The Circulation of Capital, Crisis, Struggle, and the Common
The current moment is one in which both crisis and struggle are beginning to converge in heretofore unforeseen ways across the globe from the Euro-Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East to our very own backyard. New insurgencies spring up, circulate, illuminate, and inspire, but have not yet attained the force necessary to subsume the system that maintains a constant state of economic and ecological crisis. At this critical conjuncture, we must reflect theoretically even while acting practically to develop organizational models that can bring about the transition from capitalism to a society of the common.
My primary area of concern is media and, as such, I give special emphasis to issues of communication. I will pursue my inquiry while maintaining a focus on a broader context that helps us to pose the most crucial questions. What is going on? What is to be done? And who, or what, is going to do it?
To frame these issues, I use Marx’s analysis of the circulation of capital. This analysis occurs, not in Volume I of Capital (the one everybody reads) but in Volume II (the one everyone intends to read). However, while Marx’s theory of the circulation of capital remains important, it is also important to extend his analysis along lines suggested by more recent revolutionary thinkers. This extension includes three other circulations: the circulation of crisis, the circulation of struggle, and the circulation of the common. From these linked theories of circulation, we can begin to derive possible organizational conclusions.
The Circulation of Capital
Marx believed that the cell form of capitalism was the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners. His concept of circulation traces the way commodities are sold for money, which is then used to buy resources to be transformed into more commodities, which are then sold for more money. At the beginning of Capital, Volume II, Marx expresses this cycle using the formula M – C . . . P . . .C’ – M’. In this formula, money (M) is used to purchase commodities (C) like labour, machinery, and raw materials (essentially, the means of production), which are then thrown into production (P) to create new commodities (C’) that are sold for more money (M’). Part of M’ is retained as profit and part of it is used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities; rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. The main point is that the circulation of capital becomes an auto-catalytic, self-generating, boot-strapping process, a “constantly revolving circle” in which “every point is simultaneously a point of departure and a point of return.”1
Within this circuit, Marx identified different kinds of capital: mercantile, industrial, and financial. The transformation of commodities into money (C-M) is the role of merchant capital (think Wal-Mart). The production of commodities by means of commodities (C…P…C’) is conducted by industrial capital (think BP). Finally, the conversion of money capital into productive capital (M-C) is the ostensible task of financial capital (think Goldman Sachs).
This model can be further elaborated by considering labour power and means of production – the workers and raw materials that are worked into the tools, machines, and infrastructure that permit production. One can ask, where do these raw materials come from? Why are they just there, available when capital wants to buy them? As soon as that question is asked, a world of analysis opens up about the reproduction of labour and of materials. This line of inquiry eventually expands into the realm of feminist ecological analysis. Further, by being attentive to circulation, we learn a lot about why media are so important to business: their basic function is to make commodities go round the circuit of capital faster. Media lubricates the circulation of capital through advertising and the production of ephemeral commodities. Speed and connectivity become of paramount importance.
Pursuing lines of inquiry such as these, we can begin to understand that Marx’s little formula is surprisingly rich and can be elaborated in a variety of ways. If we couple the formula with an image of capitalism as a rotating sphere that not only accelerates in velocity but also expands in diameter as it fills more and more ?social and geographic space, we come close to grasping the circulation of capital. This dynamic is the growth mechanism that converts the cell form of the commodity into what Marx termed more “complex and composite” forms. In the end, it becomes an entire capitalist metabolism, a pathway from capital’s molecular level to its molar manifestation.
The Circulation of Crisis
The circulation model not only diagrams capital’s success, but also its breakdown. It can serve as a tool for strategically assessing its crises, its moments of contestation, and its possible ?supercession. The point of the circulation model is that capital can’t always complete its circuit. Things go wrong. Since 2007, things have gone very wrong.
