The communism of capital?

The ‘communism of capital’ – what could this awkward turn of phrase, this seeming paradox, mean? What might it signify with regards to the state of the world today? Does it have any relationship with the concept and reality of what we understand to be communism, and to what extent does it relate to the ways in which communist ideas, language and forms of organization are used presently? We can begin exploring the significance of the phrase by identifying some of the many conspicuous contexts in which elements of communism and capital meet today.

One such example can be found in the habit of major philanthropists today to see themselves as ‘liberal communists’, insinuating thereby that only the success of capitalism allows the promotion of classic goals of communism, such as the eradication of world hunger through the charity of the wealthy (see Žižek, 2008). In these instances it appears as if capital operationalised precepts of communism, such as the famous dictum popularised by Karl Marx: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!’ (2010: 347).

The frequent use of communist imagery in marketing provides another example, such as in Mercedes-Benz using the image of Che Guevara to promote car sharing (see Cederström and Marinetto, 2013). Here, the implication is that by relying on the world of commodities we can not only avoid environmental catastrophe, typically associated with unbridled capitalism, but even help overcome private property itself by way of sharing.

Yet another example concerns the rise in production that relies on ‘free work’ (see Beverungen et al., 2013). This includes, most prominently, peer production of open source software and other Internet-based collaborative work, but also more widely work associated with creativity, intellectual labour, and explicitly collaborative production and decision-making (see Ross, 2004; Terranova, 2004). The discourse of authenticity in the workplace (Fleming, 2009) likewise reiterates communism’s promises of free and non-alienated work.

The task of this issue, then, is to take stock of these developments of a contradictory, sometimes promissory, typically incomplete, elusive and complex, but also often hypocritical communism of capital. This, if not to recover the rational kernel from its mystical shell, then at least in order to shed light on its political implications.

From the socialism to the communism of capital

The first thing to establish is the relative novelty of the idea of the ‘communism of capital’. The phrase ‘socialism of capital’ was used from the late nineteenth century onwards to denote the socialisation of capital, i.e. the way in which the socialist threat of organized labour was suddenly confronted with the concentration of capital in the emerging modern corporation and with the abstractions of finance. While Marx in the third volume of Capital does not directly use the phrase ‘socialism of capital’, he notes the rise of the joint-stock company, in which private property is conceptually transformed into social property, as stocks came to be held by a greater number of people in common. He also notes how the credit system on the one hand intensifies capitalist exploitation of labour and the exploitation of ‘social wealth’ by the few, while on the other hand it ‘constitutes the form of transition towards a new mode of production’ (1991: 572).

What this socialisation of capital meant politically was certainly hotly contested. US President Grover Cleveland warned against ‘the communism of combined wealth and capital, the outgrowth of overweening cupidity and selfishness’, which he considered ‘not less dangerous than the communism of oppressed poverty and toil’[1]. Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means, in contrast, in the 1930s suggested different political consequences of the rise of monopoly capital. Because of the structure of the modern corporation in which the interests of individual investors are subordinated to those of capital as a whole, they argued, the corporate director ‘more nearly resembles the communist in mode of thought than he does the protagonist of private property’ (1991: 245). Coupled with the threat of socialism and growing organizational power of the workers, which forced the capitalist state to promote welfare, this was to define a capitalism marked by restraint. More recently, and in a different twist, Peter Drucker noted that the considerable investments of pension funds on the stock market practically mean that employees own the means of production, which in turn makes the United States ‘the most “socialist” country around’ (1993: 6).

That this socialisation of capital does not serve socialist ends – even less so after the political threat of socialism dissipated and the welfare state could be dismantled – was once more made evident by the events associated with the financial crisis of 2008. The socialisation of losses in the aftermath of the financial crisis led Newsweek to announce that ‘we are all socialists now’ (Meacham, 2009). To be clear, socialism here does not refer to the extraction of surplus wealth from the corporation to put to social uses. Rather, it came to define the opposite: the state withdrawing social wealth in order to bail out failed banks. Austerity merely extends this socialism of capital.

If the socialism of capital describes the power of capital in the form of finance and the corporation in contrast to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ associated with the socialism of labour, the term ‘communism of capital’ is meant to denote how capital has managed to approximate communism. The ‘communism of capital’ is perhaps most prominently mobilised by Paolo Virno to characterise post-Fordism (2004; see also Marazzi, 2010). For him, the phrase coins a dynamic of the 1980s and 1990s in which capital reorganised itself, mobilising ‘for its own benefit precisely those material and cultural conditions which would guarantee a calm version of realism for the potential communist’ (2004: 110). In doing so capital hijacked ideas traditionally considered communist and morphed them into something recognisable yet uncanny.

