By Josephine Berry Slater, 8 December 2009

Throughout history, parallels have been drawn between human society and the species traits of bees - and this issue of Mute is no exception. As you might guess, bees have been used to produce diametrically opposed readings of human society. Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1705) famously used the metaphor of the hive to elaborate his idea that individualism and self-interest form the basis of collective prosperity and well-being (‘Their Crimes conspired to make 'em Great'); and Rudolf Steiner's lectures on Bees (given in the 1920s) explored both the impact of industrialised production on bees themselves and their own reproductive crisis, as well as using them as a model of existence based on co-operation and collaboration. Strikingly, for Steiner, it is the centralisation of the colony's reproductive activity in the single queen that liberates the worker bees from sexuality, and transforms desire into productive activity. ‘In many ways the bees renounce love and thereby this love develops within the entire beehive.' Whether seen as the ultimate capitalists, Buddhists or communards, bees elicit fantasies and fears of social productivity and crisis by turns.

This issue is not really about bees of course, but the ‘colony collapse disorder' which is currently threatening the global bee population (in ways accurately predicted by Steiner in the 1920s) works as a stark metaphor for the crisis of reproduction that is currently afflicting human society as it is currently configured; one of Mute's perennial concerns. It is in Gifford Hartman's article on California's Central Valley (p.20) and its multiple social and ecological crises that this term emerges. He discusses how boxed bees are imported from China, awoken out of their winter hibernation in the California summer, and set to work pollinating the world's largest almond plantations. Migrant labour extends into the animal kingdom too it seems. These methods reveal how organisms are fantasised to be as pliable and mutable as the information flows that order the global trade that necessitates their (mis)use. But our fate is tied up with that of the bees not just in the way that we are all objectified and subjected to the machinations of industrialised capitalism, but quite literally, because bees pollinate our food-producing crops. A collapse in the bee population, then, would be fatal for humans. We are two deeply interlinked species.

In his article on communisation (p.50), John Cunningham considers the often paradoxical theory/praxis of left communist groups who have abandoned any notion of organised revolution in favour of revolutionary activity in the here and now; one which challenges alienated social relations largely through the act of sharing and making things in common. Here again, though, the plight of the bees amidst a wider context of industrialisation and eco-crisis could be used to question the ultra-left logic of producing small pockets of non-alienation within a sea of alienated social relations; communality provides little shelter from a wider system based on non-stop capital accumulation.

Indeed an audience member (Mike) at a recent (Mute-co-organised) talk by John Holloway made a similar point about the impossibility of sustaining such pockets after hearing his description of a sort of variant communisation. Holloway didn't use this term, but described an invisible, micro-political practice of resistance ‘within, against and beyond' capitalism based, in part, on ‘concrete labour' rather than ‘abstract labour' - or, the production of things according to need not the amassing of exchange value. Mike countered that this form of autonomous production (in squats, amongst activists and radicals etc.) often led to a kind of exclusion from the wealth of social production (you can't afford to buy commodities like other people), an elitism (you only circulate these goods amongst like-minded people), and poverty. For autonomous communities, then, these problems can lead to colony collapse - an inability to sustain their collective life.

When things can't be worked out in our own lives and by such immediate activity, fiction offers a space in which to propagate ideas without the need for resolution or even sobriety. The stories gathered in this issue - by Hari Kunzru, Laura Oldfield Ford and Benedict Seymour - respond to the invitation to imagine the ‘post-crunch future', and all pursue a doomy and often darkly comical trajectory. You could surmise that, without the obligation to ‘be constructive', writing fiction can give vent to our most paranoid, intuitive and sadistic feelings that are summoned by external reality. Feelings we ordinarily repress in order to stay members of the hive. In each fictional scenario, as you can probably guess, the colony has collapsed! But far from offering a kind of ground zero out of which a new society is constructed, dislocated fragments of our current life-world are disconcertingly magnified, extrapolating their inherent logic.

In a related act of magnification, the photographs of Max Reeves - both featured on the cover and in his artist's project - catch London off guard as it unwittingly reveals its underlying tensions. Uncanny alignments, temporary geometries, and conjunctions of the grotesque and the transcendent frame a sort of automatic, photographic writing. London, that ‘World Class City', is a den of hypocrites, a place of ‘convulsive beauty', a space of mental anguish, blocked lines of flight, faltering codes. Our eye-line to the sky is repeatedly barred by the advertising images, spires and spikes of security fences - but, conversely, through the lattice of CCTV cameras and concrete, Buddleia bursts forth affirming life.

The collection of articles, stories and images in this issue can be seen as actively disordering colony collapse, whereby our destabilised social and ecological environments are not dispassionately reported upon, but insistently reordered in the pursuit of a hive better suited to our species needs.

Josephine Berry Slater <josie AT> is Editor of Mute