The Bleak Left
Endnotes 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the 20th Century, 2008.
Endnotes 2: Misery and the Value Form, 2010.
Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes, 2013.
Endnotes 4: Unity in Separation, 2015.
It’s no secret that the collapse of international communism from 1989 to 1991 forced many Marxists into defensive positions. What’s less well understood is why so many others took the opportunity to abjure some of Marxism’s most hallowed principles. Perry Anderson, in a surprisingly admiring review-essay on Francis Fukuyama from 1992, concluded by soberly assessing what remained of socialism. At the center of socialist politics, he wrote, had always been the idea that a new order of things would be created by a militant working class, “whose self-organization prefigured the principles of the society to come.” But in the real world, this group had “declined in size and cohesion.” It wasn’t that it had simply moved from the developed West to the East; even at a global level, he noted, “its relative size as a proportion of humanity is steadily shrinking.” The upshot was that one of the fundamental tenets of Marxism was wrong. The future offered an increasingly smaller, disorganized working class, incapable of carrying out its historic role.
In 1992, calling oneself a “socialist” was an anachronism. Today it is a label with which millions of Americans identify. A self-described “democratic socialist” came agonizingly close to winning the Democratic Party primaries in 2016. And the premise that Anderson felt we should abandon has been nonchalantly reassumed. Articles in Jacobin, the most popular socialist publication to appear in the United States in decades, routinely conclude with a reaffirmation of the place of the working class at the center of socialist politics.
But lost in the heady rush of leftist revival is the still-nagging problem of agency. The fortunes of the organized working class have never been more dire. In the advanced capitalist core, unions have recovered some prestige but not even a fraction of their midcentury power, while the historical European parties of the Socialist International continue their slow collapse. In the Global South, the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and South Africa’s ANC–Communist–trade union alliance, rare bright spots after 1989, are losing credibility after decades of accommodation to private economic prerogatives. There are, in absolute terms, more industrial workers than ever, and probably as much industrial conflict. But there is no sense that as the working class becomes larger, it is becoming more unified. The end of the end of history has not seen the resumption of the forward march of labor.
In fact, Marxists have been worried about workers for a long time. After 1917, workers tried to take power in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Spain; their defeat led to fascism. Beginning with Antonio Gramsci, Marxists outside the Soviet Union tried to understand what went wrong. As fascism and armed resistance gave way to social democracy and a moderated capitalism, some radicals consigned the working class to history altogether. It was harder, though, to discard the idea that someone, somehow, would bring socialism to the world. Peasants, national-liberation movements, students, and the incarcerated all provided substitutes. With the emergence of movements like environmentalism and gay liberation after the 1960s, many decided that the whole idea of a revolutionary subject was misguided. Why not recognize a plurality of movements, emerging unpredictably and united not by objective interest but by creative alliances? Today, even as discussions of economic inequality abound, this pluralism remains common sense in activist circles.
But this solution has not satisfied everyone. In 2008, a slim journal published by an anonymous collective began to circulate within the thinning ranks of the revolutionary left. Its cover was solid green except for the journal’s name, Endnotes, in white, and a subtitle, “Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century,” in black. The text was produced by a discussion group formed in Brighton, UK, in 2005 with origins in long-running debates in the German and French ultraleft. (Over time the group broadened to include participants in California.) Authorship wasn’t really secret; you could find bylined references scattered across CVs and footnotes. But collective authorship was key to the distinctive voice, something like the crossfire of an unusually well-prepared reading group recollected in tranquility. The essays run on, sometimes more than ten thousand words, to simulate the modulations of conversation. Disciplinary specializations sit side by side, with notes on Kant and Schelling following graphs of employment patterns in UK manufacturing. The style is by turns earnest (“The communisation of social relations among seven billion people will take time”), bleak (“There is always someone more abject than you”), and droll (“Proletarians do not have to see anyone they do not like, except at work”). It is a journal whose scope, rigor, and utter lack of piety make it one of the consistently challenging left-wing periodicals of our time. In 2014, Anderson himself called it one of the “most impressive publications to emerge in the Bush-Obama era.”
Endnotes emerged from narrow Marxist debates, but in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the journal supplemented theory with exhaustive analysis of social movements. For the editors, our current age of riots and occupations demands that we confront again the unfashionable question of the revolutionary subject. The editorial collective describes itself as “communist”; its members want the abolition of capitalism, which because of its powerful self-reinforcing tendencies can only be overcome by a coherent social force. But what group of people has enough in common to imagine itself as a social force and also has the strategic leverage to change the world? Unlike many socialists, the editors of Endnotes do not reflexively answer, “The working class.” They ask the question in order to show that this cannot possibly be the answer.
