July 14, 2023

Politics of the Rift: On Théorie Communiste

Ray Brassier

Argentina, 2001

This essay examines the antinomy of class struggle, as formulated by Paul Mattick and elaborated by Théorie Communiste. The antinomy can be formulated as follows: while capital accumulates by exploiting wage labor, the reproduction of wage labor reproduces the conditions of exploitation that propel the accumulation of capital. Thus, in reproducing itself, wage labor reproduces the conditions of its own exploitation, which is to say, capital. This means that labor’s gains against capital—better wages and working conditions—are won at labor’s own expense: increasing wages imply an increasing rate of exploitation. Only the abolition of the capitalist class relation can abolish this vicious cycle. The question is whether this abolition requires labor’s seizure of the means of production, or whether these means have become so bound up with capital accumulation that abolishing capital entails relinquishing these means and abolishing production as we know it. Théorie Communiste insists on the latter. Since social production has become inextricable from capital accumulation and the affirmation of labor inseparable from the affirmation of capital, communism as the abolition of capital requires the self-abolition of the proletariat. Class struggle unfolds in the rift between two impossibilities: the impossibility of affirming the proletariat without affirming capital and the impossibility of negating capital without negating the proletariat. Is the possibility of communism inextricable from this rift between impossible affirmation and impossible negation? Or does it require a politics of the rift capable of pinpointing the faultline between these impossibilities?

The Antinomy of Class Struggle

In one of his late texts, “Reform or Revolution,” Paul Mattick succinctly encapsulates the antinomy of class struggle:

Higher wages and better working conditions presuppose increased exploitation, or the reduction of the value of labor power, thus assuring the continuous reproduction of the class struggle within the accumulation process. It is the objective possibility of the latter which nullifies the workers’ economic struggle as a medium for the development of revolutionary class consciousness.1

Capital will only increase the share of social wealth it yields to labor by increasing the amount of surplus value it extracts from labor. Capital increases through labor’s struggle to increase its share in capital: the more wealth labor obtains from capital, the more labor is exploited by capital. Labor’s victories consolidate capital’s monopolization of social wealth: the strengthening of its influence upon capital is also the weakening of its challenge to capital. Since labor’s ultimate interest is the abolition of capital, winning better wages and working conditions is a short-term gain that diminishes the prospect of long-term victory.

But labor can no more abstain from the struggle for wages than it can relinquish the struggle for overcoming capital. It is caught in a double bind: if it gives up its struggle for wages, it will be immiserated; if it does not, it perpetuates its own exploitation. In orthodox Marxist theory, the intensification of labor struggles generated class consciousness and hence consciousness of the need to abolish the class relation separating producers from the means of production. Class struggle culminates in the abolition of class. Reformist consciousness becomes revolutionary when it perceives the need to abolish its own social being (social being generates the consciousness capable of transforming it). But in historical practice, the consciousness resulting from the increased power of organized labor seeks only to consolidate the social being that generated it. Organized labor becomes the adjutant of the bourgeoisie. Instead of negating its social being, working class consciousness reinforces it. What explains this blockage? The subjectivity of labor is trapped between aspiring to the dominant status of the bourgeoisie and affirming its objective status in the social order. It aspires because it is subordinated and it is subordinated because it aspires. This deadlock converts the consciousness of social being into its affirmation, preventing consciousness of class from issuing into the imperative negation of class.

But this neutralization was only possible so long as capital was assured of an increasing rate of exploitation. With the end of capital’s postwar boom (lasting roughly from 1950 to 1973), class war enters into a new phase. Capitalist class consciousness is reenergized by the self-conscious power of organized labor; it launches a new offensive against it. Privatization and marketization intensify. As the bourgeoisie rolls back the social gains of the working class, labor’s diminishing power and influence corrodes the material buffers that prevented class consciousness from recognizing the need to destroy class. Now maximizing exploitation entails growing immiseration, whose consequences are compounded by murderous imperial wars and catastrophic climate change. In waging war against the working class, bourgeois consciousness dismembers social being, its own as well as that of its opponent. Capital’s war on the global proletariat ramifies into the destruction of humanity’s inorganic body, the earth. This is where we find ourselves. The question then is whether the class consciousness rekindled by labor’s nascent reorganization will be satisfied to regain what it has lost since 1973, or whether recognizing the destruction of its social being will spur it to pursue the definitive abolition of both capital and class.

