Sunday, December 21, 2008

MLA Off-Site Reading

[I'm not quite sure why we'll be wearing masks. Is it a counterpoint to all the facey-face of the MLA? But if Laura says masks, then masked we must be!]

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 28th from 7-10:00pm
the Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street, San Francisco

FREE and ADA accessible to the public
Co-sponsored by Small Press Distribution and the Poetry Foundation

Over 60 POETS reading (just) 2 minutes each: Aaron Kunin, Alan Bernheimer, Aldon Nielsen, Andrew Osborn, Barrett Watten, Bill Howe, Bill Luoma, Bill Mohr, Brian Kim Stefans, C.S. Giscombe, Carla Harryman, Christian Bok, Chris Stroffolino, Dale Smith, Craig Perez, Dan Featherston, David Buuck, Dennis Barone, Donna de la Perriere, Durriel Harris, Dodie Bellamy, Elizabeth Hatmaker, Etel Adnan, Jasper Bernes, Jeffrey Robinson, Javier Huerta, Jeanne Heuving, Jennifer Scappettone, Jerry Rothenberg, Joe Amato, John Emil Vincent, Joseph Lease, Joshua Clover, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Julian Brolaski, Kasey Mohammad, Kass Fleisher, Kazim Ali, Kevin Killian, Kit Robinson, Kristin Prevallet, Lisa Howe, Lisa Robertson, Lorraine Graham, Maxine Chernoff, Michael Davidson, Norma Cole, Paolo Javier, Patrick Durgin, Paul Hoover, Philip Metres, Rob Halpern, Sarah Schulman, Rusty Morrison, Standard Schaefer, Stephanie Young, Stephen Cope, Suzanne Stein, Timothy Yu, Tom Orange, Tyrone Williams, Walter Lew and more!

Poets in Masks! Refreshments! Books! Books! Books!

Books by the readers for sale from Small Press Distribution.

Small Press Distribution, 1341 7th Street, Berkeley, CA 9471

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Noah turned five on Tuesday. It's impossible to believe that Anna and I have survived parenthood this long; impossible, too, to imagine a world before Noah. Not that I lack for selfishness as a parent or think about him every second of every day but, you know, it's as if he has threaded through every capillary of my sense of the world, stamped every thought with some peculiar cast, expanded to the limits of my (dim) memories of things, even if only as a faint trace, a whisper. It's terrifying to love someone so much and to think what I think of the future, of the world we live in. And, of course, it's that anxiety, that certainty of the limits to present society such as it is constructed, which makes ninety percent of the parents I meet, when they are being parents, so unbearable to be around. . .

[Noah, right, and my nephew Asa, left, in a gold mine turned museum.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Baselessness of Idealism


"The halls rose in a pyramid, becoming even more beautiful as one mounted towards the apex, and representing more beautiful worlds. Finally they reached the highest one which was the most beautiful one of all: for the pyramid had a beginning, but one could not see its end; it had an apex, but no base; it went on increasing to infinity. That is (as the Goddess explained) because amongst an endless number of possible worlds there is the best of all, else would God not have determined to create any; but there is not one which has not also less perfect worlds below it: that is why the pyramid goes on descending to infinity."

Monadology, Leibniz

"Some persons are so troubled by some effects of the market order that they overlook how unlikely and even wonderful it is to find such an order prevailing in the greater part of the modern world, a world in which we find thousands of millions of people working in a constantly changing environment, providing means of subsistence for other who are mostly unknown too them, and at the same time finding satisfied their own expectations that they themselves will receive goods and services produced by equally unknown people. Even in the worst of times something like nine out of ten of them will find their expectations confirmed."

The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tragedy, Farce

Surely, in the good state of California, we can note, now that Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared the imminence of a "financial armageddon", and given the disastrous state of the news industry, that the front-page and the entertainment section of the papers have become virtually indistinguishable. . .

This is why Schwarzenegger is the perfect front-man for his good (and goodly dead) friend Milton Friedman's ideology. As Naomi Klein makes clear in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal restructuring has always depended upon the manipulation (and outright creation) of crisis conditions, has always depended upon the melodrama and hysteria of the disaster movie. This is not to say that conditions are not dire, nor is it to say that the new economy which will emerge from this crisis is likely to follow the lines of neoliberalisms past. Only that we are, indeed, under the spell of a disaster politics, and we should be mindful of the messages borne aloft by the waves of affect now pouring from our television sets.

The solution here is, of course, rather simple: Gov. Schwarzenegger should go back in time, Terminator-style, and undo the tax cuts that he and his Republican buddies pushed through during the fat years of the 90s and 00s. Oh yeah, and it's probably cheaper to help poor people with food and housing by some other means than putting them in jail.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I wanna' be Exarchy (remix)

for DZ Brazil, classicist extraordinaire

You know what's really great about running street-f
ights between Greek radicals and Greek police? Well, aside from the obvious, there's the vision of root-words and concepts central to the great diseased career of Western thought blazoned on the shields of riot police.

(αστυ + nómos = ???)

It is almost as if the illuminating but politically unconvincing etymological divagations that form the m
etier of Giorgio Agamben had suddenly taken on material form and force, become actors in history. Archos and nomos vs. the ex-'s and the an-'s. I mean, where is this Exarcheia place (related to archos only by a false etymology, and all the more Heideggerian for that), land of anarchists and bohemians and cafes and street riots and universities that police are forbidden by law to enter, and can we move there now?

(sun at noon)

(better than the hora at your bar/bat mitzvah or wedding)

Well, it's time to start a celebratory meditation on the political saliences of the bankrupt "Republic Windows and Doors," whose workers, occupying their shuttered factory, have forced Bank of America to stand down and extend their employer a loan to fulfill its obligations for severance pay, accrued vacation time and health coverage

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday, December 14th, 2008
in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni press presents
Kevin Killian & Stephanie Young
and the release of their books Action Kylie and Picture Palace
6:30 pm, 5 USDollars
Special guest appearances by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover...

KEVIN KILLIAN, born 1952, is an art writer, poet, novelist, critic and playwright. He has written two novels, Shy (1989) and Arctic Summer (1996), a book of memoirs, Bedrooms Have Windows (1989), two books of stories Little Men (1997) and I Cry Like a Baby (2001) and a collection of poems, Argento Series (1997). With Lewis Ellingham he has written a biography of the poet Jack Spicer—Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan University Press, 1998). For the San Francisco Poets Theater he has written 37 plays, including Stone Marmalade, with Leslie Scalapino, and Often, with the late Barbara Guest. His most recent book, from Hooke Press, is a volume of his Selected Amazon Reviews, edited by Brent Cunningham, and now there is Action Kylie.

STEPHANIE YOUNG lives and works in Oakland. She edited the anthology BAY POETICS (Faux Press, 2006) and is currently at work on the collaborative website DEEP OAKLAND. Hey, you should propose a project for DEEP OAKLAND! Her books of poetry are Picture Palace and Telling the Future Off. She is here very sometimes:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pessimism of the Internet, Optimism of the Nil

Many of you have no doubt already seen this, but it bears widespread linkification.

I love The Yes Men so much it’s not funny.

In particular, this recent hoax, in contradistinction to their earlier and nonetheless exemplary infiltrations, marks out rather clearly the boundaries beyond which organs of left-liberal humor like The Colbert Report or The Onion will not or cannot venture. Don't get me wrong: I think Colbert and The Onion have worked up some of the finest ideology critique of the last decade, but their stance is, for all that, the opposition of the weak, of irony contingent upon the iron-clad immovability of the status quo. They cannot directly name their own (doubtless tepid) desires, and so must ultimately concur with Adorno: "A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia."

