Thursday, May 16, 2013

Can Class Consciousness Be Accelerated?

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics has been going viral in radical activist circles. It deserves to be read, and it deserves praise, if for no other reason than this: It articulates, far better and more concisely than I could manage, the type of politics toward which I have been bumbling and fumbling for the last two years. (For example, in "Toward a Politics of Urgency" a few months ago.)

Yet it does not address, and thereby unconsciously founders upon, the same antinomy for which I could find no satisfactory response: In a context of accelerated catastrophe, accelerated communication, accelerated data, can (class) consciousness also be accelerated?

Another way to state the problem is this: With a given set of initial subjective conditions (i.e. an international radical milieu that is highly fragmented, ideologically confused, and with more or less tangential links to the sections of the working class directly engaged in productive labor) is it possible to contend for power in a short enough timeframe that we will inherit from capital the potential for abundance, rather than the certainty of scarcity?

As my post from Tuesday makes quite clear, I have already answered that question for myself with a "no". But that is not proof.

One point would seem to speak for the accelerationist approach: The very fact that I and thousands of others have read it within days of its publication, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable when a certain other manifesto was published 165 years ago. Yet even if everyone who read the manifesto were ultimately convinced of it, and even if they numbered in the thousands, that would represent only a shift in a series of individualized (bourgeois) consciousnesses. It would not be the creation of a new mass consciousness, i.e., proletarian class consciousness.

There is a difference between how individual consciousnesses change and how mass consciousness changes. Put in the most schematic, deliberately provocative of terms: individual consciousnesses may well be changed by reading a manifesto; mass consciousness changes through dialogue and the experience of shared struggle and risk. The Communist Manifesto did not create the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but the revolutions, and the engagement of communists therein, created the mass audience for the manifesto. Can that process be accelerated?

Yes, up to a point. As Lenin once wrote, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." In a certain sense, mass consciousness changes only in those accelerated weeks in which "decades happen." Yet I will dare to differ with Lenin on one point (knowing that if I had to I could very well cite several points at which he contradicted himself on this issue): That a great deal happens in those decades during which "nothing" seemed to have happened, and those are the decades in which the preparatory material is collected for the great improvisations of the accelerated weeks in which everything seems to happen.

Thus consider a historical event that would seem to contradict my pessimism: The Bolshevik Revolution. Within the span of 15 years, the Bolsheviks went from being a faction of a faction to leading the conquest of power. This was possible only as a result of a series of revolutionary uprisings (1905, 1917) in which history accelerated rapidly.

What this account neglects is the extent to which that achievement in Russia was built upon some rather boring preliminaries elsewhere. Lars T. Lih has shown quite conclusively that, as far as Lenin was concerned, he was just templating the German Social-Democratic Party of the Erfurt Program, Bebel and Kautsky, with some necessary adjustments for Russian conditions. This is one of those many fruitful misunderstandings which the historian finds scattered throughout the archives. And the fact that it was a misunderstanding proved to be a flaw that was ultimately fatal. With no open polemic against the orthodox "center" of the Second International (aside from Luxemburg's occasional sallies in the SPD) until the outbreak of World War, the revolutionary left proved incapable of securing a majority anywhere other than Russia. And with the revolution isolated to one country, the path was set for degeneration into Stalin's autocracy. That is not a misunderstanding we can afford to re-enact like cargo cultists.

Thus, if we were to grandiosely compare ourselves to Lenin in 1902, we would find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma: We know that it is not enough to "build a party" in a national framework, that we need a revolutionary international. And yet there is no international, at all: At best only the phantom traces of one in a series of networked interactions.

To the extent that historical analogies serve us at all, a better one would be to the state of proletarian forces in Europe and America on the eve of the formation of the First International. (An organization that made effective use of the most advanced communicative technique of its day, the telegraph.) The technical aspects of overcoming this absence of an international could well be hastened through today's technology: The identification of revolutionary forces, the sharing of information about working-class struggles in all corners of the globe, the propagation of debate and polemic.

Yet can the struggles that give life to those debates and polemics and bring fresh forces and subjects to the fore be similarly accelerated?

Again, the answer (seemingly undermining my basic thesis) is yes. But only to a limited extent. It is no longer necessary for an already radicalized proletarian militant to await the arrival of unrest in his or her particular province to learn from experiences of struggle: If sufficiently attentive, one can draw knowledge and inspiration from Quebec, Greece, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, Bangladesh and China even in a small town in Maine. But vicariousness will not crack the shell of indifference or cynicism among the much greater masses of the not-yet-convinced.

Shifts in mass consciousness necessarily play out on a generational scale. If anything, the longer life expectancy in most countries in the 21st century mean this may be even more true now than it was in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Memories of past defeats and the false lessons learned therefrom linger and "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living," and bureaucratic apparatuses erected to contain past uprisings retain their demoralizing legitimacy.

Any attempt to short-cut around this persistent feature of human political life defaults into an elitist and idealist misconception of the motive forces of political change. It becomes a matter simply of convincing the greatest possible number of the already-convinceable to adhere to the "correct" program. Thus, in form (though certainly not in content), the Accelerationist Manifesto is homologous to the recent "open letter" from the "Revolutionary Communist International Tendency": A gauntlet thrown down, an impatient stamp of the foot, an imperious slap with an empty glove.

I'm sorry, accelerationist comrades: I wanted to be convinced. I don't want to believe that barbarism will win the day. I want some day soon to survey the transformation of our social relations, and be astounded. But the one thing that cannot be accelerated is that of which we are most needful: class consciousness.

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