Everything you say about the conjuncture is very valid; but Isn’t to know the conjuncture precisely to know It Insofar as it is a lack?
—Pierre Macherey to Louis Althusser, May 10, 1965
Immediate struggles, practically and in their own discourse, produce unfalteringly, within themselves, an internal distance.
—Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment,” 2008
Louis Althusser’s central concept—structural causality—is the key term in his effort to theorize the immanence of historical process: “the immanence of a cause in its effects.”1 Althusser refers this concept of immanent cause to “Spinoza’s sense of the term,” namely “that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects.”2 But the problem of structural causality in Althusser’s work—that is, the manner in which this term continues to name a problem and not just a concept—devolves from the difficulty of transforming Spinoza’s metaphysical theory of substance into a theory of history, of the structural causality of capital.
As Warren Montag has shown—working from indications in Pierre Macherey’s correspondence with Althusser—a key marker of the tension between Althusser’s and Spinoza’s understandings of “the immanence of a cause in its effects” is the status of the “whole” in Althusser’s thinking of structural causality. Troubled by Althusser’s references to “the idea of the structured whole,”3 Macherey writes:
I understand all that you have said about the nature and the efficacy of structure and about the relations between structures. But it seems to me that when you speak of a set (ensemble) or of a whole, you thereby add a concept that is absolutely unnecessary to the demonstration.4
Althusser agrees, conceding that he has “a tendency to take refuge in certain of Marx’s texts where there is a reference to the ‘organic whole,’”5 lacking a more precise concept to remove this epistemological obstacle. Montag notes that this difficulty results in two discrepant concepts of structure in Althusser’s thought, one of “the whole whose causal significance lies in its assigning to its parts their place and function” and another conceiving of structure “as the conjunction of singular entities in a larger singular entity that persists in its conjoined state for a specific period of time.”6 Given the rift between these discrepant concepts, the question posed by Montag’s account is “why preserve the notion of structure at all if, even in Althusser’s work, it appears destined to transmit, as if by contagion, the ideology of a whole superior to and greater than its parts?”7
One might answer that it is precisely the contradiction between conceiving of structure as a whole acting upon its elements and conceiving it as immanent in its effects that both propels and limits Althusser’s theoretical enterprise, such that the problem is not so much how to secure a thinking of structure adequate to the second of Althusser’s discrepant concepts (the properly Spinozist one), but rather how to think the dislocation (décalage) of the two concepts as the immanence of structure. From this perspective, the way to meet the criterion of immanence is not to think it as a non-totalizable infinity, rather than the totality of the whole, but rather to think it as a rift (écart) perpetually detotalizing structure through an immanent process of division, the scission of unity through the movement of contradiction. This is the transformation of structural causality I want to explore in the post-Althusserian work of the Marseilles-based group Théorie Communiste. What will be at issue in this transformation is not only an adequate understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy, but also an understanding of the relation between theory and praxis adequate to the shifting structure of the class relation. But before we explore this transformation of structural causality, we need to attend more closely to how the criterion of immanence functions in Althusser, and how it is related to his equivocal reliance upon the concept of the whole.
The criterion of immanence is crucial to Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism insofar as it is aligned with Spinoza’s critique of voluntarist freedom. Althusser’s critiques of the concepts of alienation and species-being in the early Marx, of Sartrean freedom, of proletarian revolt as expressive of human essence, all con cur with Spinoza’s principle that free action cannot emerge from any origin or essence proper to human individuals, stated most directly in Ethics II.35.Sch: “Men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Therefore the idea of their freedom is simply the ignorance of the cause of their actions.”8 Note that belief in individual freedom is an epistemological problem for Spinoza; it stems from ignorance of causes. For Althusser this epistemological problem is bound up with our understanding of history. The false problem of the “role of the individual in history” indexes a true problem, which is to understand the historical forms of existence of individuality and particularly the place of individuals with respect to forms of production. This problem demands not simply an empiricist treatment—a description of history—but rather a conceptual articulation capable of grasping the structural production of forms of individuality, as well as the structural production of collective revolutionary activity.
As the effect of structure qua imminent cause, “the ‘subject’ plays, not the part it believes it is playing, but the part which is assigned to it by the mechanism of the process.”9 This is the Spinozist ground of the claim that history is a process without a subject. But understanding the assignment of parts by this “mechanism of the process” requires situating agency at a different level than that theorized by Spinoza. “For Marx,” Althusser writes, “the social relations of production do not bring men alone onto the stage, but the agents of the production process and the material conditions of the production process in specific ‘combinations.’”10 Here forms of agency are situated not as effects of individual freedom, but rather as historical effects of the process of production. But whereas Spinoza rejects belief in individual freedom as the effect of ignorance, he can nevertheless conceive determination itself as a form of freedom, through the alignment of desire and understanding with the infinite causality of substance. To “understand all things as governed by necessity,” within Spinoza’s ontological framework, is “to be determined to exist and to act by an infinite chain of causes.” It is through this understanding, which aligns the mind with the infinite through the understanding of causes, that “the mind succeeds in becoming less passive to the emotions that arise from things.”11 Because “the immanence of a cause in its effects” is theorized by Spinoza as a relation between the infinite and the finite (substance and modes), to understand this causal immanence is to grasp one’s being as aligned with the infinite itself (God), and thus to understand that the only adequate form of desire aligns thinking and acting with infinite causes rather than finite things. The power of reason to arrange affections of the body according to the order of the intellect is a power that stems from and is aligned with such infinite causes.12
But the theory of capital as structural cause (rather than God or Nature) allows for no direct alignment, through reason, of desire with determination. Rather, insofar as capital could be understood as a self-undermining structure (the revolutionary subject of capital is capital itself), its peculiar form of structural causality is a “moving contradiction” that divides agents into antagonistic classes. To understand revolutionary class action within this framework (rather than in terms of individual voluntarism), one must theorize a form of structural causality split against itself, rather than as an infinite chain of causes with which one could align one’s desire. For if “The idea of God, from which infinite things follow in infinite ways, must be one, and one only,”13 the causality of capital must be understood such that the one divides into two. Unlike Spinozist substance, capital is a historically finite structure of domination—which is precisely why it can structurally undermine itself, and why its structural causality can be displaced from within its determinations. Properly grasping this, however (without seeking shelter in humanist voluntarism), requires a theory of capitalist causality as immanent detotalization, rather than as totalizing whole.