I said that Marx characterized different forms of capital by where they start in the circuit. Industrial capital centres on the moment of production (P); merchant capital is about the trade of commodity (C) for money (M). Finance capital starts by loaning money and going through the circuit of M – C . . . P . . . C’ – M’. What Marx mentioned, but didn’t write about much, was the temptation for finance capital to leap over the middle passage, to short the circuit, and to go directly from M to M’. This is what’s known today as “financialization.”
The origins of financialization can themselves be explained using the circulation model. The process began in the 1970s. Capital faced a crisis of profitability that was caused in part by mass worker power in the factories of its North American and European centres. To overcome these “rigidities,” it started off-shoring and out-sourcing, with the help of innovations in communication and transportation technologies. It moved production to Latin America, Eastern Europe, and – most of all – Asia. Capital rearranged the world so that it could buy labour power and natural resources more cheaply, with less regulation, and with less resistance.
This expansion of circulation’s scope was “globalization.” Despite an unanticipated and inventive opposition – the 1990s anti-globalization movement – the expansion was mainly successful. Practically speaking, it meant that wage rates in the capitalist centre could now be held in check by low wages in the periphery. But this very success caused another problem, since there isn’t enough purchasing power in a low-wage economy for people to buy commodities. In terms of the circuit, capitalist success in lowering the price of labour power (M-C) and controlling production (P) created a problem at the point of sale (C-M’).
Through financialization, capital overcame this problem by using two main instruments: credit and speculation. The extension of credit, whether through cards or mortgages, has two functions. First, it creates consumption; second, through the payment of interest, it forges a new stream of revenue that goes directly from M to M’. Speculation – whether in the form of derivatives or other exotic instruments of fictitious capital – is more complicated; however, in the broadest sense it involves capital betting on the processes of its own circuit. A derivative, for example, is a purchase of the right to buy or sell at a specific time, at a specific price. This basic premise has generated a whole variety of ways to trade on the risk associated with whether or not (and under what conditions) a particular commodity will complete the circuit. In many cases, what is wagered on are the conditions under which money itself will trade. Credit and speculation converged in the notorious sub-prime mortgage bonds, which were packaged and sold because the risk that millions of poor American’s would default on mortgages they couldn’t afford was assumed to be low. And that’s what eventually brought the whole thing down.
Two particularly important points emerge here. The first is about scale. Although Marx wrote about finance capital’s “giddy” attempt to leap from M to M’ in Volume II, and although he wrote in Volume III about the role of credit in the crises of the business cycle, he couldn’t have imagined the magnitude to which this enterprise has grown today. In 2007, the derivatives market was 22 times greater than the GDP of the entire planet. M to M’ is an attempt by capital to by-pass its own circuit; to make money without the messy process of procuring labour and resources, combining them in production, making commodities and getting them to market. Some authors have described the derivatives market as a kind of “meta-capital,” in which capital commodifies its own operations. It becomes a M-M’ over-world. One might envisage it as the circuit curving around itself and spiralling to a higher level. It’s an attempt by capital to jump out of its own skin.
The second point is that the creation of this meta-capital ?depends on digital communication. That’s not to say that financialization is caused by technology; its genesis lay in the low-wage, low-consumption, low-profit crisis of globalization. But electronic communications are the condition of possibility that enable the vertiginous expansion of financial markets. These markets depend upon dedicated, ultrafast global digital networks that use fully or semi-automated trading programs based on the sophisticated risk modelling of the swashbuckling mathematicians and computer scientists known as “quants” for their development of quantative analysis. This algorithmic, high-frequency trading is necessary because of the extreme speeds at which risk-based transactions must be identified and executed. It depends on taking advantage of arbitrage possibilities that exist for fractions of a second. Such speed now requires stock exchanges to build huge aircraft carrier-sized computing facilities next to their main sites because the time lags of satellite uplinks are too long.2 The sophistication of these networks – what some call the “money grid” – is second only to the Pentagon’s communications systems and owes much to ?military research. They are the site for innovations in self-training artificial intelligences. And they have already inflicted their fair share of devastation.
