On Jason Read’s The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Pre-history of the Present in the context of the emergence of noborder campaigns. Borderlands 3:2 2004, and below the fold
The encounter between the flows of money and those who have nothing but their labour power to sell is constitutive of and constituted by new desires, new habits and new subjectivities. —Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital.
1. If for Althusser it seemed necessary to read “to the letter”—by which he did not mean a kind of punctilious scholasticism but alertness to both overt meanings and hesitations—it was just as important to declare what sort of reading one is guilty of. This is as much a review of a book that brilliantly puts that approach to work reading a number of theorists as it is a reading with regard for particular struggles and debates. What interests me here, given that I share the theoretical perspectives which inform The Micro-Politics of Capital, are what I see as the more troublesome details of those perspectives as they are brought to bear on political practices, specifically recent struggles around border policing and the writing of them.
2. The connection between these theories and political practices is hardly incidental; however, this is far from asserting that those political practices derived from these theories. In any case, the emergence of the noborder networks and associated protests (such as that at Woomera in 2002) are inseparable from a wider dissemination of the theories referenced by MPC. Briefly put: the movements of undocumented migrants have disrupted forms of subjectivity and representation bestowed by the nation-state, calling for a political practice and solidarity adequate to this challenge. Therefore, theories that speak to these questions are assured of importance. Nevertheless, in the struggles against border controls what is at stake in the detail of those analyses becomes more pronounced.
3. In 1999, xborder was formed by a handful of people as a space in which to explore the practical and theoretical implications of the autonomous movements of the undocumented. At minimum, this amounted to reversing the usual sociological-political definitions of what a movement is, entailing an insistence on a materialism of physics over a demographics of visibility and mediation—which is to say, requiring an attentiveness to the physics of class composition (as elaborated by Sergio Bologna). Because of this regard, xborder shared an idiom with some others in the noborder networks (from the Netherlands, Germany and Mexico) who assembled a conjunction between newer forms of work and communication and undocumented movements by adopting the language and topography of the net: xborder, makeworld, border=0, etc. The conjunction was deliberate and strategic: the development of a shared dialect of mobility, precarity and escape expressed in both vernacular and organisational forms.
4. Yet the particulars of the relationship between representation, media and visibility remained to be worked out in practice, often through oblique debates over the specifics of organisational structure and methods. That is, while the noborder networks were indeed distinguished (as Illuminati wrote in a discussion of unrepresentable citizenship) by “a ‘letting-be’ that is set against institutional arrogance”, in actual terms this meant that there co-existed both the not-yet-represented (which searches in lobbyist fashion for representation) and the radical refusal of representation” (Illuminati 1996:167). That said, we can consider the book at hand and the theoretical register in which those discussions were often articulated.
5. Much of MPC is taken up with an examination of the concepts of transition, specifically Marx’s treatment of the transition from pre-capitalist to a specifically capitalist mode of production. Pivotal to this analysis are the concepts of formal and real subsumption, in whose distinction Marx sought to indicate an historical metamorphosis in the form of labour and, as its correlate, changes to the forms of command, exploitation and violence. The analysis sought to describe a shift from the violence of mastery to that of self-regulation which characterises wage labour and its putative contractual freedoms in a more contemporary idiom: the processes of habituation, the engagement of affects and formations of identity. In short: the production of subjectivity, at once subjugated and subjectified, presenting as the agentic subject of the wage contract and exploited in so doing. Alongside these transformations in thecharacter of labour come changes to both the scope and form of capitalist exploitation, the social diffusion of capital into spaces and activities (such as theoretical practices) that previously existed outside the immediate relations of production, even if occasionally applied to it.
