January 2010


When I have a bit of more time, I will write about what Daniel Bensaid’s work means to me. Unfortunately I discovered his work very late and I remember clapping my hand and shouting “wonderful…beautiful” on the upper desk of a London bus and thus being the center of attention suddenly while I was reading “Marx for Our Times” a couple of years ago…

I think the best way to remember him is to inherit his enthusiasm as the obituary in Liberation underlines and consider revolutionary struggle as “culture, joie de vivre et convivialite” (culture, joy of life and conviviality).

Below the advert for his tribute which I will definitely attend.

“Activist-academics Gilbert Achcar, Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos are among the speakers invited to address the memorial meeting for Daniel Bensaïd. The gathering on Tuesday 9 February will celebrate the life of France’s most famous Marxist intellectual, who played a global role in leading the Fourth International and influencing a wide range of other Marxists. The meeting will start at 7.30pm in the University of London Union on Malet Street, WC1H.

For more information about the memorial meetings, or to send messages to them, please email bensaid.memorial@ecosocialism.org.

Paris meeting

Tribute in the Mutalité in Paris on Sunday 24th January from 2.30pm to

6pm.”

And obituaries for those who did not see them…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/14/daniel-bensaid-obituary

http://www.swp.org.uk/13/01/2010/daniel-bensaid-obituary

http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1792

http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/0101613356-le-theoricien-de-la-lcr-daniel-bensaid-est-mort

 

Benjamin Noys from http://leniency.blogspot.com opens up a very interesting debate in his presentation at HM conference (whose audio file is available online). Ben problematises the apocalyptic tone and use of the concept of tendency (regarding the demise of capitalism and the potentials presented by the crisis for the moment of rupture) very nicely in the recent and historical interpretations of crisis (I do like this type of philosophical interventions, which, in Zizekian expression, bring a parallax view to something being discussed in usually very familiar terms). With a reading of Deleuze, Badiou, Lukacs and Negri, Ben points out to the implications of the method of tendency and of his cleverly defined term “accelerationism” for the strategies of resistance.

For me, what is wrong about apocalyptic tone is, first of all, that it does not take capitalism seriously enough. Even at the moment in which we were talking about how capitalism is coming to an end, with a revenging smile at the impotence of the chairman of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), capital had already started recovering, perhaps not in a realm directly visible to us, but in practices of individuals to whom law of value reminded its existence by ‘asserting itself’. When we look at the broader debates on the uncertain future of the regulation of financial markets, we do miss how capital is not simply reproduced by the heavily institutionalised forms such as US Treasury, but also by the small industrialist in developing countries, trying to replace expensive machinery by his own local innovations, by the small farmer who either develops an extraordinary ability to survive by creative strategies (intensified exploitation of family labour, shifting to new crops) or subjugates to his alternative fate of proletarianisation; by the manager who fires his workers, downsizes or sells his company; by the trader who exploits informal credit markets. In the Darwinian world of Capital, individuals develop enhanced capacities to cope with the law of value, which tests those capacities especially in times of crisis and punishes (with a blind process of selection) those less able to deal with the immense tensions and contradictions of its very unfolding. The substance of Capital thrives on the worker’s blood for constant accumulation, capitalist’s blood for renewal. Its overall recovery will emerge from the strengthening, survival or death of individual capitalists as well as from the improved capacities of institutions, which will bring low entropy in the long turn.

That is perhaps why I have found it difficult to understand the strategy of the Socialist Workers’ Party during and after the crisis. A party whose militancy I respect a lot, the SWP has formulated its slogan as: “Capitalism is not working/The case for socialism”. It also organised seminars about “Why should we become Marxists now?” But would an awareness of the failure of capitalism generate automatically a possibility of socialism and sympathy for Marxism? Also, for whom does capitalism not work? From the standpoint of the fired finance or factory worker or of the stockholder losing the value of his/her shares, capitalism might not work in this specific temporality. But can we say the same thing for capital in its totality? Unemployment is a way to get rid of what suddenly becomes redundant and keep wages low, a failed market is a resource to learn something about the short circuits in the mechanism of this substance, which is Capital, in order to not only to rectify, but also move forward. Isn’t the manifestation of ‘not working’ the very mode of the existence of capital, ‘fissured, rent, wounded’, operating via ‘loops, bifurcations and vibrations’ (see Bensaid, 2002).

