Post-futurist anti-capitalism

15Aug12

Ross Wolfe, of the Charnel House, has a long post on the temporality of radical politics, criticising, among other temporal orientations, various forms of hankering after divers real and imaginary pasts, and particularly the longing for a ‘prelapsarian past, of the “good old days” before everything went wrong’. Much of the post is devoted to Franco “Bifo” Berardi and  his latest book, After the Future (2011).

Among the targets are Jewbonics/MondoWeiss blogger Max Ajl. His text “Planet of the Fields” was in Jacobin magazine and not published on-line, as far as I know. Wolfe alleges that:

It soon becomes clear, however, that the only way the author thinks humanity can survive is for it to reinstate the past.  Against bourgeois society’s “ceaseless drive to urbanization, industrialization, and capital- and input-intensive agriculture,” Ajl follows Colin Duncan in stressing “the centrality of [‘low-impact’] agriculture.”  He thus counterposes an order founded upon a more modest, traditional agrarian model to the megalopolitan nightmare-city of the last couple centuries.[34]  In order to carry out this neo-Neolithic revolution, Ajl calls for a policy of “repeasantization” — a telling slip-of-the-pen.[35]  Presumably, what he means by this is not literally the restoration of some sort of peasantry, as this feudal title tends to imply a certain legal and political status: enserfment, congenital bondage to the land (the manor or estate of a local nobleman), and the compulsory alienation of one’s property and labor to his lord as part of a corvée system.  Most farmers are not peasants.  Rather, what Ajl probably has in mind is a new yeomanry, tilling the soil in the bucolic splendor of the countryside.  Although he insists that “smallholder agriculture is not an antiquarian curio,” the spirit that animates Ajl’s atavistic vision is clearly conjured out of the ideological ectoplasm of romantic anti-capitalism.[36]  It is nourished on “the view that if only capitalism had not come into existence we could all be living in a happy hobbit-land of freed peasants and independent small producers.”[37]

(Personally, I have a problem with the simplistic ortho-Marxism Wolfe seems to be channelling in his criticism of the term “peasantry”, as I believe that the peasantry as a class are defined by the objective contradiction between proletarianisation and autonomy/communisation, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Wolfe continues, and this is where it becomes relevant to the concerns of this blog:

This would perhaps seem a neat bit of buffoonery — a quaint throwback to the petit-bourgeois socialism dismissed in theManifesto as “reactionary and Utopian”[38] — were it not for the widespread support it enjoys in anti-capitalist circles today.  The idyllic past it portrays is, of course, a fiction.  Family farming has since the 1970s become fetishized by the “small is beautiful” Left, roughly around the same time as family-owned farms began to go extinct (transformed into subsidiaries of large-scale agribusiness).  Leftish urbanites and self-proclaimed student radicals today often see in traditional agriculture the vestiges of a simple, honest, and upright way of life that has otherwise been lost in modern times.  Seldom is it remembered that in former times the provincial homestead was a bastion of conservatismand bulwark of the ancien régime, home to ignorance, illiteracy, patriarchy, superstition, and the domestic slavery of women.[39]  Not for nothing did Marx and Engels contemptuously refer to it as a haven for “the idiocy of rural life.”[40]

In the absence of any viable future, the gaze of all humanity turns impotently toward the past.  What emerges from such inauspicious times as these is thus a renovated passéism, in which the only imaginable society other than the one which presently endures must be seen as reminiscent of its earlier incarnations.[41]  Instead of forging a way forward into the great unknown, into an as-yet-unseen social formation, the only path that presently seems feasible for humanity is to flee into the familiar comfort of a new dark age.  Even Ajl’s “Planet of Fields” is just one step removed from Zerzanite primitivism.  To their credit, Mohandesi and Haider explicitly reject this latter-day Neo-Luddism,[42] reasserting the openness of the present.  Ajl, by contrast, addresses the primitivists’ challenge only en passant, obliquely brushing it aside on the grounds that nomadic hunter-gatherer society could never support a large population.[43]  And yet the Zerzanites can be said to possess at least one undeniable, if somewhat dubious, merit — the extreme lucidity with which they express their madness.

The post continues developing its critique of Bifo and gestures towards some alternative orientations to the past and future. What I want to push, though, is the point that various forms of “post-futurist” romanticisms have become the default mode for anti-capitalism today, pervading the #Occupy movement, for example. While the critique of this sort of romantic anti-capitalism is well developed on the Marxish left (see e.g. 3WF), the important messages is that that some apparently Marxist anti-capitalisms (Ajl is above all an anti-imperialist) are also mired in the “post-futurist” romance.

Also read: Ben Lear on lifeboat communism.

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4 Responses to “Post-futurist anti-capitalism”

  1. Thanks for the post and the summary. It summarizes all my main criticisms accurately and succinctly, and I agree that there is definitely some overlap in terms of the concerns of this blog and those I raise in my article.

    I’d also like to second your endorsement of Ben Lear’s review of After the Future, by Franco “Bifo” Berardi. It’s an excellent digest of the book and critique of its central arguments. Everyone should check it out, if they haven’t already.

    Regarding the “class” status of the peasantry, I actually subscribe to Postone’s view (which I would argue was also Marx’s, Engels’, Lenin’s, Bukharin’s, and Lukács’) that class in the strict sense is a modern phenomenon. I could go into that further, but I don’t want my comment to go on and on.

    Just for the record, though, I’ve really never read anything Ajl has written on Israel and the Middle East, which I know is what he is best known for. So I really don’t have anything in the way of an opinion on his positions there. Though I will say that I find the pseudo-cleverness of the title “Jewbonics” more than a little cringe-inducing. That’s just me.

    On Twitter, however, he responded to my criticisms by launching into a somewhat embarrassing non sequitur, bringing up Platypus’ controversial decision to publish a translation of the ISF’s “Communism and Israel,” as if we somehow endorsed its view. Mind you, this was in the same issue as we published an interview with Noam Chomsky, a rather vocal critic of Israel. Not only that, but he continued to insist that in truth Platypus really does agree with the ISF’s ideas, even though we solicited (and published) a critical response to “Communism and Israel” from one of our German contacts, Felix Baum.

    I found the whole exchange rather unfortunate. Max seems like a nice enough guy, and a decent writer. I disagree quite vehemently with his ecological arguments, as should be clear from my article, but my hope is nevertheless that cooler tempers will prevail.

    • Thanks for posting the links to that.

      What did you make of that whole controversy, anyway? I remember there was a bit of a firestorm over at my blog, your blog, as well as on Jews-Sans-Frontieres, Louis Proyect’s blog, and Contested Terrain.

      Also, since I’m not as familiar with Max’s views on Israel and the Middle East, how would you characterize his position?


  1. 1 Post-Futurist Anti-Capitalism (re-blogged from Anti-National Translation), as well as Notes and Oscuridades (UK), and my Tumblr | The Charnel-House

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