No one would be surprised by the claim that the setting of communicative capitalism is not the same as early twentieth century Russia. What are some of the differences that matter for communist organization and struggle?
1. Lenin emphasizes "exposure literature," that is, pamphlets describing the hideous, oppressive conditions in the factories--"the mere publication of these exposures made them effective and they acquired the significance of a strong moral influence." To be sure, he acknowledges the ways the exposure literature to underplay or efface political struggle. Yet his response--we need political exposures--points to a media politics (the necessity of side, striking, and rapid exposures of shameful outrages) inadequate to communicative capitalism.
In our current setting, Lenin's emphasis on exposures suggests the political immediacy of media, a kind of media spontaneism that presumes in advance the efficacy of a story or image. Under communicative capitalism, there is an equivalence of the utterance; the use value of a utterance degenerates in the wake of its exchange value, that is, its condition as a contribution to the circulation of information and affect. Similarly, one person's exposure is another's porn. Or, differently put, the supposition that exposures work presupposes a unity of meaning lacking in our current setting.
It's worth noting, however, Lenin's attunement to the affective dimensions of politics. He emphasizes exposures because they incite feelings: workers will feel (Lenin's words and italics) that others are
being abused and outrages by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible deisre to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising . . .
If political exposure made sense in the context of autocracy, what tactics make sense for struggle under communicative capitalism? Does Lenin's emphasis on the incitement of feelings suggest the revolutionary potential of an affective politics? Or will that always remain limited, unconscious, spontaneous? Are our conditions those wherein consciousness is no longer possible? Or are they conditions wherein we grasp the inevitable splitting, incoherence, and divisions within consciousness, the unavoidable pressures and excesses of the unconscious? It is possible that discontent is now present and conscious--our task is to organize and channel it?
2. Lenin rightly emphasizes that working class consciousness is only political consciousness if it responses to all cases of "tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse." One advantage of our contemporary setting is the development of this political consciousness--for the most part, no one on the left can defense sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, environmentalism, animal rights etc. One disadvantage of our setting is the accentuation of these forms of oppression and their disconnection from a theoretical perspective that links them to the antagonism constitutive of capitalism. The struggles have separated, thus diluting their collective strength and obscuring the class conflict traversing them. Similarly, the legitimate success of the languages of struggle has been appropriated by bad guys, for capitalist and obscurantist ends. More strongly, the general decline of symbolic efficiency contributes to the thwarting of common desire animating these struggles and its redirection within circuits of drive.
3. As he emphasizes the need for an all Russia newspaper, Lenin asserts that political exposures in themselves are powerful instruments for disintegrating the system he opposes. Our condition is different--exposes are the primary current of our media, what feed and nourish them. What was previously a disruptive force now drives the system.
These are real differences. A striking point of convergence: Lenin's consciousness of and anger toward the failure and inadequacy of the Russian communists in 1901. He's nostalgic regarding the revolutionaries of the 1870s and envious of the German Social Democrats. Whereas the Russians are embroiled in defending spontaneity and economism, the German Social Democrats get out in front of every single political event in Germany. They have a revolutionary appraisal for everything that happens. Lenin wants to learn from and emulate them.
In the contemporary US, conservatives and capitalism seem to have learned this lesson. Even in the setting of the decline of symbolic efficiency (a setting that strengthens and enables them), the right has an answer, an incoherent, impossible, disruptive answer.
What about us?