In my view, it is the tension of transforming a theory of the causality of infinite substance into a causal theory of “the material process of production in specific ‘combinations’ “ that leads Althusser to take refuge in the concept of the whole. If this concept offers a sense of security, it may be because it promises the theory of structural causality a certain built-in epistemological adequacy, in the manner suggested by Spinoza: “Those things that are common to all things and are equally in the part as in the whole, can be conceived only adequately.”14 In Althusserian terms, it is understanding all elements of capital as equally in the part as in the whole—as an “organic whole”—that forces epistemological adequacy and exposes ideological error. Indeed, one might conceive of various deviations from Marx’s historical materialism (humanism, historicism, economism) as forms of investment in one or another element of historical process which fail to relate it equally to all other elements and to the structure of their relations. “It is the peculiarity of every ideological conception,” Althusser writes, “especially if it has conquered a scientific conception by diverting it from its true meaning, that it is governed by ‘interests’ beyond the necessity of knowledge alone.”15 The particularity of these “interests” detaches certain concepts or functions from the complex relations in which they are embedded, prioritizing part over whole. To the opportunistic response of ideology to historical circumstance, Althusser opposes the synchronic dimension of theoretical analysis itself, the capacity of such analysis to grasp a conjuncture in relation to the systematic determinations of complex whole: “The synchronic is then nothing but the conception of the specific relations that exist between the different elements and the different structures of the structure of the whole, it is the knowledge of the relations of dependence and articulation which make it an organic whole, a system.”16 This is the apogee of Althusser’s epistemological reliance upon Marx’s organic metaphor, where structure and whole are joined by the concept of system— even though the distinction between structure and system is never theoretically elaborated.
Following that passage, Althusser declares that “The synchronic is eternity in Spinoza’s sense, or the adequate knowledge of a complex object by the adequate knowledge of its complexity.”17 But here Althusser is quite wide of the mark, since Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge may be conceived as eternity because it is knowledge of eternity, grasped through the eternal essence of thought. Intellectual love of God, or the third kind of knowledge, “follows necessarily from the nature of the mind insofar as that is considered as an eternal truth through God’s nature.”18 Knowledge of capital, on the other hand, does not follow necessarily from the nature of the mind, and the synchronic theory of its structure is precisely not, according to Althusser, derived from the eternity of that which it understands. In his enthusiasm, Althusser would like to promote adequate knowledge of structural causality to the level of Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge; but such knowledge can only be ontological. Understood in Spinoza’s terms, the adequacy of Marxist science is that of the second kind of knowledge: the rational understanding of finite things through their complex causal determinations. Even this concession, however, presses upon the coherence of understanding historical materialism in terms of Spinozist epistemology, since even the second kind of knowledge (according to Spinoza) relies upon the capacity of reason to grasp the necessity rather than the contingency of what is the case. Adequate knowledge of capital is precisely knowledge of its historical contingency, even as we work to understand the determinations of its structural effectivity.19
If Althusser’s tendency to situate the concept of structural causality as knowledge of the whole is not only a tendency to take refuge in Marx’s organicist metaphors, but also an effort to sustain a strained homology with Spinoza’s epistemology, this effort also bears on the determination of knowledge itself. If, for Spinoza, we attain the third kind of knowledge by thinking according to the eternal essence of substance, for Althusser the kind of “sighting” at issue in Marx’s theoretical revolution is “no longer the act of an individual subject, endowed with the faculty of ‘vision’ which he exercises either attentively or distractedly; the sighting is the act of its structural conditions, it is the relation of immanent reflection between the field of the problematic and its objects and its problems.”20 Here we come full circle to the criterion of immanence, as knowledge of capital is produced by historical process, as “the act of its structural conditions” and through a relation of “immanent reflection.” Althusser tells us in a footnote that this concept of “reflection” poses a theoretical problem to which he will have to return. But when he does return to this problem in the promised section of his introduction, we learn that what is at issue between “the existence of the system” (a theoretical construction) and “the existence of the forms of order of the discourse” (hierarchy of theoretical concepts) is “the unity of dislocation of the system and of the discourse.”21 It seems that what the immanent reflection of the social totality within a theoretical system produces is a dislocation internal to the system, whereby the very existence of systematic knowledge is disjoined from the conceptual order that articulates it. The concept Althusser borrows from Marx to designate the hierarchy of concepts within a theoretical system is the “Gliederung,” the articulated combination of the elements of a structure—the same term he borrows from Marx to designate the structural articulation of the mode of production and social relations of capitalism. So, knowledge of the Gliederung of historical process produces, within that knowledge, the Gliederung of concepts constituting a theoretical system, and this articulated combination of concepts is held in a unity of dislocation with the existence of the system itself. Is this (theoretical) unity of dislocation also the “immanent reflection” of a unity of dislocation proper to the existence of the historical process in relation to its structural articulation?
If so, could this unity of dislocation be the site, within Althusser’s thought, of a potential break with his own effort to make historical materialism homologous to Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge? Rather than aligning theoretical knowledge with “eternity in Spinoza’s sense” (the unity of the infinite), one aligns it instead with a dislocation, within the theoretical field, that is the “immanent reflection” of a dislocation within the social and historical field. In this case, one would require an understanding of theory and practice adequate to a concept of immanence as dislocation itself.
THE PROBLEM OF ORGANIZATION
The practical double of the theoretical tension attending Althusser’s concept of structural causality is his commitment to the French Communist Party (PCF) and, more broadly, to the Party as an organizational form. This practical error also has to do with the difficulty of sustaining the criterion of immanence, of how to situate the “immanent reflection between the field of the problematic and its objects and its problems.” Gilles Deleuze tells us that Spinoza “is the vertigo of immanence from which so many philosophers try in vain to escape,” that Spinoza was the only philosopher “never to have compromised with transcendence and to have hunted it down everywhere.”22 If “the whole” is the theoretical site of Althusser’s compromise with transcendence,23 the Party is its practical site.