With the exception of their brilliant Union Carbide impersonation, the Yes Men's previous stunts are mostly close enough to Colbert and Billionaires for Bush and Sanguinetti and other left-wing parodies hinged upon a politics of satirical hyperbole. But the affirmative or perhaps neutral lineaments of this latest project bears note. However inadequate we might think its inability to see past a social democracy doomed for not posing the problem of capital as such, the special edition is nonetheless a negation potent precisely because it is the afterblow of an affirmation. To follow a useful distinction Jane once made, this paper is a détourning-forward, and so runs no risk of providing the illusion of critical distance, or freedom from ideology, that so often results from the weaker negations. You can’t live there. It is, thus, instead, a way of conserving, of suspending, of carrying forward certain heretofore sadly radical propositions like single-payer healthcare and a living wage and full unconditional withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, by placing them in a new context where they might continue to breathe. Debord’s films are perfect examples of this. As is Rene Vienet’s film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? And it is no doubt telling that, late in the life of the SI, René Vienet returned to Eisenstein’s proposed film of Capital as a model for the future of détournement. This is what is too often missed by Debord’s inheritors: he is not ironic. Sardonic, yes. Vicious, certainly. But he is as sincere and as sentimental as they come. Irony is environmental in Debord. It’s the resistance of the given.

For all its foibles, the Yes Men’s special edition shines some welcome light on the current cynical enthusiasm for Obama and his crew of free marketeers, Wall Street insiders, union-busters, charter-school enthusiasts, lawyers for paramilitary-backed banana companies and military adventurists. But it does so by taking the enthusiasm and wishes of the electorate seriously: this is what the majority of Obama voters mostly really almost want. We should not deny the meaningfulness of the election in terms of ideological positions vis-à-vis class and race. But the meaning of ideology here cuts both ways, as weapon and smokescreen, and it is to me an open question whether the people who celebrated in the streets on Nov. 4th are willing to do the much harder work of forcing the US State away from its commitment to immiseration, xenophobia, racism, militarism and general fuckery, just as much as it's an open question whether instruments like The Onion and Colbert and John Stewart, whose entire premise is staked upon the existence of the Republicans as comedic foils, will be able to make fun of the Democrats.

And this is why there are ironies and then there are ironies. And I guess there’s an almost ontological irony to talking about equality with a straight-face in a culture in which not giving a flying fuck is a form of currency. It’s the fine grain of the paper’s impossibilities that gets me, right down to the hilarious ads for De Beers diamonds and American Apparel (themselves the negative detournement couched within the positive one), right down to Thomas Friedman's lovely admission of his own irremediable stupidity, right down to the comment boxes where people can take political positions with regard to a world that does not exist.


And so it was yesterday therefore not at all incidental that, after my students presented on De Certeau, and some other students introduced me to parkour, and I decided against mentioning how the IDF cuts right through walls and houses and buildings and makes you want to stop loving Gordon Matta-Clark, and after I did lay on them my critique of micropolitics and differences that make no difference, and asked them to consider whether and how this might apply to Breton and the SI, and my architecture student said, yeah, but isn’t détournement still really effective, and I said, yeah, well, maybe, sometimes, but not always, and I talked too much about neutralization and recuperation and forgot to deploy the phrase the spectacle of negation ‘cause we were rushed for time but did mention The Yes Men—it was, then, yes, more than incidental, even an example of l’hasard objectif when, leaving the class, I ran into my to-remain-unnamed friend who is a total badass and whom you want with you on the barricades, I ran into her and another one of my friends who you want with you always, and they said let’s go see the improvements made to the giant outdoor feel-good yearbook-wall thingie in Dwinelle plaza, with black-and-white lifesized headshots of happy UC Berkeley students and faculty and staff and inspirational messages of enjoyment and privilege and ain’t it all fucking great in printed cursive next to the heads, itself borrowed it seems from the playbook of activisms past and present, and there it was, the counter-counter-détournement, a giant banner with all the facts about the multiple, 39, between UC President Mark Yudof’s and the below-living-wage wages of UC service workers, and headshots of UC workers keeping it real about what it’s really like to try and live on what they pay you here, and the fonts were all fucked up and different sizes because of all the inequality and I wanted to take it back then and I felt bad for maybe discouraging my students who were maybe going to vandalize something for their final project and you can be too smart and sensitive and too subtle of a thinker about the vicissitudes of ideology and sometimes I wish yes I could just shut up yes I said maybe I will yes.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Firearm sales up 120%
Camping/outdoor dales up 57%
Bicycle sales up 72%
Wood/coal stoves up 43%

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Few Symptoms

A specter twice-removed, a meta-specter, haunts the US. First the fiasco with banks: it’s socialism, the right cries out, suspecting that Bush and Paulson have, in their enormous ineptitude, accidentally gone communist, sucked into some strange wormhole that unites the far left and the far right of the political continuum. . .

But then the plot thickens: the uppity Democratic candidate is secretly a Marxist; he wants to redistribute wealth; his first, middle and last names are an anagram of anti-American terror; the color of his skin a secret semaphore of racial solidarity and frightening Gospel music. . .

And so the established parameters of ideology collapse. One is reminded of Jameson’s claims at the end of The Political Unconscious that even the most reactionary ideology is utopian since it responds to, and therefore records, the drive for an egalitarian world. . . Now that these old, mouldering ideologies emerge from the rag-and-bone shop of middle class ressentiment, now that free-marketeers are departing the Republican Party for the conspiratorial melodrama and confused monetarism of the Libertarian Party, we must attend to the empty space their charmed circle of hysteria marks out.

Yes, of course, the bank “nationalizations” are nothing more than glorified governmental loans that force no writedowns of worthless or near-worthless fictitious capital nor direct the streams of available funds to the real economy; of course, Obama—surrounded by the deregulator and ex-Chairman of Citibank Robert Rubin, by the shock doctor Lawrence Summers, by the former Fed Chairman who induced an artificial recession in 1981 to kill off working-class power and with it inflation—is about as much of a socialist as Clinton. . . Still, the right is crying out for a worthy enemy. It looks at the empty spot called socialism, that ghost of the ghost which once haunted the US, with wistfulness. Up, socialists, wherever you are! Someone’s calling you!

Sunday, October 19, 2008


1) If you've recently lost your job and find yourself with lots of time on your hands and are looking for more reasons to be pissed-off or more confirmation of the fact that capitalism truly sucks, or if you're just trying to figure out the short and long-term causes of the current crisis, you'll find your work greatly simplified by visiting this aggregator: Radical Perspectives on the Crisis. Also: good stuff here and here, and translations of Mario Tronti and Alain Badiou weiging in here and here. You can also learn a lot by reading Nouriel Roubini, aka Dr. Doom . . .

2) Last week, the Chicago area (Cook County) Sheriff announced that he would halt all foreclosure-related evictions. Under legal pressure, he has since resumed the evictions. Right now, the Alameda County Sheriff is considering a similar moratorium. You can call the Sheriff's Office and leave a message for the Sergeant of the Civil Branch (the one responsible for evictions), at 510.272.6878. Let them know you support a full moratorium on evictions.

Technically, the Cook County Sheriff's concerns were only with tenants in buildings and homes whose owners were being foreclosed on, and not those who had gotten hustled into bad loans with exploding interest rates. That's not acceptable, of course, but a full moratorium would be, I think, a good pragmatic start, and form one face, ideally, of a larger movement to get debt relief for homeowners (rather than debt relief for the holders of securities), as well as extension of unemployment benefits and other entitlement programs for the poor, money for job creation, health care, infrastructure projects, education, etc., all the stuff we would need to keep this recession/depression from dragging on and weighing down disproportionately on the least well-off, and which, as Mike Davis and everybody else who's paying attention suggests, we're unlikely to get from a victory for Obama and his team of "compassionate" neoliberals. Unless, of course, some people start threatening other people's property. . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A conference I'm organizing. . .

