that pass through the state, is presented as a kind of freedom and liberation. The subject of contemporary society, of neoliberal society, is one who is free to maximize his or her human capital, as well as other resources such as a home, benefiting from the lack of constraints and connections to maximize profit. This is a situation in which any lateral connection, any connection with other workers, students, or even other customers of insurance, that is not networking, not oriented towards maximizing one’s potential is unnecessary or avoided. It is perhaps more accurately described as class decomposition than composition, as students and workers are isolated and fragmented into individuals and aggregates of fragmented bits of intelligence and knowledge. The identification is not between other individuals, any collective, but with capital itself, with the enterprise. The worker becomes an entrepreneur of the self, and the student an investor in one’s own human capital. It is perhaps in this sense that “corporate personhood” should be taken as issue: it is not that capitalism would be better if we could some how just return it to individual’s exploiting individuals, but capitalism functions by modeling a person that aligns his or her striving, with its functioning.[ix]

The identity of individual striving with the functioning of capital has its limits, however, and these limits came to the front as the economy collapsed. One could possibly say that just as there was a housing bubble, and we are in the midst of a higher education bubble, there is also a subjectivity bubble. As long as housing prices increased, as long as it seemed possible to continue to maximize one’s potential, one’s profit, then this identification of individual striving with the economy as a whole persisted. As the economy collapsed so too did this ideal of subjectivity, this way of relating to other and the world. The turn out, the popularity of the occupations around the country, is itself a symptom of a breakdown of the identification of individuals and the interest of capital. The occupations are a cause as well as an effect of this rupture, the presence of occupations all over the country makes it easier for people to identify, to act. The action and presence of others becomes a catalyst. It is precisely this spiral of cause and effect that has intensified the Occupy Wall Street movement in the last few months. However, the collapse of the asocial sociality of debt and precarity does not in itself constitute a new collectivity, a new transindividual individuation. Instead, as we have seen, there is a return to all the old ideologies and histories of the past, such as the ideal of the citizen and the populist ideal of a 99%. While this language of citizenship and a republic sold out makes for snazzy placards and effective slogans, something different takes place in the actual occupations, as people from different economic strata, differently situated with respect to risk and uncertainty, to exploitation, come together. The problem is immense as a society lacking class composition, or even any identification across class is suddenly confronted with forming relations and solidarity across divisions of class, race, and other inequalities.

The occupations have become not just symbols, protests against inequality, but symptoms as well, as the collapsing “safety” of a society of debt and inequality dumps people into one place. As much as there is a unification, albeit an inchoate one, of a central message, there is also a division across the degrees of precarity, the difference that divides a student facing immense debt and an uncertain job situation from an unemployed person who has lost her home As George Caffentzis has argued, unemployment and homelessness has been one of the major divisions within the occupy camps. The media has presented this as a division between the dedicated, principled occupiers and the dangerous and unstable freeloaders that have come to the occupations. That dichotomy has not been confirmed by my experience, or much of what I have read of Occupy. However, it has forced the occupations to deal in a concrete way with the very effects of the policies and politics they are protesting. It is one thing to be opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, against the cutting of mental health programs, and the defunding of homeless shelters, but it is another to be in a sleeping bag woken up by someone suffering post-traumatic stress order. To suggest that the homeless are a burden to the camps is incredibly unfair. In my experience many homeless have embraced the camps, sometimes even leaving the disciplinary confines of shelters that police their comings and goings to enter into a space where they are not only fed and sheltered but where they can act and speak, changing the world around them. It is in this aspect that the occupations deserve the name communes, in place of a system that can only deal with collective conditions individually, moralizing and disciplining dependence, the occupations suggest another possibility based on solidarity and commonality. They are factories for generating solidarity.

This does not mean that there are not divisions within the occupations. The division might best be described as a division between different stakes in the occupation themselves. For some they are homes, providing necessary food and shelter, while for others they are symbols, actions, even if they are suggest the possibility of another economy. It might be useful to think of the compositions of the occupations as crisscrossed with different relations to not only the contemporary situation of exploitation, debt and work, but investment in the existing system, the capacity or desire to identify with it. There are those that believe that the existing economic system can be reformed, that its failures can be traced to recent transformations, and those who understand, sometimes at the core of their being, that it cannot. Which is not to see that these two axes are coordinated, not all of those who are most exploited are most radical in their demands and comfortably employed activists and tenured radicals can be seen in the occupations. There is, however, a heterogeneity of concrete needs and abstract desires, of economic and affective composition.

