Riddled with fear
A while ago Liz Thompson and I read Bill Brown's 'critique' of communisation theory, and wrote up some comments, the sections of which we finally got around to sticking together over the last couple of days, so this is the result:
Bill Brown is riddled with fear.
Young men overwhelmed by their pickled emotions
Dislocated, suppressed, and too cool for change
And the boys in the public bar say:
Blah blah blah blah something about football
Blah blah blah blah something about beer
Blah blah blah blah theylaugh so loudly
So the women can't tell that they're riddled with fear.
Dirt River Radio, 'The Boys in the Public Bar'
It is a power move disguised as a theoretical critique: a response to Bill Brown’s sexist rant
Bill Brown's text 'On “Communisation”: A Response to Sic No. 1' seeks to defend left communism and anti-leninist councilism from the communising current(s) responsible for the journal Sic: International Journal of Communisation. As a move in an imagined factional competition, of the sort he projects upon those he attacks, this is a bit sad. As a critique, this is neither serious nor honest.
We have no intention of going through this text explaining why virtually every paragraph is filled with claims eitherempty or wrong, often so obviously so as to appear deliberately dishonest or else the product of someone writing in a rage or aggressive spirit of imagined factional competition. We won't do this because we think there are more useful ways to discuss the work of the communising currents. But some points are worth making.
Brown's procedure is manifest, to pick an example virtually at random from the many many instances of such a method, in the last paragraph of this text, where his criticism of Screamin' Alice is based upon the implicit assertion that her discussions of the fate of the 'workers movement' amount to the claim that no form of class struggle is happening at all anymore -thus this claim can apparently be falsified by simply quoting her talking about forms of struggle that are occurring. Which would be an awesome 'caught you in a contradiction' moment if such discussions of the 20th century workers movement hadsuch content. But. in fact, that is a reading of not only Screamin' Alice but of pretty much any of the discussions of the end of the 'workers movement' that is little more than a refusal to read. Refusal to read, or possibly wilful misrepresentation: this is the core of Brown's process, a process of semiotic interest, perhaps, but little other.
Brown’s critique of communisation theory’s apparent religiosity is particularly perplexing. Given his love of Debord, it seems odd that he would understand an analysis of the only possible positive end of crisis as communisation as the evil communisation theorists reveling in the horrors of a world in crisis. His assertions that they are academics and not engaged in anything, are neither relevant, nor it would appear, true, for various sections of the communisation current. It is unclear where Bill Brown gets the idea that the communisation theorists are excited by burning fires. As if communisation theorists are the first people to suggest that a crisis that doesn’t end in socialism or communism might well be a tad barbaric.
1. Self-management, economy.
The critique of 'self-management' did not begin with TC.
The communising current says that the revolution should not recreate relations of exchange or the categories of economy, as these will be the foundation of counter-revolution within the revolution. This is not the same as refusing to do anything and just sitting around starving when the food runs out, and this distinction is not subtle, it is not hard to spot -as a misreading this seems so egregious as to raise the question of good faith on the part of Brown. Especially since he has literally just quoted the text to the effect that it will be necessary to seize the means of subsistence. Choosing to interpret 'means of subsistence' as, it seems, 'already existing food' -rather than the more obvious meaning of the phrase in this context -allows Brown to attribute positions to the communisers that there isn't any actual evidence for them holding. Or anyone holding, really, so absurd are such positions.
To Jeanne Neton and Peter Astrom, co-authors of “How One Can Still Put Forward Demands When No Demands Can Be Satisfied,”wildcat strikes that leave “the unions run[ning] behind the employees”are led by “grassroots unionists.”They write, “the workers who fight for such a wage increase cannot ignore the fact that in so doing the chances increase that the company will relocate or go bankrupt,”as if they know nothing about the deliberate attempts of revolutionary workers in Italy during the 1970s to bankrupt as many firms as possible.
Brown doesn't tell us why the quoted statement of Neton and Astrom implies this "as if they know nothing"; he doesn't tell us how this knowledge should inform a discussion of such struggles in far more recent times. Does he think such 'deliberate attempts' are involved in the struggles Neton and Astrom are discussing? He doesn't say so. But the implication is somehow that something obviously inadequate or wrong-headed, even dishonest, is going on. We wonder what? This is Brown's procedure, it seems.
