This year (2017) marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, written in “reply” to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s System of Economic Contradictions published the year before. The book’s title is a play on the subtitle of Proudhon’s two volumes (“or, the Philosophy of Poverty”) and for Trotskyist Ernest Mandel “the prototype of that sort of implacable polemical writing which has often inspired the pens of Marx’s followers”.
The internet brought many advantages to radical organising, not least the speed at which movements can grow and the ease with which complex ideas can be made available to almost everyone. But there were certainly negative side effects and here I want to look at what is probably the most important of these, the move away from sustained collective organising, analysis and preservation of lessons.
It’s useful to start with the statement that there is not point looking back to the past and wishing we where there instead of here, or in a very similar fashion just demanding the ‘discipline’ of past periods without understanding why that discipline was organic to that period.
The easiest way to understand what I mean is to understand the collective newspaper publishing projects of the past. There required many individuals to pool their efforts & cash to produce often well crafted and widely distributed papers. At the time unless you were wealthy this was the only option to reach many people. When printing was technically difficult and expensive it demanded considerable resources from a lot of people in order to distribute your message. And because a lot of resources were going into the distribution of what was a very limited number of words it made sense that a lot of time was spent on what exactly those words were.
I’ve written a good deal about both the positive organisational opportunities created by social networking. Here I’m going to look at one of the strong negatives, the intensification and deepening of conflict as a result of online disagreement . This results in fracturing movements even resulting in people unable to be physically in the same space as each other, never mind work together in a sustainable way.
This piece has been written over many months, and I’ve delayed publication at several points to avoid what I’m saying being mistaken for a specific commentary on the latest flare up. Take my references here as being very general and drawn from a long exposure to political discussion on and offline. I’ve been arguing with people online since 1992. Where I’m referring to specific incidents I’ll make that clear, otherwise I’m talking about patterns I’ve observed rather than specific incidents. This is defientley not about you, dear reader even if I hope its relevant to you.
[Chapter from AK Press "The End of the World as We Know It?"]
In a blurry black and white photograph from Italy in the 1960s, a worker rides a Vespa past a factory wall on which is scrawled operaist graffiti "Il Vietnam è in fabbrica" - Vietnam is in the factory. Today it would be more likely to find "The factory is in Vietnam" on the walls of the long-closed factory. Yet these two moments are not unconnected. So how did we get from the fall of Saigon to the fall of Lehman brothers, from Nixon to Obama? The answer from much of the Left seems to be "financialization", understood not as a materialist process, but as fulfillment of the Communist Manifesto's apocalyptic vision that "all that is solid melts into air."
Financialization, credit, debt become immaterial, intangible factors, things of air and fiction, in the process becoming explanations that explain nothing. Trying to step back from such ultimately unsatisfying interpretations, this chapter begins the attempt to outline a materialist history of how the global capitalist system has evolved since the demise of the post-WW2 Bretton Woods system in the ruins of Saigon, to the present day rise of China as the world's foremost industrial power and the onset of stagnation and decline of the West.
Over the last couple of years the WSM has been going through a process of re-examining the way we relate to people interested in what we have to say. Alongside this we have recently begun to try and get a better understanding of what it is we do. Both these processes have some major implications in reaching an understanding of what the usefulness of a revolutionary organisation is in the modern era of broad and loose social networks.
Back before many people had discovered the internet a small group of anarchists including this writer began work on the Anarchist FAQ. We were tired of having to provide the same basic explanations over and over as new people joined the news net group, alt.soc.anarchism, so we began the FAQ so newcomers could be referred to it.
I soon dropped out of the project as did most of the others involved but a small group, with Iain McKay the most active among them, kept working on it year after year. In the sixteen years that have passed the FAQ has became huge and an exhaustive argument for anarchism.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing awake?"
He was startled. His slow mind was no more expecting to see me awake than to see a temple statue from last month's battlefield come to life. Perhaps he thought I had emerged from the empty bottle of scotch that lay on the floor at his feet.
I shot him cleanly through the head.
or, The Philosophy of Poverty
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon made his name with his first Memoir on property, 1840’s “What is Property?” After two more Memoirs in 1841 and 1842, his next major work was 1846’s “System of Economic Contradictions” in which he first used “mutualism” to describe his libertarian socialism (inspired by the workers in Lyons where he stayed in 1843).
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