The Practice of Hope

This is a paper I submitted to the reader for A Regional Anarchist Convergence: Towards a Federation.

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence.[i]

Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.[ii]

The status of what we could, with reservations, call the “Left” in Australia is one of atrophy, denial, confusion and crass opportunism.[1] The various institutions of social democracy have little of their previous popular character and have been largely integrated into the neo-liberal consensus. The various tendencies of the far-left (though often full of people of good intentions) remain small and marginalised and equipped with deeply outdate ideologies.  Whilst over the last decade there have been some brilliant moments, some decent manifestation and rebellions, there have been few, if any, real victories. There have been stunning defeats.

Broadly speaking revolutionaries in Australia are caught in two traps that are forced on them by the context they live in. One is that due to the intolerable conditions of capital they engage in forms of activity that seem to offer immediate solutions but conform to the general co-ordinates of the society they live in: we must “do something!” Slavoj Zizek likens this to the Amish tradition of rumspringa : apparent rebellions that actually work to solidify the power of society. To quote “all (that) is needed is a light shift in our perspective, and all the activity of ‘resistance,’ of bombarding those in power with impossible ‘subversive’ (ecological feminist, antiracist, anti-globalist…) demands, looks like an internal process of feeding that machine of power, providing the material to keep it in motion.”[iii] The other error is to maintain a kind of capital ‘R’ revolutionary purity which means you never get involved in actual struggles but are permanently immobilised waiting for a tomorrow that never comes. The challenge rather is to work out a way to act today that actually breaks with the dominate co-ordinates and thus opens the possibility of emancipation: to have both a foot in this world and to step into one that we want.

It is therefore a great thing for comrades to come together and begin to discuss ways of co-operating that will help us discover and carry out meaningful revolutionary activity. What is the one of the dangers facing such useful co-operation is that comrades will create an ideological group. That is the kind of organisation that builds itself around an abstract and ahistorical set of ideas that it then tries to carry into the word. Such a group sees itself as bringing the radical catalyst to society, and winning people to its position. This is one of the core mistakes of the myriad Leninist groupings – their logic is based on the promotion of their own ideology and ideological organisation irrespective of the general conditions and struggles in society. Success is measured by indicators such as papers sold, members recruited, dominance of slogans etc. An Anarchist Federation which apart from having a formally different ideology and a different internal organisational culture (democratic centralism vs a federation and so on) yet is beholden to a similar ideological logic will probably be as counter-productive as any Leninist group.[2] Despite all the hullaballoo the differences between the two are really not that great.

Here I hope to present some broad ideas about what meaningful activity could actually be. These are limited suggestions and comrades should view them as a just a few sentences in a conversation.

Without Power

Our attempts to challenge capitalism are confounded by our apparent powerlessness. The dominant liberal-democratic ideology has long celebrated the apparent end of history: that the only possible society is this one and any attempt at social transformation leads straight to the Gulag. The narrative capitalism tells us sees history powering forward driven by great acts, states, corporations, politicians and entrepreneurs. Also the spectacle in late-capitalism creates an all encompassing world-view that ascribes any sense of agency to commodities, super-stars and abstract entities such as “market-forces.”[3] The vast masses of people are presented as followers or fodder: those subjected to history not its subjects.

However many on the Left also argue that we have limited agency.  They tell the same story as capitalist ideologies do – they just reverse the moral implications. The most banal versions transform functionaries of capital into grotesque super-villains (take for example anti-“HoWARrd”ism). More sophisticated versions try to unearth the structural logics of capitalist development, technology, civilisation etc. These still largely ascribe to us the role of victim – capitalism is something that happens to the masses. Thus radical theories have to develop some special ‘outside’ where rebellion and agency can come from – human nature, or the correct ideology, the wild, etc.

Plus our daily subjective experience of capitalism is most often one of incapacity: be that the inertia of feeling totally dominated by society or trapped in a hyper-activity that eludes our control. Partly this is due to the way that the ideologies of capitalism entrap our lives, draw us in and structure our reality. Partly it is because our daily activity is one of creating capitalism and investing our individual and collective creativity (labour) in its forms and structures – most notably the commodity.[4] We constantly create and recreate our subordination. Capital is us fetishised against ourselves. This explains our agony: the more we do in capitalism the more we are imprisoned.

