An Infrastructural Disorder
Some harsh notes on calls for ‘communist infrastructure’ inspired by this piece: http://blog.voyou.org/2013/07/20/communism-equals-soviet-power-plus-amazon-com/. I’m sympathetic to the author’s frustration with talk of ‘logistics’, and I would add ‘infrastructure’ here- which I will use interchangeably because the distinction isn’t clear in the object of critique. It’s not easy to criticise a general movement and tendency of thought rather than an individual text, yet nonetheless it is necessary to make a broad arc in criticism.
I want to start with some clarifications:
1) I think the author mistakes a discussion about a utopian project of communism for arguments about communism as a movement (“a communist society” vs. “the real movement” etc. etc.). This contrast is at the heart of some recent waves of intensity in communist thinking and philosophy, especially the debates around communization theory. This difference is between those, like Michael Albert for instance, who posit a future method of management and practice and then try to steer movements towards it, and those who see communism as something produced through a process of struggle and therefore inseparable from the way in which that struggle is conducted1.
2) Which leads me on to this point: “The creation of a distinct sphere of the economy is a central part of the genesis of capitalism, and the maintenance of this separation is central to the reproduction of capitalism. In communism, the production and distribution of goods wouldn’t be a distinct sphere of special importance, but embedded in the overall organization of society.”.
The call for a ‘communist logistics’ is not a call to maintain this separation, but rather to acknowledge its presence. Capital, in creating this distinct sphere, also produces a blindness to the presence of such a distinction- the separation is hidden in plain sight. Calls for ‘communist logistics’ are calls to identify and break down this distinction, not to uphold it; making infrastructure subject to critique and acknowledging it as part of the terrain of struggle.
3) In this sense, one can see calls for a communist theory of logistics/infrastructure as an implicit call for the end of alienation2. However, this call is confounded on many fronts:
4) The ahistorical nature of these calls is undeniable- for instance, the Accelerationist Manifesto makes no mention of strikes as a tactic in its critique of ‘direct action’perhaps the single most defining tactic of the workers movements of the 19th and 20th centuries is completely absent from the manifesto. However, the problem recurs in the way the debate around communist logistics/infrastructure has played out thus far. Specifically calls for a ‘communist (theory of) logistics/infrastructure’ frequently make one or both of the following (and to my mind a arrogant) assumptions: a) there isn’t one already and b) it is possible to pluck one from out of the air or at least, build it from scratch to ones own tastes and desires. This leads to:
5) An aporia around the labour and management of infrastructure as they presently exist and the uneven geographies in which they are situated, and the privileging of certain kinds of logistical and infrastructural work where they are represented. This might seem strange given point 3), however, its worth pausing to consider the over-representation of digital workers and economies in discussions of logistics and infrastructure relative to the kinds of logistics/infrastructure they rely on and mediate.
6) A downplaying and selective reading of pre-existing orthodox and heterodox understandings of logistics and infrastructure both inside and outside the academy. Selecting just ‘good’ communist and leftist accounts of infrastructures and logistical problems, or at least ones which fit within our narrow subcultural boundaries 3, surely dooms such theories to failure as Marx surely would have been if he’d have read only Owen, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Fourier instead of Smith, Ricardo, etc. That such theories and writing exists in abundance4 is often treated as an irritating obstacle blocking the path to the fertile playgrounds of the empty signifiers that ‘logistics’ and ‘infrastructure’ seem promise to communist theoreticians rather than cause for a starting point for critique.
7) The reproduction of normative exclusions. It makes me sad, and frustrated, to concur with voyou and others-and this point is really the most important of all- that critiques coming from traditions founded by, made by and built by women, people of colour, and various other marginalized groups that get excluded from canonicity on these matters. Trans* writers often emphasise the risks they take doing something as simple using the bathroom in a public place, travel and transport is a daily site of negotiation and contestation for people with mobility-related disabilities, the homeless have a very different relationship to the internet than the housed. To be even more blunt: white computer programmers and academics were not disproportionately affected when the flood defences in New Orleans broke, and do not fight in the conflicts over rare earths that make their laptops. These are as much the face of post-fordist capitalism and central reasons that communists as a movement should be paying attention to questions around ‘infrastructure’ and ‘logistics’ in all its shades.
8) A call is only a call. A really big flaw that voyou has already hit upon: Active definitions of Infrastructure/logistics are hard to come by in this work. The call for a leftist/communist infrastructure and logistics is often the creation of a secluded field of activity for an elect few. At best, its a vague way of talking about a wide range of issues of praxis - replace all mention of ‘The State’ in Lenin with ‘The Infrastructure’ and you’re done, communism on autopilot. At worst it feels like a discussion being had by people with nothing left to discuss, the lair of the ‘theorybro’.
9) This having been said, all of the above points call for a re-engagement with infrastructure as a synthetic, praxis-oriented concept that begins from the lived experience of capitalist divisions of labour.
10) As such, and lest the previous point seem too vague, this means communists need to listen, be patient, and do their research. To build on and critique existing work, and mobilize those arguments within communist thought on infrastructure or logistics that have been made by the oppressed and exploited.
11) To actually test theories and be willing to risk them in the field of action in order to learn from mistakes and successes. To be mindful of the limitations that presently exist. Should communists set up foodbanks, or should they be facilitating workspace for workers who don’t have offices? Should they take a completely different approach? Do existing groups and organizations have capacity and the pedagogical tools to conduct such activities? The reality is that communist infrastructure wont know until it is tried out- and fails.
2 Alienation is, these days, seemingly a dirty word in some corners of Marxist and post-Marxist theory, and only tacitly recognised makes it into the A.M in point 22: “Towards a time of collective self-mastery, and the properly alien future that entails and enables.”. Here I refer to all 4 kinds as laid out by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts (for all you pedants).
3 That the CCRU looms large here speaks to a poverty or at least, a timidity of thought.
4 See for instance the journal Planning Theory, or the writing of Matthew Gandy, Jean Hillier, Pete Adey and so on.,but really its not that hard to find the countless books and journal articles in existence that incorporate Deleuzean/Marxist etc. approaches. That such work is predominantly within academia is part of why opening it up for a wider audience through critique is so vital.
dunno whether to laugh or cry at the fact that this is still relevant
Who is this person? Does it matter?