Back in May, in an interview with Grèce Hebdo, French philosopher Alain Badiou was asked about the source of his optimism concerning contemporary social movements, from Nuit Debout to Bernie Sanders, even when they face strategic setbacks:
So you’re continuing to look to communism as a horizon?
Yes, not only do I keep this horizon open but I think it is very important to do so. For if there is no strategic idea then movements undergoing setbacks or recuperation risk having devastating subjective effects. There you risk demobilisation, the thought that ‘well I was young then, I threw myself into this adventure and it didn’t work’. Our thinking has to be that while there are strategic setbacks we will maintain our course despite the sinuosities of History. History does not march in a straight line but in a very tortuous way, and we should not imagine any royal road leading to emancipation. There are reverses, negatives, and that is why we need to have a compass come what may. If we have no compass we end up old and disheartened.
I was thinking about the idea of communism as a horizon as I read (only because a reader [ht: ja] sent me the link) the latest from New York Times columnist David Brooks. He begins by noting that, in the eighteenth century, American Indians rejected colonial society (which “was richer and more advanced”) but many whites were moving the other way, choosing to live within Indian society (which was “more communal”).
Brooks then moves up to the present and notes that there seems to be a new desire for community, at least among Millenials.
Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.
While readers wrap their heads around the idea that Brooks might be a modern-day communist (or at least a communist sympathizer), consider what that means. In many Native American societies, the surplus was created by the direct producers and then managed not privately (as in capitalism), but by the commune (either directly or by a representative of the commune, such as an elder or religious figure). So, in historical communism (which some, especially in the Marxian tradition, refer to as “primitive communism”), there was no exploitation, no “ripping-off” of the producers by “autonomous” individuals who did not participate in creating the surplus.*
And, as it turns out, communism is more than just a horizon: it’s actually being practiced in a wide variety of economic and social settings. One such example are the refugee “squats” [ht: ja] in Greece, an alternative to the government-run camps. Best I can tell, all the work is being conducted collectively, as part of the commune:
There are cleaning teams, cooking teams, security teams, language lessons, art classes, children’s activities, beach outings, translators, Arabic lessons for volunteers and more.
Squats are run without government or major nongovernmental-organization influence and rely on donations and manpower from independent volunteers. Responsibility is divided among the residents. At Dakdouk’s original squat, a “local technical group” is the go-to for all maintenance and IT issues. There are plans to establish a bakery to produce bread en masse for residents and rooftop gardens to provide “for the soul and for the body,” says one group member.
I doubt anyone thought that was how communism would come to be established—among refugees, the most marginalized people in the world today. However, that may be exactly the communist horizon both Badiou and Brooks have in mind: noncapitalist communal activities that provide for both the soul and the body.
*Interested readers should consult the pioneering work of Jack Amariglio (e.g., “Subjectivity, Class, and Marx’s “Forms of the Commune’,” Rethinking Marxism, 22:3, 329-344) and Dean Saitta (e.g., “Marxism, Prehistory, and Primitive Communism,” Rethinking Marxism 1:1, 145-168).