Revolutionary Possibility

This sketch omits all the details one would expect from a credible analysis or explanation. But it serves to highlight an underappreciated facet of historical materialism (one that is also stressed by Mattick2). Social being determines consciousness and is redetermined by it in return. But the temporal hiatus separating determination from redetermination marks the noncoincidence of subject and object, or the gap between social being in-itself and social being for-itself. This gap is crucial for the interplay between the subjective and objective dimension of historical materialism. The latter is not about the one-way determination of consciousness by social being, but about the two-way determination between the unconscious objectivation of subjective practice (what we do everyday without knowing we are doing it) and the conscious subjectivation of objective structure (what we are compelled to do, having consciously interpreted our social being). It is the transition from one moment to the other, and especially the redetermination of social being by class consciousness, that decides whether the bourgeoisie will maintain its social being as well as that of the working class, or whether the proletariat will practically negate its own social being together with that of the bourgeoisie. The practical shift from affirmation to negation marks the transition from reformist to revolutionary class politics. Effecting this transition requires grasping this hiatus as the interval within which history is made. This entails consciously apprehending and intervening into the gap separating the subjective and objective dimensions of social being and thus knowing when to act at the limits of knowing.

Revolutionary possibility emerges in the interval between the objective consequences of subjective activity and their subjective redetermination. It is a truism to say that “revolution takes time.” But this truism has both a reformist and a revolutionary sense. According to the former, the revolutionary transition from one mode of production to another remains a social process: the transformation of social reproduction requires its maintenance. The revolutionary sense insists that revolution is not a transition but a hiatus interrupting regular social processes and even the imperative of social reproduction itself. The revolutionary imperative consists in actively suspending the imperative of social reproduction in order to secure its future, because to continue to affirm it is to jeopardize this future. We might add that in the current conjuncture, it is precisely the blind affirmation of the need to continue that negates the possibility of continuing. Refusal gathers the past, present, and future of social reproduction into the interval that suspends them and attempts to recreate their future possibility. The transition from capitalism to communism is forged by risking the continuity of transition.

But the question is whether suspending existing conditions of continuity (i.e., existing conditions of social reproduction) forges a new, radically different continuity, or whether the discontinuity generated by negating these conditions merits the name “communism.” This is the difference between communism as sublation and communism as abolition. The issue concerns more than the logic of negation. Asking whether labor might resume its ascendancy vis-à-vis capital assumes that the dynamic of class struggle is akin to the movement of a pendulum in a neutral medium, each pole ascending in alternation. But history is not a neutral medium. Its irreversibility inflects this dynamism and irrevocably alters its composition of forces.

Théorie Communiste on the Disconnection of Valorization and Social Reproduction

The restructuring of the labor-capital relation initiated in the 1970s and extended through the 1980s and 1990s (sometimes described as “neoliberalism,” a term I will avoid because of its imprecision) changes the conditions of class struggle. For some, it alters them in a way that renders a certain conception of revolution, i.e., the proletariat’s seizure and control of production, historically obsolete. This is the basic proposition of Théorie Communiste (TC), a group of theorists and activists born of the cycle of struggles that flared from 1968 to 1977, whose work is dedicated to thinking through the consequences of this restructuring.3 It has three basic components: deindustrialization and off-shoring; privatization and austerity; financialization and credit. Their combined consequence is the “dual disconnection” of the reproduction of labor power from valorization and of wage income from consumption. The first disconnection entails the geographical “zoning” of valorization, which involves

capitalist hypercenters grouping together the higher functions in the hierarchy of business organization (finance, high technology, research centers, etc.); secondary zones with activities requiring intermediate technologies, encompassing logistics and commercial distribution, ill-defined zones with peripheral areas devoted to assembly activities, often outsourced; last, crisis zones and “social dustbins” in which a whole informal economy involving legal or illegal products prospers.”4

While zoning unifies the valorization of value, it divides the reproduction of labor power:

Reproduction occurs in different ways in each of these zones. In the first world: high-wage strata where social risks are privatized intermeshed with fractions of the labor force where certain aspects of Fordism have been preserved and others, increasingly numerous, subjected to a new “compromise.” In the second world: regulation through low wages, imposed by strong internal migratory pressure and precarious employment, islands of more or less stable international subcontracting, little or no guarantee for social risks and labor migrations. In the third world: humanitarian aid, all kinds of illicit trade, agricultural survival, regulation by various mafias and wars on a more or less restricted scale, but also by the revival of local and ethnic solidarities.5

