Gene Holland, Nomad Citizenship, Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011).

In their final collaborative book What Is Philosophy? (1994), Deleuze and Guattari codified their project by distinguishing the concerns of philosophy from those of art and science. Art, they argue, concerns itself with the preservation of blocks of sensation; it does so by creating compounds of affects and perceptions. Science, on the other hand, “concerns itself only with states of affairs and their conditions’ and as such “needs only propositions or functions” (1994: 33). Deleuze and Guattari, however, are engaged in philosophy, which they succinctly define as “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts” (1994: 2).

In the 80s and 90s Deleuze studies was, at least in the Anglo-American academy, a marginal even obscure field. Since the turn of the century, however, it has undergone something of an explosion. A special journal was created, Deleuzian conferences have become common, and a seemingly endless list of secondary texts has been published. Yet curiously, despite the clarity of the task set out by Deleuze and Guattari, this flurry of activity contained very little conceptual creation; it has been dominated instead by interpretation and exegesis.

Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship, Free-Market Communism and the Slow Motion General Strike is a welcome departure from this trend. It is certainly a work of Deleuze (and Guattari) scholarship, containing clear and perceptive discussion of their work, but, as the title suggests, the book revolves around three newly fabricated, and apparently paradoxical, concepts. So when Holland digs into the monument built by Deleuze studies he does so only to disinter the Deleuze-Guattarian imperative to create concepts and, most importantly, to revive the ‘utopian’ dimension of conceptual creation that links philosophy with what is outside it. As this book is an explicit work of political philosophy, its outside consists of the social problems of our historical milieu.

The first paradoxical concept, Nomad Citizenship, is for me the least interesting. Deployed by Holland to ward off both the myth of the social contract and the Schmittian distinction between friend and enemy, its paradoxical pairing of nomadology and citizenship is, in a theoretical context at least, not so controversial. Holland explains that “[t]he point of the concept… is to break the State’s monopoly on citizenship and redistribute social belonging among other groups and other scales and forms of group organisation” (xxix). So, what social problem has become intolerable and provoked this concept? I initially assumed that migrant struggles would provide the framing but in fact it seems prompted by the Bush era militarisation of both the State and people’s attachment to it. Why and to whom is this social problem intolerable? On what basis is this selection made?

The same questions can be asked of the second concept in the title, Free-Market Communism, yet this paradoxical pairing is far more unexpected and so potentially more productive. To grasp Holland’s approach we can start with capital’s originating conjunction between stores of liquid, deterritorialised capital and flows of deterritorialised, ‘free’ labour. There are, of course, two faces to the ‘free’ condition of this labour. Workers are freed from the limiting and repressive belief systems of the frozen world of feudalism by the tendency of money and markets to undermine structures of power based on fixed meaning.1 The problem, of course, is that they are also freed from the means of social reproduction and so are forced into the wage slavery of the labour contract. Holland argues that we could regain the liberating aspect of markets if we could do away with capital. He follows Braudel in seeing capital, with its tendency to become concentrated and centralised, as essentially a force of anti-market dynamics. Yet in order to undermine capital we must eliminate one market in particular, the labour market. Abolishing wage labour would make capital’s power evaporate.2

With the removal of this element of compulsion we would, according to Holland, be left with ‘nomad markets’ operating as “self-organizing systems of distributed intelligence and collective decision making” (103). Yet there is little detail on what this would look like in practice. We must make do with a handful of not-entirely-consistent gestures towards an answer. For instance, Holland spends some time arguing that Marx was not hostile to money per se, implying its survival into post-capitalist Free-Markets.3 Yet he also talks of the need to liberate markets from the collective stupidity that arises when the complex social field is reduced to a simple measure of economic price. Indeed he critiques Hayek precisely on his imposition of “a single standard of evaluation from on high” (133).

A weak point in the argument comes with Holland’s acceptance of a Hayekian criterion of efficient information processing for evaluating markets and planning. The flow of information needed to produce an effective central plan, it is argued, will always overwhelm the computational powers of the planner’s central point. A market, which distributes decision-making, will process this information more efficiently. Yet wouldn’t the incredible increase in computing power over the last thirty years alter that calculation and make socialist planning more viable? Indeed Holland argues that contemporary cybernetic systems of high-speed data collection, analysis and pre-emption of desires might, if liberated from the imperatives of capital, allow nomad markets to make even more intelligent decisions. This vision seems closer to 1970s experiments in cybernetic planning, such as Allende’s Cybersyn project, than to the ‘free’ markets of neoliberalism that we know today.4 Rather than efficiency of data processing, surely collective control over the production of desire would be a more useful basis for evaluation.

On this criterion Holland’s approach proves most useful, not least in its opening up of contemporary utopian desires to “scales surpassing the small-scale, face-to-face groups advocated by most anarchist theory” (99). Capitalism is recognised as a drastic simplification of the complexity of life. The expansive potential of desire is crushed beneath the monomania of capital’s own self-expansion. Post-capitalist forms of organisation must be more complex than capitalism, not less. To accept this leads inevitably to the acceptance of abstract, non-human mechanisms of coordination, of which Holland offers markets as an example. Yet this in turn requires more careful thinking about the status and effect of such ‘abstract machines’ than Holland appears to give it here. One way to approach this task is through Marx’s discussion of capital as a real abstraction. Capital is a social relation and as such is entirely abstract, yet its impact on people’s lives, its conditioning of possibilities, is real and concrete. That Holland’s discussion of Marx, his selection of aspects of his work, excludes this conception is I think a failing.

