Wandering Abstraction

By Ray Brassier, 13 February 2014
Image: Albrecht Durer, Melencolia I, 1514

Developing a presentation given at the Accelerationism symposium in Berlin December 2013, Ray Brassier draws upon the divergent theories of 'accelerationism' and 'communisation' whose mutual illumination exposes the problems of articulating cognitive abstraction and social practice


‘Accelerationism’ excites passionate condemnation and equally fervent affirmation.1 Perhaps this is because what is at stake in this ‘Marxist heresy’ is our relation to the future: is communism, understood as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.2 Is the consummation of Enlightenment understood as humanity’s emancipation from its ‘self-incurred tutelage?’3 Or is communism rather the repudiation of an Enlightenment modernity that is nothing but an alibi for the despotism of capital? The version of accelerationism recently proposed by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams affirms the former by reasserting the Enlightenment – and classical Marxist – compact between emancipation and rationality.4 This new, ‘rationalist’ accelerationism is intended as a corrective to the vitalist proclivities of its post-structuralist predecessors, best epitomised by Deleuze & Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, in which political agency was hitched to an Aeolian processes of deterritorialisation and emancipation was propelled by the metaphysics of desiring-production.5 Srnicek and Williams’ attempt to decouple accelerationism from vitalist metaphysics requires distinguishing between epistemic and political acceleration as indexes of conceptual and social abstraction respectively. It is the conjunction of the latter pairing that their proposal seeks to articulate. Thus the issue of abstraction, and of its epistemic, social, and political valences, turns out to be central to their reformulation. Of course, Srnicek and Williams’ suggestion that the feedback between social and conceptual abstraction might play a positive emancipatory role is controversial. So how are we to understand the relation between these two registers of abstraction?



From a Marxist perspective, understanding the link between them, or between knowledge and politics, requires a theory of social abstraction. More precisely, the Marxist account of ‘real abstraction’ would provide the key required for the strategic articulation of cognitive abstraction with social abstraction. But if, as Alfred Sohn-Rethel maintained, the latter asymmetrically determines the former then the reassertion of their symmetry will be summarily dismissed as idealist delusion.6 By the same token, the varieties of representational modeling that, on Srnicek and Williams’ account, are supposed to yield cognitive traction on the abstract dynamics of capital will be disqualified in advance by the claim that such representation is congenitally blind to its own social determination. This demotion of representation follows from the bald claim that capital’s real subsumption of intellectual labour reduces all scientific representation to calculation, aping the abstractions of the value-form. But this in turn invites perplexity as to what exactly distinguishes ‘good’, i.e. cognitively virtuous and politically emancipatory abstraction, from ‘bad’, i.e. cognitively deficient and politically reactionary abstraction.7 How do the abstract categories of the Marxist dialectic – capital, labour, value-form, commodity, circulation, production, etc. – succeed or fail to map contemporary social reality when deployed in competing (and often politically antagonistic) explanations? What theory is fit to recognise ‘the real movement abolishing the present state of things’ in conditions of real subsumption?


I want to broach this question by contrasting accelerationism’s attempt at tracking the ‘real movement’ with that of Jacques Camatte, whose text The Wandering of Humanity is not only contemporaneous with those of classical accelerationism but shares their central premise – labour’s complete integration into capital – while drawing a radically different conclusion.8 Capital’s ‘domestication’ of humanity is to be countered not through the Nietzschean overcoming of the ‘all too human’ (the unleashing of desiring-production, etc.) but through the human community’s complete exit from the ‘community of capital’ enforced under real subsumption.9 Camatte’s analyses in many ways prefigure those of contemporary proponents of communisation. The group Endnotes define communisation as ‘the direct destruction of the self-reproducing relation in which workers as workers – and capital as self-valorising value – are and come to be.’10 But as we shall see, Endnotes reject Camatte’s account of the logic of subsumption as well as his claim that human communities can withdraw from capital’s self-reproducing relation. They argue (rightly, in my view) that there can be no exit from the capital relation because it constitutes us: ‘What we are is, at the deepest level, constituted by this relation, and it is a rupture with the reproduction of what we are that will necessarily form the horizon of our struggles.’11 Thus there can be no secession from the capital relation, only its abolition. Communisation is the name for this abolition-in-process. This is a lucid and compelling thesis. But it is the exact sense in which we are constituted by the capital relation, as well as the link between the cognitive and practical conditions for its abolition, that I would like to examine below. The rationale for doing so is the following: although radically antagonistic, communisation and accelerationism can be usefully contrasted in such a way that each illuminates the other’s blindspot in the articulation of cognitive and social abstraction.


