Communist magic

By practising new forms of commoning, of doing and being together, we can begin to wield a different kind of power.

In the spring of 1956, the Marxist critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno met several times with the intention of writing a contemporary version of the Communist Manifesto. Their conversations, captured in Towards a New Manifesto, reflect a remarkable depth of both political insight and honesty, drawing on a wide range of subjects and frequently wavering between optimism and despair. At one point, Adorno neatly summarises the tension they face, observing that “on the one hand, the world contains opportunities enough for success. On the other hand, everything is bewitched, as if under a spell. If the spell could be broken, success would be a possibility.”

Viewing capitalism, a key subject of discussion between these close friends, through the lens of magical enchantment seems unusual at first, especially as it most commonly describes its functioning in the dispassionate register of statistics and logic, progress and reason. But if we view these presentations of capitalism as part of the spell then there is nothing realistic or necessary in the resignation it produces, the fatalism that Horkheimer and Adorno are crucially aware of and which results in “the horror … that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one”.

Although today acquiescence to the effects of this spell may seem complete, we can still catch sight of it if we know how. In this regard, it’s important to remember that communism in its various forms has always been keenly aware of the magical functioning of capital. In the Communist Manifesto, for instance, Marx and Engels observe how bourgeois society functions as a kind of sorcery, summoning means of production that exceed its own powers, and in several places in the first volume of Capital Marx powerfully describes the commodity form as a type of magic or necromancy cast over the products of collective labour.

Capitalist parlour tricks

This idea reaches its fullest expression in Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre’s 2011 book Capitalist Sorcery. Here, the authors explore how capitalism operates as a kind of spell that recuperates not just all productive and creative labour but even its own opposition – various forms of activism that rely on placing demands on power – into the functioning of the system. They remind us that spells are not merely ideological, and that it’s thus not just a matter of waking people up from their false consciousness or erroneous beliefs: the capitalist spell has material effects too, partitioning the entire sensible world – the doable and the sayable – in a way that perpetuates capitalist social relations and renders invisible any possibilities beyond them.

All is not lost, however, for as everyone from Marx and Engels to Deleuze and Guattari to Negri and Hardt have observed, the real productive and creative forces in society are initially social and collective. Capitalism is merely a secondary, parasitic imposition on this.

Beyond capitalism, there are even older spells. The state, reified for thousands of years as the horizon of possibility for social organisation, itself had an origin; perhaps it too has been summoned by some dark magic, expanding across the world to eventually occult all other common modes of doing and being. The registers of pragmatism and realpolitik employed by defenders of the state are then, just like the registers of capital, part of the functioning of an enchantment, a form of capture.

Today, these spells – and many others too, including the sorceries of racism and patriarchy – function together in a tightly imbricated fashion. In a recent 20th anniversary reflection on Empire, a book that is often referred to as Negri and Hardt’s rewriting of the Communist Manifesto, the authors observe how hegemonic power functions today as an assemblage of multiple actors, including states, capital and non-governmental organisations. If we consider the various forms of contemporary opposition to the structures of Empire, we can see how much of it still falls under this enchantment, channelling the collective power of what Negri and Hardt refer to as the multitude into Stengers and Pignarre’s dilemma of “infernal alternatives”: the participation in a zero-sum political game that merely balances the various intersecting components of hegemony in complete acquiescence to the current partitioning of the world.

When we’re trapped in these infernal alternatives fatalism is always close by. Think of the sudden anxiety of powerlessness that often accompanies those moments of a march as the bureaucrat walks back to his office after the memorandum has been handed to him through the gates. Power, however, does not lie in the office, or the bureaucrat, or the gate, or even the memorandum. It resides in the coming together of people.

Perhaps this is why capitalism fears the people so much: because it knows, as Negri and Hardt remind us, that “where there is the power to impel capital forward, there is also the potential to overthrow it”. Indeed, since its dawn, capitalism has sought to capture the magic of the commons, tapping into what Negri and Hardt call the “great biopolitical reservoirs of … shared knowledge, collective intelligence, decommodified relations of affect and care and, ultimately, the circuits of social cooperation”.

Breaking the spell of empire

In a way, the manifesto is the most condensed form of this kind of magic: a spell that functions as a kind of counter-enchantment against hierarchy and domination. But a spell is nothing unless it is enacted, and the magic of the commons is inherently collective. It is, then, by coming together differently, by creating new modes of doing and being, new manifestations to accompany our manifestos, that we can perform the magic that is necessary to break the spell of Empire.

This is the message of Capitalist Sorcery: that there are collective ways of living and doing in ways beyond, or in the cracks and interstices, of the current order of things. Through these different practices of life that eschew the social relations cast upon us we can perhaps catch a glimpse of the card hidden up the magician’s sleeve and limn other possibilities. For those most marginalised by hegemonic social relations, the necessity for experimentation with life beyond their reach has long been familiar. We can see this in the spells cast by the Zapatistas and in the autonomous regions of Rojava, and in publications like the undercommons and The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner. These other doings and beings are invitations to reclaim the powers usurped by the structures of Empire, and reminders that capitalism, the state and other forms of hierarchy and domination are, finally, no more than cheap parlour tricks.

When we set about the collective task of casting our counter-spells, writing our new manifestos and creating our new forms of manifestation, the ones we so urgently need, we would be wise to accept these invitations in order to ensure that we are not simply recasting the spells that bind us.

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