Against Capital’s Utopia Thinking with Giorgio Cesarano Today

by Yann Sturmer

How might an Italian revolutionary of the 70s, known to be especially difficult to read and understand, help us grasp the misery of the present situation? Is there not a disconnect between the need to decipher our present, with all its horrors, and the need to discuss a form of thought rooted in the style and vicissitudes of a bygone era? Cesarano is an especially interesting interlocutor in that the position he worked to construct, the battles he led, can be found today, certainly under a new guise, but as an echo that has lost none of its initial strength. Cesarano always wrote with a sense of urgency – anything less, in light of a situation becoming ever more grave, would be simply impossible – to define capital’s transformations after the crisis of 1971. Following the publication of the report of the Club of Rome [The Limits to Growth] it was necessary to grasp how capital could take an affirmative form, defending a certain idea of life and even, to a certain point, the joy of living. Having reached its extreme limit – and this is none other than the ecological limit, the limit induced by having destroyed the natural universe to such an extent that human existence itself is called into question – capital presents itself as the sole hope for salvation by becoming self-critical, by no longer seeking only to exploit the proletariat, but also encouraging its creativity, valorizing the infinite promotion of the self or the social person. Cesarano’s analysis of capital was always motivated by the search, within his time, for a source of revolt capable of overturning the capitalist utopian projects. He saw his present as closing the historical axis that opened with the neolithic revolution, requiring him to mobilize the results of biology, paleontology and mythology; thus broadening the critique of capital through a critique of the civilization that produced it. It finally attaches this search for an internal and true antagonism to a critique of that which presents itself as the contestation of this world, but which, having failed to adequately question the process of capitalist reification, in fact represents merely its surreptitious confirmation.

Neither retreat, nor politics, nor alternativism, nor Leninism.

We will begin with the last point, the critique of all the false ideologies of struggle. When Cesarano speaks of these trends, he always does so from within the movement itself and not from above, comfortably seated in a room at the Grand Hotel Abyss. Reading Survival Manual (SM) or Apocalypse and Revolution (AR) today, one may find tiring or amusing the virulence with which he attacks authors who have almost completely disappeared from the intellectual landscape. Among the more significant are the anti-psychiatrist David Cooper – "excrement of a bygone era, frantically waiting to be evacuated by the anus of the counter-revolution"(SM, 60) – but also the then developing tendencies of "Leninist terrorism", of which the Red Brigades are the most famous example.

What, in the end, went wrong with these two tendencies? With respect to the first – Cooper was only chosen by Cesarano in order to confront the movement’s immediatist tendencies – it is easy to see that the dynamic of "liberation", and in particular the "liberation of everyday life", the promotion of an "art of living" to which some readers of the Situationist International may have lost themselves, is perfectly insufficient to effectively overcome capital’s logic. In addition to abandoning the struggle, the fight against this world, such a position reduces contestation to a "style", one subterraneously in line with capital’s self-transformation during those years. This "self-critical" liberation, refusing to consider that antagonism is imminent to capital’s development, desires to put an end to what it calls "problems." Here we find, too, the emergence of groupuscules imbued with a facade of liberatory benevolence, which in fact represent but the liberation of the Ego, narcissistically placed at the center of attention once more. It is the reign, as Cesarano calls it, of generalized egoarchy, of the self-entrepreneur. At the same time, as the report of the Club of Rome illustrates, capital also engages in perpetual self-criticism, seeking to resolve the contradictions of its mode of production by grasping them only as "problems". Yet there are no "problems" to manage, to heal, to analyze — what there is, on the other hand, is a fatal contradiction, to be destroyed before it destroys us. To the liberation of the ego, Cesarano opposes the concrete fact of "freeing oneself from the ego": "It is not a question of liberating the ego, but of freeing oneself from the ego, and thus liberating history from its origin. And of doing it right now, without further ado” (SM, 12).