Any discussion of the composition of the occupations must also include the transformative effect of the occupation themselves. The four months of occupation have provided lessons for those inside and outside the occupations about the functioning of power. First, and foremost the very existence of the Occupy Wall Street has proven that what we speak of in monolithic terms as “the media” or the spectacle, that distracts people from the economic and political realities of the world, is not as monolithic as it appears. It can be punctured by actions, coopted by memes, and gradually infiltrated by narratives that outside of its purview. Second, it has exposed the brutality and corruption of the police. The police have shown themselves again and again to be protectors not of “the peace” but of existing property relations, of exploitation. The entire history of occupy is punctuated by images from the pepper-spray in New York, to Scott Olsen, and the cop at UC Davis, which have exposed (to some) the violence of our own social order. Of course many of these images have been circulated through the internet, drawing these two points together: the images of police violence and the protests against inequality combine in a corrosive mixture that eats away at the dominant image of a benevolent and just order. This is not news to everyone, but the occupation has become an education to many, as videos of a very different America than the one broadcast on television is shown on youtube. However, as much as these two lessons have transformed the movement, and have shifted the very contours of political action, the central point of Occupy, the economy, inequality, or capitalism, has not emerged with any clarity. This is not a matter of demands, demands are always addressed to some power, rather it is a matter of internal theoretical understanding and clarity. For Occupy to last, for it to truly become a transformative moment in national and global politics, it must counter the tendencies of isolation and fragmentation with shared concepts and shared debates, with an intellectual project that can outlast the shared campsites and cooking pots. This is difficult given the long history of not only anti-intellectualism, but of the intellectual hegemony of the spontaneous philosophies of fragmentation and isolation. As I have already suggested, this lack can be seen in the gulf that separates the stories that the 99% tells about itself—stories of debt and economic insecurity—which indicate a fundamental intensification of exploitation, and the slogans it carries—which suggest an ideal of a kinder and gentler capitalism.

As much as Occupy signals a change in the relation between economics and politics, a relation that still needs to be thought out, still needs to be theorized. It also involves a fundamental transformation of the relationship between theory, between intellectual production, and political action. For decades, at least in the US, this relation was primarily a non-relation: academics talked of critiques of capital, of exploitation, of the new power relations, knowing full well that only other academics were listening. Occupy Wall Street has changed this, as inequality, class, debt, and even the nature of capitalism itself suddenly emerges on the national and global discourse, like the return of the repressed. This represents a challenge and an opportunity for renewal and transformation of thinking, for political thought that is not just a reflection on something called politics, but thought that actively engages with the conditions and limits of its transmission, articulation, and reception (conditions that are primarily economic). It is is a matter of not just a thought of politics, but a politics and economics of thought. The challenge then is that this is happening at the very moment where the institution that has historically supported such political reflection, the university, is being undermined from within by debt and the economic insecurity of casualization. The opportunity is that suddenly all these questions and intellectual traditions that have remained sequester in graduate seminars, like so many terrariums for endangered species, have the chance to not only be heard but critically examined and transformed. How and why the current economic order can be transformed is appearing to be less and less of academic question. Working through these limitations and opportunities is what it might mean to occupy philosophy. As I have suggested here, the starting point that I would suggest for such an occupation, is first and foremost the intersection of politics and economics, an intersection that goes beyond the influence of lobbyists to encompass the transformation of daily life according to new economic structures, and secondly it involves the articulation of individuation and collectivity.

Presented at Occupy Philosophy Conference Michigan State University

[i] Etienne Balibar, La Proposition de l’Égaliberté pg. 71.

[ii] “After the Fall: Comminique from an Absent Future.” Pg. 8.

[iii] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies” pg. 181

[iv]Maurizio Lazzarato La fabrique de l’homme endetté p. 27

[v] Wacquant describes neoliberalism as “an articulation of the state, market, and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.” [Loic Wacquant, “A Historical Anthropology of Actually Existing Neoliberalism,” pg. 71] To which I would add that it is not just the citizen is restructured, becoming a consumer of state services, but other identities such as the students.

[vi] Communization and its Discontents pg. 43

[vii] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries pg. 75.

[viii] Loic Wacquant, “A Historical Anthropology of Actually Existing Neoliberalism,” pg. 74.

[ix] Frederic Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et Servitude: Marx et Spinoza pg. 57.

via unemployed negativity at

The Time of Crisis

Author’s Note: This text with images was originally presented at the Historical Materialism New York conference in May of 2011. Given the context, the text does not go into the sort of detail the matter really requires. A longer version is likely destined for an anthology of writings on contemporary tactics, strategy, and logistics of insurrectionary struggle within a context of financialized global capital, and it is in those terms that I would frame the talk, gloss or two points further, and underscore certain elements that may tend to recede into the background — while at the same time opening up the questions that are left unanswered herein.

The tactic in question is organized debt default. The major categories of personal debt are student loans, home mortgages, and “consumer” or credit card debt. Each of these categories presents different problems regarding organization — what does it mean to organize unemployed homeowners in default, students who have temporary jobs and an uncertain market future, and consumers whose wages are not keeping up with cost of living? Can these disparate groups be organized together? These matters must be addressed.

The strategy within which nests this the tactic is that of interfering with capital’s self-valorization, through which surplus value arising in the sphere of production is realized as profit in the sphere of circulation. The extended opening presents this historical development in which the valorization chains are increasingly attenuated, and suggests that globalization and financialization are complementary forms of this attenuation — spatial and temporal respectively — which should be understood as a unitary process expressed along two distinct axes. From this I suggest that, without abandoning a consideration of capital interruption from the two positions of production and circulation (that is, workerist and consumptionist perspectives) we might alternately view attacks on valorization from spatial and temporal perspectives. It is the latter that argues for the tactic of collective debt default, as debt is a scheme for realizing a profit in the future when capital can no longer valorize itself sufficiently in the present. However, here I must underscore what has dropped out of the reception to this text — the insistence that the temporal interruptions such as collective debt default are complements to spatial interruptions (strikes, sabotage, occupation), which must themselves be understood as tactics against valorization, even if they appear chaotic, opportunistic, or spontaneous, like the riot or sabotage. I neither suggest nor believe that temporal strategies have much power isolated from their complements, or cut off from an adequate logistical framework.

