Staring Into the Abyss

A Blog on Theory, Anarchy, Nihilism and Whatever Else I Post Here

Capital: Chapter 1

Pages 125-131

Before we begin with the notes, I would like to make sure that everyone can follow along. The page numbers will correspond to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Volume 1, which is the same version that the Marx Library released some decades ago, with the same page numbers.

I would also like to note that some chapters took/are going to take multiple weeks for us to cover in our reading group, and notes will appear as they were presented on a weekly basis. I will notate what chapter we are in at the top of the notes.

For those that want to follow along we are going to be following a pathway through the text that follows along the lines of a course I was fortunate enough to be able to take during my PhD studies called Actually Existing Communism, which occurred during the fall of 2009 (the same semester as the wide-scale rioting in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit, which was definitely an interesting context to be studying this material). This reading includes chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13, 14, and 15, and will focus on the ontological elements of the discussion.

If you would like a more economics-centric reading I can definitely recommend David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital or the online lecture series he gives, which can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/c/readingcapital

Also, note, that I am using the American English versions of terms like labor, even though Marx uses the more traditionally British terminology, like labour, for example. This is mostly due to muscle memory and wanting to ease the process of transcribing and expanding slightly on these notes.

Without further delay, here are the notes from the first week of reading, which covered Chapter 1, pages 125-131.

  • Capital begins with an interesting, and crucial, statement, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). As we will see as we go along, these sorts of statements, which present complicating factors, are often completely overlooked in more vulgar Marxist readings. What is occurring here is a positioning of the question and analysis of capitalism. By centering the discussion on the commodity form Marx is setting the stage for a specific approach to the concept of the commodity, and by extension capitalism as such.

This repositioning is critical, as it decenters the question of capitalism away from “bad outcomes” (ecological destruction, wealth stratification, resource scarcity, etc) and firmly into a space in which the discussion of capitalism focuses on the ontological outcomes of the operationality of capital. Most of leftist analysis of capitalism, and most simplistic anti-capitalism, is grounded in an attempt to eliminate bad outcomes, to create economics around concepts of fairness, justice, whatever abstract moralistic concept one chooses to insert here. The problem with that analysis, and we see this in concepts like social capitalism, none of the elimination of these bad outcomes actually necessitates a challenge to capitalism, but, instead, only implies a sort of liberal reformism in which the economy continues to exist as a mass form, but in a more “equitable” form. This analysis completely misses the point, and it is this framing of capital around the commodity form that this becomes clear.

  • The commodity is not simply an object in economic circulation, but, rather, is an object in which a paradoxical, impossible, sort of existential convergence occurs between the particularity of the material existence of this object (the object is a thing here and now) and the conceptual abstraction of the object (object as carrier of value). Now, of course, first and foremost, the commodity is an object that carries with it a concept of use-value, namely it is an object that has a use for a user. This only speaks of the object itself, however, and not its conversion into the commodity form. For that shift to occur something outside of the materiality of the object must be imparted as an ontological condition of possibility for the object.

  • In its initial form, as an object, the commodity carries use-value, or value in relation to the use of the object for the person utilizing the object. In this form the object is not able to carry a standardized value. Rather, it carries of particularized qualitative value related to the value a user puts to the use of the object in an immediate moment, which is a dynamic that is always in flux. Now, these objects can, and are, exchanged, but they cannot be exchanged as a quantity, but must be exchanged only in relation to the judgement of qualitative value one puts on the item in relation to another item, as it relates to the usefulness of the item.

In other words, for items to be directly exchangeable with one another as quantities (100 coats for 1000 yards of fabric) we have to assume that there is some commonality between the objects, some element of value which escapes the objects as material entities, which are always changing from moment to moment. This element of value must be abstract and defined by some element of the object that we assert both defines the object and which is outside of the object at th same time. This element must be immaterial, and exist outside of any concept of material existence.

  • In exchange, value is calculated around an operation in which two items have to be brought into alignment, regardless of whether this is a qualitative or quantitative structure of value. Exchange revolves around the construction of a third element, outside of the two elements involved in the exchange (one exchanging item one for item two). That exchange requires this third element, which is outside of the two elements involved in the exchange, and which comes to posit some sort of equivalence between these objects, or in the least posits a terms of equivalence, in which each item can be valued in terms that are relevant for the other item. This is what Marx refers to as abstract value.

“Such properties come into consideration only to the extent that they make the commodities useful, ie, turn them into use-values. But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from use-values” (127).