The result is a “total disjunction” between the global valorization of capital and the reproduction of labor power adequate for that valorization. The reciprocity between mass production and the reproduction of labor power, characteristic of Fordism, disappears. There is a separation between the reproduction and circulation of capital and that of labor power. Moreover, the zoning of social reproduction enforces the segmentation of the proletariat, its division through processes of racialization and gendering compounded by the subdivisions of ethnicity and culture. Proletarianization is no longer the socially homogenizing force that promised to unify the proletariat against capital: “The unity of segmentation is all that exists for it [the proletariat].”6 The second disconnection couples increasing consumption with decreasing wages. Mounting debt allows household expenditure to outstrip income. Macroeconomic risk is displaced onto households, whose debt becomes the prime source of demand.7 Thus the starting point for the subprime crisis of 2008 is not capital investments but household debts. The savings instrumentalized by financial markets, savings whose repayment is endless, are those of wage laborers: “The wage is no longer an element of regulation of the whole of capitalism.”8

Given how much will turn out depend upon it, it is worth pausing to consider critical rejoinders to the disconnection thesis. On a charitable reading, the zoning of valorization can be understood to obtain at different geographic scales and even within single nation-states: Brazil might plausibly encompass all three. But the “dual disconnection” thesis has been subjected to particularly trenchant criticism by Bruno Astarian.9 Astarian’s critique can be boiled down to three main points:

1) The unification of value exists only as an assemblage of multiple capitals differentiated by their organic composition (ratio of constant to variable capital and of labor power to means of production). This differentiation is hierarchical and rules out any global equalization of the rate of profit. The totality of available surplus value is not equally distributed as a single rate of profit across all capitals.

2) If the unification of global capital is relative, then the reproduction of labor power is both locally and internationally differentiated, and as such more or less adequate to the differentiated unity of value.

3) With regard to household debt, there is a difference between consumer credit and real estate credit. While the first allows an increase in household expenditure, it represents only a minor part—roughly 30 percent—of total household debt. Consumer credit is mainly practiced in five countries: the USA, Canada, the UK, Japan, and Germany. Sixty-five percent of the mass of consumer debt is concentrated in these countries. As one might expect, the majority of the global proletariat does not have recourse to consumer credit. Even in the US, the resort to credit among proletarians is relatively infrequent and the sums concerned comparatively modest. According to Federal Reserve figures, between 1998 and 2007, while debt was present at all levels of income and was on the rise even at the lower end of the income bracket, it was the middle-classes who sustained the majority of consumer credit, and they did so both in greater numbers and for larger sums.10 This does not rule out the prevalence of overindebtedness among the poorest, but it does imply that wages have fallen relative to what is considered a normal standard of living in the US and that the “restructuring” invoked by TC is at least not in full effect. As for real estate credit, it only increases household demand for new housing. Thus, transactions concerning old housing should be deducted from this total credit mass. In 2007, the number of real estate transactions for old housing was $5.7 million, as opposed to $0.7 million for new housing. Consequently, while household debt does play a role in stimulating overall demand in the US and Europe, the preponderant mass of debt driving this demand come from the middle-classes rather than the proletariat. Middle-class income comprises a larger portion of surplus value, whether in the form of higher salaries, bonuses, or more directly through capital revenues (interest, dividends) and small or personal business profits. Generally speaking, the propensity for household debt is directly proportional to income, which determines the capacity for repayment. Thus, the rich invariably incur greater debt than the poor. The marked decrease in interest rates incited households to incur debts at the upper limits of their capacity and, in the case of subprime mortgages, often beyond it. But the subprime mortgage crisis is more indicative of the way in which the capacity for repayment imposes limits upon household debt than of a drift towards debt in proletarian consumption. Consequently, while it is true to say that the proletariat in the US and Europe is indebted and that the 2008 financial crisis was initiated by payment defaults among the poorest, it is false to claim that proletarian consumption has become disconnected from the wage, whether singly or doubly.

Astarian’s critique plunges us into questions of political economy that I am not qualified to adjudicate. Interestingly however, it undermines the disconnection thesis while reasserting the correlation between wages and surplus value. The consequence that TC derives from the disconnection thesis—that the wage relation is no longer a regulative element vis-à-vis capitalism as a whole—must be relinquished to the extent that the wage remains determining for the majority of the proletariat. But the disconnection thesis has a significant corollary that merits consideration even if one rejects the thesis itself. This is the claim that the contemporary wage relation is the element which renders visible the contradictoriness in proletarian being as such. It indexes the overlap between proletarian belonging—the internal relation between wage labor and proletarianization—and belonging to capital—the external relation between living labor and valorization. While the first is a relation of internal necessity, the second is a relation of external contingency. Being proletarian belongs to capital. There is nothing left to affirm in the possession of labor power but the external compulsion of capital: it brands labor with the destitution of belonging to capital.11

