Demanding the (Im)possible
At this reactionary historical moment, when elementary demands for the possible are presented as a romantic impossibility, we remain realists and insist on certain simple, intelligible things. We have to move away from the frustrations occasioned by the historical failures to advance leftist ideas and discover anew their emancipatory potential. We say that it is natural for each person to be free and live a life of dignity. All that we have to do is to find the strength within ourselves to fight for this. The first thing that motivates us is the rejection of all forms of oppression, the artificial alienation of people, and exploitation. That is why we stand for a distribution of the wealth produced by human labor and all natural resources that is just and directed towards the welfare of everyone.
We are internationalists: we demand the recognition of the equality of all people, no matter where they live or where they come from.
We are feminists: we are against all forms of patriarchy, homophobia, and gender inequality.
Capitalism Is Not a Totality
We believe that capital is not a totality, that the popular thesis that there is nothing outside capital is false. The task of the intellectual and the artist is to engage in a thoroughgoing unmasking of the myth that there are no alternatives to the global capitalist system.We insist on the obvious: a world without the dominion of profit and exploitation not only can be created but always already exists in the micropolitics and microeconomies of human relationships and creative labor. We have to reveal this joyous space of life to the greatest number of people. The historical becoming of this economic, political, intellectual, and creative emancipation is communism.
The Communist Decoding of Capitalist Reality
The person who is genuinely free, who lives in the fullness of their being, is a person who is alive to various sciences and disciplines, who critically examines themselves and the world. However, the narrow specialization of scientific knowledge in capitalist society places knowledge in the service of the dominant class. Individual research serves private interests, while research of society, research based on the universality of critical utterance, is not supported institutionally. We affirm that there is only one form of knowledgeknowledge that enables the discovery that the calling of human beings is to be free with other human beings. Critical knowledge should not be a commodity, and its maximally widespread distribution enlightenment and educationis the cause of each intellectual and cultural worker. This synthesis of theory and practice, knowledge of the world and its transformation, we call the communist decoding of capitalist reality. We repeat along with Marx: We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to. (Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843.)
Faithfulness to the Intellectual and Artistic Avant-Gardes of the Twentieth Century
We recognize the importance of twentieth-century avant-garde thought for the rethinking and renewal of the leftist philosophical and political tradition. We believe that in order for this renewal to happen we need a maximally open, non-dogmatic approach that presupposes a critical reception of ideas, concepts, and practices that have formed outside the framework of doctrinal Marxism. Our urgent task is to reconnect political action, engaged thought, and artistic innovation.
One of the basic problems of theory remains the definition of contemporary societys class structure. At present, when labor relations are in a process of radical transformation, the very notion of classes is changing as well. We can no longer rely wholly on the previous definitions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or on old forms of organizing the struggle for liberation. We believe that we have to continue to re-examine class theory by considering the contemporary development of the antagonism between labor and capital. We affirm that this antagonism remains the central one. The transformation of society has not only not made it disappear; on the contrary, this antagonism has only been exacerbated and therefore needs to be interpreted anew. We are also faced here with the question of rethinking the strategies and tasks of the critical intellectual in a conjuncture where the configuration of productive forces is changing.
The Tasks of Contemporary Art
Contemporary art that is produced as a commodity form or a form of entertainment is not art. It is the conveyor-belt manufacture of counterfeits and narcotics for the enjoyment of a creative class sated with novelty. One of our most vital tasks today is unmasking the current system of ideological control and manipulation of people. The pseudocreativity of this system is no more than the commodification not only of the fruits of their labor, but also of all forms of life. We are convinced that genuine art is art that de-automates consciousness first, that of the artist, then that of the viewer. And because art is an activity open to everyone, neither power nor capital can have a monopoly on the ownership of art.