Cesarano's critique of this tendency, which seeks to liberate itself without confronting the capitalist totality, is much deeper and more extensively developed. There are biographical reasons for this. Cesarano attempted an ill-fated communal experiment, the Podere Al Mennuci, which ended abruptly and in tragedy. Afterwards, many of the young friends that Cesarano had met in ‘68 – he was 40 years old at the time and, after a stint in the literary milieu, only strictly speaking became politicized during this period and only for a short time, for he committed suicide at 47 – plunged into a suicidal logic, whether compulsive drug taking or robbery-finance actions that would land more than one comrade in prison. Be that as it may, it is easy to identify the figures who embody today what Cesarano attacked yesterday. One can think, for example, of left-wing latourism, which now finds a certain audience. Left-wing latourism, based on the writings of Bruno Latour, thinks in a cybernetic manner about the relations between animals, humans and technical objects, without an interest in, or considering simply decorative, the critique of capitalism or bourgeois democracy. It is quite clear that the Latourian project of a "parliament of things" is an attempt to rebuild a more fluid society that takes care of ecological limits, in perfect continuity with the Club of Rome project so sharply criticized by Cesarano. This militant and intellectual tendency practices self-critique for the sole purpose of reforming a new form of constituent power. This is not to say that there are no interesting concepts that come from this tendency, just as Cesarano could say that David Cooper was often right, but the consequences of such thinking are never the abolition of this world as it is in its substance. A reflection on relations (between species, for example) if they are not considered from the perspective of conflict and struggle, agonistic, loses any truly revolutionary dimension. By basing themselves on a theoretical model of the relation, and therefore also on language, these sort of positions have a tendency, which has become more and more manifest, to no longer ask about the type of world to which they are tied and thus to provide theoretical-artistic justification for the worst aspects of capitalism’s avantgarde.

Let us move on to the second tendency that Cesarano dealt with, neo-Leninism, whether in the form of terrorism or extra-parliamentary parties like Potere Operaio. This spectacle of the frontal political struggle, with its own share of martyrs, participates in the production of a new sacred, a new mythology, which the revolutionary movement has no need of. In what sense? Cesarano saw in politics a way of hiding and covering over the real conflict by posing it on the corrupted stage of "representation", forming a "racket" in the place of the real movement. Consider, for example, the question of the crowd. Cesarano devoted some theses to it in Survival Manual. The crowd, the mass, because of its inability to be totally controllable and even, strictly speaking, understood, contains in nuce the real community and its movement: "no revolutionary ignores the ambiguity of the crowd, the transience of its moods. The sudden ease with which its fury turns into cowardice...” and yet "the crowd attacks the organization of the structure of the ego and tends to dissolve it into a reworking of presence"(SM, 167). If the essence of crowd movements is to be fleeting and transient, for Cesarano this is certainly no reason to construct, as the Leninists would have it, a tactic and a strategy to direct them towards the option that appears, to the would-be strategists, most desirable. Nothing is more deplorable — and we now see it constantly after the Gilets Jaunes movement — than the spectacle of organizations that, frightened by what could have happened, seek to capitalize on the crowd for their own political demands. Cesarano understood this point completely: "It is no coincidence that the leaders, who nevertheless strive to base their quantifiable power and their 'charisma' on the crowd, despise and viscerally hate it: they see in it the always immanent nightmare in which their power might ‘unpredictably’ dissolve. ‘Tactics’ and ‘strategy’ try to elude or program the instable emotions of the masses” (ibid).

