Is the transgressive still revolutionary?

Pothik Ghosh

“By ‘sex-economic conditions’ we mean more than just the possibility of a… satisfying love life; over and above this we mean everything that is related to pleasure and the joy of life in one’s work.” – Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

The In-Betweenness of Radical Anti-Capitalism

The political project of radical anti-capitalism finds itself in a strange sort of place, thanks to the interesting times we are now condemned to inhabit. It finds itself caught in between the rock of rejecting as elitist everything that does not resemble the traditional sociologies of the oppressed peoples or the working class, and the hard place of neoliberal productivism that is driven by a politics of ephemera and difference-thinking. These times are especially interesting, and the place the radical political project finds itself in, particularly strange, because we have a situation where the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest launched by non-party, anarcho-desiring leftists, together with a significant section of the radical party left, is, on the one hand, threatened by fascistic goons and law-enforcement agencies of a neoliberal dictatorship while, on the other hand, it is celebrated and endorsed in the neoliberal mass media – including the new-fangled social media – and rendered a commoditised spectacle.

In such circumstances, the project of radical anti-capitalism, if it is to live up to, and fulfil, its strange in-betweenness, must seek to break with the disjunctive synthesis of the two political modalities mentioned above, and the choice they pose. And it can begin doing this only by rigorously taking a measure of our times. A significant section of traditional leftist intellectuals, has, in rejecting as “elitist” every form of anti-authoritarian and/or libertarian assertion that does not chime with the time-honoured sociologies of working-class dissidence, staked out a rather conservative position for itself. In the process, it has all but validated the political expressions resulting from the populist-fascistic instrumentalisation of the anxieties of a section of footloose and precarised working people by our neoliberal parliamentary establishment. This section of the traditional left is, however, of little consequence. Its blanket condemnations and the moral and judgemental tenor of the criticisms it levels at certain new kinds of anti-authoritarian, libertarian upsurges demonstrate their growing irrelevance. They have shown they neither have the ability nor the willingness to grasp the current composition of the working class.

But what of the sizeable mass of young left activists, and their ‘Kiss of Love’ kind of anti-authoritarian and libertarian political forms? Such forms, considering they are expressions rooted in the new class composition, must be critically engaged with if the project of radical anti-capitalist politics is to be renewed and re-forged as an effective way forward in and against this late capitalist conjuncture.

At this point, it must be clarified that the ephemera of spontaneity – the fragment as a spark, an evanescent flash of subjective experience – is, for us, absolutely central to revolutionary politics as a practical critique of the objective materiality of capital. Against the insistence of the traditional leftist purveyors of such politics that the grand narrative, and normativity, of capital can be effectively challenged and destroyed only by posing yet another equally normative totality of ‘anti-capitalism’, we affirm the ephemera of spontaneity as utterly indispensable. For us, revolutionary politics is a project of practical critique, and unraveling, of totality only when it envisages itself in terms of fidelity to the event; or, the ephemera of spontaneity.

However, our aversion to the idea that critical and radical politics is exhausted by celebrating the breaking out of such ephemera of spontaneity, and by chasing them in their successive, repetitive eruption, is no less. This puts us in a position that is equally opposed to the traditional leftist vision of envisaging anti-capitalism as a normative totality, and the celebratory chasing, or successive repetition, of the ephemera of spontaneity. The latter is what difference-thinkers, and their practical (if not always theoretical) allies among the proponents of juridico-legal politics of rights, propose as the only viable project of critical politics. In any case, repetition of the ephemera of spontaneity ensures that such ephemera is neither spontaneous nor ephemeral. It is orchestration and pre-meditation dressed up as spontaneity that does no more than serve to accelerate the (re)productivity of the objective materiality of capital as a totalising horizon. In articulating this critique of the politics of difference-thinking we are being arguably faithful to the lessons of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, in a 1930 letter to Gershom Scholem, writes: “My most recent short piece bears the title of ‘From the Brecht Commentary’ and I hope it will appear in the Frankfurter Zeitung. It is the first product of my recent very interesting association with Brecht. I will send it to you as soon as it has appeared. We were planning to annihilate Heidegger here in the summer in the context of a very close-knit critical circle of readers led by Brecht and me….”