Althusser’s commitment to the Party is articulated most symptomatically in opposition to left communism.24 He sees left communism as a “historicist-humanist interpretation of Marxism” that “came to birth in the portents and in the wake of the 1917 Revolution” as a “violent protest against the mechanism and opportunism of the Second International.” He claims that “this ‘left-wing’ humanism designated the proletariat as the site and missionary of the human essence,” and that it “appealed directly to the consciousness and will of men to reject the War, overthrow capitalism and make the revolution.”25 On this basis, he argues, “Kautsky’s and Lenin’s thesis that Marxist theory is produced by a specific theoretical practice, outside the proletariat, and that Marxist theory must be ‘imported’ into the proletariat, was absolutely rejected—and all the themes of spontaneism rushed into Marxism through this open breach: the humanist universalism of the proletariat.”26 We can see how this defense of the exteriority of Party intellectuals to the proletariat, against the “humanist universalism of the proletariat,” might be aligned with Althusser’s conception of theory as “knowledge of the complex articulation that makes a whole a whole.”27 The exteriority of theoretical practice to the class on behalf of which it works enables it to sustain a structural perspective exterior to the structural position of the proletariat, considered as an element within the whole. The transmission of theoretical production from the Party to the proletariat would make the Party the organon of a totalizing structural knowledge necessary to counter the supposed humanist essentialism of left communism.
It is quite reductive, however, to characterize left communism as a direct appeal to the consciousness and will of men. Rather, it is best understood as a critical analysis of the relation between the categories of party, class, and masses within the communist movement. For example, Anton Pannekoek’s critique of the Party as a form of organization does not appeal directly to the will of men but rather to a different organizational form than the party—that of the worker’s council—as a means of developing the intelligence and practical strength of the masses, an organizational form that was more distributed and horizontal than centralized and hierarchical.28 For Pannekoek, the proper role of the Party was to promulgate and support the distributed action of such organizations, rather than bringing them under centralized control, so as to draw the masses into struggle as broadly as possible. This was not a direct appeal to the human essence of the proletariat or to the will of men; it was an argument that reliance upon party leaders reinforces bourgeois norms of political organization and encourages proletarian passivity. Thus, distributed rather than centralized organizational bodies should play the primary role in constituting the masses as a class. Pannekoek’s position does not rely upon the voluntaristic spontaneism of workers; it situates the dialectical production of theory within the movement as it is organized, articulated, and subjected to criticism by the distribution of councils or soviets.29 The weakness of Althusser’s critique of left communism corresponds to the weakness of his Kautskyist position on theoretical production, approaching both as if there were no organizational alternative to either humanist spontaneism or the exteriority of intellectuals to the proletariat.30
We find one side of this critique articulated by Jacques Rancière in Althusser’s Lesson.31 If it was not so before, it became very clear during and after May ‘68 that the PCF functioned as a counter-revolutionary obstacle to the dynamism of class struggle, and Rancière is right to denounce Althusser for his defense of its ossified form. The problem, however, is that by the time he comes to write his scathing critique of his former master, Rancière has positively adopted the caricature of left communism promulgated by Althusser; he identifies councilism with a humanist appeal to “the man workers,”32 in this case affirming rather than denouncing this identification.
Against Althusser’s anti-humanism, Rancière’s primary example of workers’ capacity for autonomous self-organization and self-determination is the Lip watch factory occupation of 1973, in Besançon. Revolting against planned layoffs, Lip workers took over their factory and continued production under their own self-management. Rancière identifies their autonomous production with the appropriation of instruments of production by textile workers in 1833, arguing that “the new chain initiated there leads straight to our present. Lip 1973: workers are not people one can separate and displace how one pleases.” As “a weapon to remember this by,” Rancière offers the song of the Lip workers: “It is possible: we produce, we sell, we pay ourselves.” It is possible, Rancière repeats, “the whole ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is played out there.”33 But what is “it?” Isn’t the whole ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat played out over what is possible? The problem is that it was not the destruction of wage labor or capital that was said to be possible at Besançon, but rather the preservation of wage labor and self-managed participation in the capitalist market. What the Lip workers found out, however, was that it was not in fact possible to sustain the firm’s capital through expanded cycles of reproduction without the layoffs that were planned, and their self-management of production collapsed under market forces. As a major crux of post–May ‘68 communist politics in France, the Lip affair does indeed exemplify the problem with the humanist orientation toward councilism that Althusser incorrectly attributed to left communism in general: the self-affirmation of “men” as autonomous producers does not suffice to break the structural hold of capitalist social relations upon production.34
It is practically and historically useless, however, to assign theoretical failure to proper names in such instances. The discrepant trajectories of “Althusser” and “Rancière,” the impasses they encounter in the relation between theory and practice, exemplify the problem of organization as it manifests itself in class struggle. We can grasp the difficulty of this problem by turning to two texts by left communist Paul Mattick, “Spontaneity and Organization” and “New Capitalism and the Old Class Struggle.”35 In these texts, Mattick considers the simple but crucial point that the organizational forms of communist struggle derive from the organizational forms of capital. Thus, any organizational form bears its counter-revolutionary incorporation within it. Capital produces the class which organizes itself against capital, and the organizational forms available to proletarian struggle are those made available by capital: the bureaucratic structure of the Party, unions organized by trade, councils organized by workplace, self-organized production in factories, the parliamentary formalism of the general assembly, the distributed information networks of late capitalist accumulation. The dialectical problem is that in order to function within capitalism, forms of organization emerge from and adapt themselves to its structures and imperatives. In order to do something socially significant, actions must be organized. But insofar as they are organized, actions to tend to accommodate themselves to capitalist channels. Within capitalism, no organization can be consistently anti-capitalist, and organizations that do not disturb prevailing social relationships grow and persist more easily than those which do.36 We see this in the historical accommodation of unions and parties, in the “self-management” of collective capitalism at Lip, or in the tendency of an organizational form like the general assembly toward reformist consensus. Any organizational form is at once a means of class struggle and an obstacle it must overcome. This dialectical analysis obviously does not involve taking a position “against” organization, but rather an acknowledgment of the constitutive contradiction with which anti-capitalist orga nization is bound up. It is a contradiction that applies equally to the council, the self-organized workplace, or the Communist Party.
