Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon?

(Part One of Three)

An interview with Peter Harrison by GYRUS.

Peter Harrison’s book The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control is a challenging education in the anthropology of political organisation — from the nature of pre-state societies to the seemingly interminable pitfalls of modern revolutionary movements. I lack Peter’s deep immersion in political theory and activism, but we share a great deal of reference points and areas of interest — especially the work of anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres, and the relevance of indigenous societies to our modern dilemmas. Peter’s insistence in The Freedom of Things on avoiding ‘solutionism’ is a tough sell in these urgent times; but sympathetic internal critiques of leftism seem essential these days, despite (or sometimes because of) the rabid attacks on egalitarian politics from reactionary circles. We conducted this email via interview during late 2017 and early 2018.

‘Marxist anthropology thus seeks from beginning to end to preserve materialist orthodoxy against the heresy of primitive societies.’ – Jean Baudrillard

The Freedom of Things was the first work of yours I’ve encountered. It mentions your previous book, Nihilist Communism (2003), on the back cover. Could you describe that project briefly? ‘Nihilism’, especially, is a word with a lot of scope and potential nuance. How does it intersect with communism for you, and what in the tradition of nihilism do you draw on?

The book, Nihilist Communism, was, of course, a product of its time. It was the result of our involvement in, and observations of, the trajectory towards what has been termed the downturn in class struggle that apparently wended its way through the seventies, eighties and nineties. Very little of it was, in fact, written by me. For us, this trajectory towards, and into, downturn had specific implications for those who claim to advocate class struggle as a means of advancing the ‘revolutionary’ overthrow of things as they are, by which I mean, here, capitalism.

Two problems set us thinking. The first was that whatever one did beyond or before the momentary cessation of work, in the workplace and its wider environment, only helped refine capitalism. The second problem lay in the question of what class consciousness actually was, and how ‘revolutionary’ consciousness might, or might not, be formed.

By nihilism we simply meant not believing in communism. We soon became aware that the title of the book, Nihilist Communism, was difficult and absurd, which then became a good reason to keep it. We had no connection with any ‘tradition of nihilism,’ and so do not draw on anything in that tradition, and we have never described ourselves as nihilists. We have more of a connection with Monty Python. There is no such thing as ‘nihilist communism’. We did not think that communism was a matter of belief, and we thought that it could only emerge at a different level to the one of human consciousness. We perceived the dogma of hope and the required faith of militants that is essential to ‘revolutionary’ praxis as a kind of summoning of a Russell’s Teapot circling the Sun between Earth and Mars.

People such as John Gray (Black Mass) have made much of communism’s inheritance from Christianity. Do you think (as Gray does) that the religious streak in humans is irreducible, to be managed rather than eradicated?

I have not read Black Mass, so cannot comment on that, though I have read his Straw Dogs. I am not engaged in any modern struggle against religion, and am not interested in the atheist debunking of religion, or attempting to manage or eradicate any traits or tendencies within humans.

Religion, as we know it, is a product of, and effect of living within a State. As is utopianism. This is the reason it is possible to see interesting similarities between the chronicle of Christianity and the record of communism — a movement that ended, and must always end, in Stalinism: a consciousness-raising (Jesus said, ‘I initially bring not peace but division’), empire-building, recruiting racket, that culminates, if ‘successful,’ in controlling the state. Jesus is a product of the state, as is Lenin, as is Bakunin, as you and I are.

The only evidence I can find for prophets (people who are ‘revolutionary’ or anti current society) perhaps existing outside states, or just prior, is the example of the karai prophets amongst the Amazonian Tupi-Guarani written up by the anthropologist Pierre Clastres in Archeology of Violence.

But the phenomenon of the karai was founded on pressures on that society (such as population growth and the emergence of powerful chieftains) to form a state.

The karai emerged in a society he describes as changing for the worse, becoming directed by ‘social division’ and ‘inequality.’ The karai saw the way things were as evil and wanted to go to a better world, toward where the sun rises, and they found that their ideas resonated with others. They took ten thousand people with them eastwards at the beginning of the 16th century, and ten years later, unable to traverse the obstacle of the sea, only three hundred were left alive to limp into Spanish occupied Peru. As Clastres elaborates in Society Against the State, however, this prophetic movement, triggered by the imminence of a state forming, ‘managed to carry out the whole [unifying] “program” of the chiefs with a single stroke.’