Cesarano saw the same process at play in the riots, which so interested him, in Detroit, Danzig and Stettin, and even closer in Calabria. What mattered here was that a revolt expressed itself that could not and had no need to use language, especially not the desecrated language of political demands, instead affirming in action and, Cesarano says, through "the reason of bodies", a refusal to compromise with this world and its society. In this regard, we can think of the article "Swedish Fury" by the Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, who Cesarano often read. This article turns to a strange phenomenon: young people regularly gathered in the streets of Stockholm to break everything, burn everything, fight with the police, in absolute silence, without any demands, without understandable motives. Sociology struggled to understand this phenomenon, since the social origin of these youths was totally diverse. De Martino's interpretation connects this type of silent riot with the rites we find evidenced in several societies — he discusses the Babylonian new year feasts, where values were overturned to the point of humiliating royal power, or the puberty rites of the North American Kwakiutl — and that gave form to the destructive drive man carries within himself, which Freud, in the aftermath of the First World War, named the "death drive". These riots thus expressed, according to De Martino, the fact that secular and bourgeois democracies had not managed to find a social form for this impulse, unlike other types of societies. According to Cesarano, remaining close to De Martino, it is above all necessary to understand these as forms of the struggle for presence, where the fiction of the ego collapses to give way to a subjectivity in which the question of appearing, of promoting oneself, social norms and normal temporality, gives way to a balance with one's drives where body and mind finally coincide. It is the struggle for a guaranteed presence in the world that resurges across different eras and of which the phenomenon of the crowd or riot is one of the figures (amorous passion being another). In the aftermath of such struggles, the role of Leninist organizations is to institute a racket that would mediate them in a language already justly disqualified in action by the riot itself. Today one only has to look at the appalling Frédéric Lordon or Andreas Malm, both obsessed with the idea of resolving the ambiguities of the crowd in the perfectly clear water of institutions and the state, to perceive the current faces of yesterday's enemies.

We should now have understood the interest of thinking with Cesarano: the two tendencies described here are those that dominate the movements of contemporary radical thought. He opposed them to the real movement, understood as "the natural antagonist of the existent that is is not an elsewhere of the existent. This antagonism is rather incorporated into it as a fuse in a detonator, as ‘simply’ the devouring other face of the existent, life abolished at the level of forms, but which grows within each form to make it explode. Certainly, this is much more than the meticulous and murderous poetics of personal salvation [alternativism] or of the racket [Leninism], as if alienation were one style and freedom the opposite."

Now it is not a matter of adding a third position, as if we were in the supermarket of radicality, but of seeing whether Cesarano can help us to understand differently and perhaps more deeply our present and its confusion.

The hunger for meaning

Let us now consider the concept of hunger, of true hunger. This is especially present in chapters three and four of the Survival Manual, chapters that in my opinion constitute the theoretical heart of Cesarano's thought. With this notion, it is certain that Cesarano is referring to Ernst Bloch's text, The Principle of Hope. In this book, Bloch criticizes Freudian – but also, albeit in a different way, Jungian – psychoanalysis for having given too central a place to the notion of sexual drive rather than that of hunger. He thus sought a foundational drive that could correspond to a materialist reading. According to Bloch, this fundamental drive consists in the need to satisfy hunger and one must, he adds, be of the Viennese petite-bourgeoisie to consider this only as sexual in nature and fail to give a historical foundation to these drives themselves. It is through the movement by which man organizes himself collectively to fight against the question of hunger that his desire for knowledge is born. "The preservation instinct, hunger, is the most solid of all the so-called fundamental drives and the one that has been most firmly maintained throughout all the historical and social metamorphoses of which it was also the origin" (SM, 87). "The need to satisfy this hunger is the oil that feeds the lamp of history" (SM, 89).

The manner in which man has satisfied this hunger has been the driving force behind history and that which has grounded different societies until today. The inaugural act of foundation is important to grasp: as Adorno and Horkheimer developed in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, it consisted in separating oneself from the natural universe, the instinctual sphere, now perceived as a source of dread, in order to secure oneself — and through this process develop reason. However, this reason has itself become autonomous from man as ratio, a process over which human action no longer has control. The situation of contemporary man is therefore this: he finds himself caught between the negation of his instinctual sphere and his separation from the rational sphere.

This theme of hunger took on a further dimension in the 1970s with the development of what Cesarano calls the "capital of opulence". It is estimated that from 1933 in the United States, from 1945 in Europe, and then fully at the end of the 60s, human labor has been replaced by that of machines, by automation, such that the production of commodities is no longer central in the framework of capitalist exploitation. Such a development could mean that the question of hunger—and thus of the material security of man—is close to resolution. Cesarano expresses a certain, quite questionable, confidence in the prodigious progress of automation in those years, which could give hope for a humanity freed from work. The point that capital has reached would allow it to present itself as the definitive and lasting answer to this ancient question of the drive that is hunger, the anxiety of animal survival. Under these conditions, hunger begins to differ from its Blochian conception: it is now what Cesarano calls "true hunger", which is a "hunger for meaning".

