Notes towards a theory

3 March 2007

So I got invited to speak on a panel at the Rosa Luxemburg lecture series organised by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, ILRIG and AIDC. The topic is attitudes towards the state, the ANC and the “left project”. So here are some notes.

My starting point is that we have to understand capital as enclosure. Capitalism isn’t just about some people being rich and others poor – although that is one aspect of capitalism, capitalism is most clearly characterised as the imposition of the social relation of capital. Capital, as a social relation, organises the process of accumulation so as continually exploit the majority of humanity and the planet through the alienation of the product of their labour from those who labour. That “product of labour” can be a shoe, a car, but also it can be a social relation, such as the harmony within a family, or the labour which goes into reproducing life so that we can get up in the morning, go to work, raise the next generation of workers, etc. Anyway, capital doesn’t get exploitation and alienation “for free”, as some eternal human condition, but it achieves these things by continually enclosing people within its grasp, by cutting off all possibilities of life that don’t refer back to capital.

The classic example is the process whereby the vast majority of humanity was separated from the means of production – in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas – i.e. the whole world, land was stolen, common lands were enclosed, villages destroyed, women (or primarily women) burned as witches, leaders imprisoned and execute, social system annihilated so that in the end a proletariat, a class of people who had nothing but their own capacity for labour, was created. That process didn’t just happen once and stop, however – it is continuous. We don’t wake up in the morning and say “oh, I’m a worker! let me get myself to work!”. No – work, that is work for capital, alienated labour, needs to constantly be re-imposed. The lengths to which capital will go to ensure this are sometimes quite tragically funny. For example, in Thembisa, in the mid 1990s, there was a massive struggle over the commodification of electricity… under late Apartheid electricity had been provided to some households, but in a chaotic way, and by the early 1990s no one was paying for electricity. So at first there was this agreement that people should pay – at first a flat rate, then later prepaid electricity was imposed. People responded by protesting, by dumping prepaid meters at the municipality’s door, and also by simply bypassing the meters and making their own electricity connections. After all, they had the skills and resources to wire their own electricity, so why not? The result was that by 1997/1998, some 70% of the electricity used in Thembisa was not paid for – i.e. here was a good that was being supplied on a commodity basis, yet not being treated as a commodity by the people of Thembisa. Just like in Bayview in Durban recently, the people of Thembisa were stubbornly clinging to the notion that electricity might be provided according to some logic besides that of capital.

The response, from the side of the state, was a series of attempts to break the back of Thembisa’s resistance, and the Ekuhurleni details these on their website: in areas where payment rates were low, prepaid electricity was to be used. In areas with even lower repayments, all prepaid meters would be allow for remote metering, so that people’s behaviour could be watched from a distance. And in the “worst” (from the point of view of capital) areas, remote metering prepaid meters would be used, and all overhead wires would be buried underground in such a way that you now need a truck with a hydraulic jack to inspect an electricity cable in parts of Thembisa.

So… capital tries to enclose the entirety of life in its logic. And people resist in a million ways, as varied as burning a tire in the street to block a water cutoff or converting “work time” to “personal time” by browsing your favourite anti-capitalist website. In a million big and small ways, people resist capital every day. They resist being turned into mere “workers”, mere repositories of labour power. Often, as in South Africa, it is the resistance of the poor which is most visible, since the poor, being pushed to the edge, have the most to lose from the predations of capital. Having acquired a degree of visibility, the struggles of the poor might attract the attentions of the “left”, who from time to time either articulate or disarticulate these struggles. More on that just now…

Ok… so this resistance poses a limit to capital – a limit which is continually contested from both sides. It is this resistance – not the state (which I would argue primarily serves as vehicle to regulate the process of capital accumulation), nor any “left” party in isolation, that poses a limit to the inexhaustible appetite of capital.

