From Militants To Hobbyism

Text for a talk I give at the Neibyl-Proctor Marxist Library on June 9th, 2013

I spoke along with Aaron Benanav

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Let me preface this. A look at the present arc of history shows that capitalist relations has been rising for at least the last two hundred years. Even given that today, this society is subject to increasingly violent upheavals, it has not yet ceased to be the primary power in this world. Indeed, even upheavals it is displacing anything that could be a rival.

In this arc, the working class as an organized force within capital society, first rose along with capitalism but has now fallen to a situation where any autonomous action of the working class is marginalized or very temporary and “explosive” – as we can see the recent upheavals in Turkey.

The subject of this talk was originally “why revolutionary activism might not be a good thing”. In the course of putting this together, I think I would now this “the militant and the hobbyist”. I’m using the term “militant” instead of “activist” just because some of the literature uses the term – I think of the meaning

In many ways, if there is a race, capitalist relations are winning. The process of reducing our labor power to a commodity and having the accounting of buy and selling define all of our social activity, is accelerating – even as this society meets fewer and fewer of the basic biological needs of the majority. Perhaps getting ahead of ourselves a bit, one quality we can see in this present stage of very fast capitalist development is that there is the survival as well as the revival many ideas from the past – but often without these ideas being adapted to the present situation. All the leftists tendencies of the last hundred or so year are kicking around somewhere. Trotskyists are still around even though there is no more Soviet Union to critically defend. But just as much, the “Battle Of Seattle” seems to have given birth to the “black bloc” as something that will be reappearing whenever the time seems appropriate.

With this sort-of odd situation, I think it does make a historical round-up of the critiques of the militant as a prelude to getting into a contemporary what I could hobby-activism.

Now, hopefully it is clear that I’m actually opposed to capitalist society. The thing is that, in the rather desperate situation I’ve outlined, I think it is important for those opposing capitalist relations to think critically about what constitutes their practice. So, I know the question “should we be militants” is a hot-bottom question, that it brings up strong emotions, I’d to like ask you are certain about your answer, are you certain you’re certain. Then, are you certain to doubt? Keep this in mind as I continue…

In looking at the various that, it seemed I could fit them into two broad “poles”,

  • Subjective Critique
    • The first critique could be called the “subjective critique of activism”. This approach looks at the personal failings and inadequacies of those who would join the most stereotypical Leninist groups. In this viewpoint, morality, specialization, ideology, masochism and a need for control act as a mutually reinforcing dynamic that makes the small, cultish group a counterpart to the official bureaucracies of capitalist societies.
    • The explicit psychological critique of the militant perhaps with Wilhelm Reich who was a psychoanalyst and communinst in 1922 Vienna. He described his traumatic experiences of finding that communist party in Austria have essentially the same subjective dynamic as the Social Democratic or Christian Democratic parties. One thing Reich wound believing was that the rigid fixation on control and protection as well as unconscious masochism as a symptom of a muscular rigidity which this capitalist society imposes on all its citizens, standing in the way of them experiencing pleasure or spontaneity. For Reich, this was a problem everyone and communist simply had the weakness that failed this psychological aspect of capitalist domination.
    • Reich’s work and other work the Situationist as well as some post-May 68 anti-state communist theorists. For these thinkers, however, the militant was especially problematic in comparison with the average worker. In 1975, OTJR (The Organization Of Young Revolutionaries), described the militant thus:

      One cannot help being struck by the innumerable resemblance’s which bring together militancy and religious activity. The same psychological attitudes can be found : the spirit of sacrifice but also the intransigence, the will to convert yet also the spirit of submissiveness. These resemblance’s extend to the domain of rituals and ceremonies : sermons on unemployment, processions for Vietnam, references to the sacred texts of marxism-leninism, the cult of emblems (red flags). Don’t the political churches also have their prophets, their great priests, their converts, their heresies, their schisms, their practising militants and their non- practising sympathisers! But revolutionary militancy is only a parody of religion. The richness, the insanity, the excesses of religious projects are beyond it; militancy aspires to seriousness, it wants to be reasonable, it believes that in exchange for this it can win a paradise here below. It doesn’t even achieve this much. Jesus Christ is resurrected and ascends into heaven. Lenin decomposes in Red Square.

