Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Counter hegemony

This piece by k-punk on communist strategy is worth reading, but there’s one formulation I don’t like:

It is essential that we ask why it is that neo-anarchist ideas are so dominant amongst young people, and especially undergraduates. The blunt answer is that, although anarchist tactics are the most ineffective in attempting to defeat capital, capital has destroyed all the tactics that were effective, leaving this rump to propagate itself within the movement.

What this risks missing is that a tactic that has been destroyed by capital is, a fortiori, a completely ineffective tactic. I’m reminded of Marx’s discussion of attempts to find historical proofs of the possibility of communism:

Whereas the still immature communism seeks an historical proof for itself – a proof in the realm of what already exists – among disconnected historical phenomena opposed to private property, tearing single phases from the historical process and focusing attention on them as proofs of its historical pedigree (a hobby-horse ridden hard especially by Cabet, Villegardelle, etc.). By so doing it simply makes clear that by far the greater part of this process contradicts its own claim, and that, if it has ever existed, precisely its being in the past refutes its pretension to reality.

Or, in a more philosophical register, Hegel on the rationality of the actual:

 The actuality of the rational stands opposed by the popular fancy that Ideas and ideals are nothing but chimeras, and philosophy a mere system of such phantasms. It is also opposed by the very different fancy that Ideas and ideals are something far too excellent to have actuality, or something too impotent to procure it for themselves. This divorce between idea and reality is especially dear to the analytic understanding which looks upon its own abstractions, dreams though they are, as something true and real, and prides itself on the imperative ‘ought’, which it takes especial pleasure in prescribing even on the field of politics. As if the world had waited on it to learn how it ought to be, and was not!

Now, Mark is certainly aware of the point Marx and Hegel are making, and is specifically not calling for a simple return to already defeated forms of organization (indeed, he notes the desire to do this as one of the main problems facing the left), but treating the persistence of anarchist-inspired organizing structures as a mere faut de mieux precludes consideration of ways in which they were developed in response to the conditions which destroyed previous forms of resistance to capitalism. You make a revolution against the capitalism you have, and the organizational forms that are available and effective depend in some way on the way in which capitalism is organized. I say “in some way” to avoid drawing too close a connection between the two, either positively or negatively; the position which sees horizontal organization as a mere assimilation to the structures of capitalism moves too quickly (I might have more to say about this if I get round to writing something on Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon), while the tendency of post-workerist theory to derive political organization from technical organization is too mechanical.

One place you might look to in thinking about this relation between the structure of capitalism and the organization of resistance would be hegemony theory; unfortunately, it is precisely this question which hegemony theory is incapable of answering. The purpose of the concept of hegemony is to provide a political supplement to Marxism: an account of how political groupings can be articulated to wield power. The problem, though, is that hegemony theory provides us with no account of why particular groups arise, or find themselves in positions of particular strength or weakness. Hegemony theory analyses political articulation at the cost of taking the elements of these articulations as givens (thus the “contingency” which is so important to hegemony theory is a kind of brute contingency: a simply inexplicability). This is not just an oversight, but derives from the central structure of hegemony theory, from the idea of a political supplement. The need to introduce hegemony to account for the role of agency in politics only arises if you assume that politics is sharply distinguished from  the economy as a realm of determinism. But we can reject this dichotomy, and Marx gives us good reasons why we should. What we need is not a political supplement to materialism, but a materialist theory of politics.