Materialising Abstraction


First a preliminary clarification is necessary. The opposition between the abstract and the concrete is closely connected to the opposition between the universal and the particular.12 These pairs of opposites form a logical grid which allows of four basic permutations: concrete particular and concrete universal, abstract particular and abstract universal. Only the conjunctions of abstract-concrete and universal-particular are ruled out as contradictory. But even this is controversial since Marx speaks of ‘concrete abstractions’, while Alain Badiou has popularised the notion of a ‘universal singularity’. Moreover, many philosophers follow Hegel in defining the ‘concrete’ as that which is relationally embedded, in contradistinction to the ‘abstract’, which is isolated or one-sided. In what follows, the terms ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ do not designate types of entity, such as the perceptible and the imperceptible or the material and immaterial. They are used to characterise the ways in which thinking relates to entities. As Hegel showed, what seems most concrete, particularity or sensible immediacy, is precisely what is most abstract, and what seems most abstract, universality or conceptual mediation, turns out to be most concrete.13


A materialism committed to the reality of abstraction, as Marxism is, must be able to account for this interpenetration of the abstract and the concrete without lapsing into idealism, for which such interpenetration is pre-ordained because reality is ultimately endowed with conceptual structure. The challenge for materialism is to acknowledge the reality of abstraction without conceding to idealism that reality possesses irreducible conceptual form. Thus materialism must be able to explain what constitutes the reality of conceptually formed abstraction without hypostatising that form. The key to the de-reification of abstraction is an account of conceptual form as generated by social practices. This requires distinguishing between practice and labour: all labour involves practice, but not every practice counts as labour. This distinction will turn out to be significant when we consider Endnotes’ account of the relation between labour and capital.


Camatte’s Exit Thesis


Camatte was a close associate of Amadeo Bordiga (co-founder of the Italian Communist Party) and a member of the International Communist Party. In the early 1970s, disenchanted with communist ‘programmatism’, he set out an internal critique of Marx’s ‘productivism’. Marxism, argues Camatte, is ‘the authentic consciousness of the capitalist mode of production’.14 But the onset of real subsumption reduces Marx’s work to ‘historical materialism’, which is


[T]he glorification of the wandering in which humanity has been engaged for more than a century: [the] growth of productive forces as condition sine qua non for liberation. But by definition all quantitative growth takes place in the sphere of the indefinite, the false infinite. Who will measure the ‘size’ of the productive forces to determine whether or not the great day has come? For Marx there was a double and contradictory movement: growth of productive forces and immiseration of proletarians; this was to lead to a revolutionary collision. Put differently, there was a contradiction between the socialization of production and private appropriation.15


The trouble is that the contradictory movement has failed to issue in the longed for revolutionary crisis: the moment of collision between capital and labour appears to have been indefinitely postponed. What has averted the crisis is capital’s ‘run-away’: the fact that ‘it has absorbed the crises and it has successfully provided a social reserve for proletarians.’16 Capital’s run-away development is secured by the onset of its ‘real subsumption’ of labour. What is real subsumption? Marx defines ‘formal subsumption’ as the process in which capital integrates an existing labour process: techniques, markets, means of production, workers, etc. But the development of capital inexorably transforms social relations and modes of labour in accordance with its own requirements. The real subsumption of the labour process occurs once every aspect of the latter has been subordinated to capitalist production, whose end is simply the self-valorisation of value. For Camatte as for many other Marxists, this is the situation we find ourselves in. Writing in the early 1970s, Camatte traces its inception to the end of the Second World War (we will consider below Endnotes’ critique of Camatte’s use of subsumption as a tool of periodisation). Once capital has wholly subsumed labour, Camatte writes


Development in the context of wandering is development in the context of mystification. Marx considered mystification the result of a reversed relation: capital, the product of workers’ activity, appears to be the creator. [But] the mystification is rooted in real events; it is reality in process that mystifies. Something is mystified even through a struggle of the proletariat against capital; the generalized mystification is the triumph of capital. But if, as a consequence of its anthropomorphization, this reality produced by mystification is now the sole reality, then the question has to be put differently. 1) Since the mystification is stable and real, there is no point in waiting for a demystification which would only expose the truth of the previous situation [i.e. the condition of formal subsumption]. 2) Because of capital’s run-away, the mystification appears as reality, and thus the mystification is engulfed and rendered inoperative. We have the despotism of capital.17


The process of valorisation subordinates worker’s activity to the activity of capital. The despotism of real subsumption renders ideology critique redundant (here Camatte arrives via a different route at the same conclusion as his accelerationist contemporaries, Deleuze & Guattari, Lyotard, and Baudrillard). He continues:


The assertion that the mystification is still operative would mean that human beings are able to engage in real relations and are continually mystified. In fact, the mystification was operative once and became reality. It refers to a historical stage completed in the past […] Both the mystifying-mystified reality and as well as the previously mystified reality have to be destroyed. The mystification is only ‘visible’ if one breaks (without illusions about the limitations of this break) with the representations of capital.18


Having installed mystification in place of reality, capitalism now constitutes itself as a ‘material community’ by becoming its own representation. Camatte’s reasoning is frustratingly allusive here but it can be tentatively reconstructed. Under real subsumption, everything produced by human beings, whether manually or intellectually, is mediated by the value-form and hence represented as abstractly equivalent to everything else. Value as general equivalent reduces everything to the value it represents and converts everything into a representation of value. In so doing capital represents itself as the relation through which each thing (i.e. commodity) is represented in its relation to every other thing. All labour is reduced to capital’s own abstract self-valorisation:


Capitalism becomes representation through the following historical movement: exchange value becomes autonomous, human beings are expropriated, human activity is reduced to labour, and labour is reduced to abstract labour […] Capital reconstructs the human being as a function of its process….[Thus] all human activity ‘eternalizes’ capital.19


Camatte then envisages three possible outcomes for the capitalist mode of production:


[1] [The] complete autonomy of capital: a mechanistic utopia where human beings become simple accessories of an automated system, though still retaining an executive role

[2] [The] mutation of the human being, or rather, a change of the species: [the] production of a perfectly programmable being which has lost all the characteristics of the species homo sapiens [these characteristics being, in Camatte’s account, the capacities of ‘creators, producers, users’ rather than mere labourers]

[3] Generalized lunacy: in the place of human beings, and on the basis of their present limitations, capital realizes everything they desire (normal or abnormal), but human beings cannot find themselves and enjoyment continually lies in the future. The human being is carried off in the run-away of capital, and keeps it going.