The first issue of Endnotes contained a translation, with commentary, of a debate between the militant Gilles Dauvé and the French editorial collective Théorie Communiste. Dauvé and TC began publishing in the 1970s, lonely inheritors of the tradition of anti-Bolshevik (or ultraleftist) communism that ran from Karl Korsch to the Situationist International. They argued that the European left — whether social democratic, Leninist, or anarcho-syndicalist — aspired to “take over the same world and manage it in a new way,” whether through government ownership, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or workers’ councils. Real communism (the abolition of “exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the state and — most fundamentally — wage labour and the working class itself”) was imagined, if at all, as something waiting far in the future.
Dauvé and TC reject the idea that communism could be instated “after the revolution.” Instead, the revolution itself would take place through the establishment of communist social relations — a process they called “communization.” Communization is an elusive concept, but it seems to define a politics in which the tactics themselves establish alternatives to capitalism. Think of the difference between a socialist party winning an election in a capitalist country and a crowd of rioters passing out food they looted from a warehouse. In the first case, the socialists cannot help but assume responsibility for running the economy they inherit while they assemble an alternative economy piecemeal. In the second, the riot itself embodies an alternative form of distributing wealth. The communizing current, always tiny, enjoyed a moment of prominence when its slogans (“Occupy everything, demand nothing”) were emblazoned on public universities in California during protests against a rise in tuition in 2009. They reappeared during Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Radicals always accuse one another of being insufficiently radical. But there is a deeper argument between Dauvé and Théorie Communiste. For Dauvé, associated with a journal called Invariance, communism is an eternal idea, “an ever-present (if at times submerged) possibility,” latent in all workers’ movements. As the left surged in 1917, 1936, and 1968, the promised land came into view, but because of betrayals, hesitation, and tactical errors, no one ever got there. In TC’s view, endorsed by Endnotes, these failures were unavoidable. Different historical situations call for different kinds of struggle. There is no point in criticizing earlier movements for being bad communists, because the idea of communization could only emerge from the most recent stage of capitalism.
Endnotes/TC elaborate this position by dividing workers’ struggles into stages. The century stretching from Marx to the 1970s was the age of “programmatism” (named for the ambitious political platforms — the Gotha Program, the Erfurt Program, the Godesberg Program — routinely issued by socialist parties during this period). Workers focused on capturing industrial production by organizing labor parties, going on strike, or occupying factories. They acted as though they were central to industry and to society as a whole. For a time, no strategy seemed more sensible. The number of industrial wage workers was growing rapidly, and many of them shared experiences and interests. Together, they discovered power: a strike in steel or coal made the entire economy scream. Many shared Marx’s confidence in “a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”
History was not kind to these premises. After May 1968, ultraleftists watched for the reemergence of insurrectionary workers’ councils. But absenteeism, sabotage, theft, and walkouts were more common than calls for self-management. Rather than reorganizing work to their liking, workers preferred not to work at all. Drawing on the work of Robert Brenner, Endnotes attributes this negative orientation to transformations within capitalism. The percentage of manufacturing employment had peaked by the late ’60s and was on the decline. In the ’70s, industry reached overcapacity, resulting in cratering profits. Capitalists responded by breaking unions, shuttering plants, and moving production to places where labor was cheaper and regulations more lax. But even where wages were low, automation displaced human labor at dizzying rates. Workers weren’t being brought together. They were losing their jobs, their shifts, and everything they once held in common. If politics was possible at all for “a working class in transition, a working class tending to become a class excluded from work,” it would not resemble the “programmatist” era.
The idea that “the working class as such cannot be the focus of revolutionary theory” was an awkward starting point for a Marxist journal. The second issue of Endnotes (2010) dwelled in this discomfort. Marx himself clearly valued parties, programs, and demands. He held that communism required a transition period, during which workers would be paid with coupons according to hours worked. And money wasn’t the worst thing that would outlive capitalism. Even the immediate abolition of child labor, Marx thought, was “incompatible with the existence of large-scale industry and hence an empty, pious wish.”
Endnotes conceded that Marx, as a participant in the workers’ movement, held positions that were once plausible and politically useful, though in retrospect inadequate. But they also believed that Marx had anticipated their own postworker perspective — a reading they derived from a mostly German current known as “value-form theory.” In the orthodox reading of Marx, workers produce wealth, but part of their product is taken away from them by their employers; under socialism, workers will produce wealth in much the same way but receive the full value of their labor. This analysis suggests a vision of socialism in which, as Lenin wrote, “the whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labor and pay.” The value-form theorists reject this view. On their reading, the problem with capitalism is not how the products of labor are distributed but the fact that society is organized around labor in the first place.