The Material Reality of Hope

We are quite ordinary women and men, children and old people, that is, rebellious, non-conformist, uncomfortable, dreamers[iv]

But if we stop at this point we fail to see the radical chains that encase us. Contradictorily it is this last point, that capitalism is the creation of our efforts, which is also the basis for our hope. Simply, since we make capitalism we can stop making it. But to really grasp this we need what the Zapatistas call an “inverted periscope”.[v] We need to grasp that beneath the spectacle that covers our lives and constructs social reality, capital is torn by revolt and antagonism. This perspective sees labour not as something that is encased in capitalism, but actually something constantly in struggle, in rebellion: it is excessive of its bonds. A radical perspective starts with our revolt. It sees the world from the point of view of resistance and creation. As Mario Tronti writes:

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class.[vi]

Of course this is more obvious in moments of great upsurge and struggle. But even in times of apparent social peace right across society there are moments of refusal, rebellion and disobedience. This is what is often called “auto-valorisation” – the acts we do to stop making value for capital and create it for ourselves. Perhaps these gestures are small, even seemingly invisible, but they are the molecules of communism that exist in the tensions and contradictions of capitalism. They are the material reality of hope.  John Holloway describes this condition beautifully:

The theoretical challenge is to be able to look at the person walking next to us in the street or sitting next to us in a bus and see the stifled volcano inside them. Living in capitalist society does not necessarily make us insubordinate, but it does inevitably mean that our existence is torn by the antagonism between subordination and insubordination. Living in capitalism means that we are self-divided, not just that we stand on one side of the antagonism between classes, but that the class antagonism tears each of us apart.[vii]

Thus whilst capitalist society appears to be solid, it is actually torn in multiple lines by antagonism. This is not a clear split between capitalists on one side, proletariat on the other (one in top hats, the other cloth caps) that then run at each other like some class war version of the Somme.  It is mass of lines of flight, contradictions, apparatus of control and capture, molecular rebellions, possible explosions. And here, existing in a complicated and problematic form, is the fact that just as we make capital, we rebel against it, as much as we cooperate for capital we can cooperate against. Rebellion is ordinary and everyday, as is submission and exploitation. Emancipatory politics arises from and in this tension and struggles in a way that transforms the social order.

Struggle is also what provides capitalism its dynamism. Capital is reliant on and a product of a force that it exploits but one that in the very processes of exploitation poses the possibility of its destruction. Capital thus tries to flee from labour – but it can never escape without nullifying itself too. It thus constantly tries to develop new arrangements of power and state forms; and works to disarms labour and force it to work harder. As Tronti writes: “The increasing organisation of exploitation, it continual reorganisation at the very highest levels of industry and society are, then, again responses by capital to workers’ refusal to submit to the process.”[viii]

We can understand something like neo-liberalism, for example, not as a product simply of capitalists’ avarice, but rather capital’s response to the struggles and rebellions of the 1960s and 70s.[5] This means at different stages of capitalism’s development a class composition is produced by struggle. We work, fight, are ruled and resist differently at different historical moments. Different regimes of power, race, gender, the body, ideologies and discourses come into play. As the fight heats up we either develop the forms of self-organisation that allow us to overturn capital and radically recreate social life, or capital breaks our power, recuperates our desires and imposes a new matrix of exploitation on us.

There are no guarantees, no certainties; rather there is the material possibility of hope on which we must make a wager.

The Practice of Hope

If the sources of rebellion and the creation of communism exist generally throughout society as a constant, living potential how then are we to make the next step, to crystallise, fuse, grow and/or weave the many multiple rebellions into forms of activity that can create lives with dignity? At a certain level we don’t know. Our history is sadly one of defeat and failure: there are no clear models from the past. Historically mass revolts have always surprised the revolutionaries: they are an event that whilst arises from the material reality, and turn everything upside down – including the most radical of ideologies. From where we stand now we don’t know what the next wave of emancipatory politics will look like, or what revolution really means today. There is probably not one answer. Across the globe the multitude will struggle under a number of flags, with different names and different tactics. Each politic process will undoubtedly be contradictory – for our condition is contradictory. Even out right rebellions always contain in them elements that point to freedom and communism and practices that stitch us pack into the world of capital.