It’s because of these algorithmic, automated, high speed networks that, when the house of cards fell down (the quants’ algorithmic trading models were not so brilliant after all), it fell so hard and its reverberations circulated so fast. The effects of a failure to complete the circuit at one point spread to the next. Defaults on sub-prime mortgages spread to a general credit crisis, then to a crisis of industrial capital, then to governmental bailouts, and finally to the fiscal crisis of the state. Today it takes the form of public service cutbacks and currency wars. The disrupted circuit produced the whole slow motion train wreck we’re seeing now. It’s a wreck in which the carriages piling on top of each other are also falling over the precipice of ecological catastrophe.
The Circulation of Struggle
Circulation need not, however, be restricted to an analysis of capitalist crisis; it can also be a way of thinking about class conflicts and conflicts that generate or are generated by crisis. The concept of a “circulation of struggles” originates with the operaismo (workerist) or autonomist movements of the 1960s and 70s, who had a knack for showing how all of Marx’s ideas about capital were at root ideas about struggle against capital. They saw that conflict at one node of capital’s processes could ricochet through the whole circuit and set off more conflicts. Initially, their focus was on ?linking up strikes at different workplaces; however, in later iterations, the perspective shifted to include the whole social factory. Strikes at the point of production imposed costs that capital tried to recoup by raising prices, which in turn set off social movements against austerity. Subsequent struggles in the home had serious implications for wage struggles since the home was the site of wage labour reproduction, a task carried out largely by unwaged female labour. Each of these flashpoints might ignite others, and each of these might then become connected to one another. This de-centred the classic Marxian focus on the immediate point of production, without relinquishing (and indeed expanding) the concept of anti-capitalist struggle, which became recomposed with broader social dimensions.
Struggles might circulate not simply through knock-on effects, but through examples, and even through communication. Considering the recent past, we see how this idea of a circulation of struggles – either with or without direct reference to its autonomist origins – has been integral to contemporary anti-capitalist movements. The same globalizing expansion of capitalist circulation that produced financialization also gave rise to the anti- or counter- globalization movement, the movement of movements, altermondialisme. Integral to that wave of activism was the idea of a lateral connection between struggles. This connection took place in a variety of ways. The most dramatic were the street-level convergences of anti-summit activism. But behind these lay other forms like the World Social Forum, which first met in Porto Alegre and emphasized the coexistence of different movements: ecological, feminist, Marxist, among others. Digital communication was crucial; it was a movement of electronic fabrics of struggle, of swarms, and of rhizomes. The Internet played a very important role in disseminating the example of the Zapatistas or in spreading the tactics and success stories of summit activism after the Battle of Seattle. This was a circulation of struggles that moved beyond the bounds of the social factory. It was a struggle around what, given the scope of capitalist reach and the resulting depth of our current ecological crisis, we might term the planet factory.
The movement of movements was short lived. From the emergence of the Zapatistas in 1994 until the political chaos of 2001, it lasted six years. In North America, its moment of public fame was far shorter, lasting from the Battle of Seattle to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. But despite its brevity, it reached a high level of confrontation with the state: in 2001, police opened fire on demonstrators in Gothenburg and killed a protester in Genoa. It was also a movement whose very source of strength – its diversity – meant that there were many internal disagreements. These were both tactical and strategic, and included confrontations between social democrats and anti-capitalists, verticalists and horizontalists, and violent and non-violent resistors. These differences were more or less contained by organizational gambits, by an emphasis on coexistence rather ?than unity, and by the acceptance (however begrudging) of a respect for a diversity of tactics. It’s very difficult to tell how (or if) these issues might have been worked through if the movement of movements had had time.
But it didn’t. The immediate cause for the disintegration of counter-globalization activism was 9/11. The destruction of the Twin Towers showed that globalization had generated problems that went deeper than most activists imagined; it had bred an armed, militant, and reactionary counter-force. War dramatically shifted the agenda away from corporate malfeasance; it placed a chill on activism and turned the attention of those who remained on the streets to opposing invasions. The demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 were both the last and, in some ways, the most impressive manifestation of the movement of movements. All the more disillusioning, then, that – in a global sense – they failed.
