Table of Contents
One cannot see everything from everywhere.
We used to be unable to accomplish the things we imagined—now we are unable to imagine the things we accomplish.
To us power is, first of all, the ability to define phenomena, and secondly the ability to make these phenomena act in a desired manner.
Attention all passengers
One should recall here the famous parable of the elephant and the blind men. Having never encountered this animal, these men could only learn about its form by touching it. Each one feels a different part of the beast and when they later exchange experiences, each describes a distinct creature.
The present essay is structured like this parable, with each section offering a partial—and sometimes conflicting—description of one and the same object, introduced in our second chapter. The linear ordering of the sections should therefore not deceive the reader: they are rather moving around something.
Our hope is that within each of these different accounts some common features might slowly become recognizable—a challenge that led us to use a system of cross references between sections: the reader will thus encounter in the text insertions of roman numerals (I to XVIII), which refer to other sections of the essay where one might find related ideas.
I. Tools for Navigation
This contribution is the result of a research project that has progressed throughout the past two years, but was itself a culmination of years of collective work, brought together online in the context of the ongoing pandemic (XVIII). Our backgrounds, research interests and precise political experiences are quite heterogeneous, and yet we have come to orbit around a fuzzy set of philosophical commitments through the study of the work of Alain Badiou, Alexander Bogdanov and Kojin Karatani, amongst others. While they have led us to a set of conclusions that appear novel, we strive to demonstrate that this wasn’t strictly the only path to them and that their internal consistency is coherent.
The text ought not to be read dogmatically, as a set of prescriptions to be followed, but spatially—by which we mean that our practical goal is to enlarge spaces of mutual intelligibility on the Left. This spatial theme also extends more broadly to a shift from critique to experimentation, from unearthing the conditions of possibility of what exists to the concern of exploring new possibilities, as the proposed perspective of regionalizing concepts within their appropriate contexts.
Our collective methodological commitments are broken into three ordered zones which build on one another. The first such zone is a triad of composition, intelligibility and interaction where all three ways of seeing a world can be thought at the same time in their mutual dependencies (IV). The next is a phenomenological perspective based on Alain Badiou’s Logics of Worlds called “objective phenomenology”, a big impetus for our group’s interest in category theory. While mathematics is an important tool for structuring our thought, the present text brackets the particular details in favor of the intuitive core of the argument. With this spatialization of social worlds, we finally present how the previous commitments allow us to think experimentally rather than critically. This final point will prepare the reader for the broader structure of this collaborative work. We want to conceive of local social worlds as spaces that one can reason within.
1. Social Worlds
What do we mean by a social world? Intuitively, a social world is a place where people must learn to live together (XIV, XV, XVI). Living together implies, at least the possibility of, constructing a collective subject—the social world must have the expressive capacity to consistently cover both its material base and its subjective horizons. Politics itself is thus never context-free; our goal is to build universal political statements at particular social worlds.
Doing this requires conceiving of politics as its own form of thinking, distinct from and irreducible to science, aesthetics or love. By this we mean that the discipline of politics, which could also be named collective subject construction, should have the capacity to speak for itself on its own terms, even if it does so in infinitely many irreducible ways. This sets itself apart from either a science of history or an eruptive-evental theory of politics, both of which lack the expressiveness to diagnose and describe contemporary political situations.
Inspired partly by Rodrigo Nunes’ conception of an ecology of organizations, we strive to think about heterogeneous forms of political organizations as living in a single space that can be reasoned within—but expanding on this idea we want to see problems of political economy as also living within this space; in other words, we want to regionalize the logic of political organization and political economy in a globally consistent way. Social worlds thus fit together in a multilayered structure; we exist within multiple of these social spaces at once whose logics interact at overlapping resolutions. The full structure includes everything from the communitarian logic governed by reciprocity (families, communes, small villages) to state logic which rules by the sword and contract and finally to economic structure where the flow of capital dominates (II).
To think politics in this multiscalar and constructive way necessitates that all social worlds be not only infinite in absolute size but inaccessibly so (VI). If a world is inaccessibly infinite, it means that no sequence of reasoning within that world can fully capture its full size and scope—consequently, the possibilities for subjectivity are never depleted. The consequence of thinking of social worlds as infinite spaces, including both the material support and the configuration space of possible social forms within the world, is that the reasoning about these social forms can be done within the logic of the world itself. This explains our insistence on calling them social worlds, since they have enough internal structure to speak for themselves—social worlds have an internal language capable of self-representation.
Politics, as its own form of thinking, comes about through the interaction of the space of collective organization, the social world representing “what can be done” in a sense, with the forms of community, state and capital. The conception of politics as an active struggle is thus preserved—it is not a static space of what is possible, but a dynamic push and pull between social worlds and their internal tensions that determine possible and necessary forms of resistance (IV, V).
In dealing with such large and complex social worlds, we need a theoretical strategy up to the task of both describing current capitalist social formations and investigating possible alternatives. In other words, we want the theoretical space we explore in this contribution to be infinitely richer than any particular social world; situating political problems within this theory ought to reformulate them in their own terms.
2. The Composition, Intelligibility, Interaction Triad
Stated simply, the goal of this collaborative research project is to investigate new ways of thinking about social forms that do not reduce to mere sums of the individuals that compose them (V). By this we mean that different forms of collective organization should condition what is politically intelligible in a given context, rather than begin from the assumption that what exists in political life is what is immediately intelligible to individuals. This approach requires a way of synthesizing political information “at the scene” such that local agents can learn about a social world as active participants in it.
Such a synthesis is achieved by passing through the triad intelligibility, composition and interaction simultaneously (IV). Different social worlds treat each of the three standpoints differently: communities can make intelligible possible forms of interpersonal association, capitalist production processes compose in ways that at least preserve the value of commodities, interaction with state apparatuses depends on the form of laws and their manner of enforcement. We propose that social forms should always be filtered through these three ways of thinking if we are to expand the space of organizational possibilities.
The first standpoint, intelligibility, is the analysis of what a world can say about itself conditioned on which relations do or do not appear within that world. The thinking of intelligibility proper requires unfurling the confines of a contextual language to formulate the expressive limits of this language itself. To investigate intelligibility is to also understand what is not intelligible in a given situation. To occupy a perspective in a world is to be able to discern some things from others—but not everything in every way. In other words, depending on how objects are composed in a world, they can make for better or worst perspectives to which that world appears—different perspectives can be more or less “sensitive” to that world, depending on how much of its structure “looks the same” from that standpoint and how much “a difference makes a difference” to it.
What makes a difference in a world can be some minimum scale, primitives that the situation does not have the resources to dig deeper into—the theory of a smaller resolution requires a new theory. The limits of intelligibility can also appear globally though, like a straight path through curved space that unwittingly closes in on itself. In the space of capitalism, we see exactly this when environmental externalities cannot be treated by profit-seeking organizations unless a cost-measure is assigned to them. Ecological effects are not too small or atomised, but too large and dispersed to be seen from consistent perspectives within the capitalist space.
The second, composition, is the logic of intra-world operations. It is the law that governs how relations are related to one another that uphold the logic and structure of that social world. The composition of objects in a world conditions what perspectives exist for them—since social forms see only what they compose with—so intelligibility is clearly dependent on composition: for something to be intelligible in a world means there is an underlying compositional structure whose differences make a difference to other perspectives that share some compositional characteristics in that space. The matheme holds true (the Yoneda Lemma) that an object can be fully understood by the sum of operations into or out of it, and we thus hold in esteem the relations between objects in a world (more on this later). Rather than strictly thinking about how subjects see objects of a world they inhabit, we strive to describe how objects in the world see each other.
The third standpoint, interaction, concerns the space of possible perturbations to the world’s state. This standpoint’s primary objective is to clarify that not only is the logical composition of a world connected to what perspectives can be assumed within it, but that it also conditions—and is affected by—the sort of effective interventions one can produce there. This correlation between composition and interaction allows us to investigate and in particular expand our conceptions of what is possible within a logical space. Social worlds being complicated and non-classical means that political strategy needs to expand its conceptions of intervention beyond the tried duality of horizontal vs vertical organization. By placing new ways of thinking of interaction with social worlds at the forefront of our commitments, we are able to connect political organization and political economy, proposing that different ways of composing and interacting with a capitalist social world can render different aspects and possibilities intelligible.
We claim that when this triadic standpoint is applied all at once to a real situation, one gets the experimental language of that situation. The role of the triad is to give us basic tools to center both the analysis of large-scale social formations and the discussion around political strategy on an organizational point of view. From the standpoint of this triad, we can conceive a theoretical framework that might both tackle the issue of money as a privileged point of view within the space of commodity relations (XI) as well as ask ourselves what sort of complex organizational experiments would be needed in order to make this or that aspect of social life perceptible to political collectivity (XIII, XIV, XVI).
3. A Note on Methodology
Before delving into what we term objective phenomenology, a word on methodology is due, particularly in regards to the use of category theory as a tool for inspecting social worlds. We abide by a general strategy we name methodological universalism—where applying the composition, intelligibility and interaction triad to a particular context allows us to build models reflecting universal constraints. Rather than deploying mathematical resources as toy models that seek to translate into a common logical framework certain characteristics of concrete situations, we attempt to extract universal rules through the composition-intelligibility-interaction triad that tell us something about how situated political experiments can learn about their own social environment—in a sense, it is the political process that serves as a model, while our theory seeks to solely establish the general constraints for such a situated modeling process (VI).
Social worlds are not devoid of structure, but their internal structure isn’t usually immediately accessible. Our strategy is to peek into what a social world looks like to its inhabitants, in other words, how social forms appear to one another, which defines a transcendental indexing of the existence of beings in that world. Social forms appear in a world to a certain extent which is determined by its relations with other beings in the world—the social form of the State, for example, appears in the world of Capital to the extent that it conditions and upholds private property relations. This transcendental indexing is exactly the measure of these intra-world relations and is the start of our methodological interest in category theory—the general science of objects and their relations. We have no intention of bogging the reader down with mathematical jargon, and so present only the intuitive core of the theory.
The first step of describing a new category (a context) is finding which objects appear as indistinguishable within it—recall the “differences that make a difference” for intelligibility. In the language of category theory this is done by identifying the isomorphisms between given objects, transformations encoding the identity of two objects by their composition. Rather than identifying the sameness of two objects element by element, the information is contained within the (context-dependent) relations between the objects themselves. In the investigation into social worlds we stay agnostic about what a thing “is”, its intrinsic and absolute determinations, letting objects be “black boxes” whose relations determine their structure. Things happen to appear in a world and the way that they appear will be taken-as-given in that world—as beings in social worlds we only ever see what appears there.
A critical reader might accept category theory’s “relativistic” perspective but fail to see what opportunities for novel conceptions of universality it brings to the table. In category theory a relation can have a universal property when it is exposed to all other relations in the space in a unique way. Universal properties were what first brought mathematicians to study categories as ways of conceiving of related structures in different contexts—for example, both numbers and topological spaces, mathematical structures with entirely different constructions, have a notion of sum and product defined by identical universal properties. A particular relation having a universal property means that any other relation in the space should compose with it in a unique way and thus that relation stands in a unique universal position for that world.
Category theory therefore gives us tools for identifying contextually universal relations in social worlds, which are not given a priori but must be extracted through a sort of dialectical process that passes through the intelligibility-composition-interaction triad simultaneously. In an ideal world, passing through composition alone would be enough (categories are completely determined by their laws of composition), but the internal structure of social worlds is never immediately apparent. We must both interact with them and inscribe consequences and possibilities within a locally-intelligible language. With this said, we are ready for the full methodological impetus of this research project.
4. Objective Phenomenology
In Logics of Worlds, Alain Badiou develops a general theory of world-analysis called “Objective Phenomenology” which we employ and build upon in this text. The name is not to suggest a relapse into some naive “objectivism” for phenomena but a perspective inversion where rather than considering how some transcendental subject sees objects in a world, we consider how objects in a world see one another. The intelligibility-composition-interaction triad perspective on social worlds has associated intrinsic counterparts in this theory that explain the intuition of the methodological tools we employ. Objective phenomenology is our name for the contextual analysis of social worlds that, when explicated to its possible extent, can recover universal relations which determine the workings of the world.
We have already used the metaphor of visibility in how social forms see one another, by which we mean that different social forms have access to different amounts of information about the world. The State sees its citizens (to an extent) and the property relations it upholds, but is blind to those people and interests “not counted”. Communities tend to see individuals in the highest resolution, but are generally cut off from seeing at a larger scale. A corporation sees people, whether as employees or customers, as potential sources of greater surplus value. This “seeing as” is the first step in building the transcendental indexing operation in a world, in other words the start of a new phenomenology (XII).
What various social forms “see” structures what is intelligible in that world, by which we mean that we never have direct access to social forms in themselves, but rather they are always filtered through a social world—we are always seeing them as how they appear in a world. The intelligibility of the world emerges by how social forms are seen from different perspectives within that world. In other words, in the language of category theory, a social form (more precisely its representation) is completely determined by its relations with other social forms.
We recall that social worlds are always infinite—in fact inaccessibly so, but representation is always limited to what can be named. Inaccessibly infinite worlds always escape the possibility of complete representation. This means that what even counts as a social form must be somehow “picked out” of the world, an operation we call slicing. In the same way that seeing conditions the space of intelligibility of a social world, slicing conditions our representations of composition in the world.
The aim of representation in social worlds is therefore to pick out enough social forms at the right resolution so that they sufficiently cover the space. This approach can vary drastically depending on the specific context, but the underlying intuition is that by picking out enough slices of the world—predicates or differences that are effective in that space—this choice of covering should match up with the world’s internal logic. The way this picking out of slices happens is never immediately given but must be arrived at dynamically through experimentation with different representations and stacking representations up against one another—in terms of the experimental language the slices correspond to predicates that differentiate some part of the world.
The slicing operation, which picks out parts of the world, is where we see the association between spatial and logical concepts—one supported by the mathematics of Topos theory, which demonstrates how the spatial structure of a world is essentially equivalent to its logical structure. Said differently, if we slice things in the right way then logic of the world will appear naturally. Accurately diagnosing the logic of a world is not only a problem of abstract reasoning but one of spatial reasoning and representation.
When we look beyond a singular social world, beyond the “differences that make a difference” for that world, slicing also becomes a matter of scaling. We say that a change in scale happens in one of two cases: either there is a scale “below” the differences that make a difference for some world or there is a scale “above” which the world cannot access but can be seen from another vantage point—in which case passing to a new scale requires going beyond the representative resources of the world by taking a sort of limit. This limit might be integratable back into the previous world through new social objects that remain consistent with its inner logic, or new logical space might be needed to bring this new information into compositional form—in which case the new objects will not belong to the previous world.
A term borrowed from the great mathematician and father of modern algebraic geometry and category theory Alexandre Grothendieck, the site is the final internal resource in a social world that structures the space of interaction with the world. For our purposes, the site is the space where interaction with the world can be made intelligible—a place where the construction of new possibilities can occur (V). It is a part of the world with a rich enough representation of “slices” and how these slices see one another (i.e. expressive in composition and intelligibility) such that local interventions on this site can be seen as mutually compatible.
Compatibility is key here, it is what justifies us to piece together local information in a globally consistent way. The site acts as the place in which local perturbations can sum together to an intelligible whole—it is a choice of part-whole relations on the space that is globally coherent with the dynamics of a social world. A world along with a site on it is a local model of the world, in fact it is the site which defines what “locality” really means in a social world.
Badiou also uses the term site in the transcendental analysis of a world, although our usage is more general. For him, a site is what we could call an evental site which models locality as below the resolution of the world such that something that doesn’t appear in the world, the inexistent, can erupt into the world and cause a genuine change to it. An evental site treats parts of the world so that a new transcendental indexing can be defined and change the logical structure of the world itself—but we adopt the concept in its usual mathematical meaning, leaving Badiou’s term as the name of one of its special or extreme cases.
With these tools of navigation the reader should be methodologically primed to begin exploring the rest of this text which treats “the monster” diagram part by part. We begin the next section (II) by introducing the monster in terms of how it slices up our contemporary social spaces such that we can localise different forms of political organization by how they interact with these slices. Beyond that, the rest of this text is heterogeneously structured with each section concerned with different locally consistent slices of the monster. The reader is encouraged to move through this contribution non-linearly, following the cross references to see where it takes them; our hope is that by meandering through this text a coherent research trajectory will come into view.
Any parties interested in learning more about or joining our collective research project should see the concluding section (XVIII).
II. Meeting the Monster
Category theory provides an overall conceptual frame for mathematics. This frame, it must be said, has no “starting point” or “basement”. One should imagine that we are building a space station, not a skyscraper or any other similar building that has to stand on solid grounds. Building in space must be done according to general principles, according to general laws of physics and engineering, but the construction does not have to have a definite orientation, an up and a down, a foundation in a geocentric sense.
It is common, amongst both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions, to sequentially arrange different social formations based on their distinct modes of subsistence, as Adam Smith did, or modes of production, as Marx proposed. In this tradition, we might describe, for example, a tribal mode based on the centrality of kinship relations, with hunting and gathering serving as the basic means of survival. We would then have—in a more or less discrete historical sequence—slave societies, feudal societies, capitalist societies and, some would argue, socialist ones, each of them defined by the relations of production which structure and preserve our material conditions for survival.
However, throughout the 20th century, historical materialism was criticized for its supposed reliance on historical determinism and this brought about a new way of approaching these different social modes amongst certain heterodox Marxist thinkers. Instead of already defining these modes as successive historical stages, authors like Karl Polanyi, Marshall Sahlins, Diane Elson and many others started to consider them as partially independent social structures which are always combined, in singular ways, within each social formation. In this way, Polanyi and Sahlins will speak of reciprocal, distributive and market forms of exchange, while Elson will invite us to analyze capitalism in terms of the domestic, the political and the economic spheres, for example. In both cases, a social formation is understood as a complex structure that combines these different modes in specific ways, such that one of them comes to dominate the others as the general social form, while the remaining modes still have a meaningful function inside this social structure. Historical sequences are therefore treated as composite complexes rather than as the fundamental units of social analysis.
Though many thinkers have investigated this alternative approach, no one has explored it so thoroughly as the Japanese Marxist thinker Kojin Karatani in his book The Structure of World History.
First of all, Karatani uses these multiple modes to propose a transcendental analysis of social formations—that is, he does not start from the really-existing presentation that different modes take in a given society, but rather from their pure or “transcendental” form, which then, in combination with other modes, constitute the particular form of appearance of these multiple forms in a concrete social setting. Because their pure logical form does not correspond to any particular historical presentation, he prefers to call each of them only by distinct letters: modes A, B, C and D.
At the same time, Karatani addresses the predictable reproach that such a theory, not departing from the point of view of production, would therefore require us to espouse a “circulationist” theory of economy—where, for example, the logic of market exchange would fully determine the existence of commodities and commodity production. Instead of defining modes of exchange, Karatani considers each of these modes as a form of intercourse (in German, Verkehr), broadly defined as types or organizational schemas that apply indistinctively to relations between humans, material exchanges between people and non-human entities, in a metabolic sense, while also serving as transcendental forms for how relations between non-human parts are constituted from the standpoint of a given social formation (VIII). Mode B, for example, which concerns the logic of plunder and redistribution, would structure the relations of domination between people, the relations of domination of man over nature—as if the latter was only a resource to be taxed and protected by a state— as well as provide an analogical extension to a classification of natural species in terms of hierarchies and so on. A mode of production, then, would be simply the case where a certain logic or mode determines how our intercourse with nature, and amongst ourselves, is primarily constituted under certain historical conditions.
Karatani defines his four modes as follows. Mode
A is defined by the logic of pooling and reciprocity (IX). Its main social form is that of the gift and the contra-gift. Its normative structure is that of customs and rules, valid primarily within communities. Its main form of hierarchy is that of honor. Its basic collective structure is the household, further expanded into settlements (composed of households) and federations (composed of settlements). When it is the dominant mode, it is able to scale up and integrate social groups to form mini-systems.
Mode B is defined by the logic of plunder and redistribution (VII, X). Its main social form is that of domination and protection between communities. Its normative structure is that of laws, imposed by dominant communities over the subservient ones. Its main hierarchical structure is that of status. Its collective structure is that of cities, further divided into centers, margins, sub-margins and communities which are out of sphere—outside the reach of its power. When it is the dominant mode, it is able to scale up and integrate communities into World-Empires.
Mode C is defined by the logic of commodity exchange (XI). Its basic social form is that of value and money-commodities. It works not by social rules or laws, but by tendencies which constrain the flow and reproduction of commodities. Its hierarchical structure is that of social classes and its basic collective form is that of the market. When it is the dominant mode, we call this social formation a capitalist one, and its total extent across centers, semi-peripheries and peripheries—note the absence of an “outside”—forming a world-economy.
Karatani’s fourth mode, mode D, should be treated separately from the other three for two reasons. First of all, because it serves a more prescriptive function in his theoretical apparatus. Karatani uses the idea of a mode of intercourse based on free association and the “mutuality of freedom” to reconstruct a silent history of socialist impetus that would bring together nomadic lifestyles, the sense of justice of world religions, secular philosophical ethics and modern socialism. Furthermore, by defending the transcendental status of this fourth mode, he is able to propose a coherent description of a possible socialist world where mode D would be dominant over all others—making it consistent with his general theory of modes and their articulation. As interesting as this construction might be, the value of this approach to communist politics is limited since analytically, this additional mode plays no determinate part in defining different social formations in his theory—to the point that mode D is not even included in his theory of the articulation of modes A, B and C in capitalism. Due to its conceptual fragility—and because we will propose here an alternative approach to communist social forms—we will not rely on the hypothesis of this fourth mode of intercourse.
Instead, let us pose a question that, within Karatani’s schema, remains unanswered: if social formations are historically constituted as structured complexes, articulating these different modes in concrete and “impure” forms, how could we ever have distilled them into separate and autonomous logics to begin with? This question will lead us to a divergence with Karatani both in terms of methodology and of political orientation.
One of the undeniable merits of Karatani’s work is to propose a general framework that allows us to integrate otherwise disparate analytic tools coming from the anthropology of Mauss, Levi-Strauss and Sahlins, the theory of politics and power from Hobbes to Arendt and Marx’s critique of political economy. But Karatani accounts for the existence of these different theoretical perspectives with recourse to Edmund Husserl’s theory of transcendental reductions: for him, the merit—as well as the limits—of the different theorists of the “pure” modes comes from their capacity to bracket the influence of other logics in order to reveal that each of these modes is a closed logical space that covers the totality of social life. The incommensurability between the structuralist analysis of gift-economies, the theory of political sovereignty and the Marxist analysis of value-form becomes, here, the effect of different “parallaxian shifts” which require us to methodologically suspend their intrinsic articulations and concrete mixtures in order to arrive at these different transcendental logics. It is no small accomplishment by Karatani to have constructed a general schema that allows us to both preserve the heterogeneity between these different theoretical approaches and integrate them, accounting for how and why they emerge as separate theoretical fields.
The problem here, however, is that this operation of transcendental reduction is too indebted to a subjectivist phenomenology: it is defined as a theoretical or methodological operation, performed by individual thinkers. And even if we recognize our debt to singular theoreticians—or to the long academic traditions of anthropology, sociology and economy or, more importantly, to the necessity of also accounting for the connection between collective social practices and individual cognitive apprehension (XII)—this would not be enough to answer what concrete and historically determinate social processes allowed these different “modes” to emerge as objects of study to begin with.
It is here that our alternative hypothesis to Karatani’s mode D comes in: rather than define modes A, B and C, and then introduce mode D as a means to derive the historical basis and logic of emancipatory politics, we propose to invert this relation and claim that we have come to know different modes of intercourse through politics itself (III, V). It is through the multiple forms of political practice—and of political organization in particular—that the “transcendental reduction” that Karatani writes about effectively takes place. In short, the complex structure of capitalist social formations—defined by the interdependence of modes A, B and C under the domination of the third one—appears to us as composed of different logics because the political resistance against it has been historically composed of an equally heterogeneous and complex ecology of political processes.
This alternative hypothesis could be called the tektological hypothesis, in honor of Alexander Bogdanov and his “universal science of organization” (IV). For Bogdanov, we come to learn about the world through the concrete interaction between organizational forms—be they corporal or cognitive, like when individuals try to shape some situation in accordance to a preconceived plan and are met with the resistance of materials and other human relations, or larger collectives who face the world’s resistance to their forces and thereby come to extract information from these interactions (XIII). For us, the organizational point of view of tektology suggests that it is through the concrete interaction with social formations—and their ensuing resistance against political change—that we have concretely abstracted, and thereby constituted, these logics as theoretical objects to be studied by this or that particular thinker.
Each organizational form is defined by what makes a difference to its functioning and what does not—by a certain form of abstraction—and each political organization is defined by the attempt to negate or challenge some aspect of the social complex. Though always composed in a mixed way, we can easily discern political movements that have centered their struggles against forms of communitarian segregation, therefore abstracting away, in practice, from other modes in order to focus on the structure of mode A; other movements have focused mostly on challenging the limits of the State and its different forms of expropriation, and those help us to “bracket” other determinations in order to provide us with a model of mode B; finally, there are those political processes which center around the impasses of exploitation and concentrate their forces in interrupting production and circulation of commodities, thereby teaching us about the intrinsic logic of mode C. Just like with Karatani’s schema, these different political fronts can often appear to be incommensurate with one another—and the perpetual fight within the Left for the “right” perspective on political struggle clearly attests to this—but, unlike in his theory, we consider the task of composing these different “organizational reductions” to be the very definition of communist politics: a political stance which, not having any particular parties or principles, concerns itself with “representing the interests of the proletarian as a whole” (III).
Let us now construct the diagram which encodes all these ideas into a single operational space. Karatani proposes that we conceive the articulation of the modes A, B and C in capitalism in terms of a “borromean knotting” of the three logics, meaning that the social structure they compose is what ties them together consistently and if we were to remove any one of the three parts, the other two would not complement each other in any coherent way. The work of the French mathematician René Guitart can help us here, as he has already shown that we can use category theory to capture this borromean property in the hexagonal framework of the 𝐅4 field:
Using Guitart’s construction and our alternative reading of Karatani’s transcendental analysis, we thus define a multilayered transcendental for a capitalist world as the following diagram:
First of all, note that the central object K marks the dominance of the transcendental layer TC over the other ones. In logical terms, we define this dominance in terms of the maximal reach of the value-form space of operations. In other words, a logic is said to be dominant, and written with superscript “TX”, when its internal language—in the case of TC, that of commodities, money, capital, competition etc.—is the most expressive one. In a capitalist world, community-predicates—such as those that discern groups of people, families, networks of mutual aid etc.—as well as state-predicates—those that discern property rights, contracts, commitments etc.—are not capable of “seeing” as much as the language of commodities, even though every social object requires a mixture of the three and there might be objects which are only discernible from the standpoint of TA or TB.
Further note that the arrows from TA, TB and TC inform the central object K, while this central structure then gets partitioned to produce their partial combinations TA + TB, TB + TC and TA + TC. Without K, we would not be able to name these partially composed structures—and this assures us that the arrows in the diagram encode the “borromean” property we were looking for.
At this level of the construction, we have three abstract starting points—TA, TB and TC—which are responsible for composing the concrete social formation. If we reject Karatani’s subjective phenomenology, how else might we define the closure which constitutes each of these autonomous logics? First, we abide here by the alternative approach proposed by Alain Badiou in his Logics of Worlds—the theory of “objective phenomenology” (I)—which starts from the following materialist claim: objects of a world are not constituted for a transcendental subject that remains outside of this world, they are rather defined by what can be seen from inside the world itself. In other words, to construct a “visible” world requires us to simultaneously construct a “seeing” object. Objective phenomenology requires us to transform Karatani’s theory in order to identify which logical objects are capable of expressing universal properties internal to each of these different logical spaces. For mode A, we can speak of the gift—but also of family structures or mythical matrices that connect narratives from different communities—as objects that “see” what sort of social structures exist within the logic of reciprocity (IX). For mode B, we can speak of sovereignty—but also of measure standards, unified languages, calendars and other forms that make heterogeneous communities legible for a sovereign (X)—as objects that have this universal quality. Just as, within mode C, money functions as a universal equivalent that can express, in terms of its own quantity, the value of any other commodity (XI). These different logical objects define an interior perspective from which many other and more complex structures can be constructed within each mode, leading to new universal perspectives and to new social objects.
But this is not all. In accordance with our previous critique of Karatani’s mode D and our alternative theory that emancipatory politics is composed of heterogeneous social experiments (V), let us now add a separate point of view to the diagram, which we call Org. The arrows from Org to itself define the space of all possible political organizations—a sort of space of free association—and maps from Org to the rest of our diagram define different political struggles, different interactions between political experiments and social constraints coming from the multilayered transcendental of social formations. As we anticipated, we take these heterogeneous political fronts to be crucial sources of information about the sort of structures that exist from the standpoint of TA, TB, TC and, ultimately, K. We write, therefore, arrows for communitarian political experiments as pa: Org → TA, maps for institutional political experiments as pb: Org → TB and maps for economic political experiments as pc: Org → TC.
Since these are also “transcendental” reductions—which do not correspond to the always mixed, always impure really existing political organizations—we treat these three arrows as ideal decompositions of an additional map, E: Org → K that encodes into our diagram the complex ecology of political organizations that challenge, in heterogeneous ways, the social composite of the capitalist social formation.
Once we add the map E, we arrive at our complete diagram. So meet the Monster:
One should imagine this operational space as if composed of two large-scale objects. The first one, K, ties together the Nation-State-Capital complex, giving rise to a capitalist social formation. It cannot be seen from an individual or perhaps even from a human perspective, it can only be approached by first displacing our point of view to that of its privileged objects—such as group identities, property structures and money-commodities—and, even then, these can only capture part of its multilayered logics. On the other side, we have Org, the underdetermined class of all possible political processes which might navigate this social formation and explore its structure by challenging its consistency through situated experiments. Unlike Karatani’s mode D, the internal consistency and form of Org is not transcendentally guaranteed: though there are many political struggles, with the most diverse structures and organizational forms, nothing guarantees beforehand that we are able to adopt a standpoint that allows us to compose them together. This wager is what we call the communist hypothesis and the construction of a consistent space binding together these political experiments can be seen as a concrete “world-building” problem (III), the issue of how to turn localized interventions into our social formation into the general and consistent social constraints on a new world—otherwise known as the “socialist transition” problem.
In the course of this essay we will be exploring this large diagram by slicing it into smaller parts. Each section will be identified by the different ways this huge structure is partitioned and how we engage with the sort of social object that is constituted by this reduction.
III. The Communist Standpoint
Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.
It is quite striking that the definition of “the communists” in the Manifesto of the Communist Party is mostly a negative one. In the famous second section, which begins by asking “in what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?”, Marx and Engels go on to state that communists “do not form a separate party”, they “do not set up any sectarian principles of their own”, their immediate aim “is the same as that of all other proletarian parties” and that, in their theory, they “merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle”. Their sole positive feature seems to be a concern with the connection between different fronts of proletarian struggle: communists “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat” and they “always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole”.
What is particularly telling here is that communists are not singled out in the Manifesto as those who fight in the name of a future communist society. It is true that they also say that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: abolition of private property”, but the stress here actually falls on the opposition between the fight for the abolition of “property generally”—a fight which could distinguish communists from other political actors, but only as an abstract principle, removed from “the historical movement going on under our very eyes”—and the fight against “bourgeois property”—which expresses the aims of the proletarian struggle under concrete capitalist conditions. To state that the communist doctrine is the abolition of private property is, in fact, to restate, within the historical conjuncture of 1848, that communists do not have a separate and distinguishable doctrine at all.
Seen from this perspective, the “common” in communism does not refer primarily to some positive trait of a new and desirable social system—called “communism”—but rather to a strategic position which, immersed in different political struggles, constantly seeks to unearth the “common interests” between them in view of the “formation of the proletariat into a class”. We could say communists are those who treat the common parts of different struggles as sites at which these processes could be “stitched together” into something larger, a global standpoint. And this, in fact, allows us to propose an inverse reading of Marx and Engels’ initial question regarding the relation between communists and the proletariat as a whole: one can only stand in relation to “the proletariat as a whole” by first actively weaving together the common parts of its scattered existence.