But still I would like to posit that radical, anti-capitalist, communist activity is neither activism within the coordinates of liberal-capitalism, nor simply propagandising for a better world tomorrow. (Though sometimes we might do both) Rather it is, within very concrete and specific sites, struggles that form a collectivity out of our already existing antagonisms in a way that makes social life other. It is literally the construction of the future in the present; it is the practice of freedom today. As the Malgré Tout Collective write: “…freedom is not a state that can be reached, but rather an act that it is necessary to incarnate”.[ix]

And since communism already exists as a potential in our ordinary everyday lives, the efforts of struggle, of coming together creating and rebelling, are the tasks of the multitude on a whole. We can reject the idea that a special revolutionary group is necessary to overturn capitalism. As such militant organisations can behave in ways to aid the creation of the conditions of their own dissolution. Both in a general sense: we seek to abolish capitalism, and when capitalism is over there is no need for revolutionary groups – also that we don’t not only want to free ourselves from capital, eventually we will need to free ourselves from the struggle against capital (the negation of negation). But also in a more precise sense: we seek to help create practices, cultures and structures of co-operation and self-rule amongst the multitude – thus the existence of small militant groups will be irrelevant. In the here and now, this should also be our aim. If militants form a group so they have a political collectivity that helps them struggle – because otherwise they would be isolated and miserable – in the actually struggles these groups involve themselves in they can constantly try to abolish themselves. In countless small and informal ways bonds of trust and understanding should be formed with others (at the same time we are unbinding ourselves from the roles capital has produced for us) – comradely relations – that break down divisions. But also militants can argue for more horizontal structures, more participation, more spaces of debate, more democracy, more power from the ground up to reshape our lives: in short to deepen internal class organisation. Into this strange brew militant organisations should melt away, and whilst maintaining our friendships and love, we can open ourselves to being seized by the unpredictable adventures of struggle. We come together and act to work to create the space so others can come together and act – as equals. We can see this in Zapatista practice – the existing leadership acts in ways to aid self-organisation, to make themselves less and less a leadership. This is what French Maoists used to call building “a stage for the masses”: we (revolutionaries) are not the main act – we (the multitude) is.[x]

But are there more concrete practises we can engage in to aid the general recomposition of the rebellious collectivity and power of the multitude? The Zapatista maxim of preguntando caminamos (walking we ask questions) is not just a suggestion for political plurality. Rather it is a way of relating to the world. Its instruction is that those who would define themselves as revolutionaries do not enter struggle with a preformed programme but rather become porous to the contradictions and creativity of rebellion; to grasp praxis as praxis, as the constant interplay of thought and action. Thus revolution, the eruption of our ordinary rebelliousness is fecund: we constantly generate more thought, more questions, more desires, more insights and more doubts. The question is also aimed outwards. To rebel one does not try to win others to a solid position but rather works to produce moments of collective questioning. As Holloway writes “The problem is not to bring consciousness from outside, but to draw out the knowledge that is already present, albeit in repressed and contradictory form.”[xi] Thus we can work together in ways that try to generate practices and spaces of collective questioning.

If the composition of class and struggle changes, if it is dynamic, then organisational strategies must change too. The debates over organisation are often viewed ahistorically – the party, the affinity group, the spokes council – are often seen as suggestions for all seasons. Rather when such tactics do work it is because they correspond to a certain material reality. Part of the failure of revolutionary activity in Australia is the constant importing of forms that may seem ideologically pleasant but do not correspond to the actual substance of our lives. I think a process of militant research is needed.  Rather than constructing models in the ether we could rather try look at actually what is going on around us. How does work and power function in contemporary capitalism, how is the social factory organised? What is the deployment of hierarchy and division? And what are the forms of rebellion that are going on. How are our own daily lives torn? And from a process of questioning with each other we could perhaps begin to see a few threads of possibility that we can then experiment with to see what works and what fails, and then share this knowledge with the multitude on a whole. Such research is not just the research into the idea of organisation – it is actually organising in and of itself. This is how we can “encounter” each other, the conditions we live in and the possibilities they hold.[6]