People have always worked to produce useful things. But under capitalism, labor becomes the basis of all social relationships. Marx tried to describe this novelty with his distinction between abstract and concrete labor. In every kind of society, people perform concrete labor — for example, turning a piece of leather into a shoe. In a capitalist economy, people also work in order to acquire the products of other people’s labor. The shoemaker makes shoes so that he can buy a car, produced by autoworkers he will never meet. This form of social organization — in which workers essentially trade their labor — requires that every form of concrete labor be measurable according to a common metric, as if all were products of “abstract labor,” or labor as such. For Marx, this metric is labor time. Workers receive an hourly wage, which they use to buy products whose prices reflect labor costs. Firms compete over the relative cost of their products, forcing them to minimize labor costs and maximize productivity. Society as a whole comes to be organized around the production of value generally, not specific use-values to satisfy specific human needs, and the labor process is constantly reshaped and degraded by the imperative to produce efficiently. Given this reading, socialism would be not a giant factory, but a world where wealth and value no longer took the form of congealed labor time. (The positive form it would take has never been clear.) Here, Endnotes found a German rhyme for the French ultraleft position that workers need to leave the workplace, not seize it.
A crucial part of Endnotes’s reading of Marx was empirical. It was always assumed, by Marxists and bourgeois theorists alike, that the dynamics of capitalism would swell the ranks of wage laborers in industrial employment. And for a while this was true: industry did grow, up to a point, in the capitalist core, and over time this model spread to “developing” countries. But as Endnotes pointed out, industrial wage workers never became even a simple majority anywhere (except, briefly, Belgium).
Marx himself had noted that capitalism “presses to reduce labor time to a minimum” as it destroys the once-ubiquitous arrangements through which people directly produced the things they needed. The result he anticipated was a growing number of people who needed to find work at the very moment their human labor was no longer needed — “a surplus population,” in Marx’s phrase. What he failed to anticipate was the emergence of industries like automobiles that, despite being mostly capital intensive, also required large numbers of laborers. But according to Endnotes, the new industries and the state managers who facilitated their rise could only delay the inevitable. Marxists have waited long enough that Marx is right again: we have a surplus population.
Not only communists believe this time may be different. As a more famous unbylined English magazine, the Economist, put it in 2014: “Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change.” Around the world, more than a billion people can only dream of selling their labor power. From the point of view of employers, they are unneeded for production, even at the lowest wages. Even in China, the new workshop of the world, there were no net industrial jobs created between 1993 and 2006. The size of China’s industrial workforce — around 110 million people — is vast in absolute terms. But relative to the population of China, the number suggests the limited demand for industrial labor, not just in Detroit but around the world.
In the United States, with unemployment below 5 percent, it seems fanciful to talk about the end of wage labor. Seen globally, the exceptional character of the American economy is stark. So is the challenge of imagining a strategy that would benefit or even make sense to proletarians scattered across a planet of slums. Endnotes’s pessimism resonates with mainstream economics, especially Dani Rodrik’s conclusions in a series of papers on “premature deindustrialization.” Rodrik finds that developing countries “are running out of industrialization opportunities sooner and at much lower levels of income compared to the experience of early industrializers,” but maintains that while this “premature deindustrialization” closes off familiar development strategies, there may be alternative routes to growth. Endnotes takes the darker view that these billions are “pure surplus” whom the system will never find an interest in exploiting. “It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalized in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.” Even in the US, the low official unemployment numbers conceal millions of prisoners literally locked out of the formal economy.
The displacement of human labor from industrial production has not been ignored in recent left-wing thought. In fact, technological change has generated widespread enthusiasm for “postwork” or “antiwork” strains of Marxism, a tendency captured in slogans like “accelerationism” and “fully automated luxury communism.” For these thinkers, the crisis of industrial employment can be solved by letting robots do work while the former working class, now sustained by a guaranteed minimum income, devotes itself to noneconomic pursuits. It is an attractive idea, both because of the elegance of the solution (No jobs? Abolish work!) and because it is more pleasant to imagine a future in which upper-middle-class fecklessness, rather than favela desperation, is the future for the entire planet.
Endnotes would likely object, perhaps by invoking one of their favorite lines (slightly restated, in their version) from Marx: “Communism is not an idea or a slogan. It is the real movement of history, the movement which — in the rupture — gropes its way out of history.” We can sit around all day talking about the future we want, but we don’t get to choose how capitalism ends. In a memorable essay about logistics, Jasper Bernes takes aim at the techno-optimists who believe we can seize “the globally distributed factory” system and do with it what we wish.1 Bernes argues instead that many forms of economic organization wouldn’t make sense under socialism. He takes logistics — rearranging supply chains and transport costs — as his example. The complex logistical innovations that keep Walmart’s shelves stocked are designed not to maximize productivity but to leverage the competition between different low-wage national economies. “Without those differentials” — presumably abolished under socialism — “most supply-chains would become both wasteful and unnecessary.” Revolutionaries cannot simply take over and “reconfigure” the supply chains; they can only obstruct them — blockading ports, blowing up warehouses, sabotaging trucks. This may sound like anarchist fantasy, but for Bernes and Endnotes these tactics follow from the strictest realism. The questions they ask are not easily dismissed. In the heroic age of 20th-century revolutions, for example, people could expect that
some large percentage of the means of production for consumer goods were ready to hand, and one could locate, in one’s own region, shoe factories and textile mills and steel refineries. A brief assessment of the workplaces in one’s immediate environs should convince most of us — in the US at least, and I suspect most of Europe — of the utter unworkability of the reconfiguration thesis. . . . Most of these jobs pertain to use-values that would be rendered non-uses by revolution. To meet their own needs and the needs of others, these proletarians would have to engage in the production of food and other necessaries, the capacity for which does not exist in most countries.