Virno lists three communist demands and their abhorrent capitalist interpretations. The demand for the abolition of wage labour turned into precarity and a stark division between those having to work extremely long hours and those without any work at all. The demand for the dissolution of the state morphed into neoliberal governance of the markets and the power of the multinational enterprise over national governments. The critique of alienation and demands for the valuing of singularity converted into a celebration of the diversity of consumer identities, into ‘a fetishistic cult of differences’ (2004: 110, emphasis in original).

For Virno this communism of capital is paradoxical because, even though we can recognise some communist inspiration in it, it is merely the result of a ‘defeated revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s (2004: 111). Such an interpretation of this sequence of history appears much bleaker than that associated with the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, which for Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (2005) involves at least the partial success of the critique of capital, that is, capital’s incorporation of some of its critique. Does the communism of capital, then, merely describe a state of affairs wherein communist demands are twisted to become productive of capital?

The death of the capitalist utopia

The three examples of the communism of capital that we started with – the liberal communist, the use of communist imagery in marketing, and the free work that underlies much capitalist production today – seem initially to indicate that we witness nothing more than dynamics of appropriation. Yet, there is more to be said.

Communist demands are admittedly translated into capitalist terms in the figure of the ‘liberal communist’, identifiable in characters such as ‘Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as their court philosophers’ (Žižek, 2008: 16). These are the ‘smart’ capitalists who support the nomadic, the creative and the cooperative, and who give from their profits to charity. For Slavoj Žižek, this liberal communism functions ideologically in that its charity constitutes ‘the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation’ (2008: 22). This form of appropriation thus posits communism as the supplement that makes capitalism whole.

Likewise, communist elements are trivialised in the context of marketing, as discernible in the myriad appropriations of Che Guevara in various advertising campaigns. ‘Cherry Guevara’ ice cream, anyone? (See Kakutani, 2009) Yet, for example, the advertisement in which the face of Richard Branson is superimposed on Alberto Korda’s famous image of Guevara accompanied by the text ‘We live in Financial Times’ seems in its inanity to simultaneously contain a grain of truth.

The question to be asked is: what need is there for capital today to flirt with communist ideas and symbols? Up until quite recently, the triumph of capital after the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to indicate a post-ideological age. Already in 1989, Fredric Jameson famously noted that it was easier to imagine ‘the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism’ (1989: 50). Giorgio Agamben, likewise, surmises that in contemporary societies politics is eclipsed by the triumph of the economy, that is, ‘a pure activity of government that aims at nothing other than its own replication’ (2009: 22). Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’ to denote a similar state of affairs, wherein capitalism ‘seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’ (2009: 8). The austerity that resulted from the financial crisis of 2008 confirms such an interpretation: the crisis has brought forth, at least at the level of the state and public policy, little that does not presuppose the continuation of capital.

Furthermore, historically, when capital was deemed to be in need of an ideology, it was usually understood to be explicitly capitalist in nature, not communist. Yet today, capital props itself up with communist elements. Even Fisher’s capitalist realism, despite its attempts to ‘precorporate’ – to preemptively shape ‘desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture’ (2009: 9) – already also embraces anti-capitalism, as discernible in recent blockbuster products of Hollywood such as Wall-E and Avatar.

Does the incorporation of communist ideas imply a new phase or a renewed political potential? With Žižek, it is not clear what we gain from identifying the figure of the liberal communist, except another call for revolution. This ‘liberal communism’ eschews the ‘communist horizon’, the espousal of which would require ‘a complete shift in perspective, or a radical ideological turnabout, as a result of which capitalism no longer appears as the only game in town’ (Bosteels, 2011: 228). A mere description of the ideological function of the communism of capital surely cannot bring about such a reversal.

Jacques Rancière suggests that what marks the current crisis is ‘the failure of the capitalist utopia’ (2010: 174). After its dominance over the last 20 years, this utopia of ‘the perfect self-regulation of the free market and of the possibility of organizing all forms of human life according to the logic of that market’ (ibid.) is now crumbling. Similarly, Jodi Dean argues that ‘Gestures to communism and socialism make sense because the markets failed’ (2012: 42). After decades of neoliberal governance, the resulting inequalities and antagonisms are today so pronounced that they cannot be concealed anymore (Dean, 2102: 51). Thus the need of capital to explicitly confront communism in one form or other. Herein lies the kernel of hope.