While the errors of Althusser and Rancière seem diametrically opposed, both fail to grapple adequately with the problem of organization as it presents itself through both communist parties and self-organized councils. To analyze the dialectical problem of organization as Mattick does is to submit it to the immanence of structural causality, rather than either exempting theoretical production from immersion in proletarian struggle or putting one’s faith in the autonomy of workers themselves. Situated neither as an “element” of the structural causality of capital, nor in opposition to it as a “whole,” the problem of organization appears as something like the dynamic of the structure—its “moving contradic-tion”—and also as the limit of that dynamic, the manner in which the contradictory character of capital, manifest in anti-capitalist struggle, is folded back into its structural reproduction. In order for an analysis of class struggle attuned to the structural dialectic of dynamic and limit to be an analysis of the moving contradiction, it would have to understand struggle not as fully incorporated into a cycle of reproduction but also as the production of a rift, a structural gap, or decomposition within that cycle—one that threatens, at times, its recomposition as a cycle. To approach the movement of class struggle in this way, as the movement of history, would be “to know the conjuncture … insofar as it is a lack,” as Macherey suggests. This would involve understanding the relation between theory and practice in terms of the production of a lack, rather as the attainment of adequate knowledge of the whole, or as the autonomy of workers within the whole. It would involve thinking structural causality not as the immanence of structure in its elements (where elements are conceived as parts of a whole immanent “in” them), but as the immanent movement of a rift that both constitutes and threatens the reproduction of structure.
It is in terms of such an approach to structural causality that we can situate the work of the group Théorie Communiste (TC). Formed in Marseille in 1975, TC began publishing their journal (Théorie Communiste) in 1977; its twenty-fifth iteration appeared in 2018. Having contributed to the journal Intervention Communiste (1972, 1973) and to Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils (1968–73), the group emerged from debates in the wake of May ’68 concerning the legacy of left communism, the limits of self-organization, and the impasses of the council form. Their primary contribution, along with Gilles Dauvé and François Martin,37 has been to theorize the concept of “communization” as the manner in which the problem of revolution has come to be presented. Rather than conceive communism as the goal of revolution—approached through a seizure of state power moving through proletarian dictatorship and transitional socialism—the very process of revolution itself becomes the production of communism, sustained through the taking of “communist measures” that displace capitalist social relations and enable the reproduction of social individuals otherwise than as classes:
In the course of revolutionary struggle, the abolition of the state, of exchange, of the division of labor, of any kind of property, the extension of free-giving as the unification of human activity—in a word, the abolition of classes—are “measures” that abolish capital, imposed by the very necessities of struggle against the capitalist class. Revolution is communization; it does not have communism as a project and result, but as its very content.38
In the period of capitalist accumulation since the 1970s—this is TC’s wager—the problem of revolution presents itself as the problem of how these “necessities of struggle” can be met as the very measures that abolish capital, without requiring the prior seizure of the state or consolidation of worker’s autonomy within capital to carry out such measures.
Fundamentally, the theory of communization is a reformulated approach to an old problem: the self-abolition of the proletariat. The problem of revolution is conceived as that of how the proletariat, acting as a class, can reproduce itself as something other than a class. The self-abolition of the proletariat is thus conceived as immanent to the process of revolution: those measures required to sustain revolution are precisely those enabling proletarians to reproduce their existence without reproducing the class relation. If this seems like a daunting prospect, it should be recognized that Théorie Communiste does not think otherwise. The theory of communization is not a celebratory, predictive, or prescriptive theory; it is not a normative assessment of communist horizons. Rather, it is a descriptive analysis of how the problem of revolution has been altered by historical, structural transformations of the class relation. Its upshot is that, if the production of communism confronts proletarians more directly in than in the past, that is because the forms of revolutionary mediation proper to the history of the worker’s movement have been hollowed out by the restructuring of capital since the 1970s.
The restructuring of capital during the 1970s and 1980s analyzed by TC is perhaps most familiar through such terms as “post-Fordism,” “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and “financialization”—terms they steer clear of, the better to foreground structural transformations of the class relation to which these terms refer. The disaggregation of the working class by offshoring and globally tendential deindustrialization; the undermining of social welfare programs and socialist economic policies by austerity measures and the enforcement of structural adjustment programs; the expansion of both financial speculation and credit markets that temporarily detach forms of valorization from the direct process of production and that unfix consumer from direct correlation with wages: how to understand the significance of this restructuring, both in terms of the structure of the capitalist class relation and the structure of anti-capitalist class struggle? According to TC, “In restructured capitalism, the reproduction of labor power was subjected to a dual disconnection. One the one hand, disconnection between valorization of capital and reproduction of labor power and, on the other, disconnection between consumption and wage as income.”39
TC understands the detachment of the valorization of capital from the reproduction of labor power first of all as an effect of the geographic zoning of capitalist production into
capitalist hypercenters grouping together the higher functions in the hierarchy of business organization (finance, high technology, research centers, etc.); secondary zones with activities requiring intermediate technologies, encompassing logistics and commercial distribution, ill-defined zones with peripheral areas devoted to assembly activities, often outsourced; last, crisis zones and “social dustbins” in which a whole informal economy involving legal or illegal products prospers.40
This global reorganization and segmentation of the process of production, coordinated by logistics, is by now familiar. TC’s crucial analytical point is that “although the valorization of capital is unified through this zoning, the same is not true for the reproduction of labor power.”41 What is at issue here is precisely a dislocation between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labor. If logistics unifies the process of valorization across regional zones,
Reproduction occurs in different ways in each of these zones. In the first world: high-wage strata where social risks are privatized intermeshed with fractions of the labor force where certain aspects of Fordism have been preserved and others, increasingly numerous, subjected to a new “compromise.” In the second world: regulation through low wages, imposed by strong internal migratory pressure and precarious employment, islands of more or less stable international subcontracting, little or no guarantee for social risks and labor migrations. In the third world: humanitarian aid, all kinds of illicit trade, agricultural survival, regulation by all various mafias and wars on a more or less restricted scale, but also by the revival of local and ethnic solidarities.42
On the one hand, we have regionally discrepant modalities of capitalist production; on the other, regionally discrepant modalities of the reproduction of labor. But if these discrepancies were previously (and still are) recognizable in terms of uneven development, what they come to have in common is their necessity for the reproduction of capital. To be precise, both capitalist production and the reproduction of labor are fragmented in the service of the reproduction of capital, but labor itself is not unified by the fragmentation of its modes of reproduction. Capital is fragmented in production but unified in reproduction; labor is simply fragmented. If the discrepant reproduction of labor is unified for capital, the unified reproduction of capital does not unify the discrepant reproduction of labor. TC concludes that “the disjunction between the unified global valorization of capital and the reproduction of labor power adequate for that valorization is total. Between the two, the strictly equivalent reciprocal relationship between mass production and the modalities of reproduction of labor power, which used to define Fordism, has disappeared.”43
The “social compact” of Fordism and Keynesian regulation, whereby surging profit rates predicated upon rising extraction of relative surplus value enabled exploitation to correspond with relatively high wages and reasonable hours, is replaced by a separation: “the strictly equivalent reciprocal relationship between mass production and the modalities of reproduction of labor power.” A relative return to absolute surplus value extraction through off-shoring (low wages/long hours) corresponds with a fragmentation of proletarian reproduction.
