Lifeboat Communism

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From a critique of Bifo's book: After the Future

Ben Lear:

"What does the end of the future mean for radical politics? It is at this point that Bifo’s argument becomes problematic. In an argument that intersects with groups such as Tiqqun, Bifo argues that we must see “Communism as a necessity in the collapse of capital.” Distant from the voluntarism of previous forms of Communist politics, this “post-growth Communism” will be best understood as a necessary response to capital’s refusal of labour. Cut adrift from the “opportunity” to work, with welfare systems dismantled, Bifo argues that we will witness the proliferation of zones of autonomy responding to the needs of an increasingly precarious and superfluous social body. Communist politics will emerge from an exodus, both voluntary and compulsory, from a stagnating and increasingly predatory state-capital nexus. This exodus is both social, in the development of an alternative infrastructure, and personal, in the withdrawal from the hyper-stimulation of the semiotic economy. Bifo abandons hope in collective contestation at the level of the political.

Bifo’s politics could be described as a kind of “lifeboat communism.” As the crisis ripples, mutates, and deepens, Bifo sees the role of communism as the creation of spaces of solidarity to blunt the worst effects of the crisis of social reproduction. Gone is the demand for a better world for all, the liberation of our collective social wealth, or the unlocking of the social potentials of technology. Rather, Bifo’s politics are based around insulating a necessarily small portion of society from the dictates of capital. By withdrawing from the political sphere, we accept the likelihood of losing the final scraps of the welfare state and concede the terrain of the political to zombie politics and predatory capital. Rather than seeking new forms of organization to re-enter the political stage, Bifo seems to suggest that we seek shelter beneath it as best we can.

This shying away from the political stage is the weakness at the heart of the book. Recent eruptions of political struggle have captured the collectiveimagination because they demonstrate that political contestation is still possible today, in spite of the obstacles Bifo has described. The Occupy movement and the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have resonated with all those who still have hope in collective struggle. Although these movements have encountered varying problems, to which we must develop solutions, they dispel the idea of an unchangeable present. The current blockages to successful organising have been shown to be strategic and tactical, not terminal. Misdiagnosing the current inertia of post-political public life as a terminal condition leads the left towards an evacuation of the political, while we should instead reassert its primacy. If we abandon any hope of fighting in, against, and beyond the existing architecture of the state and capital, and instead seek refuge in small communes, and go-slow practices, we abandon all real hope of a generalized, or generalizable, emancipatory politics. Although Bifo’s analysis of the difficulties of collective action resonates with all of us who have attempted to organize struggles in the past few decades, the proposal for a simple withdrawal from capitalism is a bleak politics indeed – which, at its most optimistic, calls for an orderly default by portions of the proletariat. The horizons of communist politics appear much narrower when capitalism is no longer seen as the repository of a vast store of social wealth awaiting collective redistribution, but rather redefined as an unassailable site of universal and permanent austerity combined with widening social redundancy.

It is hard to imagine a network of self-organized projects and systems supporting the majority of the population in the context of an increasingly predatory capitalism. Emerging from the and isolated leftist scenes, this lifeboat communism will by its very nature have a limited carrying capacity, as the anarchist experience in post-Katrina New Orleans attests. The lifeboats that Bifo calls for will undoubtedly be too small and makeshift to harbor us all.

The crisis is twofold. It is a crisis of capitalist profitability, and of an increasingly precarious and surplus global proletariat whose reproduction (as both labour and body) is under threat. It is unlikely that the proliferation of communes, squats, food co-ops, file sharers, urban gardeners, and voluntary health services will bring forth a new, better world. But while the current seemingly post-political situation throws up massive obstacles to organizing, there is still a potential for collective contestation. The capitalist state, racked by its own legitimacy crisis and weekly political scandals, is more vulnerable than it appears. We need only recall the period of unexpected hope built by students in Britain, occupiers in Oakland, and vast swathes of North Africa and the Middle East during the past two years. These movements were mobilised through the betrayal of a vision of the future – but alongside their rage, they put forth a hope which can guide our politics.

The task at hand is to unlearn old behaviour and to forge new tactical and organisational weapons for struggle. Bifo’s contribution is a timely and challenging one, but it ultimately leads us back towards a DIY culture and “outreach” politics. As our movements come to terms with these limits, we must also hold onto the belief that luxury for all is possible. The social potential of unfilled blocks of flats, emerging technologies like 3D-printing, and the desires of the millions of underemployed, should remind us of this. This will not be possible without a collective struggle against the state and the demands of capital, one which simultaneously defends what we have and attempts to move beyond it.

A retreat to lifeboat politics is both premature and a self-fulfilling prophecy. While Bifo correctly analyses the current conjuncture – clearly identifying the post-political state, the weakness of the Left, the crisis of profitability and new forms of labour, and their impact on the subject – his political prescriptions lead us in the wrong direction. Just as Bifo does, we place the struggle against work at the center; but we can also seek to liberate social wealth, rather than insulate a lucky few from the ravages of capital. Rather than “No Future,” we must raise a different banner: “The future’s here, it just needs reorganizing.” (