Maybe Brown actually isn't trying to argue that the workers being discussed in these recent struggles are engaged in deliberate efforts to drive businesses to the wall, even at the cost of their own jobs. But if he is not saying this, one might even be tempted to suggest that the reasons for these differences between the more recent struggles and those Brown cites from an earlier period might, in fact, suggest something about certain changes in the lived experience of capitalist social relations. Changes which might define periods, which might be consequences of restructuring, of a history in which class struggle reconstitutes relations of exploitation. We're just sayin'.
Bill Brown appears to believe that without capitalistcategories of economy, people will simply starve. That people are incapable of organizing to feed themselves without the guidance of his councils, that they are morons who will sit around and starve because they know not what to do without capitalist categories of economy. The critique of factory take-overs is that if you re-start production and exchange, this isthe rebuilding of capitalist economy. This is clear in the Suspended Step:
“Some fractions of the insurgent proletariat will be smashed, others will be “turned back”, rallying to measures for the conservation of survival. Other insurrections will pick up where they leave off. Certain of those turned back or bogged down will resume wildcat expropriations, and the organisation of the struggle by those who struggle and uniquely for the struggle, without representation, without control by anyone in the name of anything, thereby taking up once again the constitution of communism, which is not a goal of the struggle but rather its content.
Counterrevolutionary ideologies will be numerous, starting perhaps with that of the survival of the economy: preserving economic mechanisms, not destroying all economic logic, in order to then construct a new economy. The survival of the economy is the survival of exchange, whether this exchange uses money, any kind of voucher or chit, or even simply barter, which can be adorned with the name of mutual aid between workers!” (suspended step)
B.L is hardly the first to come up with this critique. What is genuinely strange is Bill Brown’s hostility to the idea.
What was remarkable about the efforts of these communising currents to take seriously questions of gender is precisely that the ultraleft, almost uniquely amongst radical currents, had not produced any significant efforts to do so before.
In contrast to the efforts of these communising currents to move beyond acknowledged blind spots in relation to gender, Brown claims that hisfavoured currents had no such blind spots. Because they simply included women within the proletariat.Problem solved. No need for any specific discussion of, you know, gender. Which is lucky because what, if anything, would Brown point to? This is a serious question.
But according to Brown : "As a result, women, the young and immigrants found it easy in their turn to embrace left-communism and anti-Leninist councilism." Did they indeed? Boasting about how the theory of his preferred imagined factions meant they could, what, recruit better? Fantasised vindication. I think we can comfortably call bullshit here.
Pretending to give a toss about women’s issues, Bill offers up some gems. The existence of Margaret Thatcher apparently disproves B.L’s account of the relegation of women to the private sphere. Bill thinks that reeling off the shopping list of thosehe is kind enough to include in the proletariat proves to us that he gives a shit about women. It is precisely this, acting as if women are just another part of the proletariat, that there is nothing particular about the gender dynamic within capital, which creates women and necessitates a particular struggle by women against gender, that has necessitated a struggle within TC, this struggle marking a massive part of the theoretical work of TC and the communisation current. Taking gender seriously is in fact the thing that sets them apart from all the tendencies Brown seeks to defend.
“In this process of class struggle, which leads to the abolition of classes, individuals were ipso facto posed as being beyond gender, since they established a community of immediately social individuals.
This second part of the text tries to explain this ‘ipso facto’. This overcoming perceived as naturally included ‘in the movement’—as something that goes without saying, due to the nature and content of the movement—should be subjected as such to critique. It is notsufficient to say that communisation, being communisation, is by definition the overcoming of genders.”
Brown: 'As if people like Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons never existed, he claims that “the workers’program never contemplated the abolition of gender.”' Tell us about this contemplation of the abolition of gender being ignored. Those proper names certainly talked about gender -is that the same as contemplating the abolition of gender as part of, and a precondition of, the abolition of capitalist social relations? We don't want to sink to ad hominem attacks, but the answer, Brown, is 'no', you childish, dishonest, sexist creep.
