History, Myth and the Time of Struggle

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In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one. (Lenin, “The Marxist Doctrine”)

I.

In the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze breaks the flow of his argument to deliver something of a digression. Titled ‘Note on the Three Repetitions’, the digression tracks a tripartite model of historical repetition occurring across a range of different philosophical and theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of historical development. Deleuze’s goal, which he ultimately finds to be tenuous and problematic, is to uncover a commonality in the figures, so scattered and dispersed across time and place he offers up: the medieval millenarian Joachim of Fiore, Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico, and Pierre-Simon Ballanche, a largely forgotten French philosopher who managed, intriguingly enough, to settle himself in the double-pincer of both the progressive and counterrevolutionary camps in the wake of the French revolution. The primary anchor for these three figures, however, is Marx, and most specifically the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), with his formula—one that, Deleuze says, has yet to be properly understood by historians—that “all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.

Also Deleuze summarizes, Marx here draws forth two forms of historical repetition that run in different directions, but are yet aligned in the sense that they appear as distinction moments in the series (or, more properly, the circuit) that composes historical evolution. The tragic moment is a tragic metamorphosis: a repeating occurs that unleashes something new into history, producing a jagged fracture between the emergent time and what came before. The farcical or comic moment, however, is a repetition that “falls short” and fails to offer any sort of “authentic creation” (D&R, 114). In Marx’s schema, itself a dynamic confrontation of Hegel’s own insights concerning historical repetition with Aristotle’s distinction between the tragic and the comic (which ultimately pivoted on whether or not the characters were a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ type, respectively), the tragic precedes the comic, thus providing the provocative diagram of the comic as a repetition of the tragic, a repetition of the repetition, which can only ever fail…

In Deleuze’s hands, this order is reversed, and he presents the tragic as succeeding the comic in the most generalized, abstracted form of the series. In the matrix of historical production, the comic does easily follow the tragic, but in the abstract form the ultimate metamorphosis comes in the aftermath of the failure of attempted transformation. From here, we close in on Deleuze’s ultimate goal, the revelation of the third moment in the series, which is the Eternal Return, difference-in-itself, which comes clashing through the spiroform of the comic-tragic to open the very possibility of the future (understood, in the case of Vico and others, the resetting of the cycle in order for it to advance, itself a distinctly spirodynamic formulation). This curious temporal architecture, however, is not the chief concern here, though its ghost continues to hover close, just out of sight. Its mention here is only to install it in the back of the mind. Instead, it is Marx’s own treatment of the tragic-comic cycling in the context of historical evolution, as well as the commentary offered by Harold Rosenberg—American Trotskyite and art critic (known for his early commentaries on what would later be called abstract expressionism) and Deleuze’s primary interlocutor when discussing the Eighteenth Brumaire—that should be stressed at the current juncture.

As Deleuze notes, Rosenberg foregrounds the importance of myth in his discussion of the tragic-comic repetition (this discussion, incidentally, is to be found in his essay ‘The Resurrected Romans’, though it can also be found in the volume of collected writings called The Tradition of the New (highly recommended)). It is the myth that loops together the strange dynamism of historical repetition with what is perhaps the most famous insight from the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. The present, and the possibilities of the future contained in the present, are colonized by the past. Historical lock-in reigns supreme and the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. In the grip of possession, the revolution that is capable of creating the new—by which we mean a temporal order distinct from the present—itself “conjure[s] up the spirits of the past to their service”.

In his restaging of Marx’s argument, Rosenberg describes how “In the act of creating new social forms men had ceased to behave ‘realistically’. They lost touch with the time and place they occupied as living men—they became, more or less automatically, actors playing a part” (The Tradition of the New, 154). The revolutionaries were thrown out of joint with their time, not out individual volition or collective choice, but because of the historico-temporal wall that conditioned their range of actions—and, as a result, their very identities melted away, precisely in order to gain new ones as mythic characters. “Social reality”, wrote Rosenberg, “gave way to mimesis because history did not allow humans to pursue their own ends… It was the pressure of the past that took revolutions out of the ‘naturalistic’ prose of the everyday and gave them the form of a special kind of dramatic poetry” (The Tradition of the New, 154-155). Or, as Marx himself put it:

Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

When we think about this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference reveals itself. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases. The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parceled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere, to provide, as far as necessary, bourgeois society in France with an appropriate up-to-date environment on the European continent.

Revolution, then—and it is important that what Marx is describing here are the bourgeois revolutions, which set in motion the historical mission of capital—blows across the desert of history in the form of a mythic wind that bears within itself a complex and knotted time structure. The future is obstructed by the domination of the present by the past, but it is exactly through a return to the past, the resurrection of something in the past in the form of some weird simulation, that breaks these temporal bindings. Once these loops have been followed, the time of the myth melts away and history restabilizes; what was previously out of joint is recoded, and the dramatic character masks are discarded for those of the everyday. As for Marx, his pen betrays a sense of a restlessness in the face of this transference into the epoch of bourgeois harmony:

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism – the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

Rosenberg suggests that because of this, the subversiveness of history, with its ruses and capacity for sudden reversals, is to be understood as ironical. One is transformed into oneself by being transformed into something else—and it is in this sense that history defeats the actors that seek to break from it. For this reason, he continues, the myth itself is denigrated: “Marx, having admitted the myth into history, refuses to concede to it the power to affect history’s direction” (The Tradition of the New, 161). It’s hard to see, however, how Roseneberg stands to make this claim, given precisely the function of the myth that he draws out from the pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire. In the case of the bourgeois revolutions the myth appears as the vital component in engendering a direction to history; primary to their enrapturing by its templex machinery, the revolutionaries were paralyzed. Men might not make history as they choose, but history proceeds immanently through their actors, perhaps precisely because of the twists, reversals, catastrophic breaks and bizarre surprises that constantly dog the smooth expectations of how events will play out. The myth, for the revolutionaries, was the fuel needed for combustion, for the cascade of cruel ironies that propel pre-history towards its conclusion.