Between the time of the Manifesto and the present, however, the world has changed dramatically—and with it the scope and form of the challenges faced by communists everywhere. Capitalism has not only become an increasingly complex and multifaceted social system, proving itself capable of integrating the most intense social conflicts and economic crises into its functioning, but the sheer scale of this social machinery has produced irreversible consequences at the planetary level, taking us into a new geological age called the Anthropocene (VIII). At the same time, many of the social tendencies associated with industrialization and the expansion of capitalist social form, which previously seemed to progressively imprint similar traits on the proletariat around the globe, have shown their limits, and gave way to hybrid organizational forms where great social heterogeneity coexists with the most advanced forms of capital valorization (XVI). The fractured spaces of peripheral or “underdeveloped” capitalist nations no longer represent the accidental or transitional phase of capitalism towards more “developed” forms, but rather anticipate crucial traits of the general form that “crisis capitalism” seems to acquire.
If the communists of the past could trust that the reproduction and expansion of capitalist social forms also required that a certain experience of exploitation be equally universalized—and, with it, a shared social experience of discontent in the working class everywhere—it now seems that capital can adapt to an increasingly fractured social space, leaving us with no unified or converging historical tendencies to rely upon. It is a rather paradoxical predicament: the planetary expansion of capitalism has encompassed all of us and—for that very reason—made it clearer than ever how incommensurate our different experiences of this global subsumption really are.
The twentieth century, trapped in between the time of the Manifesto and ours, had to come to terms with these structural transformations. It is a century that offered us so much in terms of tools, strategies, theories and examples of both victorious and failed political experiments, all of which respond, in some way or another, to the “uneven and combined” propagation of these shifting social conditions. The very heterogeneity of these accumulated results attests to the paradoxical feature of contemporary capitalism we pointed out before: not only has the 20th century witnessed how political organizations tend to differentiate and distinguish themselves through repetitive cycles of splits, divergences and dissolutions, but it has also become increasingly clear that different traditions of leftist thinking have consolidated into partially autonomous strands, dividing relevant historical sequences, political ideas and strategies into distinct and sometimes highly conflicting forms of political practice and discourse.
One might conclude from this correlation between our historical moment and the current state of the Left that emancipatory struggles today are simply caught up in the general dynamic of late capitalist societies, but a more generous—and useful—approach is also possible. After all, if it weren’t for the radical pluralization of political discourses and practices, could we ever have learned just how complex our social world has truly become? (XIII) Has it not been through the increasing complexity of the proletarian struggle and the ensuing difficulty to recognize its common ground that we have acquired our current means to name and think our dire predicament? (XVI) Before we ever come to trust the “sociological” diagnoses of our supposed impotence—so eager to interpret this plurality in terms of some “postmodern” dispersion, of our supposed fascination with “identity politics” etc.—we must ask where did sociologists find the conceptual tools to make these assessments and to maintain their expectations that politics could offer something else. More often than not, the answer to this question will intercept the history of some previous political process (XV).
What does seem to be missing from political life today, if we remain committed to the communist point of view presented in the Manifesto, is rather the concrete and strategic means to construct common parts and resources from these different fronts of struggle.
If one were to consider this challenge in the abstract—as a problem for thinkers and writers, who should take into consideration the wealth of diverse political experiences when talking about politics—then it might seem like the academic setting would already be well suited to deal with this problem. But the organizational infrastructure which guarantees the production and circulation of academic courses, teaching positions, books and articles is quite separate from the political processes that are written about and analysed, and very little in this system actually contributes to the effective connection between these collective endeavours. And here we face the other side of our paradox: never before has it been so easy to find information about all sorts of leftist political movements and ideas, but the very abundance of this content has revealed just how incapable we are of filtering through this material in order to inform our political practice and stitch together different ongoing political processes.
From a communist perspective, the task of “representing the interests of the proletariat as a whole” cannot be confused with that of an encyclopaedic representation of different struggles and ideas, removed from actual political life and cast into academic debates. But neither can it be treated as a simple matter of refining the current tools of Marxism in order to better grasp the underlying social tendencies and structural opportunities of contemporary capitalism. In the time of Marx and Engels, the “critique of political economy” was just starting to show itself as a powerful analytic tool: not only was Marx’s Capital conditioned by the collective political experience of workers and political militants, it also taught later generations, in Europe as elsewhere, a new way to see the capitalist world. Marx’s work showed itself to be so politically valuable because it helped us to look beyond the immediate surface of different conjunctures and recognize common forms of exploitation—and through this, common forms of struggle, new ways of evaluating our successes and our defeats. It simultaneously organized a rich political experience, shed new light on our social world and pointed towards long-term tendencies that could facilitate the development of a communist strategy.
It is interesting to consider that, as the life-world of developed countries began to disintegrate in the 1970s and the contemporary conditions of crisis capitalism expanded from the periphery towards the center, the Marxist framework also dissolved into two separate and quite antagonistic fields. On the one hand, concrete political strategy crept further and further away from historically established forms of struggle, such as trade unions and communist parties, while on the other, the tools for abstract analysis of the capitalist world seemed to rely more and more on philosophical debates rather than “scientific” economic analyses. Even though this predicament suggests a very extreme polarization between the concrete dispersion of political forms and the excessively abstract and effortless description of what these have in common, we should nevertheless avoid, once more, reducing it to some ideological deviation or cooptation. People will organize themselves and think through their predicaments with whatever tools they have at their disposal (VI). If Marxism is powerful—and it is—then not only should it have the means to understand how it became outdated, but it should also trust that its claims to truth will be rediscovered as many times as necessary, within all sorts of political processes.
In this sense, rather than concern ourselves with convincing others of the contemporary relevance of Marxism, we should rather work towards helping autonomous and heterogeneous political movements to repeat today what Marxism was previously able to accomplish in another historical juncture: to actively explore the social world, to learn about its structure by confronting it in whatever ways we can, synthesizing the different and sometimes conflicting results of these experiments into a common political resource (V). A communist strategy, in this sense, doesn’t require a theory of what is to be done, or of how this should be accomplished—not even a precise theory of what the current world is really like. Rather, what we require are the concrete organizational means to make political processes appear to one another (I, IV).
A “communist phenomenology” is therefore not primarily directed at our individual sensibility, at educating how we see and think: it should rather focus on understanding what sorts of collective mechanisms and organizational processes could help us shift our perspective away from how politics appears to us—which inevitably distorts the space of actual struggles, leading us to mostly recognize the political value of processes that relate to our own particular situations—towards the way these processes might interact, compose and intensify one another. In other words, to shift our perspective towards how politics appears in the interior of a communist world.
Evidently, this does not mean that political victory is reducible to a mere shift in perspective—no matter how materially grounded this shift might be—but that this addition to our militant “tool kit” could actually help us tell victories and failures apart—as well as useless failures and useful ones. As it was already implicit in the Communist Manifesto, a “communist world”—the standpoint of the movement “as a whole”— is not what comes after capitalism, but rather our own real and present conjuncture, illuminated by the common part of infinite struggles.
IV. Tektology and Organizational Trinitarianism: Composition, Interaction, Intelligibility
In this section we will explore a current of materialist thought that is linked to Marxism and has, for a long time, remained invisible even though it offers a common thread that can connect a series of theories and philosophical positions that are seemingly very different from each other. Tektology, the ambitious project of a “universal science of organizations”, proposed by the Soviet thinker Alexander Bogdanov in the early 20th century, remained until very recently buried under the history and political conflicts of the October Revolution: reduced to a caricature by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Bogdanov’s philosophical approach was gradually pushed to the margins after the revolution, as the philosopher himself also lost the significant political and theoretical role that he had previously played as a Bolshevik. When his ideas were finally rediscovered in the 1970s, Bogdanov was celebrated as one of the forerunners of cybernetics and complex systems theory—since tektology anticipated the ideas of system and environment, feedback loops and dynamic stability—but the political valence of his project, as well as the intrinsic connection between his political engagement and his ideas, remained obscure for a long time.
In recent decades, however, a new interest in tektology has emerged, this time fueled by issues that touch upon the core of Bogdanov’s project. The emergence of the climate crisis as an unavoidable and pressing issue on the current political agenda, for example, forces us to formulate a new connection between science and politics, highlights the interpenetration between the social and the natural and pushing us to expand the field of political consideration both synchronously, to include the entire planet and its species, and diachronically, taking into account the consequences of policy decisions for future generations. It was in search of “theories for the Anthropocene” that McKenzie Wark took up Bogdanov and his project, suggesting in her brilliant Molecular Red an innovative dialogue between his ideas and the philosophy of Donna Haraway, and with it a new way of updating Marxism under contemporary conditions. On the other hand, the challenges of thinking about the strategic composition of different political fronts that are heterogeneous among themselves, issues that the fragmentation of the social world poses to left-wing politics (III, XVI), also led to the recognition that tektology could serve as the basis for a different approach to the political practice, which considers individual political organizations as part of a heterogeneous ecosystem.
1. Historical Materialism and Tektology
To understand what Bogdanov means by tektology, we must first consider the problems that motivated it. In his Essays in Tektology: A Universal Science of Organization, Bogdanov contrasts the history of the means of organization—access to the word, the mobilizing power of ideas, commands and social norms—and the history of the relations of production of each social formation. Following the Marxist precept that “it is the social being that determines [the forms] of consciousness”, Bogdanov reconstructs what he calls an “organizational metaphor” that traverses different areas of life and knowledge while giving minimal form to their content. For example, in the feudal society of lords and serfs, the logic of command and obedience worked as a flexible and general scheme, whereas the scientific development was still constrained by the Aristotelian idea of a first, extra-mundane cause, capable of setting nature in motion. In turn, European modernity, with its new organization of production and society, introduced a new metaphor for the self-moving system, for machinery, and an idea of nature as a space without an exterior. And again, a particular form of coordination and social organization, which had emerged between the 15th and 16th centuries at the intersection of engineering, mechanical science and technical production, began to serve as a general scheme for thought in general.
Accused of ignoring the primacy of the economic base in a social formation, overvaluing culture, and thereby relativizing the fundamental pillars of Marxism, Bogdanov sought, in fact, to adopt a point of view prior to the division between social “structure” and “superstructure” (II). For him, the organizational point of view allowed us to look for the underlying common ground between production—the sphere of conflicts between productive forces and production relations—and the other spheres of life—culture, law and forms of consciousness. And if we think about it, this is a problem that historical materialism necessarily needs to deal with: if social being determines consciousness, it is because both share something in common, a transitive medium which allows changes in the field of material reproduction to affect the ways of thinking at a given time.
One of the main impediments to the formulation of this question in other Marxist currents is linked to the way in which labour is often taken as a primitive, indecomposable concept: usually, the productive sphere is understood as the explaining criterion for all others because it is the sphere of concrete effort, of work, and also of human subsistence—all other areas of social life could cease to exist and we would still exist through the sphere of work and consumption, on which our survival depends. And since, under capitalism, the productive and reproductive system of humanity starts to be mediated by complex economic forms, constrained by the logic of commodity exchange, it is in this domain that we must look for the causes and nodal points of intervention in a social system. In short, labour usually appears in historical materialism as a material foundation of sociability, without which the entire social structure would collapse.
But what Bogdanov proposes is not to disregard the central role of the productive sphere in capitalism and place it alongside the others—he was the author of the Soviet Union’s main manual of Marxist political economy in the 1920s and this proposal would be utterly inconsistent with his other works. What he proposes instead is to decompose the concept of labour and understand it as a composite of even more fundamental operations: “The concept of organization is hidden in the term production.” This small conceptual modification, which opens the “black box” of the work’s concept, has radical consequences for materialism.
The first consequence, as we’ve already anticipated, is that this allows us to seek an answer to the problem of what the productive sphere could have in common with other social spheres—a similar form for organizing completely heterogeneous contents, for example—without preventing us from admitting that in certain social formations, such as in capitalism, the general social organization is structured in such a way that the material reproduction of life through labour has a special role within this complex. Another important consequence is that this decomposition of the concept of labour dilutes a category that usually distinguishes humanity from everything else into a more general category: if we say, on the one hand, that both an ecosystem and a productive process are organized; on the other, we do not say that plants and animals “work” in the same sense that human beings work. In other words, the organizational point of view preserves the specific difference in organizational forms and undoes the human exceptionalism that the category of labour carries with it when it is considered the foundation or basis of Marxist analysis (VIII).
In his reconstruction of the history of the relationship between social forms and forms of consciousness, Bogdanov highlights the way in which the main techniques of social coordination of a given epoch are exported as general models for other areas of life. He rightly calls these models “metaphors” because, in the movement they make out of the space where they were invented, thereby allowing the “transfer of methods” between different areas, these forms lose their referents and appear as general schemes without a suitable area of application—that is, they acquire a strictly metaphorical use. For example, the metaphor of the machine, used by Descartes to describe the functioning of not only certain objects but people and animals as well, was not born as a concept of natural philosophy: it first appeared in physics, mathematical practice and engineering, and only then did it become a scheme of thought—a method of analysis and intervention—capable of offering new ways of organizing vast areas of human experience. There is therefore a process of metaphorization and generalization—and, as Bogdanov emphasizes, in many cases this is a beneficial process that allows us to increase our ability to recognize the world and deal with it; but this metaphorical translation can also become saturated and end up imposing a limited, insufficient form, which is no longer suitable for certain phenomena or contents.
It is through this reconstruction of the relationship between social forms and their hegemonic organizational metaphors that Bogdanov arrived at the reason why the proletarian struggle in the 20th century would demand a new science or a new general approach to political thinking. For him, the technical division of labour, an essential condition for the expansion of the capitalist economy, implied the potential for such a radical specialization process of practices and forms of labour, such a large heterogeneity of methods and materials—necessary both from the point of view of extracting surplus value in production and in the expansion of knowledge in the most diverse areas—that this specialization and complexity would progressively become an impediment in the political struggle of the working class. As forms of work become specialized, creating equally specialized and fragmented forms of consciousness and life-worlds, labour as such would no longer be able to offer a transversal image of what these practices and ways of life have in common, becoming a saturated and ineffective metaphor in the unification of proletarian political struggles (III).
By not taking labour as a primitive term, Bogdanov’s organizational point of view was able to anticipate the possibility that forms of work could become so different from each other that the scheme of the work process, described by Marx at the beginning of Capital, could eventually find its saturation as a general model of transit between forms of thought. But if labour ceased to be a foundational category, what could replace it? For Bogdanov, this is where tektology gains its relevance.
2. The Principles of Tektology
Bogdanov calls “tektology”—from the Greek “tekton”, construction—the theoretical perspective that starts from the hypothesis that the basis of the commonality between nature, society and ideas is that they are all organized. The universe, life, the inorganic world, as well as the social world and human representations: in all these domains it is possible to ask about their forms of organization, explore their relationships, differences and similarities. He writes: “[There] does not exist, and [there] could not exist, another point of view on life and the universe other than the organizational perspective.”
It is important to note, however, that for tektology, it is not a matter of critically saying that behind the mundane differences there is “the organization”—which would be a metaphysical proposal—but rather showing that the organizational perspective is the one that is the most able to abstract from secondary characteristics, from what does not contribute to the specific aspects of the phenomena being analyzed, while preserving the particular differences that really define its proper form. Therefore, tektology is defined neither by a form, a method or a specific object. Instead, it proposes a determinate point of view capable of shedding new light on any object or form, comparing them from the perspective of their organizations. This is a central point, and crucial in understanding what Bogdanov meant by a universal science: universality here does not concern a common positive content, a concept that captures a positive property present in all cases and objects (I.3). For tektology, saying that “everything is organizational” is trivial and doesn’t mean much. Universality is rather the possibility of adopting a point of view from which all differences relevant to the phenomena at stake can be preserved and taken into account—“universal” is any perspective that preserves as many particularities as possible, and not the one that imposes a specific particularity on everything else.
From an ontological point of view, Bogdanov’s theory of organization starts from two rather unique premises. First, Bogdanov argues that “complete disorganization is a meaningless concept—in fact, it is the same as non-being”; that is nothing is completely unorganized, and, in a way, even the concept of “nothing” is organized, it has connections and some structure, whereas pure disorganization, the complete absence of connections, would be the same as nonexistence. In other words, the distinction between “organized” and “disorganized”, in an absolute sense, would have ontological precedence over the philosophical distinction between “being” and “non-being”: if there were something totally unorganized, totally unconnected, that thing could not have physical reality, it could not be known or imagined by us—it is because of its total disorganization that it would be considered non-existent. And if this distinction demarcates the field of tektology, excluding the possibility of total disorganization, it is the second crucial conceptual marker, the relation between activity and resistance, which determines not only the type of organizations that exists within that field, but also the essential corollary that there always exists multiple organizations.
Due to the first principle of tektology, we know that organizations are always a composite or a mixture: partially organized, partially disorganized. Bogdanov addresses this dynamic in terms of organizations that act and those that resist: whether we analyze the relationship between the whole organization and its parts, consider the interaction between different organizations, “the elements of an organization or any complex studied from an organizational point of view are reduced to activities and resistances”.
Here we can already begin to understand why the “labour point of view” does not completely coincide with the organizational one—and also why Lenin accused Bogdanov of idealism and claimed that he abdicated from assigning a real and stable basis for knowledge. In tektology, resistance and activity are concepts related to a given situation: from the point of view of a given system A, we can say that external forces B resist its actions, hinder its maintenance or expansion; but from the opposite point of view, which takes external environment B as a system and organization A as an alien black box, it is organization A that resists the actions of the environment. Through this concern with the relativity of actions, Bogdanov was careful to prevent tektology from generalizing laws and patterns that actually vary when we change the perspective from which we define what is active and what is passive in a given interaction. Now, since the point of view of labour—in the specifically political meaning of a human activity directed towards an end, which takes nature as a means to be transformed—already assumes that the human component is the active and nature the passive element, it could not be accepted as a primitive concept of tektology, since from the point of view of an evolving ecosystem, for example, human labour might be better understood as a resistance against the active reproduction of other forms of life.
Tektology, therefore, treats “organization” not as a determinate concept, but as a point of view and emphasizes the relativity between activity and resistance, since, depending on which perspective we adopt, what is active and what resists the activity changes. Furthermore, the “universal science of organizations” also proposes a mereological theory—an understanding of the possible relationships between organizational parts and wholes—which is extremely sophisticated and even counterintuitive, as it extends the relativity of activity/resistance to structure itself:
The concept of “elements” in organizational science is completely relative and conditional: it is simply the [concept] of parts into which, considering a problem under investigation, it is necessary to decompose an object; these parts can be as small or as big as needed, they can be sub-dividable or not; there are no intrinsic limits to the analysis here.
At first glance, this may appear to be a negative and underdetermined definition—“there are no intrinsic limits”—but this is perhaps the most complex and consequential principle in all of tektology. A contextual concept of the parts and the whole implies that, depending on the specific logic of interaction at stake, the same system can be divided into different notions of locality and totality (I). The crucial point is that this change of what counts as the “atom” of a system—its relevant logical unit, below which two parts are indiscernible from each other—is not essentially theoretical, it does not concern exclusively our particular criteria of analysis but is also dependent on the intrinsic properties of the organizations being analyzed. The interaction between theory and a theorized system appears here as a particular case of interaction between any two organizations. The difference between parts and wholes in the two organizations is defined in the context of their interaction, whether both are “material” systems or one is a material system and the other its idealized representation.
For example, in the act of chopping trees to make firewood, the relevant parts of both the worker, the axe and the chunk of wood being cut are determined by the interaction in question. Of course, we can talk about the worker’s DNA, but such a microscopic part makes no difference, as such, to the interaction between systems, even if it makes a difference for us. The “effective parts” of the worker, from the point of view of the situation (I) of what acts and what resists this action, would perhaps be the members of the body, such as arms, legs or torso. Likewise, the atomic structure of the wood, and perhaps even the type of tree, makes less difference to the woodcutter concerned with the shape and size of the blocks he needs to cut, a factor that determines the number of pieces that he will produce. What counts as the parts and as the whole in each organization at stake depends on the situated interaction and it is quite possible that theoretical analysis is one of the interacting organizations, but the principle of mereological relativity is preserved independently of this, as it is rather a feature of how relevant differences appear to the interacting organizations.
That is why, as we have already stated, as soon as the possibility of total disorganization is barred, tektology not only thinks every organization as a mixture—partially organized and disorganized—but also thinks every situation as being composed of multiple organizations: even if only one system existed, the different possible interactions between its whole and its parts would already be enough for us to be forced to consider it as a multiple.
Another way to understand this principle is to say that tektology is a perspective that is sensitive to organizational scales (XII, XIII): the differentiation between parts and wholes does not only happen in temporal terms, as in an individuation process that establishes a distinction between the interior and the exterior of a system, but might also establish different operating logics at different scales of the same system, depending on the resolution at play in a given interaction. The “mereological” relativity that Bogdanov talks about allows us to treat the variability of relevant entities in a context as a function of the distance between us and the object, as in a “zooming” movement that allows us to speak of a planet as an irregular object, as a sphere or even as a dimensionless dot, depending on the point of view we adopt and the interacting systems relevant to the analysis in question. Returning to the example of our woodcutter, from the point of view of the interaction between the act of chopping firewood and the forest’s ecosystem—which makes up a larger organizational domain—it doesn’t make that much of a difference that the man has arms and legs or that wood is large enough to be broken into a given number of pieces: what counts for the ecosystem is the number of men chopping firewood, each of them considered an indecomposable unit, the speed of depredation etc.
We can say that these different resolutions vary according to our interest and the theoretical framework we are in, but this is secondary: there is really something arbitrary in the choice between focusing on the woodcutter’s work or on its impact on the environment, but which “difference will make a difference” in each of these points of view is not something we can decide. It is rather something that is determined in the actual interaction between the different systems under scrutiny, and that would remain operative for the organizations at stake even if we weren’t there to theorize about it.
3. Composition, Interaction, Intelligibility: Three Examples
Consider three different collective organizations. The first is a study group reading Marx’s Capital: it is made up of white college students, mostly men, who meet weekly in a vacant room at their university campus. The second is a political collective composed mostly of black women who organize artistic interventions on the periphery of a large Brazilian city. The third is the Central Bank of Brazil, an autonomous federal organization responsible for establishing the national monetary policy. Let us now ask ourselves what each of these organizations sees (XII)—not what their members think and perceive or what theories support their practices, but what resistances from the environment and from within these organizations make a difference to their existence.
The study group, for example, is composed of people who travel and read a lot, who know many things and places from all over the world, and who, as “Marxologists”, theorize the systemic dynamics of capitalism, with its financial flows and forms of direct and indirect domination. But very little makes an effective difference for the group as such: almost no effort is needed to guarantee access to their meeting space and—with the exception of policy changes that affect their access to public university space—there are very few government actions or economic fluctuations that could lead to changes in the group’s functioning. Even though in the field of theory these students have a representation of the social system in which they are inserted, almost nothing of this system appears to the study group, that is, there is almost nothing that actually resists their activity and demands reference to these Marxist categories of systemic domination that they are constantly debating. The existence of the study group depends almost exclusively on the particular affinities shared by its members—an internal personal quarrel is perhaps more likely to ruin everything for them than an authoritarian government.
Let us compare this situation with the case of the collective of feminist artists, for whom maintaining a place for meetings and managing their free time for organizing activities and artistic interventions is extremely costly. After all, to get together, they need to assess how much money they can invest in renting a space, balance the time of meetings with work fatigue and family demands, and deal with an extremely racialized social space. Even the political theory of this collective were less elaborate than that of the small Capital study group, this organization would still be much more sensitive to some aspects of the social structure they are both embedded in: just consider the potential threat that the presence of a police car at the street corner of one of their interventions would mean to this collective—it would make a difference even if nothing terrible were to happen—while for the organization of revolutionary students, perhaps only the noise of a siren disrupting their conversation would actually matter.
Let us now compare both of these organizations with the National Central Bank. Both the study group and the collective of artists perceive signs of extremely localized environments: their “higher” political ambitions, which situate these organizations in a broader social space, exist almost exclusively in the “heads” of the participants, as representational systems, ethical directives—if we “zoom out”, both organizations become indistinct and actually become indistinguishable from most organizations that compose civil society (I.4). In the case of the Central Bank, on the other hand, fluctuations in foreign exchange, wars in other faraway countries, national unemployment rates and even the way a president phrases something in a media appearance can all make a difference, forcing the Bank to react to these situations in this or that way, even if none of the economists and members of the institution have a good theory of how their social world works. This is not to say that the Bank sees everything, on the contrary: while these more “global” differences affect the institution, personal, racial and gender relations—more present in the other organizations we considered—can be “smoothed out” by the Bank’s hierarchical structure and by the excessive presence of white men of the same social class, whose material reproduction is so assured that hardly any disturbance in their lives could threaten the Bank’s existence.
These examples are simple, but nothing stops us from extending our analysis to more complex organizations and asking how the world appears to indigenous tribes, social movements, companies and international organizations with headquarters across the globe. Or, inversely, we could ask what sort of organizational ecology would be necessary for climate change to effectively appear—after all, to become sensible to something, an appropriate “organ” needs to exist or be constructed.
What we really want to demonstrate with these initial examples is rather how the composition of an organization affects its modes of interaction with the environment and, through the resistances that ensue, what can become intelligible to it (I.2). In this way, tektology proposes a tight knot between social composition, political strategy and epistemic power.
V. Political experiments
Our project can be justified in three ways from the standpoint of concrete needs of politics. First, it follows from the practical need to synthesize diverse organizational experience (IV), which entails transmitting fragments of a given struggle outside of its local context. Second, there is a need today to build and share new interfaces between complex systems (such as the climate) on the one hand and political movements on the other (VIII). These new interfaces include not only scientific but also digital, legal, cultural and economic tools. Third, there is a need to recognize and work with intrinsic constraints, including ideology and incentive structures, that determine any form of social organization. These needs motivate us to build connections between areas such as philosophy, category theory, anthropology, economics, computation etc. in order to make intelligible a very broad range of phenomena. Ultimately, however, the measure of success for this project should be derived from the clarity it offers to the actual organizing efforts of people (III, VI).
For us, politics is the space for the experimental making of new forms of intelligibility and interaction within social reality (I). Political acts, such as occupying a city (XV) or disrupting the free flow of commodities (XVI), are only some of the more visible aspects of an experiment. What is usually left out of such extrinsic descriptions is the intrinsic developments required to carry them out, to maintain a certain organizational form in the face of adverse circumstances (XIV) and the factors of their dissolution. Note that even failed political experiments yield valuable information if allowed to pass through by our ideological filters. For instance, it is common to read the failures of a given political movement through the lens of human nature or individual mistakes. But this type of reading excludes how a network of social relations already determines the set of available choices that individuals can perceive. One can envision this network forming a particular type of environment, a life-world, which engenders certain individual behaviors. There can be many such life-worlds with distinct properties. Instead of tracing the collection of social phenomena back to individuals, as a confirmation of innate human tendencies, we should read them as mapping out a certain “organizational space” which has highly non-trivial properties (which vanish when we map them onto the individual level).
Historians, economists and political scientists may approach these intrinsic aspects to a certain degree, but only after the fact and from a distance. However, our project is more concerned with the availability of theory and tools for use by those engaged in these processes as they are happening. This leads us to investigate the conditions and formal constraints involved in navigating the world of political experiments, both past and present (XIII). This engagement has both an analytic and synthetic side to it. On the analytic side, systems are only graspable as a set of constraints and behaviors that determine their ways of seeing and acting in the world (I, IV). Our conception of politics is therefore not purely voluntaristic, but entails the construction of vehicles which obey those constraints such that they can “hook into” these systems. Returning to the formal assumption we introduced earlier, we can say that building and maintaining such vehicles requires addressing each of the terms in the triad composition-interaction-intelligibility (I). This leads to all sorts of questions that can be tested experimentally. Starting from a desired interaction, we can ask the question of what sort of “sensibility” does an organization need in order to properly model that interaction internally. Or starting from a given composition of human and non-human entities, we can interrogate its blind spots and low-resolution areas. A capitalist firm behaves the way it does because it can only “see” those things which are pertinent for its profitability (XI). A State only sees GDP, territory, military strength etc. (X). Each form of intelligibility implies a fragment of an environment that is available for interactions. For example, a legal system is a type of environment wherein interconnections and consequences are expressed within the body of laws and procedures. Without proper legal “sensors”, such an environment would be opaque to an organization. On the other hand, in order to reveal the limits of the law itself, as when addressing such hybrid phenomena as “carceral capitalism”, sometimes the proper sensors are extrajudicial. When challenging an existing legal framework, certain transgressive actions may reveal more about that framework than what can be expressible within it.
On the synthetic side, new languages and concepts must be devised that capture the novelty of the political thinking which occurs locally. This leads to new ways of processing and consolidating the “data” of a situation, as well as a new way of interacting with it. The difficulty of building new interactions can be formulated in the “classical” terms of left and right deviations—too far to the left and an interaction becomes ineffective; too far to the right and the interaction provokes a response which is already in the existing language. To change an interaction may require the construction of an entirely new environment. A good example of this can be found in Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for governing shared resources. These principles aim to internalize costs among groups of appropriators so as to avoid the infamous tragedy of the commons. Ostrom shows how neither the State (TB) nor the market (TC) are able to treat this problem without serious side effects, while there have been many examples throughout history of the successful management of these commons by local communities. The same local interaction, that of using a resource which is not owned by anyone, can either be sustainable or destructive on a global level depending on the (ideological, economic, technological) environment in which it takes place.
Social reality is complex, heterogenous and multiscalar. It is also opaque at a global level: there is no position from which to view it all at once. From this, we conclude that attempts to analyze a political movement from a standpoint external to that movement’s struggle are generally suspect. We must re-evaluate our evaluative powers and include into our assessments of social formations a certain intuition regarding non-trivial spatial structures. Positions which appear as politically opposed locally might be glued together quite cohesively if we “zoom out”, while alliances might be fraught with tense contradictions when we “zoom in”. A neutral scientific approach does not generally work because the object of the experiment is not available globally, but only from an engaged stance. Natural phenomena can be isolated in an experimental setting, allowing the scientist to control which variables are allowed to affect the outcomes. With political phenomena, not only is a completely controlled setting generally impossible to produce, but it is often part of the very stakes of a struggle to form a new political body. To make statements about “the working class”, for example, presumes that such a class is distinct and coherent, but this is something to be constructed as part of the proletarian struggle in a given place and time under particular constraints.
Another way to approach this is through the relation between the experimental apparatus and the phenomena itself. Natural phenomena require natural means of interaction—one cannot use a social relation to provoke a change in the electromagnetic field, for example. The fact that we can use a part of nature as an apparatus to interact with another part is what allows scientists to maintain a neutral distance. However, social phenomena have the opposite problem—they cannot be altered by natural means but require an apparatus made of the “same stuff”, a social organ of some type (economic, cultural, legal etc.). This homogeneity principle is the connecting bridge between the analytic and synthetic parts of our project (VI). As an example, the theory of fetishism for us names what happens when we try to bypass the homogeneity principle and go directly to seeing the properties of reality (VII). Relations of domination in capitalism remain opaque or natural as long as we look for them directly in relations between people (VII). In order to recognize the role of the commodity form in carrying out this dominance, we have to see through the eyes of commodities themselves (XI).
We propose that political experiments are not only possible but essential aspects of politics as a form of synthetic thought (II). This form is trans-individual, trans-historical and materialist. It sometimes produces new connections in the world which were deemed impossible before, regardless of whether political groups themselves succeed in their stated aim. In fact, we propose that a new, “orthogonal” metric for success involves the production or socialization of resources for future experiments. For example, one could imagine an incubator of sorts for political experiments, which provides assistance to nascent groups and also compiles a dataset of failures and successes, written by these groups themselves, which would be made freely available for others to use. In the case of experiments with an economic component, if a group achieves a level of sustainability, they may contribute back to the incubator, creating feedback effects. Dmytri Kleiner names a version of this idea “venture communism” since it can potentially act as an engine for divestment from capitalist productive processes. We see our project as in line with this idea, except that it should encompass not only mode C forms of divestment, but also the concomitant forms of resistance in other modes as well. A basic requirement here is that we can establish new connections between projects, despite perceived political differences.
