Beginning politics from the middle

comments for second session, Capital 1 seminar, August 7 2010.

Much of the following is in the form of short notes, not worked into a clear argument…

So ultimately, this session and discussion is aiming to approach the question of how do we think and do politics in the present condition? We thought it best that this question be posed at the most simple level, so we approach it naively, working up our discussion from our most basic thoughts on what we think politics is. Once we ask ourselves this question, we can then think on what it is that a reading of Marx and Capital offers us on this problem.

My talk will be broken into three general sections:

A) Thinking politics as a question of method, which can be discussed in terms of idealism and materialism.

B) Thinking politics as a question of relation and of power.

C) Moving onto some basic possibilities of engaging the political problematic today, thought of as an ‘emergence’ or perhaps ‘amplification’ of the otherwise ‘invisible’.

So, where do we begin, to what will we return?

The motif of my short presentation is taken from the following quotes given by Althusser, and Deleuze and Guattari: to think a materialist politics as a jumping on a moving train, a starting from the middle.

This is why he always catches a moving train, like in American Westerns.
Without knowing where it comes from (origin) nor where it goes (end). He
gets off mid way.

– Althusser, ‘Portrait of a materialist philosopher’

To start from the middle, bifurcate from the middle

– Deleuze & Guattari, ‘A thousand plateaus’

For Althusser: A materialist perspective, or a materialist way of living as ongoing engagement in movement. This can be likened to those scenes in the western movies involving the cowboy on a horse and a train. The cowboy rides up next to this train that is travelling along the tracks, and jumps aboard. There is no way of knowing where the train is coming from, or where it is going. The cowboy jumps into a situation of movement and uncertainty, of contingency, and this is the condition and point of departure for activity.

And for Deleuze & Guattari: we always begin in the middle. We don’t choose the conditions of our point of departure.

And yet, this is the point at which we must develop politics. This is a difficulty.

The thoughts we have gone over, and I guess what I am posing here today is that, continuing the metaphor, a materialist politics is a beginning from the middle, a jumping on a moving train, and that this is the first dimension of the ultimate task of politics, which is a breaking with, as Jonathon put it, the condition of being ‘under the world’s thumb’.

The second dimension for us then is how does the minor and invisible emerge and rupture, break with consensus? What are the points of antagonism that constitute the minor and how do these become ‘political’?

This is the question I don’t intend to answer. Hopefully it is a useful question, and hopefully we can talk about developing some answers together.

A) Thinking a materialist politics: we always begin in the middle

The previous discussion went over Marx’s development and construction of a materialist analysis and critique of capitalism. This involved the utilisation of a specific method and a mode of engaging the world. The problem to be taken up here is ultimately that of how to transfer this to the question of politics?

Throughout Capital 1 Marx provides a series of coordinates with which to think and analyse the world. He also points a number of times to those ways of interpretation and of ‘science’ that he refutes as incorrect. To give two brief examples:

Firstly, a critique. In chapter 2, “The Process of Exchange”, Marx looks at the juridical relation which corresponds to the economic relation of the production of commodities, here he states, hassling Proudhon:

Proudhon creates his ideal of justice…from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: he thereby proves…that the production of commodities is a form as eternal as justice. Then he turns around and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the corresponding legal system, in accordance with this ideal. What would one think of a chemist who, instead of studying the actual laws governing molecular interactions, and on that basis solving definite problems, claimed to regulate those interactions by means of the eternal ideas?

To think idealism: we can define idealism as a process of thinking, and then acting from, a premise of perfected, universal ideas or concepts, and to seek reform of the world based on the inherent value one deems to exist in this idea. This is what is identified in the criticism of Proudhon above. The terrain is a weak abstraction, a world of ideas disconnected from the world.

In different terms, politically, this can be seen as a problem in terms of how we ask questions or pose political problems. Basically, that idealism ultimately asks the wrong questions.

For example, and to be very blunt as well as somewhat tongue in cheek, the returning question of what is it to be a revolutionary, or even an activist. I am sure we all know this figure, “the revolutionary/activist”. I once thought of myself as this figure, sometimes I still do when I get a bit complacent. The point however, is this idea of what it is to be a revolutionary, how to become this, is a wrong question, an incorrect posing of the problem of politics.