The upshot of this diagnosis is the claim that the classical Marxist project of unfettering the forces of production from capitalist relations of production is nothing but the self-consciousness (i.e. the mystificatory self-representation) of the capitalist mode of production. Because it failed to foresee the ‘run-away’ of capital, Marxism remains complicit in capital’s own self-valorisation: it lacks the critical resources required to effect a definitive break with capitalism and all its works. Thus Camatte rejects the primacy of production and the concomitant definition of communism as the ‘free association of producers’:


Communism is not a new mode of production; it is the affirmation of a new community [Gemeinwesen]. It is a question of being, of life, if only because there is a fundamental displacement: from generated activity to the living being who produced it. Until now men and women have been alienated by this production. They will not gain mastery over production, but will create new relations among themselves which will determine an entirely different activity.20


While society subordinates generating life to generated activity, community re-establishes the primacy of generating over generated. Shorn of the mystifications of productivism, revolution is simply the overturning of this inverted hierarchy. Through this overturning, communism’s ‘real movement’ constitutes a new form of life. It is inaugurated by a new human community that breaks with existing social structures, thereby facilitating different, if not unprecedented, modes of expressive activity.


There is a straightforward rejoinder to Camatte’s account: his appeal to a human community whose basic expressive modalities remain constant across millennia of social and historical transformation is an abstraction in the most problematic sense. Camatte hypostatises a set of human expressive capacities that persist not only independently of capitalism but of every form of social organisation: ‘creating’, ‘producing’, and ‘using’ are postulated as invariants of human life as such. But attributing these capacities to ‘life’ renders them indeterminate: they are no longer socio-historical or even biological categories but postulates of a speculative anthropology. Moreover, the affirmation of community over society unwittingly echoes a familiar reactionary trope: while community ensures that social roles, values, and beliefs remain firmly rooted in interpersonal relations, society jeopardises these by instituting impersonal roles, formal values, and objective beliefs on the basis of indirect interactions. Here Camatte’s denunciation of the despotism of capital shades into a repudiation of modernity, which becomes a cipher for humanity’s wandering away from its authentic communality.


However, on a planet of seven billion people, the mediation of the interpersonal by the impersonal is not just unavoidable but indispensable. Tethering collectivity to community obstructs the need for a maximally expansive human solidarity. The inclusiveness of the ‘we’ requires some measure of depersonalisation. Impersonality, impartiality, and objectivity are not necessarily pathologies of social alienation; they can be (and have been) positive resources for expanding the horizons of socialisation beyond parochial communitarian limits. It is precisely generic identification with what Marx called ‘species being’, understood not as a biological category but as the capacity for collective self-transformation (beyond self-reproduction), that staves off the divisive identifications of individuality, ethnicity, nationality, etc.21 Communism in Marx’s sense is the materialisation of what would otherwise remain an abstract ideal of humanity. Because it is not anchored in any historical mode of production, the community invoked by Camatte becomes an Archimedean point from which humanity has supposedly been wandering. For Camatte, the onset of real subsumption seems to mark the terminal phase of humanity’s fateful self-estrangement. But there is reason to doubt whether the distinction between formal and real subsumption can be used to characterise distinct successive phases of capitalism’s historical development. Viewed analytically rather than historically, it seems that formal and real subsumption are simultaneous, intertwined aspects of the capital relation. Moreover, Camatte’s insistence that capital has now achieved complete dominion, not just over the sphere of production, but over every aspect of social existence, is equally contentious. This is a point forcefully made by Endnotes:


The labour process in both real and formal subsumption is the immediate production process of capital. Nothing comparable can be said of anything beyond the production process, for it is only production which capital directly claims as its own. While it is true that the valorisation process of capital in its entirety is the unity of the processes of production and circulation, and whilst capital brings about transformations to the world beyond its immediate production process, these transformations by definition cannot be grasped in the same terms as those which occur within that process under real subsumption. Nothing external to the immediate production process actually becomes capital nor, strictly speaking, is subsumed under capital.22


Thus while giving credit to Camatte for having grasped ‘the ontological inversion, the possession of material life by the spirit of capital’,23 Endnotes see in his account of total subsumption ‘the logic which would propel [him] towards a politics involving little more than the abstract assertion of some true human community against a monolithic capitalist totality, and of the need to “leave this world.”’24 Yet although concurring with Camatte that ‘value and capital constitute a forceful, totalising form of socialisation that shapes every aspect of life’ and acknowledging that ‘overcoming [value and capital] demands a radical transformation of every sphere of life’25, Endnotes also recognise that Camatte’s ‘undomesticated’ humanity existing outside the capitalist social relation is the corollary of an ideal rather than the motor of a real movement. The question then is: given the ‘ontological inversion’ through which ‘material life’ itself is now ‘animated’ by capital, who or what are the agents of communisation?