This is also one way to understand some of the pathologies of the Left—they stem from the failure to integrate past political experiments, not because of missing facts, but rather due to limiting concepts and tools for synthesis. For example, we take for granted the opposition between anarchists and communists, although we rarely consider that since both sides struggle with the same social reality, there must be overlapping systems of interactions. As a result, a large body of organizing experience remains unconnected simply because we adopt a certain dogmatism regarding what are the valid paths to emancipation, which lead us to discard certain approaches as “reactionary”, “reformist” etc. when in fact every effective body has such “split” tendencies (XIV). After all, what really authorizes a total disjunction in approaches within the Left when the only universal property it seems to exhibit is disorientation (XIII)? What may appear to be contradictory tendencies at a local level may simply be an artifact of the measuring devices we have at our disposal. And if the proper devices for mapping the organizational space do not currently exist, it is our task today to construct them (III).
What is often missing from appraisals of local movements is the particular context, which does not survive the passage to our global, low-resolution categories (I). However, we wager that local investigations conducted by even bitter enemies can be “pasted together” provided that we identify the proper overlapping sections. This process of constructing a political map of social reality is a phenomenological one. A political organization, by virtue of its composition, is able to view certain fragments of social reality in a unique way (IV). In fact, from a compositional point of view, two different organizations with widely different aims may still be identical in what they “see”. This may be true even if these organizations do not agree on the form of intervention. Conversely, two groups may agree on a broad range of policies but have totally different perspectives on social reality, depending on how they are socially composed.
In other words, what binds the various political struggles together may be neither a shared strategy nor shared perspectives but an additional supplement to the world that is the “communist standpoint” (III). This is not reserved for those who identify as communist, since it is not an individual’s perspective at all—rather it is something which actively informs political struggles whenever they encounter irreducibly common problems. The very structure of these problems necessitates that resources are shared and identifications blurred, such that by sticking close to them, a common ground is produced. By assembling the set of such common problems, which does not suppose that a single problem will unite everyone, we create a map of our heterogeneous landscape. In our formal jargon, every “mapping” from a global perspective into a local context presupposes a “lifting” of that context, which allows us to think about the conditions for the coherence of that context with others. For example, today we may classify three types of political maps, corresponding to our tripartite world logic (II, XVII). There are struggles against segregation (TA), against expropriation (TB) and against exploitation (TC) which, broadly speaking, comprise the Left. But a common mistake we make is to hastily nominate one of these struggles as the essential one. Those who suffer from State violence or apartheid, for example, are asked to make concessions in order to unify in the fight against capitalism first. This approach, besides alienating other movements, assumes that the struggle against exploitation will itself make other struggles coherent and tractable. Although concessions are sometimes necessary, they should not be based on such essentializing beliefs about the nature of the world. This would be confusing necessary with sufficient conditions and paradoxically weakens us from the standpoint of the communist perspective.
Instead, we offer some ideas in the experimental approach to connecting various local contexts. The phenomenological method, along with the homogeneity principle, tells us that every effective political movement will need “organs” capable of sensing and interacting with relevant social phenomena. An organ has to be composed in a way that is compatible with the phenomena it seeks to affect and be affected by. Producing and maintaining such organs requires resources which are not necessarily available in every context. Using the world of laws as an example again, not every political movement has a team of lawyers and legal minds who can fight court battles. On the other hand, many political movements have an even more precious resource than legal expertise, the trust and support of people. By viewing the passage from local to global coherence of our political maps as a matter of resource sharing, we can start to see avenues where organizations can connect without necessarily agreeing at a subjective level.
This is how we can view the important role of social media platforms in politics today, for example. They allow the work of maintaining social relations, producing knowledge and coordinating actions to occur in a way that can be shared by different movements. But the profit-motive of the largest of these platforms leads them to enclose that work, to regard it as a new form of property, which also limits the types of global coherence that are possible. Such a platform is indeed an organ, but mostly in the service of the Nation-State-Capital world logic. This determines to some extent all groups that use social media, so that we see today a demand from all sides for building their own digital platforms. But how would our proposed replacement be properly subtracted from the dominant logic? We propose that this would involve a set of tests, a set of tools, and an experimental process carried out by many different organizations over time. Embarking on such shared infrastructure projects would already produce effects in the organizational space without the requirement that different movements be immediately compatible in their politics.
We can take this one step further by asserting that ideology itself is a type of resource and that it is possible to conduct ideological experiments. Ideology here is defined broadly as the set of unwritten rules which govern our behavior but remain opaque to us. We often misperceive this as power wielded by individuals (VII), even though a set of material conditions must always be in place for that power to be effective, including the appearance of a certain political neutrality. Therefore, an ideological experiment could involve making such invisible rules visible, thereby rendering them partially inoperative, or involve constructing zones where new unwritten rules can form. Often this happens as a result of exclusion—for example, norms regarding sexuality and family composition continue to be enriched by queer culture, which arose under conditions of resistance and erasure. Experiments which at first appear to be internal to a given group may enable a different relation to permeate the outside world. This possibility follows from the homogeneity principle—in order to fight structural racism or patriarchy, one must develop organs for seeing and interacting with it. Therefore, those who are marginalized are uniquely positioned to create new organs for these fights (XV, XVI). And if an organization cannot perceive the effects of structures within itself, it will be ineffective with regards to those structures in the environment.
Another crucial category of experiments are the economic ones. Regardless of whether one ascribes to “market socialism”, we must acknowledge the homogeneity principle in the productive sphere: one must build economic vehicles in order to shape productive relations. This may mean creating organs which are to some degree “firm-like” and that may interact or compete with other capitalist firms. The line between a profit-driven machine and an experimental economic organ of a political movement may not be decidable ahead of time, but requires a local investigation into the structure of costs that the firm is able to see. Perhaps there are technologies which can be collectively built and maintained that make externalities of the firm visible. An entire history of successful examples in governing the commons can be combined with new ways of intervening in commodity relations. And we can learn a lot from walking this tightrope, even when we fail (XIV).
VI. The Discipline of Politics
An important aspect of this project is that it is motivated by a different approach to phenomenology and politics. In this section, we try to knit together the phenomenology of politics from the standpoint of the theory of the discipline. This theory condenses many important theoretical tools that Alain Badiou developed throughout his long encounter with various philosophical and political milieus from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s when he wrote his magnum opus Being and Event. Through this vast terrain, Badiou has expressed seemingly different commitments: from logic and epistemology of science in the late 1960s to politics during the 1970s to ontology and mathematics in the 1980s, which has continued to this time. However, a close reading of his major works during this period reveals, we think, an internal thread of thought that runs between them, which we have named discipline. In other words, discipline is the framework within which we can reconstruct Badiou’s main ideas as part of continuous work (during the said period), that not only reveals the internal coherence of his overall thought over the course of time within which he showed different and seemingly unrelated commitments, but also gives us a powerful tool to understand key concepts in his philosophy, such as the procedures of truths, ontology, phenomenology and his commitment to axiomatic thinking.
1. Alain Badiou and the Theory of Disciplines
The main motivation for the theory of discipline resides in Badiou’s desire to answer the following question: if there are forms of human inquiries that we can call thinking, what are the conditions in which these forms can acquire maximality? What are the conditions in which the solutions to particular impasses might appear as a restriction on the space of what we can actually think and conceive? We think this is the motivation that has led Badiou throughout his career, as a logician, as a political thinker, as a militant and as a philosopher. In other words, Badiou’s encounter with various subject matters has always been from the point of view of examining whether the subject matter in question struggles with any internal or external commitments that suture them to avowed or un-avowed presuppositions. Badiou’s category of truth should be placed within such a context. For Badiou, truth is that point where a subject matter, which we call a discipline, is pushed beyond its own point of impasse. This impasse, on closer examination, is always caused by the subject matter being sutured to explicit or implicit presuppositions.
Badiou’s answer to this is very simple: de-suture from opinion. How do we know that thought is able to de-suture from opinion? Because mathematics exists! Mathematics is the singular form of thought that has been able to rupture with doxa. So, the effective, historical, independent existence of mathematics provides a paradigm for the possibility of being able to de-suture from opinion. This constitutes Badiou’s philosophical program for our time: a return to classicism, and in particular to Plato, and the essence of this return is to re-establish mathematics as the paradigm of thinking for philosophy. In effect, in Badiou’s estimation, we are still living in the Romantic era, in the era of the poets, inaugurated by Hegel. The mark of this era is precisely the banishment of mathematics as the paradigm for thinking and its replacement with the poem. Under the reign of the poets, we are no longer eternal, but mortals bound to finitude. The gravest consequence of the banishment of mathematics is the banishment of the category of infinite as the basis of our thinking.
For Badiou, thinking maximally is possible only if first and foremost we are committed to the infinite. In that sense, all forms of genuine thinking occur with this commitment in place, even if philosophy may operate differently and under the dominance of the finite, as it does today. Discipline is our way of formalizing the thinking that distinguishes itself by such a commitment. In our view, a discipline, that is, a space within which pure thinking becomes actual, the commitment to the infinite happens in three concomitant and compossible dimensions.
First is the dimension that determines the space of thinking with no reference to its exterior. There is the inside of the discipline but there is no outside. Hence, the discipline is not defined by what is exterior to it, because the discipline does not recognize its exterior as something that exists. We called this dimension of the discipline its interiority. A discipline is defined by an interiority that does not have exteriority, or in Lacan’s language, the Other of the discipline is extimate.
Second, a discipline does not begin according to a principle or ground. While disciplines do not recognize anything external to themselves, they are able to recognize each other. Hence, they carve out a space of operations for themselves. Such a space is not created at the expense of other disciplines, but is born anew by the discipline itself. We think this takes place when thought operates in an axiomatic register. Axioms are precisely the presuppositions that are avowed. They are generalities, not generalizations. In that sense, while they are independent of each other, and one does not provide a ground for the other, together they create a space for thinking that is groundless and principle free. We call this dimension of the discipline its beginning. According to this dimension, all disciplines are axiomatic forms of thinking. Axioms have emerged in order to make possible thinking in its interiority.
Third, disciplines progress. They advance when they are challenged by impasses they can formulate in their internal language. Disciplines are historical sites, which means they are evental. As per Gödel, the “real” of any sufficiently complex axiomatic system is that it is possible to build statements (known as Gödel statements) that are undecidable within that system. Mathematics teaches us that it is around these points (the undecidable statements) that a revolution in a discipline usually takes place. A great example of this is the famous Continuum Hypothesis. We call the tendency in disciplines to push beyond their points of undecidability and towards the maximality of thinking the novelty of disciplines. These three dimensions of disciplines, their beginning, interiority and novelty, are concomitant and compossible, and the condition of their possibility is the commitment to the infinite.
Disciplinary thinking is akin to dialectical thinking in that both carve out a space for thinking as an interiority. Dialectical thinking is also only concerned with the interiority of the One, with unfolding discontinuities within a coherent logical space. But for the discipline, there is no One other than the closure of a space of operations that is circumscribed by its axioms—it is not dependent on some initial ground or fundamental derivation of its logic. Disciplinary thinking is also akin to dialectics in the dimension of novelty. Dialectics is never the result of supplementation from outside. However, unlike dialectical thinking, novelty is not the result of the sublation of two to one. It always begins with the One of the discipline and splits this into what the discipline discerns and in-discerns about itself. It is precisely within the category of novelty and the orientation towards what is possible that the discipline manifests its character as a wholly subjective process without an object. Within the theory of discipline, the subjective is an index to the dimension of novelty.
The dimension of beginning is where discipline is most different from dialectics. Thinking the beginning presents an inherent discontinuity because this thinking must perform an irremediable break from the sovereignty of doxa, one that is more akin to producing creative hypotheses and critical interventions. Axiomatic thinking is the only mode of thinking proper to this violent discontinuity; it is the only mode of thought that makes its own presuppositions explicit—rather than the presuppositions of the doxa. The axiomatic set theory provides a way of thinking the dialectic of universal and particular through generalities rather than generalization. The relation between the particular and the universal has usually been thought through generalization: the particular was thinkable by being categorized under the universal. In contrast, axiomatic thinking approaches a situation through a set of generalities (axioms) whose deductive power allows us to show what makes a situation thinkable. If the particular is unthinkable according to the system of sentences drawn from given axioms, then we add a new axiom which is consistent with the others so that this particular becomes thinkable. Moreover, by relying on ideas rather than ideals, we can experiment with the formal system directly, even in advance of the demands of the real; the real of the formal system is its own consistency. This form of deductive reasoning is impossible under the regime of generalization, since generalizations are related to one another (and ultimately derived from a super-genre), whereas generalities are independent of one another. On the other hand, the dialectic is generally ambivalent to what it begins with, and is therefore susceptible to generalization and requires a fixed foundation. As a result, dialectical thinking appears as a region or restriction of disciplinary thinking.
A formal system is part of every discipline. But since the discipline is a homogeneous region of thought, every part of this region can think its other parts. The best example of this is mathematics. A region of mathematics, say geometry, can be the object of formalization for another part, such as algebra, according to which the latter part can think (i.e. formalize) the former part. But by no means does this permanently fixate one part as the object and the other part as the subject since geometry can equally formalize algebra. In model theoretical language parts of a discipline can act as both a formal system and the model for a formal system. The disciplinary practice gains huge insights about its parts, and ultimately the discipline as a whole, by being able to think a part through another part of the discipline. This means that through disciplinary theories “about” a discipline, the discipline produces more of its own. This becomes clearer when a discipline is compared to a discourse. Discourses, for example, the philosophy of science, have disciplines, such as science, as their subject but do not produce, nor claim to produce, disciplinary theories themselves. In all their forms, discourses attempt to find from outside of a given discipline the unifying principle according to which the discipline can be defined and organized. Discourses, in that sense, are transcendental to the disciplines they study. In contrast, the assertions that a discipline produces about itself are part of the discipline itself. Discipline is immanence. It embeds what it thinks.
Disciplines are also highly experimental. What constitutes the so-called “objects” of a disciplinary practice are elements of the model that satisfies the propositions of a formal system. But recall that what is now a model for a formal system could later be a formal system in its own right. In this sense, a discipline does not distinguish between subject and object. The experimentality of disciplines also stems from this character. The set of propositions that constitute a formal system always refers to a set. That is, the sentences within that system always seek interpretations within sets of objects of different kinds. The fact that sentences of a formal system require interpretation implies that those sentences are not universally valid or invalid in the same way that logical sentences are. This means that in the last instance, those sentences are axiomatic in nature; they are produced according to decisions that are not based on some prior self-evident principles. However, the opposite of this is also true: every axiomatic system requires a structure for its interpretation. This points to an extraordinary experimental vocation of formalism, and in that sense the material structures, from machines to laboratories, are thoroughly formal. The experimental nature of disciplines is due to their axiomatic nature. Axioms are responsible for the rigorous experimental protocol of formal systems.
The axiomatic nature of disciplines makes them evental. There are conditions under which formal systems contained in a discipline clash with each other and with the discipline’s founding axioms. This is a mathematical certainty. It is under those circumstances that a discipline is subjectivized. It thinks its own foundation and through this, under certain conditions, it expands those foundations to open up new territories for its thinking. For this subjectivation, a substantial part of the body of a discipline (from theories to models and practitioners, to pens and papers, to signs and syntagmas) must be activated towards the new possibilities that lie around the discipline’s evental site—what points towards a new existence that was not there. If enough of the discipline’s body is activated in this way, then the discipline can redefine itself to expand its territory and to absorb the new possibilities into its domain. The discipline thus expands. But prior to this, from a logical standpoint, the condition for this subjectivation is precisely the practice within a discipline by which parts of a discipline appear and are interpreted by other parts of a discipline. That is, prior to any subjectivation, and as its logical condition, there is an objective phenomenology that is in effect, and which constitutes “the life” of a discipline.
2. Sylvain Lazarus and Political Thinking
Mathematics and science are prime instances of disciplines. But in our view, Sylvain Lazarus was the first serious political theoretician that thought of politics in a register tremendously close to what we have termed here a discipline. His ideas have also greatly influenced Badiou and, we believe, it greatly motivated him to consider politics as one of the four procedures of truth.
In Anthropology of the Name, Lazarus presents politics as an engagement without an object (e.g. State, revolution, class); it is (purely) subjective and (purely) thought. Lazarus captures this interiority of politics in two propositions that are tightly concomitant and compossible: “People think” and “Thought is a relation of the real”. Together, these two propositions circumscribe a space for politics as pure immanence, designating a space of subjectivization with no object. The statement “People think” designates that politics is of the order of thought; there is thinking that is carried out by people. Unlike political science according to which only the sociologist thinks, or classical political theory where only the party thinks, politics postulates that people carry out the thinking. The term “people” has such a minimum determination that, in fact, this statement effectively means that “there is thinking”.
The second statement, “Thought is a relation of the real”, designates the non-objective aspect of politics. Thought is a relation “of” and not “to the real”, because a relation “to the real” would make the real into an object for thought, and politics has no object. In this manner, Lazarus emphasizes that the order of thought (“People think”) exists in the real. It is of further interest to note the curious title of Lazarus’ book. Lazarus chose “anthropology” over (for example) “science” due to the investigative aspect of anthropology, which according to Lazarus is not bound to an external object. Sciences are objective because they relate to something that is not interior to their thinking. Therefore, the choice of anthropology as against science emphasizes the non-objective nature of the theory that demonstrates politics as interiority. But what about the other part of the title: what does “the name” nominate? Why not “anthropology of politics”? The latter title would suggest that politics is the name of something that is under investigation. However, according to Lazarus, politics is an unnameable name, because true politics is singular, and something that is singular and interior is unnameable. Something cannot name itself from within itself. Naming politics would require an outside to politics that speaks about politics. Naming also indicates a more general field of discourse that uses the name for circulation and conceptual exchange, assignation and polysemy, which result in a de-singularization of the name and which are properties that are disavowed by this theory of politics. This theory speaks to politics from inside the thinking of politics, from where politics itself is unnameable. Hence, “of the name” simply designates the topic—politics in its interiority—as an unnameable name. The other primitive term, “thinking”, deals with the conception of consciousness; it is not “consciousness of”, it is not a thinking about “objects”.
Consequently, “People think” does not lead to an antagonistic politics (in which the consciousness of antagonism is the condition of partisan politics, as was the case for Lenin). This statement is not a normative conception of people’s thought. Lazarus’s conception of politics rejects the terms of the party and the State; party does not have the monopoly on thought. The statement that “politics is thought” means that since the “place” for thinking is people, politics only occurs among people. Secondly, politics as thought is not a thought of a particular object. Thinking is accessible to anyone, whether in the framework of politics at a distance from the State (politics in interiority) or in the space of the state (politics in exteriority). This statement legitimizes politics in interiority and in exteriority. But the interiority of politics means that it does not begin with an antagonism. Lazarus refers to the capacity of politics to begin from itself, from its own “singularity”. The politics of interiority focuses on the qualification of adversaries and not a division of the real into friends and enemies. That which is “possible” as a result of the very structure of the interiority of politics, which is stated axiomatically as “People think”. This statement dictates the very method of engagement as an unprescribed inquiry. The inquiry’s status as unprescribed, not informed by predetermined notions allows the attentive engagement with thinking that takes place among people. This structural grammar equals the word “possible” in Lazarus’s system. “Subjective” in this sense is not understood as the cogito, but as a process through which a discipline is capable of producing novelty from within its own conditions of being/thinking. This, in my view, captures Lazarus’s requirement for politics to be thought through the categories, concepts and notions that it creates itself; stated axiomatically, “politics is thinking”. But who thinks politics? Politics itself thinks its own proper content. In this sense, “Politics thinks” and “People think” are equivalent statements.
3. Experimental Politics as a Political Discipline
Our project of political phenomenology is informed by the same approach. As covered in other sections (I, II), our formalization leverages a powerful set of conceptual tools which we believe have allowed us to construct a grammar for political thinking which invites us to consider it as an autonomous discipline. First, our project distinguishes politics as an interiority and holds that, similar to mathematics, politics can be the model for its own formalization (V). In that sense, it tries to theorize political practice from within the practice of politics itself. The key to this theorization is Alexander Bogdanov’s concept of the organizational point of view (IV). We use Bogdanov’s concept to establish a general framework for an emancipatory political thinking in which the distinction between political economy and political action can be treated as a matter of specifying the types and structures of the organizations at stake—in other words, it becomes a matter of restrictions of a framework that was conceived to allow for maximality.
To this overarching approach, we added Kojin Karatani’s “transcendental” theory of the historical formation of social modes (II). That is, we redescribed, from the organizational point of view, the different transcendental logics proposed by Karatani, where different articulations compose specific social formations.
Looking at this from the model-theoretic perspective, once we have established a homogeneity between concrete political processes and this more general social space—abstractly described by Karatani’s “modes of intercourse”—we have the means to study, without overdetermining their actual form, how political experiments can serve as miniatures for the social universes they are embedded in (V). This allows us to advance in the understanding of politics as a form of thought, as an experimental practice that manages to extract new information about what is politically possible in social reality.
In the dimension of beginning, we can name three axioms that inform Bogdanov’s theory of organization (IV), which are not empirically derived, nor are they critical assessments, but attempts at occupying the most general point of view possible:
- Axiom of organization: everything that exists has some level of organization. There is no such a thing as absolute disorganization. Anything that is absolutely disorganized will not be known.
- Axiom of multiplicity of organizations: there is more than one organization. There is not just one organization. At the very minimum, organization differentiates what is part from what is whole, which are different organizations.
- Axiom of relativity of action: activity and resistance are relative. If an organization is divisible into parts and wholes, that means each of these is already organized. In their interaction the relation can be shifted such that what was active and what was resistant are reversed. This applies to internal mereology, two or more organizations, and to organizations and their environment.
In the dimension of novelty, we recognize the discipline of politics—which is composed of the reflexive modeling of social reality through political experiments—as a process that explores “evental sites” in real social situations (I).
It is worth mentioning that Badiou’s concept of a site is expanded in our project, through our account of complex, multilayered transcendentals, and functions as an index to what is implicated by a given social world’s material consistency but remains “below a resolution” that would allow it to appear therein. Given our commitment to Karatani’s theory of articulated modes, our correspondent theory of sites is also further complexified, and we can admit the possibility that there might be partial sites formed in one layer, but not in others, as well as global sites that only exist at the level of the complex construction itself.
By borrowing from the discipline of science, we also enriched the concept of the generic procedure with a new consideration of the idea of political experiments (V, XII). Politics becomes here the experimentation with socially existents that are below that certain resolution, and, as experiments, these interventions and collective inventions are required to connect these experiences one to another if they are to compose the thinking of politics as a discipline.
By embedding the problem of connection between experiments into our view of the communist hypothesis, an interesting new approach to the “socialist transition” problem emerges, as it becomes possible to distinguish between political interventions in a capitalist world and a communist world in which some capitalist enterprises still exist in terms of the size and scale of the network of connections between organizational experiments.
In continuation with Badiou and Lazarus, we do seek to affirm the autonomy of political thinking; but, unlike them, we claim that this very affirmation belongs to the interior of the political realm and constitutes the basic task of a communist strategy (III). Curiously, by immersing the point of view of this abstract affirmation back into political practice, we are suddenly less dependent on always treating political processes as locally situated—as if this was their distinctive marker from idealist or philosophical discourse—and can venture treating politics as a discipline that includes problems of social coordination, political economy and global strategies.
VII. On Political Fetishism
As it is the case with economic phenomena (XI), political phenomena also are not directly given to us. There are in the world only “political effects”—and as is the case with commodities, in order to make the logic of power relations intelligible, we must understand how political entities appear to one another (I). There is an important difference, however. If the economic realm is oriented by the relations between commodities according to which we can map relations between persons (that is, the exchangers of commodities), in political relations it is the relations between persons themselves that an objective phenomenology must take into consideration (as well as the relations between persons and things in the relations between persons). This creates a problem for the definition of fetishism. If economic fetishism is characterized by the “the way relations between commodities appear for us” instead of “the way relations between commodities appear to themselves”, what happens when persons are the entities whose relations are being analyzed?
For Marx, fetishism names a double process involving the personification of objects and the naturalization of social attributes. In simple terms, it is by the naturalization of social attributes that objects can appear as persons—that is, imbued with autonomy, will, desire etc. Marx attributes the personification of commodities to the “mysterious character of the commodity-form”, which consists simply in the fact that “the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things”. It is because a social relation is “naturalized” (i.e. appears as a natural property) that the object of the relation can be personified (i.e. appears as having human-like attributes). This process is not simply a misperception. Commodities do in fact embody a whole economic system in their objective values, but they do so only in the actual exchange relations we bring them to. From this private standpoint they really have value—one cannot demystify anything, only choose to proceed with the exchange or not in a given situation—but only because there is a network of relations connecting the values of the whole world of commodities. It is the excision of the commodity out of the network of its relations in the act of potential exchange that produces the fetishistic effect.
This is because fetishism as such only exists within the interplay of a three-level structure. First, there is the level in which commodities relate to each other (and how they appear to each other). In this case, there is no fetishism, it is just the way things are composed in the more or less accidental reality of their interactions in a plane that takes the perspective of these interactions themselves (IV). It is this realm of commodities that, to the exchangers of commodities in the second level, appears to function because commodities have some “sensible supersensible” property intrinsic to them (thus erasing the network of relations of the first level that enabled the naturalization of social properties). This is what characterizes fetishism “in itself”, so to speak, and involves the first shift from the perspective of the commodity to the perspective of the exchanger of commodities. But the exchangers, however, cannot see this perspective as fetishistic—if it is fetishistic in itself, it is not “for itself”. The perspective that enables us to understand fetishism as fetishism operates on the third level, it involves a second shift of perspective that can grasp the relation between the first two levels—between the objective and the subjective phenomenology, we could say. It is this third perspective that can properly give way to a “critique” and was, in fact, assumed by Marx himself in the description of fetishism. It is not a purely external standpoint, however, but the product of a shift from the perspective of subjects to the perspective of objects. It was by taking the network of commodity interactions as the object of his analysis that Marx was able to make these relations appear as relations of domination and provide a critique of their naturalization.
The notion of political fetishism produces a short circuit on this schema, since objects are not necessarily mediating the process. What must take place is that people themselves must be excised from the realm of relations which gives them something equivalent to “value” in order to appear to one another as having this value-like property. When put into political terms, this value-like property is precisely what we understand as power. Power is a paradoxical phenomenon. If understood socially as the effective production of obedience (“power over”), one cannot understand what enabled the relation of power in the first place (i.e. how one can have power as an attribute previous to the relation); if understood individually as the capacity one has of producing effects (“power to”), one cannot explain how a person’s power could be dependent on others (i.e. how one’s power is never really theirs, how the attribute of power is itself relational). Power is then always the result of a composite action that is attributed to one of the actors involved, but this attribution is never conscious of itself. The mystery of power is precisely how this attribution can be autonomized into an attribute of powerfulness (XVII).
The parallel is far from arbitrary. Money, Marx interestingly claims in the Grundrisse, is the expression of the “social connection”, of the “reciprocal and all-sided dependence” of individuals, who carry their “social power, as well as [their] bond with society, in [their] pocket”. Kojin Karatani also puts power in a prominent position in his analysis, showing how each of his modes of exchange works by means of a different power. He defines power as “the ability to compel others to obey through given communal norms”, and the difference between forms of power proper to each mode of exchange is based on the distinction between their “communal norms”. The norms of Mode A are based on the laws of community, of mode B on the laws of the State (i.e. the laws between communities or within societies including multiple communities) and of mode C on international law (the law regulating commercial relations between States) (II). These norms do not themselves create power; rather, they work because of an already existing form of power.
When it comes to political power proper, the possibility of coercion is key, since the two other forms are defined by its absence. The power of the gift in mode A is marked by the absence of coercion joined with a necessity to reciprocate. Coercion is only linked to power in mode B, but power cannot be reduced to it. The power of the State is not only based on its capacity to exercise violence but also in the actual obedience against which that violence is threatened (X). Commercial relations between States, however, are not based on the direct threat of violence and have to rely on a third form of power, which Karatani calls the power of money.
Money is the universal equivalent that enables the exchange of commodities between States which has the interesting effect of taking the form of a relationship between commodities themselves—what Karatani calls the “social contract between commodities”. Money is a power not because it is made so by the authority of the State but because of the very relation between commodities (XI). The movement is interesting because it shifts what is a collective relation between States into an individualized relation between commodities (slicing it in a new way), one that has the outcome of understanding the relationship between commodities as analogous to the one constituting the sovereign in Hobbes’ social contract. Like in the social contract, Karatani emphasizes the volitive dimension of commodity exchange, which always takes place by means of “mutual consent”, and describes money as having a “right” against other commodities and their owners due to its immediate permutability.
Karatani emphasizes the volitive dimension of mode B when he claims that although the State was enabled by a revolution in the technologies of warfare and political control, political rule can never rely on sheer force alone, and that if the ruler wants to mobilize large groups of people to work, “what is needed is a voluntary sense of diligence”, something that commonly took a religious form. This is crucial, for it explains a paradoxical aspect of the mode of exchange B. As Karatani defines it, mode B results from the possibility of non-reciprocal relations between communities, namely plunder. But in order for a relation of plunder to be sustainable and reproduce in time, it must turn into a reciprocal relation in which the rulers get what they want in exchange for protection, infrastructure, public works etc. that somehow benefit the ruled (X). This is why the establishment of the State can be understood as a “kind of exchange in that the ruled are granted peace and order in return for their obedience”. On the one hand, then, we have the historical domination of a community over another that must assume a form of exchange (protection for obedience) in order to be politically sustainable; on the other, the subjection to this exchange can be put in terms of a voluntary pact between the individuals involved.
As Karatani notes, these are the two possible origins of commonwealths presented in Hobbes’ Leviathan; however, as the analysis shows, they are not simply two “types” of origins, but rather two forms of apprehending the same origin (between communities or between individuals, focused on coercive plunder or focused on voluntary subjection, historical or logical). As he puts it: “To explicate the state by starting from the individual is similar to trying to explicate the commodity exchange by beginning with exchanges between individuals: it amounts to projecting onto the past a view that became seemingly self-evident only in modern society.” But as it is the case with commodity exchange, this is not simply a misperception, it reveals the fetishistic structure of power relations.
This is directly connected to the impossibility that monarchy—in this case, a basic form of State—could arise spontaneously from a single community: “A community grounded in the principle of reciprocity is capable of resolving whatever contradictions arise within it through the gift and redistribution. […] A sovereign possessing absolute authority could never be born from this kind of situation.” In order for something like a king to arise, it is necessary that he “originally comes from the outside—in other words, that the sovereign arrives as a conqueror”. This entails two things: on the one hand, a new king is established in a community by means of domination and plunder, but on the other, the king’s own power—the one he now has over his new and his old subjects—is also constituted in the process. The king’s conquest is a demonstration of his power, one that only exists by the collective attribution of his capacity to conquer again. It is true, as Marx once said, that “one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him”, whereas they “imagine that they are subjects because he is king”. What is not true is that this is simply a product of imagination and not the fetishistic effect of turning the relation of domination into an attribute of power.
What is also at play here is the double process of personification and naturalization. The king’s power is separated from the actual relation of domination—one that has to take into account the possible resistances and demands of the new subjects, which also have the “power” to make the domination non-sustainable—and is taken as the king’s “socio-natural property”; simultaneously, what is a relation between communities reappears as a relation between individuals who are represented as ideal—or, better put, juridical—persons, who willingly enter the relation of exchange between protection and obedience based on the inequality of power between the ruler and the ruled. This is the basic form of political fetishism, and it shows how power can be excised from the relations constituting it and appear to the individuals involved in the relations of power as an inherent property of these persons.
VIII. Seeing Nature: Capitalism, Ecology and Intercourse as Metabolism
So far we have been navigating through a diagram that is deeply inspired by Karatani’s attempt of reconstructing history through different combinations between modes-of-intercourse as they appear in different forms of social organization (II). In fact, to the cautious readers that are particularly concerned with the planetary scale impact generated by our own social activity and how questions of ecology must be weaved into any possibility of political experimentation, it can seem as if these categories rely on a conception of the “social” and its forms that might risk not accounting for this problem with the centrality it deserves.
We hope to make clear that ecology’s wager of mapping and rethinking the borders between the social and the natural is not merely compatible with our framework but, in fact, integral to it (IV). For that, we will argue that these different modes of intercourse and their combinations imply not only different forms of relation to nature, but in fact different ways that nature is constituted as the “other” of sociality from the perspective of each of these social forms understood as modes of intercourse. Therefore, this positions our “transcendental” framework as a way to attain a new perspective on the social history of nature.
