“Literally” a Communist?: Communism’s Ontology of Difference (Part 0)

Recently, on Good Morning Britain — the UK’s televisual equivalent of a morning dump; a once-innocuous morning television show for tabloid news and banal pleasantries turned personal soapbox for Piers Morgan — go-to lefty pundit Ash Sarkar uttered an infuriated riposte that was heard across the internet.

On the programme, Morgan bullishly constructed a straw man argument against Sarkar, arguing that the hysterics surrounding Trump’s visit to the UK were hypocritical considering that far worse geopolitical characters have walked into this country without any resistance. (Morgan has shown himself up with this argument before.)

No one protested Obama when he came to visit over his problematic domestic and foreign policies, Morgan proclaimed. Where was Sarkar then? Sarkar, of course, refuted this. She explained she did protest Obama’s domestic and foreign policies when he was president. However, she was unable to make herself heard over Morgan’s incessant questions, asked without pause so that he might hear an answer. Sarkar had had enough when, despite all her attempts to say otherwise, Morgan doubled-down and ordained her as a disciple of “Saint Obama”, to which she replied that she was not a fan of Obama or the Democratic Party at all because “I’m a communist, you idiot … I’m literally a communist.”

The retort took flight, making its way across the internet. Capitalising on the moment, Novara Media — the political news platform of which Sarkar is a senior editor — began to sell t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’m literally a communist”, adding fuel to the viral fire.

The mainstream media response to the whole affair was painfully predictable. Many on the right were appalled that someone could openly align themselves with an ideology that resulted in the deaths of some nine million people in the 20th century. This parroting of arguably the most common criticism of Communism offered by free market capitalists without any self-awareness is nothing new. The left is so used to firing back statistics of social murder under capitalism that this time it seemed too tired of the charade to even bother. Instead, many on the political left simply refuted Sarkar’s communist credentials — myself included, at first, I must admit — launching a thousand alternatively nuanced definitions into the Twitter milieu, each taking as their focus an issue which Sarkar had not publicly acknowledged.

Sarkar went on to clarify her definition of communism later in a succession of interviews, particularly when speaking to Teen Vogue — of all people. She explained that, for her,

being a communist means being a fierce critic of the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex. The expanded use of drone warfare and the expansive use of deportation under Obama. You can be a vocal critic of all those things, while also looking at how Trump [has done them] because, quite simply, he was able to build on a lot of Obama’s legacy, particularly in terms of executive overreach. He’s been able to pursue extreme, draconian forms of state violence.

In this way, communism is understood not necessarily as the state owning the means of production, as a kind of post-socialist end-game, but rather as something that is critical of and points itself towards the horizon of present understandings of the state and its infrastructures of control and expansion. The confusion I have had in trying to understand Sarkar’s position is whether she is an actually anti-state communist or not. Perhaps criticisms of the state-as-such are a line better left uncrossed on national television. Later, however, Sarkar is more clear, telling Teen Vogue that the central communist issue of our times is “the crisis represented by the automation of labor.” She explains:

Human labour cannot compete with fixed capital — that’s just a fact. In the U.K., one in five jobs is going to be automated. What does that mean? Does that mean one in five people is then excluded from the means of survival because they can no longer afford to feed themselves [or] house themselves?…

[As a communist,] you say, ‘OK, technology, which Marx calls fixed capital in The Fragment on the Machine, has a contradictory element because on the one hand it makes you more precarious as a worker. On the other hand, it shows what you can be when liberated from work because you’ve got all this extra time. You can imagine different ways of living. You can pursue your passions. You can live a happy life.’ Why don’t we just bring that technology into common ownership? Ownership of the people, not the capitalist class, and distribute the abundance generated by that fixed capital equitably.

And there are different ways of distributing that more equitably. That’s possible under social democracy through taxation or universal basic income. It’s possible under socialism. But communism is the only thing which says all things should be brought into the hands of commons to benefit all people. In the past, you’d call that communism. I think in the future, we’ll have to call that common sense.

If Sarkar is making her fellow pundits anxious, it’s perhaps because this definition resembles most clearly a kind of “Classic Communism” of state-ownership and control. It is an expression of a familiar means towards an end that, I would argue, we are already seeing take shape. What is there, in Sarkar’s argument, that stops the flows of capitalism from capturing these other ways of living for its own aims? In this staggered trajectory, what safeguards are in place that allow these changes to retain their radicality rather than remaining susceptible to capture?