Benjamin, if we attend closely to his critique of phenomenological thinking and Heidegger in the Arcades Project, sought to bring about the annihilation of the latter, and his affirmative conception of difference as the withdrawal of Being through the ephemeral flashes of its successive presencing, by affirmatively deploying the fragment, or the ephemera of spontaneity, as Brechtian gestus. Brecht’s gestus here being fragment – not unlike Benjamin’s image of the “dialectics at a standstill” – as the incipient universalisability of non-totality, or the singular.

It is from such a vantage-point that we intend now to attempt an internal critique of the Kiss of Love form – and, by extension, other similar libertarian political forms – that derive from the current composition of the working class.

Against the Moral Law: Desire, Transgression, Ethics

The act of kissing between and/or among people in public places must ceaselessly affirm itself. That is, without doubt, the only way for it to sustain the act it is. It is an act because it erupts in the face of prohibition, thereby violating the general principle of prohibition in its specification.

Kissing in public places against customary and/or legal prohibitions, if and when it occurs ceaselessly as a personal-political act, is an instantiation of the ethics of the self. That is because the self constitutive of such an act is articulating a relationship with itself by virtue of being in withdrawal from the injunction of the moral law. Or, such a personal-political act in its ceaseless happening can also be construed as an instantiation of the transgressive ethics of desire that destroys the general principle or structure of the moral law in its specification by virtue of being committed to the imperative of desire. In either case, such a personal-political act as its own affirmation must, from the perspective of revolutionary politics, be certainly upheld and defended.

The question, however, is, can ethics – whether of the self or of transgressive desire – constitutive of such a personal-political act be sheltered within the given political horizon of capital as class segmentation, or distribution and thus stratification of social power? As the immanent critique of various ethical and utopian socialisms by Marx and Engels demonstrate such endeavours and projects in failing to grasp their limit turn into pyrrhic victories. Such affirmation/ethicality must, in order to sustain itself, take a measure of the distance it constitutively puts between itself and power that the moral law and its injunction realise. Otherwise, moral law/power – whose regulatory effect is the state – will take a measure of that distance. This would amount to either the coercive suppression of the collectivity constitutive of such personal-political acts or, what is worse because it is more deceptive, subsume that collectivity within the overall horizon of capital as social segmentation by assigning it a place within that horizon, thereby valorising it as an identity/community/commodity. In such a situation, what would it mean for such ethicality to take a measure of the distance it puts between itself and the moral law or power? Clearly, that would imply the destruction-as-process (withering away) of the subsumptive horizon of the moral law, which has as its underlying structural principle the fetish or necessitarian character of social relations. It is this that would render the separation of such affirmation/ethicality from the horizon of the moral law as power radical by having it transform its mode from one of withdrawal to that of subtraction. In other words, what is to begin with a question of ethics would, in such a situation, internally mutate into a question of politics precisely in order to sustain itself as the affirmation it is as that ethical question.

Ethical As Political Or, From Ethical to Political?

So now we need to ask a rather crucial question. Can kissing between or among people in public spaces, which as a personal-political act transgresses – or withdraws — from the injunction of the moral law, continue to be a self-affirming ethicality by being elevated directly into a political form: kissing between and/or among people in ‘public spaces’, in the face of it being prohibited, as a form of public protest? Will such a form be even politically radical, forget revolutionary? Is the passage from politics as an ethical question (politics vis-à-vis the social at the individual level of determination) to politics as a political question (politics vis-à-vis the social at the societal level of determination) a seamlessly smooth continuum? Isn’t such a passage constitutive of internal mutation and rupture that can be grasped, articulated and actualised only through dialectical thinking? It is arguably the absence of such internal mutation and rupture that is evident in the insistence on elevating the transgressive personal-political act of kissing in public spaces directly into a political form of public protest.