The dissipation of the myth and the advent of the ‘new normal’ of the bourgeoisie is what sets the stage for the comic repetition. Marx saw this shambolic ghost appearing in history in his own moment, as the radical spirits attempted to recreate the events of the French Revolution during the course of the revolution of 1848. The repetition of the repetition:

From 1848 to 1851, only the ghost of the old revolution circulated – from Marrast, the républicain en gants jaunes [Republican in yellow gloves], who disguised himself as old Bailly, down to the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon. A whole nation, which thought it had acquired an accelerated power of motion by means of a revolution, suddenly finds itself set back into a defunct epoch, and to remove any doubt about the relapse, the old dates arise again – the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts, which had long since become a subject of antiquarian scholarship, and the old minions of the law who had seemed long dead. The nation feels like the mad Englishman in Bedlam who thinks he is living in the time of the old Pharaohs and daily bewails the hard labor he must perform in the Ethiopian gold mines, immured in this subterranean prison, a pale lamp fastened to his head, the overseer of the slaves behind him with a long whip, and at the exits a confused welter of barbarian war slaves who understand neither the forced laborers nor each other, since they speak no common language. “And all this,” sighs the mad Englishman, “is expected of me, a freeborn Briton, in order to make gold for the Pharaohs.” “In order to pay the debts of the Bonaparte family,” sighs the French nation. The Englishman, so long as he was not in his right mind, could not get rid of his idée fixé of mining gold. The French, so long as they were engaged in revolution, could not get rid of the memory of Napoleon, as the election of December 10 [1848, when Louis Bonaparte was elected President of the French Republic by plebiscite.] was proved. They longed to return from the perils of revolution to the fleshpots of Egypt, and December 2, 1851 [The date of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte], was the answer. Now they have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, but the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he would have to be in the middle of the nineteenth century.

It is at this point that Deleuze’s third repetition—which he identifies not only with Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, but also (with varying degrees of asymmetry) the turning of Vico’s ricorso and Ballanche’s third age, characterized by regicide, the late-stage voyage of Oedipus and the reign of the “Man without a Name”—hovers closer. For Marx, comic repetition is doomed to failure because what is not needed is a repetition of the repetition, but something that angles beyond the historical space-time of bourgeois society: proletarian (the class without a name?) revolution, not a bourgeois one.

In Rosenberg’s reading, the proletarian revolution is viewed at this point as proceeding through a repudiation of the myth’s essential role. “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”, wrote Marx. “The former revolutions required recollections of past world history to in order to smother their own content”. To this, Rosenberg adds that “[d]eprived of the myth the proletarian revolution would have to take place without passion, or with a kind of passion altogether different from the ecstasy of the doubled time which ‘drugged’ the revolutionary middle class” (The Tradition of the New, 163). This reading, however, seems to run into two problems. In the first case, it’s not clear that myth itself vanishes from Marx’s account, as for Marx the term ‘poetry’ acts as a cipher for what Rosenberg identifies as the myth. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, the poetry which flavors the proletarian revolution—which is to say, of course, what lends it its passions—flows not from the past from the future: the future-myth. This leads us, quite naturally, to the second case, which is that the temporality of proletarian revolution is still seen by Marx as a time doubled, one that is out of joint. It’s a restaging of the incredible temporal schizzing that opens the preamble of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism”.

II.

Dickering over this sort of minutia in Rosenberg’s reading of Marx is ultimately immaterial, particularly when we contextualize these multi-faceted mechanisms into the present moment. When Marx described the poetry or myth of communist futurity igniting the passion of revolution in the present, comic repetition was viewed as occurring within a historical trajectory that still maintained a telic structure, albeit one that, as Etienne Balibar describes in The Philosophy of Marx, forced him back to his drawing boards and notebooks. But even as he was plunging himself into the white-hot maelstrom of churning industrialization and the delirious loops of commodity circulation, he could glimpse the ghost of the possible futures radiating backwards into the darkness of bourgeois society. It was, in fact, the maelstrom and the loops themselves that allowed this light to pierce the vale, drawing the class war towards itself…

This situation is, of course, not reflective of current postmodern conditions. Much more of this is to be said in a series of in-progress posts, but what is worth remarking on is that the present, while shut off from the radiance of the future, does not appear as being colonized by the past. Instead, past, present and future all appear as if smeared across a singular, infinite field, in turn effectively obliterating the time-structure of history by cancelling out all three. One might reach for Zizek’s handy quote about imagining the end of the world being easier than imagining the end of capitalism, but this seems radically insufficient in grappling with the endless scroll of postmodernity. Imagining isn’t enough, for it already conjures a faint outline of the necessary time-structure—one must push through from imagining to believing. It’s readily apparent that belief in the end of capitalism, despite the rapid cooling of its revolutionary flames, isn’t accessible in any meaningful sense. By the same token, it’s hard to see that people truly believe in the end of the world—at best, there is a great pretending to believe in the end of the world, which is something entirely different from believing that one believes in the end of the world, much less the end of capitalism.† If one finds exaggeration in these words, a quick assessment of the relationship between climate discourse and action is recommended (going in a somewhat but intimately related direction, see the splintering conversations unfolding here, here and here—to which some posts in the immediate future will be dedicated).