The logistics within which nest this strategy and this tactic include, significantly, those gestured toward all too briefly at the very end of the talk: what I call “collectives of withdrawal, or subtraction,” which is to say, social arrangements in which collective support can be provided against the individual disciplines that attend debt default. At a minimum this means providing food and shelter for those who can no longer earn money in the formal economy. More capaciously, it suggests the development of informal economies which depend less and less on the superflux of capital’s formal economies, but are able to sustain themselves without that suplus. If this logistical frame comes to look like a “dual power” approach, there is a reason for this. The tactic of collective debt default and the larger strategy of valorization interruption cannot themselves strike a blow fatal to capital. They will have some effects; they will wound, infuriate, and confuse the beast. But they will also compel, if pursued seriously, the development and expansion of non-capitalist zones, able to increasingly provide collective material life outside the real subsumption of capitalism’s lifeworld. Collective debt default implies communities that first exist within the pores of global capital, but which mean eventually to replace its organs with an entirely different metabolic system, and thus a different relationship to the totality.


I have a rather minor goal in this talk, or at least it is a talk in a minor key. The major tone is that of Giovanni Arrighi, and as this is my first visit to Historical Materialism, I wanted mostly to remember and honor his thought — both alone and with Beverly Silver — which has been so important for me and so many others. I want to offer a couple thoughts on its place and time in the present terrain of antagonisms, and that will be that.

Happily, Arrighi’s signal text, The Long 20th Century, will not need to much summarizing in this venue, and I trust you’ll fill in the blank spaces I am compelled to leave. It is itself a reflection and recasting of the work of Fernand Braudel (and to a lesser degree Ernest Mandel), extending and intensifying the double periodicity of capitalist cycles of accumulation: the long centuries of each world-system-organizing regime and its hegemon, and within those, the leadership of sequential modes of capital.

This latter, intra-epochal motion contains the two most trenchant (and well-remarked) features of the account. One is distinctly Braudelian: that each cycle can be divided into three phases led successively by the powers of merchant, industrial, and finance capital, with the first phase being prologue, the second the grand flowering of the hegemon, and the last being the decline, when actual accumulation starts to fail and the struggle for shares of the diminishing surplus intensifies. The second feature is Arrighi’s own novel insight: that world-system hegemons share a particularly capitalist logic of empire, wherein one seizes territory to make money, rather than vice versa. In his formulation, capital’s inversion of C-M-C to M-C-M’ has a spatial analog in which T-M-T (territory to make money to take more territory) is inverted to M-T-M, whence arises the hegemons and their long centuries. As an important and last addition to this, Arrighi notes that the rise and fall of each hegemon can be understood as the complementary motions M-C and C-M (or M-T and T-M), material expansion followed by financial expansion, ending in signal and then terminal crisis.

Before I add my own small inflection or reorientation, or maybe it’s really just a research question, I want to set forth a couple striking meta-notes about Arrighi’s analysis and its place in intellectual history, which is to say its place in the political history of intellectual institutions. These suggest, I think, why the analysis is more timely than ever.

One is something like the argument’s proper place, its territorial logic within the disciplines. It is almost entirely a piece of historical economics, from an author with a doctorate in economics working in the tradition of the Annales School. And yet Giovanni once told me that it was more frequently assigned in Comparative Literature courses than in economics or history or political science or sociology, the department he found himself in at Johns Hopkins. Now why should this have been the case? The positive answer is that the book provides an almost uniquely powerful periodizing framework for thinking about national literatures, or the motion of imperial culture in general. But there is also a negative case, concerning the extent to which, in the wake of the systematic demarxification of the academy that defined the sixties and after, Marxian thought was increasingly herded into the winter pasture of the humanities, and particularly to the culturalist confines identified with the Frankfurt School.

My second meta-note regards the extent to which the book’s schema has served as an occasion for reanimating three clichéd critiques which, braided together, have been familarly used to bind Marxian thought in general. (I feel like there should be a word for “clichéd critiques” — clichtiques sounds like a cosmetic product, so I’ll use crichés.)

These three crichés are,
First, that Arrighi’s globe-spanning six-century tale universalizes what is a particular positional story, thusly falling inattentive to local difference and the granularity of daily life across the globe, imputing an ontological consistency to the radical heterogeneity which is history itself; finally it explains too little.
Second, that it is a totalizing account, swiftly arrogating all experience to a schematic logic, which basically can’t be true because it works too neatly to be anything but an imposition — a grand narrative par excellance; finally, it explains too much.
Third, that it proposes an iron determinism — a historical chemin-de-fer — that even if it not quite promising an eternal return of the same, nonetheless unspools along an immutable spiral track, against which the willful struggles of a few antinomian folks here and there can have little or no diversionary force — and so finally explains rather than challenges: a theodicy of imperial capital.

Arrighi responded thoughtfully to these, especially the third, in the Postscript to the second edition. For the moment I note only that these crichés have long been leveled against Marx’s critique of political economy in general, from multiple positions, like the attacks on various fortifications of the city during the time of the Commune — but as 140 years ago, in some sense the great counter-revolutionary coup was enabled from within. In place of the well-heeled citoyens of Passy who gave passage to the Versaillaise, it would be the post-structuralist citizens of the left who allowed for the most sustained and ambitious attack on the allegedly universalizing, totalizing and deterministic Marx.