In this chaotic environment, crisis is transformed into an opportunity for some capitalists as well and I do not deny that that there are political opportunities for socialists as well. But they cannot be taken-for granted opportunities, which will recruit more socialists with a better communication of revolutionary ideas to individuals who can finally ‘see’ the true essence of capitalism. What can be said for certain is that the crisis of capital cannot be automatically the moment of its potential rupture, as Ben reminds us in his piece, by saying that the method of tendency assumes the ‘fusion of reason and reality’ too quickly and that ‘the tendency will deliver on its own’ (He also rightly criticises the symmetrical error of negative dialectics, which sees no possibility for fusion at all). I would like to learn more about what Ben means with an alternative ‘true’ fusion since it is posed as a challenge to the theoreticians he engages with, rather than a fully developed argument. But I tend to think that a nuanced, refined and more carefully constructed fusion recognising complex mediations and multiple determinations requires a more subtle analysis of what capital is and what is meant by revolutionary change. Perhaps while seeking for the historical subject of change, who is expected to achieve the rupture (which will be considered to be a missed opportunity when we turn to normal times), we do not problematise the object of change in the first place. Do we know what we want to change? Does the possibility of communism lie simply in a non-working capitalism? Do we know what the ground for a workable communism is?

I want to develop those questions further with an engagement with N. Pepperell’s fantastic and inspiring readings of Marx in www.roughtheory.org, later on, especially her idea of socialism as a de-assembled capitalism; but for the moment I will leave them open and turn to some other contexts in which the theme of apocalypse is used with contradictory messages. I consider myself quite pragmatist in politics and I believe that axioms can be meaningful political tools as long as they are mobilised in practice for specific purposes. For instance, apocalyptic message can be used as a moment of ‘hope rather than fear’ (see Mandarini, 2008), not as a way to demonstrate the inevitable tendency of capitalism to come to an end, but as a pragmatic denunciation of the possibility of another world, a world to which everybody can put something from his/her by imagination, a formulation to remind that this existing world is historical, transient and not natural. This utopian tone of apocalypse can articulate and mobilise hopes and dreams in a revolutionary trajectory; it can tell what we are unhappy about this world, but it cannot build the new world itself. Once again we go back to the question of the object of change – how capitalism can be changed into socialism.

More dangerously, if this apocalyptic message resonates an approaching moment whose necessity is just about to unfold, whose timing is predictably soon, and if this moment is not actualised before the defeat of the revolutionary movements which had built their strength on the faith in this very message (as was the case in the historical struggles of the Third World), then, their revolutionary militants experience defeat as a tragedy rather than a political reality. The historical subject could not achieve the mission, which constituted its very meaning and raison d’etre. Tragedy can, in this situation, translate into mixed existential feelings: loss of faith in socialism, which did not come; disconnection from workers who might have ‘betrayed’ the revolution which otherwise would happen; pessimistic powerlessness vis-à-vis capital which will always find a way to win. This is what happened to many people from the generation of my father in my country, for instance.

Yet it is always interesting to discover the floating nature of signs. Interestingly, peasants in Soviet Russia expressed their ambivalent fears and concerns about collectivisation of farms in terms of an approaching apocalyptic moment. I said apocalyptic tone in crisis tells nothing about the nature of revolutionary change. But such a negative connotation of socialist practice in some popular imagination does tell something quite important and very Gramscian: ideas for change can only be successful if they are translated into historical acts, which are

“performed by collective man and this presupposes the attainment of a cultural-social unity through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogenous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world, both general and particular, operating in transitory bursts (in emotional ways) or permanently (where its intellectual base is so well rooted, assimilated and experienced that it becomes passion)” (Gramsci, 1971).

