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Abolitionist Blues: For the Revolutionary and The Disillusioned

"What if, instead of trying to escape death, we stayed in it?" asks Lukas Ziel while reflecting on their disillusionment with traditional Marxist ideas of societal change. In this contribution, the author explores alternative forms of collective existence, drawing from the Black Radical Tradition.


Image: Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (1920)

 

How do we live? I keep asking myself that, rather senselessly, letting it linger like smoke trapped in apartment walls, hoping they will answer me. They don’t reply, as usual. In the sullen silence the world rips apart at the seams, held together only by the passion of a very few people, as James Baldwin has put it.


Our communities are exhausted against this magnitude of despair. I’m trying to find my place in the black radical tradition, trying to find a non-place of study where we can plan towards liberation. Some Black Panther type shit. Where do we go, departing from our legacies and histories? Striving towards abolition, let me take you on a brief excursion into Marxist thought before I return to my initial question.


I have long been wary of the sentiment within Marxist theory of history, of the immanent fall of capitalism – a determined inevitability. That - demanded by the winds of history - capitalism will, no must, collapse, an image vividly painted by Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1980). The philosophers would call it teleological. To quote in some length thesis IX:


A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

 

The angel of history is propelled incessantly towards progress, looking towards the wreckage of the past towards a future he cannot see. There is no rest, only movement, only ever forward, in the linearity of time with no way of return. In this we, as propelled as the actors of history in the storm of progress, are moved towards the end goal of socialism. In simplified and slightly polemic terms, Marxist thought proposes a stage theory of history, moving from feudal, over early capitalism to late capitalism, and at long last to socialism.


Class consciousness, in classical Marxism, often demands an integration into the work force as part of revolutionary struggle where feudal peasants had to be transformed into the proletariat by entering the capitalist relation of labour. Marxist feminist Silvia Federici argues similarly in Wages Against Housework (1974), stating that from a political perspective, wages for housework is “the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint” (p.75). This is not because women being paid for doing housework would make the task itself any less dreadful or exhausting, far from it. But rather because it would be a recognition that housework is work and produces value, symbolised by the wage. As she puts it: “But the wage at least recognizes that you are a worker, and you can bargain and struggle around and against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and the quantity of that work.” (p.76). And so, women’s domestic labour must become transformed into capitalist work to allow for an engagement in class struggle.

 

The Marxist conception of history is teleological, it views the causality of history as a function of its end, of the final stage of history. To a degree, it presumes to know the end of history as socialism, achieved through entering into class struggle and developing class consciousness. The Marxist revolutionary subject knows the future and acts according to it.


One of my favourite writers, Ted Chiang, in his short story Stories of Your Life poses a question on a similar premise, on what knowing the future would do to a person. He asks: “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”. I won’t get into the contents of the story itself, though I highly recommend you give it a read – it is phenomenal. Class consciousness, allegedly, provides exactly this sense of obligation and follows the path of history carved out by Marxist theory. It is a compelling story. It is very optimistic, brimming with hope, with urgency. Unfortunately, time is a muddy swamp, neither here nor there, unconcerned with the linear winds of progress.

 

Call me a cynic, but I have become disillusioned by this kind of hope. Humans are messy and crisis upon crisis, capitalism doesn’t seem to implode. We could stage an insurrection, but that comes with its own philosophical and practical problems. Telling ourselves this story of inevitability, I believe we do ourselves a disservice. What if things don’t get better? What if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? As far as I know, rock bottom always has a basement and things can always get worse. Matter of fact, they are getting worse as we seem to be inching ever closer into fascism, witnessing active genocides enthusiastically endorsed by Western governments.


Amidst another recession, so many of us are struggling to manage financial precarity. Those of us queer and trans managing the violence against us. Those of us Black and Brown, the unchanged violence of racism. Our lives are unliveable, kept in this zone of constant death we were not meant to survive, much less thrive, and yet we are here. Much of politics seems to be concerned with clawing ourselves out of this position of death, of escaping dehumanisation by becoming Human by a metric configured by the very same exploitative systems of supremacy we claim to oppose. The work of thinkers such as Hortense Spillers, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jared Sexton, Frank B. Wilderson, and others has alerted us to that. Let’s take a pause and reconfigure.

 

What if, instead of trying to escape death, we stayed in it? Not to give up on our liberation, on the contrary. But to recognise that we cannot stride confidently towards some determined end of history, for we don’t know what challenges await us there. We will have to see, feel, reconfigure when we get there. What if we do not try to get free by the measure of sovereignty, in the sense of exerting power of mortality to borrow from Achille Mbembe in his Necropolitics, but by rejecting sovereignty and the governance it demands as a whole? Our sociality, our social life and being, would then have to reject the desire to be included in politics – where the political is the public realm where we become sovereign subjects, exerting control over our own and others’ mortality, exerting control over life and death.


No, I believe our liberation may be found in what Fred Moten in his Poetics of the Undercommons (2016) calls a ‘social poetics’ where we collectively make the sociality in which we live and “that sociality in which [we] live is conceived of, in relative terms, as nothing, as something nobody would want or care about” (p.24). I admit, this is bold and daunting. Frankly, our lives are at stake. Yet it also opens possibilities beyond survival.

 

I am tired. We are tired. What we are doing now does not seem to be working, it is a temporary alleviation, but we stay stuck in the same political game played against us. It is what Audre Lorde would call ‘a constant drain of energy’ not used to redefine ourselves. We stay pleading and bargaining our humanity and aliveness to systems that have long decided we are dead and that our death is their life. Black, Queer, and poor, if this is life, I want no part in it. So I ask, how do we live? What would it mean for us to disengage, en masse? To look at the political order and proclaim that we want no part in that? To stay undecided and unengaged when the moment we give into the political we have fed the beast that will devour us whole?


In the words of the poetic force that is the incomparable poet June Jordan:


And who will join in this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea
 
we are the ones we have been waiting for

 

We are already here. We are the ones we have been waiting for. What shall we make of it?


---

Lukas Ziel (@a.tired.arsonist_) is a Brazilian-German Sociology MA student based in Amsterdam, with a background in Sociology and Aesthetics. Their writing engages with the intersections of Blackness, gender/queerness, coloniality/modernity, and phenomenology, synthesizing these dynamics into a cohesive exploration of unified experience.

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