At this seemingly intractable impasse, another strange twist presents itself: the mythic loop that was unique to the bourgeois revolution, which the proletarian revolution was meant to eschew, appears as the potential ground for an exit from postmodernity (which is to say that it appears as the precondition for the proletarian revolution). After the repeat failures of the postmodern politics of the occupation and the multitude, which for Fredric Jameson entailed the replacement of the “politics of duration” with the “politics of the instant” (An American Utopia, 13), a falling backwards in time is required in order to actualize the future—and once this formula is in play, so too is the specter of the myth.

The time-structure was recognized, perhaps inadvertently, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in their 2013 #Accelerate Manifesto, where they wrote of the “need to revive the argument that was traditionally made for post-capitalism: not only is capitalism an unjust and perverted system, but it is also a system that holds back progress” (it’s telling that this manifesto was penned in part as a direct reaction to the politics of the occupation and multitude). While there’s much to quibble about concerning the distinction between Williams and Srnicek’s mode of analysis and conclusions and that of Marx—and this blog certainly veers hard to the latter—this is far less important than the signal that is covertly bleeding through their words. It’s a signal that is picked up by Nick Land, who sees in their retroprogressivism a left-wing mirror-image to the temporalities of Neoreaction, which itself conforms quite well to time-tangledness captured by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire. Citing the same quote as above, Land points out that

it’s a revival, it’s a return to tradition, it’s an invocation of postcapitalism, it’s absolutely templex in this sense of being deeply ambiguous or schizoid in terms of its temporal structure. And I think this goes deep into their project. The project of left accelerationism as outlined in the MAP is retroprogressivist, and actually has exactly the same retroprogressivist time structure as right accelerationism in the sense that it is both kind of hyper-futurist and drawn back particularly to something like the 1920s. It’s like art deco, it’s a return to this point at which modernization was lost. Obviously from the right it’s lost because of the New Deal and the destruction of classical liberalism. From the left it’s lost by the disappointments of Soviet Communism and the betrayal from that point of view of these socialist dreams contemporary with the Bolshevik revolution.

Elsewhere we can find the instructive identification of Williams and Srnicek’s marriage of the “command of The Plan” to the “improvised order of The Network” with an abstracted view of the developmentalist moment in the evolution of modernity—and here, too, the signal holds (indeed, the sort of socialist dreams identified by Land above flood through the developmentalist imperative as much as capital itself).

Left accelerationism never elevated itself to the level capable of breaking postmodernity. Even as they actively identified their project as hyperstitional, a tool to bootstrap a future-oriented movement into existence, the escalation via self-excitation never same: its function as myth was not realized. Two reasons that bear immediately on matters here. The first of these is movement from mythopoesis to myth construction,† † which can be traced along a line running from the engagement with the time-structure to its subsequent abandoning in later iterations of the program. The second is the issue of an evolving technocratic orientation, which follows in parallel to the two previous transition. While it is indeed present in the Manifesto—developmentalism, it seems, is always shot through with technocratic impulses of varying degrees—its appearance in the guise of The Plan is mitigated by The Network. The Manifesto proposes their marriage, but perhaps a more interesting and instructive way of viewing it would be as two elements in constant tension, not unlike the Maoist dialectical formula of the Two proceeding from the One (it’s not by coincidence that the formula originates not with Mao, but in Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks). This tension ultimately falls away, and with it dissipates the very thing that the myth is supposed to infuse itself with: the class war.

In a post on ‘left hyperstition’ Mark Fisher took up Badiou’s demand for “great fictions” capable of engendering “great politics” with the following “intensely compressed suggestions”:

The first hypothesis we might hazard is that, counter-intuitively, only fictions are capable of generating belief. ‘The final belief must be in a fiction,’ Badiou quoted Wallace Stevens as writing. The belief at stake is clearly not a propositional but an attitudinal belief; which is to say, not a belief that a particular factual state of affairs obtains but belief as a set of commitments.

Secondly, since capitalism is itself inherently fictional, it is essential that counter-capitalist fictions be produced. Fiction here would not mean an ‘imaginary’ (in a Lacanian or any other sense) alternative but an already-operative generator of possibilities.

Fiction ensures that things are not only themselves. Capital is the most effective sorcery operative on the planet at the moment because it is adept at transforming banal objects into a sublimely mysterious commodities. Trans-substantiation. The allure of the commodity arises from the non-coincidence of the object with itself. (cf Zizek’s famous analysis of the ‘nothingness’ of Coke.) Anti-capitalism needs to take the form not only of a demystifying, depressive desublimation but of the production of alternative modes of sublimation.

If class struggle is to be re-ignited—and make no mistake, this conflagration is necessary to end postmodern decadence—this line appears as a fertile zero for its emergence. And that, as we have seen, is a question of time.

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† After some though, it occurs to me that the distinction drawn here, between an ineffective pretending-to-believe versus an effective believing-to-believe, is in need of further elucidation and clarification, as what is common to each is unbeliefIn his discussion of the film The Skeleton Key (link above), Fisher draws out how the main character is forced into a situation in which they must act as if they believe (in this case, old hoodoo rituals), which in proper Pascalian form leads them to real belief (correspondent with the realization of a ‘truth’ wholly distinct from that offered by cool postmodern skepticism). In this case, it is indeed the pretending to believe that makes it possible believe—behavior, even if one is acting under the auspices of a fiction, allows for actualization. From this position, my distinction between the two becomes untenable. Perhaps we should look instead to an active-passive axis, as opposed to the hard distinction between pretending and faith-before-faith.