Is apocalyptic tone ready to undertake such work?

References

Bensaid, D. (2002) Marx for Our Times, London: Verso.

Mandarini, M. (2008) ‘Not Fear But Hope in the Apocalypse’, Ephemera, Theory and Politics in Organisation, 8 (2): 176-81.

Noys, B. (2009) ‘Apocalypse, Tendency, Crisis’, Paper presented to the Sixth Annual Conference of the Journal Historical Materialism, 27-29 November 2009, London, UK.

The first post of this blog is my presentation at Historical Materialism Conference (November 2009, London). It is more a reflection than a proper paper, needs to be developed theoretically and is somehow incomplete (I especially want to develop the concept of alien, with reference to historical figures in working class history and literature), but I still wanted to put it, because it is directly relevant to the title of the blog: Nights of Labour (English Translation of La Nuit des Proletaires). In the book with the same title, Jacques Ranciere tells the story of the workers who spent their evenings with Saint-Simonians to publish L’Atelier in nineteenth century. Nights of labour refers to the time which is the worker’s own time, as compared to the day time of work, which belongs to someonelse.

For building a world in which everybody will enjoy free time or there won’t be a category called free time outside of working time, most of us still need to spend many nights awake, to keep writing and dreaming, apart from the struggles in the streets. Thanks to all bloggers who spent long nights on the computer to stimulate our own intellectual desires…

The Ontological Problem of the Worker

Paper presented to the 6th annual Conference of the Journal Historical Materialism, 27-29 November 2009, London

In the eloquently written Nights of Labour, Jacques Ranciere says how metaphysical questions about meaning of life are not luxuries, but vital for the worker whose immediate desires and needs are to be stimulated by bourgeois dreams. Ranciere follows the dreams of the worker who spends his nights in writing for and publishing the magazine L’Atelier, together with Saint-Simonians. For Ranciere, intellectual activity by the worker is the most dangerous for the bourgeois, because it is exactly there that the lines between the worker and the bourgeois are blurred. This is exactly what I follow in this paper: the worker who dares to think not only about bread and butter issues and discover his/her interest, but about the nature of his own existence and of reality, which surrounds him, which I call the ontological problem of the worker.

The opening scene of the Nights of Labour quotes the artisan-worker who says how he is not born to be a worker and he did not find the meaning of his life in his trade. At first glance, one can feel an implicit arrogance and sense of individualism in this statement: Rather than talking about exploitation and collective salvation, the worker is talking about the possibility of his own life being different. Such tendencies can be observed in my own ethnographic research as well with workers: The more one is provoked by higher aspirations and desires, the less he/she may be away from identifying oneself from his/her fellow workers. In this paper, I am hoping to show that this is not always a paradox. On the contrary, I argue, this very contradiction carries potentialities for the building of emancipatory politics and strong working class movement. In the paper, I focus on three stories selected from extensive ethnographic data collected in a research on wastepickers (scavengers in the recycling industry) living in urban slums of the capital city of Turkey. I then connect those stories to reflect on why we should take the ontological problem of the worker seriously (All names are kept anonymous).