The wage demand becomes structurally illegitimate vis-à-vis capital, and not just antagonistic vis-à-vis the maximization of surplus value. The wage relation is now the site of labor’s struggle for existence, and no longer of the demand for its management. The disjunction between valorization and the reproduction of labor power recenters the contradiction between capital and proletariat. But now the proletariat is riven by this contradiction in its very existence. Its identity as a class is imposed externally upon it by capital: “The necessity of its reproduction is something it finds facing it, something represented by capital, for which it is constantly necessary yet always superfluous.”12 Capital is no longer compelled to negotiate the ratio of surplus to necessary labor; it can impose it by force. The illegitimacy of the demand for higher wages renders the disciplining of labor power integral to the capitalist agenda. Coercive managerialism complements police violence. This crisis in the wage relation concentrates the current phase of the contradiction between labor and capital. The proletariat is nothing outside of the contradiction of the wage relation. It cannot reproduce itself independently of this relation, but by reproducing itself it reproduces the relation that nullifies its independence. This is the rationale for TC’s notorious insistence that there is nothing left to affirm in proletarian being, no positive characteristic to defend, no independent capacity to preserve: “The proletariat is nothing in itself, but a nothing full of social relations, such that, against capital, disappearance is its only option.”13 To be a proletarian is no longer to be the nothing capable of being everything; it is to be the nothingness through which everything (the totality of social relations) is not only preserved but expanded in its homogeneous fullness.

Critique of Programmatism and Theory of the Rift

During the period of the ascendancy of labor power, its rising power within the capitalist mode of production was accompanied by its identification with a specific predicate: being a worker. It is precisely this identification that is disqualified by the growing rift between the accumulation of value and the reproduction of labor. The disconnection between valorization and the reproduction of labor, and between wages and consumption, renders obsolete the definition of communism as the dis-alienation of labor, the expropriation of expropriators through seizure of the means of production. This is the programmatist schema, whereby communism is understood as the proletariat’s transition from being a class in-itself to a class for-itself, the self-organization and self-affirmation of labor, which, interestingly, TC views as common to both Leninists and council communists, Stalinists and anarcho-syndicalists:

Generally speaking, programmatism may be defined as a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletariat finds, in its drive toward liberation, the fundamental elements of a future social organisation which become a programme to be realised. In the class struggle between the proletariat and capital, the proletariat is the positive element that takes the contradiction to the point of explosion. The revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a “society of associated producers.” One of the terms of the contradiction is considered its solution.14

This critique is historical, not metaphysical. The claim is not that programmatism is an illusion which we can now see through but that while it was once historically legitimate, it is no longer. The social conditions that made it viable no longer obtain. On the basis of this diagnosis of the historical obsolescence of programmatism, TC proposes “communization” not as the hitherto occluded truth or essence of communism but as its only current, historically viable form. It is the abolition of state, class, and of the division of labor, but also of commodification and exchange—an abolition no longer consequent upon the dictatorship of the proletariat, whose result is no longer envisageable in terms of “the free association of producers.” It is an abolition in process, but an abolition no longer subordinated to the reconstitution of relations of production. At their most provocative, TC suggests that communism is not the reconfiguration of forces and relations of production but the abolition of the social objectivation that generates and is regenerated by those forces and relations. We will examine this aspect of their thinking more critically below. For now, what needs to be stressed is that what TC calls “communization” follows from grasping the contradictoriness of proletarian being in its dependence upon the force that expands by nullifying it.