Thus we can say that Arrighi’s placement in intellectual history is exemplary of the situation of Marxian thought and its dynamics in general, over the last four decades. But we presently find ourselves in a changed situation. The magnetism of a cultural Marxism, and the disciplining super-nuance of post-structuralism — both already on the wane as of the millennium — have been dealt rather decisive blows by global economic catastrophe, which has returned the problematics of political economy, of historical materialism in its strong form, and of the dialectic of value theory and crisis theory, to the main of thought — as signaled by the rediscovery of Marx as a significant or ominous figure in bourgeois circles, and the reanimation of debates of communism, the communist hypothesis, the insurrectionary ultraleft, and so on.

It is in some sense exactly the matter of time, of time and the present, or of time that is and isn’t present, that I want to revisit Arrighi’s periodizing hypotheses. That is, I want to think about them in terms of time. I have a local and a global reason for doing so, or maybe a kernel and a currency.

The former is that my reading of value theory proposes that the sphere of production, or value, is a regime oriented by time, while the sphere of circulation or price is a regime oriented by space. I actually mean something relatively simple by this: that value is congealed Socially Necessary Labor Time rather than labor or labor power itself — this is the critical distinction between Marx’s and Ricardo’s value theories — while circulation is a spatial exchange, as money and commodity swap places. This can be thought about in quite metaphysical ways and at great length, but this is neither time nor place. The great shorthand for this is the remark in the Grundrisse: “This locational movement—the bringing of the product to the market, which is a necessary condition of its circulation, except when the point of production is itself a market –could more precisely be regarded as the transformation of the product into a commodity.”

The transformation of value to price — that is, the process of exploitation, of surplus value extraction and realization as profit — can be understood as the compelled exchange of incommensurates, of the exchange of time for space. Here we must remark — if only it could be for the last time! — that the compelled exchangeability of the market is not the sign of some totalizing discourse, but the signature of capital itself, subjecting every single thing and process to the discipline of equivalence, a signature monogrammed across the globe as M-C-M.

I might add that this is not actually a contrary reading to that of the Temporal Single Solution Interpretation, I believe, but a different register in which to frame the same situation; it is exactly the restoration of adequate temporality that distinguishes Kliman et al’s subtle analysis. One further implication is that it is instructive but inadequate to declare a given era as dominated by time or by space, as various Marxian thinkers have proposed; the question is rightly about a given era’s orientation toward the two, its atunement of one to the other, and status of their transformation. And it is this that links value theory to crisis theory and to our present moment, since we can think of crisis as arising both when value production declines and when various operations to paper over that fact with fictitious capital cease functioning.

Thus it is toward time that I wish to reorient Arrighi’s account, not as a correction but simply as another way of thinking about things. It is fairly straightforward. One might conceive of the first phase of a cycle of accumulation as turned toward the past: this period, always overlapping with the preceding cycle, busies itself with seizing and reorganizing the markets, routes and relations of that departing age. Its predilection for dressing itself in the robes of previous epochs and empires, as a strategy to realize itself in a new present, is well-noticed by Marx and Benjamin among others.

Having reformulated and shrugged off the past, the second or high period of empire might be understood as turned toward the present, internalizing new markets and subjecting new territories to the necessary labor regime: a period of material expansion and relatively unproblematic value extraction in which thinkers and thoughts of transition fade into the background, and history’s sundial seems to pause at the permanent noon of power. And the third phase, that of decline and financial expansion, might properly be understood as turned toward the future.

This is true in the realm of thought and even of feeling: social life is increasingly dominated by anxieties regarding what might happen next, endless proclamations of “the end” of this and that, coupled with concerns regarding competing hegemons and increasingly hysterical disavowals of the same — what we might call the dialectic of China and the Project for a New American Century, or the competing delusions of renewed millenarism and climate-change-denial.

This futurizing turn also becomes fundamental at the stratum of political economy, defining the struggles for accumulation, profit, and class power. Here I pose my research question, which I will do little to answer today: per Arrighi’s territorializing of the double motion of M-C and C-M into the accumulation modes of Money-Territory and Territory-Money, might we consider a temporal logic and think of these motions as Money-Time and Time-Money? Is there something to be gained from that thought experiment? I am not entirely sure, though it does seem to me that it throws into clearer relief the fate of the value form in the era of finance-led capital.

Alongside that more structural question, I want to attend to the matter of attentuation. The time-space transformation of value necessarily present in exploitation/valorization becomes ever more attenuated via the hegemony of credit instruments, which should always be understood as the extension of the distance between value and price. Price is given in the present for value; socially necessary labor time — let us also call this immiseration, just for clarity’s sake — promised later. The term mortgage, being the most perfect example of this time-for-space swap, rises to the fore. Student and household loans follow close behind; as many of you will know, the former has just surpassed the latter and in the next couple of years we will reach the plateau of one trillion in outstanding student loans.