1. Intercourse as Metabolism
Any claim of such a compatibility has to be developed in two steps: first, we briefly gloss over Karatani’s reliance on the concept of intercourse (Verkher) and how it relates to Marx’s own concerns with metabolism and to the field of Marxist Ecology. Then, through that, we attempt to systematize how nature becomes intelligible in a manner that is coextensive with these modes of intercourse. Doing so gives us a vantage point from which we can (at least briefly) contemplate the differences between each of the transcendental schemas advanced by specific modes of intercourse and then look at a particular problem from mode C, namely, the determination of use-values by exchange-values.
As previously stated, Karatani’s project is precise: to read Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as a seminal formulation of the Capital-Nation-State triad, a borromean knot of interlaced modes of intercourse that must be confronted as a complex and articulated social formation (II, XVII). The beginning of his wager is precisely the need to cover the other two points of our fearless triad, submitting them to the same critical procedure that takes place in Marx’s Capital.
To do so, Karatani mobilizes the concept of “intercourse”, briefly deployed by Marx in The German Ideology in reference to Moses Hess’s work, a lingering influence that can be traced back at least to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The conceptual role it plays for Marx, as Karatani notes, is twofold. On the one hand, it becomes a way of speaking of exchange in general, beyond commodity exchange, and seeing phenomena as different as trade, warfare and communitarian life as processes that are permeated by acts of socialization through exchange, broadly construed. On the other hand, such a broadening of the concept of exchange leads to a novel way of picturing the social, one in which “relation[s] between man and nature necessarily take place by way of a certain kind of social relation between people”. Thus, Hess did not have two separate concepts of relation, one focused on nature and another on sociality, but rather conceived social relations as always including man and nature, described as a form of metabolism (Stoffwechsel).
The concept of metabolism can also be further found in Capital and in Marx’s unpublished “Ecological Notebooks” in which he delves into the agricultural sciences of his time (particularly Justus von Liebig’s work) to deal with the monstrous consequences of ecological disturbances brought forth by the demands posed by accumulation within a capitalist system. As Kohei Saito makes clear, the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) in Marx is a device to understand the inflection of economic forms (Formwechsel) into matter.
This spells out an important motivation for this text, that is, a refusal to see ecology as a mere appendage to a critique of value (or of any social form), which means refusing any portrait of social forms that fails to recognize them as a regime that is already ecological. Instead, we hope to make clear that the concept of intercourse reframes social relationships, showing that they always happen through a material base and imply a certain relationship between man and nature.
To set a rather crude example, to examine the M-C-M’ formula through the concept of metabolism means to observe the inflection and realization of that scheme, written abstractly, in matter (XI). Moreover, as Saito claims: “Marx’s original methodological approach treats the objects of his investigation from both ‘material’ (stofflich) and ‘formal’ (formell) aspects.” This is not merely something that appears in Marx’s approach to nature but can also be seen in his approach to technology, which combines economic consequences with many attempts of extracting from the actual functioning of machines a way to position them as objects of inquiry within a higher level of abstraction.
This interpenetration between the material and the formal, which will be our guiding light throughout this section, can be laid out through the conceptual proximity between intercourse and metabolism insofar as it allows us to look at Karatani’s project from a slightly different angle, namely, paying attention to how each of these transcendental logics and their compositions can generate novel ways of visualizing nature. Doing so has two main implications: it allows us to clarify the way each of these modes sees nature and, then, to view them as intricate compositions that could help us further elucidate the way certain apparatuses of vision are materialized and hardwired into social practice.
2. Seeing Nature through Modes of Intercourse
Starting with mode A, we can see that there is an extension of reciprocity towards nature, where magic serves as an example of a mediating practice playing that role. Such a mediation is precisely what allows something that possesses anima to be taken as an object, even if temporarily, an objectifying dimension closely related to the fact that sedentarization entails a particular disruption that was unprecedented in nomadism. In the newly sedentarized communities, the spatial closeness to the dead and the reliance on a world full of entities endowed with anima demands that one sketches precisely these devices of mediation to join nature in a relation of reciprocity. Mind, however, that reciprocity does not entail harmony, but it is in itself a way of controlling, even if the object of control is seen as equal to the one controlling it.
This also means that, just like in their social counterpart, reciprocal exchanges with nature often keep stratifications between the two parts within a relation from becoming definitive as reciprocity itself is an arrangement predicated in an oscillation of the giving and receiving part (IX). In fact, the dynamics of gift-countergift, in its demand for the other part to reciprocate, be it in gift giving or warfare, implies precisely an oscillation that keeps the possibility of forming a permanent hierarchy between the parts at bay. Thus, nature appears as an agent, an equal entity with which one can establish a relationship of reciprocity.
Mode B on its own needs to be understood in relation to “plunder and redistribution” which in itself implies a different way of visualizing nature and therefore demands different technical apparatuses that make nature legible to the State and are often rendered in terms of uniformization, from the institution of common forms of measurement to mapping the land for taxation (X). It is precisely because nature appears to the State in the same way dominated communities appear to dominant ones—as targets of plunder—that nature is produced within mode B as a resource to be managed, that is, an asset available for plundering but also in need of protection and administration.
James C. Scott talks about the visual regime of the State as a scheme that possesses four tenets: an administrative ordering which entails a mapping through simplifications; a high modernist ideology which is connected to an ideological reliance on the rational capacity of providing goods and services; an authoritarian state willing to deploy force in order to get its way; and a civil society that lacks the will and/or the means to resist this onslaught. It is not hard to see how each of these logics is implied in Karatani’s synthetic rendering of the logic of mode B as the logic of plunder and redistribution. While the first two tenets spell the management of redistribution as a logistical problem, the last pair is already concerned precisely with the problem of plunder as a procedure that is deeply related to the State’s schema, and these two moments appear precisely as a way of managing resources.
Thus, plunder and redistribution, when extended to nature, means to visualize nature as a resource to be managed, and to which a legal subjectivity is attached (VII). Mind that, as we have been arguing, the relation between plunder and redistribution on the one hand and resource management on the other is not restricted to nature but can also be seen, for example, in the management of labour in the monumental infrastructural enterprises developed in societies in which mode B prevails.
We should note that such a framework works as a sort of low-resolution scheme and that any further specification requires that many other caveats be made. Still, it is important to keep one crucial point in mind: although these tenets about the State’s regime of vision give the impression that we are talking about a rather limited picture of the State, we need to understand that there are no a priori borders that would presuppose a self-enclosed space in which these processes of plunder and redistribution take place. Rather, the relationship between the framing of resources, legal subjectivity and the borders of a State is precisely what is being constantly constructed and eroded through the succession of various modes of carrying out the operations that fall under the logic of plunder and redistribution (II, X, XVII).
By now it should already be clear how our phenomenological approach, along with the proposed reading of Karatani’s concept of intercourse, allows for a particular reading of Scott’s work. When read in tandem with Katarani, Scott’s wager of seeing how State “vision” is materially constructed allows us to insert this vision into a bigger scheme that allows one to clearly see the interplay between different dynamics and attempt to understand the possible compositions between these logics as a method for decomposing and recomposing specific historical formations in terms of the way in which they materialize cognitive schemes reinforced through unconscious social practice (I).
However, we still have not dealt with mode C. While our listing of modes is merely schematic and does not imply a claim of neat historical succession, we must note that in the co-emergence of B and C, insofar as they erode the framework of reciprocity as the dominant form for exchange, there is an important torsion at play: a certain framework of property (legal subjecthood) provided by mode B, that is, a view of nature as a resource, converges with a capacity of tracing relationships between objects in which its owners are irrelevant and the mediation is carried out through equivalence. It is from this perspective of relating objects to objects that we have to look at mode C.
The singularity of mode C can therefore be spotted precisely by the movement through which, within the value logic, objects relate with each other through relations of equivalence that are expressed in terms of a quantitative predicate, a price, that is, as a monetary magnitude. In this sense, to ask how mode C sees nature means looking at how objects become related to other objects and what this objectifying gaze is capable of seeing.
To explore this, we need to refer back to a particular aspect within the logic of value (IX), namely, how use values get determined by exchange values. We can look at that first through Saito’s claim that "a social contract can only be realized through the social character of matter”. Note that to claim matter has a social character already means that there is no “zero ground” from which to look at objects for what they really are in terms of certain natural qualities versus what is made of them within a specific regime. Rather, utilities themselves are only visible through the narrow prism of the valorization schema insofar as these use-values represent the possible priceable features of a certain commodity.
This elucidates that the relationship between use and exchange value is not a matter of the social imposing itself into the “really natural” but rather the construction of use values through social practice in a space determined by the quantitative magnitudes of price. Hence, if we take mode C as a pure logical construction, we could say that nature is visualized not as an agent with which one can maintain a relationship of reciprocity or as a resource which has to be managed, but as matter. But how can we make sense of the claim that from the standpoint of capital, nature is simply matter?
What this means is precisely that in the commodity-world, the material properties of objects are rendered legible only through the logic of value; therefore, unpriceable nature is incomprehensible or, better yet, nature can only be signified insofar as it appears as priceable in the present or in the visible future. For an abstract schema such as M-C-M’, for example, the material features of a given object are only relevant insofar as one of its properties can be crunched into that schema. This means that from the standpoint of valorization, nature does not appear as a realm or as a structured domain with its own network of causes and consequences, it appears rather as different materials with infinite exploitable properties, ready to become meaningful to production as long as they can make a difference in producing value. Non-human processes, such as a cow’s digestive process, or uncontrollable natural forces, such as the water cycle, can all be integrated into social relations of production as long as they make a priceable difference that can be legible by any of the circuits of value production we have mentioned in the previous sections: industrial, usurer or merchant capital (XI).
3. Seeing from Mode C: Fossil Fuels between use and exchange value
A group of commodities that appear as a fundamental knot between these three modes of capital and that are also particularly related to our ecological predicament could be fossil fuels, which serve as an enabler of logistics in production and consumption, as the basis of many financial markets and even as fundamental raw materials required for many of the amenities that define our current way of living.
As Elmar Altvater argues, the shift represented by the carbon-hungry industrial revolution marks our epoch in an even larger sense than sedentarization and the large-scale agricultural revolution it precipitated through mode B. For the author, as there is a convergence between fossil fuels and the valorization schema, this metabolic rupture (insofar as it breaks with the direct reliance on solar energy as agricultural societies would have and seeks energy elsewhere) is a pronounced shift that cuts right to the issue of the determination of use values by exchange values.
This convergence is explored by Andreas Malm’s work on how fossil fuels became an entrenched part of capitalist development. There is no natural efficiency in fossil fuels as an energy source, nor are there any grounds to claim a sort of survival of the fittest in terms of efficiency or productivity. In fact, Malm effectively shows that quite the opposite is true, breaking with a longstanding historiographical tradition that attempted to explain fossil fuel convergence as a natural progress towards efficiency: historically, water mills were more efficient than coal mills during the same periods of the Industrial Revolution, and even though they were superior by all criteria, we are left with fossil capital.
Malm’s point is that the natural qualities of fossil fuels only became the standard way of imagining energy because they provided industrialists with unprecedented power over labour because coal, even if its performance was slow in comparison to water power, still allowed for an access to a larger labour pool in bigger cities and also provided a more manageable flow of production. Therefore, the difference between the water mill and the coal-powered factory cannot be substantiated from the point of view of mere efficiency; rather, it only becomes visible from the point of view of value (I, II, IV, XI).
This, for Malm, illustrates the way in which fossil fuels have become increasingly adequate to the formal movements of valorization, setting the stage for a contingent affinity to turn into an even longer tendency. Thus, fossil fuels power valorization cycles as a form of “abstract energy”. Abstraction here needs to be conceptualized precisely as a restriction on the concrete that frames the many consequences of a fossil economy only in its own terms, namely, in terms of the abovementioned affinity with valorization. This restriction itself has resulted in an attempt to continuously perceive energy (and demand it from any energetic transition) through features that have been found in fossil fuels: transportability, scarcity and finitude. Not only does the way oil can be pumped somewhere and easily taken elsewhere fit the way capitalism currently manages production, but the scarcity of fossil fuels to be localized in particular places and their overall finitude are also precisely what ensures that the energy powering the capitalist system can itself be priced, and the risk that it can be halted can be hedged on.
In a way, fossil fuels serve as a good concrete example of mode C’s perception and set the coordinates for any discussion on energetic transition as any possible replacement is framed precisely by the precondition that they can be as amenable to the circuit of valorization as fossil fuels, a likely outcome when many of the experiments in renewable energy are already directly or indirectly related to many of the companies that manage fossil fuels. Of course, this is a very particular look into fossil fuels from a very narrow perspective of mode C, but hopefully it is helpful in clarifying the way exchange values determine use values, that is, the way the intelligibility of matter as such is framed through value.
4. Concluding Remarks on Modes, Nature and its Figures
To conclude, this text has tackled the concept of intercourse by focusing on its material and formal aspects, hinting at some of the consequences this move brings for ecology and its relation to a critique of political economy. We have navigated through each of the modes and used their respective perspectives to propose three schemes through which nature can be seen: as an agent in mode A, as a resource in mode B and as matter in mode C. As we have argued that any social form views both man and nature from a certain limited viewpoint, any framework that purports to see the way objects are constituted within capitalism should always work through composition.
Although we have largely relied on the pure forms derived out of our transcendental framework and sketched how each of them—as a pure logical construction—would see nature, this might be of use insofar as it can serve as a navigational tool for the question of ecology in a world determined by varied overlaps between these social forms. In this sense, it might also recast the way we assess current discourses on ecology within our contemporary predicament (as in the diagram below) in their attempts to picture nature, that is, to reconstruct it both as an analytically treatable totality and as a site of political intervention from within capitalism through some particular conceptual figures.
From the perspective of the modes we have been working on, we can begin tracing three crucial images of nature that have been deployed as phenomenological frameworks and as drivers for an attempt to navigate ecological politics in our current predicament.
First, as a figure of nature between agency and resource, the Earth appears as the place of dwelling out of which humans can make a world of meaning for themselves, even if that world of meaning might threaten to erode the background against which it is erected. The problem of the Earth is, on the one hand, the wager to remake dwelling, to be understood as Heidegger’s fourfold of earth, sky, divinity and mortality, and how preserving the Earth means preserving the possibility of dwelling. In consequence, this position in particular falls into the myopia of supposing that there is the possibility of separating the astronomical object as a whole material reality and only focusing on the parts of it which we encounter, forgetting about the way in which this material encounter as such is merely a reduction of the concrete reality and not its final horizon.
The planet, in a way, is the culmination of Earth’s ruthless disenchantment and its insertion into a bigger cosmic scheme which shows that its singularity is, in fact, itself contingent amidst the multitude of planets in the cosmos and their indifference towards us and our enterprises. The planetary can only appear somewhere between a resource and matter because it reveals itself as a planet among many and because it refers to material scales around which most of our human conceptual apparatuses feel pale. The challenge it gives us is precisely whether the planet can be an object of politics or not, and if it can, what does it mean to translate the planetary into politics and politics into the planetary scale.
Gaia is also a metaphor that can be seen as an attempt to recover the reciprocity that was presupposed in the Earth but disappears in the planetary. It appears as a combination between the material dimension of nature insofar as it traces a world of organic interconnectedness through a regime of distributed agencies, betting that those agencies fall beyond capital’s legibility and span multiple objects. However, it also relies on an instance of direct reciprocity which endows the totality with the possibility of connecting and interfacing with multiple actors under the name of Gaia. The question that remains is to what extent it can mediate between the necessary objectification of resource planning and reciprocity.
Crucially, just as much as these discourses on ecology have latched into themselves certain hypotheses and normative presuppositions of what one’s relationship to nature might be or become, the clarity provided by these pure modes might also work as a way to begin posing the question of political experiments that navigate and create new modulations of these already existing grammars. The “ecological sensibility” (IV) latched into our diagram and all of the social forms that compose it should be helpful both as a diagnostic tool and in asking the question of political organization: how do we compose political experiments that make ecology visible not only as a separate discipline or a marginal concern but as an integral part of experimentation as such? How do we compose across various ways of apprehending nature? This, perhaps, might illuminate various ways in which different fronts of struggle and their different apparatuses for sensing our current predicament might connect to one another (V).
IX. Dumont in Melanesia
Louis Dumont tells us that the terms of a given opposition behave differently when related to the whole they compose. In fact, according to this proposition, the differentiation between the terms would prove to be inseparable from the reference to the whole: ultimately, the difference in relation to the whole would be the difference that would make a difference between the terms. Judging by the emphasis on global ordering, we could believe, at first, that there is in Dumont a rigid defense of totality, but the hierarchical principle actually gives us a non-trivial coordination between parts and whole (IV): if we follow to the end the premise of the hierarchical relationship, there would never be such a thing as a global vision, for both terms could offer the dominant conceptual value. That is, from the point of view of the terms, each one is perfectly global. This means that we don’t actually have a duality, but two triads that behave differently from one to the other: A(a/b), B(b/a), each indicating a distinct moment in which one of the terms can encompass the other and, thus, a global stance.
There is, however, a restriction in Dumont’s model, as it still seems to presuppose the transition from a lower level (parts) to a higher level (whole), the latter being the ordering of the first. What if we reverse the direction? In Dumont model, the constitutive relations of an entity with the whole outline all the relations that the entity could establish with itself and with others—what we could call the “holistic placement” principle, whereby a thing is determined by its relations to external others. However, what happens if, adopting the principle of composition that underpins objective phenomenology (I), we say that the constitutive relations of an entity with itself could shape the relations with other entities? Take, for example, the differentiation presented in a pregnant woman. In this case, the mother-to-be is two beings at the same time, and consequently the relationship between her and the child is dual: on the one hand, as an individual, the mother is opposed to the child; on the other, as a self-contained monad from which the child will be drawn, the mother encompasses it.
Mother and child in a hierarchical relationship
Applying Dumont’s heteromeric principle, it is possible to say that at a higher logical level there is unity (one and the same being contains two beings within itself: the mother), and on a lower level there is a distinction (two beings in relation: mother and child). These two relations—unity and distinction—taken together constitute the hierarchical relationship. However, from the standpoint of objective phenomenology (I, IV), we no longer ask ourselves what is the relation between the terms of an opposition to the whole they comprise, but what are the relations that each term can yield with itself, thus constituting, from this self-remission, a filter with which it is possible to relate to an indeterminate number of entities. Under this line of inquiry, the heteromeric property of the mother (let’s call this property “h”, so that we would have h: M-M’) allows such a space of consistency that, when relating to itself, it can model a broad set of differential relationships that acquire consistency in an external order (the child). In other words, from the mother’s point of view, a space of consistency is produced in such a way that, at the same time, the mother is equal to herself, equal to the child, different from herself and different from the child; whereas from the child’s point of view, a space of consistency is also produced, this time reduced, since the child is equal to itself, equal to the mother, different from the mother, however, never different from itself.
In the mother-child circuit, it is the mother, and solely the mother, who can become something other than herself, hence generating an attribute that is commensurate with an external otherness (child). Putting Dumont’s model aside, it is no longer necessary to talk about the constitution of entities based on the reference to the whole of which they are a part; we are now talking about the constitutive relations of one and the same entity with itself and the heteromeric possibilities that are thus engendered from this monadic self-remission. In other words, the focus is no longer on the encompassing and unitary character of an entity but on its internal capacity to produce a difference from within itself, commensurate with other differences. However, within our general kinship ideology, we could all too easily believe that such an attribute of the mother would be a patent biological property, so that socialization should be something secondary to it. On the contrary, if we have brought up this universal property (I, II, XVII), it is precisely because it allows us a device to see relations based on other relations.
For instance, the Melanesian mother gives birth to a being already related to her and, therefore, different from her: the birth of the child is, from one extreme to the other, a social act. In this sense, children can only become entities socially related to their mothers as a result of all previous marital and affinal exchanges. This means that Melanesian men must ensure that the mother produces something different from herself, so that this differential relation can reveal all the relations between them (husband and wife, brother and sister). And this procedure does not happen because the woman is biologically predetermined to bear children but because this is the very logic of Melanesian action—the same thing would happen in circuits of ceremonial exchange. One must constantly produce and create differences and then reveal existing differences and differential relationships through this very act. Let us consider the classic case of the Trobriand dala. Dalas are sets of relatives (brothers and sisters) related through uterine links. A woman belonging to a dala, married or not, contains within herself the essence of her maternal group—and here lies the famous absence of “physiological paternity” of the Trobriand Islands, since for a woman to be able to bear children, there must be an activation of this essence through a dream or a visit of the baloma spirit. Returning to our previously established terms, we could therefore say that the Trobriand woman already possesses not only the essence of the dala, but also an anti-heteromeric attribute: when relating to herself, she is excessively equal to herself. Magnified, she spawns a same-sex entity, a pure dala that fully encompasses the differences between brothers and sisters within the group. Here is the initial paradox: the woman can bear children; however, she cannot extract, a priori, something different from herself. So how is it possible to extract the self-different, paraconsistent attribute (XVII)?
The husband enters the scene. Through acts of sexual intercourse during pregnancy, the husband gives the fetus his distinctive features, which in turn will distinguish the fetus from its natal dala. The heteromeric attribute is produced through this reiteration of sexual intercourse. However, as Alfred Gell reminds us, this act can only appear as a transformation of a previous act, namely, that of the wife’s brother, who, working in his garden and giving his yams to his sister’s husband, also gives the husband an example of the extracting work he must perform on his wife. The mother is now in the position of producing something different from herself, and this difference allows her to become an appropriate model or “sensor” and reveal the relations that surround her (husband and wife, brother and sister).
In short, in the Trobriand case, the mother does not simply give birth to a child, but manages to reflect in her internal composition the external ordering of the kinship space (husband and wife, brother and sister) (I, IV). The latter is just as important as the former. The mother is thus not the point of view that encompasses the other elements (whole), but a point of view that manages to differentiate itself and, therefore, produce a difference which is commensurate with the differences that make a difference in the social space.
Child-birth seen in a heteromeric relationship h: Z→ Z
X. Lessons from Mongolian Logistics
1. The Logistical State
Logistics, broadly construed, is a critical field for the reproduction of the relations of production, in which the state intervenes as producer of capitalist space. This logistical imperative—to lay out the space of stocks and flows for the optimal reproduction of capitalist relations—involves the state precisely to the extent that reproduction is not a matter of logic, but of strategy.
The State is concerned with spaces—territories and bodies are organized within a space, or rather, a space of spaces. For Lefebvre, the state has three logical operations to carry out control over space: homogenization, hierarchization and fragmentation. Homogenization and fragmentation occur as functions of the state’s role as the regulator of the flow of capital and the development of productive forces (II, VII, VIII). Hierarchization occurs as a reaction to these processes, locking in social relations through ghettoization, elite seclusion and automated control systems.
Lefebvre names this the State Mode of Production (SMP) and sees it as characteristic of late-stage capitalism. However, in light of our triadic transcendental, we can ask how much of the ‘logistical state’ is a product of the capitalist system and how much of its logic is immanent to the domain of TB itself.
1. Lefebvre on the Steppes
To recall from an earlier section (II):
Mode B is defined by the logic of plunder and redistribution (VII, X) . Its main social form is that of domination and protection between communities. Its normative structure is that of laws, imposed by dominant communities over the subservient ones. Its main hierarchical structure is that of status. Its collective structure is that of cities, further divided into centers, margins, sub-margins and communities which are out of sphere - outside the reach of its power. When it is the dominant mode, it is able to scale up and integrate communities into World-Empires.
We will take the case of the Mongolian Empire and the social worlds that were transformed, destroyed and created in the period of Mongolian conquests as a paradigmatic case of Mode B, both in its subordinated form as TB (the tribal system Chingiss Khan was born into) and in its dominant form as TB, in the form of the Mongolian Empire the Great Khan left to his heirs and the world. The Mongol Empire is paradigmatic of TB in a way similar to how Marx saw the British Industrial Revolution as a purer form of capitalism than its continental cousins. The scale of the Mongolian Empire was such that its state had to be minimalist, as was typical of ‘nomad empires’. But in order to function, this state therefore had to be maximally logistical—that is, compared to many of the states of its time, the Mongolian apparatus had less overhead, redundancy and inefficiency—all without, importantly, doing away with graft and nepotism.
In the short period of Chingiss Khan’s life, an extensive imperial system along with trade routes and cultural exchange developed across the bulk of the northern Eurasian landmass. This system required a flexible, resilient and consistent ruling apparatus, which necessitated the ‘regulatory character’ of a logistical state. Yet at the same time, at the heart of the system was a drive for expropriation, whether through pillage or through tribute, to feed the persistent demand for goods, redistributed either as loot or as tribute. As Mode B became dominant, in the form of the Mongolian Empire, this system was radically transformed and expanded. Expropriation and redistribution grew to massive proportions and became major components of the Mongolian world-economy.
In his work The Structure of World History, after defining the three modes of intercourse, Karatani argues that there were hybrid forms of social worlds, such as the ancient Greek and Roman empires, which were hybrids of TA and TB, as opposed to the purer forms of state from Asia proper.
As opposed to these hybrid states, the Mongolian state developed a kind of parallel structure, delineating the body of the Mongolian Nation from the body of the Empire. The ruling elites encouraged the growth of cities along major trade routes or in key economic areas, increasing the bulk of sedentary people. Yet the Mongolians themselves, both as rulers and as a people, clung fiercely to their nomadic ways, maintaining mobile courts and traveling in vast tent cities.
This dual structure was not new—it belonged to a long tradition spanning millennia of nomad empires emerging from the steppes to dominate city-folk. Nor was the role of khan (ruler) as a provider of expropriated goods unique. What was new were the scale and the unprecedented wealth and power that came with that ‘scaled-power’.
Extending from northern China to eastern Europe, from Anatolia to Korea, the empire necessitated sophisticated communication lines. The east-west lines were maintained by the yam, a postal service and (in some places) a supply chain provider. The mobile Mongol camps called orda (from which we get ‘hordes’) moved seasonally along steppe rivers, moving north and then south. These two lines—the east-west yam and the north-south orda—were coordinated throughout the year so that they intersected as the seasons changed.
These supply lines were essential to maintaining the system of plunder and distribution that guaranteed the cohesion of the Mongolian Nation, and therefore the administrative integrity of the Mongolian Empire. “As contemporaries noticed, the purpose of the Mongol khans was not to accumulate wealth but to dispense it.”
Loyalty was built on gifts, and the circulation of goods that were either directly seized through plunder or extracted through tribute and taxation. Gifts were not only of material value—they directly signified one’s status within the Mongolian system. This status system was based on the kind of logical hierarchization Lefebvre points out.
In order to maintain stability, delineations were introduced into the old steppe kinship systems. The direct descendants of Chingiss Khan (by his senior wife, Borte) became the sole, eligible claimants to the Golden Lineage—only they could become khans. This was meant to prevent empire-eroding competition for the throne. Yet, it only pushed this conflict to higher levels.
Chingiss Khan pushed this process of hierarchization and TB-based organization into the social body of the Mongolians. The Khan created a new kind of mobile administrative unit, the keshig, which was both a bodyguard unit and the supply-chain coordinator for the khan’s camp. Chingiss also politicized the traditional quriltai, a collective decision-making body which brought camps of various local leaders together to make appointments, settle disputes and perform ceremonies. Chingiss Khan used the quriltai on several occasions to amass support, legitimize his rule and call council.
When conquering other nomadic peoples, Chingiss Khan broke up their kinship groups (ulus) and mixed them into the military tumen, a decimal system beginning with ten-person units, and then into units of one hundred and one thousand before capping at a ten-thousand person unit that was commanded by someone experienced and trustworthy. Here we see the processes of both homogenization and fragmentation at work, not within physical space, but rather the virtual space of kinship ties (II). The binds of affinity on Mode A were being brutally severed and reformed according to the connecting principles of adherence to the chain of command on Mode B—that is, Lefebvre’s third state operator, hierarchization.
Thus, the new empire was built on transforming traditional systems stemming from a time dominated by Mode A (qirultai) while implementing new systems built on Mode B (keshig). “By incorporating the keshig, the quriltai, the military, familial assimilation, and the complex and interwoven hierarchy of lineages and seniority relations, the regime created a social and political order that was simultaneously novel and traditional... Social assimilation and total political exclusion [from the golden lineage] were two sides of the same coin.”
Also, despite the fact that the Mongolian Empire was not built in the age of Capital, we see the state-building process still utilizing the core functions of homogenization, fragmentation and hierarchization, through the building of militaries, taking control of the flow of goods, the reorganization of status and power-relations, and the development of infrastructure and logistics.
The position of the khan itself was determined through a complex system of allegiances or loyalties. The qirultai was the place where these allegiances were shown (by attendance) and loyalties rewarded (through redistribution of expropriated goods). But khanship also had a key structural role—to be the position from which the whole of the empire could be seen, and the vantage from which key strategic decisions could be made. As other sections of this essay argue (I, XII), the capacity to see and abstract are capacities built by the people in history, and as we know from the long history of the state, its power to see is almost always established by force.
2. The Sovereign Perspective
This tripartite schema of the Monster gives us the point of view of the Sovereign (I). As we can see, the place of the Sovereign can access the K-World directly or through either A+B
or B+C (II):
A+B is the place where we can define a national community and construct ‘a people’; a process mediated by the state which is, in turn, grounded in the legitimacy of that people. The kirultai operated as the place for both decision-making and popular legitimization, where the Mongolian Nation underwrote imperial policy. This was also a people delineated linguistically, institutionally and culturally from the rest of the subject population, as non-Mongolian imperial subjects were banned from learning the Mongolian language.
In B+C, we have the basic logic of the logistical state—not just of the State Mode of Production under capitalism, but of any given state operating in an economic territory. To examine the case of the Mongolian system, we will select one component that exemplifies this logic: the keshig. Officially, this was the bodyguard of the khan consisting of thousands of soldiers. However, the keshig was primarily a logistical organ, maintaining the supply lines that kept the imperial court operating and enabled the flow of goods which were in turn gifted out—a key to the stability of the Mongolian society. The keshig also served as the core administrative unit, essentially forming the government.
The logistical structure of B+C is what enabled the “Mongol exchange” to thrive. Safe roads, consistent communications, and state-backed currencies all facilitated the growth of a Eurasian world-economy. The khans and their keshigs maintained the flow of goods and amassed vast wealth in the process. In turn, the Eurasian landmass experienced unprecedented globalization.
Fig. B gives us the total structure of the sovereign position. In the case of the Mongol sovereign, the position of B can be understood as the place from which one can see one’s domain, and to track how it splits into a nation of people (on A+B) and a society of exchange (on B+C). If the position of khan was built upon a system of allegiances, then one of the key powers afforded not only to the khan but to the Mongolian Empire and therefore many of its people was an unprecedented capacity to surveil their domain.
In order to be able to literally see (that is, reconnoiter and monitor), the Great Khan implemented sweeping reforms. We’ve already seen the tumen, one of his earliest political-organizational experiments, recompose his armies into decimal units. The formal reorganization coincided with the recombining of human material: the former tribe-based units were broken up and thoroughly remixed in order to overcome earlier relations of kin and build a cohesive sense of national identity along with a more effective war machine. But its decimal structure also facilitated administration, both of the war machine and of the redistribution machine: tributes and loot were distributed top-down throughout the tumen. The Mongolians maintained meticulous accounts and centralized this data in the hands of the khan.
As Chingiss Khan’s conquests moved westward into central Asia, he began a new pillaging policy: all seized goods were taken outside the city to Mongolian camps, where they were accounted for. The goods were then distributed by the tumen. This transformed pillaging by decreasing the violence within the captured city while guaranteeing that the khan’s keshig could fully regulate the centralization and redistribution of pillaged goods and later tributes. Additionally, the accounting process created the data for the khan to see what his conquests had procured.
After the invasion and conquest of northern China, the Mongolians razed many rural holdings, eliminating both villages and farms and producing pastures that enabled Mongolian horsemen and their retinue to quickly move in and out of Chinese territory. This in turn links to the problem of the ‘politics of navigation’ that arises elsewhere in this work (VIII): space was dominated in order to shape it. Homogenization and fragmentation were both enforced by obliterating villages and creating pasturage: the Mongolian nomads could count on the type of terrain that maximized mobility and forage while breaking up old kinship connections and relocating them elsewhere in the empire. This demanded a third moment—hierarchization—through which all subject peoples were subordinated to the Mongolian Nation, and the people of that nation in turn sworn to the sovereign khan.
