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Today I’m happy to repost a highly thought-provoking article called “We Are All Very Anxious.” The genius of the piece is that it centers the emotional reality that most of us experience while living under the capitalist system, and attempts to catalogue this emotional reality historically. Of course, what misery, boredom, and anxiety have in common is that they are all forms of powerlessness, because ultimately like any system of power, capitalism rules through convincing the vast majority of its subjects that there is no possible way to overthrow it. It’s therefore important how this article highlights the emotionally liberating content of social movements, and questions our strategies for emotionally connecting with the anxious public.
How do we create spaces and actions where people can most past fear and helplessness and feel genuine hope for a radically different future?
The discussion of the emotional “affects” of capitalism also brings to thinking about care. All living beings need to be cared for – physically, emotionally and sexually. Humans, like other creatures, instinctively care for one another. Therefore any power structure rules by threatening this mutual care and offering access to care only to loyal subjects who work for the system. Patriarchy, of course, structures this rewards and punishment system according to the gender binary, and designates women as the primary carers. How are we told to demonstrate loyalty to the gender system, and what care are we told to expect for such loyalty?
Capitalism has re-structured patriarchy in many ways, one of which has been to monetize care. Those with money are guaranteed to be cared for, while those without face the possibility of isolation and invisibility. Perhaps this is what our anxiety is rooted in – the fear of ending up alone and forgotten if capitalism leaves no room for us (as individuals) to earn a decent living. Could this be one way we imagine building a revolutionary movement in the 21st century – grounded in the universal need of human beings to access care?
We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It 1
by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness
Republished from Plan C
1: Each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect. 2
Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. This is not a static situation. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect 3 is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and /or its social sources are formulated. Hence, capitalism constantly comes into crisis and recomposes around newly dominant affects.
One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.
Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem.
In the modern era (until the post-war settlement), the dominant affect was misery. In the nineteenth century, the dominant narrative was that capitalism leads to general enrichment. The public secret of this narrative was the misery of the working class. The exposure of this misery was carried out by revolutionaries. The first wave of modern social movements in the nineteenth century was a machine for fighting misery. Tactics such as strikes, wage struggles, political organisation, mutual aid, co-operatives and strike funds were effective ways to defeat the power of misery by ensuring a certain social minimum. Some of these strategies still work when fighting misery.
When misery stopped working as a control strategy, capitalism switched to boredom. In the mid twentieth century, the dominant public narrative was that the standard of living – which widened access to consumption, healthcare and education – was rising. Everyone in the rich countries was happy, and the poor countries were on their way to development. The public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s – a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery. Job security and welfare provision reduced anxiety and misery, but jobs were boring, made up of simple, repetitive tasks. Mid-century capitalism gave everything needed for survival, but no opportunities for life; it was a system based on force-feeding survival to saturation point.
Of course, not all workers under Fordism actually had stable jobs or security – but this was the core model of work, around which the larger system was arranged. There were really three deals in this phase, with the B-worker deal – boredom for security – being the most exemplary of the Fordism-boredom conjuncture. Today, the B-worker deal has largely been eliminated, leaving a gulf between the A- and C-workers (the consumer society insiders, and the autonomy and insecurity of the most marginal).
2: Contemporary resistance is born of the 1960s wave, in response to the dominant affect of boredom.
If each stage of the dominant system has a dominant affect, then each stage of resistance needs strategies to defeat or dissolve this affect. If the first wave of social movements were a machine for fighting misery, the second wave (of the 1960s-70s, or more broadly (and thinly) 1960s-90s) were a machine for fighting boredom. This is the wave of which our own movements were born, which continues to inflect most of our theories and practices. Read the rest of this entry »
The following book review was published in the Fall issue of Fifth Estate. I originally wrote a much longer version here. This one’s short and sweet. [alex knight]
Silvia Federici’s book, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, is an essential read for those of us seeking to overthrow systems of domination and build a liberated future.
What is most fascinating about Caliban and the Witch is how it challenges the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, was at one time a “progressive” or necessary development. Uncovering the forgotten history of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe in suspicion and fire for more than 200 years, Federici demonstrates that capitalism has always relied on spectacular violence, particularly against women, people of color, workers, and those cultivating a more egalitarian future.