This happens at the level of the state as well, evidently enough. Globalization, so often described as a spatial regime — it’s in the name, after all — must in these terms be understood equally as a temporal regime, as the separation and alienation of the instants and elements of the value transformation in time as much as space, and in some moments even more so. Financialization may be a casino, but it is at least as accurate to say that it is a kind of time travel. Or at least a kind of fortune-telling, in which debt fixes the futures of its subjects, for certain small concessions in the present. The French phrase for fortune-telling, I cannot help but note, is “bonne-aventure” — as in the Bonaventure Hotel where Fredric Jameson realized the actuality of postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capital. It turns out to be the logic of bonne-aventure itself — and the problem of futurization, of credit and debt, has not waned but intensified.

I say this not because it is a revelation, but because it is a zone of conflict — literal class conflict — and I wish to end on the matter of strategy and tactics, by way of the autonomist hypothesis. I will admit I have considerable skepticism about the “becoming immaterial of labor” and all its predicates. Its great contribution, associated with Dalla Costa, Fortunati, and Federici, is surely the rethinking of the situation of domestic and reproductive labor of all kinds, and particularly so-called “woman’s work,” – as and in relation to exploitation –; this has offered vital insights into the historical and necessary relation between capitalist value production and brutal gender inequality.

At the same time, the autonomist proposals to rethink value production as arising from other sources than the productive economy, in light of the decreased distinction between intellectual and manual labor; the critique of an alleged Marxian ontology of presence levied by Antonio Negri (as well as Jacques Derrida); the forwarding of a new circuit of value production that, per Christian Marazzi, leaves behind any nostalgia for “a time before labor became linguistic” — these positions, it seems to me, have been rendered inoperative in the clear light of the current economic catatsrophe, which is irreducibly one of real, old-fashioned, nostalgia-dipped value asserting itself savagely.

But there is something unmistaken in this, let us say, Negrian mistake. I think that the phenomemon indexed by the autonomist view is precisely the space-time attentuation of the valorization process as it currently stands — so attenuated that it seems immaterial, like the troposphere, or fire.

If labor has been in some regard dematerialized in the US, in the OECD nations, it has been unequally rematerialized elsewhere: Haitian sneaker mills and Mexican maquiladoras and Foxconn factories in the midst of migrating from China to Brazil. These locations are the places, one might say, for a politics of place: the strike, most evidently, and sabotage and blockage. But if capital’s great defensive achievement of late modernity has been to remove itself from its home countries, as it were, to attenuate itself such that it is no longer clear where to attack — if there is no clear place of struggle — there is nonetheless a time of struggle, a politics of time, as this particular temporal regime of capital demands.

What does it mean, per the title of the X-Files movie, to fight the future? Not in some abstract sense, but as an actual arena of class struggle, an interruption of the circuits of value in time? This can only designate the arena of credit and debt itself. The circulation of credit and debt is, for all its dematerialized technologies, nonetheless a material process; it is not inoculated against interruptions of its flows. And it is here — here is the wrong word, of course, but it is hard to say now, for the reasons that have been enumerated — that class struggle must happen in the home counties. The class is not that of Multitude, of dematerialized labor, but is the class of debt — and the politics of time, I think this is an inevitable conclusion, is that of debt default. Debt default — and perhaps this is my only claim — is the temporal complement to the specific or general strike, and is the route of solidarity with material labor, with the place of exploitation.

But this does not make it an easy solution. The disciplining mechanisms of debt are in many ways both invisible and individualized: garnishing of wages, the increasing disciplines imposed by bad credit, and so forth. Any organizing effort must account for these reactions — which is to say, the politics of debt default as interruptive attack imply a correlated set of organizing practices based on the development of collectives of withdrawal, or subtraction, able to sustain what I would like to call not exactly the default lifestyle but perhaps the default milieu. And it is with this correlation of debt default as economic antagonism, and collectives of subtraction, that I think we can see a logic for solidarity between traditional Marxian analysis and those of certain anarchist and ultraleft tendencies — but this I must leave for the next conversation.



The first issue of Contents is a contribution from Stephen Wright on “Usership.” For the past few years I’ve been fascinated by Stephen’s ideas about invisibility, use, and redundancy, all of which come into play in the writing below. In particular, I’ve wondered about the relationship between “the user” and “the worker” – on the one hand, the difference is one between playing the role of a consumer and that of a producer; but on the other hand, as users, our activity is producing value somewhere (websites, telecoms, IP holders). It’s understandable to be repulsed by the idea of the “user” because that’s exactly how the industry and its funders name us when they’re diagramming about how to monetize our activity. But, that’s why this contribution is important: it looks at our situation plainly and begins to ask how we should act in our position as users, what kinds of rights we should have, and then how these concepts might help us map our relationship to the commons. All of the texts are available somewhere on the Internet – each issue of Contents simply points to them. -SD

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright is an art writer, independent researcher and curator and professor of art history and theory. A selection of his writings are available on the blog n.e.w.s. to which he is an active contributor,