3. Nomads and Empires
In Structure of World History, Karatani looks to nomads as a kind of prototype of a communist society, one in which Mode A is preeminent but has not yet come to dominate. By this, he participates in a much longer tradition that sees in nomads a romantic figure of resistance. But while nomadic groups have regularly posed an especially thorny problem for empire-builders, the example of the Mongolians demonstrates that we cannot take a romantic view of nomadic peoples.
This is for two reasons. First, from an organizational standpoint, nomadic life was better suited for coordinated military operations. The Mongolians became famous for taking on larger forces and winning through superior mobility, tactics and logistical independence. This independence also meant that different branches of the Mongolian force could operate autonomously in different aspects of a total strategy, putting defenders in a terrible position. The Mongolian armies were also logistically independent, relying on methods that were cultivated over generations of seasonal migration, seeking pasturage and maintaining large herds. These logistical systems laid the groundwork for larger administrative systems, incorporating both roaming and sedentary populations. Nomads can in fact be excellent state-builders.
Second, the conquest of the steppes did not simply have building an empire for its goal—the steppes in particular were to be under the hegemony of the Mongolian people. This led to what we might today call genocidal wars against other steppe nomads, such as the Qipchaqs, who refused to submit to Mongolian dominance. This kind of rivalry between peoples for space invoked the kind of national identity and sense of manifest destiny which would become dominant in modernity. That is, in our terms, it was not simply Mode B that was ‘responsible’ for this inter-nomadic violence—it was a sense of community entitlement, or manifest destiny, drawing upon the grandiose vision of the Mongolian Nation that Chingiss Khan built. That is, A+B seems to have a particular tie to some of the worst excesses of state violence. This in turn should have us question the romantic vision of Mode A.
Though we do not have time to explore it here, one of the main reasons why so many steppe nomads rallied around Chingiss Khan as he built his early steppe empire (before any of his famous conquests) was because he offered a meritocratic order in place of the conservative one whereby elders had automatic seniority. That is, in a sense, it was Mode B that was progressive relative to Mode A, which was strangling the ambitions of young steppe warriors while limiting the effectiveness of military operations. By severing kinship ties, Chingiss Khan built a far superior war machine while at the same time breaking up the seniority system so that he could promote the best people from within.
Contrary to Karatani, we want to study Mode B to find useful social configurations there. This requires differentiating between the transcendental, which can be a space for solving problems, and the concrete materialization of such logics which, at their most coordinated, tend to look like states and, at their least, like banditry. But as we see with the development of the Mongolian empire, the Mongolians developed infrastructure and standardized measures to enable the extension and scaling of such a system of expropriation and distribution. The kinds of problems that emerge in the field of Mode B will also confront any economy based on free association, even in non-traditional forms of sovereignty and state.
We can further study how the Mongolians were capable of performing such feats by analyzing how Mode B came to dominate and reorganize both kinship and commerce relations along ways that gave birth to a Mongolian people and a world-economy, both under the dominance of the sovereign Khan. New scholarship such as Favereau’s recent work demonstrates that the Mongolians, while masters of war, were also true innovators in the field of politics. Mongolian history presents an important paradigm of sovereignty, along with the material for the study of interactions between exchange transcendentals. Within decades, a society dominated by kinship relations was converted into a transcontinental empire that in turn fostered a world-economy which became a direct predecessor of the early European capitalist markets.
Ultimately, the Mongolian history gives us a multilayered view of the logistical state from which we can better understand the logic of social worlds and develop methodologies for liberatory political experiments (V).
XI. The Space of Value and Valorization
Marx was an objective phenomenologist: he insisted on the actuality of relations between commodities persisting independently of the knowing individual. Our task here is to formulate the rules of the more general playing field in a way that makes commodity relations compatible with other ‘layers’ of a social formation—as seen in our diagram (II)—while preserving the specificity and autonomy of commodity logic. On the one hand, the compositional approach we adopt (I, IV), informed by category theory, should help us separate the objective dimension of value from its subjective apprehension—that is, from commodity fetishism (VII)—while, on the other, it should also integrate this formal description into a larger framework capable of also accounting for the singularities of kinship relations on Mode A and social contracts on Mode B (XVII).
1. Value and the logical space of the commodity-world
The logic of value is famously introduced by Marx in the third section of the first chapter of Capital, where he presents the “elementary form of value”:
xA = yB
Marx promptly clarifies that the form of this equivalence relation is fundamentally predicative: “x amount of A is worth y amount of B”, which is not symmetric for A and B but specifies how the equivalent form of B obtains for the relative form of A where the concrete amount of B serves as the predicate for the value of x amount of A. Value relations, under certain conditions, can also be transitive. Of course, in a purely ‘accidental’ encounter—such as those described in the practice of ‘silent trade’ between certain communities—there is no guarantee that multiple commodities will be evaluated in a consistent way. Nonetheless, the value relation can acquire internal coherence such that if A is exchangeable with B and B is exchangeable with C, then A must be exchangeable with C. Both the antisymmetric and the transitive aspects justify our use of the mathematical map (or morphism) as the elementary representation of commodity relations.
The “obtains for” we used to describe this form is suggestive: every commodity implies a way of measuring the space of all other commodities. We can ask of any given commodity the degree of ‘cigarette-ness’, or ‘cab-ride-to-the-city-ness’, or ‘tutoring-session-ness’ that obtains for it. The transcendental here is this collection of degrees, each serving as a possible truth-value for such questions. In what Badiou calls the “classical world”, there are only two possible answers (or degrees)— true and false (or maximal and minimal)—but in general, the transcendental is a partially ordered set such that two degrees may be comparable or not (and when they are, one degree must be greater than or equal to the other). The license to use a piece of software may have a greater or lesser cigarette-ness than a haircut, or their respective cigarette-ness is incomparable, having only the minimal degree in common.
When two commodities are exchangeable within a given context, we say that they each obtain maximally for the other’s equivalent form. Let one hold commodity A and evaluate its exchangeability with two other commodities, B and C: from the perspective of A—which, for now, has no guarantee of being universal—if A is exchangeable with both B and C, that implies one could also exchange B for C.
Note that it is this implicative structure of equivalence, captured here in diagrammatic form, that functions in our account as the substitute for Marx’s theory of a “social substance”, establishing a common logical space rather than a common ontological property, amongst commodities. Instead of claiming that the value-form is an abstract social structure in the sense of a separate realm, we can instead define it as the abstraction that takes place when a commodity is seen from the perspective of another—preserving some differences and disregarding other aspects of it (IV). This is not so much an alternative conception as an alternative grammar within which one may reconstruct the same concepts from Marx’s Capital. In this new environment, less constrained by metaphysically laden distinctions such as substance and appearance, or quality and quantity, we might be able to extend the reach of these concepts, better understand their inner logic and derive new consequences from them.
We claim, therefore, that value need not be posed as a substance, but rather as a kind of logical space. In order to learn about this space, we need to pose questions in the following way: where in this logical space do certain propositions hold? In the simple case of accidental exchange, we can assert that there exists a place called p where two commodities are exchangeable. The proposition is formed when we apply a function of two variables—let us call it the exchange function (denoted below as e), of the two commodities (denoted A and B) taken as the terms of that function. The proposition then has a ‘truth value’, or an open region in our logical space (in Badiou’s parlance, a degree in the transcendental). In a classical world, the proposition must be either globally true or false. However, in a non-classical world, which we assume in this text for the sake of generality, this place p could be somewhere between everywhere and nowhere: e(A, B) = p
Given a set of commodities, we can let A and B be any pair from that set. This gives us the total set of exchange relations in our space. To transform the exchange function into what was earlier termed the equivalent form is simply to fix one of the terms of this set. We choose an element from our set and bind it to A, but allow B to continue ranging over every element (including A itself). The equivalent form lets us consider how our space looks from the standpoint of a single fixed commodity. This is called an atom of our space: A(x) = e(A, x) = p
Each atom is a function of one argument whose domain is a given set of commodities and whose output is a degree of truth in our transcendental. There are certain rules each atom must obey in relation to another as well as the exchange function—after all, they are all ‘perspectives’ in the same space. However, for the purpose of an accessible introduction, we omit those rules here. As the name suggests, an atom is the finest resolution available for a given space. This implies an indistinction between exchangeables—a principle of indiscernibles: if two things are exchangeable, then under some constraint they could be substituted for one another. Of course, from the standpoint of individual sensibility, it is clear that a pack of cigarettes and a book are distinct (XII), but our commodity space is not populated by humans.
There are nearly unlimited commodities to choose from to serve as the equivalent form, but they are not equivalent in their capacity to measure the entire space coherently. Instead, commodities differ in terms of their capacity to be divided and in their compatibility with other forms of commodity measurement. If we use a cow as our measuring stick, we can perhaps say that a car is worth ten cows. A plane ticket may be worth two cows. Let us also assume that a car is worth one thousand bags of rice and a plane ticket is worth two hundred such bags. At this level, it seems like we have equal forms of measurement—whether we use cows or bags of rice, we can simply translate the result (for example, by using the fact that one cow is worth one hundred bags of rice). But if we then say that a bicycle is worth twenty bags of rice, we find that there is no equivalent in terms of cows since a ‘fifth of a cow’ is not a valid atom of our space—it does not preserve one fifth of the value of a living cow such that five of these parts could restitute the original value. In other words, a bag of rice has a greater compatibility as a unit of measurement than a cow due to the fact that it is able to divide the commodity-world further, generating finer atoms of value.
If we put our commodity-atoms in a sequence ordered by their compatibility, such that a bag of rice is ranked higher than a cow, a cup of coffee higher than a bag of rice and so on, we can surmise that the limit of this sequence would have a certain universal property among all commodities. Namely, it would have the homomeric property (IX) of always being divisible into homogeneous parts whose recomposition returns the original value. This is what Marx called the “formal use value” of money-commodities: the capacity of certain materials to “mimic” the abstract properties of value, in particular the possibility of being decomposed into parts while leaving the quality unchanged—such as gold, silver or salt can. And without specifying the physical substrate that would materially realize this property to some extent, we can already allocate a logical place to it in assuring the consistency of the commodity-world.
Note that, in our current formalism, we do not yet have an extrinsic marker for quantity. For now, ‘one bag of rice’ and ‘two bags of rice are actually two entirely distinct commodities—two objects that might or might not be exchangeable for one another. This is consistent with our approach since we are not primarily interested in what makes a difference for us, but rather in ‘the differences that make a difference’ to commodities themselves. This is why our elementary value relation actually reads “A → B”, which does not even guarantee equality since A and B can be equivalent to the pth degree, rather than “xA = yB” which already implies separate accounting units (kg, meters, pounds, etc.) and maximal equivalence. To move from the former to the latter we actually need additional structure, the means to define what a ‘portion’ (or ‘slice’) of a commodity is and to define variations amongst them that preserve value-structure such that if A and B are maximally exchangeable, then some common restriction to both A and B still preserves maximal exchangeability. As we have seen, the possibility of determining commodity atoms based on the homogeneity of homomeric commodities brings us closer to this. If we have commodity A as our equivalent form and commodity B is maximally exchangeable with it, given a commodity C that is only equivalent to B to the pth degree, then there always a portion A’ of our equivalent A that is maximally exchangeable with C such that A’ is exchangeable to the pth degree with A. Through this construction, we have managed to express the value-relations between any two commodities in terms of morphisms to one sole commodity—A thus functions as a universal equivalent. Furthermore, it is only because partially ordered value-relations found a total order
in the atomic parts of a homomeric commodity A that we can produce a map from value-relations to a numeric model that preserves this order-structure—which helps us understand why it is that, despite all claims to the contrary, capitalism is actually a very restricted space for mathematical abstractions.
2. The topos of commodity-exchange
One of the reasons why our approach might look counterintuitive is that we do not start from a single commodity as does Marx in Capital. When we first approach the commodity-world as phenomenologists, we suspend any assumptions we have about what operations differentiate the “immense accumulation of commodities” and determine what counts as a unit within it, as a single commodity. Instead, as part of our commitment to studying what makes a difference to commodities themselves, we need to find consistent internal restrictions of this space through the logical means available within it, such that what counts as an ‘individual’ commodity emerges as the liminal result of these constraints. This alternative approach is called for because, unlike Marx who is almost exclusively concerned with TC—that is, commodity logic as the dominant transcendental—we begin from the most general form of commodity evaluations, such as those that might take place in a non-capitalist society, or in a totally inconsistent way. The possibility of forming consistent exchange spaces, or of producing totally ordered evaluations of this space, therefore depends on the possibility of constructing logical objects inside the commodity-world, which are capable of ‘seeing’ these properties (I, IV).
One of the most basic operations we can define in this space is the basic postulate that two commodities, when they are not exchangeable, can be altered to become exchangeable. There are two types of such alterations, which we will call completions and slicings. A completion is the operation of adding additional commodities into the proposed exchange. For example, if one thousand acres of arable land cannot be exchanged for Magritte’s Le Principe du Plaisir, but we are able to produce an exchange by adding ten kilograms of the chemical element rhodium to the side of the arable land, then we say this addition is a completion. Conversely, a slicing is the removal of a part of one side of an impossible exchange to make it actual. Note that we cannot, for example, slice a painting into smaller exchangeable units.
We call a given collection of commodities, with their completions and slicings, a bargaining space. It is important to note that this is a local (i.e. local to a specific time and place) definition of the commodity logic that carries with it a notion of individual commodity dependent on what exchanges are possible in that space. In the case of a bargaining space consisting only of a famous painting, arable land and a rare chemical element, we may not even have a notion of a ‘single acre’ of land or ‘one gram’ of the element—simply because the common unit of exchange can only be derived from finding compatible slicings. In other words, a bargaining space gives us a local resolution from which to observe a part of the total commodity space.
Accidental exchanges give us a simple proposition: two commodities are exchangeable at a particular place (and time). When we investigate this space with our completion and slicing operations, we reveal a larger space consisting of many such places that overlap and connect with each other. We call this the ‘bargaining space’ and use it as a particular context for propositions about a commodity. This lets us talk about ‘local phenomena’ of the commodity-world. The next step is to add the condition of ‘gluing’ multiple such spaces together. Given two (or more) sets of commodities, each belonging to different bargaining spaces, there exists a union of those sets and an exchange function whose domain is the union-set and which is compatible with the exchange functions of the antecedent spaces. If such a gluing is possible, then it is necessarily possible to recover the two (or more) constituent spaces from the final glued one. The rules of such gluing essentially follow from the field of topology, which allows us to describe the composition of a space (I). In our case, we have attached a certain data to this space: the value-relations between commodities. This fusion of data and space is known as a sheaf.
We may interpret the entirety of the commodity-world as a certain collection of such sheaves obeying further rules, a topos in which it is possible to formulate logical statements consisting of predicates quantified over a given sheaf. Commodities serve as terms for these predicates and we can evaluate where certain predicates hold true, again yielding a degree of our transcendental. More complex statements can be constructed by combining simpler ones via operators from first-order intuitionistic logic (XVII). This allows us to speak of an ‘internal language’ of the commodity-world that determines the boundaries of what can be inferred. For now, we omit the details for the reader to investigate further (XVIII).
3. The three forms of Capital
Until now, all we have shown is that by considering a category which has commodities as objects and evaluations as morphisms, such that these respect identity, composition and associativity, we can start our analysis of the commodity-world a step before Marx’s own analysis. That is, we presuppose neither the notion of a common social substance nor a preliminary separation between quantity and quality—instead, we treat value as the abstraction from differences taking place when a commodity is evaluated from the perspective of another. For the sake of brevity, we focused here on the fixation of a sole evaluator, the universal equivalent, as the main condition for such consistent exchange space to be formed. This allowed us to show that, at this point, a new difference starts to make a difference in the commodity-world since the material properties of different commodities qualify them in different ways to occupy this position. Commodities which can be decomposed and recomposed in homogeneous ways are better equipped to express, through these homomeric variations, the likewise varying evaluations of other commodities.
If such a universal equivalent can be found, then a consistent and totally-ordered commodity space becomes possible—and a quantitative predicate for commodities can be defined, as in “commodity A is worth ten dollars”. Such a universal equivalent is what we call the money-commodity and this quantitative predicate is called a price. A space of commodity-evaluations equipped with a money-commodity—and therefore with the capacity to ‘name the price’ of its commodities and its priceable parts—constitutes a consistent exchange space (CES). Like the bargaining space before, a CES also serves as a particular context for value-relations to appear. But unlike in the previous context, we can formulate properties in terms of price.
For example, a CES can be said to be free of arbitrage since we can assess a coherent pricing for any set of commodities such that no commodity owner can profit from a cycle of exchange alone. We can, however, still construct more complex social objects within the commodity-world that are capable of stitching together paths across different CESs and thus permit morphisms from one pricing context to another—this is the basic form of capital as an object.
In our approach, we distinguish three principal forms of capital—usurer, merchant, and industrial—in terms of the different ways this suture between consistent exchange spaces can be produced. Though the first two strategies have a longer history than industrial capital, Marx calls them “antediluvian” forms of capital because of their essentially hybrid nature—that is, both usurer and merchant capital require that other transcendental layers guarantee the consistency of these operations. These are the two famous formulas for usurer and merchant capital, respectively: M → M’ and M → C → M’
Within our multilayered approach, a more complex reframing of these two processes is possible, highlighting their reliance on TA and TB (II). First, usurer capital can be seen as the treatment of money as a gift—a ‘bracketing’ of money’s place within a CES and its subsequent treatment as a gift framed, quite often, in contractual terms, requiring a repayment with interests, a new quantity which is then once more treated as a money-commodity, but now of increased value. We use subscripts to indicate how operations occur across layers:
Merchant capital, on the other hand, does not only require an intermediate purchase of a commodity, but also the reindexing of this commodity within a new value-system where it is priced at a higher value and then sold for a higher but equivalent sum. It requires, then, that this commodity should cross a frontier that is only intelligible from the perspectives of community and state transcendentals:
This leads us to the famous formula for industrial capital: M → LP + MP … C → M’
It is interesting to note that while usurer capital seems to extract the monetary difference (M’) from a temporal displacement, between lending and collecting, and merchant capital does so from a spatial displacement, between different value-systems, industrial capital finds a compositional source of surplus captured in the formula by the introduction of the + operator and the internal distinction between two types of commodities: labor-power (LP) and means of production (MP).
However, one should also note that unlike Marx’s exposition in Capital, we have not yet presented any concept of labor internal to the commodity-world since we have imposed for ourselves a constraint that prevents us from merely adding new entities and operations that are not intelligible from the world’s compositional structure. The project of an objective phenomenology of capitalist political economy implies that we never introduce an observable difference without also determining which objects in our commodity space are capable of observing it (IV, VII). In other words, a necessary step for us to make sense of the formula for industrial capital is to derive, solely with the resources of our current commodity-world, the means to immanently ‘see’ the difference between labor and other commodities.
4. Labor-commodity, production and abstraction
It is therefore remarkable that, in fact, at this early stage of our construction, we do have the means to define labor-power in terms of morphisms alone. First of all, we must introduce an operator, called a tensor ⊗, which allows us to make sense of the + operator in the formula of industrial capital. This operation acts as the parallel composition of commodities: instead of composing in a serial order as in C1 → C2 → C3 (which implies that there exist separate operations from C1 and C2 to C3) we want to define how a joint composition C1 ⊗ C2 takes us to C3, for example. In categorical terms, this means we would have to define our ⊗ operator in such a way that we would now have a ‘symmetric monoidal’ category, a category in which we can define commodity-producing arrows of the form LP ⊗ MP → C. But once this is established, the following distinctions become possible.
I) From the standpoint of compositional paths, every commodity is either (1) an output of a previous commodity-producing map, a product, or (2) introduced into the commodity space through an appropriate layer-conforming operation in TA and TB—what is called a fictive commodity. Land enclosures and intellectual property rights are examples of previous localizations of invaluable objects on TB which allows them to be alienated through contracts and used in a productive endeavor so that they affect the magnitude of value of the product, while unpaid housework is an example of an activity that remains outside of the commodity space, even though it mediates the private consumption of commodities, due to it being localized on TA as a ‘family affair’.
II) Every commodity is either (1) consumed as an input in the production process of other commodities, as a productive consumable, (2) consumed outside the commodity production process, as a simple consumable, that is, as the input of a process that is not commodity-preserving—like eating—or (3) removed from commodity space through a transcendental re-indexing that excludes it from the commodity-world.
III) Given a commodity C, we can consider its reproduction structure r through the set of commodities CMS such that r: (C ⊗ CMS) → C. The map of r functions as a sort of ‘indirect’ identity map for C. For example, a machine might require electricity and regular maintenance work, both priceable as commodities themselves, in order to continue functioning.
With definitions I, II and III, we can now further discern three different classes of productive consumables:
i) There are commodities which are exclusively composed of productive consumables—that is, they were previously the output of commodity production and their reproductive consumables are part of the same production process as they are, forming an additional cost to the buyer of the commodity in question. These we call private means of production, or MPP.
ii) There are commodities which are not exclusively the output of commodity production but whose reproduction costs are part of the same production process which employs the commodity. Most natural resources fall into this category: they are not exclusively the product of commodity-composition, though transforming them into a commodity usually requires labor while their reproduction takes place inside the productive sphere: if one buys land for farming, one must also buy fertilizers and water to replenish the land. These are called natural means of production, or MPN.
iii) There are productive consumables that are neither the output of previous commodity production nor reproduced inside a production process—this is the case of the labor-power, or LP: like MPN, labor-power becomes a commodity through layer-conformance of human laboring-capacity as a private property in TB, but the commodities it needs to reproduce this capacity come from the set of simple consumables and are therefore exchanged for money outside the production process.
This differentiation of the labor-commodity relies solely on the paths of production and exchange that situate a commodity within its world and does not require that we take the capacities of humans as a given—in fact, if any other entities could instantiate this logical distinction, they would also be seen as labor-power by capital. The difference between the reproductive structure of commodities, however, is ‘visible’ not from the standpoint of money as a static sensor for equivalent or nonequivalent exchanges, but rather from the standpoint of capital—the upper morphism M → M’ in our diagram—whose internal structure is capable of expressing not only how much value some commodity has, but also how much value it can add to a final product. Since the means of production are the product of previous commodity production, their parts have prices stemming from previous productive processes, and since their reproduction structure is also purchased by advanced capital, the value that MP can transfer to a product as it consumes CMS and composes its parts from parts of other commodities is constrained by its own value. It is constant capital at best. On the other hand, since labor-power is not the product of commodity production, its parts are not directly priced, and since its reproduction structure goes through simple consumables, its value is not covariant with what happens inside the productive sphere. The value of labor-power does not necessarily correlate with the value it adds, through composition with other commodities, to a product. It is variable capital.
If we now return to the diagram for industrial capital, we can see that, in the composition LP ⊗ MP → C, there might be specific ways of composing parts of labor-power and parts of the means of production such that the output might allow previously ‘invisible’ parts of labor to be priced in a consistent way, allowing the diagram to commute through the addition of surplus value through composition.
One might say a capitalist production process is a laboratory for probing into new priceable parts of labor—it sees more of labor than the labor-commodity can see of itself. The construction of the immanent concept of labor time—though not provided here—can be derived from the search within the productive sphere for the means to consistently price the parts of labor.
A lot has been left out of this summary description of our reconstruction of the logic of value, capital and labor, but let us add one final remark which concerns the distinction between value and use value and, more specifically, between abstract and concrete labor.
Throughout this presentation, we emphasized the idea that the relevant structure of the commodity-world should be thought of as those differences that can be ‘sensed’ or ‘seen’ by other objects within this same world (I). This is a perfectly natural way to define objects within category theory, where the identity of or difference between objects, and the capacity to distinguish their parts or ‘sub-objects’, relies exclusively on the possibility to distinguish the morphisms that go into and out of these structures. But it is quite remarkable that this new approach also affects several major dialectical dualities in the grammar of Capital. For instance, rather than treat “value” and “use value” as different realms, with the former being immaterial, symbolic or removed from the world in some way, while the latter concerns the material, corporeal “stuff” of things, we can actually relate them in terms of restrictions on possible morphisms (VIII). In other words, we can actually discern (i) the material substrate of a commodity as the set of all possible morphisms that go through it—a huge class of possible transformations far exceeding anything that the commodity-world could consistently ‘see’; (ii) the use-value set of possible transformations preserving the commodity-form, which allow the substrate to remain intelligible within the space of value; and (iii) the value of the commodity as the morphisms that not only preserve the commodity-form but also the value-content of its input commodities in a consistent exchange space. The first consequence of this distinction is that it becomes clear that use value is part of the commodity-form—it can be seen as the space for all priceable parts of a commodity, all its uses and transformations that will preserve its connection with the commodity-world, as a productive or as a simple consumable. The second consequence is that it exemplifies what ‘abstraction’ means in our theory (XII): to abstract is not to move outside or beyond the concrete towards some new separate realm, but rather to restrict the concrete, to construct material structures that become indifferent to certain differences, thus ‘forgetting’ them—we abstract into the world, not out of it.
It is this insight that helps us define the difference between concrete and abstract labor in a new way. Once more, we can distinguish between the material substrate of the labor-commodity—a class of transformations so vast it can hardly be identified with ‘labor’ in any meaningful sense—its concrete labor uses—the set of all possible transformations that preserve the commodity-form—and its abstract labor uses—those transformations which also preserve the value of the commodities being composed. Abstract labor becomes, here, a restriction ‘into’ action, labor seen from the perspective of the preservation of value, a very material restriction which several components in the production process intend to enforce. It is no less abstract by being defined in this way—if you observe a productive process, nothing that appears to you in that process would allow you to explain why people and things are being organized the way they are. It is only from the standpoint of value that the structure appears.
XII. Real abstraction and the Given
We shall explore an interesting juncture to be thought in the crossroads of Marx’s and Wilfrid Sellars’s philosophy that can contribute to the thinking of political experimentation with organizations. On one hand, Sellars brings to the fore important distinctions that help understand the relationship between rationality and the space of concepts one is enmeshed in as a rational agent, and the material space of causes that is the natural determination of the same agent. But this functional distinction is not a metaphysical one. Here one can find a use for Sellars in Marxism, namely fleshing out the problem of the abstract determination of Capital in functional terms. This has consequences for the thinking of the thought (VI) that is embedded in organizational practice, in the sense that this might retrieve relevant mediations from the specific sensitivities at play in organizations that are not identified with ‘individual’ sensitivity, and the way these are ‘subjectivized’ by the agents that are part of the same organization (IV, XIII).
This section intends to contribute to this discussion by briefly tackling one specific aspect of it, specifically the issue of a possible relationship between real abstractions in the Marxist framework (XI) with the Sellarsian problem of the critique of the Given. The reason for this choice in this specific context, besides the interesting predicament that arises from the comparison, is that if the project of the Subset of Theoretical Practice (XVIII) intends to tackle political experimentation in terms of a thought which existence is predicated on the existence of a collective, it seems this thinking, which is the thinking of the organization, is irreducible to the thinking of the individual agents that compose the organization.
The possible kinds of (non-presupposed, non-given) transitivity between the sensitivity of the organization at large to conditions detected in its proper mereological scale and the scale of the individual thinker are at stake also in determining political experiments as experiments—in the sense of verifying the consequences of adopting specific organizational axioms. The problem of real abstractions in Marxist thought embodies some of the properties of such collective ‘thinking’. It emerges from the actions of a collective without being necessarily intended, but it can be retroactively posed as an explanatory category for the actions of the collective and the economic-political consequences that ensue.
The proper ‘thinking’ of the organization has been described in other sections of this constellation of contributions as understood in terms of the triad composition-interaction-intelligibility (I, IV). This can be tentatively sliced further in its ‘intelligibility’ as the sensitivity of a social organization that is irreducible to the logic of the rational agents composing it, but a sensitivity which have to pass through the ‘space of reasons’ (as we shall make clear) in order to yield knowledge in the strict sense. While one may be tempted to assimilate the appeal to a rational agent with a form of methodological individualism, this is not the case here. The category of a rational, or cognitive, agent will only be understood in terms of the passage from the space of causes to the space of reasons, in itself a collective-historical picture of reason and language use. Individual agents are here counted-as-one in the Badiouian sense: as a hub of possible inferences and language-entry, intralanguage, and language-exit operations. Therefore, a cognitive agent the composition of which can be left undefined, but which human individuals are a current example of.
One methodological assumption will be to concentrate mostly on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s construal of real abstraction. We understand Sohn-Rethel’s idea of a materialist account of the transcendental subject and its categories to already be offering a point of view more congenial to the somewhat Kantian preoccupations of Sellars’s philosophy. If Sellars was already interested in a transcendental materialist version of Kant, then the materialist genealogical reading of the genesis of the categories of understanding by Sohn-Rethel might at least offer an interesting passage between the Marxist tradition and the Sellarsian one—one that might yield an interesting circuit between the understanding of material practice and the emergence of idealities in both authors.
First, we will briefly characterize Sellars’s critique of the Given, which is followed by a preliminary answer to the question about how the category of real abstraction can be problematized by the Sellarsian framework. This will enable us to offer a more complete expression of our hypothesis, which we shall follow with a presentation of two theses on real abstraction that we can extract from Sohn-Rethel. Finally, we shall give an answer regarding under what conditions can real abstraction be compatibilized with the Sellarsian critique of the Given, which can in turn offer a specific image of the internal unfolding (from the point of view of the cognitive agent) (XIII) of political experiments predicated on the reality of the abstraction they themselves instantiate (V, VI).
1. Enter the Given
The concept of “the Given'' in Wilfrid Sellars’s writing is notoriously difficult to pinpoint, not because one cannot really grasp what the concept means, but because one does not know where its reference ends. The multifariousness of the Given might always show up in a different guise from the ones already exorcised by critique. In Sellars’s writing two forms of the Given are usually recognized: the epistemic and the categorial. We shall illustrate each with a passage from Sellars’s work, which we shall follow in the end of this exposition with a third one, extracted through the lenses of Willem DeVries.
The inconsistent triad might be the most famous way to show the Given in action. It is proposed in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.
A) S senses red sense content x entails S non inferentially believes (knows) that x is red.
B) The ability to sense sense contents is unacquired.
C) The capacity to have classificatory beliefs of the form x is F is acquired.
Following Sellars, sustaining A and B implies negating C; sustaining B and C implies negating A; sustaining A and C implies negating B.
Sellars’s interpretation of the inconsistency hinges on the transmission of justificatory traction between sensing and knowing, as if sensing alone is sufficient to constitute an episode of knowledge about the sensed content. Implicit here is the differentiation between causal chains and justificatory chains. Justification is normative in the sense of being liable to assessments of adequacy and correctness, while causation is not. Knowledge is also normative in the sense of having justified expressions. One way to understand this is to compare rules and regularities.
This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule. The answer was: if every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule, then it can also be brought into conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.
Two interpretations of rule-following are commented by Robert Brandom that give rise to the paradox:
Interpretation one is called regulism, and it is the idea that rules are always explicit statements about how to do something.
Interpretation two is called regularism, and it is the idea that rules are regularities of behavior.
The problem with regulism is that if every rule is an assertion, every rule must be specified by a rule about how to apply the first rule, which makes it an infinite regression in which one never applies any rule. The problem with regularism is that regularities cannot account for the normative character of a rule. Regularities are not right or wrong, they just are. Rules should be able to tell how to proceed correctly while regularities are brute happenings that are neither correct nor incorrect. Thus, a regularity, while it can be part of the expression of a rule, cannot by itself be a rule.
A similar relationship can be observed between sensible contents and knowledge in Sellars’s writing: the sensible content is necessary for knowledge of facts but is not by itself sufficient for it. This, ultimately, means being caused is not equivalent to knowing one’s cause, which yields rejecting A.
Willem DeVries expresses the Given as trying to satisfy two conditions at the same time:
The given is epistemically independent, that is, whatever positive epistemic status our cognitive encounter with the object has, it does not depend on the epistemic status of any other cognitive state. […] It is epistemically efficacious, that is, it can transmit positive epistemic status to other cognitive states of ours.
The categorial form of the Given might be exposed more clearly in the Foundations of a metaphysics of pure process (the “Carus Lectures”):
If a person is directly aware of an item which has categorial status C, then the person is aware of it as having categorial status C.
This principle is, perhaps, the most basic form of what I have castigated as “The Myth of the Given.” … To reject the Myth of the Given is to reject the idea that the categorial structure of the world—if it has a categorial structure—imposes itself on the mind as a seal imposes itself on melted wax.