  • From the structure of exchange we can begin to see the displacement of the meaning of the object from itself into the conceptual, and out of the material. By focusing on this element Marx is starting to sketch out an argument that would come to form the core of Marxist influence on post-structuralism, the non-relation between the concept and the object. Before moving forward I am going to focus on this part of the discussion for a moment, and use a simple example to illustrate the point.

Say we are sitting in a conference room and are observing the chairs in the room. On a material level all of those objects are different on a fundamental level. They are all different materially, have degraded at different levels, have had different collisions with other material objects. Not only are they different from one another, they are different from their own existence in a past moment. All objects are particular and constantly in a process of change and becoming. At the same time we create the concept of chairs to make sense of these objects, to organize their existence into a conceptual category. Though this process is critical for our ability to make sense of things, we are still dealing with a fundamental separation, an unbridgable chasm as Blanchot would say, between the concept and the object or the moment.

The object, at this point, is just this simple material object typified by its locatability within historical particularity and contingency. When exchange emerges, as an attempt to trade objects as values, this third element of equivalence must be created, regardless of the form this abstraction takes. This element exists outside of the qualities and use of an object, and reduces the object to an expression of the magnitude of equivalent quantitative value. As such, the possibility of the object begins to be premised on an ahistorical form of abstract value, even though the object and this abstract value exist at a fundamental ontological separation. “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain use-value” (128).

This is a core concept in Capital, and one that is missed completely by Leninists, who have a politics entirely grounded in abstraction, concepts of universal truth that exceed the material and a historical determinism that precludes intention or material effect. What Marx refers to as history is these very same material moments that are abstracted away in the fundamentally ahistorical (in the sense that objects and moments are removed from history) reliance on abstract concepts and notions of universality. The entirety of Leninism relies on the ability to claim that these imprecise, highly speculative forms of conceptual sense are, within their narrative, expressions of universal truth, which attempts to argue that the concept and the world are exactly the same thing; this is the theory of technicians that is expressed in State and Revolution.

  • The remainder of this section of reading focuses on the beginnings of the formation of the concept of the labor theory of value, which interplays with this discussion of the non-convergence between abstract and material, and will form the foundations for the discussion of wage labor later. Without use-value the commodity needs another basis through which value can be determined, which for Marx is related to labor, or, in other words, activity (Marx uses the term labor to mean any activity, not just work). This production is not concerned with the qualities of the object. Rather, the object's value becomes an abstract calculus of exchange where labor and object are both removed from their material uniqueness and properties, and inserted into a space where the condition of possibility is not need and use, but becomes abstracted into value as determined by the abstractions of exchange. This exchange value is then determined by the labor embodied in the object, reduced to a quantity within a wider structure that attempts to level all difference and render all things equivalent and exchangeable. The individual worker and particular object evaporate, and are replaced by abstract labor as wage labor, or labor-power, and the object becomes crystallized abstract value.

  • “Commodities which contain equal quantities of labour, or which can be produced at the same time, have therefore the same value. The value of the commodity is related to the value of any other commodity as the labour-time necessary for the production of the other” (130). This is not positing what some less careful readers have claimed, that this is some sort of calculation of labor as a quantity embodied in the object. Rather, Marx is positing a much broader understanding of labor here. When Marx is talking about labor he is discussing the work mobilized to turn a resource into a commodity, to produce the commodity. This commodity, however, is constructed of other commodities, or uses other commodities in its production, all of which is also factored into the abstract value. Then we have to take into account the social possibility of this sort of exchange, which we will return to later, and the costs of the maintenance of logistical infrastructure, security for private property and so on. In other words, labor here refers to the entirety of the conditions involved in the chain of activity bound up in the production of a single object. This begins a process through which the ontology of the commodity begins to double-back onto the material world, as a force that will attempt to maximize labor efficiency and produce the social conditions of capitalist exchange. But, that is a much longer discussion that we will return to as we go forward.

There is a lot in these opening pages of Capital, which present a series of arguments which, when read carefully, completely realign the reading of Capital away from this simplistic economics reading you see in traditional forms of anti-capitalism. Rather than a text about the outcomes of capitalism, as it is often portrayed, Capital is engaging on a different plane, the plane of the ontological conditions of possibility for capitalism, and how that comes to function as a material force within everyday life. The next section, which goes from pages 131 to the middle of 152 will continue to set the stage for the discussions to come surrounding money, the formation of markets and the inherent relation of capitalism to the state.