6. This analysis of real and formal subsumption has been influential among variously ‘heretical’ Marxists (e.g., Negri and Althusser), while any reference to affects, subjectivation and habituation raises many of the questions that preoccupied Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. Yet, as Read shows, what brings the aforementioned writers to bear here is not their political or philosophical conformity but their contemporaneity. As Warren Montag remarks on the cover ofMPC, “This represents the perspective of a generation no longer constrained by the notion of opposing theoretical camps so prevalent in the 1980s and ’90s.” More acutely than this, MPCindicates the perspective of a generation for whom the standard academic distinctions between the economy, society, politics and culture—or between analyses of subjectivity and labour- make little tangible sense. Drawing on various writers associated with Potere Operaioand Autonomia (Negri, Tronti, Virno), as well as Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Read deploys a number of concepts such as immaterial labour, general intellect, social capital, immanent causality and the multitude so as to elaborate on the subjective transformations that might be said to characterise the present conjuncture. The concept of immaterial labour, for instance, specifies the rise of informational, communicative and affective labour in the organisation of capitalist valorisation and exploitation. Therefore it, along with other changes Read carefully describes, assumes “capital’s direct involvement in the production of subjectivity” (2003: 159). This book is an important and often quite brilliant work.
7. To underscore what is at stake in this contemporaneity: while the above analysis poses the question of transformations within capitalism, it thereby complicates the related question—if one feels obliged to ask it—of what against might consist of. For if capitalism works directly on the affects, desires and through habituation, and if both the creativity and exploitation of immaterial labour functions on and through this terrain, then, to the extent that this analysis is not always directed and diverted elsewhere (at others), two simple yet perilous questions should present themselves: Why does one take up a book (any book) to read and why might one write? This echoes one of Althusser’s reasons for paying homage to Spinoza, but restates it explicitly as a problem of the affective, subjective disposition of intellectual and political practices in a context of immaterial labour. To foreground those perils: how might one even begin to answer those questions given that knowledge, desire, subjectivity, and therefore the practices of reading and writing are part of the circuitry of capitalist production, when it is no longer (simply) a question of recuperation but of entanglement?
8. In opening MPC with this citation from Althusser—that “Marxist theory can fall behind history, and even behind itself, if it ever believes that it has arrived”—Read signals a politics of reading (and writing) which promises to exceed the conditions of its (or any books) production and reception. As Read puts it in a discussion of Foucault and Marx, if subjectivity is not exterior to power but constituted as a moment of it, then the question of resistance is a question of “invention irreducible to its conditions” (2003: 90). To put the above in an other way: the least disquieting way to approach MPC is as a comparative study of a number of more or less well-known theorists whom we might feel obliged to cite, either indifferently or as markers of theoretical accomplishment. In this sense, the book could function as handy canonical summation or, equally comfortably, as proof of the worst hopes of those who prophesied against the rise of ‘postmodernism’: evidence of a deep intellectual complicity between Althusser, Foucault and Deleuze in a scheme to liquidate humanity and destroy the revolutionary integrity of Marxism. But differentiation here was at the same time a gesture of constitution: the category of autonomist marxism was produced in the organisation of an Anglophone political-academic franchise; so too was the designation of Althusser and Balibar as structuralists, and of Foucault and Deleuze as poststructuralists or postmodernists. For English-language readers, the writings of Deleuze, Negri, Althusser et al could only be received by way of translation, through exegeses written in the realist mode of the textbook, and (until the expansion of the internet) within the circumferences of the academic publishing industry. Here, both assertions of distinction and the assembly of imagined communities are at a premium, forming the reigning covenant under which markets (rather: niche markets) are constituted and academic or intellectual labour is put into circulation and valorised.