This antinormative stance is part of what makes Endnotes so fascinating: surely there has never been such a sober magazine of the ultraleft. Its pages are completely empty of exhortations, special pleading, and wishful thinking. The contrast with most political writing is clear, and reading the journal makes one aware of how much left-wing writing traffics in vague optimism. But in the very success of their criticism, the editors place themselves in a rigor trap, where it is hard to see how their own politics could survive the same kind of withering analysis they apply to others. Bernes writes quite reasonably, for example, that it is “politically non-workable” to expect that “15 percent or so of workers whose activities would still be useful [after the revolution] would work on behalf of others.” But he believes, with the Endnotes collective, that communism is somehow workable. It is as if someone has given you a dazzling lecture on the dangers of drinking coffee before offering you a line of coke.
Between issues two (2010) and three (2013), the Arab world revolted. Huge crowds took over squares in Spain and Greece, while somewhat smaller crowds did the same across the US. Riots raged across England for almost a week, and the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Endnotes deployed the concept of surplus populations to explore how this “intensification of struggle” could occur without “the return of a workers’ identity.” The crisis of class was evident in the masses of unemployed young people in the squares. It was also clear in the icons of the movements: Mohamed Bouazizi and Eric Garner weren’t striking workers but street vendors harassed by the police. Instead of prescribing a dose of Marxism to the protesters, the editors asked Marxists to take a lesson from the absence of workers’ rhetoric in the new movements.
According to Endnotes, the shape of the new struggles was determined by the ongoing decomposition of the working class into heterogeneous fractions. None of these fractions could plausibly present itself as representative of the common interest, as industrial workers had done. Rather, stagnant growth rates and regimes of austerity had sharpened the conflict between different kinds of proletarians. Pensioners and unemployed youth, “native” citizens and immigrants, public employees and nonunionized workers, all found themselves competing for shares in a shrinking pie. What they had in common — the need to earn a living — made them rivals, even enemies.
Endnotes called this predicament “the riddle of composition”: which class fractions might add up to a political threat? The movement of the squares answered the riddle by repressing differences under the sign of “the people” (as evidenced in slogans ranging from Occupy’s “Bail out the people” to the Arab Spring’s “The people demand the fall of the regime”). The populist rhetoric, as well as the characteristic refusal of programmatic demands, eschewed specificity in order to make room for as many groups as possible. Since the “people” ranged from downwardly mobile professionals to the destitute, they could not come together in “neighborhoods, schools, job centers, workplaces.” Their common identity existed only in the squares, where exacting democratic procedures supposedly heralded a new society. With physical presence as their only leverage, the movements evaporated when the squares were cleared.
Elsewhere in issue three, Endnotes addressed the rioting that swept England after the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, London, in August 2011. “It would take quite an optimist to find in all this any literal harbingers of revolution or of building class struggle,” they concluded. But riots and looting provided a glimpse of a future where repression by the police was more important than fights with the boss, and the fiercest struggles raged at sites of consumption rather than production. For Endnotes, this was not exploitation but “abjection” — the condition of being excluded from prevailing social forms of wealth and dignity but unable to exit the system. The abject is the opposite of the “affirmable” identity of the classical labor movement. Workers used to sing “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel could turn,” or “we have been naught; we shall be all.” Today, the casualties of capital are better characterized by the title of Marc Lamont Hill’s recent book on Ferguson, Flint, and beyond: Nobody.
Abjection is bound up with racism — consider the exclusion marked in older phrases like “ghetto” and “the underclass.” In issue four (2015), Endnotes analyzed Black Lives Matter as an inheritor of the failures of Occupy Wall Street. “Black” described a group smaller than “the 99 percent,” but it reflected a more concrete social reality, and perhaps a more subversive potential. No one but the homeless had an existential stake in Occupy — something that could not be said of the movement for black lives. Despite the existence of class distinctions among black Americans, there was less distance between the black upper class and the black proletariat than there was between rich and poor whites. But as the movement grew, the distinctions would become harder to ignore. The authors pointed to a cleavage between those from the nationally prominent activist layer (who, whatever their origins, were likely to have attended college) and the lower-profile, more victimized, and possibly more active residents of places like Ferguson and Sandtown-Winchester, who first took the streets when their neighbors were killed.