One step further: resistance grows in so far as it resonates, as one form of resistance resonates with another, as it articulates across space and time. The “memory of the class” that Lenin speaks of is not, in my view, the Party, or any set of theoretical tomes, but it is the set of practices that constitute resistance to capital. It is often hard to trace the history of these practices, but let me try, in one case. In the context of the urban struggles of the 1970s and 1980s you can see, in the writings from the side of capital, a process of re-orientation, re-thinking problems. Faced with growing barriers to capital accumulation – riots and other forms of township protest – capital had to re-invent itself. Along the way, capital in South Africa had to reconsider the “basket of goods”, the share of the social product, that was allocated to the poor, Black majority, and you have this realisation that certain rights are being assumed by those fighting Apartheid. Trevor Gaunt, an electrical engineer who was, in his way, a major theorist of this re-orientation, talks about how the “right of access to energy” is being demanded even at prices which are “sub-economic” in his terms. This was in 1988. So the notion of “social rights” wasn’t something invented by Albie Sachs and put into the Constitution by a set of ANC-aligned intellectuals – here we can see the how resistance, resistance to the misery of Aparthied capitalism, forced open a space to demand rights – not the right to buy electricity, but the right to have electricity.

Of course, almost 20 years on, we see how the struggle for “basic needs” has been recuperated, how through the Masakhane Campaign, and even more powerfully through the use of prepaid technology, commodification, and thus the rule of capital, has re-entered the equation. As the inventor of prepaid meters in South Africa has said, the prepaid meter exists to teach people that nothing is free, to teach people to pay.

So resistance to capital does not automatically articulate into revolt – oh I wish it was that easy. Barriers are constantly being put in the way of the articulation of resistance. Hierarchies such as race and gender serve to disarticulate resistance. Knowledge and theory about resistance often acts to demobilise it, with “experts” writing about the resistance of “non-experts” in such a way as to defuse its dynamics. Similarly, modes of organising – hierarchical parties, “democratic centralism” in all of its variants – appropriate agency to the Party or the Committee and defuse resistance through its displacement to some future imagined time.

Clearly my target here is not just the state, not just the obvious agents of capital, because, yes, of course resistance is disarmed through bullets, through beatings, through less obviously brutal means such as prepaid meters and RDP “starter homes”. But it is also, too often, disarmed by the very actions of those “leftists” who seem to celebrate it.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As a “left”, we can act to defuse hierarchies, to promote common spaces where resistance can articulate, to form transverse links between here and there, then and now. Yes, our memories can also be useful, a resource to remind people of past struggles and lessons learned. Life – and resistance – is not, however, lived in the past. If there is to be a “left project” worthy of that name, it must start from sustained enquiry, deep listening to the rhythms of life and everyday resistance to capital. We have an immense amount of work to do, because in many ways the world in which the “left” made sense is no more. Faced by generations of troublesome workers, capital has disarticulated the circuits of everyday life to make it more fragmented, to break up the easily available “masses”, fragmenting workplaces through distributed production, outsourcing and casualisation. We face an immense challenge – to build spaces where we can find each other and be together, in common, to rebuild notions of solidarity beyond the limitations of the nation state, the workplace, and so on.

In the late 1990s, some of us “leftists” followed the migration of struggle, away from the workplaces where we largely faced defeat and into the township communities where capital was attempting to enclose every aspect of life in chains of commodification. We observed how residents faced ruin through eviction and cutoffs of basic services, and how they – most often the women – stood up and fought. And we were part of the process of carrying resistance from township to township, sometimes bringing stories, sometimes people from one place to another, assisting in the creation of new notions of “us”, those who stand together. I was part of that as part of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. I observed the heady days when we stood together against the council and against the banks and the police and made them pause and retreat. I was also there as hierarchies re-asserted themselves, as we discovered the limits of our common language, our inability to develop a commons from where we could develop, beyond being “organised by the sheriff”. From my perspective, I think I assumed too much, as if things were deeper and more grounded than they actually were. Building a new tradition, new ways of being and being together, is not a simple or easy task.

In many ways the “left tradition” which has emerged in the more than 100 years since Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin build “social democracy” is tainted beyond redemption. It is not going to be rebuilt, however, out of a book, but only out of experiments in practice, experiments that resonate in the hearts and minds of the multitudes of the dispossessed.


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