† †  Another way the distinction between mythopoeisis and myth-construction (which no doubt bears on the complicated relationship between unbelief and belief touched on above) can be worked through is by looking at the following comments by Xenogoth in his post ‘Comrades’:

As with Mark and Jodi, I don’t agree that we need to change the word “communism” at all, not least because of its past associations. To call it something else is to desire something else, as Dean pointed out. It makes sense in the most rudimentary of ways and its structure, even at the level of its etymology, is perfect for encapsulating what is desired.

This was a big deal for me during my postgraduate studies — a new awareness of the importance of the “com-” prefix to the etymology of leftist discourses. A basic and simple point perhaps but one which, through its very simplicity, was very powerful to me. It’s everywhere. Communism, community, communication, commune, comrade, complement, complete, compassion, commemoration. It means “with”, “together”, “in association” whilst likewise denoting an intensity and a fulfilment, and an awareness of this has enriched my understanding of all of these words above. So the word “communism” doesn’t need changing one bit. It is “the communist myth” that must be challenged.

What is being described here as the “communist myth”, which XG analyzes in Barthesian terms, would correspond here to myth-construction. This is because the naturalistic sense that the ‘myth of communism’ is imbued with must be assessed from a temporal view. Simply put, it is always inscribed retrospectively, a tradition cobbled together from the (un)ground of postmodernism itself. This is not unlike the diagnosis of the various fundamentalisms as postmodern projects, as offered by Hardt and Negri: “visions of a return to the past are generally based on historical illusions… It is a fictional image projected onto the past, like Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland, constructed retrospectively through the lenses of contemporary anxieties and fears” (Empire, 148). They will, of course, ultimately affirm the postmodern condition, leading them to precisely the faulty politics outlined above—and it is exactly the dialectic of myth construction and mythopoiesis that allows us to deepen and complicate their astute analysis.

Mythopoiesis, in contrast to myth-construction, can be rendered as thus: abandoning the retroactive myth that cements the tradition as timeless block, fixed in place, a spatialized time (which itself is the very core of the postmodern condition), and a return to a living, mutable tradition, the sort that exists where space is annihilated by time. Or, more simply: not going back to find bits and pieces for recombination, but going back in order to make possible the truly new.

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The Two Marxisms

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Salient reflections from the pen of Alvin Gouldner:

In one part, then, Marxism is a philosophy of praxis; in another it is a “science”–i.e., the political economy of the laws of capitalism. Marxism is thus a tensionful conjunction of science and politics, of theory and practice. Its topic is the objective socioeconomic conditions imputedly requisite for socialism. Its object in addressing this topic, however, is not only understanding but also a revolutionary practice aimed at changing the world. It must accomplish this, as all politics does, partly by appealing to and arguing with people, by attempting to persuade them through rational discourse and promises. For politics never assumes that since “history is on our side” we may wait for things and people to come our way; but it premises that outcomes depend upon the active mobilization of people. So Marxism is both: science and ideology; rational understanding and political practice; “reports” about the world and a “command” to do something to change it.

Yet there is also an irreducible tension between the call to do something now and the warning that those who do not wait for appropriate conditions or use scientific guidance are dangerous adventurers or mere “utopians.” Marxism as science premises that some things will happen without men’s rational foresight and whatever their efforts. As a politics, however, it also premises that events depend crucially on people’s efforts, struggle, capacity for sacrifice, and self-discipline. Indeed, while all politics premises that men “must seize the time,” science premises that things have their own nature and rhythms.

The two readings of Marxism briefly outlined here have, in part, grown up around the nuclear tension between voluntarism and determinism, between freedom and necessity. Both of these readings, let me hasten to insist, are a true part of Marxism. We are not faced with only a seeming contradiction that can be glibly resolved by claiming that one side is false, revisionist, opportunist, misguided, not really Marxist, while the other is the authentic, genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, true revolutionary article.

Our Two-Marxisms thesis maintains that both are in fact structural differentiations of a single originally undifferentiated Marxism; that over time the “two” emerge in part out of an effort to reduce the real internal tensions of original Marxism. Indeed, the Two Marxisms could not emerge as structurally distinct tendencies but for the fact that both are truly present in Marxism. Their conjunction in ordinary Marxism is recurrently productive of tensions and of a tension-reducing segregation of the inconsistent elements, by insulating them from one another into two (or more) distinct and boundaried systems of ”elaborated” Marxisms, Critical and Scientific Marxism.

As I will document, Marxism did indeed say that capitalist society was governed by blind and necessary laws to which persons were inescapably subject; it is also true that Marxism treats persons as free agents who will not only do what they must, but who can respond to appeals and be won over even against their own class interests. There is thus both determinism and voluntarism in Marxism.