At the same time, a second disjunction—in this case between consumption and wage—involves wage stagnation accompanied by increased levels of debt. Here we find financial speculation buoyed by credit markets that unfix spending from direct correlation with income. The 2008 economic crisis was the coming home to roost of this disjunction, whereby speculation on subprime mortgages encountered the insolvency of household economies, crushed by discrepancies between spending (debt) and income. TC notes that
In the succession of financial crises which for the last twenty years or so have regulated the current mode of valorization of capital, the subprime crisis is the first to have taken as its point of departure not the financial assets that refer to capital investments, but household consumption, and more precisely that of the poorest households. In this respect it is a crisis specifically of the “wage” relation of restructured capitalism.44
Here the stagnation of wages “catches up” with the disjunction of wages from consumption: “the current crisis broke out because proletarians could no longer repay their loans. It broke out due to the wage relation itself.”45 But if wage demands thus seem like an obvious response to this crisis, they also appear structurally incoherent at the level of class struggle, precisely because the disconnection between wages and consumption is accompanied by a disconnection between valorization of capital and reproduction of labor power. It is largely because of the zoning of capitalist production that wages stagnate, and that consumption must be untethered from wages by credit, since the reproduction of labor is now globally fragmented, and since a vast pool of surplus populations (thrown outside the wage relation altogether) obviates the necessity of meeting wage demands. Capitalist production and proletarian reproduction are no longer directly linked and coordinated as they were from the late nineteenth century through the Fordist system of regulation during the postwar boom. The place of struggle no longer necessarily corresponds with the place of production, since the zoning of the reproduction of labor does not correspond with the zoning of capitalist production.
PERIODIZING CLASS STRUGGLE
TC’s contribution to revolutionary theory is to analyze this double disjunction as concomitant with the emergence of a new “cycle of struggles” subsequent to “programmatism” (the modality of struggle proper to the history of the workers’ movement). Programmatism specifies a theory and practice of struggle for which revolution is a program to be realized, predicated upon the affirmation of working-class power. For programmatism, TC argues, “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalized self-management, or a ‘society of associated producers.’”46 They emphasize that
programmatism is not simply a theory—it is above all the practice of the proletariat, in which the rising strength of the class (in unions and parliaments, organizationally, in terms of the relations of social forces or of a certain level of consciousness regarding the ‘lessons of history’) is positively conceived of as a stepping-stone toward revolution and communism.47
Programmatism identifies revolution with the rising strength of the proletariat and its process with the organizational mediations of the workers’ movement.
TC periodizes the history of programmatism in two phases.48 During the first of these phases (ca. 1830–1920), capital is posed as an external force in its relation to labor, while the working class affirms its own capacity to liberate productive labor from capital. Yet through its mediations (unions, parties, cooperatives, societies, parliaments), TC argues, “the proletariat’s rising strength is confused with the development of capital, and comes to contradict that which was nevertheless its own specific purpose: its autonomous affirmation.”49 This contradiction is legible above all in the left communist analysis of the revolutionary period following World War I (especially the Russian and German revolutions): the revolution as affirmation of class power confronts counter-revolution in the form of its own mediations. This is an objective contradiction, not the result of an “error” on the part of one faction or another. The “infantile disorder” Lenin attributes to left communism, or the “betrayals” and “compromises” with which communist parties are charged by left communists, are expressions of an impasse of the revolutionary process: organizing itself against capital, the proletariat confronts itself as a class of the capitalist mode of production, now affirming its domination of production. If Lenin is correct that the compromises with which democratic centralism is charged by left communists are necessary for the revolution to continue, left communists are correct in charging that they are nevertheless counter-revolutionary. “From this point on,” TC argues, “the worker’s parties become the content of the counter-revolution closest to the revolution.”50 This is what we see during May ’68, for example, in the PCF’s polemics against student insurrection and its reformist encouragement of a return to work.
The second period of programmatism (ca. 1920–80) is also that of its decomposition. During this phase, corresponding with intensified extraction of relative surplus value, working class identity is stabilized and confirmed within the reproduction of capital:
worker’s identity is founded on all the characteristics of the immediate process of production (i.e. assembly-line work, cooperation, the collective worker, the continuity of the process of production, sub-contracting, the segmentation of labor power) and all those of reproduction (work, unemployment, training, and welfare). As such it is an identity founded on all the elements which make of the class a determination of the reproduction of capital itself (i.e. public services, the national delimitation of accumulation, creeping inflation, and “the sharing of productivity gains”); all these elements which positioned the proletariat, socially and politically, as a national interlocutor formed a worker’s identity which challenged the hegemonic control and management of the whole society.51
The workers’ movement is integrated into capital, “even integrating ‘really existing socialism’ within the global division of accumulation,”52 since this integration also structures conflictual class struggle.53 We see the impasse of this period, at its historical limit, precisely in such self-organized struggles as the occupation of the Lip watch factory: the council form, previously touted by left communists against the centralization of the Bolshevik party or the parliamentary social-democratic compromises of the SPD, finds itself affirming working-class identity as autonomy within the system of capitalist production.
