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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Red Threads

There’s a sentiment shared by many on the Left today: capitalism no longer promises to collapse in the distant future; it is collapsing — we live in the end times. For the French-Italian collective the Invisible Committee (IC), “The present catastrophe is that of a world actively made uninhabitable.” Facing this catastrophe, what alternative worlds can we imagine? Or, is our imagination collapsing alongside civilisation? Someone once said that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Seemingly eternal, capitalism marches on into our apocalyptic visions of the future. But recent upheavals — Corbyn, Occupy, the London riots, Podemos, and others — suggest this may no longer be the case. And so, after several lost decades, the ghost of Lenin has returned to the scene asking, once more, what is to be done?

Theories abound. Among the most influential (at least in Left academia), Alain Badiou argues for a recommitment to the “Idea of Communism”. For Badiou, this means constantly asserting that “a new truth is historically possible.” It means remaining faithful to the truth that this capitalist life-world we exist in is not the only one possible; we can build others, we can inhabit others. (We are not, just in case you were wondering, talking about some glorious crusade to Mars here — Elon Musk riding fearlessly ahead, framed by a halo of starlight, leading humanity to cosmic deliverance.) And it does seem that communism is on the road to redemption. Surely the poverty of imagination within establishment politics today must give way to fresh or reappropriated proposals at some point? At the very least, it seems you are less likely these days to get laughed at or howled down if you bring up the c-word in conversation.

My favourite depiction of our present historical moment comes from the Vice-President of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera. Linera speaks of a “communist horizon”: a horizon that signifies a particular, ever-present “dimension of experience” in our capitalist life-world; a mode of thought and practice that directs struggle against capitalism. “The general horizon of the era is communist,” says Linera. With our noses turned to this distant future, political struggle takes on a new meaning, a new intensity; the stakes rise. So far so good: I love the romance — count me in.

But that’s only a first step, or a possible first step. What is to be done? The question remains. And this is to reprise all the old debates: anarchism or Marxism, horizontalism or vanguardism, national revolution or internationalist solidarity, the list goes on. But all this debate operates at a remove from the everyday, from the lived experience of life under capitalism. The IC suggest we are asking the wrong question. It is not “a question of goals, or objectives, of what there is to do, strategically, in the absolute”; rather, it is “a question of what one can do, tactically, in a situation, and of the acquisition of this power.” So, for the IC, the real question becomes: how is it to be done? Pursuing the communist program, or claiming a communist identity, are false steps — they apply to the what. Instead, the IC want communisation — the living of communism, its actual enactment in the everyday, in situations.

But even the IC — convinced as they are that politics is only ever a struggle of the how, of lived moments — acknowledge that action against capitalism and the political relations that nourish it (“Empire”, as they call it) requires vehicles of organisation capable of sustaining collective action. And to sustain collective action we need a collection of actors. So they pose another question: how do we find each other? It seems, then, at least for those who have accepted that a break from capitalism is the only way forward, who take the necessity of systemic change as a given, that the first major question is a logistical one. The what and how are secondary to the building and sustaining of a new collective politics. Or rather, they are collapsed into this project of construction: how to find each other, and how to stay connected. In answering these questions, that of what is to be done will take care of itself.

One project engaging with these questions in Aotearoa is the journal Counterfutures. It tacks between these two poles, embodied (perhaps a little reductively) here by Badiou and the IC: strategy versus tactics; the party versus the people; long-term planning versus a “revolution of everyday life.” Started by a group of academics and activists, and publishing its first issue in 2016, Counterfutures aims to provide a space for Left theory and debate focused on the problems peculiar to Aotearoa and the Pacific. The journal developed out of a previous group — Political Organisation Aotearoa (POA). For editor of Counterfutures and previous POA member, Dylan Taylor, “POA grew out of frustration a number of us had around the state of politics in Aotearoa, and a sense that we needed to construct a space where we could start conceptualising alternative ways of thinking the political. There was a lot of great activist stuff going on, but not much was happening by way of long-term strategic thinking; and any strategic thinking offered on the ‘far Left’ (as opposed to the Labour/Green type left) tended to be very ‘20th century’ in its outlook.”

Counterfutures aims to provide a space where the tensions that so often divide Left politics can be productively aired and debated. They pursue a diversity of voices, united through their commitment to “reactivating the idea of equality.” In this way, Counterfutures provides a “site in which strictly anarchist and Marxist writers can be published, alongside indigenous activists and scholars, Pasifika writers, LGBTQIA+ activists, social democrats, or whoever else might want to weigh in on questions of how we might seriously envision significant political change under the banner of equality.” For Taylor, “the point in doing so is to reflect the vitality of a broad Left, rather than advocate on behalf of a particular limited notion of what the Left should be.”