Enjoy, and if you have any comments get in touch over Mastadon (tom_nomad@kolektiva.social)

For those of you that have not had the opportunity to sit down with the over 1000 pages of Marx's Grundrisse, I would highly recommend giving it at least a passing read. Capital is a complex text, with layers upon layers of concepts arranged around and within one another. It is a text of nuance, one in which terms like “becomes-money” appears, and which indicates something other that “becomes money”. Every element of Capital is relevant in its nuance, and in its entirety as a conceptual plane.

This is not the reading one would get by listening to vulgar Marxists, or authoritarians. For many of them Capital is a text on the economics of capitalism, and how workers are subsumed into wage labor. That is part of the text, but as thinkers like Harry Cleaver, David Harvey and Paulo Virno have pointed out, Capital is much more a text on ontology than it is a text on economics.

It is on this ontological plane that Capital becomes a relevant text. The best one could hope for in an economist's reading of Capital is to grasp an outdated understanding of mercantile capitalism that, though still relevant, hinges on some phenomena that have been transcended, like the gold standard for example. When we start to look at the text through this ontological lens, through a lens which approaches an analysis of the forms of life created within and as a part of capitalist existence.

It is on this level that we can not only gain a much more nuanced understanding of capitalism, centered around the infinite distance between its materiality and its conceptuality, but, further, we can extend this analysis. Here we can not only see the absurdities of the vulgar Marxist/Leninist reading of this text, which is strikingly superficial, but we can also gain some insight into an approach to the political in which movement, nuance, difference, contingency and possibility come to the core of analysis.

The reading group I am a part of, which focuses on nihilist theory generally, has taken on the task of reading select chapters of Capital Volume 1, with sessions structured around seminar style lectures I have been giving on the text. What follows in the posts to come will be the notes I have taken in the midst of preparing these lectures.

The notes will be structured just like in the Grundrisse, as a series of long bullet-pointed blocks of text, some longer than others, but all containing a full thought or point, except in reverse. The Grundrisse was compiled from the notebooks Marx kept while researching Capital, and this is the notes taken on the other end, over 120 years later, at a very different time in a very different place.

Using this form allows for the reader to follow along with the text, but to do so in such a way as to be inserted into the space between the notes and the text; a space less defined than a full essay, but more defined than just random disconnected notes). I hope you enjoy and find this useful. Notes will start being posted in the next day or two.

Some Reflections on Tame Words from a Wild Heart (by Jean Weir) and the Distillation of Core Insurrectionist Concepts

Introduction

In a lot of ways it is difficult to imagine where I, personally, or insurrectionism in the English speaking world would be without the constant contributions of Jean Weir. In running Elephant Editions, and participating in other projects to network with non-English speaking insurrectionists and translating their work, she has been largely responsible for the rise of insurrectionism and the repositioning of the anarchist project around a push for immediacy, and away from arbitrary speculation about some hypothetical future.

This repositioning has taken the anarchist project from the utopian pipe-dreams of the creative and experimental amongst us, from a position that for many years was relegated to a position subservient to Leninism, from a position in which the most anarchism had to offer was a posture of theoretical resistance and activism. The move into an insurrectionist orientation recentered anarchism around the act, around direct action and strategic consideration, and thus, took it out of the clouds and attached it to the Earth, the world that we exist within and the terrain in which fighting occurs. This is nothing short of taking a project that centered around dreams, fictions and speculation, and grounded it in activity, materiality and the immediacy of struggle.

But, in this work she has often been overshadowed by the works that she has participated in translating and propagating. The ideas being expressed in these texts are framed around the voice of the author, and the voice of the translator and the motivations for the translation are lost. In this case, however, we can catch a glimpse into these questions in Wier's on writings, in this case encapsulated in the short collection Tame Words for a Wild Heart.

In this short reflection I am not going to attempt to even claim that this short text is a full expression of the ideas that have motivated this work. Even in this partial view, however, we can catch a glimpse into an important distillation of ideas. Insurrectionist thought can be many things, militant, angry, motivating, complex, simplistic, poetic, bellicose, all of these things at once, but one thing that is often absent is clarity and concision. The tendency, within that space, has been to recognize that complexity requires patience, which results in the spacing of arguments and concepts out over, often, multiple pieces written over a series of years; Bonanno's work is a classic example of this

This is not a critique of insurrectionist thoughts, complexity, and thus a level of difficulty, is necessary in order to not fall prey to simplistic explanations of overly reduced existences. It is important for us to grapple with ideas, to play with concepts, to experiment, to challenge and to complicate; otherwise we risk collapsing into ideology or into understandings of the world which eliminate possibility, complexity and uniqueness all in the service of reductionistic forms of “understanding”. At the same time, however, it can be necessary to ground this complexity, to articulate the core concepts that form the foundations of these conceptual moves, and it is here where we can start to understand the core of a certain understanding of the insurrectional project.