TC situates the restructuring of capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s—understood as counter-revolution in the wake of the struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s—as the end not only of the second period programmatism, but of pro-grammatism in general:
There is no restructuring of the capitalist mode of production without a worker’s defeat. This defeat was that of worker’s identity, of communist parties, of unionism; of self-management, self-organization, and autonomy. The restructuring is essentially counter-revolution. Through the defeat of a particular cycle of struggle—the one which opened in the aftermath of World War I—it is the whole programmatic cycle which reached its conclusion.54
One sees clearly, then, that recognizing a new cycle of struggle—in which the problem of revolution presents itself not as transition or autonomy, but as communization—is far from a celebratory analysis. If communization is a theory and practice of revolutionary struggle situated as the “overcoming” of programma-tism, this only means that it is the theory and practice of a cycle of struggle recognized as subsequent to the latest counter-revolutionary restructuring of capital (rather than attempting to revive conditions prior to it). Nor is it a “determinist” theory—as if to recognize and articulate a new cycle of struggle were to claim the inevitability of the production of communism. To speak of “communism in the present tense,” as TC does, is to situate the current form of the contradiction between proletariat and capital, as it manifests in struggle, as the problem of communization; it is not to guarantee that problem will be solved or to laud the end of programmatism as a desirable outcome. It is merely to situate programmatism within its limits, the historical limits of its impasses, and thus to theorize a new dynamic that encounters new limits. The wager of TC is not that the production of communism is “now” inevitable, or that it has taken on its “final” form. Their wager is that the contemporary cycle of struggles has the following structure: the dynamic of struggle encounters its limit as communization—the self-abolition of the proletariat through communizing measures displacing the reproduction of the class as a class. This is the way the problem of revolution presents itself today. Théorie Communiste’s accomplishment is the production of a theory of class struggle at once structural and historical: it mobilizes Marx’s categories toward a rigorous history of cycles of struggle linking the transformation of the class relation with transformations of capitalist accumulation.
The problem posed by the end of programmatism is this: How can revolution proceed otherwise than through the self-affirmation of the working class? TC situates this problem directly at the level of reproduction. Capital, on the one hand, confronts a nearly fifty-year tendential decline in profit rates, offset by a series of speculative bubbles that pop with increasingly disastrous results.55 The proletariat, on the other, finds the process of production not only separated by the division of labor but dispersed across the globe, while the “class” of proletarians is increasingly composed of surplus populations without access to the wage.56 Working-class identity, previously beneath the professional aspirations of first-world college graduates, is now scarcely attainable, whereas mountains of debt and contingent labor are the norm. TC’s judgment that “the capitalist mode of production itself has run out of future”57 is not a prediction of its imminent demise but rather an assessment of its strange contemporary temporality: it promises nothing other than the uncertainty of its reproduction. Proletarians in struggle—whether factory workers, peripheral migrant laborers, displaced refugees, students, homeless people, communities of racialized minorities brutalized by police violence—cannot dream with any coherence of seizing the means of production or self-organizing the labor process. Struggles find the very ground of class solidarity bound up with the negation of class itself; as TC argues, class belonging (tenuous as it is) is manifest as an external constraint imposed by capital, rather than an affirmation of worker’s power.
THÉORIE DE L’ÉCART
Under these conditions, the dynamic of class action is the same as its limit: the negation of class. The analysis of this relation between dynamic and limit is articulated in TC’s major text, “Théorie de l’écart.”58 The combination of this title with the name of their group and journal constitutes a condensed formula of their theoretical perspective: communist theory is a theory of rift.59 This returns us to the problem posed by Macherey’s question to Althusser, pressuring his understanding of structural causality in terms of the “whole”: What does it mean to know the conjuncture insofar as it is lack?
This question revolves in TC’s work around a dialectical analysis of the relation between dynamic, limit, and rift. Defined within the categories of capital, the very existence of the proletariat becomes the limit of its own struggle as a class, “an internal limit which defines it and anchors it in categories born of the division of social and manufacturing labor, of the segmentation of labor power, of forms of life and of consumption.” Yet these are categories “no longer accompanied by an identity confirmed in the reproduction of capital, including a specific project for the reorganization of society.” In this situation, TC argues, “it is the reproduction of capital that the proletariat finds in the interior of its own action as a class as the limit inherent to this action.” This limit is situated directly at the level of reproduction, insofar as the proletariat confronts its own existence as a reproduction of capital within which the reproduction of labor is contingent. This limit is then also “the dynamic of this cycle of struggles,” since the abolition of its own reproduction as a class is precisely the content of revolutionary struggle against capital. “In the course of this contradiction,” TC argues, “in this cycle of struggles, the proletariat is brought to pose its own definition (its own existence) as a class as being an exterior constraint imposed by capital.” Without the self-affirmation of the proletariat as a horizon, but rather confronting its class existence as a constraint imposed by capital, the question posed as the contradiction between dynamic and limit is the fundamental revolutionary problem: “How can the proletariat, acting as a class, abolish capital, abolish classes, and thus itself?”60
This identity of dynamic and limit, however, “is not immediate,” since “in the course of actual struggles, there are certain practices which are the production of a rift interior to action as a class. This rift interior to the limit is the very existence of the dynamic.”61 Should this seem metaphysical, consider an example from the previous chapter. There we discussed a crucial sequence of “Occupy Oakland” which clearly illustrates this structure. Proletarians are expelled by the police from Oscar Grant Plaza, where they had been attempting to constitute conditions through which a struggle, predicated on class belonging, could reproduce its conditions of possibility through sustained solidarity and mutual aid. The encampment is a site that hovers upon the disjunction between acting as a class and acting against being a class: while it cannot, in isolation, reproduce the existence of proletarians as other than a class within capital, it poses the question of such reproduction; it explores the limits of this problem. Yet this dynamic—the constitution of such encampments around the country as a basis for class struggle—constantly threatens to ossify into a limit of that struggle: perpetuating the formalism of the general assembly for its own sake, accommodating the relative safety of reformist horizons, collaborating with civic authorities, and so forth. Insofar as the struggle works against this ossification, it puts itself in greater danger of police repression. Such repression, as an external constraint, would reinstitute simply being a class rather than acting as a class. Thus, when the plaza is cleared, the question becomes whether the dynamic of the struggle will have encountered its limit: class belonging. Guarding the cleared plaza, the police were the physical instantiation of this limit, of a return to normal. Yet, following an initial failure to reclaim the plaza, the very violence of police repression and subsequently renewed determination opens a rift within the limit of this struggle. The plaza is taken back, the general assembly votes for a general strike, the strike culminates in a march of forty thousand proletarians on the port, shutting it down for two days through blockade. Yet here again, this rift, which radically expands the struggle beyond previously anticipated horizons, and which mobilizes it (nationally) on a new front (coordinated blockades of shipping ports) itself encounters its own limits. Operating outside a strike or the self-organization of workers, the dynamic of this rift itself is the action of proletarians exterior to the loading docks (they are not dock workers) upon the functioning of the shipping port. Yet without the resources of the encampment from which they have marched, this blockade cannot be sustained over the long term, and a return to encampments after blockades eventually gives way to the reclearing of squares across the country by federally coordinated crackdowns. To encounter one’s class belonging as an exterior constraint imposed by capital, rather than as the self-affirmation of proletarian power, takes this form: there is nothing to affirm beyond the continuation of the camps themselves, which reproduce the existence of proletarian struggle within capital. Yet, the very form of this struggle involves an encounter with and exploration of proletarian capacities directly concerned with the problem of reproduction. How can the reproduction of capital be broken through mass blockades? How can the reproduction of proletarians be effected as something other than the reproduction of a class within capital?