Ideology and Real(ism)

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“Isn’t the emphasis on the systemic character of capitalism what separates Marx’s analysis from moralizing socialism?) The idea that the misleadingly-named ‘ruling class’ do anything more than manage and adminster Capital is an idle fantasy. Capitalists can decide on which groups are exploited, but they cannot legislate away exploitation itself. (How long would a CEO with such ambitions last?) It is not exculpatory but simply realistic to acknowledge that Capital, not capitalists, runs the show. However, realism about capitalism is not the same as Capitalist Realism. Neo-liberalism is defined not by the idea that Capital is a remorseless machine but by the claim that there is no viable alternative to its rule.” – Mark Fisher, Left Hyperstition 2: Be Unrealistic, Change What’s Possible

One of the repeated accusations that arose in the great /Acc wars of 2017 was that the understanding of capital that was being posited—as something operated at a higher level than everyday life, political management, and even ideological fixation—was itself an unfortunate expression of capitalist ideology, one tantamount to the infamous Thatcherite slogan that there is indeed no alternative to its strange, infernal logic. Seen from this point of view, the so-called accelerationist take on capital (a jargon-laced analytic stance I’ve personally progressively moved away from, opting for a return to a more ‘classically’ Marxist approach—something that nonetheless was a great influence on acceleration, particularly in the ‘U’ variety) is conflated with Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’. This, in turn, produce a solution by way of inverting the accelerationist counterpoint: if accelerationist theory is garbage-can ideology, and the accelerationist theory suggests that capital is a self-moving substance unto itself, then the ‘revolutionary path’—or whatever equivalent to this one may pose—is to configure capital as something always already subordinated to human intentionality. Political capacity is thus restored.

The problem with this picture, at least from a Marxist—as well as an accelerationist—ground, is where the ideological configuration is positioned. It has to be asked what form of capitalist ideology promotes capital as an inhuman force that ensnares the proletariat and bourgeoisie alike in its logic, robbing them of their agency and pushing them towards alien ends? In the great spectrum of political economy and liberal polity, the answer simply is none. Capitalist ideology promotes capitalism not only as an ism (we should be avoiding this term as much as possible and opt instead for either addressing capital directly or by reference to the capitalist mode of production), but more specifically as a humanism. The material class relations that constitute the proletariat and bourgeoisie are eliminated for the ideal of a flexible atomized subject who stands free from the weight of history; the vital dialectical image of the capitalist mode of production containing both progressive and regressive elements that will eventually come to a historical loggerhead is smeared into obscurity by a vibrant image of non-historical progress (non-historical because the relations and mechanisms unique to the bourgeois epoch are presented as transhistorical, coupled to a sense of progress that finds capital first and foremost agential empowerment).

The breakage of the liberal ideology into left and right wings (relatively speaking, of course) never manages to undermine this core of capitalist-humanism, and only turns it around under the differing filters of positive and negative freedoms. Even under virulent neoliberalism does it persist: nowhere in the pages of libertarian journals and the halls of Beltway think-tanks does the image of alien capital gain traction. The Adam Smith Institute doesn’t promote the entrepreneur of the self as some sort of Snidely Whiplash conspiratorial shenanigan; it promotes it because it earnestly believes what it preaches.

In his ideological critique, Marx was taking to task the capitalist-humanism of the ‘classical liberals’ (a retroactively-assembled, ideological formation if there ever was one!); this is why we get the picture, so curious at first blush, of a book bearing the subtitle of A Critique of Political Economy that presents capital as functioning like the Hegelian geist by its fourth chapter. Capital as inhuman force, as a historical machine that takes a hold of the bourgeoisie and proletariat as if by possession—to reach towards this is to pierce the ideological veil to find the tracing of something swirling below it. Hence Fisher’s point in the quote that opened this post: capitalist realism is a reflection of the ideological fantasy of the neoliberal phase of capitalist development and is wholly distinct from the sort of picture drawn by the accelerationists—which is really an elaboration and restaging of the analysis offered by Marx. Thus to flip the script and return capital to something under the sway of human intentionality, and more specifically under the command of the powerful capitalist, is to avoid the Real by staying within the foundational assumptions of capitalist realism.

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As far back as The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek had already deepened and advanced this line of inquiry, fundamentally problematizing both sides of the debate along the way. He convincingly points out that the structure of Marx’s account of commodity fetishism contains a kind of doubled illusion, a two-layered process that encompasses the ideological side of capitalism and the non-human logic of commodities. He writes:

…the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what people are doing. What they do not know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but they are still doing it as if they did not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called ideological fantasy. (29-30)

The twisting structure of Zizek’s argument here is that while commodity fetishism makes the relationship between people appear as commodities whilst imbuing commodities with the appearance life-like power, it is in actuality being overlooked. The logic of the commodity, while beginning as illusion, comes to operate on a real, material level in the sense that it imparts itself as the universal mediator of social relations. What’s more is that this can be mapped to a process of historical passage that is itself reflected in a shift in Marx’s own theory of abstraction, or what Alberto Toscano calls a “break with a generic, humanist, or anthropological concept of abstraction” for a “notion of real abstraction—abstraction not as mere mask, fantasy or diversion, but as a force operative in the world”. This first theory, Toscano argues, is inherited from Feuerbach and carries from him the assumption of “the genus ‘humanity'”. Abstractions of all sorts—political and religious, but particularly (for Marx) economic—are but “fictitious hypostases of [this] positive, underlying generic essence that is not itself prey to historical or logic becoming”. The second, however, provides an understanding of abstraction that undermines this humanist portrait:

The crucial theoretical revolution would then be the one that passes from this fundamentally intellectualist notion of abstraction—which presumes liberation as a ‘recovery’ of the presupposed genus (putting Man where God, qua distorted humanity, had once stood)—to a vision of abstraction that, rather than depicting it as a structure of illusion, recognizes it as a social, historical, and ‘transindividual’ phenomenon… Society is above all a relation: the role of these univocal simple abstractions—such as value, labor, private property—in the formation of the concrete must be carefully gauged so that they do not mutate back into those powerless and separate, not to mention mystifying, intellectual abstractions that had occupied the earlier theory of ideology. But these abstractions are not mental categories that ideally precede the concrete; they are real abstractions that are truly caught up in the social whole, the social relation.