However, this "capital of opulence", having guaranteed social survival and thus resolved the question of hunger, the question of needs, which was for example the central question of communist politics and class conflict, produces in return empty, depressive subjectivities, "free to produce themselves", but without finding any use of this freedom. Beings who never cease to ask themselves the haunting metaphysical question: "Why am I here?"

Hunger, need, becomes the need for meaning, a metaphysical need. Thus "the oldest theme of negated instinctuality" resurfaces for the species, that of building a world in coherence with the material universe, of building a world that makes sense. But this question of meaning resurfaces at a time that is also critical both for capital and for the history of the human species itself: in its eagerness to resolve the question of need, the species has destroyed the material universe, ravaged the planet, ruined the environment.

As capital endangers the very survival of the human species, the historical arc is now closing that began with terror, man's dread before nature that reactively produced the separation of man from animal, the negation of instinct, and the ratio that has become autonomous from man himself. This means that this foundational event, by which man separated himself from his natural universe and thus constituted the world as a thing facing him, is not an event that happened once and for all, but is an event that continues to occur and that involves the political history of humanity in its entirety. It is this relationship of man with the material universe that constitutes for Cesarano "the invariance of a fundamental contradiction" throughout the history of the species. This invariance became actualisable in his time and traces the "lines of force of the real war". Moreover, since the destruction of nature by humans can now destroy man himself, it is now that this question must arise – and we see here the urgency with which Cesarano writes – because the species has no choice but to abandon itself to "the death drive", a drive that has never been observed on the scale of an entire species.

This way of understanding the conflict as the emergence and overcoming, by the species itself, of the disregarded and repressed, of this remainder, abandoned between the instinctual sphere and the rational sphere, the animal and the human sphere of needs, does not correspond so much to the revolutionary vision of the modern world — especially not that vision articulated by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness of the class, its possible consciousness and the role of the party as strategic operator between the two. For Cesarano, the need for meaning that one has, the metaphysical need in short, has a historic, materialistic explanation in the creation of what he calls "the symbolic system", which is none other than the security-providing apparatus, of which language is paradigmatic, that man has built in his split from the natural world, creating man as different from nature. Nevertheless, behind the mask of the symbolic system remains a tension of the species towards a place that would be coherent with the natural universe, a tension towards communism according to the definition given by Marx in 1844: a naturalization of man and a humanization of nature. A final burst of life in the face of the "death drive". Traces of it can be found in all eras of the species, and this burst will be all the more in line with the communist project that humanity has evidenced in all that, in its loss, it has won. It is therefore not at all a question of primitivism for Cesarano, far from it, it is on the contrary a very powerful form of teleology – which makes his optimism sometimes difficult to understand for our disillusioned ears. Such an understanding of the struggle, grasping the roots of alienation in the creation of the "symbolic system" — the production of the "world" — and not only in the capitalist production process, removes the notion of hope from our political vocabulary. This is also a correction to Bloch's Principle of Hope: it is not a question of hope, but of finding in oneself and in the general movement, the certainty that the species will not continue its wandering ad vitam aeternam— that it will not accept its own extinction. Perceiving this "invariance of struggle", which sees in the creation of the "symbolic system" the original alienation, is the only way for Cesarano to build a credible teleology and thus to "liberate history from its origin" and from the fictitious ego. This is what Cesarano perceived in the silent riots of Stockholm, a rage that has no motive, which refuses even the mediation of language, understood as an insurgent expression, although momentary and limited in time, of certainty.