When it gets down to it, this question of what it is to be a revolutionary, this striving, is something that cannot be judged outside of the relations of the material world, and outside of temporal and historical considerations. Being a revolutionary isn’t a choice you make about your individual identity.  Politics is always relational, and therefore fluid and changing. We don’t choose the conditions within which we have to act. Yet the only way in which acts might be seen to be revolutionary or not is upon the basis of how they are situated within the material conditions, the social relations of the world. So we move to a question of relation rather than idea and identity as a basis for materialism and politics.

Secondly, as a description of materialism and method. Footnote 4 pg 493-494:

It is in reality much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosised. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one.”

Here we get an idea of what Marx’s materialist method is, and the practical movement it implies: to begin with that which confronts you, to look beyond the appearance of things. He insists on the necessity of confronting the difficulty, and beginning from this point, of working from the ‘actual given relations of life’.

And yet, there is an ongoing slippage in Capital, that moves from the materialist to the idealist. Perhaps implying some sort of necessary relation between the two, we need each to think the other.

The clearest example of this I can remember is where Marx is talking about machinery. Here the materialist analysis identifies the functions of the machine, its emergence, and the ways in which it transforms social relations.

In the same chapter, however, he moves from this level of critique, to that of celebrating the machine as a move to wards communism, the heralding of communism. He starts to project into the future some role and somehow different position of technology.

Is this slippage of any consequence?

In any case, if we think of a materialist politics as something different from idealist, what might we say about it. What does it mean to begin from the middle, or to jump upon a moving train – to not choose the conditions and to not know the future – in practical terms?

A beginning in the middle is a beginning from what is in front of us, conditions in existence, rather than a preconceived idea of how activity needs to be. This is the political problem. It might mean that a materialist politics necessarily involves the development of a posture that is not rigid or fixed, that is open to change. A materialist politics implies an ongoing re-posing, open to re-composition, of the question of organisation and practice. It is perhaps the development of a practice of relation.

B) Politics as relations, as power

Between equal rights, force decides. Hence in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e the working class. (p344)

To understand capital, we need to understand the relations behind the appearance of things. Here we might posit that politics is not reducible to its elements or individual forms of appearance. It is an exceeding and overflowing of the limits of these elements in isolation. Yet, this exceeding and overflowing, constantly runs up against logics of capture, preventing the political.

When we think capitalism, we are of course thinking the social relation of capital, and also its reproduction on an expanded scale.

So to think this politically one has to confront the problem of the state. If we think of the process of the reproduction of the capital relation on an expanded scale we need to think of an apparatus, a series of mechanisms that function in relation with each other as a machine of this expanded reproduction.

The state becomes a mechanism within this apparatus, encompassing judicial, legislative, political, police functions.

As a mechanism it functions generally as an expression of total social capital, as the articulation of the interests of capital in general. But within this generality, there remain contradictory movements, in which the state assumes particular interests under particular conditions.

But throughout these contradictory movements, the state remains the ticket inspector on Althusser’s moving train.

We can think of recent examples of this. Mining tax, work choices.

Marx provides us with massive amounts of evidence on the function of the state throughout Capital. For example chapter 10, “The Working Day”, details the struggle between the collective worker and the collective capitalist over the length of the working day, the temporality of (re)production and exploitation, the refusal of capitalist time by the workers, and the political implications of the extraction of relative surplus-value by the capitalist class. It is a powerful and engrossing, if also tragic, chapter. Throughout, we witness the state as guarantor of return to normal: to the re-inscription of conditions sanctifying the exploitation of labour.

Throughout this chapter, we hear the details of the more or less concealed, protracted civil war between the capitalist class and the working class.

The workers continually struggle for the reduction of the working day, to limit the working day, to restrain capital’s capacity to put children to work, to eat off the job.

The capitalist class struggle to keep and extend the existing working day, to have production in motion for as many hours of the day as possible. For Marx, “Nothing characterises the spirit of capital better than the history of English factory legislation from 1833-1864” (p390).