Sarkar’s colleague at Novara Media, Aaron Bastani, invited onto the BBC current events programme Newsnight in the wake of Sarkar’s Good Morning Britain appearance, clarified his own position on communism in more general terms. Asked whether he and Sarkar were just “romanticising a murderous ideology”, he responded:

No. The way I look at the word ‘communism’ is it is talking about a kind of society that is so qualitatively different to capitalism, as capitalism was to feudalism, which is to say its key features — within capitalism: having to sell your labour for a wage, production for profit, production for exchange — these things would no longer exist. Have we ever had a political economy, a polity, which didn’t have those features? No, we haven’t. I’m not talking about Actually Existing Socialism from the ’80s, the 1990s, North Korea or the Soviet Union, I’m talking about a politics which fits the technological possibilities which we’re only just beginning to see — clearly in automation but I think elsewhere as well.

This I am on board with.

What this apparently shocking ideological aberration indicates, nestled amongst the already weird daily news cycles of 2018, is not only the willingness of a new generation to openly adopt the ideologies of communism, undeterred by the negative connotations it has accrued over previous generations, but also the very problem of communism itself in the 21st century.

The left’s reaction to this whole affair was the most telling by far. Whilst other writers within the political media pronounced a kind of just-left-of-Corbyn line, left twitter more generally decried Sarkar’s credentials. “She isn’t literally a communist”, I saw again and again on the timeline. I echoed this sentiment myself.

But then I saw myself…

I’ve just had a text published on Acid Communism, championing the multiplicity inherent to communism’s seizing of the means of desiring-production, but the timeline’s inundation by splintering communisms made me want everyone to just shut the fuck up. After calling “I’m literally a communist” the worst political meme of 2018, I had to stop and take a closer look at what my issue was. Is this not what I wanted? Is this not the fractious discourse I was calling for?

In short: No. I think what we’re seeing here is, instead, the very thing that is holding us back. What is so (genuinely) funny about Sarkar’s literal communism is its polemical vagueness aimed squarely at Piers Morgan’s hyper-specific worldview. But is such a communism not an impossibility in the 21st century?

Bastani, on Newsnight, highlights the communism to come in a way that seems to largely fly over his fellow panelist’s heads.

I don’t believe “communism” — as in, something beyond capitalism — was even possible in the 20th century. An analogue here is John Wycliffe who was a heretical priest, 14th century Protestant — his idea were more or less the same as Luther. They didn’t scale in the 1400s like they would in the 1500s. Why? The absense of the printing press. I think we’re now at a moment where there are a presence of technologies that make new realities plausible.

This is entirely ignored by the panel who instead, along with the rest of us, choose instead to attempt to answer concretely the slipperiest of questions: “What is a communist?” “What is a literal communist?” “What does a literal communist look like?” If Novara Media’s new t-shirt campaign is a viral marketing success, perhaps they might soon be able to assemble some sort of typology…

That is perhaps the ultimate joke. Like the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts of a few years back, such things only serve to highlight the inherent multiplicity and communal valence of a term being paradoxically self-affirmed. 

Communism, as Bastani makes more clear, is a word that antagonistically connotes an outsideness, an otherness, “a kind of society that is so qualitatively different” to what we have now, echoing precisely the position of Mark Fisher and others.

We can break this notion of a communist “society” down here to be a signifier for — amongst other things — an economic, political and ontological otherness. Economic otherness is the central concern for most mainstream leftist communists but rarely do we hear discussions about the other two kinds of other. Perhaps this is because economics is already viewed as a kind of outsideness. It is far easier to pass comment on and theorise, but to theorise the tandem changes to the subject is territory far too speculative and complex for most public discussions.

Why?

It’s the opinion of this blog that this is the consolidated consciousness that needs to be razed; this form of fragmentation that must be accelerated.


In the English preface of The Disavowed Community, his 2014 statement on the ontopolitical problem of communism today, Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

If there is a “work-in-progress” in contemporary philosophy, it is undoubtedly in work on community — on the common, communism, communitarianism, being-in-common, being-with, being-together, or again in “living together”, which today designates, in a manner that is poignant and sometimes entirely naive, the preoccupation of a society shocked by attacks that condemn it in its very being even as society simultaneously experiences itself as uncertain and anxious. …

The entirety of the Western world believed that it progressed toward the possibility of common existence, of law, freedom, and equality. It believed that this word “democracy” was society’s own true foundation. It had been encouraged to think this by the fact that what called itself “communism” revealed itself to be unfounded, imposed by a will that was no less dominating than the imperialism that had already taken possession of much of the world.