Do you ever think that ‘giving up hope’ is a luxury that some can’t afford? Or is that a misunderstanding of your rejection of ‘hope’?

My critique of hope is not set within some kind of Stoic framework. No matter what the Stoics and others might say, it is, in my opinion, next to impossible to relinquish hope, or anticipation, or expectancy, in general terms, if one lives in a mass society of complex dependence, as we do, without sinking into absolute despair.

My critique of hope is aimed directly at its use as a dogma within radical left (by this term I mean to include anarchist and left communist) discourse. The radical left sledgehammer of hope serves not only to mirror the logos of progress, which in turn validates civilisation, it also, ironically, destabilises the materialist notion that it is the escalation of productive forces that creates the necessary conditions for communism (which is set within the historical materialist contention from Marx that while people make history, they make it not of their own choosing). The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, unwittingly it would seem, encapsulates this dilemma at the heart of Marxian discourse — its vacillation between materialism and idealism, between materialism and a moral imperative, utilitarianism, and ideology — when he writes that, in order for people to rebel they need to have acquired a ‘basic belief and hope in the future.’ How will they acquire this crucial element needed for the apparent transformation of society? They will acquire it by taking to heart the tenets of progress and civilisation and by allowing their consciousness to be raised, or awoken, by the evangelists of the radical left. The materialism contained in the materialist conception of history (historical materialism) is here abandoned in favour of recruitment, conversion, and building up the numbers of believers. Marx has bequeathed the radical left a contradiction that neither he nor his followers have been able to resolve without descending into vague and mystical articulations and, as I noted above, conjuring up a Russell’s Teapot, to be used as a focus for belief and a truncheon to be used on the doubters, somewhere out there in space.

There is a plethora of books that have come out in recent years that warn readers of our impending doom. But they all begin and end with the perspective that there is hope, that people will be able to find a way out of these global difficulties. These books offer, if not properly thought-out solutions to our malaise at least an indication of the arenas in which solutions may be found or generated. What purpose does an underlying faith that everything will be OK have for these writers? And what effect does it have on their readers? I want someone to write a book in this vein that is not underpinned by faith in the future. I want to hear the author being interviewed on the radio and answering the question: ‘So, do you have any ideas how we can get ourselves out of this mess?’ with, ‘No, I have no idea. My thought is that we are fucked.’ People may find my view here irksome, but if we want people to think for themselves then maybe we should stop doing their thinking for them.

I wrote in my review of The Freedom of Things that your position seemed to be suspended between accelerationism and primitivism. What you’ve said there (the critique of civilisation and progress) obviously pushes things closer to primitivism — though of course, dubious as it is, this is still a ‘solution’, so presumably not something you’re that interested in. I don’t really know Jacques Camatte’s work, but I’m aware that his pessimism about the scope for transforming or overthrowing capitalism led him to become an inspiration for both accelerationism and anarcho-primitivism. Could you say a bit about this odd juxtaposition, about Camatte’s significance, and your relationship to these two divergent currents flowing from his work?

After the elusive Sam Moss, and the text The Impotence of the Revolutionary Group, it was Jacques Camatte who perhaps best exposed the pitfalls of political organisation, the praxis of ‘repressive consciousness’ in regard to the myth of proletarian virtue, and the racket that all political groups become. However, Camatte, despite his departure from Marx, but still following his mentor, Amadeo Bordiga, was unable to eradicate all his magical thinking.

Thus, in 1972, he was able to write, or, better, unable not to write: ‘One awaits the revolution in vain, for it is already underway.’ Which is simply a restating of Marx’s own magical thinking: ‘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 the premises now in existence.’

For this reason, I take the perception of Camatte as a pessimist to be directly related not to pessimism about ‘revolution’ but pessimism about ‘revolutionary’ groups and ‘revolutionary’ evangelism. Camatte endeavours to deflate the self-aggrandising postures of ‘revolutionaries’ and their groups, and for this he is, naturally, to be spurned and dismissed by them. It does not feel nice when someone suggests that what you are doing is meaningless and counter-productive.