Communist relations of production

Capital seems to not only toy with communist elements, but to some extent also actually depend on them. This becomes clear in the context of the socialisation of labour, that is, in the increasing importance in production of cooperation and collectively acquired knowledge and skills, such as that which Marx called the ‘general intellect’ (1973: 706). Marx’s ideas about the socialisation of labour, especially as formulated in the ‘Fragment on Machines’, has influenced contemporary thinkers of postindustrial production, most prominently Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009).

With the development of machinery, Marx argued, the role of the worker changes. Instead of being hands-on involved in the production of commodities, the task becomes one of the application of socially existing powers: ‘the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth’ (Marx, 1973: 705).

Drawing on this insight, Hardt and Negri (2009) as well as others (e.g. De Angelis, 2007) have come to emphasise the role of ‘the common’ or ‘the commons’ in contemporary capitalist production (see also discussions in previous issues of ephemera, in particular Hoedemaekers et al., 2012; Burston et al., 2010; Dowling et al., 2007). Hardt and Negri define ‘the common’ as ‘the common wealth of the material world’, such as that which constitutes nature, as well as ‘those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production’, such as language, knowledge and affect (2009: viii). These are resources and capacities that precede capital and that capital can only harness through processes of expropriation. Dealing in particular with the social aspects of the common, Hardt and Negri emphasise the fact that not only does contemporary ‘immaterial’ or ‘biopolitical’ production draw on pre-existing subjectivities and ‘forms of life’, but it also produces such subjectivities and forms of life. Put differently, ‘production today is production from the common, in common, of the common’ (Jones and Murtola, 2012: 641).

For Negri, then, it is not merely the socialisation of capital, in the form of the global unification of capital through financial governance, that matters (2008: 166). What matters is the use of finance to organise the expropriation of the social wealth produced in common. Thus Negri argues that we can speak of 

a sort of ‘communism of capital’, where capitalism both gives rise to a total mystification of the valorisation that (as we have explained) is immediately common, and directly exploits the social participation to this valorisation (i.e. it exploits the sociality of the worker). (Negri, 2011, emphasis in original)

Hardt and Negri already pronounced in Empire that immaterial labour ‘seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism’ (2000: 294). It is in the role of the common in contemporary capitalism that Hardt identifies a kernel of hope, in the ‘proximity between the idea of communism and contemporary capitalist production’ (2010: 143). Although capital does not automatically create communism or liberation, capitalist production reliant on the common brings forth the ‘conditions and weapons for a communist project’ (ibid.). In a similar vein, Nick Dyer-Witheford recognises in the commons the cell-form of communism or ‘commonism’, which contrasts with the commodity as the cell-form of capital (2007; see also De Angelis, this issue).

Hardt and Negri are certainly not the first to ascribe a communist hope if not necessity to the development of the capitalist relations of production. Yet critical voices remain to be heard. Félix Guattari and Negri already noted in 1985 that ‘capitalist work arrangements have succeeded in appropriating the discourse of communism’ (2010: 27). More affirmatively, Paul Adler sees the socialisation of labour, with new forms of collaboration and advances in technology, realising within capitalist relations of production a promise of work as as rewarding as it could be under communism (Adler, 2007; Heckscher and Adler, 2006). Appropriation, then, rather than radical change.

Dean, again, is sceptical of the ‘communist necessity’ that she identifies in Negri’s thought, where ‘communist desire is a given’ as that of the multitude (2012: 181). In her analysis of what she calls communicative capitalism, she is much more careful in exploring the potential for the exploitation of the common that networked communications provide capital (2012: 136ff.). It is in this complex and conflicted terrain that the contributions to this issue play out.

The contributions

In the first contribution to the issue, Rachel O’Dwyer explores the political economy of production in common in the context of the infrastructure that underlies today’s ‘digital communism’: the electromagnetic spectrum. This is ‘the communications channel for all mobile and wireless transmissions’. Positing this spectrum as a commons, O’Dwyer investigates recent controversies in its management in terms of its enclosure and how it enables capital accumulation based on digital sharing. O’Dwyer argues that the old proprietary logic that has governed the management of this commons is inappropriate and is also increasingly acknowledged to be so. Yet capitalist enclosure proceeds alongside sharing, with the communism of capital subject to management.