Black Lives Matter did remarkable work suturing these divisions. For instance, DeRay McKesson, who went from Teach for America to Ferguson to a six-figure job as chief human-capital officer in the Baltimore public schools, has consistently refused to condemn rioting. In the terms of Endnotes’s Marxism, the class elasticity of blackness (a category stretching from Freddie Gray to Barack Obama) could not be dismissed if it was still able to “induce such large-scale dynamic mobilizations in the American population.” But the cleavage was real nonetheless, confirmed by the unsolved murder in September 2016 of Ferguson activist Darren Seals. After his death, national news outlets reported that Seals, who had been beside Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, on the night of Darren Wilson’s nonindictment, had become a fierce, even violent critic of national BLM leaders like McKesson, whom Seals had accused in social-media posts of “making millions on top of millions because of the work we put in, in FERGUSON.”
Understanding the Endnotes position on race and gender requires grappling with the particular meaning they assign to the words capital and capitalism. For most Marxists, the working class is the protagonist of history. For Endnotes, the subject of recent history is capital. This is somewhat strange, since capital is not a person or a group of people with intentions or goals. Rather, capital here is a shorthand for the whole web of social relations among people living in capitalist societies. These social relations, viewed across historical time, have a distinct pattern of motion, whose course no individual could consciously choose or hope to master. The result of this motion has been the displacement of labor from production and the emergence of surplus populations. Class relations, such as those between workers and their employers, play a role in these developments. For example, when unions raise the cost of hiring workers, capitalists may choose to automate production; or when socialists seize power in an underdeveloped country, they may institute a five-year plan for industrialization. This makes class conflict a constituent part of capital, not a force capable of transcending it.
The workers’ movement imagined the development of capitalism would undermine nonclass identities by drawing more and more people into increasingly uniform factories. According to Endnotes, this assumption was always misguided. The number of people dependent on the market has always included many who never enter into a wage contract, such as housewives and slaves, to name two indispensable examples. With the onset of deindustrialization, the inadequacy of class as a unifying concept has become clearer than ever. Accordingly, Endnotes accords “gender, race, class and other misfortunes” equal importance.2 But this is not because they see different forms of oppression as plural and incommensurable. Capitalism is still a single integrated whole, but it depends on and generates many forms of social conflict.
In some cases, it is easy to see what this means: gender and race exist in historically specific forms, and today these forms are shaped by the unfolding of capitalist value production. To take just one example, Endnotes thinks capitalism could not exist without a separate, domestic sphere where human life is created and sustained without the direct mediation of the market. Without this separation, capitalists would be responsible for the upkeep of the working class, a contradiction in a system premised on the employer’s ability to free himself of workers by firing them. It works the other way, too: before capitalism there was no “domestic” sphere, as most production took place in households, with men commanding (rather than hiring) the labor of their wives and children.
So far, so good: two forms — class and gender — depend on each other for their existence. What is trickier to understand in Endnotes’s theory is how the forms of gender and race that exist under capitalism relate to the forms of gender and race that existed before it, or might exist after it. Since capitalism is treated as a systematic whole, the revolution must not only destroy class society but also — and simultaneously — destroy gender, race, et cetera. It’s easy to sympathize with Endnotes’s desire to resist a hierarchy of oppressions, but trying to imagine an instantaneous revolution in which every division between people is overcome at once strains both the historical and the utopian imagination. It seems far more plausible that forms such as race and gender develop unevenly, retaining aspects that predate capitalism even as they are constantly reshaped by new conditions. Likewise, it is easier to imagine a revolution that would dismantle interlocking social forms piece by piece, just as they were assembled.
Everything is about capitalism, but class is nothing special. This is the distinctive Endnotes position on the perennial conflict between identity politics and Marxism. Another way of putting it is that capitalism is a real universal, but only in the negative sense. What can billions of people, different from one another in every way, have in common besides the fact that they all need to work for a living? The upshot, for Endnotes, is that we should no longer speak about class consciousness but “consciousness of capital” — an awareness that all our fates are shaped by a single system, even though its pressures, rather than crystallizing resistance, push to break things apart.