The left accelerationists share with Camatte a desire to see the emergence of a human community (don’t we all?), and they have both abandoned the Marxian perspective which states that capitalism will force conditions to such an extent that the proletariat will revolt and save humanity. Camatte still hangs on to the idea of revolt, but claims that it cannot be a revolt of the domesticated proletarians as proletarians, but must be a revolt of the human being against its domestication. Camatte replaces ‘the proletarian’ as the agent of revolution with ‘the human.’

Left accelerationists, if I have understood them correctly, agree with Camatte that capital has ‘domesticated’ human beings, but they disagree with Camatte’s notion that only a total revolt, based not on class, but on a visceral human response to their domestication, will bring about the human community. The accelerationists suggest that the human community can only come about through, not against, capitalism. It will emerge in post-capitalism. It is contended that present-day capitalism is holding back socio-technical advance and that it would be beneficial to have a movement demanding that limits on socio-technical progress should be challenged and removed. This strategy, ironically perhaps, reminds me of the Gramsci-influenced ‘long march through the institutions.’

Anarcho-primitivists, if I understand them correctly — and I presume we are talking about the folk around the journal Fifth Estate? — liked Camatte as filtered through the work of Fredy Perlman and John Zerzan because there was a shared critique of civilisation that differed to Marx’s. Marx effectively insisted that civilisation, and capitalism, was necessary for the accomplishment of global communism. This is despite Marx’s late recognition that the Russian mir system might be a means of skipping the capitalist period of proletarian misfortune. The anarcho-primitivists argued at that time, like good economic determinists, that it was the domestication of plants and animals, which process also served to domesticate humans, that led to the rise of the state.

The anarcho-primitivist ‘programme,’ however, offers nothing else but a continuation of the consciousness-raising racket, and they appear, in my reading, to be as patronising and misguided, or teleological, about the conditions extant within non-state societies as the standard civilizational narrative. ‘Hunter-gatherer’ societies are not ‘egalitarian’ or ‘anarchic.’ These are radical Enlightenment terms and perspectives. Neither do they practice ‘social control.’ Like all ‘anti-statists’ the anarcho-primitivists misunderstand the simplicity of what the state actually is: a necessary managerial solution for a large population.

Therefore, like previous attempts to get rid of the state, they will simply be forced to establish a transitional state and, instead of a red terror, theirs will be an anarcho-primitivist terror. Interestingly, the accelerationists might avoid the extended bloodbath if successful, since by their method we would achieve our humanity in symbiosis with productive machines.

So, yes, I was intrigued that you seemed to position my approach in the book as being somewhere between accelerationism and primitivism.

I think what I was ​getting at by placing you ‘between’ accelerationism and primitivism was less a comparison of positions (since you don’t offer a position in the sense of a programme for action) and more a sense that you share with them a mutual point of departure: the inescapability of capitalism in terms of classic Marxism. Only you seem to linger at and deepen this point, rather than depart at right angles towards an apparently radical new ​position.

Yes, although there appears to be a shared recognition that ‘classic Marxism’ does not offer an escape, my critique of the radical left is made in an attempt to show that these theorists (for example, the accelerationists, or the anarcho-primitivists, as well as all the rest) have not gone deep enough into their own praxis in order to reveal the character of Marxism that they have internalised. This character has immense power because it is the standard civilisational, or statist, discourse, and it is this that prevents them from making a more radical intellectual break. Whether this break, that I indicate the possibility of, has any value, apart from merely serving as an easily-dismissed objection to the continuation of ambiguous, deceitful, and self-defeating theory, is another matter.

For me, now, Marxism is another capitalist, or managerial, project, based, as it is, on the productivist ethos developed within state society in which the difference between humans and other animals — what makes humans apparently special — is the assumption that ‘the human’ is the labouring beast. The radical left (accelerationists, anarcho-primitivists, left communists, anarchists, communisers, etc,) have been unable to critique the productivist ethos effectively, despite all their recent mystical exploration of the value form, since they are, like everyone else, ensnared in an economistic and survivalist view that universalises the motivations of the human being over vast periods of time and through different epochs or social forms. While it is possible to begin to recognise the economistic, survivalist, and productivist essence of our logos (as Max Weber did in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), which apparently informs us of what human beings are, and to then use this recognition to point out myopias across cultural, intellectual, and academic discourse, it is not possible to use this critique (or any critique) to ‘leave this world’ or create another.

Originally published in 2018 by Dreamflesh blog.


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Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: contrahistorical@gmail.com 

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