Out first scenery is an inner city slum in Ankara. We are in a warehouse frequented by the wastepickers, thieves, gangs, socially excluded, children who escape domestic violence just to be subject to new forms of street violence and end up exerting violence themselves. Mustafa is a migrant worker who earns his life by collecting (and stealing from factories and public places in the evenings) scrap metal and selling it to the warehouse owner. He lives in one of the rooms of the warehouse and sends regularly money to his family in his village in the Eastern Turkey. Mustafa is a very entertaining figure, he likes talking with his fellow workers who live in the warehouse, telling lived or made up stories. But in our face-to-face encounters, his attitude changes abruptly. Not only does he express his discomfort and hatred for his environment, but, more importantly, he is very unhappy with himself: He does not have a regular job, steals frequently and has to live with poor and criminals. He asks to me, several times: “why am I like this?” Interestingly he has different answers to this question different times. One day he believes his father who forced him to work amongst gamblers when he was child, was responsible for his destiny. Another day the reason is either his nature (for which he blames himself) or religious (he must have committed a sin to be punished that way). Yet another day he looks at his surroundings and put the blame on environmental factors: He is bad because people around him are bad. Whenever I contest some of his arguments, he then finishes the conversation by criticizing the whole social order: “this order is corrupt”. It is not the answers (individualistic, structural or environmental), but a constant need and desire to find a cause to his situation, which is remarkable in the case of Mustafa. Not able to find the exact answer and coping with such contradictory causalities, Mustafa still wants to give a meaning to his life: He has responsibilities as the father of two daughters who will be hopefully nurses and teachers one day and will not reproduce the destiny of their fathers. But sometimes fatherhood does not satisfy him. He is curious to know what would happen if he had not had an arranged marriage and had married the first woman he loved. He envies the couples walking in the park close to the warehouse and says that one day he would kidnap his first love (who was forced to marry someonelse) and would walk in the park with her, proud and confident. He is not happy in his warehouse since fellow workers keep talking about daily life problems of family and money. Mustafa does not like talking about those problems, which he experiences as well. He wants to talk about different things and to different people, people who are different, who can make a difference in Mustafa’s mind. That is why he likes very much one of the working class organizers who visits regularly the warehouse and, according to Mustafa, “understands” him in a way no other worker in the warehouse can.

Mustafa gets very excited when I offer him to come with me to do some informal interviews in recycling factories. He starts performing the role of a research assistant and tells me off because I do not fit the image of researcher in his mind: I do not ask structured questions and I do not use a tape recorder. His mental maps are so rich and diverse that he surprises me with new performances in different contexts: joker and story teller at the dinner table with the fellow workers to get some attention; brownnoser with the traders to get some free drink, metaphysician when he starts thinking about nature, god and reality; local economist reflecting on supply and demand when he ascribes the falling metal prices to high imports or shrinking building industry. One could tell that he makes the boundaries between scientific and indigeneous knowledge blurred: He observes while walking for several hours in the streets while looking for scrap metal (ports, ships, builders), relates facts and makes conclusions. Partial, one-sided, but still innovative thinking. Even small stimulations in Mustafa’s mind (me offering to work as an assistant, an organiser’s talk) can create very large perturbations, something that the working class organizer notices and works on. Mustafa’s case clearly shows that the worker does not need to be told that he is exploited. This, he knows very well. He needs his broader questions about life to be taken seriously by the organizers.

We are now at a dinner table outside of a small squatter settlement, where a working class organizer talks to the workers at 2 AM in the morning. This is a small urban slum on the top of a hill, just opposite to the newly built residential houses for middle and upper class people, as part of an urban regeneration project. An active, highly politicised, bright and self-reflective worker, Ibrahim looks angrily at one of the high buildings and tells how a woman on the tenth floor got angry with him that morning, while he was looking into the garbage of the building in order to find some plastic or paper to sell: “How come that woman living on the tenth floor can shout at me from her window and tell me what I should do? What is the problem? What should I do? Why can’t I be there?” The organiser says: “The problem is not the woman but you.” “Is it me?” responds Ibrahim, half surprised. “So should I eliminate myself?” The organiser responds: “Yes, you should.” In this very simple dialogue, which is the culmination of many previous dialogues and confrontations between the two, is beautifully hidden a lesson for the young wastepicker: By envying the tenth floor, he reproduces capitalist relations, because what he offers is to change his position which would put him at the tenth floor, a continuation of the existing class hierarchies. Ibrahim was the obstacle behind himself not in a psychological sense but in the very material sense of adopting and reproducing the norms, which characterise capitalist society. He is critical of the woman herself, not of the very existence of the tenth floor itself, by challenging holders of positions, not positions themselves, which leaves class hierarchies intact. But there is more than that. If Ibrahim reproduces capitalist relations by envying them, then, in order to eliminate the ‘problem’ he tries to understand, he has to eliminate this reproducing subject, which is himself. This is a powerful lesson about the dialectics of class struggle in capitalist society: the issue is not about an attack of bourgeois class or the victory of the working class but the elimination of reified capitalist social relations of which the worker himself is part. Here the leader does not correct the so-called ‘false consciousness of the worker’, he invites him to make a critical reflection, which is not made from an outside vantage point, but immanently, showing that he is the very part of the social relations he needs to criticize. Therefore, Ibrahim needs to think not about the illusion but the truth his own thinking, a thinking, which is made possible by the everyday practices of capitalist relations.