9. In other words, the physics of translation functioned here as a deterritorialisation of idioms that were transacted and given expression through acts of re-territorialisation. This marshaling of distinguished communities, of course, finds its political analogue in factions and parties, whose arrangement behind proper names (such as Marx, Trotsky, Negri and so on) and assertions of fidelity to them likewise operate as a form of niche-marketing, as markers of ahabitus in which potential readers are also potential consumers/recruits. Read, however, is quite clear that he is neither concerned to “distinguish between proper and improper interpretations of Marx nor to produce a sort of intellectual counter-history” (2003: 7 & 15). Nor does he wish to “adjudicate between Marxism and post-structuralism as methods or antagonistic camps within academia.” MPC is, thankfully, not another guidebook for inter-disciplinary harmonisation or bridge-building, a programme for smoothing over the antagonisms where they do appear. The symptomatic reading that Althusser elaborated was not presented as a better form of analysis as such, but as a means to open up a text to the radical creativity of antagonism, to explore how writing—and reading too—continually conflicts with its own internal limits (2003:160) and those of its mode of production.
10. Nevertheless, it is quite conceivable that by setting aside its politics of reading, MPC might well be received as an instance of a new political denomination rather than the disruption of academic or political habits. After all, as Read contends—following Althusser—habits are indeed the means by which particular forms of subjection are naturalised, the ways in which contingency is transformed into necessity. Academics in order to continue being academics must publish; political factions must persuade and recruit to be maintained as such. The content of such does not really matter, just as—or rather: because—capitalist valorisation is indifferent to content. “In the case of both the commodity form and abstract labour the issue is how things, or practices, in their diverse or heterogeneous particularity” (2003: 70) are related, exchanged and made exchangeable.
11. This too is a matter of physics rather than the manifestation of (unconscious) beliefs which may then be overturned through, as Leninists would have it, a struggle against forms of ‘false consciousness’. Physics, then: it is above all a question of bodies in motion (and thus of resistances, stasis, inertia, entropy and direction) well before it assumes the semblance of any ethical or political dilemma. Immaterial labour is no less materialised or given effect through its quotidian practices, however linguistic or communicative those practices are, than is the labour that through its motions produces paper. But unlike the latter, immaterial labour is characterised by the requirement to—as Lazzarato has argued—’become subjects’, which entails reposing the hierarchy between autonomy and command at a higher level rather than abolishing it, thus mobilising and “clashing with the very personality of the individual worker”. It is not a question therefore of the external imposition of power but of a pressure given public expression in the imperative to communicate, the demands to be active, to communicate, to relate to others which admonishes and materialises the subjective forms of immaterial labour (Lazzarato cited in Read 2003:148). Not at all surprising, then, that silence or a refusal to compete (rather than dissent) is here registered not only as impolite, but as aggressive—above all, the conversation must continue, the game of exchange must be adhered to. (A notable instance of this imperative appeared in the case of Merlin Luck, who rather than speak at his televised eviction from Big Brother and thank his host for the product placement, opted to tape his mouth and hold up a note calling for refugees to be freed from Australia’s internment camps. He was accused of being aggressive, to which he responded by re-entering the game of communication (tv interviews, radio talkback, etc) and, subsequently, talking about how much he loved Australia and wished to become its citizen.)
12. Content does not matter so much; what matters is the form. As Read argues with more than a nod to Deleuze and Guattari: “There is no possible contestation at the level of code or belief.” Antagonism does not take place through a conflict or competition between beliefs, this or that form of consciousness, however false or true they may be declared in the constitution of brand names. Capitalism operates through the axiomatic, the “differential relation between abstract and quantitative flows.” Capital produces an indifference to and abstraction of concrete labours, the qualitative differences between the creation of this or that. Pluralism is perpetually flexible—codes can be added and exploited in an infinite categorical and innovative expansion. It does not really matter what anyone believes, even less because public assertions of belief habitually indicate a cynical or opportunistic adherence to ‘whatever’—a condition that Virno has argued characterises the ‘general intellect’. For Read:
The epochal distinction between precapitalist and the capitalist mode of production is not only a distinction between subjective and objective domination but also a shift in how this domination is lived. Whereas prior to capitalism it is lived through the codes, structures of belief and personal subjugation, in capitalism it is lived through abstract operative rules, which are not necessarily believed or grasped. (2003: 71)
