Book of the Week: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life

What exactly is radical imagination? Drawing from autonomist politics, class composition analysis, and avant-garde arts, Imaginal Machines explores the emergence, functioning, and constant breakdown of the embodied forms of radical imagination. What does it mean to invoke the power of the imagination when it seems that the imagination has already seized power through the power of the spectacle? Does any subversive potentiality remain? Perhaps it is only honest to think in terms of a temporally-bounded subversive power. It might be that imaginal machines only work by breaking down. That is, their functioning is only possible, paradoxically, by their malfunctioning. By reopening the question of recuperation, the inevitable drive to integrate the power of social insurgency back into the working of capital and the state, we create possibilities for a politics continually reconstituted against and through the dynamics of recuperation: to keep open an antagonism without closure.”

* Book: Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life. By: Stevphen Shukaitis. Autonomedia, 2009

Imaginal Machines is an important reflection on contemporary possibilities for social change, the success of which being dependent on reclaiming the autonomy of our imaginations.

After a general presentation, we excerpt a section examining the possibility of worker’s self-management.

1. Introduction by Abe Walker, Labor and the Radical Imagination:

“At every level, Imaginal Machines is a subversive text. Against the rising tide of complacency, Stevphen Shukaitis sketches out new possibilities for political engagement that are at once seditious and savvy. Resolutely anti-disciplinarian (in both senses of the word), he leaps recklessly from philosophy to art criticism to social movement studies. In the book’s opening pages, he promises to connect Surrealism with migrant workers, the IWW with Dadaism, and back again. Against all odds, he does so, with aplomb. Throwing caution to the wind, Machines explodes the limits of both what can be said and how it might be said.

The body of the text is centered around a series of case studies (though the notion of a case doesn’t align with the author’s method). Shukaitis takes us on a whirlwind tour of what others have called “alternative institutions” (several of which he was involved in personally) and offers a probing introspective analysis. Yet unlike other recent assessments of the global Left “scene,” which tend to be optimistic to the point of absurdity (c.f. We Are Everywhere, Nowtopia, Real Utopia), Shukaitis maintains his (self-)critical edge throughout. Indeed, Shukaitis is keenly aware that – at least by obvious measures – the Left is losing badly. For example, in a chapter on worker self-management (WSM), Shukaitis describes his four-year-long involvement with a worker-owned record label in vivid detail. But ultimately, he concludes that WSM may have limited radical potential (though his argument is significantly more complex), and in the process offers the type of deep self-critique that is painfully absent in most Left circles.”

Excerpt: Is Worker’s Self-Management Still on the Agenda?

From Chapter 7:

“What I want to do in this chapter is to try and see if it is possible to distill something of a radical kernel, or part of the notion and practices of worker self-management, which can be salvaged from the many qualms, difficulties, and complications that confront it, particularly in regards to its potentiality within fields of cultural production. That is, to see how self-management can contribute to what Ranciere describes as a movement not of slaves filled with ressentiment, but those living and embodying a new time of sociability and cooperation, creating resources and skills that can spread out from this, rather than being caught and contained by the conditions of it own creation. Drawing from my own experiences working in Ever Reviled Records, a worker owned and run record label, I want to ferret out, conducting something akin to an organizational autoethnography, hints as to whether or not self-management could be useful for radical social struggles today (and if so how).

Worker self-management, at its best, takes part in creating times and relations that are, at least partially, outside of the existing reality of capitalist work. But, perhaps not surprisingly, not all is sunny and sweet in the land of creating forms of self-management. Indeed, as much as they aim to create the incipient forms of organization and sociality that forms the basis of a more liberatory society, they also exist within the confines of the present, and thus have to work against the ways in which current conditions constrict these possibilities. And this conflict leads to many tensions, ambivalent dynamics, and other problems that cannot just be wished away. This wishing away occurs not necessarily through obvious and visible means, but rather through the assumption that self-directed creative labor is inherently other to alienating and exploited labor. This is a widespread assumption that is often found in many places that are otherwise very critical in analyzing the workings of capitalism. In an issue of Capital & Class on the cultural economy, Gerard Strange and Jim Shorthouse draw a sharp distinction between artistic work (which they see as an expression of creative capacity through self-determined labor) and managed creativity (which they see as reduced and alienated work within orthodox capitalist relations of production), from which they argue that “artistic labor is inherently linked to autonomy and self-determination, if it is to be a real and genuine expression of creative labor power” (2004: 47).

The problem with such an argument isn’t that artistic labor and creativity cannot be part of creating conditions of autonomy and self-determination, but that they are not as nearly discrete or separated as this kind of distinction would have it. The assumption that artistic labor is inherently tied to autonomy and self-determination, reduced to managed creativity within capitalism, overlooks the ways in which self-directed forms of artistic labor are always tied up within various fields of power which complicate things even within self-managed forms of cultural production and economic arrangements. This is a point well explored by Jacques Godbout, who notes that based on this perceived connection the tendency for artists to want to constitute some form of lost community composed only of producers, and therefore that would be able to assert this autonomy.