For Taylor, building vehicles that can sustain collective politics is crucial. In his own work, he advocates for the construction of “a Left that is nimble, able to constantly question itself, that operates under an open horizon, and that finds tensions [such as those between anarchism and Marxism] productive rather than as causes for fragmentation.” It seems then, that Taylor in his personal work, and Counterfutures more generally, are both interested in how to build the vehicles that could deliver new worlds. The focus is strategy, long-term planning.

Certainly, then, I should clarify that Counterfutures is not a communist publication, although you will probably find self-described communists among its contributors. “It is an ‘open’ space reflecting the diversity of the Left.” But if the IC are to be believed, if we are “living through times of the most extreme separation,” then Counterfutures may be operating as a communist space without quite realising it. It is a space for the sharing of needs and desires, as well as the inevitable critiques of this or that aspect of our capitalist and colonialist, patriarchal and heteronormative life-world. And as the IC write: “Communism starts from the experience of sharing… from the sharing of our needs.” Perhaps, with this focus on nourishing and bringing together a broad Left, a kind of communisation occurs in the act of strategic planning — communisation through the shared thinking of new worlds. Perhaps, then, a journal can be a space for finding each other.

I believe so. Reading the work of others with a shared temperament or sensibility provides connections that can stretch out through time and space. It can make you feel part of something; it can attach you to an imaginary collective. But here, it is writing itself that is the transformative element. For an explicitly political journal, then — one that aims to stimulate and energise, to contribute visions of alternative futures — effective, emotive communication is crucial. As Perry Anderson writes: “It should be a matter of honour on the Left to write at least as well, without redundancy or clutter, as its adversaries.” But this is easier for the likes of Anderson, a Marxist historian behind the famous British journal New Left Review. At New Left Review they make no real attempts to build connections, to build community. Tonally, the journal strays toward the elitist; as a friend said recently, “you basically have to be a Leninist to get published with them.” Ivory tower cynics like Fredric Jameson inform us what is and isn’t politically possible in contemporary capitalism. It is Leftist aristocracy of the highest order, albeit brilliantly written. Counterfutures attempts something altogether more difficult: the threading together or casting against each other of a multitude of voices and concerns.

Counterfutures positions itself as an academic journal, but aims to go beyond the confines of the academy, to “get people from diverse backgrounds into constructive debate.” However, straddling academic rigour and accessibility to a general readership is a difficult balancing act. This is not to say that a non-academic readership is unable to engage with academic theory; quite the opposite. Academics love couching their writing in layers of impenetrable, and often unnecessary, theory. Ideas smother articulation, ego interferes with clarity, and excessive citations clutter the page. How to inject political and emotive energy into writing while maintaining academic credibility? For Counterfutures, bridging this divide in communication, finding the perfect pitch, is still a work in progress. Old habits die hard.

One way to think of the journal is as one Left space or organisation of many possible others, one in a larger “ecology of organisations.” This notion is developed by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their influential book Inventing the Future. The authors trace the rise of neoliberalism as an economic and ideological system over the course of the 20th century. Their central point is that neoliberalism did not emerge out of thin air, falling into the laps of Pinochet and Thatcher, Reagan and Douglas; it was carefully constructed over several decades by an influential group of thinkers so that, when conditions were right — an economic crisis in the ’70s and ’80s proved just so — they had it ready to roll. They call this patient construction the development of “hegemonic infrastructure” — an infrastructure, both material and ideological, that is able to reorder our sense of what is and isn’t possible, what is sensible and what is ludicrous. Srnicek and Williams suggest we learn from the neoliberals and build some hegemonic infrastructure of our own — some “counter-hegemonic infrastructure” — so that, when conditions are right, the revolutionary apparatus is there, fully loaded, hammer cocked.

Projects affiliated with Counterfutures such as the self-described “radical left-wing think tank” Economic and Social Research Aotearoa operate under this aim: making thinkable and feasible Left ideas that have previously been written off as extremist. While Counterfutures does not explicitly state that they aim to build counter-hegemony, it is easy, and probably correct, to view them in this light. As Taylor says: “Our contribution, as we see it, is to show that there are powerful critiques, and viable solutions, that can come out of positions that are further to the Left than what we see in parliamentary politics, and that deserve to be part of a wider discussion about the direction politics can go in this country.” Of course, this idea of building hegemony seems quite the opposite proposal to that of the IC. But here the communist horizon proves its use. Under it we can thread together common cause and struggle. As the IC write: “Rather than new critiques, new cartographies are what we need. Cartographies not for Empire, but for lines of flight out of it.” And this requires new spaces of communication, new meeting places, new languages. There’s no reason a politics of tactics can’t operate alongside a politics of strategy. They don’t need to agree, or even like each other, but both can be situated within the communist horizon; both can dream of new futures under a red sky.


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