Capitalist Utopia

The need for meaning, the hunger for meaning, is what obsesses the "depressive personality". This subjective figure in crisis is born of a capital itself in crisis, industrial capital. And to resolve its contradictions, the latter will reform itself by precisely investing in and proposing a response to this need for meaning, making itself an affirmation of life and not only the negation thereof. Its utopia consists in responding to the need for meaning through the colonization of interiority, thus reviving the initial movement of separation through which the human species built the "symbolic system". This question of meaning was taken up in the history of the species by different ideologies, the most important being of course religion. To understand capital’s utopia, it is therefore necessary to understand the birth of the sacred, the religious, as Cesarano does in the second chapter of Apocalypse and Revolution. However, this historical figure of religion, but also that of art and science, is now the one that capital itself tends to assume at the time of its crisis, synthesizing these three spheres into one. This was revealed in the publication of the report to the Club of Rome in 1972. This text is not only an attempt to respond to the thermodynamic limits of the biosphere, but also the birth of a capital that could integrate the deadly limits it faces to make of them a lever for its reformation, with a new economy, supported by a new art of living and bearing a new religion. In short, as Jacques Camatte was able to say: capital becomes a community, even the only community, the social relation that men have lost. Camatte calls this the anthropomorphisis of capital: it takes human form by synthesizing the total alienation of the human community. To understand more precisely how capital’s utopia is formed, it is necessary to grasp the changes in the economy first and in the psyche second.

Cesarano takes on board Camatte's interpretation of the 6th unpublished chapter of Capital in Capital and Gemeinwesen. In this book, Camatte comments on Marx and delves into two important aspects of his text. The first concerns the distinction between the formal and real domination of capital over labour. When capital develops in its early years, it only formally dominates production relations. That is to say, the craft activity which preceded it now becomes subject to the law of capital, which is that of the extraction of surplus value. In a second step, with the development of industry, capital is no longer content to formally dominate labor, but also really dominates it, because it is the production process itself that is entirely created and designed according to its requirements. Starting from Marx’s distinction between formal domination and real domination of labor under capital, Camatte extends the concepts to society itself, considering a phase of formal domination of capital over society, and a phase begun after the Second War, of real domination of capital over society, in which it is human activity as a whole that is structured, modeled and conceptualized in terms of capital: "capital is henceforth the oppressive common being of men" (Camatte). Capital, by really dominating society, becomes a material community that encloses and sustains human life, rendering humanity entirely dependent thereupon and structuring man’s imagination. The distinction between formal and real domination as well as the idea of capital as material community are very important for Cesarano, who will lightly modify them by psychologizing them through the concept of the therapeutic community. To define this therapeutic community, which is a term ultimately preferable to that of biopolitics, we can say that "the development of capital is delinquency and insanity. Today everything is allowed; there is no longer any taboo, no more prohibition. But by living, the various ‘perversions’ of men and women can be lost, destroyed and no longer ‘operative’ for capital; hence the idea of a community that always reinserts them into that of capital." Capital’s community is therefore a therapeutic community with "a set of specialist therapists who will serve as mediators for this reintegration".

Camatte also deepens the idea of fictitious capital — of capital’s escape. Capital escaped in the 1970s from what made its material base: with, for example, the end of the gold standard, but also by the growing place given to dead labor, through the development of automation and machines, in relation to living labor, human labor power made of "muscle, nerve and blood." It is therefore caught in an insane logic, a crazy, suicidal logic. From this point, capital begins to rely on credit, on value supposedly to come, in order to ensure its survival. It must dominate the future, once the space of revolutionary projections. Capital thus becomes speculative, a bubble detached from the concrete place of production, which was the production of value by human labor power. "Capital succeeds in breaking its dependence on the production process and therefore on men because it has become representation" (Camatte, This World We Must Leave). In short, capital realizes Hegel's philosophy: it can no longer be understood only as substance – the substance of capital being human labor time – but as subject, as a movement of circulation that dominates the movement of production. Such a detachment from its substance means that capital is engaged in a deathly logic, a logic that Marx called "madness." From this point on, the challenge for capital, according to Cesarano – Camatte does not follow him here – is to find another space of valorization, another space to subject to its logic. Cesarano give a very strong interpretation of 'Notes on James Mill', where Marx writes that "in the credit system, it is not money that is abolished, it is man himself who converts into money, in other words, money is incorporated into man." Having, according to an imperialist logic, subjected the entire planet to its functioning, capital not only becomes the sole external colonizer of physical territory, but now colonizes interiority itself. "It incorporates itself into man," Marx says, that is, according to Cesarano, it settles inside subjects themselves, in their psyches. Madness, the radically nihilistic character of capital, is internalized in the consciousness of men, who are also becoming more and more mad as mental illness becomes a production of capital itself. In becoming autonomous from the world, from its material limit, capital also drags humanity into a total loss of world, of any cosmogonic understanding, any capacity for grasping and controlling what happens to them. Through its madness, capital drives men crazy and drags the species towards its extinction. Faced with this ultimate contradiction, the end of spaces to be conquered so as to ensure the reproduction of its substance and its ravage of the terrestrial ecosystem, capital transforms itself, as established by psychoanalysis, through self-critique — it begins to colonize the body. A self-critique that is at the same time the promotion of a new form of life, a new ethics, a new humanity.