Brown says things quite often that sound like accusations but, on closer examination,don't mean anything. For instance, on B.L., Brown says: 'He refers to “the abolition of women”several times but never refers to “the abolition of men.”' What is this supposed to mean? Nothing could be clearer in B.L.'s text than that the abolition of women takes place through the abolition of gender and thus the abolition of men. So what exactly are we supposed to take from Brown's throwaway remark? His text is littered with remarks like these. So annoyed is Brown at the existence of these communising currents, perhaps, that he loses the patience that would be necessary for a serious effort to read those he wishes to critique. Thus Brown just says anything he thinks makes these communising currents look bad or ridiculous -such a procedure, of course, risks backfiring.
Even if we adopt some version of Brown's worldview, history as the history of competition between radical factions, what is remarkable about the claims made about left communism and anti-leninist councilism is that they appear, on the surface, to be almost the exact opposite of the historical realities under discussion. At least, if the collapse of women into the proletariat -if we follow Brown's procedure we might ask at this point about Thatcher -is taken as a claim that an adequate or atleast coherent account of gender was produced within left communism and/or anti-leninist councilism. (At least after the sixties when they, along with the immigrants and such, were allowed into the workers councils. To stick with Brown's version of history.) The absence of a blind spot because of the existence of relevant theory, not because gender can seriously be dissolved into (some version of) class.
But where is this theory, where can I discover the details of this work? Anarchism and even further afield factional competitors can certainly point to the individuals and tendencies and organisations that were manifestations of struggles within the production and reproduction of gender, gender roles and gender distinction; struggles, indeed, based upon gender as it was understood and reproduced within their own organisations. Such tendencies -call them 'feminist' -usually emerged in such conflictual processes, such as those that led to the formation of Lotta Feminista -struggles within such radical tendencies, as particular moments of far broader conflicts. Even within trotskyism there emerged an international tendency whose immediate notable distinction was the prominence and significance given to "women's liberation". (In Melbourne they exist as the Freedom Socialist Party, as well as a group called 'Radical Women', organised out of the Solidarity Salon.)
But when we look at left communism and anti-leninist councilism, to what is Brown referring? It would be a bit much, I'd suggest, to try to claim Rosa Luxembourg or Emma Goldman; equally Federici, Fortunati, and Dalla Costa are not obviously available for this purpose. The point surely cannot be based upon the role of women in the SI. Surely. Surely? Brown does cite Goldman a bit, so maybe she actually is being claimed.It remains unclear where in the work of Emma Goldman we encounter the concept of the abolition of gender.
This is the critique that Bill Brown is seeking to avoid by continually asserting that B.L is a man and, remarkably, that womenand immigrants found it easy to embrace left-communism and anti-Leninist councillism. Bill Brown the white man may want to look honestly at his circle of comrades and ask himself if he can repeat this nonsense with a straight face. The existence of LIES journal is remarkable for this very fact –that women and feminists in particular see much to criticize, but a value in engaging with, communisation theory, in particular its blind spots in relation to race and the question of sexual violence as constitutive of the gender relation.
“Whether in a revolutionary situation or in every struggle in which they are opposed to capital, proletarian women always bring into question, practically, the existence of the private sphere. When working women strike, it is never just a strike. It is always a women’s strike—because the private sphere, to which they are inextricably linked, is pushed into the heart of the public sphere. In that way, women put into question not only the existence of this private sphere but also that of the public sphere, by means of the intimate and personal character of the relations of struggle, which women create, relations which challenge the political and social character claimed by public activities in distinction to private.
The childish statement the women aren’t the only ones who do the cooking is not only demonstrably untrue on a global scale, it makes no contribution to a discussion of gender. Along with the extraordinary Margaret Thatcher example, reminiscent of classic conservative arguments that the “achievements”of a Margaret Thatcher or Julia Gillard demonstrate that women are no longer oppressed, this statement and Bill’s confidence that the ladies just can’t get enough of left communism demonstrate his utter contempt for a serious discussion of gender. Name-dropping Emma Goldman does not make you an okay guy, though I’m sure some of your best friends are women.
Bill peculiar insistence that B.L is a man appears designed to divert attention from the utter failure of his own favoured political traditions to acknowledge gender as a site of analysis of the constitution of capital.