From these brief notes a picture begins to emerge wherein a certain form of realism is combined with transcendental philosophy: reality does not have propositional form, which means every attempt at conceptualizing it depends upon the resources of our available language and cognitive systems. But reality is not produced by language either. As James O’Shea expressed,
On Sellars’ Peircean-Kantian view, we ‘attack’ nature with rule-governed conceptual systems of reason’s own making. We then learn by experience or by testing that either the world as we have conceptually responded to it in our perceptual judgments ‘conforms to’ our conceptual representations as they stand (the Kantian Copernican insight), or we must modify the latter in our ongoing quest for explanatory coherence through critically controlled conceptual change (the Peircean pragmatist insight).
Here we are able to express our predicament more thoroughly. Rejecting both forms of the Given yields a distinctive division of labor between sensible contents and conceptual workings in the Sellarsian picture. Sensible contents cannot communicate normative (as per the epistemic given) or categorial (the categorial given) statuses by themselves. They require the workings of the concept.
On the other hand, the idea of real abstraction as proposed within Marxist thought eschews traditional divisions between the mental and the real, the abstract and the concrete, the sensible and the conceptual, committing to a causally efficacious figure of abstraction that "is the form of the thought previous and external to the thought"—which amounts to a "veritable expropriation of abstract thought".
2. Enter Real Abstraction
In “Warenform und Denkform”, Sohn-Rethel presents in a very striking way the heresy of real abstraction:
[…] the origin of commodity abstraction is, according to Marx's determination, in a sphere which completely escapes the conceptual language of metaphysical thought. The latter relates things back to consciousness and consciousness to things: there is no third option. Conversely, the social relation from which the value-abstraction is derived does not fit into the dichotomy of things and consciousness. Within the framework of traditional concepts, the phenomenon of the abstraction-commodity- is an absurdity, something which, quite simply, cannot exist. It's, as Marx determines, a spatio-temporal process causal in nature. However, its result is an abstraction, that is, an effect of a conceptual nature. Between the spatio-temporal world of things and the ideal world of concepts, metaphysical thought does not tolerate any common element—these are antinomically separated spheres. However, according to Marx, the abstraction-commodity is precisely constructed as belonging in both spheres; this is precisely what makes it special.
Sohn-Rethel refers here to the exchange-abstraction specifically as the main object of his analysis: the very fact that in exchange, different phenomenal elements are considered equivalent in value, their sensible configurations notwithstanding—an equivalence that encounters its full expression in money that, in turn, can be used to generate more value in the form of Capital.
It is worth mentioning that for Sohn-Rethel, real abstraction emerges in exchange and that it is considered as spatially and temporally separated from the act of use, in the sense that during an exchange in the market, one is not able to use the products on display beyond the try-outs that might conduce to the exchange. The picture that emerges is that of a material practice of exchange that gives rise to something akin to a conceptual representation that can subsume many different particulars under the same universal. But this is, differently from the abstractionist empiricist account, not done in the mind, but in concrete social practice.
Both Sellars and Sohn-Rethel are critical of empiricism, but their critique originates from different standpoints. While the category of the real abstraction evades alignment between the abstract and the mental, the concrete and the physical that is characteristic of abstractionist empiricism—meaning that for a certain form of empiricism the origin of conceptual abstraction comes from experience, from which one extracts a simpler determination—empiricism is, for Sellars, to be criticized for the foundationalist image of thought that it yields: if the categories of thought are abstractions taken out of a layer of experience (the “Given”), then this shall be the ground for what is thinkable. Sellars resists this hypothesis by separating the work of sensibility (“language-entry transitions”) from inference in the space of reasons proper (“intra-language transitions”) and the resulting actions (“language-exit transitions”). But this leaves an open question: how to account for the contribution of sensible contents to conceptual deployment once the gap between sensibility and understanding (in Kantian terms) is opened? We shall have sketched a response by the end of this section.
Beyond simple recognition of the fact of the emergence of real abstractions in exchange, Sohn-Rethel upholds his most polemical thesis of the origin of the categories of traditional metaphysics and modern epistemology (in the guise of the Kantian transcendental subject) being located in commodity-exchange. As Anselm Jappe presents it:
[…] the origin of the forms of consciousness (and knowledge) is neither empirical nor ontological, but historical. The forms of thought, these "molds" in which particular data are cast, do not come—this is the core of Sohn-Rethel theory—from thought itself, but from human action. Not of action as such, as a philosophical and abstract category, but of the historical and concrete action of man. The shapes of thought—hence the intellect, different from the simple contents of consciousness - are each time the expression of an era in the social relationships of men; within this context, however, they have objective validity. This perspective on the history of thought is obviously an application of the principle that it is not consciousness that determines being, but the social being that determines consciousness.
One instructive example of such a transmission between “real” and “conceptual” abstractions in Sohn-Rethel’s terms is in the concept of substance. For him, the category of substance in philosophical thinking corresponds to something that remains what it is while varying its sensible character either temporally or spatially. He proposes a question: where in the world did the philosophers who came up with the idea of substance encounter such a thing? For Sohn-Rethel, a minted coin is the value-form that became visible.
The minted currency is the form-value that has become visible. Because here we print formally in a natural material that it is not intended for use, but only for exchange. The authority that prints money - whether it starts out of a private trade tycoon or a "tyrant" who usurped royal power - guarantees weight and fine metal content, and promises to replace coins that have suffered some wear, by others of integral value. In other terms, the postulate of inalterability for an unlimited period of the equivalent is here formally recognized, and it is distinguished expressly, as a social postulate, of the empirical-physical characteristic of such or such metal. The old relation, where the value-form of the commodity was subordinate to its natural form, is inverted: the social value-form uses a particular and specific natural form for its functional purposes.
Sohn-Rethel’s work proceeds to derive the categories of subject, substance, causality, homogeneous space and time, etc. from this exchange abstraction. Beyond the recognition of the simple existence of abstract patterns of behavior that might be encapsulated within certain abstract forms yielding real abstractions (1st thesis), Sohn-Rethel wants to sustain that the categories of the transcendental subject as proposed in Kantian philosophy have a historical genesis found in commodity abstraction (2nd thesis). The first thesis claims, then, that abstractions emerge from the behavior of cognitive agents—the abstractions that can be used to explain said behavior. The second thesis claims that the abstractions stemming from concrete social behavior are transmitted to the mind as cognitive categories of a transcendental subject.
From the Sellarsian point of view, this creates a possible difficulty for Sohn-Rethel’s account, which has to do with the form of transmission of the real abstraction to the mind, in keeping with the dictum “in the mind, but not from it”. If the Given is, as DeVries expresses it, both epistemically independent and epistemically efficacious, exchange-abstraction is independent in the sense of having its origin outside of thought, while at the same time begetting by itself the transcendental categories that might organize thinking. This impression might be dispelled, though, with a more fine-grained account of the mediations through which the exchange-abstraction gets caught in its transformation into conceptual abstractions.
3. “To determine is to negate while configuring…”
Sohn-Rethel discusses two forms of materialism: on one hand, the idea, found in Engels’s and Lenin’s writings, of mind as reflecting natural material being; on the other hand, the idea taken from George Thomson of the social being as the origin of the categories of the mind. The first form broadly conforms to empiricist strictures of the mind as a mirror of nature, while the second introduces the category of social practice as, in our own terms, a cluster concept that enables one to relate nature and the conscious-social being in one and the same complex.
It therefore seems to impose itself here, at least at a first glance, a certain incompatibility between two modes of materialist thinking: the one extracting the principles of knowledge from a root present in our social being; the other deriving these same principles out of knowledge of the "outside world" by "abstraction" or " reflection ". This apparent mismatch requires explanation, and the best way to give it is through systematic study implications of Thomson's design. That is all the more promising as Thomson's theory confirms exactly the guiding idea of historical materialism according to which it is the "social being" of men who, as Marx writes in the highlighted passage, "determines their conscience.
Let us make our predicament more explicit.
A) if the real abstraction is something that happens independently of cognition, it seems to causally constrain behavior—which does not entail being in a justificatory relation to other contents.
B) If the real abstraction is in a justificatory relation, i.e. has categorical status, it cannot be something that emerges independently of cognition simpliciter. It must already be caught in an inferential web.
If A is true, then real abstraction cannot do the further work Sohn-Rethel wants it to—to be the ‘origin’ of the categories of understanding in the Kantian sense.
If B is true, a specific division of labor has to obtain between sensibility and cognition for it to take hold.
Our solution will try to find a juncture between thinking and doing that would vindicate B. By doing so, we will also make B compatible with A in the sense of accepting real abstractions as constraints upon behavior in the causal sense, but with a specific set of caveats. This is thematized in Sellarsian philosophy as the difference between pattern-governed behavior and rule-obeying behavior. Patterns are not necessarily rules, but constraints that obtain in physical and social processes. Acknowledging the pattern turns it into rule-obeying behavior, which then acquires justificatory purchase.
But how does social practice itself transmit the patterned abstraction to thought? We just introduced the cluster concept of the ‘social being’. The possible answer seems to be in fleshing out the internal compositions of the social being as a circuit that extracts not only energy by means of work from nature but also abstractions (I, VIII, XI). Brazilian philosopher José Arthur Giannotti has some precious indications related to that process, proposing the simple example of a ball game as an operational scheme that links agents to one another and to natural objects through activity.
[...] the object is metamorphosed, it is worked on so that the weight property of the object, among others, can be exercised in the right conditions. Here to determine is to negate while configuring. The effectiveness of the game, however, comes to effect this negation [...] As natural objects, the soccer ball and the tennis ball are like any two bodies reacting to the impact of forces of nature. But a soccer ball is not the same thing as a tennis ball [...] That is why the effective game exercises the resistance to weight in a context in which it has already been circumscribed and measured by work. [...] The operational scheme, constituted by the ball, by its trajectory, by the agents as pitcher and catcher, establishes a very elementary social objectivity […] We believe that the operational scheme exemplifies, in a very crude way, the type of object whose plot Marx calls "contemporaneous history", this structure of social relations of production, constantly nourished by the repeated actions of men and which are objectified in figures such as commodities, capital and so on.
The paragraph is important in several different senses. First, it tries to connect the localities in place in a simple ball game as already a kind of extraction of measure—of an intelligibility (IV). Second, this extraction of measure is done by work, by what is done, and not necessarily by abstract thought (XI). This means that it happens by the way things are practically engaged with, even unconsciously. So far, we agree with Sohn-Rethel. Third, one must therefore not privilege only consciously available forms of determination. The entire bodily movement of players is engaged in the ball game, beyond any conscious thematization. Patterns emerge from activity, be it conscious or not. The theoretical making explicit of the elements of the game is an a posteriori move. Fourth, the way the operational scheme is constituted does not demand its theoretical explicitation even though the exercise of philosophy/theory demands explicitation of practical abstraction into theoretical abstraction. Herein lies the Sellarsian problem. Fifth, Giannotti’s move of connecting the practical abstraction in general to the commodity form proposes a particular case of connection between different types of abstraction. This can be related to Sohn-Rethel’s identification of the cognitive powers of abstraction to the abstraction of the commodity form as well as to our final hypothesis of different forms of abstraction emerging out of political experimentation.
So far Giannotti made explicit how a pattern that extracts specific determinations from objects can emerge out of ‘blind’ activity that does not intend the extraction. The problem that remains is the one regarding the capacity of extracting theoretical determination out of the ball game so as to be able to say ‘because of x, y obtains’.
4. Intuitive and Conceptual Labor
In our presentation we exposed the following problem:
A) if the real abstraction is something that happens independently of cognition, it seems to causally constrain behavior, which does not entail being in a justificatory relation to other contents.
This means that social practice must provide the leverage point between the causal and the justificatory chain.
A Sellarsian gap was left open that can now be bridged. While being epistemically independent and efficacious at the same time leads to lapsing into the Given, the problem was how to close the gap between the sensible contents (the non-problematic givenness of experience) and the conceptual grasp within the space of reasons.
Clearly, it is important that the relations of epistemic dependence he is discussing be of two different types or “dimensions”. Otherwise the charge of circularity (which he must still work to avoid, as we shall see) would be unanswerable. One of the “dimensions”—the bottom-up direction—is what one would expect: observation provides a basis from which we can, inductively, infer general empirical truths. But in the other direction, reports or beliefs can be construed as knowledge only if the subject who makes them is a knower who, as knower, commands a number of general truths and practices. Only in that case do they occur as items in the logical space of reasons.
The paragraph spells out the division of labor internally present in our cluster-concept of “social activity”, sustained as a source of Sohn-Rethel’s materialism against Engelsian materialism of reflection.
One could be entitled to question the argument for its circularity: how are the categories extracted by a subject that already has the categories to perform the extraction?
While a cognitive subject capable of conceptualizing is necessary for the grasp of real abstraction, this does not a priori determine which specific categories are used for this extraction. Here the vicious circle of the question turns into a virtuous circle paving the way for the reconciliation between the Sellarsian history of successive theoretical frameworks and the Marxist history of the modes of production (II). While one must have categories in order to grasp anything, one does not need to presuppose which categories—and the historicity of these different modes—come in as constraints, motivators and motivated aback by the recognizing powers they enable once the muscle meets the mind. The passage between real and conceptual abstraction is guaranteed by social practice that already includes linguistic abilities. This is not to say that linguistic abilities constitute such abstractions. In Giannotti’s quote, a certain form of extraction, the “negating while configuring”, was exemplified by a ball game: the physical diagram drawn by the players and the ball. But the conceptual description which constitutes full-fledged knowledge in the Sellarsian sense is instituted by linguistic intentionality—meaning not necessarily fully-fledged overt descriptions but intentionality as constituted by linguistically articulated understandings.
Here we approach a limit to the explanation: it is not the social being, but the natural being of the concept-mongering creatures we are that explains what thought ultimately is. But the point is not to just defer to natural history the constitutional problem of the categories of our understanding, but to give social history its due in the process by which successive frameworks are built (as per Sellars) that are able to asymptotically approximate the description of mind-independent worlds, motivated and motivating successive social forms (as per Sohn-Rethel). This shows that through the Sellarsian problem we were able to internally differentiate the abilities that constitute the circuit between social being and consciousness until the threshold that holds between social and natural being. A set of abilities must be in place that are the result of biological history. But the categories through which we come to know what this set of abilities is, is gained through the cluster of historically constrained activity producing historically constrained cognition.
5. “Communism is the theory of how to solve communist problems...”
In a previous paper co-written by our collective we proposed that
Against what remains the main theoretical strategy of the Left—that is, proposing better descriptions of our current social reality in such a way that our theory is capable of locating and expressing the inconsistencies and weaknesses of our social system in ways that conservative depictions cannot—we want our theoretical space to be infinitely richer than our social world, so that capitalist social formations might appear within it as particular solutions within the broader space of other possible solutions to general problems of social coordination, allocation of resources and free association. The strategy of regionalizing or situating the parameters of our social formation has profound effects both to theoretical construction as well as to the practice of politics, since the first sign of a broader theoretic framework is its capacity to reformulate problems in its own terms, meaning that, within this framework, communism becomes the theory of how to solve communist problems, and not capitalist ones.
We have proposed examining the problem of real abstraction as an example that, if compatibilized with the Sellarsian framework, would vindicate the hypothesis of the sensitivity of organizations (IV, V). In other words, it would help answer the question about the sense in which organizations ‘think’ what the individual subject does not think (VI, XIII). We have shown that the Sellarsian framework helps disambiguate internally between causal and justificatory chains without thereby yielding to a form of conceptual idealism that eschews material determinations of thought. The answer is located in the activities of social being that nevertheless presupposes natural being capable of conceptually grasping its own activities with historically derived categories.
In that sense, this section contributes to unveiling the position of the cognitive subject regarding the intelligibility of the interactions the system of which he is part is able to carry on (I, IV). While appearing in the vocabulary of objective phenomenology is any form of relevancy to any system, intentional or not, this appearing content must be, in the specific case of cognitive agents, conceptualized in order to yield a form of knowledge able to retrace and correct retroactively the conceptual frameworks that make these other sensitivities seen.
In this way, the specific sensitivity of the organization can be retroactively implicated into the reasoning of its component subjects, seen-as inferentially articulated relationships between adopted experimental axioms and consequences (VI). The sensitivity in question embeds the organization into a specific world (XIII), which is filtered through the organizational sensitivity to the participants. The constructed sensitivity of the organization is then the means through which information is extracted from a multi-scalar world that does not conform to the immediate scale of cognitive experience (II).
One final speculation that we would like to offer has to do not with the diachronic succession and circuits between social forms and conceptual categories, but with this synchronic grasp of multi-scalar real determination. A final speculative proposal is what I call the no privileged scale thesis (IV). It is related to a putative third form of the Given— the synchronic scalar Given.
There is another important point to understand about observation: there is no fixed set of characteristics of physical objects to which observations are limited. That is, there is no clear-cut or principled limit on the vocabulary that can appropriately appear in observation claims. We can form non-inferential observation beliefs about red balls before us, but, with adequate training, we can also make direct, non-inferential reports of the location of a quasar or an α-particle in a cloud chamber. Observation reports need only be reliable responses, whatever vocabulary is used. Sellars believes that there is a special vocabulary that we employ in “minimalist” observation claims, that is, observation claims in which we risk as little as possible without moving up (or back) a level and characterizing our experience rather than the world.
If this project at large is waging on regionalization and the coming up with localized frameworks wherein to think different real and imaginary social formations, the exchange-abstraction becomes only one, albeit very important, example of abstraction that could conform to a social reality—as mentioned in our paragraph—turning capitalist problems into communist ones by expanding the worlds the organizations inhabit through the experimental test-and-run process of the expansion of their sensitivity (III).
This is, thus, the limit of Marx’s analogy, and the starting point of our investigation: social forms, such as the value-form, become rational - that is, enter into relations of proportion which make certain of its properties legible - through the very same process that renders them actual. The very being of the social relation under investigation is homogeneous and indistinguishable from the process through which its properties become legible for us.
Becoming legible for us entails recognizing the pattern, and intervening in it entails turning it into a rule. If our cognition can be calibrated
to see in different scales and presupposing different sets of categories, a further dimension can be added to the variably regionalized account pursued here: the synchronic simultaneity of different seeings acquired through the concrete engagement with the organizational experiments that constitute our political practice.
XIII. Navigating through dimensions
“But since I don’t understand myself, only segments
of myself that misunderstand each other, there’s no
reason for you to want to, no way you could
even if we both wanted it.”
The question that will be raised in the following section asks what it means to navigate between the multilayered logics that compose capitalism as a social formation as described by Karatani (II). This means that we are asking not only how it is possible to consider the world through different transcendentals but also what it could mean to switch between different logics in dealing with concrete political struggle. Since it is not a matter of answering these questions practically, we could reframe our question in this manner: would it be possible to understand the conditions for this type of switch from the point of view of political organizations? (XII) This is a pressing issue considering the fact that, as it has been said, even though social objects are constituted as a mixture of TA, TB and TC (and thus might demand different representations), different objects involved in the same political stake might not be simultaneously visible through one single or partially composed logical structure. In practical terms, we might be involved in struggles where aims or obstacles that must be represented are more visible through differing logics that are not simultaneously accountable for. With this, we are saying that although some instances might be represented through partially composed structures (such as TA+TB, TA+TC and TB+TC), there might be situations where the different objects require accessing conflicting points of view.
In order to try to account for this problem, we will be following Patricia Reed’s work on multi-scalar navigation. Her work is concerned with the “making of inhabitable worlds in common, as they emerge from, and negotiate the residual artifacts of, laminated, pluri-material histories”. This in turn makes it necessary for the subjects of these worlds in common (in contrast to the subjects in a common world) to develop the ability to navigate (and represent) these ‘pluri-material histories’ (III). In a sense, it seems safe to say that she tries to develop the conditions necessary for human subjects (who, for good purposes, are underdefined and not considered as singular individuals) to navigate multiple worlds without letting go of the problem of coexistence (that is, of a certain form of totality). For our purposes it looks as if her generic (broader) description of human navigation on a planetary scale may be able to give us clues as to how political organizations navigate through the multilayered structure of capitalist social formation. In order to do that, we shall first reconstruct her thoughts and then see if her concepts might help us think how it is possible to contemplate the problems we have raised here.
1. The problem of multi-scalar navigation
To start, it is perhaps best to take up again one of the most precious definitions in Reed’s text: what is navigation? Navigating would be “the ongoing mediation of intentionality with the contingency of unknown or accidental events”, that is, it is a kind of orientation that depends on knowing one’s desire (where must we go) and on recognizing relevant markers (signs that distinguish relevant differences in our navigation) that allow orientation (that is, localization in a given space). Due to being precisely a kind of relation with the unknown (insofar as we do not know all the paths beforehand), navigation will depend on non-material elements, namely projections and imaginary elaborations (concepts, we might say) of this unknown region based on the information we have about the parts of the world we know and about what we know we want. In this way, by serving as an interposition between the material and the conceptual, as Reed puts it, navigation itself also ends up being partially responsible for the way we represent the very territory we intend to explore (to the extent that certain “markers” serve as points of guidance that shape how we might perceive it).
The problem of navigation is further complicated if the kind of territory we want to figure out is the one that mixes several scales in the nth dimension (I, IV, XII). In those cases, we are dealing, as Reed proposes, with a “planetary scale” (VIII). If there are so many levels, fields and dimensions that exceed our processing capabilities, we need to not only deal with different maps that do not always converge with different kinds of signals that intersect but are not easily distinguishable, but also account for the fact that our desire (that is, the element of intentionality involved in the navigation of a certain subject) is not as consistent as we hope.
It is precisely at this point, when we deal with multiple dimensions, that certain problems can arise. Since the act of mapping unknown regions affects how we experience the territory that will be navigated, regardless of whether it is a voluntary gesture or not, an undue projection of a singular point of view—extending beyond its reach and insensitive to the specifics of some territory not relating to the map that is made of it—can end up hindering navigation itself. The kind of reduction that takes place can also be so violent that certain worlds need to be erased so that a certain scale, a certain map, can impose itself (VII). It is the simplest—and therefore most crude—way of dealing with the complexity of a multi-scalar world. It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to say as Reed does that there is a political element involved in these projections, and that one could speak of a politics of navigation.
The question that arises, therefore, is how to navigate this plurality of dimensions without reducing the world to only one type of dimension. Is it possible to speculate about a way of dealing with this ‘nth dimensionality’ that does not erase the specificities of the many dimensions participating on the planetary scale? Reed does not exhaust this question but does provide us with a useful path for dealing with these issues by working out two conditions that should be met for successful navigation on a planetary scale.
2. The conditions for multi-scalar navigation
The first condition she establishes for dealing with that problem is a kind of an imperative. It is a commitment to preserving localized distinctions. This is an initial step because, as we have seen, the main risk in overprojection is the (violent) reduction of multiple differences to what can be seen through some particular point of view. The way to combat this is through anchoring a certain perspective to the specificity of its localization that may not be generalized. As Reed says, “the value of this ‘situational insistence’ is that it preserves contextual particularity and sees in this framework ways to build better, more robust accounts of reality”.
This is important to avoid the risks of reductive generalization, but it does not help us think about how to deal with the multiplicity of dimensions since ‘partial objectivity’ does not explain how we might navigate between regional ‘objectivities’ (IV). To move further toward her goal, it is necessary to account for a non-reductionist form of totality.
It is with this in mind that Reed draws from both the writer Édouard Glissant and the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck to establish a second condition. One can summarize her interest in these thinkers with the fact that both of them seek to think of an inhomogeneous totality insofar as they think of particular, specific locations as not thinkable without the totality of relations in which they are involved (I). That is, from this idea, a thing is not an atomic, independent unit, but always its specificity, and the relations in which it is involved that make up a certain totality. It is in this sense that we understand Reed’s “nested account of situatedness” where each particularity is also understood through how it fits with the totality it is immersed in (IV, IX). The point, and the development that interests us, is that the point of view of totality varies according to the specific location one is dealing with. Since each location has its own manner of being in relation to totality (extracted from how it positions itself in relation to one totality), different views on totality arise from different points of view. However, if we are also departing from an ‘insistence on positioning’, where each perspective has its own ‘partial objectivity’, it is possible to infer that each perspective also produces a partial objective representation of totality through how it relates to it. This means that although totality is objectively represented, its dependence on the positioning of one representation makes it so that it is not possible to produce an all-encompassing totality accounting for all points of view. Consequently, we arrive at an idea of totality that is equivocal (instead of a reductionist one).
One effect of this form of thinking is that it understands the relations of part and whole as a certain feedback dynamic. If the part is a specificity, but this specificity is also understood through its relations, then modifications in the whole end up echoing back to the particular element, even though it preserves its specificity (as that which retains a certain position in regard to a totality) (IV). There are some interesting effects of this dynamic that are worth discussing. The first is that the very distinctions between parts and general elements end up becoming objects of investigation and demand a precise determination of these boundaries (in order to be able to measure and follow the feedback movements between part and whole). Being able to differentiate between these elements also helps us keep in check any desire to overproject the properties of some local specificity beyond its limits.
The other point worth talking about touches on the problem of intentionality. As mentioned above, one of the fundamental elements of the navigation process is the navigator's intentionality. That is, what we see has to do with what we seek. However, when we are dealing with multidimensionality (and we are aware of this), finding a way to navigate numerous dimensions ends up being one of the navigator’s desires. Things get complicated, however, if we follow the conditions elaborated by Reed. This is because wanting to preserve the uniqueness of specific locations without reducing them to other dimensions is also a kind of intentionality involved in the operation of navigation (this is why Reed treats this desire as a “first principle”). If we start from this desire, the effect is precisely an equivocal world, for we would have to accept that specific locations are themselves always their distinctiveness and their position in relation to a certain totality. When this type of desire is projected onto a totality, it can only provide an image of a non-homogeneous totality, that is, an equivocal one, in which all localizations are considered as also projecting an image of totality (from their positions) without the projected totalities coalescing homogeneously.
If this is the case, then it is possible that this affects the very commitment that was made at the beginning. Indeed, wanting to preserve the singularity of particular locations is a desire (an intentionality concerning a certain point of view) that leads to considering equivocal worlds (instead of one common world), but this implies also accepting that, in this equivocity, our own intentionality is considered in another way from that of one of these many equivocal worlds that coexist (in a non-homogeneous way). If our intentionality as the desire from a certain point of view is considered in itself and through its relation to a certain totality, then it is inevitable, from another point of view, that one’s desire will be thought of differently. This implies that our initial intentionality, that is, our desire, is itself inconsistent and can vary—even vary to a point that it may appear from a different vantage point as something that goes against the initial commitment. That means that a commitment to Reed’s first principle (which aims to preserve the specificity of each location) may, when it appears from a different point of view, appear as another instance of a hegemonizing and reductionist point of view. An example of this is the manner in which minority discourses may appear in academia. Even though certain scholars in a privileged space (being men, white, European, etc.) may see their tasks as simply restricting themselves to their own points of view and letting the points of view of certain minorities (indigenous peoples’, for example) occupy the discursive space of their respective fields, people who actually inhabit these other points of view may see the scholars’ action as nothing more than an attempt to obtain more clout within their social settings.
One can see that the issues Reed brings up refer to a kind of desire for navigation that is not simply the desire for something specific. Intentionality, the object of desire, inherent in navigating a world composed of innumerable dimensions, turns out to be navigability itself. This makes it unsurprising that the desire of navigability has as its most immediate (easiest) form a desire for a simple world that is easily navigable (instead of worlds in common, a common world). It is also fair to say that this is the reason she departs from the two conditions outlined above. It is an attempt to avoid reducing the multiple coexisting worlds to a single world (which in practice would be the overprojection of a local point of view).
3. Applied transcendental navigation
From this presentation of Reed’s thought we have seen that she outlines two separate conditions necessary for navigating between different dimensions. This is a powerful tool that can and should be applied to concrete problems that we might face. In this sense, as interesting as her description is, it is equally valuable that she does not seek to determine what kinds of dimensions exist, what the grounds for differentiating them are and who the subject of these navigations is. What interests us here is to see if the conditions she works out are of use when we see reality through Karatani’s transcendentals (II, XVII). We will thus try to see if they are translatable into the grammar we have been working on in this essay.
In order to see if this works out, we must first clear one possible misunderstanding concerning the sense of scale in expressions like ‘multi-scalar’ or ‘planetary scale’. It seems quite straightforward to understand the ‘scalarity’ in these concepts in a spatial sense, as if scales are ranges of intelligibility relating to different sizes (for example, we could speak of a ‘scale’ pertaining to atoms and a scale pertaining to humans). A multi-scalar world (or a ‘planetary scale’) would thus be understood as a world made up of various sizes. This first sense of ‘multi-scalar’ would imply that we are describing a complex world composed of many distinct and conflicting locales where we cannot see from any one given place the totality that conditions each part of this world. This is not what we understand, though, from Reed’s use of the term. As her insistent usage of the expression ‘worlds in common’ might suggest, scalarity (and dimensionality for that matter) must concern different (and non-reducible) worlds that are organized through different autonomous logics. This is not expressed overly clearly in her text, but it might be implied if we do not want to comprehend the use of planetary scale in a purely spatial sense. Thus, if we feel that it is useful to test her approach against Karatani’s scheme, it is so in the sense that the different logics elaborated through The Structure of World History map the non-reducible scales through which we must navigate.
The conditions for multi-scalar navigation may be summarized as a) a situational insistence (the determination of ‘partial objectivities’) and b) a comprehension of perspectives as ‘nested picture(s) of specificity’ (which produces in turn a non-reductionist representation of totality).
As we have seen, situational insistence is the attempt to produce ‘locatable knowledges’ that “preserves contextual particularity, and sees in this framework ways to build better, more robust accounts of reality.” This is not, we argue, very far from Karatani’s own effort to expand on Marxist analysis of commodity exchange through comparison with other types of modes of intercourse. From Reed’s point of view, the logic of commodity (mode C), as can be seen in Marx’s Capital, is not only a system of social relations, but also an account of a certain dimension with its own logic of representation (XI). This logic allows us to see a world organized through value (as a social form) which is hierarchized in social classes. However, even if this means that the logic of commodity exchange can be read as an objective characterization of certain structures, it does not in any way attempt to produce a total picture of reality as if this logic exhausted all possible forms of navigating the world (II). In short, though determining its logic is capable of making sense of certain structures we encounter, the world is not completely reducible to commodity exchange.
The possibility of reading the logic of commodity exchange as partial objectivity (one particular dimension) makes more sense when we consider Karatani’s attempt to draw out two other modes of intercourse that organize social relations. When analyzing the logic of pooling and reciprocity (mode A) (IX), we can see that we are able to picture social life through gift economy where relation hierarchies are organized by honor. The logic of plunder and redistribution, on the other hand, presents social reality as composed of relations of domination and protection where status determines where one finds oneself (X). This distinction between modes of intercourse allows us to fulfill Reed’s first condition because, even though these logics are all present in social reality, they are all incommensurable with one another. We might say that all of them are ‘correct’ even though they do not map onto each other (there is no logic that allows these three different logics to be reduced to a fourth and more fundamental logic).
What might we say of the second condition that we highlighted above? If we are to speak of navigation between dimensions without reducing them to one single (higher) dimension, we must produce an equivocal image of totality which would allow us to see how a subject relates to different dimensions. Reed does so through understanding that not only does each dimension have its specificity, each specificity is also defined by how it relates to a totality. She short-circuits a homogeneous totality by insisting that each perspective has in itself (and in a partially objective manner) a nested picture of totality. If we try to translate this into Karatani’s terms, we see that each mode of intercourse also envisions its own forms of collectivity. Thus, in Mode A, the basic collective form that matters is the households, in Mode B, we find cities and in Mode C we find markets. It is important to point out that these forms of collectivity do not seem to be totalities. When we look at what types of totalities Karatani ascribes to each mode, we get a strange picture: when Mode A dominates, mini-systems are formed; when Mode B dominates, world-empires are formed; when Mode C dominates, a world-economy is formed (II). As his analysis aims to show, these totalities are not all expressed simultaneously, but correspond to different epochs of human history. This is a consequence of Karatani’s idea that the history of the world is in a sense determined and structured by the dominant mode of intercourse in a given moment.