An AAAAARG Users Guide to Usership

What makes aaaaarg function? And beyond its functionality, what kind of relationality does aaaaarg at once require, engender and transform? How can its terms of engagement be simply but accurately named? The term that comes immediately to mind is: usership. Readership may describe our engagement with some book, author or set of readings, but not the relationship between aaaaarg and its… users. Participation — that loathsome term bantered about by the neoliberal ideologues of the mainstream artworld — may describe one aspect of the empathetic but anonymous community that has coalesced around aaaaarg, but completely fails to address why we use it, and how. Not as participants nor as mere readers, but as users. And though the collective noun “usership” remains dramatically undertheorized — indeed the word itself, though immediately understandable, has not been ratified by those indexes of expert culture called dictionaries — aaaaarg itself has, here and there in its vast, user-uploaded archive, contains some compelling resources to help better grasp the philosophical underpinnings of the concept and to unpack some of the implications of a politics of usership. Of course there is no “proper” way to use aaaaarg; usership is an inherently restive and unpredictable category, meaning that the word for alleged misuse is simply actual, factual use. A tremendous amount of latitude exists between existent infrastructures, services, rules and dispositives and the countless uses to which they are put. If one were to define the premises of an emancipated usership, it could be said that a kind of reflexive poaching supersedes faithfulness and obedience. These contents are proposed in that spirit, and hopefully, in sorting and repurposing the contents of aaaaarg around usership, usefully instantiating usership while taking a first stab at shoring up the concept.

Though aaaaarg is exemplary of a usological turn in contemporary culture, it is not alone; the past ten or fifteen years have witnessed the broad expansion of the notion of usership as a new category of political subjectivity. It’s not as if using is anything new — people have been using tools, languages and odd and sundry goods and services (not to mention mind-altering substances) since time immemorial. But the rise of 2.0 culture and user-generated content and value, as well as democratic polities whose legitimacy is founded on the ability of the governed to appropriate and use available political and economic instruments, has produced active “users” (not just rebels, prosumers or automatons) whose agency is exerted, paradoxically, exactly where it is expected.

Usership represents a radical challenge to at least three deeply entrenched conceptual institutions in contemporary society: spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership. That is, it challenges hegemonic assumptions of relationality in the aesthetic, the epistemic and the ontological realms. Modernist artistic conventions, premised on so-called disinterested spectatorship, dismiss usership (and use value, rights of usage) as inherently instrumental — and the mainstream artworld’s physical and conceptual architecture is entirely unprepared to even speak of usership, even as ever more contemporary artistic practices imply a different regime of engagement than that described by spectatorship: a regime at once more extensive and more intensive. Usership represents a still more deep-seated challenge to ownership in an economy where surplus-value extraction is increasingly based on use: how long will communities of usership sit idly by as their user-generated value is privatized? In the artworld and other lifeworlds, it is expert culture — whether it be the publishing industry, or the city hall’s design office — which is most hostile to usership: from the perspective of expertise, use is invariably misuse. But from the perspective of users, everywhere, so-called misuse is simply… use. None of which is to deny that usership is a something of a double-edged sword — which is precisely what makes it interesting to consider. The challenge would seem to be to imagine a non-instrumental, emancipated form of usership.

There’s not much theoretical work on usership per se, and though it’s probably high time to fill that gap, it is also easy to understand what explains that lack: usership always plays itself out in occupied territory. Usership names a mode of groundshare, a reappropriation of a territory that will never be all its own. Usership never plays out on home ice, but is inherently on the road, challenging not merely home advantage but reinterpreting the rules of the game. For this reason, it can only be observed at play on familiar yet foreign conceptual territories, such as those of spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership — some of the most abundantly theorized institutions in our society.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein’s second major philosophical work on language, mind, meaning and philosophy, published in 1953 after his death. Wittgenstein here puts forth his theory of user-based meaning. With disarmingly simple logic, he argued that words, propositions, languages at large have no “true” meaning independent of the way speakers use them, outside the pragmatics of common use.

Michel Foucault
Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 3: Power
Book —> Michel Foucault – Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 3: Power
“The Subject and Power” is Foucault’s key text on the politics of usership. In a way, usership shapes the focus, function and adressee of his later work: a theory of uses, a useful theory, intended for a community of users.
Michel Foucault
The History of Sexuality Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure
1.9 MB, OCR’d PDF, full book scan
In analysing the Greek understanding of “Chresis Aphrodision” — the “use of pleasure” — Foucault emphasizes the tremendous leeway in terms of how laws and customs regulating pleasures were followed — thereby defining the conceptual space of usership.
Mathieu Potte Bonneville
“Politique des usages: une boîte à outils pour la lutte des usagers”, in VACARME 29 “Michel Foucault 1984-2004”
Indispensable introduction to the concept and politics of usership in Foucault’s thought published in a special issue of Vacarme on Foucault
Giorgio Agamben
it begins with the Genius
That which is sacred is removed from the realm of usership. As such, usership is premised on an act of profanation — returning to common usage that which had been separated into the sphere of the sacred.

Spectatorship and the usership challenge

To an even greater extent than objecthood or authorship, spectatorship continues to enjoy almost self-evident status in conventional discourse as a necessary component of any plausible artworld. The critical sermons of contemporary art are rife with celebration about free and active viewer participation. Yet is there not something almost pathetic about such claims at a time when ever more practitioners are deliberately impairing the coefficient of artistic visibility of their activity, challenging the very regime of visibility designated by the collective noun “spectatorship”? When art appears outside of the authorized performative framework, there is no reason that it should occur to those engaging with it to constitute themselves as spectators. Such practices seem to break with spectatorship altogether, to which they prefer the more extensive and inclusive notion of usership. Is the current mainstream focus on spectatorship – as a number of recent theoretical publications suggest – not merely a last-ditch effort to stave off a paradigm shift already underway in art? Why and when in the history of ideas did spectatorship – let alone disinterested spectatorship to use Emmanuel Kant’s paradoxical term – emerge as the linchpin institution of visual art? And above all, what alternative forms of usership of art are today being put forward to displace and replace it?