This logically brings us to the second direction that capital took in the 1970s: it now relies on a new figure that it has forged in its image, the social person. According to Cesarano, the production of the "social person" becomes the new commodity, the new source of value. He explains this as follows: "Constant capital, instead of being invested mainly in implements exclusively capable of producing objects, [is now invested] in implements capable of producing 'social persons' (social services and 'personal service')"(AR, 66). Thus, it is man himself who becomes the main place of investment for capital and the latter constitutes itself as a community in order to produce them as a commodity. The production of false individuality, having exchanged all certainty to surrender to the infinite promotion of oneself, having suppressed all substantial relationship to the world in order to exist only in pure representation, as a mere image, is the counterpart of a capital that has also escaped from its natural substance, the creation of value, and has thus become perfectly fictitious. One can never understand the changes in capital without dialectically attaching them to the man it produces, to the type of psyche it invents. To a capital that has become a material community corresponds an individuality existing only in and for social comedy, an individuality that is all the more homogeneous as it proclaims to be different. It may be, however, that the point where capital has conquered the planet and individuality in its entirety, where both the world and humans have become "things," is the point where real subjectivity can appear and produce a true community, the Gemeinwesen. Because, having arrived here, all the questions can resurface, that were repressed in the history of humanity, a history that was only a pre-history, a history of its alienation.

Relationship to truth

Cesarano writes at a rather specific moment in the development of capital, when it is no longer content to empty the proletariat, to subject him to a brutal discipline, but also seeks to fill him with a symbolic social imaginary that attaches him directly to his madness. If he is so keen to criticize the Leninist or liberationist movements, it is because it seems to him that both participate in this reformation of capital and even participate, unintentionally, in the acceleration of its transformation. He sees this also in the development of political ecology, in which a good part of the generation of 68 will wallow. This allows capitalist madness to rebuild itself by presenting itself as the only possible utopia, the only one that has succeeded where all the others – and the modern revolutionary hypothesis among all – have failed. This is certainly a judicious analysis, and Cesarano was not mistaken. However, we must pick up where it left off, because we live in a situation that is also different. Nothing is more difficult, under these conditions, than to criticize the community of capital, since just as it destroys the ecosystem, it presents itself as the only thing capable of protecting it; just as it destroys health, it presents itself as the only thing capable of saving life. This double contradiction, in the psychoanalytic sense of double bind, produces, as we know, madness and the loss of any clear compass we could rely on. Our daily life is therefore in the horrible utopia of capital that Cesarano announced more than fifty years ago.

To leave it behind, we must define a concept of truth adequate to what one feels as just and true, rediscovering certainty. It seems to me that the worst thing to do would be to oppose one so-called scientific truth to another. It is necessary instead to conceive of the existence of another truth, another practice of truth, than scientific truth. A truth that goes beyond the simple question of facts.

"The key issue is the concept of truth. Is it a justification of this world or is it hostile to this world? We know that the world as it exists is not true. There is a second concept of truth, which is not positivist, which is not based on a pronouncement of facticity, but which is rather loaded with value, as for example in the concept of ‘a true friend’ or in Juvenal’s expression Tempestas poetica – that is, a poetic storm, such as reality will never know, a storm carried to the end, a radical storm. And if this does not correspond to the facts – for us Marxists, the facts are only reified moments of a process, and nothing more – in this case umso schlimmer für die Tatsachen, too bad for the facts, as old Hegel said" (Ernst Bloch).