The Paradox of Self-Abolition


Endnotes firmly repudiate the notion that communisation consists in an immediate secession from the capital relation. They formulate what is perhaps the most cogent objection to the ‘exit thesis’. It is addressed not only to Camatte but to groups like Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee:


Instead of theoretical reckoning with the concrete totality that must be overcome in all its determinations, or a reconstruction of the real horizon of the class relation, we get a sundering of the totality into two basic abstractions [i.e. capitalist society and the human community], and a simple set of exhortations and practical prescriptions whose real theoretical function is to bring these abstractions into relation once more.26


It is the very abstractness of humanity’s notional exit from capital that unwittingly guarantees its continuing subsumption by capital. This is the fundamental problem. For Endnotes, the fact that the dialectical antagonism between capital and labour has failed to issue in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist relations of production is not just an unfortunate contingency, the result of missed opportunities. It is an inevitable consequence of the logic of capital accumulation:


As it accumulates, capital both exploits tendentially fewer workers, expelling labour-power from production (both relatively and ultimately absolutely) and it attempts to raise the rate of exploitation among the relatively diminished work force.27


Thus capital’s accumulation of an ever-growing surplus value is accompanied by an ever-growing ‘surplus population’ excluded from the process of production. The proletariat becomes ‘that which is produced by capital without producing capital.’28 The result is the disintegration of the proletariat’s self-identification as producers of capital. It becomes impossible for the working class to affirm itself as such in its antagonism with capital.29 This is why communisation can no longer be conceived as the end result of the workers’ revolutionary seizure of the means of production. It must be reconceived as an intransitive process, an immanent movement which consists in destroying the relation through which capital reproduces labour while labour reproduces capital.30


Thus Endnotes define communisation as an attempt to respond to the following question:


How will the overcoming of the capitalist class relation take place given that it is impossible for the proletariat to affirm itself as a class yet we are still faced with the problem of this relation?31


Their answer to this question sets out what is perhaps the most sophisticated formulation of the communisation thesis and deserves quoting at length:


Communization is a movement at the level of totality, through which that totality is abolished. The logic of the movement that abolishes this totality necessarily differs from that which applies at the level of the concrete individual or group: it should go without saying that no individual or group can overcome the reproduction of the capitalist class relation through their own actions. The determination of an individual act as ‘communizing’ flows only from the overall movement of which it is part, not from the act itself, and it would therefore be wrong to think of the revolution in terms of the sum of already-communizing acts, as if all that was needed was a certain accumulation of such acts to a critical point […] Communization occurs only at the limit of a struggle, in the rift that opens as this struggle meets its limit and is pushed beyond it […] [I]n any actual supersession of the capitalist class relation we ourselves must be overcome; ‘we’ have no ‘position’ apart from the capitalist class relation. What we are is, at the deepest level, constituted by this relation, and it is a rupture with the reproduction of what we are that will necessarily form the horizon of our struggles […] In this period, the ‘we’ of revolution does not affirm itself, does not identify itself positively, because it cannot; it cannot assert itself against the ‘they’ of capital without being confronted by the problem of its own existence – an existence which it will be the nature of the revolution to overcome. There is nothing to affirm in the capitalist class relation; no autonomy, no alternative, no outside, no secession.32


This is a remarkable passage. Since the ‘we’ is constituted by the class relation, the self-overcoming of the ‘we’ is the overcoming of the relation that constitutes it. This is certainly theoretically uncompromising (and admirable because of it). But it is also paradoxical, and its paradoxical character exacerbates its status as a claim that articulates conceptual and social abstraction at an ontological level. The paradox is the following: if ‘we’ are constituted by the class relation that we have to supersede, then the supersession of this relation is also the overcoming of the agent of the supersession, and therefore the cancelling of the supersession and the re-instatement of the ‘we’. Since ‘we’ have no position apart from the class relation, ‘we’ are nothing outside of it. But then the moment of the abolition of this relation is also that of the abolition of its abolition. Can revolutionary agency – which is supposed to track ‘the real movement abolishing the present state of things’ – really be constructed on the basis of such an apparently disabling paradox? If the answer is affirmative, we need to clarify the precise sense in which Endnotes’ articulation of conceptual and social abstraction has an ontological purchase.33


The articulation is ontological because the abstractions of capitalism are real: in subsuming labour, the value-form logicises the social practices through which human beings reproduce themselves and capital:


That which on one level is merely contingent relative to the logic of capital accumulation – the material and spiritual interactions betweens humans and between humans and nature – is itself logicised – i.e. brought under the logic of the capital-form of value – as a result of the subsumption of labour under capital, and of the self-reproduction of the relation of reciprocal implication between capital and proletariat.34


This logicisation of social reality explains why there can be a contradiction between what human beings think and do in relating to themselves, or what they think and do in reproducing capital. But this logicisation by the value-form is not absolute: it applies to human activities and practices only insofar as they constitute labour. These activities and practices persist within the capital relation as phenomena that it has incorporated but not wholly absorbed. They are not wholly absorbed because they constitute the process through which capital absorbs labour. Capital’s self-reproduction is constituted by phenomena that it cannot reproduce, even as it reproduces the labour which in turn reproduces it. Thus capital’s logicisation of reality is itself conditioned by that reality; this is the bulwark against absolute idealism, which would hypostatise capital as a wholly autonomous, self-moving subject (a causa sui or self-causing being) floating free of material reality altogether:


Without human relations and practices which subsist in the ‘mode of being denied’ through the perverted, fetishistic form of economic categories, there could be no economic categories: no value, no commodities, money or capital. This does not mean, however, that labour should be understood as somehow constitutive of the entire process; nor should it be understood as primary. The fetish-forms of capital are properly understood and criticised as self-moving, perverted forms of social practice.35


Thus ‘capital is nothing other than a perverted form of human social relations.’36 But it is ‘human relations and practices’, rather than labour, which generate the real abstractions of capital. From the perspective of the systematic dialectic espoused by Endnotes, labour is always already inscribed within the value-form as its ‘posited presupposition’.37 While capital posits the labour that provides its substance (i.e. its presupposition), this positing itself is ultimately constituted through the extraordinarily complex set of human practices without which capital’s self-valorisation could not be. Value’s subsumption of labour as ‘posited presupposition’ also presupposes something that it does not posit: spontaneous human activity. As Endnotes themselves make clear, the spontaneity invoked here should be understood in the Kantian sense, as the determination of sensation exercised by the human mind in the act of thinking. Kant attributed this spontaneity to what he called ‘pure apperception’:


In the eighteenth century, when Kant described the transcendental unity of apperception – the fact that I am aware of myself as having my own experiences – he called this a spontaneous act. Kant meant the opposite of something natural. A spontaneous act is one that is freely undertaken. In fact, the word spontaneous derives from the Latin sponte, meaning ‘of one’s own accord, freely, willingly’. In this sense, spontaneity is not about acting compulsively or automatically. It is a matter of acting without external constraint.38


Spontaneity in Kant’s transcendental, as opposed to empirical sense, is the ultimate source of human freedom. It seems plausible to suggest that Endnotes need recourse to freedom in this transcendental sense in order to stave off the paradox of self-abolition by grounding the possibility of human agency in a source that is independent of the class relation. As the ultimate wellspring of human activity, this transcendental (as opposed to empirical) spontaneity may be construed as what constitutes the class relation independently of the class relation’s constitution of the ‘we’. The paradox is then defused because the agent of the abolition is distinct from the abolished agent. But in opposing spontaneity to compulsion, Endnotes risk resuscitating a transcendental voluntarism, in which the human will functions as a mysterious, not to say supernatural, unmoved mover, impervious to external determination. This is the familiar and much pilloried caricature of Kant. There is a better, more dialectical reading of him, which understands the freedom exercised in the spontaneity of apperception as resulting from the will’s embrace of an intersubjectively instituted rule, rather than a wholly un-determined eruption ex nihilo. Freedom in this sense is not simply the absence of external determination but the agent’s rational self-determination in and through its espousal of a universally applicable rule.39


In this regard, nominalism can be deployed as a weapon of materialist analysis that demystifies the idealist hypostatisation of abstraction. In Wilfrid Sellars’ metalinguistic version of nominalism, which is perhaps the most sophisticated elaboration of the thesis yet devised, reference to abstract entities is explained as material mode metalinguistic discourse about linguistic functioning, while this functioning is in turn identified with patterns of linguistic tokenings.40 What is especially valuable about Sellars’ analysis from a materialist viewpoint is that it treats abstract entities as hypostatised linguistic functions. It shows how conceptual form is anchored in linguistic function and grounds linguistic function in social practice. Of course, Sellars’ account stops short of explaining the nature of the linkage between linguistic function and social practice. He has no theory of the latter. But his work has the signal merit of telling us what abstract entities really are. This is an important step towards explaining how capital’s apparently self-moving abstractions are in fact motored by the activities and practices of human beings.


The Impossible Relation


But while it is one thing to reveal that the reality of abstraction is rooted in human practice, it is another thing to explain how and which practice can be deployed to release us from the grip of the abstractions to which it has subjected us. Even if one grants that the abstractions of capital are generated through human practices, how are these practices supposed to constitute a communising agency? Endnotes propose an answer of sorts in another remarkable passage that delves deeper still in its attempt to define the relation between communist theory and capitalist reality:


Communist theory sets out not from the false position of some voluntarist subject, but from the posited supersession of the totality of forms which are implicated in the reproduction of this subject. As merely posited, this supersession is necessarily abstract, but it is only through this basic abstraction that theory takes as its content the determinate forms which are to be superseded; forms which stand out in their determinacy precisely because their dissolution has been posited.41


These ‘determinate forms’ are the real abstractions of capitalism: the commodity-form, the money-form, the value-form, the labour-form, the production-form, etc. The passage continues:


This positing is not only a matter of methodology, or some kind of necessary postulate of reason, for the supersession of the capitalist class relation is not a mere theoretical construct.