Recent crises in global capitalism have functioned, as crises often do, to reveal the historical contours of the present, providing new opportunities to read history against the grain and to unsettle established assumptions. This call for papers proposes that as our economies enter a period of potentially profound structural transformation, it is all the more necessary to examine the relationship between the economic mode of production and cultural and social forms in the period after WWII.

We seek work that brings together analysis of the modes of economic accumulation which have characterized the last 60 years—their actors, institutions, histories, and structures—with analysis of the forms of subjectivity, ideology, culture, and resistance they have produced and been produced from. How have attempts within sociology, geography, political science, and history to explain the economic transformations of the 70s influenced accounts of cultural forms before and after this shift? Where do accounts of the novel, of poetry, of film, of visual art, and of architecture stand in relation to broader economic and political histories? How does work in sociology, cultural studies, and anthropology on the collectivities and cultures of economic production—from day traders to migrant workers—negotiate the relationship between subject and structure? How can consideration of economic processes like risk management, collateralization, foreign and consumer debt structuring, privatization, and data collection give us access to related transformations in national security, war, and neoimperialism? What has been the social or cultural effect of new forms of labor, including not only new modes of “immaterial” knowledge work but also the labor being done in sweatshops and maquiladoras? Other potential topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following: cultural globalization and uneven development; anti-capitalist social movements; experiments with value in literature and the arts; the management, exploitation, or creation of risk; other capitals (cultural, social) or other economies (symbolic, affective, libidinal, spectacular); financialization and culture; class contradiction and conflict in literature and the arts; technological transformations in economy and culture; race, gender, or sexuality and the economic.

We hope this conference will provide an opportunity for dialogue between all participants of the sort often not possible at larger conferences. As such, we will not schedule panels concurrently, and request that papers presented not exceed 20 minutes so that each panel is followed by ample time for Q&A. All panels and events will be free and open to the public and accepted participants are expected to attend as many panels as possible to enable a sustained conversation over the 2 days of the conference. On Friday, March 6th we will feature a keynote presentation by New York University Professor of Art and Public Policy Randy Martin, whose most recent books include The Financialization of Everyday Life and An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management, searingly critical and engaged interdisciplinary accounts of how life is lived, war fought, and ideology sustained within a financialized present.

Paper proposals should be no more than 600 words (1-2 pages double spaced) and should be accompanied by a brief cover letter—this letter may, if applicable, give a sense of any larger project from which the proposed paper emerges, list other conferences or symposia in which the submitter has participated, and provide any other useful information. Proposals and cover letters should be submitted via email to as attached documents by Monday, December 1st and all accepted presenters will receive their invitations to participate no later than January 1st. One or two meals will be provided by conference organizers and if housing costs are a prohibitive burden, arrangements for housing with local participants can potentially be arranged. This conference is designed to be an opportunity for current graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, although beginning independent scholars and writers may submit proposals as well.

This event is organized by the Interdisciplinary Marxism Working Group, a group which has, for the last ten years, provided an opportunity for graduate students, faculty, and others to read and discuss together works of both classical and contemporary Marxism and to frame those conversations around interdisciplinary—historical, structural, and theoretical—concerns. The conference is additionally funded by the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities and affiliated departments and groups across UC Berkeley.

Deadline for proposals: Monday, December 1st

Email address for proposal submission:

Conference date: Friday March 6-Saturday March 7, 2009

Contacts for conference co-organizers: Jasper Bernes ( & Annie McClanahan (

Friday, October 10, 2008

The only things anybody wants are T-Bills, yen, bullets and bottled water."

In his statement, Mr. Bush said the federal government has “immense resources and a wide range of tools” to combat the crisis, and will use them aggressively.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Spirit of Utopia

Noah and I were talking about one of his favorite movies, Prehistoric Planet--the CGI recreation of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous reptile life. The final minutes of the movie depict the extinction event at the beginning of the Cretaceous period--you know, raining meteorites, walls of flame and tidal waves, the sun squelched behind a thick overhang of smoke and dust. . . It's rather adult material, and though I let Noah watch it, I always find these concluding scenes, for reasons you will no doubt quickly grasp, rather sad.

And so, the other night, Anna and I wouldn't let him watch this part before bed and, as is the custom of his tribe, he asked why. "Because it's too scary," I said. And then this morning, having given the matter some thought, he assured me, as I put the DVD on again, that "death of the dinosaurs," as the chapter is called, isn't scary at all.

Me: Well, it's kind of sad.
Noah: Why?
Me: It's sad to think of a whole form of life disappearing and never coming back.
Noah: But daddy, let me tell you something . . . in the next evolution we're going to live forever.
Me: What's going to happen in the next evolution?
Noah: The dinosaurs are going to come back to life and never die and the surface of the sun is going to cool down so we can walk on it.
Me: When's that going to happen?
Noah: In eight million months.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What the competition among the various masses of capital — invested in different spheres of production and differently composed — is striving for is capitalist communism, namely that the mass of capital employed in each sphere of production should get a fractional part of the total surplus value proportionate to the part of the total social capital that it forms.

--Marx to Engels, April 30th, 1868

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Oratory on the Death of Neoliberalism

If forced to place it in a genre, I’d say the current economic crisis is either a heist movie or sci-fi.

Where are we, precisely? Well, we’re in that part of the heist movie where, after x double-crosses y, who in turn double-crosses z, and so on, it becomes clear that the whole plot was orchestrated by the owner of the casino, in debt so deep the only solution was to rob his own place and collect the insurance. . .

Rarely is class power in the US as nakedly visible as during this last week, and rarely is the two parties’ de jure acceptance of the dictatorial rule of capital so explicit, unless of course one finds the canned populism convincing or thinks that the wrangling in the legislature over the details of Paulson’s bill is anything less than theatre, designed to convince us of the iron necessity of the main piece, a massive socialization of risk that leaves profits privatized. Because, you know, it would be one thing if the Treasury’s plan to pump $700 billion of economic Viagra into Wall St., the better to keep on fucking you, was actually going to work. But why should anyone believe that? Credit will start to flow again if the plan goes through, but as many historians and economists have pointed out, this isn’t just Wall Street’s crisis, it’s the result of thirty years of rising inequality in the US, of an economy built on nothing but household debt and longer and longer working hours. The plan will shore up stock prices, sure, but chances are the ensuing inflation and, therefore, the declining value of wages will still mean a nasty economic contraction. The stockholders get to keep their money but the rest of the country gets starved by inflation and unemployment. Sound like a deal? And, of course, if you ever believed any of Obama’s promises in the first place, this likely means that if he gets elected there’s not even a weak national health care plan and no investment in “green” energy.

As Laura Flanders aptly points out, this is nothing less than an economic coup, and it makes the putative differences between McCain and Obama moot. The various attachments that the Democrats want—an equity stake in the companies, pay limits for execs, judicial oversight, and some very modest programs for homeowners—are a start, but they don’t go even remotely far enough, and as they stand, are pretty much ideological legitimation for what will still be a gargantuan transfer of value from the working- and middle-classes to the rich. It’s as if the majority of the country were just told they’ll have to work weekends for free for the rest of the year. Instead, it seems better that we either nationalize the banks completely and let the profits redound to the treasury or, for added viewing pleasure, let the banks burn and put the money into subsidizing consumer demand through social programs, job creation and debt relief. The bankers are the ones who believe in the free market, the necessity of shock therapy, the salutary effect of price as a disciplinary mechanism, so let them have it. Once they get a taste of that American freedom, they’ll surely thank us.