This could be complimented by trying to circulate the experiences of struggle. We are held back by the isolation and invisibility of struggles. Such struggles could be overtly political protests, sabotage, cultural rebellions, daily insubordinations, moments of creativity and escape and so on.  It would useful activity to spread the experiences of these struggles; to communicate the methods and aims and open up the debates going on within them. The point is not to reduce the diversity of struggle, but rather to increase the collective experience and knowledge of rebellion. And, again, this open ended sharing of experiences is part of how the multitude organises itself.

And if we reject ideology that does not mean we reject ideas. In fact the refusal of all dogma allows us to open up the space of ideas.  There exists very few space of collective self education. Revolutionary groups can try to open up spaces of radical education that allow a diversity of thought and debate. A proliferation of websites, newspapers meetings, conference, graffiti, etc  whose motivation is not to win converts or establish a hegemony but rather to help a kind of rebellious intellectual culture develop.

This is a vision of an organisation (are maybe more than one?) that sees itself as a set of interlinked practices and spaces that tries to open up more explicit room for discussion, reflection and co-ordination. Our enthusiasm and hope lies in the immanent possibilities of emancipatory politics that is the work of the multitude generally. It is because we are ordinary that we are special. Such an organisation would be characterised by openness, humility, good humour and love – as well as determination and commitment. If would full of life, for it is in our lives that communism lives. I understand that this vision of revolutionary and/or militant organisation is limited. It sees it as a useful aid to the processes of class recomposition. It is not the total group that drives the struggle; it is not the carrier of liberation. Rather it is but a set of practices some of us may chose to carry out that may compliment struggles that are much bigger and greater.  And this, I think, is a good thing.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward. London & New York: Verso, 2002.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb. London: Rebel Press.

El Kilombo Intergaláctico. Beyond Resistance: Everything. An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Durham,North Carolina: Paperboat Press, 2007.

Federici, Silvia. Caliban & the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brookyln, NY: Autonomedia, 2004.

Fortunati, Leopoldina. The Arcane of Reproduction : Housework, Prostitution, Labour and Capital Translated by H Creek. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1995.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England  Harvard University Press, 2000.

———. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

Holloway, John. Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London: Pluto Press, 2002.

———. 2005. “Ordinary People, That Is, Rebels”. (accessed 2nd February, 2006).

Malgré Tout Collective. 1995. “Manifesto of the Malgré Tout Collective”. Global Telelanguage Resources Translated by Pablo Mendez and Sebastian Touza (accessed March 8th, 2008).

Marx, Karl , and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology Part One. 3rd ed. New York: International Publishers, 1973.

Midnight Notes Collective. “Introduction to the New Enclosures.” Midnight Notes, no. # 10 The New Enclosures ( Fall 1990): 1 – 9.

Precarias a la Deriva. “A Very Careful Strike- Four Hypotheses ” The Commoner: A Web Journal For Other Values, no. 11 Spring (2006): 33 – 45.

Retort, Ian Boa, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Micheal Watts. Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War London & New York: Verso, 2005.

Solidarity. “As We See It”. (accessed 1st October, 2007).

Tronti, Mario. 1964. “Lenin in England”. (accessed 23rd January, 2008).

———. “The Strategy of Refusal”. (accessed 24th January, 2008).

Virno, Paulo. A Grammar of the Multitude. Los Angeles, CA New York,NY: Semiotext(e), 2004.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2006.

[1] For a beautiful description of the ambiguities of using the term the “Left” see Retort et al., Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London & New York: Verso, 2005), 13-14.

[2] Debord’s perhaps overly caustically worded critique that the great failing of anarchism – that it privileges ideology over actual material conditions and struggles – still caries weight; Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (London: Rebel Press), 48-50.

[3] “Spectacle” does not just mean the all pervasive media, but rather the general image(s) of a society that is produced by the alienated creativity of all that live in it, all the time. Cf.Ibid.