How is this possible if the modes of intercourse are incommensurable? Should each mode of intercourse not have in itself a form of totality irregardless of it being the dominating mode? This seems to be the case indeed when we analyze a specific moment in history. As Karatani insists, even if capitalist society is a historical moment when Mode C dominates other modes of intercourse, this current epoch cannot be described simply through the logic of commodity exchange. For Karatani, when we have a world-economy, Mode A appears as nations and Mode B as states, which forms the nation-state-capital trinity. We could thus say that nations are how the totality nested in Mode A is expressed when it is dominated by Mode C. This in turn means that there are a host of problems seen through the lens of nationality (for example, the numerous disputes which trigger nationalist sentiments) (XVI). We know of course (and this is the meaning of the knot between nation, state and capital for Karatani) that this does not mean that the problems of nationality have nothing to do with state or market structures. Not only are they related, it is also due to how each of these logics organizes one another (with Mode C being the dominant figure in contemporary history) that each mode expresses itself in a certain manner.
With this in mind, we can agree with Reed in saying that each logic of intercourse does have a totality which is nested in its perspective/dimension. However, now we can see more clearly that the form of totality is not simply a kind of ‘scaling up’ of a certain point of view. The form of totality expressed by a certain logic is an indicator of how one logic relates to the others (I). We can see that if we take Karatani’s logics of intercourse as the concrete dimensions through which we (as a political subject) must navigate, the investigation of the forms of the totality of each logic (of each dimension, in Reed’s terms) becomes the manner in which we can probe how these different incommensurable logics relate to one another in a given point in time. Even though each dimension is irreducible to the others (and there is no all-encompassing dimension), this type of investigation might allow us to understand how we can go from the problems concerning one dimension to the problems concerning other dimensions.
4. Unresolved questions
This examination of Reed’s thought and its applicability to our framework does not exhaust our intended issues. One of the unresolved questions that arise and that we would like to briefly address concerns the nature of the navigating subject. As we have mentioned in the beginning, one of Reed’s merits was underdefining what the subject of navigation is. We know, however, that this subject must not be too hastily identified either with an individual human being or with any particular kind of human (IV, XI, XII). Even if it is the case that a human might be the subject of navigation, the conditions elaborated by Reed do not seem to be so restricted. This is important because our main aim is understanding how a political organization might navigate between different sets of problems. We have not, however, sufficiently justified the specificities that would arise from considering a political organization as a navigating subject. This is especially important to understand when we consider the fact that determining different worlds is not articulated through a methodological incursion (the ‘transcendental suspension’, as Karatani believes), but as results of actual political struggle.
The problem is even more complicated than that since political organizations can be seen from two different sides. Not only are political organizations navigating subjects that sense and explore different dimensions of the world, they are also themselves composed of subjects that also have to navigate different dimensions when trying to deal with the problems inside the organization. We could say that in a sufficiently organized collectivity, different people will be working in different sectors that deal with different problems demanding different ways of seeing (XIV). This division of labor and points of view is essential for creating the body of a political organization. This means that in a sense, the viewpoint of the organization is an outcome of organizing the different viewpoints that are internal to it. This is not, however, a matter of simple addition. There is in fact no necessary continuity between what the subjects involved in organizing see in order to address internal problems and what the organization seeks to represent while acting politically (IV, XII). This means that even if a certain organization is externally exploring problems in one dimension (for example, the matters of economic income for some deprived group), this does not entail that everyone inside that organization is navigating through the same lens as the organization itself. There might be people dealing with money flows while others are dealing with building internal trust in the organization. Even so, it is through the cooperation of these different subjects navigating internal problems (that all demand their own type of lens) that an organization can effectively see the relevant dimension of reality for its goals. We could thus say that to be a part of an organization is to participate in the conditioning of its viewpoint.
This two-sided nature of political organizations forces us to separate the question we initially posed into three different problems. The first question is the one we started with:
- Political organizations are subjects that are capable of sensing objects from certain worlds in accordance with the manner in which they are institutionally structured. Certain political problems, however, end up requiring shifts in their sensing capabilities. How is it that an organization might shift its perspective through different worlds?
We have tried to engage with this question through an adaptation of Reed’s ideas on multi-scalar navigation and have seen how the two conditions she outlines are adaptable to the framework adapted from Karatani’s work. As we have seen, however, our answer leaves open the specificity of the political organization as a navigating subject. When we account for its specificity (and it’s two-sided nature) we are forced to ask another question:
- A political organization is composed through the organization of subjects that organize themselves. The organization presents problems which require the subjects dealing with them to see certain objects (and to avoid others) so that they can work on them. This is usually done through a division of labor, tasks and issues internally between those involved in the organization. It must be noted, however, that an internal doubling of the former problem arises at this level since different concerns require different forms of representation. Different issues demand we deal with different objects that are seen through different worlds. We must thus ask the first question from the point of view of those subjects that compose a political organization. How do subjects navigate internally through different worlds?
This question is not resolved (or even treated) here, though we might guess that what is at stake here is the institutionality of an organization. This leads us to the third question (which seems to link the first and second question):
- To further understand this problem it is necessary to comprehend how different tasks (different positions inside an organization) end up constituting different perspectives. It is also necessary to understand how these different forms of seeing are able to relate to each other and to the ultimate goal of a certain organization. This is vital to our understanding because what one sees inside an organization is not necessarily of the same nature as the objects that the organization senses. How can these different internal points of view compose in a way that they may produce the capacity to sense what is relevant for this organization? (XII)
XIV. Case study: Internal dissent in a political organization
All that time, he said smiling, when they thought they were free, they were in fact lost without knowing it.
It must be said, however, that the problems we have discussed in the previous section (XIII) are not purely abstract. They are problems observed in one organization that some of us are part of, the Instituto de Outros Estudos (Institute of Other Studies, IOS). IOS is a Brazilian research institute organized by students (from undergraduate to post-docs) that is dedicated to understanding and helping students dealing with psychic and material academic distress and with the increasing exclusion from the academic community. This means that from the very beginning, we were trying to build an environment where people could try and live out their desire for a life in research at a moment when precariousness increased dramatically in the support system offered by universities. At the time of its inception this could be phrased in terms of two additional goals: a) focusing on helping to construct conditions for supplementing the income of students (affording them the time and resources to continue with their research), and b) fostering an environment where affective bonds would make people carry out their research collectively.
In order to accomplish this, the Institute was structured into three branches (also thought of as different “floors”): “academic support”, “teaching” and “research”. “Academic support” functions as a link between precarious academics who have services to sell (like revision, translation, tutoring and therapy) and academics in distress. The main goal here is to act as an intermediary where people who come to IOS seeking help are encouraged to eventually offer their own services through the platform. The “teaching” branch is a platform for academics to offer online classes based on their research and academic experience. The idea is that in the midst of the development of their research, academics can transform what they have studied into a short-course format that allows them to fund part of their research. Finally, the “research” branch (which has not yet been fully developed) is supposed to be a place where people can collectively develop their research and where some sort of knowledge concerning “academic precarity” can be produced (possibly even seeking outside funding). It must be noted that what is offered through IOS is not thought of as a high-end service, but one where trust is borne out of sharing the same type of social burden.
Map of the three main branches of IOS and their organizational structure.
One of the main problems we faced right from the start, as one can deduce, was how to link these three layers. Even though we were pretty confident in the division of the institute into three main branches, we were unsure how they would connect. Evidently, we had some “philosophical” ideas about how these three layers should be connected. In a sense, we thought people would enact a sort of bildungsroman
where they would “progress” from the outermost part of the institute (coming to the institute seeking help) to the innermost part (having your research affected by the problem of “academic distress” to the point of becoming intellectually engaged with this problem). This made a lot of sense before things started, but we quickly found out that producing any sort of internal consistency was in fact much harder than we had thought.
Two other supporting branches were created in order to maintain and help link the three main branches: the “marketing” and “financial” divisions, neither of which had any previously set goals aside from their supporting role. The former was to act on behalf of the main branches in order to to produce a link between what was produced inside IOS and its outside. In a sense, we could say that the “marketing” division was to be concerned with expressing a culture and a sense of belonging that we hoped would attract people to the institute (either as people working inside the organization or seeking our services). The “financial” division, on the other hand, was tasked with trying to figure out what to do with the money that entered the institute and what was the best way to divide what was earned and to think where exceeding revenue should be directed at. (Should we put more money in marketing campaigns? Should we buy computers and cameras so we could make them available for people who would offer classes?) If the “marketing” division sought to link what was produced inside the institute to its outside, it is not too far off to say that the “financial” division would be the link through which outside money would flow to the inside.
Map of the main and supporting branches of IOS, their organizational structure and the flow of income (in bold).
These practical functions do not exhaust what these supporting branches ended up becoming. Retrospectively we can say one of the main functions they performed was to provide an image of how the institute viewed itself and its effect in reality. Even though we failed to notice at the time, this twofold linking structure explains a lot of the issues we have faced in the past two years, since the different images produced by marketing and financial divisions of what the institute should be never really managed to harmonize. It is fair to say that they produced two different objects of desire (cultural and material support) that could not be sought simultaneously—something we learned only by trying to attain both of them.
This becomes clearer if we keep in mind how the institute actually developed. Very early on we thought that the kinds of social bonds we found to be generally missing in university life would be better constructed in the “academic support” branch. Not only was that sector concerned with providing support for students in distress through services offered by other students in distress, but it was also the branch that had in its structure the largest zone of contact with the outside of the institute. Neither the service seeker nor the service provider had to be involved in the institute, provided both of them registered their demands or their skills in our database. All that was needed was some sense of being part of a community of those excluded from the academic community. The only people inside the institute in this branch were people who linked the demands with the people who could attend to those issues. Because people were arriving (on both sides) at the institute on account of a shared problem, we hoped that solidarity would be the driving force of this transaction (instead of ordinary values of worth) and possibly even become a stepping stone for further involvement with the institute. Even though we imagined the “teaching” and “research” branches would also instill solidarity (maybe even stronger solidarity since people would be in closer contact), we have always known that they wouldn’t be able to affect as many people outside the institute.
Diagram of the institute from the point of view of the sense of community.
Our expectations in regards to money flow, however, were quite the reverse. As discussed above, one of the institute’s goals was to help turn undervalued (and often invisible) student experience into a form of material support for the students themselves. In this sense, the institute would work as a platform that would aid not only in connecting service seekers and providers but also in transforming this experience into something that could be sold as a service. Aside from this, we also needed to account for the labour that would produce this mediation. We figured that the money necessary to pay the people involved in the institute and any other expenses would come mostly through the “financial” and “teaching” branches. Even though a small percentage of “academic support” would be reverted back to the institute, we wanted to keep that tax at a minimum. In the production of online courses, we established a larger tax because more people from the institute would be involved with the production of the classes. This and the expectation that each course would bring a higher gross revenue than the services offered in the “academic support” branch made it plausible that courses would be one of the main forms of bringing revenue to the institute. We also thought that the “research” branch could be an even larger source of income through grants, though that path has not yet materialized. Even if we never fully managed to get consistent revenue through online classes, we did catch a glimpse of how much it would take to achieve a stability that allowed those involved in the institute to have a reasonable income evenly split between all involved.
Diagram of the institute from the point of view of the courses and services offered through the institute.
What this short description shows us is how the two actually working branches had different goals. The “academic support” group was mainly concerned with creating a sense of solidarity that would engage more people in the institute (expanding it from the outside in), while the “teaching” sector immediately focused on attracting more students to increase revenue (which in turn would allow the institute to expand from the inside out). The means of achieving these different goals, as we found out in practice, were not the same. After some inspiring success in the first courses offered (exceeding our expectations), those involved in the “teaching” branch took it upon themselves to be the main source of income that would allow the institute to survive the first moment of its history when its foundations were not as steady. They saw themselves as developing some sort of “war time economy” that would later be reshaped when enough ground was gained.
This was seen as an important first step because no one in the institute received any direct income for their work from the institute. Each person involved directly in the organization of the institute held a “coordinating position” in the branches where they worked. These positions had two functions. Firstly, they were forms of differentiating those inside the institute from those outside (and also making those inside the institute understand who to talk to depending on the issues faced). We did not, however, maintain strict boundaries. One of the main goals of the institute (as hard as this is in practice) was to be open to anyone. This means that there were infinite coordination spots and that people were working in more than one branch. Secondly, those occupying the coordinating positions were also seen as those that would be able to produce an organizational culture out of the community of those excluded from the academic community.
However, as mentioned, these were not salaried positions. This is why we introduced taxes for the services offered through the institute. Since there wasn’t any regular cash flow, any kind of income was dependent on the selling of those services (through the “academic support” or the “teaching” branches). Thus, the work done to link service requesters and service providers and produce the courses was seen as a temporary form of paying people indirectly for the organization of the institute. This, however, was not enough to accommodate all those involved. There were still a few people at the institute who were not able to get this indirect income.
Diagram of the institute from the point of view of the coordinating positions.
Through the “financial” branch they devised a plan to develop an internal basic income that would allow everyone to be involved in the institute without making anyone feel guilty for the time spent working for the institute. Since everyone involved in the institute was in a precarious position, it was not always easy to find the time to work for free. To do this it was necessary to have a certain amount of revenue per class offered through the institute’s online platform. The problem they faced, however, was not very easy. How would they be able to maintain (and increase) the number of students? They were in the middle of a salto mortale with no guarantee of being able to sell what they had to offer in the market. What would be necessary to make this happen? This was especially difficult since the teaching branch had constructed a relatively new online platform and had no past trust to support them.
It was at this moment that they turned to the “marketing” branch. They imagined that a well-conceived marketing campaign could attract a steady stream of students to the platform. We can see how things were starting to deviate from some of our collective goals. More and more, they were looking at people who were seeking the online courses not as potential companions in a common struggle but as customers that could finance the institute. What appeared to the “teaching” branch as a relevant object of desire was creating an internal basic income. It is not far off to say that those involved in the “teaching” and “financial” branches were looking at things through the logic of commodity exchange. Of course this was something that was brought about through a desire to produce material support for those involved in the institute so they could eventually expand the scope of the institute.
This did not work. The courses we offered were attracting less and less people (in relation to what was needed) and frustration soon set in. This frustration began to create communication lapses between the “teaching” branch and the “marketing” branch which caused inevitable tensions between the two sectors. From the “teaching” branch’s point of view the “marketing” sector was simply not creative enough. If there were less students this was a result of inefficient marketing. The “marketing” branch, on the other hand, did not receive clear (and meaningful) signals on what they were supposed to do. The demands were senseless (and too blunt, thought of only in terms of money), which created difficulties in directing how they needed to act. After some lackluster launches in the institute’s online platform, the “teaching” branch was on a break and the plans for an internal basic income were put on hold. What had gone wrong? How could this problem be solved? Those involved in the “teaching” sector sketched some possible answers, but before we get to them, we need to understand the miscommunication between the “teaching” and “marketing” branches.
It may seem as if the “marketing” branch was disconnected from what was happening at the institute. But that might just be an effect of looking at things through the money point of view. When we look at what that sector was doing, we can see that they were actively trying to produce a discourse about the problem of precarity in the contemporary university as a way to ground solidarity with those outside the institute. Those in the “marketing” sector were involved in making podcasts and magazines, organizing discussions on YouTube, elaborating educational material on social media that touched on the struggles of university students all over Brazil. Instead of growing the institute from the inside, those in that branch were trying to expand it from the outside by looking to attract others who shared the same burdens as those at the institute.
When we look at what “marketing” was doing from this angle, we can see how the demands from the “teaching” branch appeared as senseless. There was no concern for constructing solidarity between those involved in the platform of online classes and the students that would attend. There was, of course, empathy from an individual point of view, but institutionally it is not unfair to say that questions of money were prioritized over questions of solidarity. Not that solidarity was lacking, but it was pointed in another direction (for strategic concerns). It makes sense that there was a miscommunication because both sectors were looking for different things. It is not surprising that the “teaching” branch has recently been considering how it can create this solidarity and help foreground a culture which creates a sense for people to be involved with the institute as students.
Complete diagram of the three main points of view in the institute.
This story has a bittersweet ending. As mentioned above, we are currently at an impasse as to what directions we must take. It has, however, given us a lesson on some of the problems of navigating through different incommensurate perspectives (XII, XIII). The difficulties we have faced at the institute are not simply due to a lack of internal organization. What happened was that the internal organization (and the labour division it produced) ended up composing different points of view with different objects in sight (IV). It is not a problem that people inside an organization are concerned with different things; this becomes a problem if the different points of view available for those inside the organization end up creating an organizational point of view that is irreconcilably split. This is what happened at our institute, where it was possible to explore reality in terms of both solidarity bonds and financial bonds. This is not a bug but a feature, since the very problem we were trying to face had this double nature (II). The problem arises, however, because no proper mediations were institutionally put in place that allowed information to circle between these different points of view. We did not find this out until very recently, when it became clear that different parts inside the organization were looking at (and seeking) different things. It was only at that moment that we could begin to understand that all problems are not of the same nature and cannot be represented through the same lenses. If this has paralyzed some parts of the organization, it gives us insight into some aspects of organizing that we were not aware initially (V). Bittersweet indeed.
XV. Case study: the Modes of Exchange in Jackson, Mississippi
We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, We've been talkin’ ’bout Jackson Ever since the fire went out. I'm goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around, Yeah, I'm goin’ to Jackson, Look out Jackson town.
Jackson is the state capital of Mississippi, USA, and its most populated city. It owes its name to Andrew Jackson, who is considered by many the worst president in the history of the United States. Not only was he an enthusiast of slavery, but he was also responsible for one of the most terrible ethnical cleansing processes ever perpetrated in the country, the forceful removal of thousands of native Americans—mostly Cherokees—from the South. Behind this decision, motivating it, we find his economic interests in the indigenous land, his disgust for the abolitionist movement and his affinity with the white supremacy ideology of the land owners. Situated in the so-called Black Belt of the South, Jackson is today one of the poorest cities in the USA, with 175 thousand inhabitants, and one of the highest percentages of Black citizens (almost 80%)—second only to Detroit.
Who could imagine, then, that Jackson would be a good place to start a socialist experience, based on radical democracy and cooperative organization? How could this city, with its decadent landscape, high poverty rates and racial and political conflicts serve as a site for political experimentation? For Kali Akuno, these extent of these problems actually contribute to an answer:
The weak and relatively sparse concentration of capital in Mississippi creates a degree of “breathing room” on the margins and within the cracks of the capitalist system that a project like ours can maneuver and experiment within in the quest to build a viable anti-capitalist alternative.
For Akuno, Jackson is somehow at the limits of capitalism. But not only of capitalism—it is also at the edge of the American State, insofar as it represents a “weak link” in the bipartisan electoral system:
One reason why Mississippi is a weak link is because its Democratic Party is not particularly strong. The national party leadership takes the Black vote for granted and is reluctant to invest adequate resources because of the Republican Party’s firm grip on the overwhelming majority of white voters in the state.
A poorly developed commercial structure—or a “paternalistic capitalism” in which race speaks louder than money—and an absent Federal government turn Jackson into a sort of blind spot both to the mute constraints of Capital and the power of the State (II). And we could say that it was in the shadow of this blind spot, at this point of indifference or of a weaker link, that the activists of the New Afrika People’s Organization (NAPO) and the Malcom X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) managed to construct, consolidate and expand towards the electoral arena such a radical project, a project that has at its core a certain idea of Nation, a nation for the new afrikans in the interior of the United States of America. It was with this radical proposal that Chokwe Lumumba was elected in 2013. His election as Mayor was a triumph of political organization and a high point in the historical struggle of Black nationalism in the Mississippi—but we can also approach it from the standpoint of the relations between tradition and organization.
To better understand the success of Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign for office it is crucial to consider some historical, geographical and political factors that in 2013 turned Jackson—the right place and time for such a radical intervention.
The first of these is the role Lumumba himself had in the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) in 1971. The Republic was a Black nationalist organization that emerged in 1968 in Detroit with the purpose of creating an independent nation for African Americans inside the United States—more precisely in the Black Belt of the South. If it were not for this political movement, Chokwe Lumumba would surely still be known today by his Christian name, Edwin Finley Taliaferro—the change of name happened when he joined the RNA. Lumumba came to Jackson in March 1971 with the explicit task of acquiring a piece of land to establish a community there, the El Hajj Malik. At the time, the congress had approved the “New Communities Act”, which invited the creation of new cities in underdeveloped parts of Florida by making available some resources for these initiatives. “My parents,” says Rukia Lumumba, “together with other members of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika, recognized the urgent need of a similar plan for Jackson,” where, despite the gains in political representation, “the lack of control over resources, governmental structures, laws and basic accommodations led to lower income, a lack of local businesses, social infrastructure and the general incapacity of black people to create laws that would protect them from civil and State violence.”
El Hajj Malik was founded in Hinds County, near Bolton, on land bought by the RNA. Their objective was to consolidate a self-determining territory, capable of providing sustenance and security to a group of 500 black men, women and children. The initiative did not please the powerful white minority and the movement was closely watched, since the beginning, by the FBI. In 1971, a police raid led to gun fire between militants and the State, resulting in the judicial persecution of 11 members of the RNA, which was then severely weakened.
With the Republic being constantly pressured by the FBI, Lumumba decided to return to Detroit, where he studied Law at Wayne University. As a lawyer, he participated in a series of emblematic cases, for example, the one involving rapper Tupac Shakur and his aunt, the ex-Black Panther Assata Shakur, accused for the murder of a policeman in a shootout in New Jersey in 1973. Talking about Lumumba’s trajectory from the RNA to the city hall in Jackson, Bashar Sankara wrote: “He never renounced the goal of Black self-determination nor did he regret his activism from the time of the Republic of New Afrika. Lumumba told me […] that it was only the tactics that changed, considering the new political avenues opened to Black militants in the South.” And, it is true, the situation has changed considerably, as today there are at least 18 cities in the South of the USA with a Black majority that are capable of electing their representatives without too many obstacles. One of the routes towards self-determination, envisioned by Lumumba in this new context, was to run for office and use the municipal State-machine for the benefit of a non-statal political project. Here, the State started to become a means to oppose Capital and open the space for the return of the dream of constructing an independent Nation, a dream that was alive since the days of the Republic of New Afrika.
2. Jackson-Kush: Nation, State, Capital … and Nation
Let us now propose a brief analysis of the Jackson-Kush Plan, the basis of the radical platform that helped to elect Lumumba, using as our guide the different modes of intercourse developed by Karatani (II, XVII). The three modes—A, B and C—seem to appear in the three “programmatic aims” of their plan: the construction of a popular and sovereign power, based on direct democracy; the taking up of positions in institutional politics; and the development of a cooperative and solidarity-based economy.
The radical platform that led to Lumumba’s victory is organized around the Jackson-Kush Plan which brings together “the best practices in the promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economy, and sustainable development and combine them with progressive community organizing and electoral politics” with the objective of deepening “democracy in Mississippi and to build a vibrant, people centered solidarity economy in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi that empowers Black and other oppressed peoples in the state”. Three central programmatic aims directed the movement towards this goal:
- Building People’s Assemblies throughout the Kush District to serve as instruments of “dual power” to counter the abusive powers of the state and of capital whether regional, national or international.
- Building an independent political force throughout the state, but concentrated in the Kush District, which would challenge and replace the authority of the two parties of transnational capital, the Democrats and the Republicans, which dominated the arena of electoral politics in the state of Mississippi.
- Building a solidarity economy in Jackson and throughout the Kush district anchored by a network of cooperatives and supporting institutions to strengthen worker power and economic democracy in the state.
The relation between the MXGM and the RNA—both explicitly defending the project of an independent nation for the new afrikans in the interior of the USA—suggests that the communitarian form of organization, mode A, serves here as the starting point of the political process. Though the idea of national sovereignty no longer has the same weight in the discourse of these activists today, who prefer to focus on the idea of self-determination, the idea of a community based on free association and reciprocity remains a central concern and guiding thread. It is on top of this communitarian basis—or this dual-power strategy—that the Jackson militants then seek engagement with electoral politics. The municipal power is seen as a means towards self-determination, not because it is the legitimate or the only path towards it, but because it remains today a blockage in the way of the Black population of Jackson, a majority which still receives attention and resources from the State.
One of the aims of Chokwe Lumumba, as a Mayor, was to remove this obstacle and seek a more egalitarian use of public funds. With this in mind, he invested in infrastructural improvements that the city needed, with a focus on improving the transportation system and sanitary conditions. Furthermore, Lumumba improved the conditions for local worker cooperatives to compete for government bids against larger companies. By stimulating cooperative endeavours and the development of a solidary economy, they aimed at promoting an alternative structure to that of capital, grounding labour and commerce in Jackson on cooperation rather than competition (III, V).
What we see in the Jackson-Kush Plan is therefore popular power (mode A) mobilized to intervene at municipal power (mode B) as a way to resist the power of Capital (mode C)—all of this in view of reorganizing the city through a cooperative logic that could serve the needs and desires of a self-determining community (mode A).
If the theory of a multilayered transcendental structure, proposed in our diagram, really allows us to synthesize the different paths that political organization might take in our struggles against contemporary capitalism, then the radical political experiment that is taking place in Jackson offers some interesting insights about what it means to intervene, simultaneously, at the three layers that compose the “Nation-State-Capital” complex (V). But to learn from them, one must always pay close attention to the impasses and failures that inevitably plague the process—issues that are really well documented in the book Jackson Rising—trying to consider, above all, if this particular political experience could come to encompass similar movements elsewhere and if it is sustainable in its current scale.
Another important aspect concerns the question of Black nationalism. It is crucial to note that when we describe this return to the community, we are no longer talking about the same community (much less the same Capital or state). As we have seen, when Jackson’s activists aim to use the state apparatus to foster cooperation, to build a solidarity economy as a way to self-determination, they are trying to make something new (VI). Although ancestrality and tradition, for instance, are two huge issues for the activists, the alliance which is at stake here goes further than restating something that was lost. Not just because political actors other than the Black people are also considered—Native Americans, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ and other minorities, for instance—but because there is a strategic conceptual change when they talk about self-determination rather than national sovereignty. The emphasis, now, is on the organizational effort. Tradition, especially the radical tradition of black people, is not forgotten at all. The memory of all past struggles, their mistakes included, is still alive at the heart of this new organization. However, the new community they aim to build today is based, above all, on the collective struggle against the Nation-State-Capital complex—probably, we would suggest, because, among other things, they learned from past errors. It is precisely the above-mentioned emphasis on the organizational aspect that interests us, insofar as it could teach us something about how to be radical in the 21st century. We might say, perhaps, that a Nation seen from the perspective of Black struggle is not the same as the Nation-form that appears to us as individual citizens.
XVI. Case Study: Braking the Platforms in the Brazilian Courier Strikes
The power of numbers was expanded by movement, as the hydra journeyed and voyaged or was banished or dispersed in diaspora, carried by the winds and the waves beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. Sailors, pilots, felons, lovers, translators, musicians, mobile workers of all kinds made new and unexpected connections, which variously appeared to be accidental, contingent, transient, even miraculous.
1. The platform atom and the atomized worker
It’s common to hear among couriers heated debates delving into the meanders of the platform’s algorithm. The gamified app—with its intricate system of prizes, incentives and punishments—brings to mind the asymmetric phenomenology between the player in the casino, guessing transient patterns throughout the frenetic flashes of the slot machine screen, and the house, which only has to assert a certain statistical aggregate gain across all individual “lucky” and “losing” games. In the streets, the rider gambles his options and risks, accepting and rejecting delivery offers, piercing red lights, exploiting bugs in the algorithm; all to obtain gains above average, competing against his two-wheeled peers. Experienced riders often brag about being able to game the app, and complain about the rookies who have just joined the platform and accept all delivery offers in the app, thus pushing the overall payments down.
In contrast to the classical wage-form regulating the relation between worker and capitalist in the Fordist workplace, the app rider is remunerated by work piece, earning his pay ride by ride. On standby until his phone rings with an offer: a delivery route with a stochastic pay rate that he must wage whether to accept or reject. In contrast with the spatiotemporal regularity of the wage, which quantifies in a stable and known quantity the monthly gains of a typical worker, the platform worker watches his gains fluctuate as a direct and individual function of his own effort, though remaining largely ignorant of the rules that determine how his gains are calculated. The porosity of wage work—through which slack and idleness can seep in—gives way to the discreteness of piece work and the unremunerated waiting time between task offers. As wage becomes a wager, the worker appears as a player working “inside a black box, […] divested of all the usual ways to orient themselves inside the labor process”. This apparent gain in immediacy between the worker’s activity and his earnings at the individual level comes at the expense of a gain in opacity over the overall social logic of his work and the general unbinding to other workers who are negatively related through competition instead of being equated by falling under the same wage class (mathematically, we can say the wage really turns the worker into an equivalence class). In this process, work is subjectively experienced as a form of individual entrepreneurship where effort—a mixture of luck and personal virtue—is the main determinant of success and where other riders appear only incidentally as sharing a common condition of exploitation (III, IV)—such that they can aid each other and conspire together—since their fellow co-workers must also be put under suspicion given that they also share the common belief that at the end of the day every worker is by himself, dashing about in the midst of the daily free-for-all.
From the perspective of the platform, on the other hand, the individual rider—with his city route and working hour choices, incidental street accidents and occasional scams, all influenced by his own domestic economy of incentives, debts and expenses—can only appear as a noisy signal which it is able, up to a certain degree, to sense and control. It is only when all the delivery microdata is aggregated into the right macro variables, e.g. supply and demand signals, rate of successful deliveries, customer satisfaction indices etc., that the effective logical resolution of the platform emerges, where profitability, big data, network, market share and value exist and function. In a city, couriers have ingeniously learned to coordinate so they could directly interact with such macro variables: in an Whatsapp group called “us over there”, hundreds of riders would meet outside the city center close to highway exits in order to decrease the offer of labor in the region thereby making the dynamic rate go up.
Although the pandemic has brought delivery services to a new scale as people have grown accustomed to ordering all sorts of goods from their homes, cities like São Paulo had already had an enormous fleet of motorcycle delivery workers, known as motoboys. Below the homogeneous and ever expanding functional space of the platform, what the delivery platforms really operated —in their words, the “service” of “connecting” their “partners” and “collaborators”—was the (real) subsumption of ever larger contingents of this dispersed and heterogenous gig economy of delivery work that already existed (from the guy who would take a delivery gig in his neighborhood pizzeria during the weekend to supplement his income, to the old-school courier (the “root” motoboy) with his own contact list of reliable clients that he personally negotiated the fees, or the small fleets of delivery “express” companies). In a sense, platforms can be said to operate a kind of new process of enclosure, seizing the logistical and informational means of organizing work once possessed by delivery workers (e.g. maps and routes, client lists etc.) while outsourcing to them the costs and risks of acquiring and maintaining the material means of delivery work (e.g. bikes, gas, cell phones, internet fees, repair costs etc.). Despite this abstracting force, which could suggest a modernizing gain brought about by these impersonal and bureaucratic forms, what we find here is a concomitant increase in forms of direct and despotic algorithmic control (e.g. the arbitrary power of the platform to temporarily or permanently suspend the account of the courier as a means to discipline and punish his use of the platform, with marginal conditions for a fair defence or appeal) and of personal domination (e.g. the use of fleet managers via third-party contractors, the so-called Logistic Operators (OL), by the platform which employs “OL leaders” to directly manage and enforce the work shifts and productivity of a “team” of couriers and whose ties to organized crime have reportedly been leveraged to obtain new levels of control over labour and repress strike activity).
This year, couriers that routinely work for Rappi Turbo, an app service promising deliveries in under 10 minutes, at one of their supply warehouses located in a rich neighborhood in São Paulo had their work perimeter near the store blocked by the platform after alleged complaints that they were crowding in front of the store and disturbing the nearby neighbors. As they began to protest, deliveries from the store were interrupted, and the platform responded via the app with a targeted message: “Do not gather with other couriers in public spaces to avoid being suspended. Keep two meters of distance from restaurant workers, couriers and consumers.” With this almost too conspicuous form of a threat, the platform algorithmically enforced an efficient economic control, dispersed its workforce and actively dissolved the formation of common workspaces or organized resistance.