When one reads Deleuze through the complexity sciences, as Holland does here, there is a tendency to focus on the explanatory power of bottom-up processes of emergence. The task of a rigorous materialism, however, is not just to provide an account of a world made of one substance, with no realms, entities or concepts standing above it, but also to explain how in such an imminent world, we find what appear to be transcendent entities. If the problem is, as Foucault (1984: 88-9) says, that, “in political thought and analysis, we still have not cut the head off the king” then we must also account for “how [it is] that this headless body often behaves as if it indeed had a head” (Dean 1994: 156). Abstract machines, such as markets, may be built from bottom-up processes, but the social power that they exercise can solidify until they appear separate from the social field from which they emerge, and further change becomes blocked. Holland’s elision of this problem leads not just to an underestimation of the obstacles to change presented by capital but also to evasion of the questions that seem most apparent when conjoining Free Markets and Communism: How can we stop money turning into capital? How can we prevent the operation of markets resurrecting the compulsion of capital? How can we ward off the re-ignition of capital’s dynamics?

If Nomad Citizenship and Free-Market Communism present a utopian horizon for Holland, then the Slow-Motion General Strike provides a concept for getting there. Building on Walter Benjamin’s conception of the general strike as “a means of disengagement and the avoidance of violence,” Holland advocates a kind of exodus or gradual disentanglement of our lives from capital and the state. The concept of the general strike seeks to displace the hold over our political imaginary exercised by the idea of a punctual and final revolution. Instead a slow-motion general strike would

Seek out actually existing alternative modes of self-provisioning… and also develop new ones; walk away from dependence on capital and the State, one step, one stratum, at a time, while… continually develop[ing] alternative practices and institutions to sustain the movement. (150)

Holland admits that “a slow-motion strike must indeed become-general or reach a critical mass or bifurcation point eventually, but it… doesn’t have to produce wholesale social change all at once” (150).

While a strategy of engaged exodus, with projects of social reproduction autonomous from the State and capital, seems eminently sensible in the current conjuncture, it’s a mistake to oppose this to antagonistic struggle. Indeed autonomy seems an essential step towards enabling such struggle. After all Deleuze and Guattari were keen on paraphrasing George Jackson’s sentiment that we must ‘flee but while fleeing pick up a weapon.’

Indeed the aversion to antagonistic struggle, which risks denying the inherently antagonistic nature of capital, seems oddly out of date given the post-Occupy re-emergence of class as a popular category of interpretation. In fact the book as a whole seems rooted, despite its publication date, in the political problematics of the pre-crisis world. We might ask, for instance, whether this is the best time to try to unearth the utopian moment in Free-Market ideology when the reputation of free markets is at its lowest ebb for forty years. Similarly, how does the concept of the slow-motion general strike fit with the explosive nature of post-crisis social movements, and indeed the resurrection of revolution as an actually existing process? While these problems needn’t be fatal to Holland’s concepts, they do return us to a wider and more intractable problem to which we gestured above: Who decides which problems are most pressing and intolerable?

Cesare Casarino, in an interview with Antonio Negri, raised a pertinent critique of What is Philosophy?:

I would say that in it they do not emphasize nearly enough the fact that philosophy understood as the production of concepts is a necessary element intrinsic to any practice, or, put differently, that any practice involves something like a philosophical moment to the extent that it needs to produce its own concepts in order to function. (Casarino & Negri, 2008: 187)

So, surely it is social movements that decide which social problems have become intolerable. It is precisely through this function that they come into being. If we add to this Casarino’s point that philosophy is not just done by professional philosophers, then the shortcomings in Holland’s admirable and thought-provoking book are not his fault alone. They are a symptom of the contemporary separation of theoretical production from collective action. With the decline of the political party, we urgently need to establish new mechanisms not just to affirm social movements as political philosophy’s outside but also to reinsert the philosophical moment within social movement practice itself.

Reviewed by Keir Milburn
University of Leicester
KM256@leicester.ac.uk

References

Casarino, C. and Negri, A. (2008) In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Dean, Mitchell (1994) Critical and Effective Histories: Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology. London: Routledge.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? London: Verso.

Foucault, M. (1984a) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. London: Peregrine.

Medina, E. (2011) Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Notes

1. “All that is solid melts into air,” in the words of the Communist Manifesto.

2. Just as Nomad Citizenship opposes the false equality of the social contract myth, so Free-Market Communism opposes the false equality of the labour contract.

3. It’s a shame in this respect that Holland doesn’t discuss the development of Bitcoin as an example of nomad money, delinked as it is from any State. Instead we have more well-traveled examples such as Jazz bands and free software.

4. On Cybersyn see Medina 2011.

 

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