The organiser intervenes again when Ibrahim says that they desperately need but are unable to see some light in order to continue their struggle. He says: “We want to see a light all the time but the light is us, we are the ones who can disseminate light to our outside, but we can not see it since we think it should be somewhere outside.” This time the worker becomes not an obstacle against, but a possibility to change his own conditions, since he is the one who has the light, not the woman on the tenth floor. Being both the main obstacle behind and the possibility of one’s emancipation constitutes a tension for the worker.

Our final stop is an urban slum house. It is very late evening after wastpickers come back from work. The working class organiser is the night guest to the house where a group of young workers live together. The workers know well the organizer who talks to them as much about love and pain as politics and literature. But that specific night, the working class leader has an invitation to make. He asks them to write for the magazine published by the association of wastepickers and read by thousands of people. But what can a wastepicker write? This is not important. The main objective is to invite the worker to a new experience. This is not a process in which the worker has to act with his/her anger vis-à-vis an external actor (employer or state official) or in which the worker needs to immediately formulate needs and demands. This is first and foremost an act of self-reflection, attention and meditation. The organizer asks the worker to sit down, take his time and concentrate. The timid but curious acceptance of this invitation generates sentimental poems and short essays of shame, pride, anger and hopes, all emotions reflecting the brutal reality of class experience: “In all the roads I take, I see you. In all the dust bins I open, I see you” is written to the girl who will never accept to be with a wastepicker. A piece by the young Deniz tells the origin of wastepicking: “That day, when I went to collect paper from the street in order to help my family…that day when the police was beating me up…. you stole my dreams.” The proud tone of a worker (“We save millions of trees by recycking this paper every day, we do something useful society”) is complemented with a call for equality on the basis of morality (“They humiliate us because we look dirty in the garbage, but our hearts are cleaner than everyone else’s”). There is also a constant search for legitimizing one’s existence: They do not steal but work, contribute to the environmental safety. But if the words they write reflect frustration and claim for recognition and legitimation in a society, which constantly excludes them, the very process of writing gives them the chance to become not only a wastepicker, but also an author during those times which are only theirs.

That the worker has dreams about a life, which detaches him/her temporarily from his own immediate conditions, where his life can be the life of an author, a scientist, a poet, an ethnographer (and not simply devoted father or mother, exploited worker) creates a contradictory implication for the organization of the workers. The working class leader has to be someone who is close enough to the workers in order to understand their personal, emotional and economic problems, but also, at the same time, alien to them. In the image of the organic intellectual, the worker needs to see a possibility to go beyond the conditions of his own existence for himself/herself. That is why the organizer has to be accepted by the workers’ community, yet different and envied, always reminding the possibility of other forms of thinking and living, not only in the far future but here and now. That is why the organizers who are trained or self-taught in bourgeois novels and science, Marxist philosophy and popular culture are attractive. Organisers are not only brokers who solve their daily life problems and teach to fight. They are the ones to stimulate the worker’ curiosity and desires, to pick up strategically workers such as Mustafa and Ibrahim by appealing to their dreams, and in case dreams are stolen as in the case of Deniz, they are the ones to help build new ones. 

Ranciere, J. (1991) Nights of Labour, The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France, Temple University Press.

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