It is not a ‘mere theoretical construct’ but nor is it some objective or ‘given’ datum, for it is something towards which theory orients itself, rather than something it statically contemplates. Thus this posited supersession is something that


[R]uns ahead of thought, being posited incessantly by this [capitalist class] relation itself; it is its very horizon as an antagonism, the real negative presence which it [communist theory] bears. Communist theory is produced by – and necessarily thinks within – this antagonistic relation; it is thought of the class relation, and it grasps itself as such. It attempts to conceptually reconstruct the totality which is its ground, in the light of the already-posited supersession of this totality, and to draw out the supersession as it presents itself here. Since it is a relation which has no ideal ‘homeostatic’ state, but one which is always beyond itself, with capital facing the problem of labour at every turn – even in its victories – the adequate thought of this relation is not of some equilibrium state, or some smoothly self-positing totality; it is of a fundamentally impossible relation, something that is only insofar as it is ceasing to be; an internally unstable, antagonistic relation. Communist theory thus has no need of an external, Archimedean point from which to take the measure of its object, and communization has no need of a transcendent standpoint of ‘withdrawal’ or ‘secession’ from which to launch its ‘attack’.42


Endnotes’ various writings certainly provide an eminently plausible conceptual reconstruction of the totality which is the ground of the class relation, and hence of communist theorising. And it is clear from their analyses of capital’s ‘moving contradiction’ how this relation is self-undermining: ‘the relation of exploitation corrodes its own foundation, as that which is exploited – labour-power – is tendentially expelled from the production process with the development of the productivity of social labour.’43 Thus the thought that is ‘adequate’ to the class relation (i.e. the relation of exploitation) is the thought of a ‘fundamentally impossible relation’, which is ‘only insofar as it is ceasing to be’.


That only the thought of an impossible relation can render theory adequate to its object is the index of the torsion that is supposed to bind theoretical abstraction to the reality of social abstraction independently of the representational recourse to an objective correspondence relation (which would require ‘an external, Archimedean point from which to take the measure of its object’). No doubt, this impossible relation is supposed to mark communist theory’s immanence to revolutionary practice: any subordination of practice to theory (or vice versa) would threaten to reintroduce the transcendence of an external, Archimedean point, which is to say, a representation. But it seems that what prevents communist theory’s adequation to the class relation from fissioning into a relation to this impossible relation, which is to say, a theoretical representation of reality, and ultimately, a program, is its immediate consummation as self-proclaimed revolutionary activity: an activity that guarantees its own traction upon the capitalist class relation simply by engaging in the struggle to destroy it. There is a laudable consistency here. By taking the ‘posited supersession’ of the capitalist totality as its starting point, communist theorising secures its traction upon the antagonism constitutive of social reality. But the danger remains that this posited supersession of totality will substitute for its actual supersession not in spite of but precisely because it refuses its theoretical construction.


Repurposing and Social Form


By abjuring such construction as a representational intrusion compromising thought’s adequation to the class relation, communist theory secures its grip on the ‘real movement’ which communism is, but at the risk of eliding real movement with the movement of ideas. Thus, as Endnotes themselves make clear:


Communization […] has little positive advice to give us about particular, immediate practice in the here and now […] What advice it can give is primarily negative: the social forms implicated in the reproduction of the capitalist class relation will not be instruments of the revolution, since they are part of that which is to be abolished.44


The question then is: how are we to identify those social forms that are not implicated in the reproduction of the class relation? The distinction between compulsive labour and spontaneous practice is required not only to stave off the paradox of self-cancellation, but also to distinguish between those activities programmed to reproduce the class relation and those capable of interrupting this reproduction. But the spontaneity whose exercise is the prerequisite for the destruction of the class relation will also generate new abstractions together with new forms of mediation. What is required is an understanding of social practices that would allow us to begin distinguishing between oppressive and emancipatory forms of mediation.


This is what we currently lack. In the meantime, must we abjure every existing instrument, technique, or method enveloped by capitalist social forms? No doubt, it is relatively easy to identify those modes of contemporary information technology whose stupefying, anti-social consequences render worthy of abolition. But there are other technologies that are perhaps not so easily abolished. Consider antivirals. Every aspect of their development is implicated in capitalist institutions and enveloped by its social forms. Does this mean antivirals are intrinsically capitalist and hence ought to play no role in a post-capitalist society? A negative response recommends itself here: while technological function is socially mediated and enveloped by the value form, this need not be a saturated mediation: it need not exhaust the functional potentialities of the technology in question. Some might retort that talk of repurposing is a distraction at best, an alibi for reformism at worst, because the development of antivirals (like every other contemporary technology) is necessarily linked to that of capitalist social relations, the proliferation of lethal viruses being a direct consequence of industrialised livestock production and globalisation.45 Were it not for these two factors, the objection goes, we would not be so susceptible to increasing varieties of pathogens and human welfare would not be mortgaged to the development of antivirals. The dismantling of capitalism, according to this line of argument, would radically diminish if not wholly eliminate our increasing dependence on antivirals as well as other technological artefacts.


Now, it is undoubtedly true that there is a direct correlation between the proliferation of life-threatening viruses and the conditions of globalised capitalist society. It may also be true that dismantling the latter is the surest means of eradicating the former. And there is no doubt that the redistribution of antivirals on the basis of need rather than wealth is a more pressing political concern than speculating on their role in post-capitalist society. Nevertheless, the urgency of the former does not obviate the importance of the latter. The absolute or indeterminate negation of capitalist society and all its works would eradicate the pathologies generated by capitalism only at the cost of cancelling the emancipatory potentials latent in technologies whose functioning is currently subordinated to capital. The abstract negation of functional context is also the negation of emancipatory possibilities whose release depends upon the re-contextualisation of function. Such abstraction in-determines instead of determining the fusion of cognitive and practical orientation required for the realisation of communism. It abolishes the capitalist present at the cost of cancelling the post-capitalist future locked up within it. Foreclosing the future, blinkered negation cannot but wish to re-instate the past. It becomes the longing for a previous state of things: ‘If only we hadn’t domesticated animals and started down the road to industrialised agriculture; if only we didn’t live in a massively interconnected global society…’ And ultimately: ‘If only capitalism hadn’t happened.’