It’s hard to know what rough beast will emerge from the dust. I could be wrong, but I think we can safely close the brackets on the particularly brutal period of capitalist rapine and immiseration known as neoliberalism (1973-2008). And good riddance. But there’s no reason to believe that what will succeed it will be any better, and there’s plenty of indication that it could be much, much worse. Despite the amusement I derive from the apoplexy of right-wing pundits who think the current quasi-nationalizations constitute socialism, what we see emerging less resembles Scandinavian social democracy, or Roosevelt’s New Deal, than it does Mussolini’s merger of state and corporate power. The difference is obvious: so far, there’s no indication of anything but a minimum plan to redistribute the surpluses to the lower classes. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the other affinities between the US and mid-century European fascism.

None of these periodizations are ever as cut-and-dry as they seem, anyway. The neoliberal era retains many elements of Keynesianism—in government funding of the military-industrial complex, and by extension high tech, in recurrent bailouts, in the shell of the welfare state kept around for purposes of legitimation, farm subsidies, etc.—just as the Keynesian period retained many elements of earlier monopoly capitalism. And, in any case, it’s a mistake to think of deregulation as the absence of an action, as the absence of intervention, when it is, in fact, the result of deliberate, forceful and always violent intervention, and requires the continuous resort to same (c.f. the Volcker shock). All that’s old is new again, and I’m sure the capitalist playbook of the period 1973-2008 will continue to get used. . . For now, though, I’m betting on an increasing reliance on direct and overt as opposed to indirect and covert domination.


As for sci-fi, it has gone curiously unremarked that Wall Street’s implosion coincides with the first tests of the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-long particle accelerator under the Franco-Swiss Alps. Sadly, the LHC probably stands little chance of creating, as some fear, a microscopic black hole capable of swallowing the earth. And, in any case, we clearly have far more serious things to worry about, an economic black hole of sorts, produced via the manipulation of all sort of exotic financial chimera that seem kin to the bizarre forms of matter and energy forged in the artificial conditions of particle accelerators. The LHC was created, in part, to verify the existence of the Higgs boson, the last unobserved particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. To conjure the Higgs boson, however, physicists need to create levels of heat and energy on a scale of those of the Big Bang. These artificial conditions, capable of probing the deepest recesses of matter, are more than a little like the massive ratios of leverage which hedge funds and investment banks are working with today, where, all told, a million dollars of investment might have only $20,000 of equity capital behind it. This allows the managers of these funds to probe all of the possible areas where profits might be had, to test the spread of virtual futures that branch out from the present, to move the borrowed money around from site to site until it lands somewhere where the going is good. . . Or not.

Although I understand neither world very well, I understand not understanding well enough to say that the subatomic world is sort of like that of the unregulated, poorly-understood, mathematically-exotic ‘shadow economy’ of financial derivatives so much in the news of late. To speak of heat and energy, Donald Mackenzie, in an article about a form of financial insurance—end-of-the-world-insurance, as he calls it, our economic Higgs boson perhaps—which would only pay out in the event of a complete and absolute destruction of the world economy (in which case good luck collecting), offers the following savory description:

The credit market is also one of the most computationally intensive activities in the modern world. An investment bank with a big presence in the market will have thousands of positions in credit default swaps, CDOs, indices and similar products. The calculations needed to understand and hedge the exposure of this portfolio to market movements are run, often overnight, on grids of several hundred interconnected computers. The banks’ modellers would love to add as many extra computers as possible to the grids, but often they can’t do so because of the limits imposed by the capacity of air-conditioning systems to remove heat from computer rooms. In the City, the strain put on electricity-supply networks can also be a problem. Those who sell computer hardware to investment banks are now sharply aware that ‘performance per watt’ is part of what they have to deliver. (via Jane)
Nothing behaves as it ought here—particles vanish in one place and reappear in another, or move backwards in time, debt is aggregated and sold, and then other products are sold to insure against the default of that debt. What’s happening down there, or up there, or over there, in the shadows, while it will yield to all kinds of predictions and models, is fundamentally overdetermined, unpredictable and dangerous.

If I understand it correctly, many of the mortgage-backed securities
(MBS) that the investment banks and hedge funds are holding now are priced according to what people will pay for them—priced entirely according to market demand and not content, as is the case with, say, corporate shares. There is thus no way to know what these things are really worth. According to Michael Greenberger, one of the reasons the banks are so itchy to get the government to take this stuff off their hands is that if one of them goes bankrupt and the accountants come in to figure out what everything is worth, they’ll likely assign a figure of pennies on the dollar to the MBS’s, and prices will plummet accordingly. . .

Credit default swaps
, for instance, are insurance on debt, designed to pay out in the event of defaults. There are currently $62 trillion of credit default swaps outstanding. That’s larger than the GDP of the entire planet, folks. It’s 3 ½ times as large as the GDP of the US. That’s your black hole.

So, then, to come full circle, this is a little like the moment in any number of “alien invasion” films in which it dawns on you that, below the threshold of visibility, in the pores of this world, behind the apparently friendly faces of the well-mannered professionals, another race has quietly prepared its takeover. It’s called capital:
The product of labour appears as alien property, as a mode of existence confronting living labour as independent, as value in its being for itself; the product of labour, objectified labour, has been endowed by living labour with a soul of its own, and establishes itself opposite living labour as an alien power.
That $62 trillion? Well, it’s nothing less than the weight of the products of 500 years of exploited, maimed, mutilated and exhausted bodies, bodies bought and sold, bodies murdered in wars, bodies disciplined and legislated and incarcerated. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”

And, oh yeah, the LHC collider malfunctioned on Sept. 19th. It won’t be up and running for months.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reginald Shepherd (1963-2008)

Reginald Shepherd is dead. I miss him. It’s hard to know what else to say.

Reginald was my professor at Cornell, my friend at large, an early supporter of my writing, a trusted reader, a correspondent. There were two writers who helped me out a great deal early on, and without whom I would, doubtless, be somewhere different right now—Deborah Tall and Reginald Shepherd—and they are both dead now at far too young of an age. The other professors at Cornell were nice people (or, rather, some of them were) but they didn’t care about poetry, they weren’t reading it or writing it or thinking about it, and to the degree that they were disengaged from writing Reginald was engaged with it, inflamed by it, knowledgeable and curious and full of opinion. He wrote things on my poems. He told me about writers I’d never heard of and, importantly, he didn’t think of criticism or theory as irrelevant to writing, but as a useful spur, an illumination, and a pursuit in its own right. Poetry, as he makes clear in his essays, saved his life and it kept on saving it.

He lighted things up everywhere with his intelligence, his sensitivity, his tremendous love for poetry. And of course his poems, poems where, I think now, touch is the first sense, love the motive, and all language address, all the dressing-up and dressing-down a form of directness and transparency. The comment stream here testifies, I think, better than I can, to his impact. The growing recognition of his poetry and critical writing is, no doubt, just the beginning. But I’m cheered that he got to be around for some of that recognition.