This struggle over the length of the working day is a long one, and it takes many turns. And the state plays the ticket inspector. It begins by shifting from a function of guaranteeing the peasantry enough land to subsist, to that of breaking the resistance to proletarianisation. It submits the working class to severe conditions. But upon the turbulence of the protracted civil war, it also comes to police the most severe of the capitalist class in the interests of the social relation of capital, establishing that the limited working day is in fact in the interests of the capitalist class, and the capital relation. For example:

Pg 348 The English Factory Act is “the negative expression of the same appetite.”

Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working class movement, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its roots.

The severity of the labour process and the demands on workers undermined the capacity for daily reproduction of labour-power. The state rectifies this problem, but does not address the social relation, does not oppose the social relation.

The establishment of this limited working day, the modest magna carta, is the product of a severe class struggle. Not an enlightened reform, not the outgrowth of the ‘inalienable rights of man’. It is an imposition produced by struggle.

Yet at the same time Marx seems to be setting up the idea that the collective achievement of a working day doesn’t break from the overall logic of capitalism, and that it can be very much integrated into it.

This point, and the political tension involved in it, sparks questions about what types of demands are useful. Perhaps a question here is how a process of struggle and refusal becomes productive for capital.

A further question here is that of how a practical opposition to the social relation of capital can be organised, in contrast to being sucked into this or that opposition to elements of the social relation.

Is this where we find ourselves on the moving train?

C) Posing the political problematic today

If we again think back to the previous discussion and the conception of the collective worker, and the implications this poses for how we understand production, value, time and individuality, we can perhaps again draw parallels for how we might think a materialist politics.

The collective worker transforms the condition of the individual worker, placing the individual in relation to the social and collective dimension of (re)production. We need to understand labour, production and value, at this point, beyond the individual; the individual only makes sense within the social relation.

So thinking the political in terms of this beyond individual, as a relation irreducible, and as something at least partially invisible, what is the condition we ourselves face?

To put forward a small, modest and not by any means original hypothesis: the task is that of the organisation of a ‘political posture’ that is open to the movement from actually existing relations, to the forms of organisation responsive to these, based upon the desire and necessity to develop open relations between the minor points of antagonism.

What are some concrete examples of these? Are mass demonstrations an example of a potential rupture? Or everyday acts of refusal elements of the minor?

It seems that politics is always at least partly invisible, which at times emerges for everyone to see. So, this does not mean that politics is invisible except to those that ‘do it’, but rather that politics is a process, and a series of relations that is always happening on a level that is beyond the vision of any given individual or immediate milieu; it is beyond, an overflowing, a real exceeding of what appears to be the limit point of the possible.

And yet, can we really understand capital, can we really think politics, outside of the everyday. What, in other words, is the relationship between the political event, the point of rupture with consensus or ideology, and the myriad minor antagonisms which define the everyday experience of life today?


3 Responses to “Beginning politics from the middle”

  1. 1 markcyst 13 August 2010 at 2:39 am

    “If nobody asks me what political action is, I seem to know; but if I have to explain it to somebody who asks, this presumed knowledge evaporates into incoherence.” Paolo Virno

    i should have put this in there somewhere


  2. 2 Jonathon 19 August 2010 at 4:00 am

    I think this hits one one of the basic problems for a materialist practice of politics: the idea that politics is irreducible to individual actions.

    I think the 20th Century Left, and its living dead, was steeped in positivism. This essentially destroyed Marx for this Left – and of course for the present.

    But it also turned the party into the heroic individual actor that could do politics, party leaders particularly became the nodal points of politics. Lenin’s thought became something to do with the wisdom of parties over the masses.

    Politics as such mirrored the atomisation given by democracy: politics was reduced to the actions of state or would-be state actors.

    If we instead throw politics into the wind, make something bewteen-us and irreducible to our individual actions, what is it?

    It must be to do with all those actions, but must also be irreducible to them. This gives Marx’s problem or trying to represent a relation: value.

    Can Marx’s theory of value give an example of making a collective subject – and Marx calls value an ‘autonomous subject’ – appear intelligible?

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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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