But Marx’s starting point is the acknowledgement that capitalism has happened, and given this premise, his fundamental question is: how can we move beyond capitalism without regressing to pre-capitalist social formations, such as agrarian feudalism? The problem of repurposing cannot be circumvented by wishing capitalism had never happened. History suggests that there are things worse than the value form. A suitably abstract conception of function will allow for its transplantation, and where necessary, repurposing, across social contexts. It goes without saying that this should only be envisaged as a consequence of overcoming the capital relation, not a substitute for this overcoming. More generally, determination is not constitution. We have to find a way to articulate theoretical and social abstraction that does not involve the complete or indiscriminate relinquishment of the achievements of capitalist modernity en bloc.




The issue of the realisation of function is crucial for clarifying the relation between conceptual and real abstraction. Communisation short-circuits conceptual abstraction and social abstraction in an insurrectionary praxis whose fixation on totality prevents it from formulating criteria for distinguishing between progressive and regressive social forms. Perhaps the real import of the accelerationism defended by Srnicek and Williams is as an intervention into the politics of abstraction.46 They argue that the representation of abstraction is not only unavoidable but necessary in order to mount an epistemic and political challenge to capitalism. But the fact that such representation is necessary does not guarantee that it is possible to align epistemic and political acceleration, or more basically, that it will be possible to align theoretical explanation with emancipatory activity. Doing so requires the social realisation of cognition, which is what communisation’s focus on totality acknowledges even if it arguably prevents it from achieving it. Without a theory of the totality that articulates explanatory rationality with emancipatory causality, it becomes difficult to understand the conditions under which epistemic practices might be realised. This is arguably accelerationism’s chief lacuna. What is required is an account of the link between the conceptual and the social at the level of practice, which is to say, an account of the way in which cognitive function supervenes on social practices. This is what neither accelerationism nor communisation currently provide.




This text was developed from a presentation given at Accelerationism: A symposium on tendencies in capitalism, Berlin, 14 December 2013, The author would like to thank Anthony Iles for his valuable critical feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.



Ray Brassier teaches philosophy at the American University of Beirut. Recent publications include: ‘That Which is Not: Philosophy as Entwinement of Truth and Negativity’ in Stasis, No.1, 2013. 'Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology’ in Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications, B. Bashour and H. Muller (eds.), London and New York: Routledge, 2013. ‘The Reality of Abstraction’ in Laruelle and Non-Philosophy, J.Mullarkey and A.P. Smith (eds.), Edinburgh University Press, 2012. ‘Lived Experience and the Myth of the Given’, Filozofski Vestnik, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, 2011




1 The term ‘accelerationism’ was coined by Benjamin Noys in his book The Persistence of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press 2010). See especially pp.5-8.

2 Marx and Engels, The German Ideology in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, Ed. Robert C. Tucker, W.W. Norton and Company, p.162.

3 This is Kant’s formulation in ‘What is Enlightenment’ (1784) and one which I believe is concretised rather than jettisoned by Marx through Hegel. Humanity’s emancipation from superhuman authority, whether natural or divine, is the condition of human freedom, which Kant also calls ‘autonomy’. Autonomy should not to be confused with independence: one can be autonomous yet still dependent. The ‘humanity’ affirmed here is characterised by its capacity for self-transformation, not its biological attributes. Rationality understood as a social practice is central to this capacity for self-transformation. To say that rational beings should not recognise any non-rational authority (because the latter would be a force, not an authority) does not mean that rational beings should ignore or disregard everything non-rational. Rational animals ignore their animality at their peril.

4 See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, I am also drawing on two as yet unpublished texts: Nick Srnicek, ‘Accelerationism: Epistemic, Economic, Political’ (2013) and Alex Williams, ‘The Politics of Abstraction’ (2013).

5 Anti-Oedipus contains the locus classicus of accelerationism: ‘But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World Countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go further still, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialisation? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialised enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process”, as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, London: Athlone, pp.239-40.

6 Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977). For an illuminating discussion of Sohn-Rethel’s contemporary relevance, see Alberto Toscano ‘The Culture of Abstraction’ in Theory, Culture and Society, 25(4) 2008, pp.57-75, and ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction’ in Rethinking Marxism, 20(2) 2008, pp.273-287.

7 Unless of course one insists that abstraction per se is bad: a move whose debilitating consequences for thought hardly need spelling out.

8 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’anti-Oedipe, Paris: Minuit, 1972; Jean-François Lyotard Des dispositifs pulsionels, Paris: Union Générale D’Éditions 1973 and Économie libidinale, Paris: Minuit, 1974, Jean Baudrillard Le mirroir de la production, Tournai: Casterman, 1973, L’Échange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard 1976). The English edition of Camatte’s The Wandering of Humanity, Detroit: Black & Red, 1975, comprises two texts originally published (in French) in the journal Invariance in 1973.