Continuing this line of argument, Endnotes devoted the bulk of its fourth, most recent, issue to a history of the workers’ movement as a form of identity politics. From the first issue, the journal had aimed “to undermine the illusion that [the workers’ movement] is somehow ‘our’ past, something to be protected or preserved.” Here, in nearly forty thousand words, they performed their most merciless demystification yet. As they had argued before, the workers’ movement was based on the premise that the development of capitalism would forge a “collective worker” in “a compact mass,” a future already visible in the factories inhabited by semiskilled male workers. When the collective did not arrive at the appointed hour, activists responded by constructing a moral community dedicated to the collective affirmation of a workers’ identity. In socialist parties and mutual-aid societies, at picnics and in union halls, “proletarians were made to forget they were Corsican or Lyonnais” and became bound to one another as workers.
The identity was fashioned in response to pressing material problems confronting the urban proletariat. Collective action such as striking was difficult among people who did not trust one another; the propagation of an ethic of mutuality was required to get people to take risks for strangers. Furthermore, the goals of the labor movement were constrained by the exclusion from political power of the popular classes, who (outside the United States) were denied the franchise well into the late 19th century. The culture of working-class organization was partly a tool in the fight for political power: by emphasizing the dignity of labor and promoting moral causes such as temperance, the leaders of the labor movement tried to demonstrate that they represented a class worthy of inclusion in the social order. Inevitably, this involved targeting deviants within — including the lumpenproletariat scorned by Rosa Luxemburg as a counterrevolutionary “school of sharks.” In opposing bourgeois contempt for the supposedly degenerate proletariat, the proponents of workers’ identity absorbed many of the values of the dominant society, stressing the respectability and propriety of working men as well as the ability of union leaders to maintain orderly production. Workers built a movement “only insofar as they believed, and convinced others to believe, in a shared identity: the collective worker.”
In other hands, this account of class formation would be a success story, proving that the willful construction of identities can be a way to achieve power. Antonio Gramsci, breaking in his own way with orthodox Marxism, understood that the working class would not mechanically come to dominate politics in the advanced capitalist countries, and so communists would need to articulate working-class politics in a coalition with other class fractions and reinforce straightforward economic arguments with an edifice of moral and cultural authority. The political indeterminacy of class politics was a project that socialists could overcome: by exploiting the ambiguity, they could construct a winning working-class bloc in any given historical moment. The base did not determine the superstructure: canny superstructural intervention could potentially transform the economy and society overall.
By contrast, Endnotes denies that the cultural construction of class identity can ever cut sharply enough to alter the long-term course of history. The figure of “the worker,” though constructed by activists, was powerful because the reality of factory production came close enough to the myth to make it plausible. All of it was undone when the factories closed. In fact, the workers’ movement, by promoting economic “growth” and becoming a partner in production, actually helped hasten the maturity of capitalist production and, with it, its own irrelevance. Class, in the final instance, is a dependent variable dragged behind the independent motion of capital. Even the most adept organic intellectuals could never bend history in a new direction; they could only mark time until objective necessity entered a new phase, one that no longer required workers or their identities.
In a brief coda to issue four, Endnotes finds a blunt illustration of their thesis in the former Yugoslavia.3 Global capital may be largely uninterested in exploiting labor in the Balkans, but the theology of the workers’ state remains in living memory, so that “regardless of it standing idle for years, the local factory remained a place of identification and pride.” Without power over production — and facing indifferent investors — employees lose access to the conventional forms of labor conflict. When the “workers” occupy factories, to demand back wages or the resumption of production, they resort to tactics reminiscent of prison rebellions: “hunger strikes, self-mutilations and suicide threats,” including laying their bodies on train tracks. They are not bringing to birth a new world but desperately seeking a way out.
Endnotes is reluctant to suggest what might replace the workers’ movement, and constantly protests — perhaps too much — the assumption that the surplus population might be the new subject of history. But the editors strongly suggest that the basis for new forms of solidarity and struggle will be a general tendency for things to get worse. There were many college students occupying plazas, but they did so knowing they no longer represent an elite in waiting. Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were killed in “suburb[s] in transition,” hollowed out by the housing crisis. Economic decline was reflected within the movements, which frequently saw “the worse-off entering and transforming protests initiated by the better-off” — occupations and demonstrations giving way to homeless camps and lumpen riots. The entrance of poorer people often revealed that the new participatory structures were not an alternative model of meeting basic necessities. In the past, or at least this stylized rendering of the past, the involvement of more groups of people meant a revolution was growing in strength, swelling until it seemed to represent a universal cause. Today, in the absence of unifying institutions and ideas, the diversification of the protest movement only poses problems.
Endnotes’s stress on “descending modulations” leads to a pessimism that strangely converges on conservative conventional wisdom. For example, it dismisses the hope “that the state can be convinced to act rationally, to undertake a more radical Keynesian stimulus.” Even before the crisis, sovereign-debt levels had soared (reaching levels much higher than they had been in 1929, before the Great Depression). Governments, in this story, had borrowed money during bad times, intending to pay it back during the recovery. But falling growth rates meant that even when recessions ended, states had trouble finding revenue to settle their debts. These high levels of debt, carried over into the crisis, limited states’ ability to borrow more. Keynes (and his followers today, like Yanis Varoufakis) thought they could save capitalism from itself by demonstrating the folly of austerity. But for Endnotes, there is no alternative, at least until the revolution — a position disconcertingly close to right-wing dogma.