Weir's writing and speaking (some of these texts are transcriptions of speeches) tend to function in a more relaxed form, a narrative that is conversational and human, grounded in an approachability that conceals the complexity of the ideas at work within the narrative. In this approach we can see ideas highlighted, emphasized and brought forward in a way that allows for clarity and the experimental collision of these concepts in a living, breathing discourse which, in itself, is connected to activity. In elaborating on this point we will be focusing on three concepts, projectuality, immediacy and intermediacy, which not only form the core of this text, but also form what, in my reading, really forms the core of insurrectionism, and the specific ontology that is expressed through this medium.

Projectuality

A core concept in the text, and one in which Weir consistently returns, is the notion of projectuality. There are a number of senses in which this term is utilized, but in all senses the concept of projectuality is inherently connected to a concept of action. At its most simplistic, the concept of projectuality expresses the ability of actions to exist within and act upon the particular dynamics of any given moment.

In this sense, the concept of projectuality is being used here to express a variety of different elements of this concept of action and materiality. Firstly, the concept is one which discusses a projection of action across space within immediacy, that actions can have resonance within material conditions, and that these resonances ultimately form the cascading effects of the act. Concurrent to this, the concept of projectuality also interacts with a concept of time, with the impacts of the act stretching out as a series of reverberations into future present moments.

This reliance on a future present moment, expressed in this concept of forming the conditions of the future, carries with it an important rethinking of the concept of “strategy” as often articulated. We will return to some of these ideas when we discuss intermediacy later, but, for now, the concept of projectuality fundamentally disrupts the concept of knowable and extendable conceptual understandings of actions that mimic strategic thinking.

Too often what passes for “strategic” thinking within anarchist spaces in the US is actually a form of political pre-figuration. In this form of appearance strategic discussions begin with a political discussion, one centered on a world we want to see, with actions being planned in order to fulfill some approximation of this abstract vision. In other forms, what occurs is closer to strategic thought, but often falls down into the application of strategic approaches already deemed to be always already effective; we see this in the discussion of shields, which are often taken as an article of faith, even though they are, most of the time, a hindrance to mobility which fosters poor strategic choices in the streets, like staying together in a single large group.

When we start to think strategic engagement through the concept of projectuality we have to begin the discussion from a fundamentally different point of departure, the actual dynamics of the time and space of the action itself. In other words, a discourse ceases to be strategic discourse to the degree that all action and conditions are thought abstractly, through the lens of the concept first, with discussions of acts occurring only afterward, with the terms entirely premised on the abstract. By discussing projectuality on the level of resonance, the reverberation of an act across time and space, the potential future impacts of the act are thought only in reference to that future present moment when they manifest.

As such, the future resonance of the act becomes something that is unpredictable. As one acts the first move of projectuality is immediate, the projection of action into the present. This immediate ace converges with the dynamics of the moment to create the possibility of reverberations. These reverberations then come to change the dynamics of future moments. If that is the case, if reverberations stretch out across time indefinitely, impacting all future present moments, then it is impossible for us to predict, with anything more precise than blind speculation, what the impacts of these acts can be. The result of this is a grounding of the action in the present, with the purpose of the act being a projectuality which generates unpredictable resonances.

Once this perspective is adopted, which is necessary for us to ever speak of actions, all of which occur in a present, then the concept of having a plan for revolt, or a programme, any sort of rigid strategy that is meant to be enacted regardless of circumstance and the formation of any structures that are meant to determine actions in the future (federations, unions, etc), is at best a work of political fiction, and at worst a discourse which pretends to function strategically, but which in reality functions as a limiting force to the possibility of action. The approach to action, therefore, within this perspective, functions in the present to create the possibilities that form present moments in the future.

Immediacy

Carried within this concept of projectuality is a concept of immediacy, or a reliance on the existence of the present as the site in which action, and life, occurs. We can see this manifest itself in a formula, which is repeated throughout, which fundamentally ties theory to activity. This argument takes on two specific manifestations, both of which come to terminate in the concept of the experiment.

The first manifestation centers around the conceptualization of theory as an act in itself. The realm of theory, the universe of the concept, is one in which the particularity of material objects and moments is eliminated in the construction of the concept. In other words, when we construct a concept which is meant to speak of a group of things, we have eliminated the particularity of those things, and typified, defined, them through the contours of the concept.