Reginald had a childhood and an early life that would destroy most of us, and he’s written about this movingly in his Orpheus in the Bronx. That adversity never really went away. But for all that, the joys stood out all the more clearly. Chief among these joys was his partner, Robert Philen. I remember how much meeting Robert changed Reginald—instantly, deeply. His devotion to Reginald over the last couple of years, in sickness and health, should serve as an example to all of us of that part of love that is hard, and for all that, its truth.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Good News

Emerging again from the network of passageways that spell out all the fungible and frangible moments of this life, my publisher, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, has just released two volumes so good they will make you pee your pants. Stephanie Young is destroying ponies with ponies. Kevin Killian would have waxed a dungeon to match your feeling. These books will protect you from the harmful rays emitted by political conventions.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Repetition Compulsion, Democrats

The Obama campaign has settled on a winning slogan, it seems. Written on the outside of a recent (unopened, soon-to-be-recycled) mailing are the words “Jasper, this time will be different.” Ah, yes—I’ve heard that before, said it to people I’ve loved and not loved, said it to myself, placed it at the very front of the card files marked pure and utter bullshit and electoral politics, hollowness of. Seriously, do you think they could have come up with anything that rings more false than this? The phrase is nothing less than the rhetoric of the addict’s (or the obsessive’s) superego. Jasper, this time will be different. Following on the heels of which comes a temporary loss of consciousness, of self-possession, and when you return to your senses you have a cigarette in your mouth, you’re walking out of the liquor store with a fifth clutched tightly to your side, walking back from the parking lot where you meet your connect, you’re lying in his or her bed, you’re walking out of the polling booth where you’ve just voted for the murder of hundreds of thousands and the immiseration of hundreds of millions. Fill in the rest yourself.

But, as The Dark Knight teaches us, the American people, those loveable schlemiels, need something to believe in, they need hope, never mind if that hope comes with a variable rate mortgage.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Questions about Tronti

One of the questions I have about Tronti, and operaismo in general, is to what extent his critiques are applicable today. He is writing out of a very specific moment in capitalism—the so-called “golden age” of the post-war boom, with its combination of developmentalist economics in the third world, the Keynesian compromise with labor in the imperial core, Fordism, and centralized, comparatively inflexible corporate structures. To what extent does “social capital” as he conceives it still exist? And what happens when “social capital” turns into Negri’s “real subsumption” and “biopolitics” under condition that are, arguably, quite different?

The shift to what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” that occurs in the 70s—with increasingly decentralized firms, liberalization of the economies of the periphery and volatilization of capital movement in general, the growth of the service sector, the mechanization of agriculture—can’t really be seen as replacing the tenets of the ‘45-73 period, so much as transforming them. For instance, the state continues to intervene in, legislate and administer production, and in the US, though the spending is not re-circulated to the working-class, the state still runs a huge deficit on corporate giveaways, subsidies and, of course, armaments and colonial adventures. Then as now, many industries are dominated by monopolies. The idea of neo-liberalism as anti-state is, of course, a fiction. There is, now, simply (or rather, complexly) a different relationship between state and capital.

But still, it’s unclear that, for instance, trade-union activism of the modest sort that seeks a larger share of the surpluses is today, as it was in Tronti’s time, a force that contributes to development. Given the conditions of stagnation within the capitalist economy, and given the fact many manufacturing sectors seem mechanized to such a degree that additional profits are very difficult to secure, it might be the case that unions are actually a far larger threat to capital today than they were 50 years ago. Hence, for the last 25-30 years the US and British governments (among others) treat with labor in increasingly brutal and intractable ways. (In The Shock Doctrine –which is a truly excellent book, a harrowing map of the last 30 years of berserker capitalism—Naomi Klein uses Reagan’s response to the air traffic controllers and Thatcher’s to the coal miners to mark a shift). Further, as a friend pointed out to me recently, the service sector admits of no mechanization—there, the ratio between profits and wages can’t really be improved through machinery or technology. Full unionization of that area—a difficult accomplishment, given all of contingent labor that’s used—could be devastating, since, it seems (and correct me if I’m wrong) the only recourse that capital has there is “absolute surplus value”—lengthening of the working day, lowering of the wage, lowering of the standards of living, etc. And this, of course, threatens a crisis of overproduction of the sort we’re facing right now. All fictive capitals come to an end. Farewell to an idea.


What I’m worrying over is the oft-repeated claim that critiques of administered life, of the conformist culture of 50s and 60s capital, of the “augmented survival” that Debord describes, and the society of command in Tronti, (critiques, in other words, of the extension of the state across wide swaths of the, umm, welt) actually play into the hands of neoliberal crusaders in the 70s, 80s and 90s, that the critique of augmented survival for the most privileged sectors of the working class enables a shift to “mere” survival. There is some truth to this, although I think the truth has more to do with perversions and distortions in the implementation of ideas that were, and remain, radical, but that can end up—this is the case with a good deal of post-structuralism—as fundamentally liberal or even libertarian in nature.

“Social capital” might in its transformation end up as something like Debord’s “diffuse spectacle,” a form of rule that proceeds less by direct command and administration but by a tacit performance on the part of society, in order not only to reproduce the existing relations of production but to expand what is deemed socially necessary labor time. Spectacle works on use-value. I think both of these functions fit with Foucault’s definition of biopolitics—the creation of desires (History of Sexuality, Vol I), and the management of populations (The Birth of Biopolitics).

The shift, then, seems to do with an adversion to a kind of calculated chaos—a calculated permissiveness that allows the formation of areas of self-governance, autonomy, agitation—in order to allow capital to expand. The State, in certain sectors, retreats only to return. . . Or the capital “S” State turns into the little “s” state in order to permit the kind of flexibility and leverage that capital needs in this age. . .This seems to be characteristic of things in the imperial core.

At the same time, however, the need for new capital markets requires increasingly brutal and direct legislative or military intervention in the periphery—primitive accumulation by force and fiat. Naomi Klein’s book documents the infernal career of such slash-and-burn techniques, whether they result from the exploitation of “naturally” arisen crises or the manufacture of crises.

Tronti suggests—and this is a point made very explicitly in Harry Cleaver’s excellent Reading Capital Politically—that all crises are either the result of working-class militancy or, relatedly, an attempt by the ruling class to control the working-class through the political implementation of economic control (all economics is politics, for Cleaver). I’m not sure I buy this %100. Or I’m not sure—as an empirical claim—that it’s a meaningful distinction. Of course, I want this to be true. I think that—in terms subjectivity—this is probably the best way to look at things, in line with, say, Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” I also think it bears out if one looks at the crises of the 70s and 80s, and those direct interventions that Klein so expertly indexes. It’s certainly true, for instance, of price gouging by commodities speculators currently, and it’s certainly true that the subprime housing scandal was a way of, in a sense, getting, by a backdoor means, givebacks from the working class (by putting many people in deep debt). But there also could be a good deal to learn by looking at such things as inter-capital competition. I don’t think doing so renders the working-class entirely passive.

Many of my readers—used to me talking about poetry—probably don’t care about any of this, and have probably already stopped reading paragraphs ago. But for those who do, what do you think?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Labour Capacity and The Strategy of Refusal, Part II

[Part I is here]

If you’re like me, the characterization of labor capacity as absolute (rather than determinate) negation in Tronti will start to remind you of the myriad readings of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that seem de rigueur for European philosophers/theorists (Agamben, Badiou, Deleuze, Derrida and Zizek, among those that I’m aware of, all discuss the story and the character). If you read Marx on labour-capacity, the connection to Bartleby is rather unmistakable. Bartleby (and his less-remarked cousin, the Carpenter, in Moby-Dick) is a perfect exemplification of the antinomies of the working-class subject as both all-containing potentiality and absolute, immiserated de-qualification— in Marx’s words “Labour as object absolute poverty, labour as subject general possibility of wealth.”