    • So we have a bare and not necessarily attractive picture of the militant psychologically. However, it is worth objecting that if the militant has a problematic psychologically, the result may simply be that they go about their tasks joyless. Indeed, the position of the militant is that they aren’t here to have fun but to get things done. To be really effective, you have to make sacrifices.
    • However, consider. In August 1968, the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia to put down a popular rebellion. Some portion of American and European Leninists supported this invasion, including the party that would go on to the Worker’s World Party. What prompts this? The ideology of activism could be said center around a fixation with activity. The militant believes that change hinges on them personally. They knows all of the evils of the system and feels a terrible need to be personally challenge these. The problem is that the fixation on activity means the militant can only imagine their activity or the activity of their group as agent of this change.
    • If we look at the thinking of those groups which supported this invasion or other Soviet Adventures, we would claim that they saw in the Soviet Bureaucrats their own images. That is, people tirelessly consumed with providing good for the people. And how can good for the people be brought without things being controlled by the would-be do-gooders.
    • So from this approach, we can notice a panic about lack of control as leading to what could be called a common class interest in a certain kind of power.
    • Of course, the USSR and what might be called pure bureaucrat capitalism vanished quite a while ago. But “the party” and the militant as the member of this party remained as a model, as I mentioned as one of the many leftist models that “kick around” in the present era.
    • If we want to go deeper into the psychology of the militant is to draw on infamous Friedrich Nietzsche, obviously simply stealing one idea rather taking his entire world. Nietzsche looked at conventional morality as a kind ressentiment, as a process which united people based on weakness and one might say that a militant aspires to be a manager of the weak and thus would not want the proletariat seizing power for itself and negating capitalism but rather would prefer the poor embrace justice which an equal division of the commodities of capitalist society. On this subject of morality and justice, the organization Maoist International Movement has as it’s call the equalization of all wages in the world. To quote their paper:
    • If we were to redistribute all the wealth in the world right now, wages in Amerika would go down so that they could even out around the world. It is not a tenable position to call for higher wages the world over. You have to choose: will you continue to tell the Third World masses to wait so Amerikans can keep munching pie, or will you side with the majority?
    • Oddly, the development of transnational capital seems to have the direction of this leftist organization.
    • Hopefully, we can simply say that aspirations of we would-be revolutionaries is to build a new world of abundance rather than being the managers of an equalized world poverty.
  • Objective Critique
    • I would like fast-forward the discussion for a minute to debate that has been taking place within the tiny milieu of communization. Here, I might crudely simply the position of Gilles Dauve as something akin to this subjectivist critique of militancy. In “When Insurrections Die”, Dauve has written eloquently about the failure of the proletariat to halt the destruction of potential revolutions by the left. In Spain in 1936, the anarchist-influenced workers halted a fascist coup, held power in the streets but handed that power over to anarchist leaders, who worked with the capitalist state and gradually undetermined the power of the working class. By the time Franco defeated Republican Spain, Republican Spain was a Stalinist dictatorship filled with secret police and prisons for anarchists. Continuing, one might interpret Dauve as saying that the working class has not yet overcome the problem of the militants muck, there is not yet been enough proletarian energy to act against the left. The raises the question of how would revolution actually happen.
    • So we can describe the objective critique of activism as taking the position that it’s not just a matter of over coming some subjective failing but the evolution and the crisis of the capitalist system that drives forward the possibilities of revolution.
    • Another interesting character, Sam Moss, a member of a councils organization in the in 1939, wrote describing the impotence of the revolutionary group:
      The small radical groups – “intellectuals” who have “raised themselves to the level of comprehending historical movements as a whole,” and who trace the social ills to the system rather than to individuals – see beyond the objectives of the workers, and realize that the basic needs of the working class can not be satisfied for more than a temporary period under capitalism, and that every concession that Capital grants Labour serves only to postpone the death struggle between these adversaries.
    • But
    • The working class, concerned only with the needs of the moment and in general content with its social status, reflects the level of capitalist culture – a culture that is “for the enormous majority a mere training to act as a machine.” The revolutionists, however, are so to speak deviations from the working class; they are the by-products of capitalism; they represent isolated cases of workers who, because of unique circumstances in their individual lives, have diverged from the usual course of development in that, though born of wage slaves, they have acquired an intellectual interest, that they has availed themselves of the existing educational possibilities. Though of these, many have succeeded in rising into the petty-bourgeoisie, others, whose careers in this direction were blocked by circumstances have remained within the working class as intellectual workers. Dissatisfied with their social status as appendages to machines, they, unable to rise within the system, rise against it.
    • And (TWICE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
    • It is the writer’s conviction that the day of the revolutionary party is over; the revolutionary groups under present conditions are tolerated, or rather ignored, only as long as they are impotent; that nothing is so symptomatic of their powerlessness as the fact that they are permitted to exist. We have often stated that the working class which will endure while capitalism lasts, and which cannot be obliterated under this system can alone wage a successful struggle against capitalism and that the initiative can not be taken out of its hands.
    • Essentially, in Moss’ approach, the limits of the militant are not a matter of psychology but of class relations. The militant may be unbalanced by not quite fullfilling their social aspirations but that is secondary to point that the historical possibilities of the small party are done, however much it may remain as a secondary phenomena.
    • Now, Sam Moss was writing in 1939, the era of the New Deal. This was an era in which the working class achieved some modest stability in its exist and also an era in which the US working class was primarily an industrial working class.