Just as they scorn antiausterity hopes, Endnotes rejects activists who think “communities would do just fine if the police stopped interfering.” The editors emphasize “a very real crime wave beginning in the late 1960s” and insist that police bring “a semblance of order to lives that no longer matter to capital.” Their account of the Ferguson experience emphasizes, to a degree uncommon outside far-right news sources, chaos and violence: the “small but significant number of guns on the streets, often fired into the air,” the nights of “shooting at police, looting, and a journalist . . . robbed,” the fact that many victims of police violence may not have been “innocent” in the straightforward sense demanded by moralizing liberals. The point is not to defend police — banished along with the rest of the state in the Endnotes ideal — but to point out the ugly realities of a decaying capitalism. Unmanageable chaos, on this reading, is one of the causes of division among supporters of BLM, drawing out some of the class contradictions already latent in it.
If the techno-utopian, accelerationist Marxism can resemble Silicon Valley dreams of pure automation, Endnotes’s Marxism bears traces of survivalist pessimism. As the laws of capitalist development take their course, we’re told, more and more people will own nothing but their labor, and find that their labor is worth nothing. Having no alternative, some of them will discover ways to “destroy the link between finding work and surviving.” Jacques Camatte, a founder of communization theory and inspiration to Endnotes, eventually became a leading anarcho-primitivist. Endnotes disavows this later Camatte, but given their insistence that communism dispense with markets and states (not to mention other capitalist mediations such as “nation [and] species”), it’s unclear what the editors think would prevent a collapse in living standards. They concede that it is “entirely possible to imagine that hating one another, and ensuring that no one gets slightly better than anyone else, will take precedence over making the revolution.” This is a staggering understatement. It’s hard to imagine global economic decline unchecked by large-scale political institutions leading to anything but Hobbesian disaster. What needs justification is the hope that Endnotes retains: that the revolution is still possible, even if “the actual means of reconnecting individuals to their capacities, outside the market and the state, are impossible to foresee.”
Endnotes, together with similar collectives in other countries, publishes Sic: international journal of communization. Around spring 2014, Manos Manousakis, a Greek communizer who wrote for Sic about riots, began complaining to his reading group that “everything is over” and “nothing matters any more since this cycle of struggles leads nowhere.” The depth of his disillusion became clear in early 2015, when he joined the new Syriza government as Minister of Economy, Infrastructure, Shipping, and Tourism. His tenure lasted until July of that year, when along with much of Syriza’s left he resigned in protest of the government’s acceptance of humiliating terms imposed by the European Union.
Manousakis’s journey, which scandalized the international ultraleft, encapsulates the dilemma leftists face today. Rejecting the abstract antistatism of communist reading groups, he joined the parliamentary left in taking state power, only to discover the hard limits the system placed on even modest reform. Are there any other choices? It might be worth considering the central Endnotes metaphor of the “horizon” — a vision that frames all motion but that can never be reached, something that despite its omnipresence does not objectively exist. In the Endnotes critique of the workers’-movement horizon, real trends were extrapolated too far: the temporary explosion in industrial employment in Western Europe was taken to augur the transformation of global society into one big factory. The classical socialists were right that wage labor and industrial organization were reshaping society, and the strength of their analysis allowed them to achieve concrete victories: the enfranchisement of the working class across Europe, the establishment of national health services, the erosion of deference on the streets and in the workplace. But the final industrial triumph did not occur, and we face a new horizon.
But what if this new horizon, leading to class decomposition and immediate communization, is accurate in some respects but exaggerated in others? The future according to Endnotes draws attention to central trends of our time: the breakdown of capitalism’s link between work and survival, the displacement of human labor from production. A move away from the factory can be seen already in movements and discussions around the environment, guaranteed minimum income, mass incarceration, and women’s unwaged labor. But perhaps Endnotes has overcorrected. Just as the dream of the unified working class has always been haunted by its actual incoherence, the new picture of an insuperably fractured proletariat ignores the ways in which the working class is still unified and meaningful.
Many socialists share much of Endnotes’s understanding of capitalist reality without accepting their millenarian conclusions about strategy. Robert Brenner’s 2006 analysis of intercapitalist competition, The Economics of Global Turbulence, underwrites Endnotes’s claim that the global economy has been stuck in a long downturn since the 1970s. If you take their word for it, Brenner’s graphs of steadily declining manufacturing profits point a straight line to communization. But his own political comments suggest that he continues to hew to the post-Trotskyist labor radicalism he first embraced in the late 1960s: radical potential remains in the hands of the working class, provided the rank and file can shake off union bureaucrats and the Democratic Party. Workers in the global supply chain (longshoremen, warehouse workers, truck drivers) may still have the leverage once enjoyed by workers in basic industry.