In his contribution, David Carlone draws on the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham and the diverse economies approach in order to argue that rather than merely conceiving of the communism of capital as an instance of capture, the common can, and in actuality also does, ‘infect’ capitalism. He draws on empirical material from ‘a job-training program for economically dislocated workers’ in order to show how mutuality and participation exceed capitalist attempts to capture the common. In this way he also extends the discussion of the commons by Gibson-Graham (2006), which eschews the name ‘communism’ in favour of ‘post-capitalism’ and largely leaves the antagonistic dimension of the commons unmentioned.

Next, Mikkel Thorup takes on liberal communism and the capitalist twist on the communist dictum of contribution and sharing according to ability and need. In his article on philanthrocapitalism, Thorup investigates the contemporary relation between capitalism and charity. Scrutinising four forms of charitable giving – consumer philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, billionaire philanthropy and celebrity philanthropy – he argues that philanthropy has not only become an integral part of contemporary capitalism, but that it plays a crucial legitimating function. It helps to justify both individual participation in an otherwise ‘amoral’ capitalist system and, with that, the perpetuation of that system and the inequalities it produces and maintains. 

In his contribution, Saroj Giri explores the Occupy movement as a site for the contestation of capital. He challenges those interpretations of Occupy that eschew questions of organisation and representation and that try to either reduce Occupy to specific sites of resistance and freedom, or read their more widespread significance only in terms of the resonance they effect on others. Instead, Giri argues that Occupy must be read as one of the organisational forms that is prefigurative of communism. Giri suggests that Occupy functions in the space outlined by Badiou’s premise that having fidelity to the event requires the organisation of its consequences. By treating Occupy as more than simply interstitial, and rather as the practical bearer of revolutionary hope, Giri argues that it plays an active role in the future of communism. 

Where O’Dwyer points to the ways in which digital capitalism relies on forms of the common, in his note Massimo De Angelis argues more directly for capital’s extensive need of a ‘commons fix’. According to De Angelis, capital needs this fix because its drive to accumulate meets with an ecological crisis and a crisis of social reproduction that it cannot master by itself. De Angelis suggests that if we understand commons and capital as two autopoietic systems, we can see how capital can use a power-over the commons for its own benefits, but also that the power-to that resides within the commons – which stands at the beginning and the end of processes of commoning – can be used to construct alternatives to capital.

The ideological function of the communism of capital is also explored in Colin Cremin’s note ‘Communicity’. Communicity here is the name of those practices and discourses which provide a semblance of communism while masking a capitalist realism (Fisher, 2010). Cremin explores three figures associated with this image: Richard Branson as a left-liberal entrepreneur, Wal-Mart as a socially conscious company, and Colin Beavan the ‘No Impact Man’ as the caring consumer without power to change. Cremin suggests the figure of communicity provides an important tool for demythologising capital’s use of the communist imaginary, which itself merely propels capital’s excesses.

If infection might be one way to think a politics of the common, Peter Fleming in his note proposes silence as another. Picking up a political analysis of a number of events, chiefly the uprisings in London in 2011, he reflects on the so-called failure of these movements to put forth demands to power, and situates this state of affairs in a history of neoliberalism and a demand to speak to power. He suggests the emergence of a post-recognition politics which can be seen in a positive light not as silence yielding to power but exiting from it. Drawing on his analysis as capital drawing on the social wealth of the common, Fleming suggests that silence is one strategy of withdrawal from capital’s apparatuses of capture. We may be witnessing the emergence of a ‘nonfigurative common’ which talks to itself but not to power.

In his note, Stevphen Shukaitis discusses two recent books on precarity, Guy Standing’s The precariat (2011) and Franco Barchiesi’s Precarious liberation (2011). Standing’s book emerges out of a long history of institutionalised labour struggles, and he proposes to institutionalise a new labour politics around precarity. In contrast, drawing on the history of labour struggles and the way the ideology of work has been tied to ideas of citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa, Barchiesi suggests that an institutionalisation of precarity as the basis of a labour politics, for example via a basic income, is not what we need. Siding with Barchiesi, Shukaitis argues that precarity must be kept alive as a political concept rather than sociological category and that precarity must be contested rather than accepted or even idolized.