13. Given all this, it is useful to press at the limits of MPC. In the first instance, this is to specify what Read identifies as the limits of a more traditional reading of Marx, namely, humanism and economism, that is: the reduction of the movement of history to (and therefore the constraint of possible futures by) essence and teleology—the one cause, declared as either the immutable form of labour, human nature, the economy or so on. The question that follows from this, then, is to what extent MPC escapes (or at least irritates) these limits, including the limits which flow from and are related to the above analysis of immaterial labour, real subsumption and so forth. Read says:
In a way I have perhaps mirrored Marx’s own error. He became so engaged with his ‘critique of political economy’ […] that he often neglected to propose much with respect to the difficult questions of political organisation and struggle. (2003:160)
14. He does not mean by this that theory should assume the role of announcing blueprints: “there is no theoretical resolution to the problem of antagonism in real subsumption” (2003:151). What I take this as is a frustration with the limits of the mode of exposition: (a) the historical schematisation of capitalism, which arranges the subsequent investigation into the problem Read identifies initially as “the paradoxical conjunction of the expansion of capital and the exhaustion of any critical vocabulary with which to confront it” (2003:2); and, (b) the recourse to proper names. In this sense, MPC’s distance from particular struggles becomes manifest not as an irrelevance—far from it—but as a hesitation before the difficulties of an antagonistic theoretical practice which produces not a hermeneutics but an intervention into specific struggles and the conditions of their writing and theorisation.
15. The quote from Althusser that opens MPC is not simply a disclaimer of systematicity. It is a claim for a materialism of theoretical practice: thinking, no matter how much it seeks to assign to itself a pre-eminent status in history, is only intelligible and creative through “the precariousness of history”—of movement; it is always endangered and made dangerous through this flux. (Althusser, 1983: 17) Historical schema—even if only intended for expositional purposes—tend to calm this flux and, in the presentation of the epochal, stage a hermeneutic subject who can declare the new and thereby distinguish itself from both this complexity and “the indistinct masses who supposedly inhabit the ruins [of that declared superseded by the new] without knowing it” (Ranciere 1991: 246). The assertion of a new epoch, whatever else its advantages might be, serves to implicitly divert the force of the analysis elsewhere: being able to declare the new is to assume the pose of an agentic subject rather than explore one’s own subjection. Raising this question might have allowed for a discussion of the substantial differences between Virno, Lazzarato and Negri on the question of immaterial labour and the multitude, of the extent to which Negri and Hardt, for instance, invest the latter with the character of a (newer more adequate) vanguard.
16. What is the relationship between the declaration of the new, the epochal, and what Lazzarato discerns as the form of exploitation particular to immaterial labour: the slogan ‘become subjects’, the compulsion to communicate, network, to constantly circulate and be visible within the marketplace of ideas as it were? Many of the debates among those in the noborder networks rested on the specific answers given to this question: was no borders a slogan; a demand (and, if so, on whom?); a means to recruit people to an organisation with ostensibly better ideas than other organisations in the political marketplace; a form of consciousness-raising; a cynical or whatever declaration of belonging and identity—a brand name—with no implications for the form of political organisation or practice? More sharply, and with particular reference to Woomera2002: do political actions aim to alter what people think or to disrupt the physics in which they have been habituated? In many ways, these debates occurred because the composition of noborder struggles was premised on a conjunction between immaterial workers and undocumented migrants. It was, therefore, not only a debate about the difficulties involved in the relation between the two—which could never be asserted as commensurate in their misery—but a debate about the contradictory dispositions within the former.
17. Even if the periodisation of the new is not, as Read notes, an argument for any wholesale displacement, it is an answer to the question of the pertinence of particular forms of labour for the organisation of capitalism. Lurking behind this question of pertinence is the rather traditional marxian search for the effective subject of history and of revolution. We know that the answer given here—the multitude—has shaken its explicitly humanist and economistic formulations. However, it has not, for all that, quite abandoned its teleological or pluralist-synthetic dynamics in some instances. For Negri and Hardt, the multitude reveals the destiny of global citizenship—which is to say a global state or, in Spinozian terms: absolute democracy. I have discussed global citizenship and rights previously in Borderlands and elsewhere. Suffice to note here that this absolutisation of democracy expresses the universalisation of abstract labour in its juridical formand rights are indeed the correlate of abstract labour, as Read notes (2003: 150). The “social factory” that Tronti analysed is, in the proposition of global citizenship, transformed into the juridical conditions of the global factory.