We’ve seen how what counts for the platform doesn’t operate on the same scale as that of the worker’s day-to-day experience. In fact, the process of platforming can be defined precisely by the “production of differences of levels or planes” where differences of agency, sensibility and visibility are established “through the mapping of statistical correlations within large populations”. Above the platform—technically called the Application Programming Interface (API)—we find the abstract and closed space of the user interface and experience with its swift functionalities and clean graphical representations; hidden under the platform, below-the-API, the sale boulot, the invisible mass of labour that makes the wheels turn, with its poor-man’s interface, which can hardly see or control but is seen and controlled at all times. The disorienting myopia of the worker—who can see the direct and individual economic gains of every delivery he completes with the “expenditure of [his own] human brain, nerves and muscles” but not the algorithm which governs the overall logic behind his work, veils his relation to other workers and effaces the social character of his work—contrasts with the efficacious far-sightedness of the platform whose logical atom of count is not each of its individual workers with their street knowledge of the “man on the spot”; these appear only when bulked, as a just-in-time workforce mass that can be mobilized on demand at any time and at any place in the city, together with other statistical variables mined by the platform’s operational domain.
We’ve also noted how the platform maximally extracts information relevant to its self-valorization yet only gives away minimal or even negative information when interfacing with its workforce; it not only veils but also actively destroys information that was once part of the worker’s world so that the process of platformization of work encompasses both the mechanisms of informing and deforming of work—hinging on the uncanny affinity between platforms and informal work where what is as stake is the loss of form of work. This should be taken in a double sense: for the worker, the platform is both not informative and not informing, that is, information and form are two sides of the same coin. So on the one hand, we have the processes of veiling and corruption of information: the interactions with the platform are epistemically poor, leading to experiences of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Take, for instance, the faceless and glitchy experience often mentioned by app riders of talking to the chatbot assistant in order to appeal against an arbitrary punishment by the app. Information given by the app is not only minimal but chaotic, such that inputs to it don’t translate into consistent and predictable outputs and no cognitive mapping of platform logic by the courier is possible; here, the bug is a feature which produces a frustrated sense of agency. On the other hand, we have the mechanisms of loss of form, since interactions with the platform are also minimally informing and deforming, meaning that platformization (or uberization) can act over social spaces that are largely heterogeneous and hybrid, reorganizing them not by producing social homogenization, i.e. new social bonds, but by deepening social fragmentation. Could we not see this in terms of a corollary of commodity fetishism (VII) according to which, under capitalist logic, the socialization of the workforce (a special case of commodities in general) and the socialization of workers (the people who do the actual labour) aren’t the same process (XI); that they do not go hand in hand, but the former actually happens at the expense of the desocialization (a.k.a. reification) of the latter, its loss of agency, visibility and interconnection? More and more the formation of the 20th-century wage society via the Fordist industrialization seems to have been an exceptional period in capitalism rather than its general tendency; instead, the current recomposition of capital seems to happen through a process of class decomposition (III).
The almost incommensurable asymmetry between the experience of the worker and the logic of the platform that we started with may not come as a surprise once we stop assuming that a neutral, single and consistent bird’s eye view of social reality exist and we take from the starting point that the perspective of capital is not the same as the perspective of the worker, i.e. that the conditions of interaction, intelligibility and composition of capital are not the same as the conditions of the organization of workers (I, IV). But since the gap in perspective between the objective phenomenology of capital and that of workers concerns an antagonistic opposition, we may thus ask how does one operate (concretely, not intellectually) such a parallax shift towards a perspective of the worker in the midst of the informalization of work in contemporary capitalism? The classical name for this operator is class struggle; however, to talk about class and struggle seems to assume a type of consistency and unity that may not be so readily available to us anymore: workers do not seem to exist as a class in any clear sense nor do conflicts seem to cohere around a unified struggle against capital. If so, one way to start answering this question may be to investigate—repeating the Operaist gesture of a workers’ inquiry—and ask: what form does conflict take in today’s gig?
2. The site of the brake and the collapse of the platform
Memes do not call for interpretation so much as improvisation. If they challenge us to assume a posture or disposition, it would be less that of the scholar than the visionary who remains on the lookout for iterable gestures, those creative acts that harbor a new sequence of experimental repetition.
In the frontline of the pandemic together with health workers, supermarket cashiers, telemarketing workers (deemed part of the essential services in Brazil), the delivery workers are also in the frontier of capital’s subsumption and exploitation of informal work; these forms once thought to be proper to peripheries of third-world countries where the wage society hadn’t yet fully set in now seem to constitute an inverted vanguard where central countries can anticipate themselves. As social isolation measures took hold and unemployment continued to rise, delivery companies saw both the demand for e-commerce, food delivery and office packages, and the offer of people having to get by signing up on the platform soar. Alas, as older riders experienced their occupation grow in size, social relevance and risk amid the new conditions set by the virus and economic crisis, they also saw their earnings plummet and their working days prolong. In this scenario, courier protests began to pop up throughout the urban landscape of the country: noisy swarms of honking motorcycles crossed the city and delivery bags were placed in avenues, interrupting the flow of cars. Less visibly, delivery bags were also stacked into pyramids in front of McDonalds, shopping malls, warehouses and dark kitchens as riders formed picket lines and interrupted both the exit of delivery orders and the arrival of unsuspecting or ill-intended riders. This last tactic, called by couriers “breque”, which translates to “pushing the brake” on the delivery orders, named the strike movement of the 1st
of July, 2020, as Breque dos Apps, around which these protests coalesced nationally for the first time. One can’t help recalling Walter Benjamin’s image of the revolution as an emergency brake being pulled on the train of history: here, instead of intervening in the temporal logic of Progress—already interrupted by the end of the world that announces itself—we find the call for the interruption of the spatialized flows of commodities.
After flowing through the arterial ways of train tracks, maritime routes and interstate roads, urban truck and car drivers, motorcycle delivery workers compose the infamous last-mile of capilarized logistical infrastructure where the global supply chains terminate. It has been hypothesized that the strategic center of both capitalist valorization and social conflict has shifted from the paradigm of the factory and production to that of logistics and circulation. Indeed, the Brazilian cycle of courier strikes during the pandemic, though more modest in scale and impact, should be understood in the same political sequence as the massive urban revolts triggered by the increase in bus fares in 2013 and the national strike of truck drivers that in 2018 paralyzed the country, bringing the government to its knees, all of which were composed of a revolting precariat that coordinated the interruption of the circulation flows rather than production sites of commodities.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, courier protests have waxed and waned, and although iFood—the biggest company operating in the country—did make some minor yet tangible concessions to the strikers, it did not hesitate to spend money on Super Bowl-like ads during strike days and organize an in-person forum with hand-picked representatives of the courier movement from all over the country to “hear” their demands and promote a “continuous dialogue”. This last initiative of the company followed a recent and impressive succession of strikes that traveled—as if an Olympic torch was being passed, as strikers remarked—along several mid-sized cities in the state of São Paulo and in some of them—like São José dos Campos, Jundiaí and Paulínia—lasted for over a week, during which the delivery services of the entire cities where practically put to a halt by pickets in malls and main restaurant chains. These marketing and organizational efforts from iFood to counter the movement parallel, on one hand, the courier movement’s attempt to target the image of companies (to which their market value is particularly sensitive) via online consumer campaigns that involved thrashing the companies’ image with bad reviews in the App Store and trending hashtags like #theworstcompanyintheworld; on the other, the organization of the forum anticipated the couriers’ own attempts to consolidate an organizational network of “frontline” riders capable of coordinating actions between large cities and on the national level.
In the motorized parades, where hundreds to thousands of riders could gather at times, the couriers found themselves part of a fast and noisy collective swarm. In contrast with their solitary and scattered lifestyle—riding on their own, zigzagging through car traffic—they constituted a sort of modern cavalry capable of imposing their speed and loudness on their surroundings—slowing down avenues, blocking bridges and attracting the attention of TV stations. As such, like other political parades, these demonstrations have the function of (i) enacting a display of strength, which is a matter not of taking any effective action but of showing a contagious capacity to mobilize and a menace to provoke disruptive acts, and (ii) making the body of the movement visible to society and to itself as it takes to the streets; more precisely, the movement sees itself when it knows it has been seen as such by others (hence the decisive importance of learning after the fact whether the protest appeared on the news or didn’t appear anywhere; in the latter case, one feels as if the action didn’t really take place at all). In the beginning of the pandemic, such demonstrations provoked a large reaction on the part of the media and the civil society, who came to acknowledge that these invisibilized workers were also frontline workers who made it possible for people to eat and work safely from their homes; the media coverage of the protests and their working conditions made “delivery app workers” into a thing in the public discourse.
However, although the parades were certainly “noticed” by the companies who also read the newspapers, they by themselves don’t allow the couriers to have any clear and effective interaction with the companies. Instead, such a line of action can advance by (i) passing from demonstrating a capacity to act to the actual action of interrupting the functioning of the city (e.g. blockades of avenues and highways) in an expanding movement into the territory of the riot, as was seen in the 2013 protests against the increase in bus fares or in the truck drivers’ strike of 2018 and, often simultaneously, by (ii) institutional continuations, where demonstrations have the performative role of constituting socially recognized actors whose demands can later on be institutionally represented by some apparatus—typically recognized by the State (movement leaders, official unions, MPs etc.).
As the couriers picket delivery sites, which came to be known as a brake, the everyday Kafkian frustration of dealing with the algorithm through their cell phones, gives way to the tense empowerment of seizing control of the worksite: announcing the blockade by piling up their delivery bags at the establishments’ entrances, they must, on the one hand, notify the restaurant or kitchen workers (who often gladly support them) and negotiate with them so that the platform is shut down, and, on the other, wittingly explain the on-going action to unwary riders while they harshly bar scabs from collecting delivery orders—often called “the hungry ones” by the strikers. A brake can thus be used to put pressure on restaurants by forcing them to halt their delivery platform until they give in to some demand, such as allowing the couriers to use the bathrooms, give them access to plugs and water, diminish the waiting times for receiving the orders etc.
When used as a strike tactic against the delivery platforms, the sites blockaded then become a mean, an instrument to disrupt the delocalized operations of the platform; once thought to be out of reach (talk of a hacker who could attack the virtual platform is often heard), the clouds are raided as work below-the-API stops. The platform appears to incarnate in a kind of collapse of scales as its services are disrupted and orders stop flowing; while one needs to “rise” to the level of the platform to interact with it via its codified communication protocols, disruptive interventions can intervene at any level as long as it is part of the material support of the platform’s functional space. As it endures, the braked site becomes a live organ of the movement, a “user interface” with new interventive powers and sensors (V): the ready food orders now getting cold on the counters, the financial losses are snitched by restaurant workers, the store business owners’ dissatisfaction is transmitted to the platform, and the platform users are angry with the unreliable service. At some point, the representatives of the platform are expected to come in person to negotiate; although the riders perhaps know they will be taken for a ride by the representatives, they also learn that their actions produce effects—they can come to exist as workers to the platform.
As the normality of daily work routine is suspended, the worksite is transformed by the blockade into a site not only of political experience but of experimentation with the means of production and reproduction of the struggle. The strike based on site blockades follows a military-like logic of territorial conquest and expansion, where strikers have to constantly make logistical assessments of their resources (e.g. number of strikers, food and water, the balance of the strike fund etc.) in order to coordinate motorized rounds to maintain and establish new blockades. And yet, at each site, solidarity ties grow stronger as strikers mingle together and the atmosphere changes according to the stakes at each moment: from contentious situations when private or public security forces and strikebreakers put the blockade at risk, normally when demand is at its peak; the calm hours of the afternoon when barbecues are organized, strikers rest and bore themselves (after all, the brake of work isn’t but a work break with no time to finish it); to late at night when spirits are still high and bodies exhausted as strikers discuss in assemblies the next steps of their movement. Conversely, blockaded sites risk isolation if they become self-absorbed by their local realities and dynamics, and thus face the challenge of expanding their zone of influence and being able to instigate and compose with distal parts of the struggle (e.g. other stores, cities, states and so on).
If the strike survives into the next day—a critical threshold that can indeed be crossed, as riders in several cities in the state of São Paulo have recently demonstrated—and then lasts for several days, the means of guaranteeing the strikers’ material reproduction, such as organizing strike funds, winning the support of the local population and attracting media attention, becomes paramount to the persistence of the movement, at the risk of declining either by financial stress or isolation. At the edge of material reproduction, making ends meet and working shifts that can reach 12 hours or more, the strikers’ stakes are high because their pockets grow emptier every hour they’re not working. This explains the fury with which strikers on a blockade react when they see a strikebreaker—scabs will not only enjoy the improvements achieved by strikers, but they may also earn more money because the strike reduces the supply of labour. Not surprisingly, before and during strikes, iFood often releases nasty delivery bonuses for each ride in the city in order to tempt their workers to break the strike (more obscenely, an increase in the bonuses frequency is often amont the strikers’ demands…).
A characteristic of delivery work shared by most transportation services is that the workspace is not confined to the interior space of a private property, such as an office, a factory or a warehouse; as delivery routes connect pickup sites (e.g. restaurants, dark kitchens, offices) to the drop location (e.g. homes) across the urban territory, the workforce is constituted as a dispersed and capillarized ensemble such that the day-to-day work experience is commensurate with the multiple dynamics and scales of the city. Here, strikes—the coordinated interruption of work within a workspace—become particularly sensitive to the scale and logic of the metropolis. Indeed, so far, only cities with less than a million inhabitants have been able to sustain strikes for over a day. In São José dos Campos, a city with over seven hundred thousand inhabitants in the state of São Paulo, couriers put the delivery services to an almost complete standstill for six days, obliging iFood to sit to negotiate for the first time and triggering a wave of strikes in the nearby cities that together lasted over a month. There, the size of the city was such that couriers knew each other personally (including the restaurant owners who were dissatisfied with the rates charged to them by the app and initially supported the movement by shutting down the platform), and with a fleet of about five thousand couriers working in the city they were able to picket the main delivery services of the city—the four shopping malls and couple dozen chain restaurants. They relied on about sixty active strikers who formed mobile rounds and took turns securing the blockades throughout the day.
On the other hand, in a megalopolis like the city of São Paulo, the sheer size and speed of urban fluxes make it very hard to establish a durable and sufficiently vast network of couriers that can coordinate their actions and communicate with one another; the dispersed and sparse worksite, the occupational rotativity, the harsh and violent character of urban experience all hinder the formation of stable personal ties and groups. This is intensified by the logic of Whatsapp groups—the main channel couriers use to communicate, both for and against work—which riders join as swiftly as they leave them, bonding and breaking contacts with other colleagues as they send audio messages between one delivery and the other (e.g. notifying each other of police stops, complaining about work, fund-raising for colleagues in need etc.). With such an immense fleet of over 280,000 delivery workers and a vast urban territory, even if a significant region of the city organizes a successful strike (as has happened before in the city’s East Zone or in Guarulhos, a city that is part of the same metropolitan region) any stronghold faces the urge to expand spatially or intensify its degree of political appearance in order not to be overwhelmed by the tyrannical scale of non-strikers—an army of standby labour that responds on demand to anywhere the platform is still operational—making money off the movement.
In last year’s second national strike of the Brake of the Apps movement, both the organizers—who had spent the last month since the first strike leafleting in the streets and placing stickers on the delivery bags—and media reporters who were looking for spectacular images of motorcycle swarms filling the avenues were underwhelmed by the feeble attendance at the blockades and parades across the country. And still, in the city of São Paulo, one remarkable thing that the disappointed protesters acknowledged, but that otherwise went largely unnoticed and unreported, was how few delivery bags could be seen riding on top of motorcycles that day. Delivery workers hadn’t taken the streets but had collectively turned off their apps to take the day off to rest and spend time with their families—not a minor feat for workers whose lives are constantly caught up in the rush of the streets. The phenomenon was certainly large enough that the absence of delivery workers was perceptible in the streets and that significant financial losses for platform apps can be inferred; the “pajama strike” was a real thing with material effects, but there were no objective means available to measure or represent such phenomena—companies surely made precise but private assessments of their losses, so they could act as if nothing had happened that day. As a matter of fact, the blockade tactic often faces a similar problem of visibility and representation: a strike can be sustained in a mid-sized city with the invisible support of many that log off their apps and just a handful of active strikers that circulate from one blockaded site to another, so that from the outside it appears quite unstriking: an unwary passer-by may not even realize something—the doldrums of suspended flows—is going on and even a photojournalist that knows what is happening might have a hard time finding a newsworthy image.
The problem of the means of representing and knowing the political stakes of a strike is of course not restricted to the exterior of the movement, i.e. to the way the movement appears to society in social media and the news, but to the couriers themselves (XIII). In fractured and dispersed social spaces, knowledge about what happens is neither immediately experienced nor universally accessible, but is dependent on the material assembling of spaces where information can be mutually exchanged and acknowledged by the parts in order for common knowledge to emerge (III). In the days following the call for the first Brake of the Apps national strike—which, should be noted, wasn’t made by an official union but decided through an informal poll in an group chat with couriers from different states—dozens of delivery workers from all over the country, from cities that weren’t even involved in the initial call, began to record themselves to confirm the participation of their city. As the videos began to circulate, the call for an event was effectively turned into a political fact. A militant group who used the couriers’ recordings shared in group chats to edit videos with both an investigative and agitprop character remarked on how such “homemade” videos helped the movement measure its own capacity for collective action because they functioned as a thermometer of the struggle: “When the mobilization is hot, the workers record themselves, they take it upon themselves to build the struggle. The [worker’s] inquiry becomes a self-inquiry.”
In another video that circulated in the groups during the chain of strikes in the state of São Paulo this year, a sort of audiovisual DIY instruction manual, couriers simulated a picket in a shopping mall and gave “tricks and tips” on how to brake the deliveries. Given that the blockade suddenly alters the normal functioning of the social space, the video—a result of lessons drawn from previous brakes—provided new strikers with a cognitive blueprint that helped them navigate the new space breaking open and anticipated provisional solutions for what could be done in the face of the problems that could be expected.
In the image and likeness of informal work, contemporary struggles tend to be fragmented, fluid and unpredictable. Like the rush of riding through the streets—the endless back-and-forth between speeding and braking amid the nonstop roaring and honking, pushing the limit between going faster and preventing life-threating accidents—courier struggles can end as violently and abruptly as they begin, and it’s often unclear which lessons can be drawn, much less which steps to be taken next. The riders that emerge as fierce informal leaders during the strike often quit during such ebbing periods, leaving a lingering collective hangover that can be hard to recover from. Therefore, after a cycle of struggle comes to an end the movement still faces the challenge of representing and elaborating what happened (XII, XIII). Whether through conversations, videos or news articles—as long as the existence of the movement transcends the private memories of its participants—it becomes a matter of collectively inscribing failure (even when concrete victories are achieved, there is always the lingering sensation of a something more that could have been but was not); that is, the task of finding the means to “organize the consequences of defeat” which “might allow us to mourn and work through a defeat, and ultimately to learn how to fail better”.
In one of the protests in São Paulo, where the union—which officially only represents the minority of deliverers with stable wage contracts, but is otherwise largely despised by delivery app workers—was to be present, a hand-painted banner with the words “motoboys united without unions” was held by some of the riders. The banner with the phrase was reproduced in the following weeks in the nearby cities of Guarulhos and Carapicuíba by couriers who blockaded several McDonald’s, Burgers Kings and other restaurant chains from early morning to late at night. The first thing to note here is that the motto is not a plain negation, that is, not a call to fight against unions; rather, it leverages a critical attitude towards unions to affirm the possibility of other forms of unities among workers, i.e. subtractive unions. Moreover, we should be careful not to easily dismiss this as some sort of bourgeois (or neoliberal) ideological capture, but also consider the role unions and union law in Brazil have historically taken as part of an extended apparatus of the State to mitigate and manage class conflicts. Still, the form of an infinite judgement “U is not-S” in the formulation, which by denying the finite representational space of recognizable and existing forms of union opens up an infinite space of unionless unions, does not fail to produce anguish. After all, perhaps worse than the official union taking over the demonstrations from the organizing couriers, is if the official union does not shows up and the protests fail nonetheless, now due to the couriers own inability to unite autonomously (the burden of such a task is harder to bear when one considers the almost unlimited size of the set to be unified). One militant courier often said that “the biggest enemy of the courier are not the apps, it’s himself”, which was sometimes followed by the rant: “Ah, motoboys are a hell of a disunited kind!”
The wildcat strikes—in which delivery sites were picketed, motorized parades were held and users collectively logged off the platform—, the self-organized media production and dissemination, coupled with coordinated campaigns to damage the companies’ image; the chaotic dynamic of Whatsapp groups and the laborious efforts to unite—both regionally and nationally—without unions or politicians; the management of strike funds and the emergence of small delivery cooperatives, but also the day-to-day mutual aid for those in need; under the platform, and against the backdrop of the fractured, conflictual and entropic terrain of a world of work without workers, the couriers have begun to tactically explore and painstakingly construct the organizational space of their common struggle (VI). As was the case with the enraged riders who one day decided to pile up their delivery bags, what starts as an unnamed gesture of refusal or, more precisely, of affirmation of a refusal, circulates and spreads as its political efficacy is gauged, coming into existence as a recognizable and reproducible social practice. The iteration of the tactic produces political sites: spaces where political recomposition occurs and from where new ways (I)—unavailable during the atomized normality of the working hours—to collectively exist and probe capital can be drawn. By means of this perturb-and-measure
procedure, the resistance offered by the social objects one interacts with (e.g. platform capital, police, other workers etc.) allows for political consequences to be gauged, so that exploitation and the organization against it can begin to be effectively thought; not in general, but from within the world of the brake.
XVII. Open Questions on Topoi and Complex Worlds
Logical triplicity and an infinitude of infinities—these are the keys to a general theory of happiness, which is the end goal of all philosophy.
We have seen that our “objective phenomenology” approach leads us to conceive different modes of intercourse, or modes of organization, as logical spaces whose objects are “transcendentally structured” not by how they appear to us, but rather by the relations they establish amongst each other (I). We have seen that this includes the possibility of defining points of view internal to these spaces as well as means of slicing and synthetizing
objects within them, determining what counts as efficacious parts and wholes.
This general approach to the logic of social worlds has led us, first, to the hypothesis that category theory, with its compositional grammar, could serve as a natural environment to explore these intuitions and, second, to a reconstruction of Kojin Karatani’s work on the complex structure of social formations in terms of a multilayered transcendental structure for social worlds (II). We notate these layers as TA, TB and TC for kinship, state and commodity logics, respectively, and write with superscript “TX” the one which functions as the dominant mode in a given social formation. In the case of a capitalist social formation, we have TC. These three transcendental layers, plus their sums and the “borromean object” K, form the complex structure presented in our initial diagram.
The overall consistency of our research project, however, relies on the inner consistency of this formal construction. And this brings us to an open problem, which we present here in the hope that you, the reader, might help us.
As of now, we have managed to reconstruct, with remarkable results, the commodity logic presented by Marx in the first volume of Capital within the categorial structure called a topos. A topos is a Cartesian closed category which has a subobject classifier—that is, it can express, solely in terms of morphisms, a language for its propositions. Being Cartesian closed means the topos has enough internal expressivity so that it contains all finite limits, colimits and exponentials; it must be large enough so that larger objects can be consistently constructed from smaller ones and complex objects can be broken into simple ones obeying a compositional rule. The subobject classifier defines subobjects in terms of what can be meaningfully distinguished from within the topos itself—in other words, it slices objects using predicates internal to the category. As we have shown (XI), there is a consistent treatment of the logic of value as a category with limits for all its diagrams—through the universal property guaranteed by the money-commodity—and a classifier with a Heyting algebra that defines the truth-values for commodity-valuations between them.
A Heyting algebra—commonly understood to be the natural order-structure for logic in topoi—is an intuitionistic one: generalizing Marx’s treatment of exchange relations, we show that the logic of commodity value actually accepts that two commodities be (i) absolutely exchangeable, (ii) partially so, (iii) incomparable or (iv) not exchangeable at all. It takes, therefore, additional structure to guarantee that for every commodity, there will always be some amount of a money-commodity which will be equivalent to it, thus forming a consistent exchange space.
However, our current hypothesis is that a crucial part of the distinctiveness of each layer comes from the type of logic that is intrinsically built into it.
Our current approach to TB, for example, suggests that its transcendental structure is essentially classical, admitting only two truth-values: true and false. While value relations between two commodities can be evaluated in multiple ways—we can have a p-degree of exchangeability between them, for example—social contracts that establish agreement between two wills either obtain or not. An agreement between two parties, even under violent conditions, the subjection to a sovereign, a right guaranteed by law or the ownership of some property (VII)—these are all “classical” phenomena. Here, no third option exists, no intermediate level of obligation, and no contradictory relations appear to this logical space itself—as one cannot both own and not own something, have and not have a right, and so on.
On the other hand, we claim that the logic of TA is neither intuitionistic nor classical, but rather paraconsistent. That is, the logical space which conditions phenomena of reciprocity, in the formation of communities, gift-exchange and kinship structures, admits—as Levi-Strauss claimed, and anthropologists, sociologists and psychoanalysts further confirm—a sort of “perpetually unbalanced duality”, which, sometimes, requires us to accept situated contradictions as true (IX). The exchange of gifts, for example, constitutes an unstable relation, in the sense that a counter-gift is only appropriate if it is inappropriate, that is, if it is recognized as being “too much”—which, in turn, will yield the need for a new gift cycle etc. The coherence between perspective shifts in Amerindian cosmologies also implies that opposing predicates such as “human” and “non-human'' be assignable to the same actors, while “modern” communities, formed around affinities or some shared attribute, still need to respond to a similar imbalance. The assumed separation of an interior from an exterior must do away with the markers of an “internal exteriority”—such as the different relations that each member establishes with that common trait or the underlying common ground that binds members of the group to those they oppose.
In topological terms, a paraconsistent space has infinite intersections between closed sets: between two disjunct groups, some paradoxical common point can sometimes be established. We believe we have found a topos-theoretic way of modeling this logic through a sort of dual to Heyting-valued topoi which uses the logic of closed rather than open sets, called a Brouwer or co-Heyting algebra.
Recall that, in terms of our categorical approach, each of these transcendental layers is treated as a topos, which means that their “internal logics” rely on different sub-object classifiers, with their particular algebras: a Heyting algebra for TC, a Boolean one for TB and a Brouwer algebra for TA.
This means that if our proposal is consistent, we should be able to not only fully flesh out these different transcendental structures, reconstructing the properties of recognizable social objects out of these minimal internal operations, but we should also manage to account for the arrows between them. For example, we should be able to capture in this diagram the ways in which commodity logic is translated and deformed from the standpoint of a classical space—a crucial topic, as it pertains to the relation between commodity logic and the logic of property alienation or the relation between exploitation and expropriation, so often confused and mixed together. Or the way that unpaid housework of social reproduction is structured along sexual and familiar divisions of labour in the communitarian layer, while not registering as such within the commodity-space, which nevertheless relies on it for the maintenance of wage-relations.
Not only this, but we should also be able to learn more about K from the arrows that go into it. Already at a first glance, we can anticipate that this approach gives us a different take on the complexity of capitalist social formations, not directly based on the analysis of an undefined quantity of “integrated information” that structures its quasi-sublime excess over our cognitive capacities, but rather on the structural fact that there cannot be a single model that would fully capture its basic structure all at once. It is true that if commodity logic forms the dominant transcendental, the internal language of the TC topos should be the one which captures the most information about this social formation—but this does not imply it is capable of slicing and recomposing everything that is relevant to its own functioning or the capitalist world as such.
It is also important to note that this has profound influence on how we conceptualize the different arrows coming from Org to the rest of the diagram: rather than defining a “mode D”, like Karatani, we opted to present the space of emancipatory organizations as one that has no defined transcendental structure of its own (II), being rather determined by the types of negation or exception that these organizational experiments manage to uphold in the face of multilayered social formations (V, XVI). The three arrows we define from Org to TA, TB and TC are idealized decompositions of equally multilayered political organizations—but what separates these transformations from complex objects that are already possible in K is that in one or more layers, we find “generic” constructions associated to these arrows, experiments that challenge what that space is able to predicate and account for. In other words, for our approach to formally consist, we would also require an understanding of how to think about each of these three functors from Org to the three transcendentals, as well as the means to also think about their interactions in a rich ecology of political organizations.
Already at an intuitive level, however, the benefits of this approach can be felt here too, as this logical analysis helps to clarify why revolutionary strategies (pA) focused on negating TA tend to adopt paraconsistent forms—such as that of “dual power” where two opposing political logics coexist—while those (pB) focused on TB tend to think in classical terms—a logic shared by electoral and insurrectionist politics, since both of them seek to establish a clear division between before and after a victory—and those (pC) focused on TC usually deal in intuitionistic values—and here different takes on the correlation of forces that might push the forces of production either in the direction of the reproduction of capitalism or towards its negation come to mind, like the “accelerationist” strategy. These different abstract logics of revolutionary thought are therefore built into the separate arrows from Org to K and mixed together in complex ways in the space of concrete political organizations.
But as of now, we are still struggling to construct an adequate interpretation of TB as a classical topos and of TA as a paraconsistent one—and we remain far away from being able to formally account for the complex structure of K and connect it to our current construction of Org.
There is a lot of interesting—and collaborative—work to be done here.
XVIII. Trajectory and Invitation
This is a collaborative essay: it was written by many hands, reaching across many countries. But more than that, it is also the product of a longer collective endeavour, which we call the Subset of Theoretical Practice (STP). Created as the research branch of the Circle of Study of Idea and Ideology (CSII), it continued operating on its own after CSII was dissolved, after ten years of militant work in Brazil and elsewhere, in 2020. One might find a discussion of the current project’s “pre-history” and initial steps in the text “Contribution to the Critique of Political Organization: Outline of an Ongoing Research Project”, published by Crisis and Critique last year.
At the end of that text, one will find the following drawing, displaying this initial trajectory of texts, seminars and study groups, culminating in our current project, plus our plans for further steps:
Since the establishment of this common project, our research method has been to offer a collective platform where people can present their personal research projects to one another, in whatever state their study is currently in, and then try to establish connections between these individual investigations based, first of all, on the general research project outlined in the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Organization” and, secondly, on previous meetings and topics explored in the works of other members. These connections don’t have to explicitly guide the presentations, but we recommend that some effort be made to search for possible links between these investigative paths, as we have meetings dedicated to recognizing and making explicit these conceptual intersections from time to time (titled “Research Discussions”). Now, almost a year later, if one visits our website www.theoreticalpractice.com, this trajectory looks like a monstrous creature with many tentacles:
By “stitching” meetings and individual paths together at those points where they intersect or share some common theme, we hoped to slowly uncover a certain global structure, the general features of our own collective take on the issues that motivated our research project, which could then increasingly serve as a compass for guiding our next steps. This “sheaf-like” approach is particularly useful when one is exploring an unknown conceptual space, constructing its general properties out of local fragments. It is quite remarkable that the basic principles and constructions presented in this essay only began to acquire form once we tried to account for this increasingly visible set of common parts between otherwise disparate research directions.
In the present essay, however, we opted for a different strategy: rather than force together trivial but heterogeneous local parts into a non-trivial but consistent global structure, we opted for a conciliatory strategy, taking trivial but different global objects and generating a non-trivial local object that stitches together these contradictory spaces. In a vague analogy, we could say that the diagram that has accompanied every section of this text, mapping how they fit together, even when the global presuppositions, interests and commitments behind each section might actually be contradictory, is one such non-trivial conciliatory object:
We would like to thank ŠUM for giving us the space to experiment with this construction.
And, last but not least, we would also like to invite you to join us in continuing this investigation. Our research group meets every Monday evening (usually 10:00 p.m. UTC) through Zoom, and one can find links for the next online meetings—as well as the video recordings of all previous ones—on our website: www.theoreticalpractice.com.
It is worth mentioning that one should not trust too much the initial impression that a long and complex essay like this, with its strange references to philosophy, anthropology, history and mathematics, implies that the STP is primarily composed of experts in one or in all of these different disciplines. Far from it! It is true that this research project requires us to bring together all sorts of references and complicated topics, and it does take quite a lot of work to understand (some) of it, but our group is actually composed of a bunch of amateurs who are enthusiastic about the core ideas and motivations behind this construction, and who try to help each other out navigating through all these themes.
So please do not feel discouraged if you are interested in our research project but feel like you have no specialized knowledge to contribute: having the chance to help other people catch up, to explain in plain language what we are trying to do and to translate these ideas into other theoretical frameworks are all precious opportunities that allow us to put this project to the test.
On the other hand, there is a good chance that you know some of these things better than we do. We did warn you early on that this project is conducted by a bunch of blind people surrounding an animal they have never seen. We hope that our mistakes, exaggerations and wandering abouts serve as an invitation for you to join us and help us with our open problems and blind spots. Only the company of others could ever allow us to truly find out what is real in this endeavour.