We finish the issue with four book reviews. In the first review, Miranda Joseph takes on David Graeber’s theorisation of debt in his book Debt (2011). Although appreciative of Graeber’s project overall, Joseph identifies a crucial shortcoming in Graeber’s underlying framework in his treatment of processes of abstraction and particularisation as separate rather than intertwined. In the second review, Thomas Swann discusses David Eden’s book Autonomy (2012), in which Eden engages with the ideas of Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri, the Midnight Notes Collective and John Holloway. Swann finds the book informative, but notes that more could be said about the connections between the different thinkers and also their contribution to broader political debates.

Next, Richard Weiskopf reviews Todd May’s Friendship in an age of economics (2012), in which May explores the political potential of friendship in the context of today’s neoliberal economy. Weiskopf notes that in his attempt to put friendship to work, May tends to downplay the ‘darker’ potential of friendship as a force of exclusion, but nevertheless appreciates May’s contribution to ongoing debates. In the final contribution, Joyce Goggin takes on Ole Bjerg’s Poker (2011). Drawing on Žižek’s use of Lacan’s categories of the symbolic, imaginary and real, Bjerg provides an analysis of the ‘ontology of poker’. Although Goggin considers Bjerg’s analysis of the game ‘nothing short of brilliant’, she also recognises that more work is needed in order to draw out its implications for understanding the operation of contemporary capitalism more broadly.

Conclusion

What are we to make, then, of the communism of capital? Both Thorup and Cremin seem to concur with our argument that little is to be gained politically from the ideological version of the communism of capital. It is merely a figure to be taken apart. In terms of production in common, however, the contributors to this issue offer diverse arguments. O’Dwyer clearly sets the challenge of studying how the communism of capital becomes an object of management, and how capitalist expropriation works alongside production in common. De Angelis notes the contradictory character of capital’s commons fix, usefully distinguishing between the power-over of capital and the power-to of the commons that enable different social relations. Carlone suggests that the logic of infection might be a useful way to think about the spread of the common in capitalism. All of these contributions, then, provide very specific political analytics of the potentials of production in common, without falling back onto the necessary emergence of communism out of the current crisis of capital.

In contrast, Fleming and Giri set their eyes squarely on ‘the communism of communists’ (Rancière, 2010), shifting our focus onto struggles against capital. This to us seems a necessary and at least complementary effort to ideology critique and explorations of the potential of production in common. Fleming and Giri provide very different analyses and propositions for an organisation in common, with one premised on silence and the other on the reinvention of the form of the party and on new kinds of representation. In doing so they are witness to the political divergences apparent in movements such as Occupy, which simultaneously attest to the hope brought with them. Hope, to be worthy of its logical demarcations is, as Bloch (1995) argued, disappointable. Each organisational instance is, therefore, not merely a fanciful expression or lost forever until a serious movement with a party at its helm emerges, but one which, through experience, sustains the advancement of hope.

It is perhaps not surprising that in the popular imagination Occupy has become part of the (new) global wave of movements advancing hope (Dinerstein and Deneulin, 2012). The question such explorations raise is of the state of communism today. If communism is the real movement rather than simply an idea (or ideal), then there must be practical conclusions to be drawn from Occupy and its aftermath for the state of communism. It is here that it connects with the communist hypothesis (Badiou, 2010), current debates about the state of the ‘idea of communism’ (Douzinas and Žižek, 2010; Žižek, 2013), and with Rancière’s thought, for whom ‘[t]he only communist legacy that is worth examining is the multiplicity of forms of experimentation of the capacity of anybody, yesterday and today’, with communist intelligence ‘constructed in those experimentations’ (2010: 176).

The recognition of the communist foundations of capitalist production today and its communist inflections bring us to two standpoints. One is marked by optimism: a hope that the increasingly shared nature of work and insights from the current failure of neoliberal capital might lead to a new and better mode of production. The other is marked by scepticism: a fear of the strength of capital’s power of recuperation. The truth may well lie not in either side of this dialectic, but in the confrontation between the two.

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the author(s)  

Armin Beverungen is a member of the editorial collective of ephemera.
E-mail: armin.beverungen AT leuphana.de

Anna-Maria Murtola is a member of the editorial collective of ephemera.
E-mail: annamaria.murtola AT aut.ac.nz

Gregory Schwartz teaches at the University of Bath. He is a political theorist who ended up in a school of management via a PhD in sociology. His research interests are in the area of work, organisation and society in the post-Soviet space. His research has looked at class recomposition and the re-articulation of control during capitalist transformation. Looking at the social and political processes that sustain the common and the collective in work, he has also recently been studying collaborative work in the green economy in the UK.
E-mail: g.schwartz AT bath.ac.uk