Fredric Jameson, another NLR stalwart, was moved by Endnotes to proclaim that “Capital is a book about unemployment” — endorsing their central claim about surplus populations. But his recent book, An American Utopia, returns to Leninist basics to imagine how capitalism could be transcended through the transformation of existing institutions. His conclusion, that the road to revolution runs through universal military service, is self-consciously provocative and less important than the broader message:
I prefer the word socialism to communism in discussions today, because it is more practical than the latter and actually raises questions of party formation as well as transitions, privatizations, nationalizations, finances, and the like, which the loftier regions of communism allow us to avoid.
Words to make an Endnotes editor reach for the revolver: socialism, party, finance, nation, and, above all, transition. It is difficult to give up on the idea that there might be intermediate measures connecting the world we live in to the world we would prefer. The notion that the increasing complexity and interdependence of the economy points toward “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself” (Capital III) has always been the most exciting part of Marxism, the quality setting it apart from religious chiliasm or existential rebellion. Another world is not only possible, it is already taking form — unevenly, incompletely — around us all the time.
If nothing else, this philosophy allows for the possibility that current struggles could be successful, something Endnotes has trouble imagining. At one point, they concede that protest could “renegotiate the terms on which the crisis is being managed” through redistributive political reforms like a financial-transactions tax or a new wave of worker militancy. These are the things that most people on the left, including most Marxists, hope for and are working toward, and Endnotes does not claim they are strictly impossible. But the journal still dismisses those possibilities as akin to creating “a workers’ council on the deck of the Titanic.” Here Endnotes’s pessimism persists beyond what rigor and logic call for. If we can force a change in the terms of the crisis, why can’t we imagine those proximate victories linking up with longer-term goals, through which things like the state, markets, and money (all of which existed before capitalism did — something Endnotes acknowledges) could be made to do things besides immiserate and exclude?
Endnotes unapologetically narrates the fortunes of the working class as the rise and fall of the industrial worker. Back then, labor was “engaged in building a modern world.” Today’s workers, however, are “employed in dead-end service jobs” and “see no purpose in their work.” But “service” is a broad category. Growing numbers of health-care workers, largely women and nonwhite, suffer from exploitation and may hate their jobs with good reason. But the purpose of care work is easier to identify with, and harder for society to dispense with, than working retail. However communism turns out, people will continue to be born, get sick, and die; if for no other reason than this, many existing kinds of work will continue to be socially necessary. Why couldn’t this kind of labor be affirmed the way industrial development once was? Couldn’t it ground a program that demanded universal guarantees of health and human services alongside the abolition of differential racial and gendered responsibility for the care of others?
Endnotes benefits from the undeniable lack of success leftists have had in achieving either reform or revolution anywhere in the world recently. The experience of Greece’s Syriza should trouble everyone who entertains hopes about taking state power and imposing a program. Most left-wing writing tries to cover these deep uncertainties with optimism of the will; it is proper, or at least inevitable, that radical politics involve some suspension of disbelief. Even the rigorous hopelessness of Endnotes gives way to a certain dreamlike quality when it imagines our long-run prospects. “Struggle can be endlessly generative,” the editors rhapsodize, potentially generating even “the unification of humanity” and the end of “gender, race, class, nation, species.”
Every political writer must balance groundless hope against deflating realism. Endnotes excels at the latter because it transfers all hope to a distant future. They write with the undisenchanted energy of someone who believes deeply in radical possibility, while refusing to take any unwarranted consolation from the way things are now. They offer the rest of us, who I believe are correct to place our hopes in programs and transitions, challenges that will not be answered easily. Perhaps, despite its cunning and erudition, the politics of Endnotes is no more serious than glib forms of anarchism. But on what grounds are our “realistic” politics any less fanciful?
Endnotes occasionally publishes essays with individual bylines, like Bernes’s, which they call “intakes.” The most remarkable thing about these pieces is how closely, in tone and in politics, they resemble the official, unbylined essays. ↩
An interesting effect of the collective authorship is that a reader never knows which sentences have been written by white men. The Endnotes member most publicly associated with gender theory is Maya Gonzalez. ↩
An important source for the history of the workers’ movement in the issue is an essay titled “Telling the Truth About Class” by Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, who had been a dissident in socialist Hungary. Endnotes, like Tamás, sees little difference between capitalist development and Eastern Bloc revolutions that empowered “technocratic communists to focus on the developmental tasks at hand—namely, breaking up peasant communities and displacing peasants to the cities, where they could be put to work in gigantic mills.” ↩