Reviewed by Marc James Léger
The phenomenon of leftist political engagement through culture has grown exponentially since around the time of the Seattle protests of 1999. This came along with a complex rethinking of the limits of postmodern social constructionism in academia and a further development of leftist macro-politics that has influenced both theoretical reflection and the forms of organized resistance. In contrast to those who might think that the “communist turn” in cultural theory is merely an academic pastiche or outmoded revivalism, Mikkel Bolt’s Rasmussen’s recent text, Crisis to Insurrection, is a welcome intervention and a staid rejoinder to the kinds of post-politics that are most popular in these neoliberal times. Published by Minor Compositions, Rasmussen’s book is a surprising anomaly amidst its more schizo-anarchist titles and a refreshing look at the current potential of Marx’s arguments in the Communist Manifesto, the Grundrisse and Capital. The book therefore maintains the labour theory of value as well as Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” to describe not only the failures of Soviet modernism but the limits to the recent wave of protests from 2011 and 2012. It is a vigorous sign of political gains made within contemporary cultural theory that this book should be written by an art historian. Whereas Rasmussen is known mostly for his writings on the Scandinavian section of the Situationist International, this slender volume is a fascinating and detailed exploration of what the Situationist line might look like in the current world situation.
Divided into four chapters, Crisis to Insurrection first addresses the financial fiasco of 2008 and the sources of this in the protracted advancement of neoliberal economic policy since the 1970s. Concomitant with this decades-long process is the decline of class politics and the transformation of the idea of revolution. These two questions, divided neatly into an investigation of the current capitalist order and the global class composition of labour, leads to an analysis of the worldwide protests of 2011 and an assessment of their limits. To think beyond the recent round of resistance, Rasmussen offers in the last chapter a critique of various theoretical options, namely the multitudes idea and workerist politics of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the Leninist vanguardism of Slavoj Žižek, and the democratic socialism of the Kilburn Manifesto.
From the start of the book, it is not altogether clear what it is that Rasmussen has to add to Marxist politics other than to underscore the standard position that the current crises – financial, geopolitical, environmental – are an expression of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, the limits of accumulation, and the exclusion of workers from the process of social reproduction (3-5). As neoliberal policy is used to justify structural transformation in the Western economies through outsourcing, new technologies, credit and unemployment, both the working class and economists are pushed into ideological confusion, looking to neo-Keynesianism, protectionism and nationalism as possible alternatives. What then is to be done in the absence of a clear political programme as a point of departure? Based on the cover of the book, with its image of Lenin, constructivist design and faux-Cyrillic font, one might expect that Rasmussen is proposing a party politics of some sort. But as we discover, the situation is according to him more desperate today than it was in 1917. This is not altogether a problem since the ruined state of labour politics might be an unexpected benefit to a truly revolutionary vision of society beyond wage labour, capital and property relations. As he puts it, the loss of a revolutionary perspective is the starting point of his book (71). What is clear then is that the crisis and the responses that we have seen in Greece, Portugal, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, South Africa, Bangladesh, China, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, the UK and the US, indicate, as he puts it, that “three decades of one-sided class war is over” (9-10). All of these are not local crises but symptomatic of the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. The avant-garde project, he argues, still holds water (13). The question is learning from what it is that has not worked.