9 Camatte uses the German word Gemeinwesen, which can be translated as ‘community’ or ‘commonwealth’, and seems to intend a contrast between (human) community and (capitalist) society or Gesellschaft. This distinction originates in the work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936). See his Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Leipzig: Fues's Verlag 1887), translated by Charles Price Loomis as Community and Society (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press 1957). The distinction was also taken up by Max Weber in Economy and Society (1921), translated and edited by Guenter Roth and Claus Wittich, University of California Press 1978.

10 Endnotes, ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

11 Endnotes, ‘What Are We to Do?’ in Communization and its Discontents, edited by Benjamin Noys, New York: Minor Compositions, 2011, p.31

12 Traditionally, particulars are ultimate subjects of predication, uninstantiable, and spatiotemporal, whereas universals are predicated, multiply instantiable, and hence non-spatiotemporal.

13 I elaborate on this point in ‘Lived Experience and the Myth of the Given’ Filozofski Vestnik, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, 2011.

14 Camatte, op.cit., 1975, p.22

15 Ibid., p.23.

16 Ibid., p.23.

17 Ibid., p.24.

18 Ibid., p.24.

19 Ibid., pp.6-7.

20 Ibid., p.36.

21 For a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the idea of ‘generic humanity’ see Nina Power ‘Badiou and Feuerbach: What is Generic Humanity?’ Subject Matters: A Journal of Communication and the Self, Vol. 2, no. 1, 2005.

22 Endnotes ‘The History of Subsumption’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

23 Endnotes ‘Communisation and Value-Form Theory’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

24 Ibid. This is a reference to Camatte’s This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, ed. Alex Trotter (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1995).

25 Endnotes, ibid.

26 Endnotes, ‘What Are We to Do?’ in Communization and its Discontents, op.cit., p.33.

27 Endnotes ‘The Moving Contradiction’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

28 Endnotes ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

29 ‘As that part of the global population diminishes whose reproduction is mediated through the exchange of productive labour for the wage, the wage form as the key mediation in social reproduction may appear increasingly tenuous. With these shifting conditions, the horizon of the class relation, and the struggles in which this horizon presents itself, must inevitably change. In this context, the old projects of a programmatic workers’ movement become obsolete: their world was one of an expanding industrial workforce in which the wage appeared as the fundamental link in the chain of social reproduction, at the centre of the double moulinet where capital and proletariat meet, and in which a certain mutuality of wage demands – an ‘if you want this of me, I demand this of you’ – could dominate the horizon of class struggle. But with the growth of surplus populations, this very mutuality is put into question, and the wage form is thereby decentred as a locus of contestation. Tendentially, the proletariat does not confront capital at the centre of the double moulinet, but relates to it as an increasingly external force, whilst capital runs into its own problems of valorisation.’ Endnotes ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

30 For a critical discussion of the ‘intransitivity’ of communisation, see Alberto Toscano ‘Now and Never’ in Communization and its Discontents, op.cit., pp.85-101.

31 Endnotes, ‘What Are We to Do?’ in Communization and its Discontents, op.cit., 2011, p.29.

32 Ibid., p.31.

33 The claim that contradiction is obviously an ontological category, and that we have known this since Hegel, is problematic because it assumes that Hegel is a metaphysician who believes in real contradictions; a claim that much recent Hegel scholarship has been at pains to challenge. It is propositions (or judgements) that contradict one another, not things. Since contradiction is an intra-conceptual relation, the thesis of real contradictions seems to commit one to the sort of metaphysical idealism which insists that reality has propositional form. This is an assumption materialists should not be prepared to accept. The more plausible materialist construal of Hegel’s claim is that contradictions are true, not that they are constitutive of ‘reality’, whatever that might mean. This is an ongoing controversy, but the seminal text is Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Pippin’s reading has been vigorously contested, but it has undeniably reinvigorated Hegel scholarship by challenging traditional metaphysical interpretations of ‘absolute idealism’. Robert Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel also rebuts the metaphysical reading: see A Spirit of Trust: A Semantic Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, available at

34 Endnotes ‘The Moving Contradiction’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid. See also Endnotes ‘Communisation and Value Form Theory’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

38 Endnotes, ‘Spontaneity, Mediation, Rupture’ in Endnotes III: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes,

39 Thus rather than opposing spontaneity to compulsion and freedom to necessity, it is dialectically preferable to understand spontaneity as the will’s compulsion in and by a rule, rather than as the refusal of compulsion by an obscurely sovereign, un-determinable will. Transcendental spontaneity is rational self-determination as the internalisation of conceptual constraint. In this sense, spontaneity is thinking and it is thinking as a kind of doing, rather than as contemplation – which is the source of the human activities and practices that constitute the abstractions of capital.

40 I give a more detailed account of the ontological consequences of Sellars’ metalinguistic nominalism in ‘Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology’ in Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications, edited by Bana Bashour and Hans Muller, London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

41 Ibid., p.34

42 Ibid., p.34

43 Endnotes. ‘The Moving Contradiction’ in Endnotes II: Misery and the Value Form,

44 Ibid., p.28.

45 I owe this objection to Benjamin Noys.

46 As well as being the title of an unpublished paper by Alex Williams, this is also the title of a paper by Matteo Pasquinelli (, and of Alberto Toscano’s contribution to The Idea of Communism volume (Verso 2010).