On the surface, and there is a far more complex discussion to be had about this point, the role and ontology of theory (totally writing a book on this soon), the realm of the concept is incapable of speaking of the material world. But, at the same time, the act of thought, or the act of theory, is an act, and as such, it occurs in a time, in a space, and has resonant effects. Following from an argument leveraged by Sorel and Galleani, among others, this repositions theory alongside any other act, and as such, the calculus of theory can be thought around the measurement of the effectiveness of the theory act, rather than some abstract discourse on some concept of “correct”-ness.

As such, and this is the second move here, the act of theory becomes thought as an act, and the act itself is imparted with relevance; the act acts on the material world. Now, as we spoke about earlier, this act is not ontologically capable of implying its own conclusion or resonances, which are predicted in a speculative form, at best. The act, therefore, is not something that can be undertaken due to assured outcomes, and as a result, the act always functions within the realm of experimentation.

The concept of the experiment is critical here for a series of reasons. Firstly, experimentalism carries with it a rejection of concepts of truth and universality, and the knowability of universality. There is a lot more discussion that is needed to analyze all of the issues of universality within radical theory (again, writing a book about this soon). Suffice to say, for now, once we reject the concept of knowable universal truth, and wager on its absence, not only do we enter into the only ontological approach that allows for the possibility of revolt, but we also enter into a realm of the unpredictable.

Within this matrix of concepts, the act, all acts, are rearranged, not around their outcomes, but around constant analysis of their resonances, which can only be gazed upon from within the immediate, the actual reality of its existence in the moment. As such, everything becomes provisional, a temporary strategic probe to determine the interactivity between certain acts and their resonances over time, within the immediacy of the present.

Not only does this form the foundation for the concept of informal organization (if the point of action is to fundamentally change conditions, then how can we form eternal political and strategic approaches in the abstract), but also grounds all activity in the immediacy of its occurrence and the resonances it generates. This is nothing short of an argument against utopianism, and a reframing of the objectives of revolt around experimental possibilities, rather than dull deterministic futures and asserted ends of history (all of which carry echoes of millenarian Christianity). The result is a highly dynamic approach to the act, which generates its own possibilities based on strategic openings in the present, the resonances of these events and the constant analysis of these resonances over time in order to shape experimentation, with experimentation becoming method, goal, strategy and politics.

Some may find this lacking, may find the absence of some conclusive strategic doctrine to be a hindrance. But, the question must always become, if the act is immediate, and if the goal is to fundamentally change the terms upon which life is lived, then in what way would we possess the perspective, ability to predict the future or the the intellectual gaze to posit some sort of commonality of moments over time? This sort of commonality, an assertion of a predictable continuity of past and future, of which the present is a mere expression, is inherently implied in any quest to define some sort of universally applicable strategic approach, or the attempt to do strategy in the abstract. If that commonality of moments existed, if everything was defined in some core ontological way that persisted across time, then the whole point of revolt would be rendered moot anyway.

In moving away from these simplifications, these conceptual shortcuts we take to avoid the complexity of the world and the inability to really speak of it directly, we can begin to bring into alignment the ontological perspective necessary to conceive of revolt (which implies the absence of some universal truth), the plane of activity in which we exist and the attempts to make sense of all of this through the concept. It implies recognizing the limitations of perspective, the simplicity of the conceptual frameworks we mobilize, and taking that limitation, that unknowability of the world, not as an end point, but as a point of departure. This is a call to embrace the ontology of the moment, recognize its inherent connection with the concept of revolt, and then build approaches from there.

Intermediacy

Now, I know that working with liberals is largely an experience akin to the pain one would experience stabbing themselves in the eye with a ballpoint pen, and potentially more dangerous (liberals have shown themselves to be snitches time and time again). And I know that working with tankies feels like constantly trying to explain simple points of political theory to a brick wall that is hell bent on justifying genocide, and excusing the acts of any state that is either willing to openly fund propaganda operations (Russia), or that declares themselves “socialist” (North Korea and the PRC). It is a horrible, dangerous, existentially nullifying experience, and at the end of the day, we aren't even fighting the same fight.

The concept of intermediate struggle, as articulated here, is often criticized for encouraging us to attempt to, at all costs, work in these hostile areas of political activity; but that is a superficial reading. Weir discusses intermediacy as an attempt to engage in some immediate conflict with the state, around some issue or question of immediate importance in a local area, that could be expanded in a wider social conflict. Though this seems like a pretty straight forward concept, there are two elements of this concept that fundamentally shape this in a different, much more useful, form.