However, a number of analysts have also suggested that, apart from internal divisions and the effects of war, the counter-globalization movements had other problems, one of which was its reliance on the Internet.3 Enchantment with the fast virtual coordination that made summit demonstrations possible led to a neglect of long-term organizing. The speed of the Internet gave the movement of movements its élan; however, it also made it evanescent. There’s an odd parallelism here. If, by “enabling” it to bypass material production by leaping to ephemeral forms, technology was part of finance capitalism’s failure, the global justice movement similarly tried to short circuit the materiality of struggles. There was more news about struggle than actual struggle. At its worst, the movement became a circuit without nodes.
From about 2003 onward, the movements were in retreat, if not disintegration. By the time of Bush’s re-election in 2004, many activists were despondent, demoralized, and demobilized. Consequently when financial capital started to auto-cannibalize itself in 2007, anti-capitalists were unable to rise to the occasion. If, in the US, capital’s disaster translated into Obama’s electoral win, this was an ambiguous victory at best. In Canada, the flicker of marginally progressive coalitional politics blinked and then went out. The crisis thus exploded at the arcane heights of capitalist command amongst networks that remained indecipherable to their owners, let alone most activists. It didn’t present the same targets as the sitting-duck summits of the WTO. Moreover, the very conditions that produced the financial crisis seemed to incapacitate opposition to it. The implosion of the financial markets wasn’t a crisis ignited by worker militancy. It arose out of globalizing capital’s success in imposing a low wage economy. The system drowned in its own victorious excess. Consequently, the working class was in a very demobilized state when it confronted the near collapse of the system: precariously employed, heavily indebted, and living highly accelerated lives at the breakneck pace set by 24/7 financial networks. After 25 years of neoliberalism, union and social movement organizations have become worn down and have suffered an exhaustion of resources and spirit. Thus at the very moment when it seemed capital might annihilate itself, anti-capitalist networks went silent.
To be sure, there were struggles: the anti-eviction activism of groups like Take Back the Land and Right to the City; the waves of campus occupations, blockades, and walk outs, beginning in California and spreading throughout Europe; worker occupations and blockades in Chicago and Windsor; the events at the G20 meetings in Toronto (which led to Canada’s largest ever mass arrests); the strikes and riots in Athens and Paris. In the late summer of 2010, French transit workers, airport staff, sanitation workers, tourism workers, postal workers, teachers, and students all struck to protest government plans to raise the qualifying ages for retirement and pension. Strikers blockaded oil refineries while secondary school students blockaded their campuses. When police were sent in to break up three fuel blockades, three more sprung up elsewhere almost simultaneously. The uprising had a sort of “boiling over,” cascading pattern and seemed to reflect long-term public resentment toward Sarkozy’s policies. The attacks on pension rights were merely the last straw.
The most dramatic manifestations of this new logic have come from the Arab Spring of 2011. In Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere, seizing urban territory has become the mode of a new resistance. Lacking the factory base of the mass worker, this resistance asserts itself by claiming the metropolitan space of capital’s “world cities” and converting it into sites of active radical democracy. These ardently defended spaces brim with discussion and debate; their example undermines the authority of the ruling classes. At the same time, the very local, terrestrial, street-fighting tactics of such actions have been combined with globe-spanning digital communication. This is difficult to discuss in a balanced way because Western liberal commentators have fetishized the role of social media in such events. From their perspective, it’s as if Facebook was the sole cause of uprisings in countries like Tunisia or Egypt. Needless to say, such an account skims over the role of mass unemployment, rising food prices, and decades of savage authoritarianism. This sort of misrepresentation becomes a backhanded way of vindicating high-tech capitalism, despite the fact that so much about the revolts questions or threatens that trajectory. Focussing on social media activism also has a distinct class bias that favors middle class components at the expense of workers and the poor. Nonetheless, both digital networks and conventional media with well developed digital strategies like Al Jazeera were important to the sequence of social struggles that made up the Arab Spring; while much of the organizing at Tahrir Square was conducted using simple methods like photocopied instructions, the protests also made use of the hacker ingenuity that enabled protestors to circumvent the Egyptian government’s attempted Internet embargo. The “Take the Square” dynamic has now begun to circulate and to inspire other actions like those of the Spanish indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement. This suggests that the world-wide recessionary crisis is now generating distinctive new modes of struggle that combine the capture of urban space with radical assembly and digital communication in new and combative forms of the common.