Dialectical Combinations?

    • Let’s take a closer look at the concept of ideology
    • We can see ideology as a partial truth that a person affirms as an absolute truth based on their class interests (or by extension, some immediate gain).
    • A “classic” model of modern ideology is something like the War On Drugs; a bureaucratic initiative in which is well known to be dubious but an administrator or operative rises by being willing to embrace uncritically. Stalinist Five Year Plans or US McCarthyism might be seen as more extreme version. This is the intuitive sense that I think people have about what an ideology and what ideologues today. The militant is kind of ideologue of militancy or you could the “activist” is an ideologue of activity.
    • In many ways, we could use the concept of ideology to explain a lot of what we’ve said about subjectivity of the militant. Activism is the ideology of activity, the ideology of social welfare and so forth.
    • However, looking at the modern era, we see that much of the dynamic has become universalized
    • Guy Debord, one of the primary theorists of the Situationst international, wrote in 1988:
      • It is generally believed that those who have displayed the greatest incapacity in matters of logic are precisely those who proclaim themselves revolutionaries. This unjustified reproach dates from an age when almost everyone thought with a minimum of logic, with the striking exception of cretins and militants; and in the case of the latter bad faith played its part, intentionally, because it was held to be effective. But today there is no escaping the fact that intense use of the spectacle has, as we should have expected, turned most of our contemporaries into ideologues, if only in fits and starts, bits and pieces. Absence of logic, that is to say, loss of the ability to perceive immediately what is important and what is insignificant or irrelevant, what is incompatible or, inversely, what could well be complementary; all that a particular consequence implies and at the same time all that it excludes — high doses of this disease have been intentionally injected into the population by the spectacle’s anaesthetists/resuscitators.
    • That ideology is everywhere. One might argue that the ultimate example of universal ideology is the dominance of the flame-war style dialog on the Internet, which itself is becoming the dominant communication form.
    • Again, let us look at some interesting points raised by an obscure communization-related group Theorie Communiste. TC, And again, I will likely put things fairly crudely. We looking at what TC call the era of the real domination of capital. That is, an era in which capital does not simply take existing society or existing production methods and extract profit from them. Rather, in the present era, capitalist relations reshapes the whole of society for its purposes and benefit.
    • A further contrast in this is the transition of the so-called service worker, at least the specifically American context. The capitalist cares only about extracting the raw labor power of the industrial labor who produces a discreet commodity. But the capitalist wants to control every of the service about the service worker – teacher, salesman, retail clerk.
    • I would argue from both the factors, today the proletariat cannot be revolutionary if it does not negate it’s position within capitalism. TC writes:
    • When it appears that autonomy and self-organisation are no longer the perspective of anything, as with the transport strike in Italy or that of the workers at FIAT Melfi, it is precisely there that the dynamic of this cycle is constituted and the overcoming of revindicative struggles is presaged through a tension within revindicative struggles themselves.
    • When we see struggles with no hopes, struggles where the only goal is to get a bit out of the capitalists (“revindicative struggles”), then we can see a future possibility of the working class completely negating its condition within capitalist society and being able to begin a process of communization, the immediate creation of communist relations. The average, non-revolutionary worker of 1936 could credibly affirm their existence within a stable capitalist society. The average worker of today has no more stable existence. They, we, face a “job market”, a complete lack of community, an essential lack of commonality with our “fellow workers” except based on bare self-interest within this system. If we go back and read Sam Moss’ Text, the exceptional worker, who seeks one way or another to “better themselves” has become nearly universal, through Meetup.com, through the entire complex would-be self-actualization which is sold everywhere in the now universal Internet.
  • I’d like to introduce another factor. We would see the Hobby as the individual project of “unproductive worker” takes on with the aim to abolish their class existence in capitalism. Few people identify as revolutionaries as such today but many have a variety of hobbies some portion of which includes radicalism. If there is now an “American Culture”, it is characterized by a multitude of counter-cultures and subcultures.
  • Theodore Kaczynski wrote:
  • We use the term “surrogate activity” to designate an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, or let us say, merely for the sake of the “fulfillment” that they get from pursuing the goal.”
  • A hobby is a passive, atomized effort to negate one’s position as a worker within capitalism
  • A recent Headline of the Onion humor magazine wrote:
  • I have always been a big proponent of following your heart and doing exactly what you want to do. It sounds so simple, right? But there are people who spend years—decades, even—trying to find a true sense of purpose for themselves. My advice? Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, and do it for the rest of your life on nights and weekends when you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed.
  • To bring things full-circle, the multitude of leftist tendencies I mentioned at the start, could be seen as leftism subsumed by the world of hobbyism, which isn’t to say that the earlier critiques wouldn’t apply to them but I hope illuminates our situation differently.