What we perhaps need to bear in mind is the fact that the structure of the moral law – of which the prohibition to kiss in public spaces is a specifying instant – is capital as the fetish or necessitarian character of social relations. In other words, the structure of the moral law and its injunction is class segmentation as distribution of social power. In such circumstances, transgression and/or ethics of the self – which is what the personal-political act of kissing publicly in violation of the customary or legal diktat against it amounts to – can sustain itself as the ethicality it is only by constellating itself with struggles that seek to abolish class segmentations determinately through a ceaseless process of reorganising relations of production and reproduction at the societal level of determination. Such a constellating strategic move would, needless to say, render the act or ethics of kissing in public a constitutive personal-political moment of the struggle to abolish class segmentation as a process of subtraction from the horizon of necessitarian or fetishised social relations.

Before this proposed strategic move is quickly condemned as a traditional Stalinist argument calling for submerging the individual and sublimating the question of desire within some sort of an a priori horizon of revolutionary politics, we would do well to clarify why this proposal is nothing like such a call. What exactly does one mean when one insists that the act of kissing publicly in violation of all prohibition must become a constitutively indispensable personal-political moment of the struggle to reorganise concrete social relations in order to abolish class segmentations? It means that such an act must ceaselessly come into being at the individual level of determination against all moral injunctions that would likely also take root even within the horizon constituted by the continuous struggle to determinately abolish class segmentations at the societal level of determination. But since the structure of the moral law is class segmentation, the ethics or act of kissing publicly can sustain itself as its own affirmation only by mutating into a struggle that seeks to abolish this structure of class segmentation through a constant process of reorgansing determinate relations of production and reproduction at the societal level of determination. What this means is that the personal-political act of kissing publicly cannot sustain itself as the affirmation it is (whether as ethics of the self, or that of transgressive desire) by elevating itself directly, and in its immediateness, into a political form. That is, however, precisely what is sought to be accomplished when kissing in public spaces is envisaged as a form of public protest. This strategic move renders what is a radical personal-political act to begin with into an inert social practice, and its congealed socio-cultural form.

Rather, efforts to uninterruptedly reorganise concretely given social relations of production and reproduction at the societal level of determination, as a continuous struggle to abolish class segmentation in its shifting determinateness by subtracting from it, will be constitutive of the political form that will sustain the personal-political act of kissing in public as the affirmation or ethics it is at the individual level of determination. For, only through such a process of destruction of the horizon of fetishised social relations by way of subtracting from it can the moral law as a form of injunction be abolished. In more empirically concrete terms, the strategic approach embodied by such a political form would imply that even as the struggle to uninterruptedly construct and reorganise concretely given social relations of production and reproduction is envisaged and waged at the societal level of determination, the digits of interpersonal socialisation and interaction among militants of and participants in such a struggle are that of uninhibited public expression of desire and affection.

Transgressive Desire As Imposition of Work

The failure to grasp how and why the ethics of kissing in public against all prohibition must internally mutate into such a political form, precisely in order to sustain itself as that ethics, has resulted in the act of kissing in public being directly elevated in its immediateness to a political form. That has, needless to say, rendered it a spectacle, which is nothing but a commodity-form. This is not only not, by any stretch of imagination, a struggle to abolish class segmentation in its determinateness – which can only be an endeavour to reorganise concrete relations of production and reproduction – but it actually amounts to a reproduction of the system of segmented and fetishised social relations through its recomposition. That the direct elevation of what is a radical personal-political act of kissing in public into a political form of public protest renders the latter a spectacular commodity-form is evident from how a section of the capitalist mass media – largely English but not exclusively so – positively represents that form and thrives on it. That this is the same media that wholeheartedly endorses and campaigns for the neoliberal economic policies of the rightwing BJP-led government, even as it opposes the cultural machinations of its fascistic footsoldiers at the grassroots, bespeaks a contradiction that is internal to and constitutive of capital.

The example of the capitalist mass media that thrives as much by lending its unqualified support to the neoliberal economic policies of the BJP-led government as by opposing the fascistic machinations of its lumpen-proletarian footsoldiers at the grassroots reveals something about this second tendency. In this late-capitalist conjuncture characterised by commoditisation of desires, affects and life itself, transformation of the radical personal-political act of kissing in public into a massified form through the process of discursive representation that is the mass media demonstrates how the living of life, even and especially when it is a deviation from a given set of norms, can become a consumable spectacle that yields value. This, in other words, is a situation where not only is norm-deviation in itself another legitimised and legitimising normativity; but that this norm-deviation as yet another normativity is also constitutive of a space-time that is no less dominant than the space-time constitutive of the normative order it is a deviation from. What we have, therefore, is a situation of flux and precarity of normative dominance. Norm deviation as yet another normativity has, in any case, been the characteristic feature of capitalism all along. After all, it was not for nothing that Marx repeatedly insisted on capital being a “living contradiction”, a “moving contradiction”. When one resists a specific oppressive, and/or repressive, determination in its immediateness without any attempt to envisage and conduct that resistance in a manner that the fetish or necessitarian character of social relations, which is its general condition of possibility, is sought to be subtracted from and destroyed, one’s struggle amounts to being no more than a negation of determination as yet another determination. As a result, struggle against a specific situation of oppression, and repression, enables the reproduction of capital, as the structural dialectic of fetishised social relations, through its expansion and recomposition. In such circumstances, oppression, and/or repression, precisely through its specified operation can be seen to also have ideologically interpellated the resistance against it into a constitutively antithetical subject-object of juridico-legal politics and rights discourse. Such a politics will thus do no more, or, for that matter, less, than reproduce capital as the dialecticised structure of necessitarian social relations that is the condition of possibility of oppression and/or repression in the first place. Struggles and instances of resistance animated by such politics would thus fail to articulate and generalise their detotalising incipience and lapse into manoeuvres of competitive bargaining within the totalising horizon of capital.

What further compounds this aspect of capitalism in its late, neoliberal moment of affective capital, and terribly complicates matters for the anti-capitalist project, is that not only does this juridical modality of anti-authoritarian struggles serve to ideologically reproduce capital as a structure of fetishised social relations but, in the process of doing that, it also becomes a direct source of creation/extraction of value. It is precisely for this reason that not only is every norm-deviation in itself yet another normativity, which has always been true of capitalism, but that normative dominance is now, in neoliberalism, in a precarised state of perpetual flux.

In such circumstances, to directly elevate what is at the personal level a politically radical act into a socialised political form is to be entirely and unquestioningly in tandem with the process of discursive representation that is the mass media. In other words, to elevate the radical personal-political act of kissing in public into a socialised/massified political form is to be subjectivated by the mass-mediatic ideology of late capitalism that renders such interpellated subjects (unwaged) affective workers in the social factory of neoliberal biocapitalism.

Of course, there is no doubt that the practice of kissing in public, even when it is a massified form and commoditised spectacle, will be constantly threatened with repression by both rightwing goons, and the official repressive state apparatuses such as the law-enforcement agencies. But to train our guns merely on the politico-ideological forms in and through which such repression is operationalised, while refusing to account for the materiality of which those forms are effects, is a ghastly mistake. Such an articulation of radical politics against repression would do no more than press the idiom of such politics in the service of capital as a structure of fetishised social relations. Such an articulation, needless to say, will have failed in transforming a contradiction constitutive of the fetish nature of social relations that is capital into a radically antagonistic contradiction.

To figure the materiality of the politico-ideological effects of moral policing and repression we would do well to realise that traditional productive and/or industrial capitalism that conjuncturally characterised Early Capitalism, with its Fordist organisation of production and a more or less strict separation between the productive and the reproductive domains, regimented desire by curbing and controlling it so that it could be channeled into production of tangible commodities (use values) as value creation. Affording desire too much leeway, in such situation, always runs the risk of disrupting the social-industrial discipline needed for traditional Fordist factory work. It is in such circumstances that traditional norms of family, ‘good social’ behaviour and so on got mobilised as politico-ideological forms by this materiality of early, industrial capitalism to keep the flow of desire in check through repression, both in the psychological and coercive senses. And that is precisely why the domain of non-work socialisation, or reproductive life, could be effectively envisaged and posed as both individually transgressive and politically radical against the coercive and ideological infringement on it by the domain of production and its demands.

However, with the advent of the late capitalist conjuncture characterised by biocapitalism – where the living of life itself has now become the site of direct extraction of value – capital mobilises desire and affects for value extraction not by controlling and curbing their flow but precisely by allowing and even encouraging their transgressive play. For, it is precisely such transgressive play of desire that can, when elevated into a massified form, become a consumable spectacle, thereby yielding value for biocapital (affective and cognitive capital) that structures the world of mass media, particularly the social media, and the world of internet commerce and infotainment. Clearly, the transgressive is now no longer capable of becoming politically radical in its immediateness. If anything what is transgressive at the individual level is, at the societal and massified level, completely conformist.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, that radical militant of desire, insisted on this time and time again. His overtly political polemics, poetry and cinema seek to demonstrate how sexual expressions that are transgressive as practices of the self, by virtue of being at an alien distance from society, lose their radical charge the moment they seek recognition (and accommodation) within that society as mass forms. Not for nothing did he imagine the politics of radical class antagonism as the only mode and form which could culminate the transgressive charge of so-called deviant sexual practices of the self.

Italian autonomist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi indicates why that might be so in his exceptionally insightful The Soul At Work:

“The intellectualization of labor, a major effect of the technologic and organizational transformation of the productive process in the last two decades of the twentieth-century, opens completely new perspectives for self-realization. But it also opens completely new energies to the valorization of capital. The workers’ disaffection for industrial labor, based on a critique of hierarchy and repetition, took energies away from capital, towards the end of the 1970s. All desires were located outside capital, attracting forces that were distancing themselves from its domination. The exact opposite happened in the new info-productive reality of the new economy: desire called new energies towards the enterprise and self-realization through work. No desire, no vitality seems to exist anymore outside the economic enterprise, outside productive labor and business. Capital was able to renew its psychic, ideological and economic energy, specifically thanks to the absorption of creativity, desire, and individualistic, libertarian drives for self-realization.” [Emphasis author’s.]

Precarity of Segmentation Versus Segmentation of Precarity

Why then are such practices of the self, even when they have been elevated to being massified forms and valorised spectacles within capitalism, still threatened with coercive decimation? Any attempt to comprehensively explain the operation of this contradiction in terms of the logic of capital must realise that while the advent of biocapitalism, which characterises our neoliberal or late capitalist conjuncture, has been on account of the crisis of the law of value, this has not meant the disappearance of that law. The complete disappearance of the law of value shall mean the disappearance of capital itself. As a result, what we have by way of this late capitalist conjuncture is the growing superfluity of production of tangible commodities for extraction of surplus value and yet its persistence as something that is indispensable, if now only as an excuse, for capital to operate in the fictitious registers of financial speculation and working of desire and affect. Hence, what we have is a situation of complementarity of traditional industrial capitalism and the new of biocapitalism existing in that complementarity precisely through their mutually contradictory relation that drives capital as a tendency of totalisation and closure.

But how do we now make sense of this intra-capitalist contradiction in terms of its actualisation through its translation into competition among different sections of the working masses? What such a competition actually amounts to is really a clash between different segments of the working class. On the one hand you have a section of young, educated, cognitarians, including a sizeable section of university students, whose disaffection as members of the larger working class is registered when they militate against the regimentation, through moral policing, of their interpersonal socialisation. The ‘Kiss of Love’ protest is a political form of precisely such an assertion. On the other hand, we have another segment of the working-class – which is sociologically and systemically designated in terms of its socio-economic background and attendant cultural access as lower-middle class. This segment of the working class registers the anxiety of being deprived of the cultural forms and lifestyles accessed by the first segment by allowing themselves to be instrumentalised as fascistic footsoldiers by the rightwing neoliberal governmental establishment to morally police the lives and lifestyles of the first segment. Thanks to this modality of conflict between these two segments of the working class, the conflict has no chance of getting transformed into an antagonistic struggle against segmentation itself. Instead, such conflicts among segments of the working class can only serve to reinforce capital as a horizon of competitive manoeuvring with each segment trying to outstrip and dominate the other.

It must be noted here that the crisis of the law of value, which characterises this late capitalist, neoliberal conjuncture, is a consequence of a significant qualitative spike in productive forces on account of the class composition and contradictions internal to the previous, liberal conjuncture of capital. What this unprecedented development of productive forces – evident as qualitative changes in automation and decentralised, post-Fordist forms of organising production — has led to is an insuperable increase in relative surplus value extraction by significantly diminishing socially necessary labour time, and concomitantly reducing living labour. And this is why we have the crisis of the law of value. Capital has, as we have observed earlier, not collapsed, and yet it can exist only as its own permanent crisis. Seen from the side of the working class, this has meant increasing functional simplification of social labour. That has basically led to, among other things, intensification of work through increasing cognitivisation of social labour. The result: accentuation of the tendency of capital to level the technical, and thus social, ground between intellectual and manual work. The growing instability of the socio-technical division – or technical composition – of labour has been its direct outcome. But since it is a situation of capital existing, and reproducing itself, as its own permanent crisis, social division of labour – the formal realisation of capital as a structure of fetishised social relations – continues to be perpetuated but with its irrational, extra-economic core now always there as an open wound. In other words, the constitutive distinction between its extra-economic, irrational foundation (primitive accumulation) and its rational economic operation (so-called normal accumulation) stands significantly blurred. That the former is now rendered evident in the immediateness of the latter, without too much spatio-temporal displacement, reveals that.

What we have, as a consequence, is the increasing instability and precarity of segmentations within the working class. There is, however, also a concomitant deepening of the segmentation of precarities. In fact, the two are thoroughly enmeshed. The strategic emphasis of radical anti-capitalist politics, in such a situation, should be on accentuating the former in order to move towards suspending the latter. Unfortunately, the current clash among different segments of the working class accentuated by a political form such as the ‘Kiss of Love’ public protest can only achieve, and has, in fact, accomplished, the very opposite: reinforce the segmentation of precarity.

That kissing in public can be a massified spectacle, or a valorised commodity-form, and yet be perpetually threatened by both official and unofficial repressive state apparatuses of capital is a registration of precisely this peculiar situation of complementarity through contradiction, which makes this situation a decadent and late manifestation of the capitalist epoch. This, in fact, is the characteristic feature of the uber-contemporary conjuncture of neoliberal or late capitalism, where different and uneven moments co-exist less and less by way of spatio-temporal displacement and more and more by way of simultaneity. However, in order to come to terms with this peculiar conjunctural refiguration of the capitalist epoch we must realise that capital is not economic domination through socio-cultural homogenisation. It is, instead, economic hegemony through regimentation of socio-cultural heterogeneity. It is precisely the lack of such understanding among both party leftists and the so-called non-party anti-capitalists that has made them unwitting pawns in this game of intra-capitalist contradiction. It is precisely their inability to grasp this essence of capital that has led a motley-crew of enthusiastic anarcho-desiring, non-party anti-capitalists, as also a section of the party left, to come up with this utterly self-righteous and utterly ridiculous political form of kissing in public to supposedly resist the moral policing by fascistic goons of a neoliberal state-formation. Therefore, what we have at hand, objectively speaking, is a preposterous situation: our leftist/anarchist neoliberalism versus their rightist neoliberalism. We are, of course, all comrades. Which is precisely why one wishes one does not have to say what one is tempted to: May the farce be with you, comrades!

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