18. If, as Marx says, communism is the movement which abolishes the present state of things, it is not a question of seeking out an ontological consistency (Negri) but of working on the inconsistencies, in the flux (and reflux) of history rather than engaging the rather Hegelian formula of “recognition, consciousness, revolution” which distinguishes Negri’s analyses of class composition from those of, say, Bologna (Negri 1991: 162). For Negri—and the Tute Bianche (White Overalls) who gave the closest practical expression to his analyses—the aim was therefore one of recognition and visibility, of making undocumented migrants visible on the plane of mediation. For the Tute Bianche “the white overalls give us visibility in the spectacular/mediatic space” (White Overalls). All this gestures toward long-standing disagreements within European ‘autonomist’ circles: Sergio Bologna’s disposition toward ‘the tribe of moles’ has been echoed by Yann Moulier-Boutang who, reflecting on the Italian movements of the late 1970s, stated that of the “invisible party of Mafiori” he much preferred the invisible to the party aspects. These differences over recognition, visibililty and mediation continue to mark recent struggles. Franco Barchiesi, among others, has argued persuasively against the self-evidence of “inclusion” approaches in migration struggles. Moreover, the concrete practices of tactical media which predominated among the noborder networks (Garcia and Lovink 1997) diverged between a tactical media applied alongside a tactical clandestinity; or media as strategy, as a form of lobbying of the not-yet-represented.
19. Moreover, if computerisation and the net displace the centrality of the university in the elaboration of intellectual practices (and the development of the general intellect), just as the restructuring of the labour process and forms of labour generally make Leninism and the Party obsolete, these changes do not abolish, as Lazzarato says in relation to immaterial labour, the hierarchy of command and autonomy which inflects such prior formulations, but reposition it at a higher level. Therefore, the destitution of those forms of representation recognised by the nation-state and the forms of politics which remain tributary to it, and their inadequacy to the current conjuncture cannot therefore simply be declared. A critique of Fordist forms of political practice is not sufficient. It is also a matter of noting the limits of that declaration (the “perverse perseverence” of what is deemed past—see Burke 2002 and Caffentzis 1998) and the ways in which that hierarchy is reinstated in the declaration.
20. The hierarchy between command and autonomy—while dispensing with its outdated versions such as the party cadre—becomes diffused in the form of a practice which re-asserts versions of that hierarchy in the distinction between activists-intellectuals and everyone else, whom apparently neither think nor act politically. The identity of the activist (or intellectual) is meaningless without the assertion of a specialised, transcendental status in relation to the world and to others. And, in its particular manifestation around border struggles, it rendered two responses to the movements of the undocumented, which are distinguished only by the stratum of their juridical recourse: national and global. The first, irreversibly shaken and therefore in decline, but dogged in its calls for a nation-state that might somehow be capable of going beyond the limits of national recognition; the second, pressing for a more adequate de jure recognition of those global undocumented movements through the de facto proposition that ‘no one is illegal’.
21. Arguing against the overture of the ostensible benefits of inclusion—and not perhaps because of a familiarity with Agamben’s arguments on the intrinsic relationship between inclusion and exclusion as it manifests in the nomos of the camp—Borderhack from Tijuana responded: Somos Todos Ilegales / We Are All Illegal (Fran Illich, Borderhack 2002 Panel discussion, makeworld conference, Munich). In 2001, the slogan for the European Border camp was changed from ‘No One Is Illegal’ to ‘Everyone Is Illegal’. In the same year, another group calling itself ‘No One Is Illegal’ was established in Melbourne.