Now, to head to the conclusion

The dilemma we have laid out is that the worker under “real domination” seeks hobbies and revolution becomes a hobby – an activity to consume among the many consumable activities that exist today.

  • The interesting tendency, Monsieur Dupont takes the dilemma of Sam Moss analysis and the condition of the modern proletariat to a logical if seemingly absurd conclusion. For Monsieur Dupont, only a small fraction of wage laborers, “the essential proletariat” have a revolutionary potential and they carry this revolution one fine without the least vestige of consciousness or self-awareness.
  • Further Monsieur Dupont draw a picture of the entire population (minus the essential proletarians) being something cops simply policing each other. Now, this picture is not true but it sheds light on the situation. Nearly everyone is proletarianized, nearly everyone is incentivized to be a cop of one and nearly everyone is incentivized to put forward an “entrepreneurial dream of freedom” (“I’m so lucky to be doing exactly what I love”).
  • What is worth noting is that while the final conclusion seems absurd, Monsieur Dupont makes their conclusion based on a careful consideration of the many forces that we can see at play here. What alternative is there to this nihilist conclusion?

Well the main point is that revolutionary upheavals will not spring from conscious efforts, either from militants or hobbist-militants. They tend to be spontaneous, they will tend to come from the crisis-prone nature of capitalism and they will tend to be explosive for the foreseeable future. But saying that, we still need to explain how the air tight world of ideology can be escaped at all, how universal ideology wouldn’t be a break on the process of expansion.

One way we could put this that the Monsieur Dupont position is perhaps a last, natural position that places consciousness first. It is natural everyone to look for not just useful ideas but real, general goodness in the would-be revolutionary and for anyone who acts in the world. Our claim is the opposite, we would-be revolutionaries are as bad this rotten world but this may not stop us from having a part in it’s change.

  • There is no disaster if the idea that you begin initially merely to play with becomes serious. If your bad faith has a chance to become good. The main stumbling block really, is the claim that we are the good ones – a stumbling block we saw already with the militant.
  • One simple way to put it is that hobby-revolution becoming real revolution
  • How do escape this? Look to deflect, to escape, the claim to goodness, the aim of being the one who will enforcing justice. Bite the hand that feeds you. Learn to admit bad impulse and deflect them to good rather than claiming to be the voice of justice.
Aaron Benanav
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Feeding Hand Bite Theory

OK, so if communization is a “grad student theory”, what of it?

At this point in time, academia has been neoliberalized well and good. I think someone could argue that academics as a group have a lower standard of living than a lot of skilled workers who’ve engaged serious wildcats.

The question is the academic’s political-economic position. It’s a fairly crude position to argue that what really matters is the “productive workers” but there is some truth to the point that the capitalists want only the raw, unvarnished labor power of workers producing discreet commodities whereas the capitalists kind of want and demand “the everything” of the service or the education worker. IE, the ideas and the appearance and the lifestyle of the immaterial worker becomes necessary part of their work; graduate students need to take part in the life of the mind, record store clerks need alternative-ness, Whole Foods or similar clerks have an incentive to be part of a certain kind of pseudo-middle class culture even if they don’t have middle class incomes etc.

The nihcom cartoon of the entire population (minus the essential proletarians) being nothing but cops policing each other is not true but it sheds light on the situation. Nearly everyone is proletarianized, nearly everyone is incentivized to be a cop and nearly everyone is incentivized to put forward an “entrepreneurial dream of freedom” (“I’m so lucky to be doing exactly what I love”).

So the question with a “grad student theory” is not whether grad students is irrelevant to “real struggles”. The education system as a whole is a large factory that is very relevant to overall struggles. The question, I would claim, is how the ideas of grad students can escape the quality of empty intellectual exercise that is standard for the “life of the mind” that capitalism makes imposes on people as a “condition of existence” (well, a condition of employment).

I would claim here that ideas and approaches which effectively bite the hand that feeds the academic are a key factor. Regardless of the logical content of some theory, if that theory be used as a signal of inclusion in a group, that theory will be subvertable by the dominant power.

So, the larger question might be, what ideas actually cannot be used for academic signaling? This quality might be needed for revolutionary-ness.

Things you can’t put on your resume might be a place to start.