Marx’s distinguishes two “moments” of labor; a negative moment:

As such it is not-raw-material, not-instrument of labour, not-raw-product: labour separated from all means and objects of labour, from its entire objectivity. This living labor, existing as an abstraction from these moments of its actual reality (also, not-value); this complete denudation, purely subjective existence of labor, stripped of all objectivity. Labour as absolute poverty: poverty not as shortage, but as total exclusion of objective wealth. (Grundrisse, 295-296)

And a positive one:

Labour not as an object, but as activity: not as itself value, but as the living source of value. [Namely, it is] general wealth (in contrast to capital in which it exists objectively, as reality) as the general possibility of the same, which proves itself as such in action. (296)

And, in conclusion, their synthesis:

Thus, it is not at all contradictory, or, rather, the in-every-way mutually contradictory statements that labour is absolute poverty as object, on one side, and is, on the other side, the general possibility of wealth as subject and as activity, are reciprocally determined and follow from the essence of labour, such as it is presupposed by capital as its contradiction and as its contradictory being, and such as it, in turn, presupposes capital. (296)

I think that the two-fold character of labour here goes a long way in explaining the problems and potentials in implementing, as militant praxis, the viewpoint of Tronti’s essay. In both Agamben’s and Zizek’s reading of Bartleby, there is the perverse belief that one can, by exarcerbating this “absolute poverty”, by reducing oneself to an ontological zero-degree, reach the Arcimidean point from which a destructive potential is gained. The trick, in Agamben, is not to fight the extension of bare life throughout the social field, but to generalize it. In weakness, strength, etc. The Christological resonances are well-remarked.

And yet, as much as this conception makes me uncomfortable (a kind of latent miserabilism), I can’t but help find myself attracted to it also. Although it’s not without the hints here and there of condescension which mark Melville’s ambivalent view-point, the show-stopping passage from Moby-Dick quoted below is, in many respects, a perfect description of the proletarian as social individual, the proletarian as prefiguration of communism, the proletarian for whom deskilling and dequalification, after “[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away,” allow her or him, as absolute self-determining plasticity, to lay claim to the entire spectrum of human ability, experience and possibility:

Thus, this carpenter was prepared at all points, and alike indifferent
and without respect in all. Teeth he accounted bits of ivory;
heads he deemed but top-blocks; men themselves he lightly held
for capstans. But while now upon so wide a field thus variously
accomplished and with such liveliness of expertness in him, too;
all this would seem to argue some uncommon vivacity of intelligence.
But not precisely so. For nothing was this man more remarkable,
than for a certain impersonal stolidity as it were; impersonal, I say;
for it so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things,
that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole
visible world; which while pauselessly active in uncounted modes,
still eternally holds its peace, and ignores you, though you dig
foundations for cathedrals. Yet was this half-horrible stolidity
in him, involving, too, as it appeared, an all-ramifying heartlessness;--
yet was it oddly dashed at times, with an old, crutch-like, antediluvian,
wheezing humorousness, not unstreaked now and then with a certain
grizzled wittiness; such as might have served to pass the time
during the midnight watch on the bearded forecastle of Noah's ark.
Was it that this old carpenter had been a life-long wanderer,
whose much rolling, to and fro, not only had gathered no moss;
but what is more, had rubbed off whatever small outward clingings
might have originally pertained to him? He was a stript abstract;
an unfractioned integral; uncompromised as a new-born babe;
living without premeditated reference to this world or the next.

You might almost say, that this strange uncompromisedness in him involved a sort of unintelligence; for in his numerous trades, he did not seem
to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been
tutored to it, or by any intermixture of all these, even or uneven;
but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.
He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one,
must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers.
He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful,
multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior--
though a little swelled--of a common pocket knife; but containing,
not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers,
cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.
So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver,
all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast:
or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.

Yet, as previously hinted, this omnitooled, open-and-shut carpenter,
was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton. If he did not
have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow
anomalously did its duty. What that was, whether essence of quicksilver,
or a few drops of hartshorn, there is no telling. But there it was;
and there it had abided for now some sixty years or more.
And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him;
this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing;
but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes;
or rather, his body was a sentry-box and this soliloquizer on guard there,
and talking all the time to keep himself awake.

The ways in which this “man without qualities” is, at the same time, a pure potentiality, becomes clearer in the later play-like scene where Ahab casts him in the role of God. In any case, I think this passage supports CLR James’s claim that the true protagonist of Moby-Dick is the ship’s crew, trapped as it is between the intellectual domination of Ishmael and the directly political-theological domination of Ahab.

I started thinking, again, about all of these matters when, with Suzanne Stein and many other local poets and writers, I watched Fassbinder’s truly devastating Berlin Alexanderplatz at the SFMoMA this summer. I’m not sure I can think of any other film that displays such a range of affects. It seems to cover the whole spectum of human and inhuman feeling. Franz Biberkopf is, in many respects, a character like the carpenter above. His actions are seemingly without premeditation; he contains within him a spectrum of affects, from the most earnest sentimentality to the most terrifying rage. [It’s hard not to suspect that James Gandolfini based his portrayal of Tony Soprano on Biberkopf—not only are Gandolfini and Lamprecht matches for each other physically, but the alternately brooding and delicate mannerisms are nearly identical]. As an allegorical figure for either the German working-class or, more generally, the German people, he yields himself, in merely opportunistic ways, to the manipulations of the Nazis, of organized crime, and he flirts with anarcho-syndicalism. In each case, he remains rather indifferent to the ideological content of the group. He is self-actualized, but this self-actualization can’t be easily conceived in terms of any identifiable want or desire. He is “a stript abstract, an unfractioned integral.” As above, Fassbinder’s portrait of the German proletariat is, like Melville’s, not without its condescension.

What Biberkopf can’t bear, it seems, is his dependence upon another. But this is never phrased as a positive demand, only as a reaction to circumstance. There’s no small amount of Sartrean existentialism here. As a figure of radical autonomy, Biberkopf reacts murderously when he is enchained to other characters (Eva, Reinhold) through an exchange of women. Despite his refusal of work, what he never manages to refuse is the subservience of his girlfriends. His autonomy, in this sense, forces him into the role of pimp. He is unable to give a positive character to his autonomy—to negate the negation, if you will—and so proletarianizes those he loves and who love him. At every step of the way, his entry into society, and into the market, comes always by way of an exchange of women, even though, what he wants, in the end, is the refusal of work, a refusal of the market of exchange and value which objectifies him and those he loves. As a member of so-called lumpenproletariat—who as Silvia Federici and others demonstrate, should really be conceived of as part of the working-class proper—Franz finds that the informal economy of crime and prostitution mimics the logics of the formal economy. Given the staggering growth of global unemployment over the last 30 years, the portrait that BA provides seems important, since any resistance to capitalism will have to engage this group as a figure both of radical autonomy and radical dispossession.

Biberkopf already knows what he wants. Or rather, what he wants is beyond knowledge—it just is. He has no goals, no need of ideology. Working-class strategy is already inherent in him, but what he lacks is the tactical, constructive force which will allow him to actualize his own hatred of work.

The following scene, when Franz and his friend and partner-in-crime Willy go to a meeting of anarcho-syndicalists, makes this pretty clear. What I take from the film is that some synthesis of the two positions below would be necessary if Biberkopf is to avoid the fate—that is, Nazism—which befalls him, and by extension, the German working-class. Somewhere between voluntarism and spontaneism, Marx with just enough Nietschze to get you through to the other side:

[After hearing a rousing speech, Franz and Willy meet an old syndicalist who is walking his bicycle trough a rubble-strewn interior.]

Syndicalist: Come on. Tell us what work you do.

Franz: Oh, I get around. I do this and that. I don’t actually work. I let others work for me.

Syndicalist: So you’re an entrepreneur with employees. How many do you have? And what are you doing here anyway, if you’re a capitalist?

Franz (ringing the bell on the anarchist’s bicycle): I want to reduce Jerusalem to rubble and the abode of jackals, and lay waste the cities of Judah, so that no one can dwell in them.

Syndicalist: That’s just an excuse.

[Willy gets on a swingset in the ruined interior. Starts swinging.]