Although it renders communism unrealizable as an affirmative program (the liberation of living labor), this contradiction yields a rift (écart) in social being that makes communism possible as revolutionary negation. This is the rift between two historical impossibilities: the impossibility of affirming the proletariat without affirming capital and the impossibility of negating capital without negating the proletariat. The second negation was also endorsed by programmatism, but only as a consequence of the revolutionary self-affirmation through which the proletariat seized the means of production. Self-negation followed self-affirmation, but they were rigidly segregated. Communization decouples negation from affirmation (in which regard it is profoundly anti-Nietzschean). It overthrows negation’s subordination to the positive. The rift is at once what compels proletarian action against capital, and what limits it. It is the rift between the proletariat as constitutive of capital and the proletariat as negation of capital—the rift between the limit that blocks struggle (the fact that the proletariat can act only as a class) and the dynamic that propels struggle (the fact that the proletariat seeks to abolish what constitutes it as a class, i.e. capital). Class struggle is at once the product and the presupposition of this rift. The separation of the producers from the means of production, without which capital cannot function, is not a punctual origin relating two distinct substances, labor and capital, but a rift in which ceaseless self-expansion, capital, feeds off ceaseless self-depletion, labor. The rift conjoins capital as self-relation, reflexively positing its own presuppositions, and the alienage (extranéisation) of labor, split between labor power, posited through the valorization of capital, and living labor, whose compulsory reproduction through the wage relation is the real presupposition, at once solicited and repressed, for the movement of valorization. The split between living and dead labor, or labor and labor power, through which value valorizes itself, is also what cannot be wholly integrated within self-relating value, the effective (wirklich), not posited, presupposition that prevents it from achieving closure. But this is not because living labor is an autonomous power. On the contrary, it cannot be substantialized and separated from the dead labor upon which its life depends. The alienage of labor does not follow from the estrangement of an antecedent propriety (or authenticity). It designates a condition of voidedness, or lack of substance, that does not presuppose an originary plenitude. The separation of producers from production is not an originary alienation that communism would undo by reuniting what has been separated but the perpetual alienage of the rift, the contradiction inherent in the commodity labor power, which renders communism historically immanent in the daily course of class struggle.

Contradiction is polarization, pitting the reproduction of ever-dwindling labor power against the accumulation of ever-expanding capital. As an activity of the proletariat manifesting this contradiction, class struggle is necessarily limited, yet this limit begins to founder when, in the course of a struggle initiated by a demand (revendication) (for higher wages or a shorter working day), the determination of class (being a bearer of labor power) begins to be recognized as an external constraint to be abolished, rather than as an internal impulse (a productive capacity) requiring liberation. It is this encounter with their own limit that pushes struggles initiated by demands, and hence conditioned by the capital relation, beyond those demands and thus beyond this relation:

The conditions for overcoming struggles for demands are put in place on the basis of struggles for demands themselves … Putting unemployment and precarity at the heart of the wage relation; defining clandestinity as the general situation of labor power; posing the social immediacy of the individual as the foundation to produce the basis of opposition to capital, as in the Action Directe movement; engaging in suicidal struggles such as that at Cellatex and others in the spring and summer of 2000 (Metaleurop—with some caveats—Adelshoffen, Société Française Industrielle de Contrôle et d’Equipement, Bertrand Faure, Mossley, Bata, Moulinex, Daewoo-Orion, ACT-ex Bull [these examples are important because they point to the interweaving of the concrete and the abstract in TC’s work]); reducing class unity to an objectivity constituted in capital and in the multiplicity of collectives and waves of temporary workers’ strikes (France 2003, British postal workers)—all of the above define the content of each of these specific struggles as constitutive of the dynamic of the cycle inside and during these struggles.15

The wage demand of the employed is limited by the revolt of the unemployed, but the two are no longer pitted against one another in competition for a share of surplus value accrued through the increasing exploitation of the one and the intensifying domination of the other. The limit of the demand for necessary labor binds it to the revolt against immiseration expressed by those consigned to the scrapheap of surplus labor: “The worker can no longer break the chain in the liberation of labor, the chain which links together the terms of contradictory reciprocal implication between surplus and necessary labor.”16 The illegitimacy of the wage demand conjoins employed and unemployed. Because it indexes the limit between valuable and valueless labor power, value-producing labor retains a central revolutionary role despite the decentralization of value production (its spatiotemporal dispersion). Social reproduction fuels value production; they cannot be decoupled without abolishing production as a social relation. While the latter may be communization’s ultimate goal, it cannot be reached without being routed through labor struggles. Thus it is an error to accuse communizers of diminishing the revolutionary significance of labor struggles, and, concomitantly, of inflating the revolutionary import of insurrections by the unwaged (an error I have made in the past). The point is to acknowledge the interdependence between wage demands and unwaged revolts, against programmatism’s tendency to decouple them. If the latter constitutes the limit of the former, then by the same token, unwaged revolt encounters its limit in the wage demand. Insurrection cannot be decoupled from struggle at the sites of production:

If class struggle remains a movement at the level of reproduction, it will not integrate its own raison-d’être, which is production. The currently recurring limit of all riots and “insurrections” is what defines them as minority struggles. Revolution will have to go into the domain of production to abolish it as a specific moment of the relation between people and to abolish, in the same moment, labor in the abolition of wage labor. That is the key role of productive labor and of those who at a specific moment are the direct bearers of the contradiction because they experience it as necessary and superfluous at the same time in their existence for capital.17