22. It was always a question of physics, spatial organisation and representation, including the presentation of the connection between the two in the understanding of the transitional. Here, Marx’s discussion of the violent origins of capitalism—the enclosures, laws against vagabondage, etc—cannot be relegated to the past but need to be restated as mechanisms held in perpetual reserve by capital, through which it transforms the organisation of space and exploitation. The enclosures, the poorhouses and forced labour are not in some Dickensian past—they alter in form but their centrality to the processes of violent reconstitution and the restoration of exploitation remain. That is: they become globalised as people attempt to escape previously dominant manifestations of the enclosures which are thereby rendered inadequate by that exodus. The millions of undocumented migrants have provoked not only a frenzy of national border controls but also the extension of the jurisdictional reach of particular nation-states and the emergence of a militarised, global humanitarianism, always threatening to intervene on their behalf if people spill over the appropriate lines on the map. The development of a global jurisdictional reach—or more affably put: global citizenship—is an innovation in the organisation of the enclosures; it is not a challenge to them. “The social rights State distributes legality in order to reintegrate the underprivileged within the fiction of a guaranteed community in exchange for renouncing the virtual subversiveness of difference” (Illuminati: 1996: 176). The exodus has already prompted the juridical, military and fiscal organisation of a global state architecture from which no exodus will be possible except, to put it in Agamben’s terms, at the sheer threshold between life and death. The possibility of flight assumes conflicts between jurisdictions—the hypothesis of global jurisdiction makes such flight impossible.
23. As is the case with all theory, MPC lags behind events and struggles, which in no way makes it a less important or intelligent work. But that falling behind is discernible in the all-too-brief discussion on the common that concludes MPC. Divested of MPCs critique of the wage-form and capital, ‘the common’ may well be taken as license for the establishment of consolatory forms of belonging and identity, if not simply more brand names. The ‘inoperative community’ (as described by Blanchot and Nancy) seems a more accurate description of the experience of the multitude, which is for some—as Illuminati wrote—”the practical beginnings of communism and for others a liberalism of the market. The movement of the exodus is ambiguously marked by the opposition to dominant ideas and their molecular renewal” (Illuminati 1996:168-71). That renewal takes shape in the failure to disrupt the form and micro-physics of wage labour, which includes—in the global factory—its diffusion as particular forms of intellectual and political practice.
24. To conclude what cannot be a conclusive discussion: the antagonistic force of much of the abovementioned analyses (Foucault, Althusser, Potere Operaio, Autonomia, Guattari) does not I think rest in their declaration of the epochal but in their attention to the transitional. Crossing the border is a permanent condition of critical practice, especially insofar as the particular position of that border is in the process of shifting in response to the wave of border crossings which have been occurring for over twenty years now.
Angela Mitropoulos has been involved in and written on border struggles since 1998, including producing the websites for xborder, woomera2002 and flotilla2004.
Althusser, L. & Balibar, E. (1983). Reading Capital, London: Verso.
Burke, A. (2002). ‘The Perverse Perseverance of Sovereignty’ Borderlands 1:2 athttp://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au/vol1no2_2002/burke_perverse.html
Caffentzis, C. (1998). ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ at http://korotonomedya.net/otonomi/caffentzis.html
Garcia, D. & Lovink, G. (1997) ‘The ABC of Tactical Media’ at http://www.waag.org/tmn
Illuminati, A. (1996). ‘Unrepresentable Citizenship’ in P. Virno and M. Hardt (eds) Radical thought in Italy Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press pp.166-85.
Mitropoulos, A. (2004) “Precari-Us?” Mute n.29
Negri, A. (1991). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, New York: Autonomedia.
Ranciere, J. (1991). ‘After What?’ in E. Cadava, P. Connor, and J-L. Nancy (eds) Who Comes After the Subject? New York: Routledge, 246-252.
Read, J. (2003). The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Pre-history of the Present, New York: SUNY Press.