[4] The word ‘labour’ may seem restricted and archaic to many people, calling to mind an image of work and politics that seems far behind us. Here labour means our creative activity that produces value. This extends far beyond work in the work place proper and wage labour. There is a brilliant radical current of feminist and autonomist writers that argue clearly how the reproductive work of women outside the wage relationship create the essential commodity: labour power. See for example Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction : Housework, Prostitution, Labour and Capital trans. H Creek (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1995). For a contemporary example see Precarias a la Deriva, “A Very Careful Strike- Four Hypotheses ” The Commoner: A Web Journal For Other Values, no. 11 Spring (2006). Silvia Federici adds to this argument by showing how the creation of a hierarchy of  differences within the proletariat are an a priori requirement for actually creating  proletariat that will work for capital, see Silvia Federici, Caliban & the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brookyln, NY: Autonomedia, 2004). As such a radical concept of labour should not be used to sideline struggles over gender, sexuality, colour, desires, the personal etc – as it so often did and continues to do. This can be completed by the various writers who work to show that show creativity on a whole, not just wage-labour, is what creates value for capital. Cf.Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles, CA New York,NY: Semiotext(e), 2004). & Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004).

[5] For two different narratives of this see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England  Harvard University Press, 2000). & Midnight Notes Collective, “Introduction to the New Enclosures,” Midnight Notes, no. # 10 The New Enclosures ( Fall 1990).

[6] El Kilombo Intergalactico identify in the activity of the Zapatistas a practice of encounter, assemble, create and rebel which has deeply influenced the writing of this piece ., Cf. El Kilombo Intergaláctico, Beyond Resistance: Everything. An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.

[i] Karl  Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology Part One, 3rd ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1973), 56-57.

[ii] Solidarity, As We See It ([cited 1st October 2007]); available from

[iii] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2006), 334.

[iv] Subcomandante Marcos quoted in John Holloway, Ordinary People, That Is, Rebels (2005 [cited 2nd February 2006]); available from

[v] El Kilombo Intergaláctico, Beyond Resistance: Everything. An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (Durham,North Carolina: Paperboat Press, 2007), 9.

[vi] Mario Tronti, Lenin in England (1964 [cited 23rd January 2008]); available from

[vii] John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 157.

[viii] Mario Tronti, The Strategy of Refusal ([cited 24th January 2008]); available from

[ix] Malgré Tout Collective, Manifesto of the Malgré Tout Collective (1995 [cited March 8th 2008]); available from

[x] Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London & New York: Verso, 2002), 97.

[xi] Holloway, Ordinary People, That Is, Rebels.

2 Responses to “The Practice of Hope”

  1. 1 timbriedis March 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Hey dave,

    you mention the work of people like Fortunati and Federici and how they make brilliant arguments about the reproduction of labour-power in a footnote here. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?

    For some context, I’m reading ‘Caliban and the Witch’ at the moment and am trying to do so critically..Its been great so far, but it seems like there’s a problematic tendency among autonomist folk to treat it with reverence, and be like ‘well we’ve just bridged the gap between radical and socialist feminism and solved the issue of gender, aren’t we awesome’. Much more so than Negri, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone criticise Federici, or try and constructively expand on her writing. What do you think?

    xo tim

  2. 2 redthreadbris March 6, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Hi Tim.
    Sorry for the delay.
    I think Aufheben make a critique of Fortunati here

    I think it is important not to read the feminist autonomists as a simple add on to autonomist Marxism but rather a radical break from the autonomist cannon due to their feminism. In this sense the Midnight Notes Collective – whose origin is a theoretical split between Mariarosa Della Costa and Negri – are part of this feminist trajectory: they take the idea of reproductive labour as being crucial to capitalism and make it central to their analysis.

    On the other hand I think you could argue the Negri’s feminism is pretty shallow – its a late add on to his work.

    As for what is wrong with Federici et al….well I think the core contention is the one the Aufheben makes: does reproductive labour produce value? And is it politically important? Just because forms of labour may not produce value but rather create the elements that allow value to be generated doesn’t necessarily take away from the potency of rebellion in these spheres.

    rebel love

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