It is this stress on the way in which the limit of wage struggles necessarily couples them with the struggles of the unwaged, and vice versa, such that surplus labor is merely the obverse of necessary labor, that distinguishes the politics of value-abolition conceived as communization, from the politics of value-critique (Wertkritik). Where value-critique decouples the logic of valorization from the class relation, thereby relegating class struggle to the status of a fetish (e.g., Robert Kurz),18 communization stresses their interdependence while distinguishing class struggle from the affirmation of labor. Where value-critique reduces labor to an avatar of value and identifies capital with its abstract domination, downplaying the exploitation of labor, communization stresses the indissociability of abstract and concrete domination, and the entwinement of exploitation and oppression, wage struggles and unwaged revolt. Most significantly, the critique of programmatism upholds the ineluctability of class struggle while ridding it of its subordination to the teleology of production.

Auto- and Alloproduction

The contradiction between the proletariat’s necessity and its contingency for capital (which is the contradiction between necessary and surplus labor) is the condition of its own resolution. The alienage of class belonging is not just a conceptual form deployed in theory but the content of revolutionary practice. Communism can only emerge by suspending the existing conditions of social reproduction. The proletariat is not the class endowed with the power to dissolve existing conditions; it is this dissolution embodied as a class. If communism begins with the proletariat putting its own existence into question, it culminates with the proletariat destroying the social forms that perpetuate it: “companies, factories, production, exchange.”19 Thus it is not only commodification, class, state, and the division of labor that are indices of transcendence, but social relations of production as such, insofar as they are indissociable from the logic of exchange (the abstract equivalence of value). In abolishing the latter, communization also puts an end to the former. Communization is “the autoproduction of humanity no longer positing any social relation as a presupposition to be reproduced”; it is “autoproduction as lack, passion, constant destruction and creation, ceaselessly positing becoming as its premise.”20

Yet at the same time, endorsing Marx’s critique of Hegelian idealism in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,21 TC insists that “humanity is an objective being, completing itself with external objects that it causes to become for it.”22 Can humanity produce itself without reproducing preexisting social relations? There is a tension between the claim that humanity is an objective being, bound to complete itself by “causing external objects to become for it” (note the avoidance of the term “production”), and the insistence that it can do so without this causation turning into a mode of production, objectifying a set of social relations. The key distinction lies between the objective immanence of autoproduction and the transcendence of objectivation, or alloproduction. Capital is the extremity of humanity’s alloproduction; its transcendence is merely the most acute variant of the objectivation of production. Consequently, the overcoming of capital terminates the social objectivation of production that has conditioned all previous human history:

The overcoming of existing conditions is the overcoming of the objectivation of production. In this regard communism is the overcoming of all previous history. It is not a new mode of production and there can be no issue about its management. It constitutes a total break with the concepts of economy, of productive forces, of objectivated measures of production. Humanity is an objective being, completing itself with external objects that it causes to become for it. Throughout its history, the noncoincidence between individual activity and social activity, which is constitutive of its history and which does not need to be proven or abstractly produced, took the form, for this objective being, of its separation (objectivation) from the productive act and from production, becoming the social character of its individual production. Separation, alienation, objectivation, in the course of the history of the separation of activity from its conditions, turned the latter into an economy, into relations of production, into a mode of production. As the dissolution of the capitalist mode of production’s existing conditions, the proletariat as a class, in its contradiction with capital, is the presupposition for the overcoming of this entire history, without assuming that attaining this situation is the goal of all previous history.23

For TC, the history of production is a consequence of this noncoincidence. They dismiss as “idealism” the suggestion that history itself results from the externalization and estrangement of production and the development of productive forces. But if the history of this development is simply the history of the contradiction between labor and capital, then the task is “not to explain why alienation has existed but why it cannot go on existing.”24 The end of alienation is the end of the disjunction between individual and social activity. If the origin of alienation requires no explanation from a materialist standpoint, neither does the disjunction between individual and social activity.

Yet at this point, another tension emerges between TC’s commitment to the historical immanence of real subsumption and its conception of history as noncoincidence of individual and social activity.25 For a historical materialist, “individual” and “social” are historical categories, as are “universal” and “particular.” Can the “noncoincidence” of individual and social activity be abstracted from our own historically specific society and retrojected as the origin of human history? This is precisely the move TC objects to when it is made with regard to “labor in general” as a supposed invariant of human history. Labor in general is merely the historical retrojection of historically specific abstract labor. It is hard to see how positing the noncoincidence of individual and social activity as the matrix of history is any less mystifying than the account of history as the alienation of production.