One answer to the perennial debate on arts autonomy is the possibility that it can be produced independently of art institutions, whether state or private. In the contemporary conjuncture, the selfnegation essential to arts development happens outside institutional practices. As a public form of the unfolding of each persons creative potential, the place of art during moments of revolutionary struggle has always been and always will be in the thick of events, on the squares and in the communes. At such moments, art takes the form of street theater, posters, actions, graffiti, grassroots cinema, poetry, and music. Renewing these forms at this new stage in history is the task of the genuine artist.
What Is the Place of Revolutionary Art in a Time of Reaction?
Although mass movements for the transformation of society are temporarily absent, arts place is nevertheless still on the side of the oppressed. Its central task is the elaboration of new forms for the sensual and critical apprehension of the world from the perspective of collective liberation. Art should exist not for museums and dealers but in order to develop and articulate a new mode of emancipated sensuality. It should become an instrument for seeing and knowing the world in the totality of its contradictions. The museums and institutions of art should function as depositories and laboratories for the aesthetic exploration of the world. We should, however, shield them from privatization, economization, and subordination to the populist logic of the culture industry.
That is why we believe that right now it would be wrong to refuse to work in any way with cultural and academic institutionsdespite the fact that the majority of these institutions throughout the world are engaged in the flagrant propaganda of commodity fetishism and servile knowledge. The political propaganda of all other forms of human vocation either provokes the systems harsh rejection or the system co-opts it into its spectacle.
At the same time, however, the system is not homogeneousit is greedy, stupid, and dependent. Today, this leaves us room to use these institutions to advance and promote our knowledge. We can bring this knowledge to a wide audience without succumbing to its distortion. That is why we need to develop clear criteria for deciding in which venues we can conduct our struggle, which projects should be boycotted and denounced, and with whom and on what conditions we can collaborate.
Our Basic Program
In the current situation, we propose that self-governed collectives use the following basic program as their guide:
Dont allow external factors to intervene as you develop your ideas and realize your projects. Dont give away exclusive rights to the distribution of your work. Dont directly or indirectly advertise the institutions of power and capital within your projects.
Economic relations have to be built in a political way. You need to collectively demand that your labor be compensated fairly and with dignity. By entering into a working relationship with the institutions of power, you demonstrate their capitalistic, exploitative nature.
Dont participate in projects whose results (symbolic capital, surplus value) can be instrumentalized for political ends that contradict the internal tasks of your collectives work.
As you realize your project you should try to make your work as non-transparent as possible. At the same time, you should strive to produce situations whose meaning can be fully manifested only outside the limited frame of concrete relations of production. This means that you should construe the use value of the work in such a way that institutions of power will be hard pressed when they try to convert it into exchange value.
At the same time, we insist on an uncompromising critique of and struggle against all institutions of culture that base their work on corruption and the primitive servicing of the interests of commercial structures, the state, and ideology. We must constantly slap these dimwits and prostitutes on the wrist and show them their shameful place in history. We will use all the means at our disposal to make this happen.
The Local Aspect of the Struggle
We demand, as a minimum, the abolition of tacit censorship and an end to all repression of political and cultural activity. It follows from this demand that we need state and public support for social research projects and critical art practices in Russia that are independent of private interests.
Avoiding the traditional choice between reformism and radicalism, we insist on the search for a specific, local configuration of demands and transformational programs. For a start we demand a few concrete things. Public funds should be transparently distributed for the support of research and art in the public space, as well for grassroots initiatives. They should also be used to support work based on the harsh criticism of contemporary institutions of power, both in culture and in politics. On the other hand, this is possible only as part of a radical social transformation that would undermine the entire system of authoritarian capitalism. In order to foster conditions for this transformation, we need new forms of coordination with all other fronts of the strugglewith workers, trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, and anti-authoritarian activists. We have to propagate models of activist self-education and the politicization of artistic and intellectual practices. These are the bases for a future broad consolidation of leftists and the hegemony of our ideas in society.
December 2008, first published in the newspaper “When Artist Struggle Together”