Toscano later offers the radical conclusion posed by Alfred Sohn-Rethel: real abstraction does not only emerge from a thought becoming a thing—it is also “a relation, or even a thing, which then becomes a thought”. Read back onto Zizek, a portrait is drawn in which the illusion ceases to be illusion but becomes operative, the very thing that structures society by serving as the force that mediates it (if society is a relation, or more properly series or networks of relations, then it indeed will intrinsically maintain some form of mediation—what Sohn-Rethel called the “social synthesis”). Such is the obscured nature of capital (and not to mention to one of the very reasons why capital operates above and beyond the agency of the capitalist or politician)

What then of capitalism as ideology? It should be clear that it not only serves to protect the capitalist mode of production in either conscious or unconscious registers, but to in fact obscure this deeper structure of capitalist reality. The realism, in other words, is the illusion; the thing that appears as illusion is itself closer to an actual realism. Faced with some a dynamic obscuring and domino-effect of reversals it is clear that by taking flight to an understanding of capital as something subjected a priori to human intentionality or command serves only to reinforce the ideological frontier.

John Francis Bray

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Back in early part of the summer I finally got around to looking into one of the so-called Ricardian socialists whom I was unfamiliar with – John Francis Bray. As it turns out, Bray’s status as a Ricardian socialist is disputed: unlike Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray, and others who suggested that a socialist society would naturally result from the proper application of laissez-faire principles (the sort of argument you later find in the writings of Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson, or at least in his early phase), Bray seemed less interested in the cultivation of the free market as the cure to society’s ails, and more so in a very idiosyncratic solution that drew from, but broke with, the organizing principles of early capitalism. Bray’s socialism was a kind of joint-stock socialism, something I find deeply humorous (and intriguing!) given the high premium placed upon this kind of corporate form in the writings of Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land.

Bray’s ideas were incubated during his time associated with Chartism, a working class reformist movement that emerged in Great Britain during the 1830s. He had been connected with the Chartist faction in Leeds that was centered around Feargus O’Connor and his newspaper, The Northern Star, which essentially served as the organ for O’Connor’s “Land Plan”. The Chartist movement had initially been catalyzed by the Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent Poor Laws of 1834; the latter legislation had intended to eliminate various relief programs for the impoverished, while the former reinforced the requirement of land ownership for voting rights. O’Connor’s Land Plan aimed to remedy this state of affairs through peasant land ownership: 4 acres of land to working people and to the unemployed. The effect, O’Connor reasoned, would be three-fold: 1) it would bring those who had been barred from voting into the legislative mix, 2) it would lessen the dependency of the worker on the capitalist, and 3) it would shrink the numbers of what Marx would later describe as the ‘industrial reserve army of the unemployed’, which would in turn increase the bargaining power of those employed.

In order to finance and organize the venture, the National Land Company was established. Initially proposed as a “friendly society” – an economically-oriented mutual aid association – the company was formally launched as a joint stock corporation. Unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s plan was to ultimately be, for quite a few reasons, a dismal failure (check out this wikipedia list of flaws in the scheme for a good overview).

It’s hard to determine if the National Land Company and its joint-stock organization was indebted in any way to Bray. He had developed his ideas in essays in the Northern Star and in speeches given to Leeds’ Chartists – but the actual content of his vision was sweeping and comprehensive, in contrast to O’Connor’s piecemeal reformism. As the quote in the tweet above shows, Bray anticipated that the joint-stock model would operate beyond the division of the political and economic, with all production coming together through the joint-stock corporations and series of “alliances” between them that would be managed by trade boards. This transformation would be vast, as he described in his book Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedies:

Without, for the present, entering into a consideration of the possibility of effecting this change, let it for a moment be supposed that the whole five millions of the adult producers in the United Kingdom are formed into a number of joint-stock companies, containing from 100 to 1000 men each, according to locality and circumstance – that each of these companies is comprised of men of one trade, or confines its particular attention to the production or distribution of particular commodities – that these companies have in use, by hire and purchase, the land and fixed capital of the country – that they are set in motion and kept in motion by a circulating bank-note capital equivalent to £100 for each associated member of the community, which, taking into account the women and children connected together with the five million of producers, will comprise altogether, about twenty millions of individuals, and a capital of thousands pounds sterling. Supposing the productive classes of the United Kingdom to be thus associated together, for the production and distribution of wealth – that they trade together with a floating capital of £2,000,000,000 – that all their affairs are conducted through the instrumentality of general and local boards of trade, comprised of the most able and business-like men that can be found – that the members of the companies, after the manner of the present system, are paid weekly wages for their labour – what there is now accomplished in respect to production and distribution, either by joint-stock companies or individual capitalists, which could not likewise be accomplished by the productive classes thus associated?

These ideas were also partially influenced by the theories of the British Ricardian socialist John Gray, who was both an associate of the Chartist movement and of the various co-operative movements inspired by the efforts of Robert Owen. The circuit of influence here is important, because it is in this relationship that Marx glimpsed what he perceived to be the infrastructure of Proudhon’s thought, which he subjected to critique in The Poverty of Philosophy. “How deeply this utopia”, wrote Engels in his preface to the German edition of the work, “has struck roots in the way of thinking of the modern petty bourgeois – real or ideal – is proved by the fact that it was systematically developed by John Gray back in 1831”. Marx, meanwhile, declared in the second chapter of the critique to “have discovered in him [Bray] the key to the past, present and future works of M. Proudhon”.