The end of spectatorship does not mean the end of public engagement with art. Spectatorship is an historically determined regime of engagement — it is not synonymous with seeing art, but rather a specific mode of looking. In recent years, there has been a spate of “invisible” art practices — it has become something of a fashion to elude immediate recognition by spectatorship. But this is not a challenge to the institution of spectatorship, but merely a game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t, played within the relational frame of spectatorship. Still, within our art-historical moment, these games may suggest deeper discontent; however, they have often described as “participation” — the artworld version of 2.0 culture: the value of the work (such as it is) in this case is produced by the unpaid, unnamed “participants”, while their surplus value (what they contributed to the work but did not get back) is extracted by the artist alone. Usership is an entirely different, and entirely more restive regime of artistic engagement. For a work to have use-value for a community of users it must not only have a finality other than spectacle, it must actually have a purpose and finality other than art.

AAAAARG.ORG is not something to look at, nor some convoluted portrait of its instigator and still less of its community of users, but at once a massive and working online archive and a proposition of a massive and working online archive. In philosophical terms, a user-driven project of this kind has a double ontological status: it is both what it is and a perfectly redundant proposition of that same thing. Redundancy is usually considered to be depreciative, a term used to discredit something – be it an activity, phenomenon, device, or utterance – whose function is already fulfilled by something else. But given the number of practices adopting a logic of redundancy today, it may well be emerging as the single-most useful focusing tool in understanding the dynamics of forward-looking art today. These practices, however, though they refuse to embrace existent conventions, do not – as so many vanguard practices of the past century did – engage in a frontally antagonistic relationship with mainstream institutions and practices. On the contrary – and this is where redundancy comes into the equation in an invisible but powerfully tangible way – they do indistinguishably what is already being perfectly well done in other realms of human activity, yet they do it with an entirely different self-understanding. Redundancy is perhaps the single best concept to describe non-mimetic, or post-mimetic art that is deliberately and perfectly redundant with respect to what it also is. One could always say that a Rembrandt was both a picture and an ironing board (to quote an example chosen by Marcel Duchamp to instantiate what he brilliantly called the “reciprocal readymade,” no doubt because ironing is so ironic). However, redundancy in this sense inverses the primary-secondary logic: it is first of all an engineered system, an online archive or anything at all, and only in an accessory way a proposition of an engineered system, online archive or whatever the case may be. Whereas art used to dream of becoming non art, it now appears to have increasingly opted for a caustic form of calculated redundancy.

Jacques Rancière
The Emancipated Spectator (full text, London: Verso, 2009)
“It is in the power of associating and dissociating that the emancipation of the spectator consists…” The argument, indeed the book, is elegant, powerful but odd. It reads better if one replaces “spectator” with “user”… Rancière vs Rancière…
Friedrich Nietzsche
On the Genealogy of Morality
Cambridge translation of Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’
As Nietzsche points out, it was Kant who first introduced the ‘spectatorship’ — or what he paradoxically called ‘disinterested spectatorship’ into aesthetics. See essay III, 6.
Immanuel Kant
Critique of Judgment (Oxford 2007, Walker’s update of Meredith trans)
3rd Critique – Walker’s revision of Meredith’s translation. Excellent pdf document with bookmarks – searchable.
To get to the root of the problem. Upon a close reading, it is remarkable to see the extent to which the conceptual architecture of contemporary art conventions of display is derived from Kantian premises.
James Kirwan
An interesting reading of Kant’s “pre-Wittgensteinian” attempt to bolster up disinterested spectatorship by language-use arguements: “you can’t say ‘beautiful for me’…”
Michele White
The Body and the Screen. Theories of Internet Spectatorship
The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
An telling case of what can happen when “spectatorship” is conflated with any form of seeing — a common but disastrous error in the age of 2.0 and post-spectatorship.
Claire Bishop
Introduction to collection of writings
There has been a great deal of talk of “participation” in art practice recently, to describe practices breaking with the spectatorship paradigm, while carefully avoiding the unwashed category of usership. Limp, but instructitive.

Expert culture and the usership challenge

As a collective noun, “usership” names not merely a paradoxical but a dialectical relational category. This is what makes it so uncomfortable for many, and why talking about the politics of usership invariably draws contestation. Because usership is a double-edged sword, whose immanence to the merely existent (users use what is, rather than proposing something else, yet through that use, which is also misuse and abuse, transform the very terms of engagement) is at once its immeasurable strength and its inherent stumbling block. Is it possible in a general way to tease out the dialectics of use? By dialectics, here, one would refer to the play between the two opposing but inseparable faces of usership: emancipated and encumbered, one the one hand offering a way out of the impasses of spectatorship-ownership-expertise, yet on the other hand constantly prey to the pitfalls of self interest and prosumerism.