TC analyzes numerous examples of “practices of the rift” over the course of their theoretical production, among them the 1990s movement of Argentine piqueteros, the 2005 anti-CPE struggle in France, the insurrectionary riots of 2008 in Greece. Consider the latter in relation to the programmatist nostalgia evident in the European left’s enthusiasm for Syriza’s rise to parliamentary power in 2015. In TC’s analysis, the principle contribution of the riots of students, young immigrants, and precarious workers in Athens was to confront the coercion of class reproduction not only as police repression, but through “all the social processes and institutions through which the proletariat is constantly put in a position in which it valorizes capital.”62 The riots, TC argues, confronted these institutions of reproduction without being able to break through “the glass floor” of capitalist production in order to generalize the struggle through blockades or attacks upon the process of production itself. This will, of course, be criticized as the limit of the struggle by those who view the riots as merely a disorganized effusion of discontent (and it is indeed analyzed as the limit of the struggle by TC). Yet we can see the clear distinction between the dynamic of this struggle and the programmatist activity of Syriza as direct participation in class coercion. Immediately following its electoral triumph, Syriza takes up the management of restructured capital, renouncing its campaign promises and reinstituting austerity measures demanded by the EU. Within two months, Syriza is itself overseeing the deployment of riot police to clear demonstrators from Syntagma Square. While programmatism, in the current cycle of struggles, appears to some as a horizonal solution to the problem of organization, it manifests itself directly as counter-revolution, without encountering the problem or posing the question of communization at the level of practical activity. Practices of the rift are those which confront this problem through action as a class against being a class. Pro-grammatism, on the other hand, functions today as a form of the coercion such action confronts.
I would argue that a theory of structural causality as a theory of rift (écart) runs not only through TC’s analysis of the present cycle of struggles, but throughout their structural historical account of the relation between capitalist accumulation and class struggle. Historically, the present cycle of struggles is produced through (1) the splitting and decline of programmatism between party form and workers’ autonomy; (2) the decline of programmatism through the integration of working-class identity into the reproduction of capital; (3) the division of that integration through the restructuring of the economy; (4) the double disjunction within that restructuring between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of the proletariat; (5) the posing of the problem of revolution directly at the level of reproduction, within the terms of this double disjunction. Within the present cycle of struggles, the problem of communization is posed through the opening of a rift within the identity of dynamic and limit, within the contradiction that struggles encounter in the very form of acting as a class against being a class, within the problem of reproducing, through communist measures, the class as other than a class within capital. TC’s theory integrates an analysis of the history of the class relation with an analysis of the history of class struggle, but it consistently performs this integration through a theory of division, disjunction, separation—of rift.
This theory of rift is a properly historical theory of communism:
The historical character of the contradiction between proletariat and capital signifies a relation in each case specific between the course of the cycle of struggles, constituted by quotidian struggles, and the revolution. This signifies as well the historicity of the content of communism. Communism is historical and it is in relation to the immediate course of each cycle of struggles … the communism of 1795 is not that of 1848, nor of 1871 or 1917, and still less of 1968 or our present.63
But this historical theory is not a historicism: it does not merely situate the problem of communism within particular “historical conditions,” according to the empirical course of events or political determinations. Rather, TC offers a structurally articulated history, in which distinctions between cycles of struggle are correlated with transformations of the class structure, analyzed through Marx’s categories.
Moreover, this structural history of capital, of class struggle, and of the content of communism is an anti-humanist theory. Like Althusser, TC rejects any conceptual reliance upon the “essence” of the proletariat and any reference “to some kind of humanity underneath the proletarian or to human activity underneath work.” Such a reference, they maintain, “not only traps itself in a philosophical quagmire, but always returns to the consideration that the class struggle of the proletariat can only go beyond itself insofar as it already expresses something which exceeds and affirms itself. The sweaty laborer has been replaced by Man, but the problem has not changed.”64 TC develops this critique of humanism at length in their exchange with Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic,65 whose analysis of “failures” of past revolutionary struggles renders communism a normative, ahistorical invariant and endows the proletariat with a communal human essence that will either be realized as communism, or not, in any given instance. TC’s critique of such humanism is a critique of an expressive, rather than structural, thinking of historical causality.