Franz: What do you mean? Haven’t you noticed I’ve got only one arm? That’s the price I paid for working. And that’s why I don’t want to hear anything about honest work.

Syndicalist: I still don’t understand, buddy, why you don’t work. If you don’t have an honest job, you must have a dishonest one.

[Franz and Willy get on a seesaw]

Franz: There you are. He’s caught on at last. Come over here, Willy. That’s it: dishonest work. Your honest work is slavery. You said so yourself just now. That’s what honest work is, and I learned my lesson.

Syndicalist: Okay, so you don’t work. But you don’t seem to be on welfare either.

Franz: No, I’m not on welfare either.

Syndicalist: Then I’d just like to ask, though it’s none of my business, what you’re doing here.

Franz: I was waiting for that question. You were talking just now about damned wage slavery, and saying that we are all outcasts with no room to move.

Syndicalist: Yes, but you weren’t listening properly. I was talking about refusing to work. But to do that, you’ve got have a job first.

Franz: And that’s what I refuse to do.

Syndicalist: That doesn’t help us. You might just as well go to bed. I was talking about a strike, a mass strike, a general strike.

Franz: And that’s what you call direct action? It’s just talk. Talk and more talk, yet you go to work and make the capitalists stronger.

Syndicalist: You idiot.

Franz: Hey. You make shells for them, which they later use to shoot you dead. And you want to teach me something? Do you hear that, Willy? Boy, it bowls me over.

Syndicalist: I ask you again what work you do.

Franz: And I tell you again: nothing! Not a lick. You can all kiss my ass, because I shouldn’t do any work, according to your theory. I’m not boosting any capitalists. And I don’t give a damn about your bitching and strikes, and what you keep going on about, what’s supposed to happen someday. I don’t give a damn. You’ve got to stand on your own two feet. What I need, I do myself. I’m self-sufficient.

Syndicalist: Just try to go it alone. Alone, you can’t do anything. We need militant organizations.

Franz: What?

Syndicalist: We have to set up militant organizations. That’s what we have to establish: militant organizations.

Franz: Organizations. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head. I’d really like to know that. On the one hand, you preach and say you’re against every system, against any kind of order and all organizations. On the other hand, you want to set up militant organizations. Don’t you see there’s something wrong in your head? Can’t you see that?

Syndicalist: Words are wasted on you. You can’t think straight. You’ve got a mental block. You don’t understand what’s important for the proletariat: solidarity. That’s what’s important.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish 1942-2008

--Good-bye, sir.
--Where to?
--Which madness?
--Any madness, for I have turned into words.

Labour Capacity and The Strategy of Refusal, Part I

[This post ended up being rather long, so I thought I'd break it up into two parts. Part II is here]

Rather than spend any more time arguing with Stan and his irrepressible sub-McCarthyite sophistries, I thought I’d actually look at some real questions of "socialist strategy."

With Nate H, one of my favorite bloggers, and some others, I have been re-reading Mario Tronti’s “The Strategy of Refusal,” as well as other translated essays from Tronti’s Operai e Capitale and a few pieces by his Quaderni Rossi collaborator Raniero Panzieri. It is from these essays that the basic lines of Italian operaismo (“workerism”) emerge, and so, valuably, I can detect in them all that I find provocative and useful in the later work of Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri and other writers associated with Autonomia, but without the sometimes baroque post-structural stylings that can get in their way.

There are some excellent short pieces on Tronti collected over at Long Sunday. Essentially, in this and other essays from Operai e Capitale, Tronti argues that the communist and socialist parties in Italy, and Marxist thought in general, have lost touch with the actual subjective and experiential character of the Italian working-class. Tronti’s is a sociological project that aims to reground Marxism in the experiences and the standpoint of the working class. It inverts the relationship between party and class set out in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, suggesting that the overall goals and views of any “party” must be that which the working-class already experiences and knows. The working-class contains the strategic perspective, the totality of desire for, and the vision of, the end of capitalism. The role of the party is not as a “vanguard” as we traditionally think of it, and not as a curator of class-consciousness, but merely a tactical weapon. It contains the ability to act quickly and forcefully in local, tactical situations, but nothing else (cf. Class and Party). Tronti’s is a kind of immanentist non-Leninist Leninism.

I don’t know much about the history of Italy, but from what I’ve read of Steve Wright’s book on these writers, Storming Heaven, I do know that it’s important to situate this work in a period when, as a result of the Marshall Plan, a Keynesian state and adoption of Fordist-Taylorist production by manufacturers in the North, Italian capitalism had been largely transformed: the so-called “economic miracle.” Panzieri and Tronti, for instance, both make use of Marx’s notion of “social capital” from Capital Vol. III —not to be confused with Bourdieu’s conception—in which the individual capitalists aggregate into a class-for-itself, producing “capitalist communism,” or a mode-of-production characterized not by individual producers competing with each other but by a single, state-administered front which regulates and administers production in order to 1) ensure enough redistribution of profits that overproduction/underconsumption is avoided 2) neutralize revolutionary ferment on the part of the workers. “Social Capital” functions not only through the dialectic of the wage in the workplace but by direct command (capitalist planning) over the totality of society. Not only is it true that “Capitalist power seeks to use the worker’s antagonistic will-to-struggle as a motor of its own development,” but also:

The surpassing of State capitalism by a capitalist state is not something that belongs to the future: it has already happened. We no longer have a bourgeois State over a capitalist society, but, rather, the State of capitalist society.

One can see in this an echo of Kojeve’s idea of the end-of-history involving a confluence of the Stalinist U.S.S.R. and American capitalism, merging into a single, administrative social form.

In the face of such eventualities, Tronti wants to reground Marxist theory by way of what Yann-Moulier Boutang called a “Copernican inversion,” putting workers first and capitalist development second. It’s important to note that, even though Tronti is writing to and from a particular conjunctural moment within Italian capitalism, the Copernican inversion is not, pace Negri’s reformulation of it as having to do with a new epoch in capital, something that suddenly becomes true in the 60s, but something that was always true. Here’s the pith of the essay:

Rather, stopping work—the strike, as the classic form of workers’ struggle—implies a refusal of the command of capital as the organizer of production: it is a way of saying “No” at a particular point in the process and a refusal of the concrete labor which is being offered; it is a momentary ‘blockage of the work-process and it appears as a recurring threat which derives its content from the process of value creation. The anarcho-syndicalist “general strike,” which was supposed to provoke the collapse of capitalist society, is a romantic naivete from the word go. It already contains within it a demand which it appears to oppose—that is, the Lassallian demand for a “fair share of the fruits of labour”—in other words, a fairer “participation” in the profit of capital. In fact, these two perspectives combine in that incorrect “correction” which was imposed on Marx, and which has subsequently enjoyed such success within the practice of the official working class movement—the idea that it is “working people who are the true “givers of labour,” and that it is the concern of working people to defend the dignity of this thing which they provide, against all those who would seek to debase it. Untrue. . . The truth of the matter is that the person who provides labour is the capitalist. The worker is the provider of capital. In reality, he is the possessor of that unique, particular commodity which is the condition of all the other conditions of production. [italics mine]

With this formulation, Tronti, very much like Moishe Postone in his Time, Labor and Social Domination, unhitches Marxist theory from the work-glorifying productivism of previous Marxisms, not to mention those Marxist humanists who would characterize labor as the ontological ground of all human society, while at the same time critiquing any merely distributionist opposition to capital, those who would, in the manner of the actually existing socialisms of the time, redistribute the fruits of the capitalist mode of production differently but retain the relations of production of capitalism. Like Marx, he identifies capital with these relations of production—capital is the direct imposition of these relations of production, and not merely a parasitic force that attaches to pre-existing relations and siphons off the surpluses from them.