The irony is that this is formed around the myth of the artist, which is a “kind of mythic negation of the fact that the real production system destroys the producer” (1998: 87). This finds its expression in the idea that the struggling artist, through this image of creativity and authenticity, rather that this position and its mythic foundation is continually functional and useful to capital through willing self-exploitation. Andrew Ross (2003), in his excellent study of no collar workers, refers to this dynamic within circuits of artistic labor as sacrificial labor, one that is essential to the continued workings of the cultural economy. When I first heard the idea of self-exploitation being discussed in workshop on self-management at the Festival del Pueblo in Boston in 2002 it struck me as being absurd. After all, if one’s labor is not alienated by being commanded by a boss, if it is self-directed and organized, then surely it could not be alienated labor, at least not the in the usual Marxist sense. And, if one is organizing and directing one’s own tasks during work, then the answer to self-exploitation would seem quite easy as one could just reduce, alter, or transform the way in which one was working. Maybe simply just work less. But silly or not, self-exploitation is indeed a real problem and concern precisely of how easily the pleasures of self-directed (especially creative labor) and forms of self-exploitation can mingle and overlap. At its worst WSM can become little more than the self-organization and management of one’s own misery and exploitation, gladly taken on and exalted as a positive thing. This is not to say that all projects of self-management go in this direction, as indeed many do not approach anything as such a stark characterization – but the potential (and usually the tendency) is often at play. Ultimately it is impossible to create conditions of self-management in an unrestricted sense under capitalism because one is still subordinated by the demands of market forces. As p.m. argues in his classic text bolo’bolo’, as long as the planetary work machine continues to exist, self-management and autonomy “can only serve as a kind of recreational area for the repair of exhausted workers” (1995: 50). Creating a haven of internal economic democracy does not necessarily by itself do anything to change the large macroeconomic conditions, contribute to ecological sustainability, or even guarantee that what is produced by the particular project is desirable.

The ultimate and most important criteria for considering the relevance and usefulness of projects of self-management for radical politics is really quite simple: what kind of selves does the particular arrangement of self-management tend to produce? In other words, as a process of socialization does it tend to create forms of subjectivity and interactions that provide building blocks for a larger revolutionary social process?

Perhaps self-management is a fish that is only well suited to swim in the struggles of Fordist waters. In other words, it’s suited for struggles occurring in a productive context based on the necessity of certain forms of dead capital (machinery, equipment, factories and so forth) that are worth winning. To the degree that post-Fordist labor is founded on forms of social creativity, on forms of imagination and labor that are already and immediately collective (because as much as management may wish it was possible to colonize and harness all cognitive labor, this is simply not possible), struggling to possess them in common makes little sense because they already are in common. That is not to deny that there are still great proliferations of mechanisms, laws, and procedures to ensure capitalist valorization from this productive common (whether intellectual property laws or forms of legal enforcement and government funding of new forms and institutions for these forms of production), because there clearly are. Rather it is to indicate that the imaginary that used to fuel drives to self-management (we can take over the factory and use the tools in a liberatory way now that they have been collectivized) makes less and less sense because the tools are already owned in common and founded in cooperation. The struggle then becomes one of subtracting oneself from the forms of capitalist valorization, the parasitic rent on the productive commons (Vercellone 2008), without recreating the collective self as yet another form of collective capitalist.

The question then is not trying to restate a notion of WSM or labor radicalism as a hegemonic imaginary that could exist within present conditions (if such would be either desirable or possible), but rather to consider what degree the ideas and practices of self-management can take part in constructing forms of social resistance that, much like the potentiality of labor itself, is always predicated upon an ability to go beyond itself, to be super-adequate to itself (Spivak 1985), to not let its constituted form inhibit the continued expansion of its constituent potentiality. This would be to reconsider self-management not as creating a set and stable economic arrangement to be defended against the pressures of the capitalist market, but rather creating such spaces with the intent of creating resources and possibilities to expand and deepen other struggles as well. This would be a self-management of constant self-institution, of the collective shaping of the imaginary (both collectively and individually) in ways that create resources for expanding radical forms of social movement.

The labor of the imagination, or the imagination of labor, is based on the realization that self-determination within existing conditions is ultimately absurd. But that does not mean that practices of self-determination and the building of autonomous communities are useless, rather that the conditions preventing the emergence of such are absurd and deserve to meet their destruction. Perhaps it is useful to understand it in the way that Boltanski and Chiapello describe the absorption of critique by capital, which they also describe using the image of Sisyphus: “But the effects of critique are real. The boulder does indeed go up the full length of the slope, even if it is always rolling back down by another path whose direction most often depends on the direction it was rolled up” ( 2005: 41). Between the changing directions of the boulder’s role and the grimaced face of Sisyphus pushed against it is the space of an absurd freedom. But this is an absurd freedom that is hard to endure, for it is difficult and draining, especially if these conditions are individuated rather than confronted collectively through the creation of affective relations and communities. And so if it is the machinations of the gods pressing down upon us, then it very well be time for another storming of the heavens.”

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