This is compounded by the repeated suggestion that human singularity preexists relations of production, as when TC declares that communization “abolishes society as autonomized substance of the relations among individuals, who then relate to each other in their singularity.”26 This is to assume that human singularity subsists beneath capitalist social relations, just waiting to be released. But what distinguishes human singularity from the natural singularity of sand grains and snowflakes is precisely the fact that it is constituted in and through social relations. It is as though the precautions against the autonomization of living labor served merely to preserve the transcendence of human singularity. This is another symptom of the tension between the commitment to historical immanence and the insistence that objectivation is transcendence. It was precisely the premium on historical immanence that motivated the rejection of the autonomy of living labor and the claim that the proletariat only exists in and through the transcendence of capital. But while class determination is entirely beholden to capital, the determinations of subjectivity, singularity, and individuality are curiously absolved of this dependence. Thus, apparently disregarding their own strictures against attributing autonomous agency to labor as self-organization, TC appeals to the self-transformation of the class subject to release human singularity from its transcendent objectivation in social relations. The self-abolition of the proletariat is supposed to yield what they call “the social immediacy of the individual”:27

The social immediacy of the individual is the end of the separation between individual activity and social activity, which constituted, for humanity, the fact of its being an objective being on the basis of the relation between its individuality and its sociality, and defined its activity as labor. It is not, for humanity, the fact of being an objective being in itself which is in question but the separation between individual activity and social activity, which turns this objectivity into an economy and economy into what mediates the two.28

But how can this social immediacy of the individual be postulated as the result of historical mediation if the separation of individual and social activity is the immediate (non-produced) condition of historical mediation? Historical materialism stresses not only humanity’s dependence upon nature, its inorganic body, but each human’s dependence upon other humans to produce its material conditions of existence. The sociality of human being is as much part of its objective being as its organic aspects. But it is precisely by rooting sociality in relations of production operating “behind the back of” consciousness that Marx breaks with the Feuerbachian premium on the interpersonal relation as the “absolute relation” grounding sociality. Marx replaces sociality conceived as an absolute relation with the dynamic ensemble of social relations of material production. The objective sociality of human being is grounded in this ensemble of social relations. It is implausible to drive a wedge between human sociality, which is inseparable from the objective, material character of human being, and the objectivation of this sociality in relations of production, through the insistence that one is immanent and the other transcendent. The materialist premium on immanence is sound, but not the insistence that immanence be uncontaminated with transcendence—objective sociality with social objectivation. It is precisely the separation of immanence and transcendence, their segregation as pure subjectivity and pure objectivity, which is idealist, while the recognition of the need to root transcendence in immanence, objectivation in subjectivation, is the hallmark of Marxian materialism. And it is precisely the dynamic of externalization and estrangement—productive appropriation and consumptive expropriation—that articulates them. Here TC (perhaps following Althusser) simply assumes that externalization presupposes interiority while estrangement presupposes authenticity. But externalization need not presuppose antecedent interiority, just as estrangement need not imply prior authenticity.29 Interiority is retrospectively constituted as a consequence of the transcendent estrangement of externalization. Objectivation is the estrangement of a process of productive appropriation without origin or end. The separation of activity from its conditions is not the premise of alienation and objectivation; it is a consequence of the alienation of objectivation, as is the noncoincidence of individual and social activity. Making them coincide is the task of appropriating production. Only then can autoproduction—the production of production—be conceived as an externalization of estrangement that does not retrospectively mythologize their immediate coincidence.

Perhaps it is now easier to see the fundamental difficulty that vitiates the plausibility of proletarian self-abolition understood as the abolition of objectivation. By decoupling class struggle from the appropriation of production, the theory and practice of the rift decouples class struggle from politics conceived as strategic orientation around desires that are more than mere concatenations of needs. The problem becomes one of tactical discrimination in destroying existing conditions of production. But in destroying the means for the production of capital, class struggle destroys the existing means for the reproduction of the proletariat. The point at which the pursuit of communization threatens to compound capitalist immiseration is the point at which the politics of the rift replaces the management of production with the palliative management of needs. Tactical discrimination alone cannot resolve the strategic selection required to distinguish between those means which can and those which cannot be suspended in order to decouple social reproduction from the reproduction of the capital relation.

This essay was inspired by conversations with Nathan Brown, who impressed upon me the philosophical significance of Théorie Communiste’s work. For Brown’s own engagement with TC, see his Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique, chap. 9 and 10 (Fordham University Press, 2021).


Paul Mattick (Sr.), “Reform or Revolution,” in Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie? (Merlin Press, 1983), 191.