In North America, these struggles have not yet attained a critical mass. Indeed, in the US and elsewhere, a different dynamic is emerging. Because of the Left’s silence, opposition to corporate power travelled rightward. It became lodged in Tea Parties and militias who denounce big government, bankers, and black presidents in a brew of right-wing populism. This is the dynamic behind the rise of Sarah Palin and Glen Beck and, in Toronto, Rob Ford. Rather than the circulation of struggles, we are seeing their segmentation. The employed are pitted against welfare recipients; the middle-class is led to believe that its adversary is the immigrant, and so on. The momentum is not toward a re-compositionary circulation of struggle, but rather toward a de-compositionary antagonism of struggles. At best, this will likely lead to a restoration of capitalist discipline. But it could quite possibly lead to something worse.
The Circulation of the Common
What prevents struggles from circulating? One reason, surely, is the lack of a compelling and coherent alternative to corporate bailout and the resuscitation of finance capital. The options are limited to either neo-Keynesianism (defined by the mass media as “socialism”) and laissez-faire phantasms of the far Right. The absence of a more compelling alternative brings me to the third circulation, the circulation of the common.
Over the last decade, the broadly anti-capitalist left has advanced many proposals for new forms of social organization. These have included revivals of cooperative ownership in the workplace, basic income schemes, environmental planning and energy conservation, democratic media in the realm of communication, and open source software and creative commons. Many of these ideas can be seen as commons, designating forms of collective ownership. They are distinguished from previous versions of socialism in that they are organized on a lateral basis, rather than vertically by the state. What has been missing, however, is a discussion about how to link up these commons moments and form a systematized alternative to capital. Following the socialist feminist Diane Elson, we might ask: how can we circulate the common?
Let’s allow ourselves a brief utopian moment. If the cellular ?form of capitalism is the commodity (a good produced for ?exchange), the cellular form of society beyond capital might be a common – a good produced to be shared. Exchange presupposes private owners, among whom exchange occurs. Sharing presupposes collectivities – let’s call them “associations” – among whom it occurs. The circuit of the common would trace how these associations organize shared resources in order to create commons that would in turn provide the basis for new associations, which would in turn produce new commons. In a rewritten circulation formula, C would represent not the Commodity but the Commons, and the transformation does not yield Money but Association. The basic formula is therefore: A – C – A’. Just as the circulation of capital subdivides into different types of capital (mercantile, industrial, and financial), we should recognize different moments in the circuit of the common. Let’s call them workplace, ecological, and social commons; each reinforces and enables the others to create a circuit in which common goods and services produced by associations at one point in the circuit provide inputs and resources for ?associations at another.
To be sure, this model is overly schematic and abstract. My major point, however, is that Marx’s model of circulation allows us to look at capital as a system in which different moments are organically connected. In this way, they form an entire social metabolism. It therefore invites us to recognize that the anti-capitalist project demands that we create another metabolism, another sort of circulation. This would be a circulation not of exchange values but of use values. It would function not by means of money and markets but by communal self-organization and collective planning.
This is certainly not the only model for this type of process. Still, I believe it’s crucial for the anti-capitalist Left to articulate this kind of alternative. The importance of such an alternative will only increase as capital’s economic plans pass into the second phase of 21st century crisis – sequential ecosystem collapses catalyzed by chaotic climate change. David Harvey is right when he says that the issue is not whether “another world is possible.” It’s coming, like it or not. The real question is whether another communism is possible.