Rasmussen’s discussion of the conditions of capital and labour in the last several decades will be familiar to readers of critical literature. His text is short on cited references and as such does not engage in the kinds of complicated arguments one can otherwise find in the literature on political economy. It is nevertheless thoroughgoing and convincing in its synoptic range, making connections between experiences on different continents. One slight omission is the discussion of socialist state experiments in Latin America. Another is the singular focus on the working class and the neglect of the class effects of polarization, wherein a petty bourgeois class habitus has become the dominant social pattern in postwar democracies. This ‘middle class’ phenomenon was once the cornerstone of analyses of the “post-industrial” society and although Boltanski and Chiapello’s research is addressed, the analysis of the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ is otherwise kept to a minimum. This is unfortunate since as a cultural theorist Rasmussen could have in this context addressed the overall shift from postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson defined it, to the more recent wave of capitalist globalization and its rhetoric of creative cities and alternate modernities. In addition to Boltanski and Chiapello’s discussion of management discourses, Rasmussen addresses Maurizio Lazzarato’s work on debt, Mike Davis’ work on slums, Giorgio Agamben’s idea of bare life, and the recent focus on the anthropocene. He asserts that both Leninism and Keynesianism are no longer adequate strategies for the left, a view that is presented as axiomatic rather than proven through sustained argumentation (50, 118, 136). Regardless, we have with this the basic elements of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of the history and the view that there are no alternatives to the global regime of capitalist democracy. Indeed, whereas the war on the working class remains in full swing, the revolutionary imaginary suffers from a lack of praxis (55). Alain Badiou’s notion of fidelity to the idea of communism is alluded to but with the caveat that such commitment is nowhere to be found. The revolution, he writes, “is just not on the agenda” (58). If it exists anywhere it is in the way that we labour more than at the level of class consciousness. In terms of ideology, it is neoliberalism that has triumphed, with social democratic parties and third world dictatorships jettisoning everything having to do with equality, universality, political freedom, rule of law and a free press.
The main problem with the disappearance of the working class as a historical subject is the lack of coordination among the various waves of protest and resistance to neoliberalism. Although he takes great care to not flatten out the differences between events in different parts of the world, Rasmussen is at times unclear concerning the extent to which the events in Libya, Syria and Ukraine qualify as anything more than civil wars and foreign incursions. Such conflicts are not only reactions to neoliberal hegemony but also, despite the potential for progressive change, the direct result of imperialist machinations. Rasmussen makes better use of his critiques of the occupation movements in Southern Europe and the United States than the latter examples. The indignation of the protesters, he argues, is unconnected to the previous revolutionary struggles and so the critique of capitalism appears as only one framework among others. In such conditions, protests movements like the Spanish M15 and American Occupy Wall Street camps are mostly moralizing and reformist. The anarchistic critique that surfaces, he argues, leads to open-ended slogans and the absence of demands. The latter, exploited as a “poetic” feature of the protests, indicates that such protesters no longer consider the capitalist state to be able to assure their well-being and survival. (This makes for an interesting contrast, one might think, with the recent wave of refugees to Europe.) The protests oscillate, therefore, between a desperate nostalgic redistribution and a confrontational revolutionary position based on the supersession of capital and labour (78). Of course Rasmussen is sensitive to how the lack of demands also represents a critique of the representative parliamentary politics of the state, with the refusal to take power and the rejection of appointed leaders. However, this stance is mostly defensive, resentment-based (sometimes conservative, populist or even right-wing), and radical democratic, he argues, and not a principled rejection of neoliberal globalization. Since the main problem for the revolutionary working class is the mutual isolation of the protests, Rasmussen is nonetheless optimistic since the various protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Spain, Athens, London and New York did in fact refer to one another and made common cause across classes and national differences. His concern, however, is not so much with the particulars of the protest this time, but the basic problems related to production and reproduction. The quest for scapegoats plays into a right-wing short-circuiting of the analysis of capitalism. Making the 1% pay its fair share of taxes, or cancelling symbolic debt through the Rolling Jubilee will not solve the fundamental problem and so these alternatives tend to echo the demand that the state concern itself with the reproduction of the labour-capital relation.