Indeed, it’s easy to see in the efforts of people like Bray and Gray both the kind of crank reformism criticized by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, and – particularly in Bray’s joint-stock socialist model – something close to Proudhon’s ‘agro-industrial federation’ that, for him, would constitute the proper organization of industry after it had been transferred out of the hands of propertied and moneyed classes and into those of freely associating workers. Yet despite this, Bray’s influence appears to have lingered, not only within the American labor movement with which he later became actively involved in after immigrating to the continent, but with certain Marxists as well. Case in point was Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who had the following to say in a 1897 essay titled “Socialism in France from 1876 to 1896”:

…they [bourgeois reformers during the Congress of 1876] proposed to avoid the rocks of socialism by advocating such methods of ameliorating the lot of the workers as co-operative production, mutual credit, and people’s banks. They trotted out again all those small shopkeeper’s utopias which Proudhon advocated before 1848. The institutions that the Congress of 1876 wished to establish were the equitable labor exchanges, which had started at Bray’s instigation in the year 1840, in London, Sheffield, Leeds, and other towns, and which, after absorbing vast capital, had gone bankrupt under scandalous circumstance. But Bray, in his remarkable work, “Labor’s Wrongs and Labor’s Remedy” (Leeds, 1839), had at least refrained from calling these exchanges a solution to the social problem. They might be that to Proudhon; to Bray they were only a means of smoothing over the transition from the capitalist to the communist regime.

The ‘equitable labor exchanges’ alluded to here were, as Rosa Luxemburg summed up succinctly, “so-called ‘bazaars’… [where] goods were bought and sold to be exchanged without the intervention of money, strictly in accordance with the labor-time they contained” (and thus were akin to Josiah Warren’s Cincinnati, Ohio-based “Time Store”, which ran successfully between 1827 and 1830). One might wonder, too, whether or not the joint-stock concept falls under this criteria as well – as mentioned above, it receives its full elucidation in “Labor’s Worings and Labor’s Remedy”, right alongside the debuting of the equitable labor exchange system. LaFargue is silent on the question, but something of an answer might very well be found in Marx’s own comments, found in the Critique of the Gotha Program, on proletarian self-activity and the transition to communism might look like. Three key points:

1. The ability of the proletariat to develop co-operative societies:

That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.

2. The persistence of the bourgeois system of rights:

…equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

3. The persistence of key elements of the capitalist mode of production that will regulate labor-time and the activities carried out in that time:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor.

Postone on Capital and History

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This Moishe Postone lecture has been the soundtrack to this morning’s chores. It’s really great, and provides a straightforward unpacking of a lot the stuff going on in his dense-but-awesome 1993 work Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

One of the very intriguing points that Postone makes in his book is the way that, in chapter four Capital Volume 1 – the chapter that introduces the classic M – C – M’ ‘feedback loop’ schema – Marx resurrects Hegel’s depiction of the Geist, as an independent or self-moving substance, to describe capital itself. It’s an incredibly important point for understanding what is going on in Marx’s mature work, as undoes the common perception of the proletariat or humanity (ascending to the realization of its species-being) as the ‘subject’ of history, and attributes this position instead to capital itself.

Postone delves into this in the lecture above, and it’s worth reiterating here because it is stated so clearly. Speaking of the inner dynamics of the capitalist system (this starts somewhere in minute 37), he states:

On the one hand, it is characterized by ongoing, even accelerating, transformations of production and of social life. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental conditions as an unchanging feature of social life. Namely, that value is reconstituted, that social mediation ultimately remained affected by labor, and that living labor remains integral to the total social process of production, regardless of the level of productivity. So the historical dynamic of capitalism, and I think people only usually get one side, ceaselessly generates what is the same while always generating what is new. As I will elaborate, it both generates the possibility of another organization of labor and of social life, and at the same time hinders that possibility from being realized.

This dynamic, generated by the dialectic of abstract time and dialectical time, is at the heart of the category of capital, which for Marx is a category of movement. It’s value in motion. It has no fixed material embodiment. Now since this is an institute of philosophy, it’s significant that when Marx first introduces the category of capital in the book Das Kapital, he describes it with exactly the same language that Hegel used with reference to the Geist in the Phenomenology. The “self-moving substance” that is the subject of its own process. People like Althusser say to just forget all of this Hegelian language. In so doing, Marx suggests that Hegel’s notion of history, as having a logic, as the dialectical unfolding of a subject, is valid, but only for capitalist society. Moreover, Marx does not define Hegel’s subject with the proletariat, or even with humanity. Instead he identifies it with capital: a dynamic structure of abstract domination that, although constituted by humans, is independent of their will.

What I’m suggesting is that Marx’s mature critique of Hegel does not involve an anthropological inversion of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. Rather, I’m going to suggest that this is the idealist dialectic’s material justification. Marx implicitly argues that the rational core of Hegel’s dialectic is precisely its idealistic character. It is an expression of a mode of domination constituted by alienated relations – that is, relations that acquire a quasi-independent existence vis-a-vis individuals, exert a certain form of compulsion on them, and that because of their dualistic character are dialectical. Notice that categories like historical subject, totality, labor have now become the objects of Marx’s critique, not the standpoint of his critique.