The attempt to articulate a coherent, non-authoritarian communism must be simultaneous with our search for new organizational forms. These forms must be capable of sustaining the discussions necessary for a long-term program. We have to recompose the nodes of the circulation of struggle so that they can become robust enough to be channels for the circulation of the common. I agree with the Editorial in Issue 11 of Upping the Anti when it asks whether “novel patterns of political affinity, practical activity and leadership – the building blocks of a new ‘we’ – can emerge from the radical Left as it currently exists.” Can we find a new organizational plateau?
It’s very exciting that this search seems to be underway in various experiments with assembly and aggregation. These experiments are emerging from a variety of sources. On the one hand, they are emerging from within older vanguard or trade union traditions that have learned from their passage through horizontalism, often as a result of having met new groups of workers. On the other hand, they are coming from younger activists, who have discovered that the rhizomes weren’t everything they were cracked up to be. Some of these experiments flow from the Latin American Left, where Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil have provided an extraordinarily complex laboratory for new forms of Left organizations. And here we need only to consider the climate justice assembly at Cochabamba. Organizations like the Commune in Britain and Organizing Upgrade in the US are also arousing interest. In Canada, we have seen the emergence of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, which is trying to bridge ideological divides while uniting a fragmented and often antagonistic working class under the banner of directly democratic and multitudinous yet directed and disciplined organization.
Following on the work of Elise Thorburn, I will call these “assembly experiments.” They have a number of features. They are often sectoral or issue-oriented and, for this reason, they are more focused than very broad social forum-type meetings, though they sometimes take place within them. They attempt to create new spaces for people to gather together in person and to create persistence through physical connection, which has been missing as a result of over-reliance on virtual communication. At the same time, they pursue very sophisticated digital communication strategies. Associated with this convergence of factors has been a willingness to rethink the dichotomy between vertical and lateral organizing in favor of more hybrid models. Participants in assembly experiments tend to accept that planning, coherence, resilience, and security require some leadership structures to instill directional movement; however, they also recognize that these have to be accountable to – and take direction from – very open forums.
Several years ago, I was speaking to Rodrigo Nunes – a friend who had been active in the counter-globalization movement – about the problems of summit activism. He said that what anti-capitalism needed was a “networked Leninism.” It’s a provocative phrase; once he uttered it, we spent some time wondering what it might mean – without success. But it stuck with me as a sort of koan, a tantalizing suggestion of the simultaneous need for horizontal self-organization and strategic planning. In the Leninist model, there was the party and there were the cells; the party directed, the cells executed. This model was authoritarian; it led to historical disaster, but it also imparted and relied upon a discipline that was formidable. In the autonomous circulatory model, we got rid of the party: there were just cells that sometimes talked to each other, sometimes not. Learning from both these models today, perhaps there is the possibility of something different. I doubt we can or should call it a party (there is too much atrocity associated with that). We can think of assemblies, and leagues, and convergences. But whatever these forms are called, they would be revolutionary organs assembled from the cells up; however, they would also be more than just the sum of the cells. They would be capable of feeding back to the component groups an amplified, clarified sense of their own purpose, direction, and courage. This sort of assemblage would demand discipline, albeit a very different kind from the Leninist party. If one wants to be old school, this dilemma goes back to Marx in The Communist Manifesto, where, talking about the formation of a workers’ party, he says we need a party, but it can’t really be a party; it is actually just made up of subjectivities in the fronts of a variety of struggles. It’s a non-party party, a ?self-organized organ of distributed directionality. That’s the paradox, I suggest, that we have to reencounter if we are going to oppose the circulation of capital today, if we are going to turn the circulation of crisis into a circulation of struggles, and go on to construct a circulation of the common. For if we are not to join the wreckage left behind by the vortex of capital, then we must ourselves become a whirlwind. H
1 Karl Marx, Capital Volume II, Chapter 4.
2 Scott Patterson (2010). The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It. New York, Crown Business.
3 Jodi Dean (2005) “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics”, Cultural Politics: an International Journal, 1: 1, pp. 51-74.