The book recalls the enormous and colorful peasant movements of the Middle Ages, which pointed towards non-capitalist futures for Europe, and by extension, the world. However, these paths were blocked. The “shock therapy” of the Witch Hunt was used to terrorize rebels and visionaries, impose new discipline on the body, on female sexuality in particular, and usher in a new social system based on a landless working class and the devaluation of women’s labor.
Federici writes, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.”
Silvia Federici is one of the most important political theorists alive today. Her landmark book Caliban and the Witch demonstrated the inextricable link between anti-capitalism and radical feminist politics by digging deep into the actual history of capital’s centuries-long attack on women and the body.
In this essay, originally written in 2008, she follows up on that revelation by laying out her feminist anti-capitalist vision, and how it extends beyond traditional Marxism. This piece is comprehensive – long but far-reaching. At times seeing the truth requires seeing in the dark – acknowledging the true horrors of the world as it currently is manifest.
This essay was updated and published in Silvia’s new anthology Revolution at Point Zero, and I have made a few small additional edits. Enjoy! [alex]
The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2011 edition)
“It is clear that capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of women. This would not offer much consolation if it had only meant heightened misery and oppression, but fortunately it has also provoked resistance. And capitalism has become aware that if it completely ignores or suppresses this resistance it might become more and more radical, eventually turning into a movement for self-reliance and perhaps even the nucleus of a new social order.” – Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (2000)
“The emerging liberative agent in the Third World is the unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.” – John McMurtry, The Cancer State of Capitalism (1999)
“The pestle has snapped because of so much pounding. Tomorrow I will go home. Until tomorrow Until tomorrow… Because of so much pounding, tomorrow I will go home.” – Hausa women’s song from Nigeria
This essay is a political reading of the restructuring of the (re)production of labor-power in the global economy, but it is also a feminist critique of Marx that, in different ways, has been developing since the 1970s. This critique was first articulated by activists in the Campaign for Wages For Housework, especially Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, among others, and later by Ariel Salleh in Australia and the feminists of the Bielefeld school, Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen.
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
Had Marx recognized that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labor power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.
As for us, a century and a half after the publication of Capital, we must challenge the assumption of the necessity and progressivity of capitalism for at least three reasons.
This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.
“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight
When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”
I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.
Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990’s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.
I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped. Read the rest of this entry »
“Invisible and unspeakable, without a meaningful lexicon, is the world of care. No human could survive or thrive without touch, affection, nurturing, attention, compassion, validation, or empathy–yet the need for these acts of care (which are often gendered as feminine, no matter who provides them) has been subsumed into necessary invisibility by a system that depends on depriving us of the means to tend to our own lives.”
“Alienation and Intimacy”
by Corina Dross
Originally posted on Revolt, She Said.
Intimacy is often considered outside the realm of political discourse; politics is what we do out there, not what happens in our homes, our friendships, and our romances. We know this is false, but that knowledge itself doesn’t transform our lives.
We still carry shame and fear about our private needs and desires–and we look to our communities for clues about the appropriate ways to get these needs met. So when we mirror for each other the same policing and oppression we’ve learned from the larger culture, we’re failing to demand a better world for ourselves and the people we love.
The enterprise of radical relationships is to create a language that we haven’t yet learned, that can subvert the language we’ve been given, as we struggle to analyze how the alienation that permeates our world specifically functions in the details of our intimate lives. It’s important that this enterprise be public and collective, to avoid the trap of buying into the self-help book mentality–which advises us to analyze our own deepest fears and worst habits alone or with a therapist, or with a partner or best friend–but as an individual project, without agitating for the world to better meet our collective needs.
And our own worst habits are not merely ours; most likely, they arise in response to larger systems of oppression, which we all face, and which we internalize. There are multiple intersections of oppression in our lives, but let’s focus here on capitalist processes of alienation. If we look at some specific ways capitalism creates suffering–and makes this suffering appear normal and invisible–we may see parallels in our intimate lives and begin to formulate forms of resistance.
There are many cultural side-effects of the capitalist project, worth discussing in future conversations, but for now let’s start with the idea of artificial scarcity.