The first part of the above quoted clearly speaks the central concern reiterated by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, that of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of constantly putting things into play, producing the new, even things that threaten to overwhelm itself, but also restraining these things, cutting them off, appropriating and recoding them, or even dredging up archaisms to repress them. In the language of Difference and Repetition, we might describe this situate as the subordination of difference to the Repetition of the Same – and it is probably by no mistake, then, that in the very second paragraph of the book’s introduction Deleuze writes of equivalence as a generality, that is, “a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another”. For Marx, money – an expression of the law of value, that which flows through the self-expanding, self-moving, cyberpositive process of M – C – M’, plays the role of the general equivalent, the special category of commodities that all other commodities can be translated into or otherwise mediated by.

Elsewhere in this lecture Postone posits a Marxist understanding history that is neither linear-determinist or strictly contingent, and in this he comes close to that which has haunted all debates in the accelerationist sphere, the Kantian antimony of causal determinism and spontaneity – or to put it in more contemporary, system theoretic terms, the troubled intermingling of lock-in effects and self-organization. Or again, as the esteemed Thomas Murphy once put it, the Deleuzian problematic of hierarchies and anarchies, ‘solved’ in the form of the morphogenetic crowned anarchy.

Post-Autonomist Questions

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Whilst thumbing through Hardt and Negri’s tome Empire this morning, I came across this interesting footnote (#26 for the chapter titled “Postmodernization”):

A number of Italian scholars read the decentralization of network production
in the small and medium-sized enterprises of northern Italy as an
opportunity to create new circuits of autonomous labor. See Sergio Bologna
and Andrea Fumagalli, eds., Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari
del postfordismo in Italia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).

Sergio Bologna, like Negri, is a veteran of the nebulous Autonomia movement of Italy in the 60s and 70s. His best known work – outside of Italy, at least – was his 1977 text “The Tribe of Moles“, an examination of class composition in late-Fordist Italy and of how the ‘autonomous class’ developed within it. While personally quite close with Negri (a biography at the end of an interesting interview notes that the two were among the primary founders of Potere Operaio in 1969, had both worked in the same history department of Padua University in the early 1970s, and together edited a series on Marxist theory in 1972), the two underwent a theoretical divergence in the dawn of the New Economy of the 1990s. Negri would develop his theory of the immaterial laborer as the key social subject of the post-Fordist epoch, while Bologna would look to the “autonomous worker”.

There are deep similarities between these two approaches. On the one hand, Negri’s immaterial labor encompasses the capture and commoditization of affective, cognitive, and creative activities, and emphasizes the role of the internet and industrial autonomation in engendering this transformation. On the other, Bologna’s autonomous labor is akin to what we today might refer to as ‘precarious labor’ or the ‘gig economy’ – the great mass of would-be proletarians, shut-out from yesteryear’s world of Fordist industrial production, forced into part-time, temporary, situation-based work. For Bologna, however, such things compose what he calls the second generation of autonomous labor, in contrast to the first generation of independent artisans, merchants, and assorted professionals (doctors, lawyers, so on and so forth).

Sadly, I’ve yet find a translation of Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari del postfordismo in Italia, much less a pdf in Italian (plz drop a link in the comments if you have one!), but the description given by Hardt and Negri here – that the work offers the decentralized production in Northern Italy as a means of transforming the conditions of the autonomous laborer – is intriguing, especially in light of this recent post of just the other day. The area they are describing is Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region known for its robust industrial economy based on small-to-medium sized enterprises, flexible specialization, craft production, pull-based commercial dynamics, and worker co-operatives. Manuel Delanda has juxtaposed this region the top-heavy Fordism of American-style automobile production, while distributists have found in it as evidence for the durability of their socio-economic proposals. An interesting report cited by Kevin Carson (who elsewhere has referred to Emilia-Romagna, alongside Shenzhen’s Shanzai manufacturing, as a “model for the economic future”) has this to say about the organizational tendencies governing the region:

There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, surely one of the highest densities per capita in the world! Small, medium, enterprises (SME’s) predominate. One person in twelve is self-employed or owns a small business. In recent years the region has produced the highest GDP per capita in the country, and it now ranks with the ten best in Europe…2/3 of the citizens of Bologna belong to a co-op…45% of the GDP is produced by co-ops…(and) 85% of the social services in Bologna are delivered by co-ops… Some of Emilia Romagna’s manufacturing companies that are world class high performance companies are cooperatives. Other private companies and cooperatives work together in flexible networks that combine a number of smaller firms into joint projects. And government has played a powerfully positive role in creating sector-based service centers that assist smaller companies in being competitive in the global economy… “Social Cooperatives” provide various services to the mentally and physically disabled—“privatizing” what historically were state services but to cooperatives that are frequently preferred by professionals because they permit creativity and the delivery of high quality services and work experience for the disabled….

Not everybody is as jazzed on Emilia-Romagna as the above, but nonetheless the convergence of so many different radical perspectives on a particular organization of production and exchange – that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises based on the miniaturization and localization of production technologies and rapid-response to demand – is noteworthy in itself.

Transformation

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In his recent post on modernity and myth, Vince Garton notes Sorel’s interest – in sharp distinction to the majority of Marxist currents of his day (or today, for that matter) – in small-scale, workshop-based production. Vince writes:

Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

An exceedingly brief thought (and a sideways preview of a work in progress): industrial disintermediation  will be the process through which hyper-capitalist atomization is converted into subsidiarity. 

Edit: If communism is to be based, as Xenogoth suggests, on otherness and differentiation, then a neo-Sorelian perspective on industrial disintermediation – and the question of ethics that are tangled up in this complex – is of immediate interest. After all, such processes constitute the fragmentation of the current industrial order, which on the one hand opens up escape routes from the present through the increased ability to produce independently, while on the other hand it poses hard questions fully-automated, luxurious Walmart Socialism advocated by so many on the radical left.