Further demonstrating his failure to grasp a genuinely materialist analysis of gender he claims that it is somehow hetero-sexist for communisers to say that women are assigned to the reproduction of labour-power, as if women who prefer not to fuck men or bear their children are somehow freed from the material realities of being women. Women are those pressed into service for reproductive labour, regardless of whether they are married to a man and have his children: women’s place in the labour market, designed to keep open their availability for child-bearing and home-making, the sexual violence, the lack of reproductive freedoms (the choice to bear or not bear children, the choice to marry or not, is of course denied to the vast majority of heterosexual and non-heterosexual women everywhere except in the richest parts of the world). To claim that women who don’t bear children or couple up with men for whatever reason are somehow freed from reproductive labour is simply a demonstration of Bill’s ignorance of the lives of the majority of LGBT women, whose poverty in contrast to their hetero sisters is something long acknowledged by sociologists and feminists and even paid lip service to by some leftists. The limited choice exercised by those who enact some variation of an attempt to refuse to be pressed into reproductive labour comes at a price, unless of course they are wealthy and racially privileged enough to buy the labour of a non-white woman to do it for them. Sexual violence is directed at women within the home and outside of the home, regardless of who they would choose to fuck if asked –a critique of communisation theory’s failure to account for the role sexual violence plays in the constitution of the gender distinction can be found in LIES journal (P Valentine’s “The Gender Distinction in Communisation Theory”). So what does Bill’s chivalrous defence of the women amount to? Yet another attempt to pretend they don’t actually exist.
In a discussion of the character of women’s wage labour, B.L identifies all the ways in which all women, hetero or not, married, single, lesbian, childless, are impacted by the imperative to preserve the existence of the private sphere.
The participation of women in wage-labour is not, as such, an incursion into the public sphere since it does not challenge the existence of that sphere. Indeed, women’s wage-labour is organised in specific forms—particular sectors, managerial hierarchies (the glass-ceiling) and wage levels. These forms, which are easily identified (and which have already been analysed by feminists—as well as by all sociologists and economists worth their salt), have been designed in order to preserve the existence of a private sphere for the reproduction of labour-power, to which women are assigned.
The ferocious mob sexual assaults of women engaging in struggle in Tahrir Square, the experiences of the women of Oaxaca, struggling on the barricades against cops and the army and in the home against husbands seeking, often violently, to reinforce their role in domestic labour demonstrate how real this division is within the class and the lengths that proletarian men will go to retain these capitalist categories at the height of their struggle.
This is why a separate struggle, in which what TC call “the future exwomen” will confront “the future ex-men”to overcome this division is necessary. Brown’s analysis is precisely an example of including women in the category of proletariat to make their struggles disappear.
The idea that women have found it easy to embrace the ultra-left does not accord with either of our realities –we can comfortably say it does not accord with any of your either -and is a dull and meaningless assertion for a white guy to make. Bill is being dishonest if he is claiming that women are even marginally represented in ultra-left organisations or that they find their realities taken seriously. There are female members of and even leaders of the Tea Party too. And of course there is always Margaret Thatcher.
3. Bill Brown has a shitload to say.
We were going to include a section talking about TC's use of Althusser stuff, the accusations of 'determinism' that are either wrong or not a criticism at all, depending upon which version is at play, the suggestion of religiosity, the political theology of freedom as freedom from determination as freedom from materialism…but really those are at least substantive issues and not the product of, well, whatever it is that makes Brown write all his crap.
Sure as his heroes are rebels
Surely as night follows day
Well he sinks too much piss
and he talks with his fist
and right now he's got a shitload to say.
Dirt River Radio, 'The Boys in the Public Bar'
Liz Thompson and Ben Rosenzweig
Note by Bill Brown: On 30 August 2013, which was the day I was forwarded this text, the following exchangetook place.
Liz and Ben,
Even though you lacked the courage to send me these comments directly, I must say I found them highly amusing.
It isn't about courage, Bill. You're a psychopath, or happy to behave like one, and you should stay the fuck away, because I don't want to play with psychopaths like you. Get it? I have a fucking memory you demented fuckhead.
Aren't you cute!
Thanks for more highly amusing remarks.
You are making my day!
You, on the other hand, are not cute at all. I'm asking you now to stop communicating with me, I have no interest in interacting with you.