If we agree that capitalism shapes our world through processes that consolidate wealth, power, and resources amongst very few–creating scarcity and need for the rest of us, robbing us of time to pursue our own deepest desires and interests, time with friends and loved ones, access to healthy food and housing, access to medical care, and a thousand other necessary things, we can imagine how much pressure there is on our intimate relationships, which are supposedly outside of the public sphere, to be sites of abundance. It’s somewhat fantastical that we could expect one person (or several, depending on how we arrange our love lives) to make up for all that lack. But popular narratives reinforce this: that love will fix all our problems; that a long-lasting romantic partnership should fill all that is empty in us; that we must give to our lovers all that the world can’t.
The following essay was written for and performed at a spoken word event on Nov. 15 in Philadelphia. Enjoy! [alex]
“A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of zombie-ism.” – Zombie Karl Marx
Why has the archetype of the zombie been so ever-present in pop culture over the last five years or so? Is it just a passing fad, like Justin Bieber’s latest hairstyle or the eye-rolling annoyance of YOLO? Is it simply because it’s so much fun to dress up in tattered rags, skin covered with fake blood and oozing sores? Or could this zombie fixation reflect something buried in our subconscious about the society we live in today? Something about our ideas about ourselves, minds turned off and eyes glued to flickering screens, fatalistically attempting to forge human relationships through virtual social networks, working meaningless jobs to pay inescapable debts, groaning towards a future that promises no better than what already exists, and at worse may offer apocalyptic disaster, a remix of Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy set on repeat?
But beyond detachment and doom, could our obsession with the undead reflect the reality of the state of institutional decay, political futility, and economic stagnation the world as a whole is struggling to wade through, like some pungent swamp that won’t release its brambles from our ankles?
I submit that the answer is all that and more. I believe we are, in fact, living through a historic period tied to the image of the zombie because the system which dictates and dominates our globe, from the world-markets to the workplace to the propaganda machines, and I do not hesitate to name it – capitalism, has in fact zombified right before our eyes, transforming into a monster that threatens to tear all of our lives apart, unless we can find some way to annihilate the sucker, or at the very least evade it until its virus extinguishes itself in an orgy of self-destruction.
And yes, this is a hopeful theory, more hopeful than almost anything else a left-wing radical like myself is likely to propose to you in this day and age. In this age of grimness and despair, scheduled to climax in about a month, any hope for a better future may sound like the naïve ramblings of a starry-eyed child who’s watched too many Disney movies. Nevertheless, hear me out, I have a point.
In 2009, the radical UK magazine Turbulence published an excellent editorial called “Life in Limbo?”, which courageously declared that neoliberalism, the dominant ideological and political project of the capitalist elites over the last forty years, had failed and been replaced by what they called “Zombie-Liberalism”: Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday I had the honor of speaking alongside George Caffentzis to answer the question, “What is Capitalism?” Certainly this is one of the core questions of our era, as millions of people are becoming politicized during the unending economic crisis and looking for an analysis that can explain what is happening to them. In order to make a better world, we first need to define the system that dominates the current one, and that is capitalism.
[update 2/13: and here is the video of the talk, in two parts!]
Below is the outline I created for my talk (downloadable HERE). I tried to bring a holistic analysis of the system that could be understandable by the average person, but still contain a nuanced perspective of all the ways capitalism has screwed us over and screwed over our planet. I’ll be fleshing this out over the next several days to revamp the “What is Capitalism?” section of the website. [alex]
What is Capitalism?
“Know Your Enemy” – Rage Against the Machine
2/1/2012 – LAVA
Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
- Capitalism is a Global System of Abuse
- Common Sense Radicalism – speak to the core issue in a way everyone can emotionally understand
- How does it feel to live in a capitalist system? Like an abusive relationship.
- “The problem that has no name.”
- Social and ecological trauma
- BP Oil Disaster demonstrates system’s logic: profit over all, total lack of accountability
- Power, Abuse, Resistance
- Power-Over and Power-With
- Internalized Oppression vs. Inherent Need for Self-determination
- Systems of Abuse/Oppression: Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Class
- Some Features of Class Societies:
- Inequality – the few benefit at the expense of the many
- Economic production disconnected from human need
- Forced labor – slavery, wage slavery
- State violence – punishment, repression
- Warfare, Conquest
- Unsustainable ecological abuse
- Popular resistance
- Capitalism is the most advanced Class Society
- Capitalism: Pyramid of Accumulation
- Financial Speculation
- Commodity Trading, Commodities
- Wage Labor, Wage Labor, Wage Labor
- Enclosures: the largest, but invisible part of the iceberg
- any energy, resources or labor taken by force or without just compensation
- Stages of Capitalism: 1492 – Present
This was written in the Fall of 2010. Although the complete series will remain unfinished for some time, I am publishing these finished sections because when you put hundreds of hours into something, it makes more sense to share what you’ve produced than to keep it in the closet forever. [alex]
Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Or My Rocky Relationship with Grampa Karl
by Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com
Part 3.1 – September 19, 2011
This is part of an essay critiquing the philosophy of Karl Marx for its relevance to 21st century anti-capitalism. The main thrust of the essay is to encourage living common-sense radicalism, as opposed to the automatic reproduction of zombie ideas which have lost connection to current reality. Karl Marx was no prophet. But neither can we reject him. We have to go beyond him, and bring him with us. I believe it is only on such a basis, with a critical appraisal of Marx, that the Left can become ideologically relevant to today’s rapidly evolving political circumstances. [Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.]
What Marx Got Wrong
Although Karl Marx provided us crucial and brilliant anti-capitalist critiques as explored in Part 2, he also contributed several key theoretical errors which continue to haunt the Left. Instead of mindlessly reproducing these dead ideas into contexts where they no longer make sense, we must expose the decay and separate it from the parts of Marx’s thought which are still alive and relevant.
I have narrowed down my objections to five core problems: 1. Linear March of History, 2. Europe as Liberator, 3. Mysticism of the Proletariat, 4. The State, and 5. A Secular Dogma.
I submit that Marx’s foremost shortcoming was his theory of history as a linear progression of higher and higher stages of human society, culminating in the utopia of communism. According to Marx, this “progress” was manifest in the “development of productive forces,” or the ability of humans to remake the world in their own image. The danger of this idea is that it wrongly ascribes an “advance” to the growth of class society. In particular, capitalism is seen as a “necessary” precursor to socialism. This logic implicitly justifies not only the domination of nature by humanity, but the dominance of men over women, and the dominance of Europeans over people of other cultures.
Marx’s elevation of the “proletariat” as the agent of history also created a narrow vision for human emancipation, locating the terrain of liberation within the workplace, rather than outside of it. This, combined with a naive and problematic understanding of the State, only dispensed more theoretical fog that has clouded the thinking of revolutionary strategy for more than a century. Finally, by binding the hopes and dreams of the world into a deterministic formula of economic law, Marx inadvertently created the potential for tragic dogmatism and sectarianism, his followers fighting over who possessed the “correct” interpretation of historical forces.
(These mistakes have become especially apparent with hindsight, after Marxists have attempted to put these ideas into practice over the last 150 years. The goal here is not to fault Marx for failing to see the future, but rather to fault what he actually said, which was wrong in his own time, and is disastrous in ours. In this section I will limit my criticisms to Marx’s ideas only, and deal with the monstrous legacy of “actually existing” Marxism in Part 4.)
“Rooted in early industrialization and a teleological materialism that assumed progress towards communism was inevitable, traditional Marxist historiography grossly oversimplified real history into a series of linear steps and straightforward transitions, with more advanced stages inexorably supplanting more backward ones. Nowadays we know better. History is wildly contingent and unpredictable. Many alternate paths leave from the current moment, as they have from every previous moment too” – Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia (41).
Much of what is wrong in Marx stems from a deterministic conception of historical development, which imagines that the advance and concentration of economic power is necessarily progressive. According to this view, human liberation, which Marx calls communism, can only exist atop the immense productivity and industrial might of capitalism. All of human history, therefore, is nothing but “progressive epochs in the economic formation of society,” as Marx calls it in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
“In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production… the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism [communism].” Read the rest of this entry »