Furthermore, because “capital” (that is, labour, the relations of production) is itself merely the ossified, dead residue of working-class labour-power (that is, capital), Tronti can then characterize capitalism as, essentially, the working class’s relationship to itself, in which the class of capital (givers of labor) serves only a mediating role. The fixed capital in the form of machines, inputs, and accumulated money, are there for the taking, and in many respects, the working-class (especially if one expands the definition to include some supervisors and technicians) will have more understanding of how to access, utilize and seize this material than the class of capital. All the working class needs to do then is take charge of its own capacity, and its own dead products, and refuse the commands/relations of “capital.”

Leaving aside the considerable question of state power, the problem here, of course, is that the fixed capital, the machinery, etc. can’t be disentangled from the relations of production; as Panzieri indicates, “the relations of production are within the productive forces.”(Panzieri, “Surplus Value and Planning”). The working-class’s inequality to itself seems almost constitutive, unless of course there is a positive element, a constructive proposal of different relations of production, that goes along with this refusal. But even then, unless capital is destroyed, those new relations will merely make capital stronger.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Statewide AFSCME Strike Starts Monday

Picket is at Bancroft & Telegraph MTW and in Dowtown Oakland, at the UC President's Office, on ThF. Please come out.

If you're a UC Graduate Student Instructor, you have the right to engage in a sympathy strike. Details after the AFSCME press release.
Contact: William Schlitz 510-701-0810
Lakesha Harrison, President, 310-877-6878

University of California Service Workers To Begin STRIKE July 14

Gas and food prices exacerbating poverty for workers

California – 8,500 University of California workers will begin a strike at UC's ten campuses and five medical centers on Monday, July 14. The workers do everything from cleaning and disinfecting hospitals and dorm rooms, to providing cafeteria service to patients and students, to ensuring hospitals and campuses are secure. They have been negotiating in good faith with UC executives for almost a year, but have remained deadlocked over poverty wages for months. An overwhelming 97.5% voted to authorize a strike in May.

UC's poverty wages are as low as $10/hour. With skyrocketing gas and food prices, many are forced to take second jobs or go on public assistance just to meet their families' basic needs. Roughly 96% are eligible for at least one of the following taxpayer-funded program: food stamps, WIC, public housing subsidies, and subsidized child care. In a difficult budget year, UC executives are pushing the costs of paying poverty wages onto California taxpayers.

"UC executives don't pay service workers enough to survive, but expect taxpayers to pick up the tab in the form of public assistance. We expect that from Wal-Mart – not from the University of California, a public institution – that's double dipping." – Lakesha Harrison, UC Licensed Vocational Nurse and President of AFSMCE Local 3299

Higher gas prices and stagnant wages have created a crisis for thousands of UC families that are already living paycheck to paycheck. Typically, the lowest paid workers at UC can only afford to live in low income communities farther away from campus, forcing a longer commute and higher fuel costs that use a disproportionate portion of their budget. Increasing wages would not only help lift workers out of poverty, but could positively impact CA and the low- and moderate-income areas where UC workers live as they contribute more to their local economy.

"It is always a struggle on UC salary. But now that gas prices are so high, I don't know how my family will survive. From week to week, it's a choice between gas, paying the electric bill, or putting food on the table. I don't want to go on public assistance, but I may have no choice."– Jaron Quetel at UCLA campus

UC wages have fallen dramatically behind other hospitals and California's community colleges where workers are paid family-sustaining wages that are on average of 25% higher. Additionally, University executives insist on increasing benefits costs that would drive families deeper into poverty. When workers have stood up for better lives for their families and better working conditions, the University has retaliated by violating labor laws.

During the strike, hundreds of medical workers may honor picket lines as a matter of individual conscience and refuse to work, "If UC executives insist on paying poverty wages, I cannot in good conscience cross the service workers' picket line. This is a public institution, and UC executives have an obligation to serve the public, not keep people in poverty. – Judy McKeever, Respiratory Therapist, UCSF

According to California State-appointed neutral Factfinder Carol Vendrillo, who independently evaluated the viability of a service workers' labor agreement, "U.C. has demonstrated the ability to increase compensation when it fits with certain priorities without any demonstrable link to a state funding source…It is time for UC to take a broader view of its priorities by honoring the important contribution that service workers make to the U.C. community and compensating them with wages that are in line with the competitive market rate." UC continues to reward its Executives with hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and lavish benefit packages.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, AFL-CIO represents 20,000
patient care and service workers at UC including licensed vocational nurses, medical techs and assistants, respiratory therapists, custodians, cafeteria workers, and security officers.
2201 Broadway Ave, Suite 315 Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 844-1160,
Service workers at the University of California have announced a strike beginning next Monday, July 14, 2008 and ending Friday, July 18. Service workers, represented by AFSCME 3299, have been in negotiations with UC administrators for almost a year now and have been working without an agreement since February 1, 2008.

AFSCME leaders inform us that negotiations with UC have been deadlocked since May, with a major sticking point being below-market wages and benefits: "UC's poverty wages are as low as $10/hour. With skyrocketing gas and food prices, many are forced to take second jobs or go on public assistance just to meet their families' basic needs. Roughly 96% are eligible for at least one of the following taxpayer-funded program: food stamps, WIC, public housing subsidies, and subsidized child care."

UAW Local 2865 stands in solidarity with AFSCME and, even during this time when many of us are not working, encourages all of its members to show their support for AFSCME. There are a number of things you can do, including going to the picket line, participating in AFSCME rallies, and sending letters in support of AFSCME workers to UC administrators (
There has been a lot of information circulating regarding the strike. While some of the information in circulation is good, other information risks jeopardizing the protected status of those who are working and choose to honor the picket line. To be safe, ASEs should rely only on official advice from the UAW.
YOUR CONTRACTUAL RIGHTS: Article 19, Section D.2 of the UAW/UC contract states: "Under this section, individual ASEs retain rights of free expression including their right to engage in activities in sympathy with other UC unions or bargaining units who are striking at the work location of the ASE. When ASEs exercise these rights and do not meet the expectation that they comply with the terms of his/her appointment, at the discretion of the University they may not be paid for work they do not perform." If you do elect to exercise your rights under the contract, please note the following:
PAY DOCKING AND SELF-REPORTING requests from your campus or department should be fulfilled. Just as you have the right support AFSCME's strike, the University has the right not to pay you for work you don't perform during a strike.
AVOID LEGALLY UNPROTECTED "PARTIAL STRIKING": If you choose to exercise your right to support the AFSCME strike, do not perform some of your job duties and not others during the AFSCME strike. You will be risking your legal protections.
RETURNING TO WORK: If you make the personal decision to support the strike by not working then, return to work on the first day that you would normally work after July 18, 2008. UC cannot require you to complete any work you didn't do during the strike without paying you for it. If you are employed this term and are asked to make up any work that was not done during the strike, call the Union for advice.
For the latest information, go to UAW Local 2865's website ( or AFSCME's website ( If you have questions or concerns, please contact your campus Union office using the information at the bottom of this e-mail.

In solidarity,

UAW Local 2865 Executive Board
Christine Petit, President
Daraka Larimore-Hall, Northern Vice President Coral Wheeler, Southern Vice President Sara Kirker, Financial Secretary Cassandra Engeman, Recording Secretary Meaghan Chadwick, Trustee Marco Chiodaroli, Trustee Laura Henry, Trustee Hugh Dauffenbach, Sergeant at Arms

UAW 2865 Berkeley
2855 Telegraph Ave, Suite 305
Berkeley, CA 94705
phone: (510) 549-3863 / fax: (510) 549-2514 /


And here's a short video about what it's like to live on the poverty wages that UC pays its service workers: