Social Reproduction and the Goal of Revolutionary Strategy

This article originally appears as the third section of my essay “Crisis and Mobilisation” which was written approximately this time last year, and published in March of 2019. I’ve published itas a slightly edited free standing piece in order to seperate its content from the rest of the original essay, and because I believe this section is of more contemporary relevance to the left in the UK, in a period when many radical leftists, in particular Anarchists and Communists are thinking of how to readjust to a post-defeat reality in 2020. With limited numbers, left wing political actors have limited options. At present though we have a variety of communist, anarchist and syndicalist projects in operation in the UK, they are tend to only be comprised of small numbers of people. However there are often social ties between these groups, which exist in constant interaction with each other in the course of political activity, creating something halfway between a scene and an ecosystem. It is critical to view things within a realistic scope- our numbers are incredibly thin and we simply can’t expect to get to anything kind of seriously aggressive footing for years. However, a revolutionary model is establishable even with the modest numbers that we have at present, where often the most promising communist or anarchist projects in large cities are essentially derived from the work of a few dozen people.

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An energy Systems Diagram explaining the Maximum Power Principle, defined by Systems- Ecologist H Odum as the process where “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency” . The Purpose of this article is to examine ths general concept and how it might apply to the systems that we in the revolutionary left apply within our own organisations. How is the social reporduction of an organisation set up? Is it equitable? Does it flow in confluence with the goals of the organisation, that its productive political activity is meant to support?

The radical left, whether we choose to view it as a subculture, a movement or an ideological bloc, is essentially an ecosystem in its own right existing within a political context. All political systems, from those that dominate our lives, to the subsidiary systems within them, are powered by active cycles of production and reproduction. Work groups within companies within national economies- all of these together comprise the nested layers of capitalist social organisation. Within the broad territory of the left we can see examples of a variety of different species of organisational forms: activist groups, art collectives, would-be vanguards, the larger parties, anarchist affinity groups and so on. Human collective activity, via the means of concerted effort is what defines these groups- in other words they are defined by the work put into them by their members, who are the ones who produce and reproduce the organisations they belong to. Parties, camps, subcultures and political campaigning groups utilise the efforts of their constituent members to follow programs of social reproduction.

Social, Simple, and Expanded Reproduction

In capitalist society the continuous day to day existence of the economy is reliant on two types of productive activity, specifically the continuous maintenance of the industrial working class by its own members and the production of the physical goods that circulate within the economy once those workers have made them. These are referred to as social reproduction- the work that is done within society to maintain the existence of the working class, such as child rearing, meal preparation etc, and to maintain the ability of the worker to perform labour day in and day out- and simple reproduction- the level of commodity production performed by those labourers and circulation of the material needed to maintain a growthless status quo, which is itself in turn the basis for a system capable of expansion.

These two types of production rely on each other. The ability of the working class to make commodities is continually renewed by socially reproductive labour- cooking, housekeeping, emotional labour and so on, which in turn requires means and materials to be made in order to be performed: if food is to be cooked to feed the worker, then food must be circulating as a commodity, along with other sources of capital, including financial or cultural varieties. In the case of simple reproduction, which in turn feeds on the labours of social reproduction, I refer to, mainly, commodity manufacturing, including maintenance and manufacture of the means of production, consumable materials of production, as well as the section of the production output which is destined to be used for the sustenance of the workforce- this also being a specific kind of means of production. What all this means is that the stuff that gets made in the sector of the economy devoted to simple reproduction (if such sectors can truly be divided off from the whole)ends up as the means and materials of production for the sector of the economy devoted to social reproduction. The remaining output of the simple-reproduction sector is its own means and materials of production.

The implication of this rather dry formulation is as follows: The economy is a feedback loop ( via capital circulation) of material inputs (means and materials) combined with physical processes (social and simple reproduction schemes) , which is capable of being self sustaining. In the hypothetical manner in which ive just explained it, this feedback loop is only at the “simple” stage of reproduction: it isnt expanding.

In other words there is not only a cyclical subsystem required for even a hypothetical stagnant capitalist structure to exist, but also the sphere of social reproduction is a part of the reproduction scheme within capitalist society as a whole. Upon the foundation of use-value centric reproductive labour which interacts with commodity-centric simple reproduction we see the capacity for expanded reproduction — where increasing production of commodities becomes the motor of economic growth- which is the poisoned chalice of capitalism. The ever expanding cycle of commodity production is the standard state of affairs for capitalism, as we all know. That is- the feedback loop, when it actually exists in reality and not in the hypothetical, will grow until it reaches some greater systemic thermodynamic limit

This is replicated in the greater and smaller bodies within the capitalist economy that have any degree of internal organisational sophistication- organisms must have internal motive forces that power them, and for social organisations that motive force is the people who make the organisation. In the case of capitalist organisations that feature need not have come about by design, but rather by the selective pressure of time and adverse circumstances whipping away those forms of capitalist organization that couldn’t survive the pressuress of the market, of extractive production, or the political upheavals of recurring crises. The market may not really be capable of finding the equilibrium that the liberal economists yearn for, but it exerts constant, destructive, selective pressure upon all existing institutions, expropriating and totally consuming all parts of those that cannot maintain themselves.

Based on this my thesis is as follows: Communism and Anarchism are not forms of business and those who follow that variety of politics are not (we hope!) employees. But such people are performing work- political work- even if that work is not directed at making tradeable commodities. A common critique, and a just one, of readical organising is that when it is not too chaotic and amateurish, it can alternate into being too beaureacratic and business like, that radical groups begin to act like NGOs of the non profict industrial complex and so on, that the work becomes commodified. Why does this happen? Because the mode of reproduction of the organisation in question gets changed. So how do we arrange a picture in our minds of the basic scheme of repordction as it relates to political organising?

Well, as a basic attempt to do this suppose the following:

The work is divisible into similar stages of reproductive labour: the social reproduction of the political Communist or Anarchist, the simple reproduction of active Communist politics within our general political culture as performed in a variety of manners, and the expanded reproduction of a militantly Communist and Anarchist political system ( be it an organisation or a group of organisations, or a wider cultural hegemony etc).

If we are aiming for the latter as the “output” of this scheme then we need to keep core principles in mind. All workers should have the means of their activity held in common among them: this means that communism must be realised from the ground up, and that the political struggle should not, and on a sheer structural level cannot be alienated from them via structures that mediate the output of their energies and alienate their efforts. Otherwise the organisation doing so enters a stage of capitalistic self replication. I believe this is the pattern that the old formations fell into, and that it is now critically important that a new method of constructing the base of Communist politics is required.

Reproduction within the singular organisation and The Left as an ecosystem:

Within the Left political scene we again start with social reproduction at the base, and through stages of expanding reproduction, the organisations in question have developed themselves, some successfully, some falteringly, with nearly all having died off or having been amalgamated within successors. Such reproduction schemes are the basis for all organisations, whether they are firms making commodities, or campaigning structures, active and mobilised in society. Political movements have to internally reproduce themselves or they die. However, much anti capitalist political work occurs without those doing it actually controlling the mode of reproduction. In other words, those within the movement do not truly determine its future, or the direction that their reproductive efforts go in until that changes. Hence, the feedback loop gets hijacked, or otherwise re-directed to other ends.

Thats the state of affairs within an imaginary singleorganisation anway. However the problem isn’t down to just that: it’s not about getting the ideal vanguard, and designing the constitution of the party just so. In fact within certain bounds the constitution, formal or practical, of given organizations has limited relevance on a system wide basis unless they are large or influential enough to play a defining role. Despite this, a perfectionist idealism pervades a lot of communist thought on these matters- “the party must uphold solidarity and democracy and maintain its theoretical rigour on these matters” — and so on and so forth. This stance, which is posited as an attempt to solve some of these problems, misses the point. The reality is that any such party was never just a lone island- it always existed within a sea of communist and anarchist activity, and many other islands shared its archipelago.

Organisations as systems, sharing a social environment within the left, necessarily compete with each other within that greater system for political prominence and power over movements, as well as cooperating with each other against external pressures or for joint planned campaigns. Part of this behaviour will be a matter of directed policy- the establishment of doctrines to exclude given groups, or expel internal factions, alongside the establishment of shared strategies against particular external enemies, or directed at given goals. Essentially the left-ecosystem also has its own traits that define how it behaves, and therefore its ability to combat capitalism. These characteristics are partially determined by the organisations that maintain prominence within this ecosystem, but are also based on how those organizations relate to each other, and to leftists at large within the milieu. Furthermore, the matter of the continual production of the movement again appears at this level: reproduction also occurs in an abstracted form, now performed by organisations which are the constituents of the larger ecosystem as well as by the activists-at-large mediated via the spread of ideas, the work output of those organising events and spaces, the planning of marches, the changes of internal culture brought about by new struggles coming to the fore, with all the work in those struggles affecting the left as much as it affects the targets of those struggles. This second tier of political reproductive effort is derived from the work done at the base of the movement and as the base changes, so does the superstructure in which this second cycle occurs. If the previously dominant, and currently decaying forms that we see in the leftist landscape are inadequate then only change at the base can kill them, a fact which should be made more and more obvious the more and more we see the symptoms of their uselessness and alienating characteristics manifest themselves in the political scene.

None of the dead parties became that way without reason: historical forces claimed them, either after they were taken out by the competition of an emerging rival, by the chance, by having ending up on the wrong side of a particular losing struggle or by having exhausted their revolutionary potential. A new strategy, divorced from the party form and free from the alienating work of the professional liberal activist is required, and its main target is the communisation of the base of revolutionary politics. In other words, communist projects must exist in a state whereby those within them, who do the work to reproduce the organisation, control the cycles of reproduction which they set in motion. No movement for class power seeking to build a new world in the ashes of the old can do so if its own internal reproduction scheme is not consciously planned and controlled by the reproductive labourers. This is the chief error in the flourishing scene we see in the United States, and we still have enough lead-time to correct it here. In recognising this we recognise the existence and shape of production relations within our own movement, which is a critical first step in building a more effective liberatory politics. We have not done this up til now.

The base, reproduction, & a pluralist revolutionary strategy:

In the current context this gives the scattered cells of the communist and anarchist currents in the UK one primary strategic goal: building a structure between them, in a way that breaks with frozen models, and in so doing, making maximum use of the present and coming political upheavals. The system needed is neither that of a loose activist confederation, nor of anarchist leagues, nor that of the traditional maoist or leninist vanguard forms. It might, and in my opinion should, contain aspects of these forms of organisation, but in reality none of those forms can be completely transplanted into our current context and actually offer us a viable growth strategy. We can no longer attempt to organise based on the notion of the perfect tendency, the true claimant to the throne, or the central party whose role it is to condition the proletariat. What is required is a combination of some of the more successful existing tactics within a new, multipolar system of operations.

Accordingly we should attempt to build the communist and anarchist currents into this more unified network, building multiple poles of operation, each having the capacity to act reasonably autonomously, yet linked cooperatively by their common goals and infrastructure, as well as overlap between the people that make them up. These poles of operation will be our purpose-specific counter-institutions: the constituent pieces of dual power.

“Dual Power is about giving people a second option. The two kinds of Dual Power institutions do this from different (but complementary) angles. Alternative institutions meet a need directly. Counter-institutions challenge capitalism’s way of doing things. Alternative institutions start making a system that’s just, while counter-institutions work against one that’s unjust.” Excerpt from the Dual Power FAQ published by Seattle communists

This is in order that these poles of operation exist within the leftist milieu in such a manner that they are subject to control from the bottom, and that an overall strategic capacity is retained within the revolutionary system to replace any one of them should they be defeated, dissolve themselves, or become useless. This provides that redundancy, and would significantly enhance our position. Instead of having a dominant unifying party to lead to a point of revolutionary advantage, we should build something more akin to a complex of mutually reinforcing and beneficiary institutions: A system with an internal ecology, with a form of revolutionary communist pluralism, designed to evade the inherently counterproductive nature of the monolithic party-project whilst also ensuring that the strategic fragility of purely horizontal modes of organisation is also avoided.

Dual Power, and Crisis Mobilisation Capacity

“There is a special type of mobilization base which I will call a “Preattack Mobilization Base.” This can be extremely important. It is a capability for being able to improve rapidly our ability to fight or to threaten to fight either a limited or a general war. It includes preparations for putting in adequate civil defense ‘programs, It also includes the procurement of very long lead time items for our strategic… defense and …offense, so that by just spending money rapidly we could bring all of these capabilities up to an adequate level. There is a very broad spectrum of preparations possible here. “

- Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 1960.

The purpose of the multipolar system is in order to cultivate a capacity to exercise dual power in a highly responsive and controllable manner. Normally dual power and mutual aid networks are conceived of as being force multipliers in revolutionary struggles rather than as tools of maneuver. However this does not have to be the case, and is not necessarily even a view that is accurate in relation to historical examples.

If we begin to think about a situation where we are pursuing the development of an inter-organisational system, via the means of base building and dual-power, we get to a point where we have a system capable of reacting to crises on a more conscious, coordinated, and planned level, with a reasonable degree of speed in terms of decision making time, and a reasonable degree of speed in terms of time required to physically mobilise. Mobilisation means work. That means human labour-hours exerted into erecting new purpose based projects, possibly at short notice. This concept is designed around combining the relatively well established strategies of base-building toward dual power with general concepts of systemic elasticity and redundancy- in other words an argument fundamentally based on technical characteristics of a system.

Accordingly, the ability of the complex to detect potential areas of focus before they become critical becomes of increased importance. All political projects include some degree of future planning, but in the current context we are not giving much thought to some critical aspects of this crucial area of strategic study. The technical skill for this task is actually already present: most politically active revolutionary leftists that are engaged in projects basically have this ability in relation to what is in front of them. The degree of skill in exercising it will vary, but that is a solvable problem. A path to mixing this latent capacity into the complex itself is to build a general awareness of key concepts into the lexicon of the communist left which i believe are conducive to this general idea. When tied to the broader concepts that I have outlined in this piece- the role of social reproduction in the formation of revolutionary organisations, and the strategy of long term dual-power construction- the role of each of these should become clear.

Deciding versus drifting:

Supposing a situation where three types of crisis, X,Y and Z are deemed to possibly be around the corner, and that strategies A, B and C are actionable methods to confront them, the issue becomes one of prioritisation and its relationship to prediction. With this in mind it is worthwhile to consider the following 4 concepts: Lead time, Hedging, Pre-crisis Investment, Ramping Up/Ramping Down, Crash Programs, and Operational Gaps.

  1. Lead time:

While predicting a crisis or a revolt in any particular or specific detail is a mugs game, the whole raison d’etre of our movement is that recurring crises, on the micro and macro level are the hallmark of capitalism. Due to the general qualities of the capitalist system we know that crises take certain distinct forms, such as military defeats in major wars, large global recessions, regional or national economic stagnation, or constitutional political crises arising in the formal structure of the State, and so on. These will differ in their details from instance to instance along the historical record, but the various different varieties of crisis have roughly similar patterns. Accordingly, for the kinds of ciris that can at least be roughly predicted- particularly economic crises- we have a little time to play with during which we can see the major areas upon which we might capitalise. Lead time is therefore the production time period we have been blessed with for any one of our dual power systems to be established within before a given crisis becomes unmanageable. In other words we have to make use of lead time before event X occurs to build Dual Power structure A. Structure A will almost certainly have to be tailor made to suit the circumstances so we need this lead time in order to study the situation, design and prototype the structure, and expand it into active operation. As we know from our current situation we often have to do this process all at once. This is often non-ideal, so if we can build our forces to the point where it isn’t needed in every situation then we may see significant benefits

2. Hedging & Pre crisis investment:

While reasonable information can give us forewarning of event X, sometimes event Y happens first, or happens immediately after and is far more important. For example if we prepare for an expected series of industrial strikes but then are blindsided by a sudden total stock market crash which leads to major commodity circulation failure, the situation has obviously changed to a point where our strategic priorities may need to be altered, either by increasing investment into the existing strategy, or by bolstering other options to compensate for its limitations. If a single organisation has poured all its resources into a strategy based only on structure A to prepare for this then there is only a problem if that organisation dominates the entire sphere of militant political operations. However, a plurality of projects means that we will have an increased tendency to build simultaneous projects, and thus hedge our collective bets against less likely scenarios Y and Z playing out. If this can be achieved in even a very limited degree then we will retain some amount of reactive fluidity in the face of unexpected changes. By investing small amounts of effort in building the skeletons of hypothetical structures B and C we build a long term capacity to react when chance presents us scenario Y, delivering us that perfect storm of danger, or that perfect moment of opportunity. Pre-crisis investment is therefore both usable in a defensive capacity to protect against threats, and also useful in an offensive capacity, in as much as a given effort stakes out a claim on territory occupied by State and Capital. Furthermore, while engaging in strategic hedging mitigates some of the risks of unexpected disasters it does not totally remove them. The problem with this is that getting to this level of expanded reproductive capacity is in itself a challenging long term goal.

3. Ramping up & ramping down:

Resources and time being limited, we can’t fill out the entire alphabet with focus projects. Sometimes large projects extend beyond their use by date. This is almost never the case for some kinds of project, particularly those relating to dual power, but other varieties are highly prone to them For example if there’s little to no fascist presence in a city, then activists will tend to prioritize this are in favour of other projects. Shifting the priority of a project can be a very strategically difficult decision in a crunch, but in reality we will need to institutionalise the capacity to make these decisions both within and between organisations within the communist and anarchist currents. This process is organisational in nature and does not directly relate to the front line of struggle against capital due to its role as being a management principle for our support structures. There must therefore be a workable model of the relationship between ramping up project B and ramping down project A when the earth shifts under our feet. That model must be inextricably linked to the principle of ground up democratic control over the reproduction of the complex.

4. Crash Programs & Operational Gaps:

When the emergency hits, and the unexpected crisis emerges, we have to utilise resources quickly and decisively. How quickly depends very strongly on the type of event: recessions don’t immediately take down social services for example, so there is a longer lead time there, but other forms of crisis, such as partial collapse of a state or a crackdown from authorities can happen very quickly. Regardless of how meticulous the vanguards of the past were, or how adaptative anarchist formations can be, sometimes we are presented with problems that we are not prepared for- an operational gap between our ability and our goals that is greater than expected. This may be due to sheer lack of resources, in which case its game over in terms of an offensive approach and is purely a matter of holding on for dear life. However it may also have opened up due to a collective doctrinal or intellectual lag in relation to changing circumstances on a level that we have not been paying attention to. This is inevitable: it will happen. Sometimes we will be caught without even a plan A, and there will have been no pre-crisis investment at all. In fact this is our normal mode of operations, due to the power and oppressive qualities of the capitalist system. If such events are not to be fatal then the only option is to engage in a crash program, essentially an extreme form of the ramp-up concept, whereby we simply have to immediately focus a vast portion of our resources on defensively adapting to a disaster. The crash program is therefore distinguishable from the inherently premeditated pre-crisis-investment concept by the fact that it starts after the crisis has hit, without pre-planning, is therefore done very quickly, and is entirely a reactive and defensive measure.

The application of these specific ideas in the praxis that characterises a revolutionary complex effectively constitutes the Crisis Mobilisation Capacity of that complex. This capacity exists whether we have consciously built it or not: we make many of these decisions already, as a group, often without cooperation between organisations to plan much of it other than the very large mobilisations. The purpose of institutionalising this capacity is to control and democratise a behaviour that is happening collectively anyway, so as to better make use of it for our long term purposes.

Near-Term Opportunities:

This is not an attempt at invincibility- that is not possible. Material forces will always exert their pull and will heavily influence the shape of the system: the enemy gets a vote in each confrontation, and so does the physical environment of operations. However that doesn’t mean that collective effort in this regard can’t make the most of the dissolution of all of the dead tendencies of the 20th century, as the ideological mess that is the current communist/anarchist scene in the UK begins slowly the reconstitute itself. This dissolution and reconstitution has led to an explosion in theoretical work in online circles, due to the flurry of syncretism between previously disparate Communist and Anarchist schools of thought. Where we can produce new theories, we can and should produce new praxis, whether it is generated from new combinations of existing and tested forms of praxis, or via fresh approaches to challenges. It is my position that the political context in the UK, particularly with regard to the medium term future ( the next 5 or so years) gives us a big opportunity to establish a complex that can invert the mechanics of sectarianism, cast off our old skin, and nurture a material capacity to respond according to pressures, via the selective prioritisation of multiple projects. This combination of redundancy and elasticity would give us a fairly good position compared to what we have now and is probably manageable in several significant areas of concern. Notable examples include the expansion of Industrial unionism, antifascist work, solidarity unions, food and housing security, and the sharing of skills and material capacities amongst organisations. Many projects along these lines are already afoot and cross-pollinating with each other, but we are a very early stage of reconstructing the UK left wing scene.

Singular projects are weak as a strategy for the simple reason that they are singular, that there is no redundancy and that there is a single point of failure which dooms all the points of strength. There can be no single institution too vital to fail, or without which all the others will wither when we know that the obliteration of any given party, campaign, union etc is always a distinct possibility, and can happen at any time in a point of crisis. This necessitates the abandonment of the old forms of vanguardism, which set up single high profile targets, which have historically been highly vulnerable, in favour of a commitment to a material pluralism. Much of what is needed is already there, we just have to identify and contact it. A revolutionary complex of grass roots communist operations is achievable in a limited form in the near term, but we have to do serious preparatory work to build it.

Post script addendum:

A lot of feedback has mentioned various examples of promising initiatives and organisations already existing in the UK. These include IWW, Angry Workers of the World, IWGB, SolFed, UVW, various issue-specific groups, formations like the Womens Strike Assembly and the emerging new models of antifascist organising. I am currently involved in two of these projects myself, and would love to hear of more. I have also written the following article on this subject: https://medium.com/@aralkosig/24-hour-vanguard-party-people-the-organisational-composition-of-the-british-left-232f8371ca00

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