The first element of immediacy that should be elaborated upon centers around the ways that intermediacy reframes the terms of engagement. The traditional mode of engagement, which I term activism, is a symbolic form of discursive engagement meant to make some sort of rhetorical point through material activity (See the introduction to Insurgencies #1 for more thoughts on this: https://littleblackcart.com/index.php?dispatch=products.view&product_id=318). The focus is on an abstract “issue” and the pace of activity is driven by discursive outrages, rather than material imperatives. In this traditional form the terrain of conflict is displaced from the material, and inserted into a conceptual debate between different discursive positions.

When intermediacy is discussed the question of the “issue” fades into the background. The purpose of engaging in intermediate struggle is not to win that conflict necessarily. Rather, the entrance into this space of intermediate struggle is an intervention, not to create some sort of pre-figurative utopian space (which carries with it all of the problems of the immaterial and non-immediate as discussed above) or predictable outcome, but, rather, to attempt to intervene to shape the dynamics of activity in an immediate sense.

The question of intermediacy is a question of terrain, and this is the second core point. Far from a call to work with liberals and authoritarians, although that may occur, the concept of intermediacy is more of a recognition of the dynamics of terrain within late capitalism. If we are being honest with ourselves, though the anarchist, and adjacent, milieus have grown dramatically in the past two decades, we still are far from a space in which open conflict with the state typifies the spaces of action. So, if we are always necessarily acting in the immediate, and in those immediate circumstances most of the conflicts we are enmeshed in are reformist in nature (this includes calls to defund the police), then engagement in that immediate time and space will likely occur in these scenarios, unfortunately.

This does not mean, however, that we are being called to accept the terms of those engagements as typified by activism. Within the context of activism engagement becomes an imperative in all scenarios, regardless of strategic dynamics. The concept of intermediacy, rather, is a concept of action framed entirely around the propulsion of action through resonance, and the maximization of resonant effects. This requires a perspective centered around strategic calculation, and the analysis of strategy in the framing of points of intervention.

Conclusion

For many of us that have been around for some time the direction of the insurrectionist project within the US has taken a series of unfortunate turns. From the retreat into concepts of “revolutionary subjectivity” and an approach grounded in an assertion of affirmation in action, the insurrectionist project, unfortunately, deviated from its core. In this text we can see this core being illuminated, brought down to core concepts and structured in such a way as to facilitate its role as a foundation, rather than an ideology.

What emerges here is an approach to the act, and to revolt, which is simultaneously a hearkening to the past, as well as an outlining of a possible approach to the present. On one level the discussion of action from the position of ontology is one that strips away a lot of the ideological baggage of philosophical modernity, all of the absurd assumptions of things like “society” or utopian goals, all of the retreats to theory and self-aggrandizement. It is a return to core, foundational discussions and concepts, a basis from which things can be build on top of, grounding these new formations in experimentation and immediacy.

On another level, this reframing of the insurrectionist project around an ontology of immediacy firmly grounds it on the terrain of lived existence, the moment, and in doing so surpasses the terms of the modernist project (of which liberal democracy, socialism and traditional anarchism are all a part). By doing so, by grounding politics in the act, we can overcome the assertions that come to us in theory, from the generalization of objects into categories all the way to the assertions of the existence of some universal truth (which would paradoxically necessitate a deterministic universe in which revolt would be impossible).

This project is critical, more so today than in years past. The level of political discourse and action in the US is at a contradictory spot in the present moment. At the same time that we see a rapid acceleration in conflict against the state, we are also witnessing the reduction of discourse and theory to partisans of various reductionistic ideological projects arguing with one another in incredibly simplistic terms. Whole conceptual universes are asserted in discussions about how best to “manage society”, how some sort of abstract future scenario will be dealt with, how these concepts interact with attempts to end history in the culmination of some ideological revelation. These reductionisms displace action into the realm of the abstract, constructing a politics of abstraction that then attempts to become the world...and we wonder why revolts have a horrible tendency to turn into authoritarian purges and police states.

If we are to escape the tragedies of the past, the failures of the revolutionary project, the purges and massacres, this requires a complete rethinking of the terms in which we engage with action and politics. These new terms must dispense with the simplifications of modernity, move beyond the attempts to end history and begin to embrace the complexity of lived existence, in all of its conflict and contingency. It is only from this point of departure that we can redefine what action looks like, and it is only from that perspective that politics can flow.

*The term politics is being used here in the traditional Greek sense, as “matters of the polis”, or the dynamic of things that occur, and not in the sense of modern statecraft.