Communism that was labeled “real” collapsed for having exclusively gambled on military power and the domination of a worn-out ideology. For its part, democracy was increasingly recognised as a facade behind which economic power operated, which now contained the real mechanisms of control. Politics lost its most illuminating sense.

Nancy, of the three actors involved in the conversation on communism — Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot being the other two thinkers he is in explicit orbit of — is the voice I like the least but here, in his latest statement, he atones for previous misunderstandings. He comes to recognise that which is central to the thought of Bataille and Blanchot that he failed to account for: that which “escapes”.

For Blanchot, it is a question of pursuing a thought of “community” on the side of love and more precisely a love whose pleasure [jouissance] is unsharable [impartageable], unshared, and “essentially escapes”. It escapes all institution, all forms of communal consistency.

Blanchot’s communism is a communism for the 21st century. It is a communism to be built out of the social and communal relations that are already central to being as we know it but also to difference as we fail to comprehend it. These are the relations which, today, feel most fraught but which are nonetheless central to our futures. Blanchot’s is, for me, a Deleuzian communism through and through, built on a new ontology of difference. Our lack of faith in a “literal communism” or our ridiculing of the silhouette of a literal communist is a damning self-indictment but also clarifies the paradox of the collective subject that we must still contend with.

Nancy, at the end of this book, highlights how Blanchot once drew attention to Samuel Becket’s “soi soi-disant”, his “so-called self”, illuminating the paradox of a self which tries to but cannot affirm itself.

This is because the self is a transcendental wall, affirmed by its outside. The self, self-defined, is a paradox, amputating all that is unavowable about itself but which truly constitutes itself.

If we struggle to contend with the individual self in this way, what hope do we have of collectivising selves towards a new understanding of our world and its infrastructures?

What I’d like to do here on the blog in the coming weeks is consider this idea in more detail, tentatively exploring what a communism of the 21st century can learn — specifically — from Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition.

The reasons for doing this are, at present, not very rigorous. I’m writing this, at present, based mostly on a hunch about a half-baked idea coupled with a general desire to understand this book better, but I think there’s something in it. I had initially intended this to be a long paper to shop around elsewhere but I have far too much to figure out and so, having quickly established the contemporary stakes of a communism shaped by its own multiplicity rather than what Nancy calls a “worn-out” consolidated politic, let’s dive in deep and see what a better understanding of Deleuze’s ontology of difference can provide a thinking about communism…

To be continued…

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11 thoughts on ““Literally” a Communist?: Communism’s Ontology of Difference (Part 0)

      1. he gets into some detail in the second half of

        another promethean phantasy of social and technical engineering from the sounds of it. no one can face the ruins even as we are surrounded in our daily lives by the crumbling cracking world around us….

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      2. I assumed it was similar to Oscar Wilde’s idea in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”–all the repetitive manual labor of production is fully automated, the production machines are publicly owned, and everyone is guaranteed a share of the machine-produced abundance.

        BTW, have you every looked into Murray Bookchin’s ideas? He talked about improvements in automation along with more eco-friendly technologies leading to the possibility of a “post-scarcity’ society (so everyone could be guaranteed a decent living standard without it being conditional on working at jobs they found uninteresting), and also suggested this could lead to a lot of smaller (city-cized or below) self-sufficient communities without a larger state governing them. And he talked about the idea that these types of communities might experiment with many different ways of life, so his work could be relevant to the question of what a left-wing version of “patchwork” might look like.

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  1. beckett on self at some point in the unnameable (I’d just written the quote for someone else so why not again now, merely a copy&paste)

    … an outside and an inside and me in the middle, I’m the partition, I’ve
    two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that’s what I feel, myself
    vibrating, I’m the tympanum . . . &c (pg 386) (of calder trilogy editon, I am assuming)

    apt, I thought.

    Not sure what communism means right now. Every ~ism has become defined by its opposition to other ~isms. I thought communism would ideally not act from that baseline (oppositionism) (all the opportunisms that the other ~isms eagerly leap at)

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