Like Althusser, TC offers a structural, anti-humanist, anti-expressivist theory of historical causality: one generated through the integral relation of the categories Marx constructs to analyze the history of capital. Unlike Althusser, however, they situate the production of this theory within the immanence of proletarian struggle: “Immediate struggles, practically and in their own discourse, produce unfalteringly, within themselves, an internal distance. This distance is the communizing perspective as concrete, objective theoretical articulation of the theorizing character of struggles.”66 This “theorizing character of struggles” is then formalized in theoretical texts responding to its exigencies and coordinating them with Marxist concepts. But it is produced, TC argues, by the “internal distance” opened within struggles themselves, by the rift which they open within the internal contradiction between dynamic and limit. Thus, “theoretical production belongs to a practice which is not ‘ours’ and to a theory which is likewise not ‘ours.’ We are referring to the practice of all those who through their activities create a rift within action as a class and posit it as a limit to be overcome. This is theory in the broad sense, practical class struggle reflecting on itself.”67
Whereas Althusser defends “Kautsky’s and Lenin’s thesis that Marxist theory is produced by a specific theoretical practice, outside the proletariat, and that Marxist theory must be ‘imported’ into the proletariat,” for Théorie Communiste theory is produced by the concrete practice of struggle and taken up within a structural, conceptual synthesis. However, even the ground of this structural synthesis itself is produced by the contemporary structure of the class relation and its corresponding cycle of struggles. By periodizing the structure of accumulation, of class, and of struggle, TC periodizes as well their own theoretical production; it accords with the production of theory by practice in this period of capitalism, during which the problem of revolution presents itself as communization.
The ground of communist theory is thus radically empirical. TC argues that “the negation by the proletariat in its existence as a class is interior to its action as a class,” and this negation is “empirically discernible” during this cycle of struggles. It is this kind of conjunctural empirical discernment that Althusser was able to apply to the Russian revolution, in the pages of “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” but which he was unable to glean from new forms of struggle articulated during May ’68. Because he lodged theoretical production in the exteriority of party intellectuals to the proletarian class, he was unable to transform his theory by learning from practices taking place around him. For Théorie Communiste, on the other hand, the transformation of theory by history depends upon empirical attention to the structural implications of what happens in practice, which must then be formalized by theory. That the problem of revolution is posed in a new way is something that “we can recognize empirically, such that we can say ‘there is something new.’ It is this newness that we claim to formalize in the theory of rift.”68 The dialectic at issue here is twofold: (1) between the structural transformation of history and the structural transformation of practice; (2) between the empirical manifestations of struggle and the rational formalization of theory. The “theorizing character of struggles” produces, empirically, both the historical ground and the structural demand for rational formalization.
We are now in a position to understand how such theoretical production transforms an understanding of the conjuncture as a “whole” into an understanding of the conjuncture as “lack,” and how it meets the criterion of immanence in doing so. For Althusser, the criterion of immanence must be secured by knowledge of the structural whole. Since he draws his understanding of this criterion from Spinoza, it involves him in a confusion of historical and ontological levels of understanding, a confusion that embroils his understanding of structural causality in an epistemological contradiction between the second and third kinds of knowledge (the former of which is applicable to historical materialism, the latter of which is not). Like Althusser, Théorie Communiste certainly does refer at times to the “whole” and to “totality.” For example, they understand the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of the proletariat as unified by the “capitalist mode of production as a whole.” However, they develop a theory of that “whole” as a theory of rift: of the double disjunction through which the reproduction of capital and proletariat must be understood in the present, and of the rift within the limits of contemporary struggles opened by their dynamic. Moreover, they make theoretical production itself immanent to the production of that rift.
The criterion of immanence within the work of Théorie Communiste thus does not rely upon an analogy with something like the third kind of knowledge, in which knowledge of “the whole” would be akin to knowledge of substance. On the contrary, knowledge of the capitalist mode of production, in the present, and of its interior contradiction, called communism, is immanent to the rift opened by that contradiction, produced by the structure of practice and formalized by a theory of structure: a theory of structural causality as a theory of rift.
In a 2006 interview published in an issue of the journal Riff Raff, titled “Communist Theory Beyond the Ultra-Left,” Roland Simon of Théorie Communiste acknowledges, “with a lot of precautions,” the group’s debt to “Althusser in his critique of Hegelian Marxism, and his critique of humanism.” He continues, “I think that there Althusser, Balibar and sometimes Rancière, are essential. It’s not for all that that we are going to take up his theory of the epistemological break, or treat Marxism as a science. But there is a lot to be learnt in the critique of humanism.”69 What TC learns from the critique of humanism and Hegelian Marxism in the pages of Reading Capital (not only from Althusser, but also Balibar and early Rancière), is to develop a theory of structural, rather than a normative or expressive causality. If Simon advises “a lot of precautions” in acknowledging this debt, it is in part because TC transforms that theory of structural causality by stripping it of its untenable epistemological alignment with a metaphysics of substance, turning instead to the immanent production of theory by practice for the criterion of their epistemology. Simon also distances himself from Althusser’s theory of the epistemological break and the treatment of Marxism as science. In my view, however, TC’s transformation of the theory of structural causality is an excellent example of why the theory of the epistemological break matters. Simon likely sees in Althusser’s understanding of the epistemological break a separation of theory from practice—in which case he would be correct to take his distance from it. However, TC’s work is exemplary of the epistemological break, of the “scientific” character of Marxism, insofar as they do not separate theoretical production from proletarian practice. Rather, they coordinate the formalization of concepts with the theorizing character of struggles in such a way as to show that Marxist theory (and Althusserian theory) retains the coherence of its conceptual articulation through the history of its revision by practice.
Science is the coordination of the rational and the empirical in the medium of written formalization, but it is a coordination that must also respect the interruption of the rational and the empirical by one another: the manner in which history interrupts theory, while theory intervenes in practice, because neither ever separates itself from the other. TC shows that Marxist theory, communist theory, is not simply ideology, because it articulates and periodizes the structural transformation of communist practice that must be recognized so as not to reproduce ideology. It is by making the concept of structural causality adequate to the present cycle of struggles that the theory of rift enacts an epistemological break: it renews Marxist theory by revising it—against a programmatism that has become ideological, and against a humanism that always will be—so as to sustain Marxist theory as adequate knowledge of the problem of revolution.