If you would like to read the text referenced here it can be found on Anarchist Library:

https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/jean-weir-tame-words-from-a-wild-heart

In Defense of Looting: Select Quotes from Chapter 9

On the crisis in capital in the early 1970s. For more on this era of capitalist development I recommend reading Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

“As rioters, protesters and strikers continued to force wages higher and increase state programs, and as automation increased global productivity to be faster than consumption could absorb, corporations suddenly couldn't sell enough of their products and profits began to stall out. This crisis came to a head in the crash and recession of the early 1970s- most of that decade saw severe economic retrenchment, stagnation and collapse as municipal and state governments went broke and jobs disappeared. But a total reckoning was staved off by the ending of the Bretton Woods agreement and the “floating of the dollar”, which decoupled the value of the dollar from real value in gold, fully transforming the US state and the Federal Reserve into the backbone of global capital.” (220)

In this section there is a discussion of the relationship between the collapse of combative political initiatives and the rise of neoliberalism, as well as its connection to the crisis of “stagflation” which occurred in the early 1970s. What is specifically important about this period is that the conditions that would result in the collapse of 2008 (easy to acquire liquid capital, a focus on asset price increases and artificially low interest rates) all emerged during this period. To address the dual dynamics of inflation and economic stagnation, there was a shift in the shape of the economy, as federal policy, specifically under Reagan, became built around attempting to financialize the economy, or make the economy based on services and investments, rather than material production.

It was this dynamic that allowed for the cascade in asset prices to occur between 1990 and 2008. During that period credit became increasingly easy to obtain, which drove up consumer demand for large items (houses, cars, etc), which in turn drove price inflation in these markets. At the same time we were experiencing mass economic contraction as a result of automation driving wages down and leading to increased unemployment, the 1973 Oil Crisis and falling profitability as US manufacturers started to attempt to compete globally. So, at the same time that wages were falling and cost of living was rising the prices of things like houses continued to increase at a rate faster than general inflation.

This then generated the dynamic in which home owners would refinance their homes at low interest rates, sometimes frequently, as the price of their home increased. This financial windfall was then used in a lot of cases to cover for holes in the household budget caused by stagnating or falling wages. At the same time the wealthy were taking their tax breaks, which were justified under the adage of “trickle down economics”, and investing them in stock. Companies also took their newly found financial benefits and started using them to buy their own stock rather than building the manufacturing facilities and hiring the employees that they promised to if we would only give them one more tax break. This increase in incoming capital drove stock prices up, far beyond the actual value of the capital contained within the company (company stock was sometimes 40-50 times the value of the company in material capital terms). As this occurred financial assets became decoupled from the “real economy”, and began to function as an abstract asset in themselves, traded often automatically, for easy profits. It is from this dynamic that we see the vast, and widening, gulf between the wealthy and everyone else which has typified the 21st Century.

All that it took was for housing demand to dry up, as it did in the 2005-2006 period, to cause prices to stagnate, preventing people from using refinancing to deal with economic shortfall, and eventually driving many of these homeowners into foreclosure. This dynamic was even more brutal in the Rust Belt, where wages fell dramatically, as union labor was eliminated and replaced by machines and low wage jobs, which, when combined with predatory lending practices on the part of financial institutions targeting communities of color, led to the vast emptying out of whole parts of cities between 2006 and 2009.


“But this era of general crisis that began in the seventies did not see a proliferation of mass movements in the United States. Instead, a wave of revolutionary fervor faded and fell to repression...And though instances of anti-white-supremacist rioting took place- most significantly in LA in 1992, but antipolice riots popped up every few years throughout the period- they mostly failed to initiate a cycle of social transformation.

Without a broader movement context, rioters increasingly appeared as simple pariahs. Looting became the prototypical evidence of Black pathology and crime. As the political center of gravity in America definitively shifted to the white suburbs, even liberal explanations of rioting and looting, such as those put forward by LBJ's Kerner and Governor Brown's McCone Commissions, were rejected. Sociology was dismissed for psychology, and narratives about looting and rioting were explained as a question of culture, crime and family. This newly re-racialized definition of looting would reach its horrific apotheosis in New Orleans in 2005, when police and white vigilantes murdered Hurricane Katrina refugees with impunity under the aegis of “stopping looting”“(222).