Because usership is not a form of counter-expertise, it stands in a hostile but asymmetrical relationship to expert culture. Users are consistently dismissed by expert culture that discredits their claims as contaminated by self interest. Take the experts of State. Anxious to uphold their regime of exception with respect to the market-driven private sector, public-sector experts are quick to point out that they serve users, rather than customers or clients; and on the other hand, they are the first to again uphold their exceptional status by stigmatizing users (or consumer advocacy groups) as the Trojan Horse of this same market-driven logic… But the person who takes such and such a bus line every morning at dawn to get to work knows something about that line which no urban planning expert, whose perspective is informed by countless disinterested “studies”, can simply never know. This cognitive privilege is user specific. As such, usership at once designates the site where individuals and their comportments and needs are expected, where a space is available for their agency, both defining and circumscribing it; and it refers to the way in which these same users surge up and barge into a universe, which, though accustomed to managing their existence, finds itself thrown off balance by their speaking out as users. In other words – and this is related to Foucault’s theory of political action – it is not as if users burst forth in places where they are not expected, but rather the very immediacy of their presence that is ambivalent, and cannot be reduced to a progressive recognition nor to a mere cooptation by the powers that be. Governance, control, disciplines of all kinds, necessarily produce usership comprised of users and not just rebels or automatons submissive to an exterior norm. Users take on those instances of power closest to them. And in addition to this proximity, or because of it, they do not envisage that the solution to their problem could lie in any sort of future to which the present might or ought to be subordinated (very different in this respect to any revolutionary horizon). They have neither the time to be revolutionary – because things have to change – nor the patience to be reformists, because things have to stop. The radical pragmatism of usership struggles then have this specificity that they renounce power in the name of power. “We are all governed, and as such in solidarity”: such is Foucault’s conception of usership as a model of political agency and action, setting aside both a horizon (in the name of the present alone) and sovereignty (that it, the ultimate identity that he saw between traditional resistance movements and the power which they contested and wanted to transcend).

Michel de Certeau
The Practice of Everyday Life
University of California Press, Berkeley.1984.
“Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other’s game, that is, the space instituted by others, characterize the… activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces…” MdC
Mackenzie Wark
A Hacker Manifesto
Full Book VersionAs a modern-day, reflexive poacher, the user is often a hacker, in Wark’s expanded understanding of hackership.
Jonathan Hill
institution, creative user, reader, viewer
Refreshing to note how decomplexed architectural theory is with respect to usership, and how the centre of creative gravity has long since shifted from the authorial to the usological axis.
Jonathan Hill
Occupying Architecture – Between the Architect and the User
Interested in how Death of the Author can influence architecture
The very title, “Occupying Architecture,” reads like a definition of the usership challenge to expert culture.

Ownership and the usership challenge

Ownership describes a legal institution that codifies a relationship of exclusivity with respect to an object, or any property construed to be an object, in terms of rights and control. It is made up of complex sets of instruments of regulation and enforcement, and is such a mainstay of liberal ideology that it would virtually self-evident status in majority opinion were it not for… usership, which challenges its very conditions of possibility by insisting on use value and rights of use.

Though radicals have challenged ownership over the centuries, the perspective of usership is original in many respects and may have the potential to turn back the tide on the wholesale privatization of everything. Usership as a community of users has taken on particular importance in 2.0 culture, where inter-cerebral networks of online or offline users generate content, knowledge, affect and value of all kinds. When Google purchased YouTube, how did they calculate the price tag? Not based on the value of the hardware, nor even the software, but as it were on the basis of the user-wear (and tear). They calculated how many people had ever, even just once, used YouTube, and fixed a common price on each and every user — not that they thought all usage is equal, but because it was as a community of use that value had been generated. But this is not just a paradox, it is a scandal. Because none of those value-producing users received anything for the value they produced. Their user-generated surplus value was expropriated, in that case of mass collaboration and countless others. When in the 1970s Jean-Luc Godard quipped that television viewers ought to be paid to watch, it was assumed he was sarcastically commenting on the quality of broadcasting. Thirty-five years on, the remark appears premonitory: if usership generates value, it should be remunerated. If it produces surplus value, great — we may be witnessing the end of work as we know it. But that surplus value must be redistributed within the community that produced it, not foster capital accumulation for a rentier class of owners. Never before has ownership seemed more akin to theft, as Proudhon so flatly described it in 1840. And as ownership seeks to extend the regime of artificial scarcity to the commons of use, withdrawing from common use that which allows usership to produce value, it becomes increasingly mired in a contradiction which can only be its demise. Sooner, let us hope, rather than later.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
What Is Property?
(book) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – What Is Property? (medium to low quality copy)
Never before has ownership seemed more akin to theft, as Proudhon so flatly described it in the nineteenth century.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Qu’est ce que la propriété ?
The property prejudice…
On sait ce que c’est: c’est le vol. Et pourtant, Hadopi vient nous dire, avec une certaine force de l’évidence, que “le libre c’est le vol.”
Matteo Pasquinelli
PageRank is introduced as a diagram of “cognitive capitalism”, a machine to transform the common intellect into network value. One of the hardest-hitting, counter-intuitive essays on how surplus-value extraction in cognitive capitalism is linked to rentier capitalism and ownership to present day usages.
Maurizio Lazzarato
(essay) Maurizio Lazzarato – From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life
“Capture, both in creation and realization, is always a reciprocal seizure open to the unpredictable and infinite, because the ‘creator’ and the ‘user’ tend to merge.” ML
Clay Shirky
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
Humorous talk on technology’s transformative power toward society
The redistribution of the “cognitive surplus” generated by usership is one of the most pressing issues of political economy today. Yet most users don’t even realize they are producing surplus value…
originally posted at