And so what is to be done? These words open the final and most exciting chapter in the book, titled “Beyond Vanguards, Reformism and Multitude.” Rejecting the Leninist view that class consciousness can be introduced and guided from without, yet maintaining that the important thing for workers is the question of organization, Rasmussen sets out to disqualify various contemporary tendencies on the left. He criticizes the 2013 Kilburn Manifesto of Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin for taking a culturalist approach to the British national working class and ignoring political economy. Their theory of collectivity, he argues, which is put forward as an alternative to the neoliberal injunction to individual entrepreneurialism, is reminiscent of 1950s reformist socialism, he says, which attempts to restore the proper balance between the destructive effects of capitalism and the labour movement. Communism, he argues, has always been against the self-negation of the working class and against the idea that it should be put in charge of its own exploitation. Hardt and Negri’s 2012 Declaration is also addressed and in this case critiqued for replacing the notion of the working class with the idea of a multitude that within the terms of a dominant biocapitalism experiments with new social forms and new ways of being. Whereas Hardt and Negri consider this kind of creative self-production to be inherently communistic, Rasmussen holds that such positivist constructs of class are no so much self-valorizing as devalorizing and denegating, confusing crisis and protest, revolution and counter-revolution. Rather than turning to trendy topics like immaterial labour and the primacy of resistance, Rasmussen suggests that it would be better to consider the crisis as the result of the contradictions of capital as well as workers’ refusal of neoliberal governance. Rejecting the notion of massism, Rasmussen explains that capital is not simply opposed to the masses but is a contradiction that creates specific kinds of relations. In this regard the revolution is not strictly immanent to the mode of production and so we should aim to keep radicalism from being dissolved in the immanentism of schizo-Deleuzians.
As an admirer of the work of Slavoj Žižek I am particularly concerned to mention the mistakes in Rasmussen’s critique. Rasmussen rests his argument against Žižek on one short essay and only with passing reference to Žižek’s book-length treatment of Lenin’s writings. He finds that Žižek overestimates the influence of vanguard leadership as well as superstructural political ideas in their ability to direct social change. Capitalist political economy is the product, he says, of structural necessities in the mode of production and not, as Žižek might suggest, the result of the leadership of people like Mao, Tito or Thatcher. Whereas such an argument might seem overly deterministic it is well taken as a fundamental feature of Marxian analysis. I have written elsewhere how Žižek has many times criticized leaders like Hugo Chavez and the fact that his theory of the Discourse of the vanguard Master is quite different from what Rasmussen makes of it. In short, Žižek has always maintained that what needs to be repeated in Lenin is not the model of the party that the Bolsheviks created, but the notion that the potential of an authentic act is not guaranteed and covered over by the big Other, interpreted here as the determinants of the Historical situation. A Master is not someone who tells us what to do – how to be free – but who, in Žižek’s estimation, disturbs us into freedom. It is not an exemplary figure who must be followed or emulated, since, in Lacanian terms, the Master is inherently inconsistent: the Master figure is someone who is exemplary insofar as s/he refuses the situation and refuses the kind of negation that relies on the disavowed underside of the split Law. The Žižekian leader is thus not a demagogue who knows better than the people what is good for them and imposes this against their will.
Rasmussen’s singular emphasis on the contradictions of capitalism might be faulted for conforming to what Jacques Rancière describes as Marxist meta-politics, the assumption that the economic infrastructure is the only site of meaning for politics. Or as David Harvey has argued, the capital-labour contradiction is not the sole political explanation of the crises of capitalism. Having said this, it would be false to assume that Žižek is himself entirely removed from his perspective. Against the Foucauldian emphasis on disciplinary biopower, Žižek’s militant (rather than inert) materialism insists that social reality is not wholly given and moreover that class struggle, regardless of the myriad levels of contradiction, is the foreclosed Real of global capitalism. Whereas classical political economy is focused on the contradiction of the value form, the true secret for Žižek brings Lacanian psychoanalysis into the structure of late capitalism. The sublime, religious character of the commodity, for Žižek, is a correlate to the emptiness of the rule of capitalism as Big Other. Rasmussen and Žižek might thus have more in common than Rasmussen is aware. Both of them understand that the revolution ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ is not a clearly mapped programme but a destruction of the current structures of social reproduction. The communist utopia that lies on the other side of the lower stages of communism and its distribution of goods, focuses, Rasmussen says, on ability and need. With Žižek we should add: according to his or her own desire. A minimum programme would therefore begin with a de-monetization of the economy, altogether transforming the conditions of necessity that otherwise enslave the working masses.
27 November 2015