On the dynamics of the riots in 1992 and its relationship to the rising post-industrial economy:

“Whereas the uprising generalized across the working class, the riots were led by a new group of the urban poor. Members of a new underclass of the near permanently unemployed, cut adrift by the Reagan-driven destruction of social services and the collapse of manufacturing jobs, existing largely outside of the circuits of production and consumption, this class lives at the very margins of society. At the time of the uprising, the LA court bureaucracy was referring to cases around improverished Black males as “NHI”– “No Humans Involved”. As Sylvia Wynter writes, Rodney King was a member of these new Black masses, who, in distinction to the Black middle class that had grown since the sixties, “have come to occupy a doubled pariah status, no longer that of only being Black, but also of belonging to the rapidly accelerating Post-Industrial category of the poort and jobless.” People the state considered to be NHI led the LA uprising, and in thinking through and fighting alongside their rebellion, Wynter argues, we can begin to overturn the current system that constructs “humanity” in such a way as to exile them from its protections and care.” (230)

“The LA riots were ythe first uprising of this new postindustrial underclass, which Marxist theorists has referred to as “surplus populations”– people outside the process of the production of value, people who aren't even needed to drive down wages like the usual mass of unemployed proletarians are. These people whom capitalism regards as surplus do not and cannot make demands of a traditional industrial workplace, so their movements are invisible or opaque to many so-called revolutionaries who believe revolution can only emerge from a shop floor. And this disregard is furthered by the fact that the form of organization favored by this new population of declassed poor is not the union but the criminal gang.“(231)

In Defense of Looting: Select Quotes

I am going to be shifting this series to this new blog platform, as a way to help keep things organized and to cut down on the need to scroll back a month or so to follow where this all began.

I will be listing the chapters I am reading below, along with select quotes, and will be posting updated links on Kolektiva, for those that are on Mastadon (which everyone should be).

Chapter 7

Speaking of the 1964 riots which started in Harlem and spread into Rochester, Jersey City, Patterson, Elizabeth (NJ) and Philadelphia.

“Though these riots were sparked by instances of police brutality, rioting isn't simply a mechanical reaction to police violence: it's not a knee unbending beneath a doctor's hammer. If it were, riots would occur every day in every city in the United States. Riots, instead, emerge out of movement.

Sometimes they come out of that subterranean, invisible but ongoing movement for freedom, justice and Jubilee that Karl Marx called the “historical party” that runs through the entire history of capitalism, reappearing seemingly suddenly and spontaneously (though specific histories of uprisings always tell a more complicated story of rising local tensions and grievances). But uprisings occur more frequently when social movement is highly visible, agitating and powerful. Riots transform the consciousness of their participants, widen the group of people taking part in political action and usually produce a new generation of revolutionaries, opening up new directions for further action.”


“Reducing looting and rioting to a question of crime, calling the looter “just a thief”, as Fuller ironically suggests, serves to mask the liberatory content of the action taking place. In the midst of the uprising, onlookers and participants alike begin to question the ideology supporting property and commodity, order and law. As such, looting represents a fundamental threat to a society ordered by white supremacy, a threat that often goes beyond the boundaries that activists and even self-proclaimed revolutionaries feel comfortable with...

But the riots did more than express a voice. Riots are more than just the “language of the unheard”, as MLK called them. Riots give birth to revolutionary transformation...”


On tactics during the Watts Rebellion in 1965

“The tactics were simple but effective, as Gerald Horne records in his important history of the Watts Uprising, Fire This Time. One common tactic saw a group of rioters, usually young men, drive up to a business, hop out, break out the windows, then drive away. Then cars of looters, a much more mixed group, split between men and women, young and old, would arrive and work to empty the store. The store would only be set alight once credit records had been destroyed and goods had been fully looted. Rioters usually remained nearby to make sure the building burned, attacking firemen with bricks and bottles if they tried to put out the flames before the fire had fully consumed the hated business.

Tactics reflected effective communication and mobility among the rebels. Rioters transmitted information over the radio waves, used payphones to spread intel, and listened in to police broadcasts to see where cops would be deployed. False reports were called in to send police scrambling, at which point areas they'd just “pacified” could be retaken. In areas they didn't entirely control, rioters focused on hit-and-run strikes, then dispersing quickly to reappear elsewhere. All of these tactics would be adopted and practiced, with local modifications, in other riots throughout the period.”


“Many radicals fetishize military-style conflict as the sign of true revolutionary potential. This was especially true of the movements of the late sixties and early seventies, that all proclaimed armed struggle and saw the “guerrilla” as something of a revolutionary saint. But the revolutionary context of the riots does not lie mainly in these military aspects. The shooting is a small piece, not the main component of the attack on white supremacy, the state, property, and the commodity. Whereas armed self-defense will always be an important parts of struggles for liberation, the arms themselves have no magical property to make our movements more serious, more revolutionary, more powerful. The power of the attack on white settler society is seen instead in the broad lawlessness, property destruction, looting and cop-free zones produced by the riot and is reflected in the attendant sense of freedom, unity, and radical safety felt by the rioters.”