“Just as capitalist price relations are both distinguishable and undistinguishable from value relations, so the superstructure in any social formation is also separable and inseparable from the socioeconomic structure. If we speak of the one, we speak of the other, and in either case we speak of no more than the material production processes that allow society to exist. This implies, of course, that a fundamental change of society affects its ‘structure’ and ‘superstructure’ simultaneously, that is, that no socially significant political, legal, or ideational change can take place apart from changes in the relations of production and the state of the productive forces of society, and that basic changes only occur in the latter accompanied by corresponding alterations of the ‘superstructure.’ It is therefore not possible to change a social system from the side of its ‘superstructure’ alone—as for instance, by way of politically induced reforms—for such changes must always stop short at that point where they would jeopardize the existing social production relations. A change of the latter is only possible by way of revolution, which overthrows the ‘base’ together with the ‘superstructure.’” Mattick, “Reform or Revolution,” 139–40.


For an introduction to TC, see “Théorie Communiste,” Libcom . For an overview and history, see “Interview with Roland Simon,” Riff Raff, no. 8 . See also Endnotes, “Bring Out Your Dead,” in Endnotes, no. 1, “Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the 20th Century” (2008).


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment,” Libcom .


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment.”


Théorie Communiste, “’Théorie de l’écart,” Théorie Communiste, no. 20 (September 2005): 91 .


TC cites the work of Michel Aglietta and Laurent Berrebi, Désordres dans le capitalisme mondial (Odile Jacob, 2007).


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 6.


Bruno Astarian, “Où va Théorie Communiste?” Hic Salta – Communisation, 2010 .


“Changes in US Family Finances from 2004 to 2007: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances,” Federal Reserve Bulletin, February 2009. Cited by Astarian.


“As the chosen people bore in their features the sign that they were the property of Jehovah, so the division of labor brands the manufacturing worker as the property of capital.” Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin, 2004), 482.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 16.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 137.


Théorie Communiste, “Real Subsumption and the Contradiction Between Proletariat and Capital: A Historical Approach,” in Abolishing Capitalist Totality: What Is To Be Done Under Real Subsumption? ed. Anthony Iles and Mattin (Archive Books, forthcoming).


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment.”


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment.”


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment.”


Robert Kurz and Ernst Lohoff, “Der Klassenkampf-Fetisch: Thesen zur Entmythologisierung des Marxismus,” Marxistische Kritik, no. 7 (August 1989).


Théorie Communiste, “The Present Moment.”


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 149.


“It is only to be expected that a living, natural being equipped and endowed with objective (i.e., material) essential powers should of his essence have real natural objects; and that his self-alienation should lead to the positing of a real, objective world, but within the framework of externality, and, therefore, an overwhelming world not belonging to his own essential being … Whenever real, corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the solid ground, man exhaling and inhaling all the forces of nature, posits his real, objective essential powers as alien objects by his externalization, it is not the act of positing which is the subject in this process: it is the subjectivity of objective essential powers, whose action, therefore, must also be something objective. An objective being acts objectively, and he would not act objectively if the objective did not reside in the very nature of his being. He only creates or posits objects, because he is posited by objects—because at bottom he is nature. In the act of positing, therefore, this objective being does not fall from his state of ‘pure activity’ into a creating of the object; on the contrary, his objective product only confirms his objective activity, his activity as the activity of an objective, natural being.” Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, vol. III (Progress Publishers, 1959), 359.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 150.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 150.


Théorie Communiste, “Real Subsumption,” 19–20.


TC’s use of real subsumption as periodizing tool has also been subjected to criticism. See Endnotes, “The History of Subsumption,” Endnotes, no. 2, “Misery and the Value-Form” (2010). This criticism may be summarized as follows: 1) The real subsumption of production does not entail the subsumption of anything beyond the immediate sphere of production, unless through illegitimate extension of the concept, which is logically tied to that of relative surplus value. 2) Formal subsumption is a logical as well as a historical prerequisite of real subsumption. It is a condition of capital. Thus formal and real subsumption need not designate successive phases of development. 3) Although real subsumption is logically inherent in the concept of capital, and hence a latency virtually implicit at its inception, its realization is not historically necessary. The claim that real subsumption follows formal subsumption as a matter of historical necessity is a metaphysical conflation of logic and history.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 81.


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 146


Théorie Communiste, “Théorie de l’écart,” 76.


I try to show this in “Strange Sameness: Hegel, Marx, and the Logic of Estrangement,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 24, no. 1 (2019).

Marxism, Economy, Capitalism

Ray Brassier is Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.


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