Anarchist Anti-capitalism: Producing Vs. Authoring
From Gods & Radicals Press by Mirna Wabi-Sabi
For at least 2 centuries, the alienating division of labor within capitalism is discussed among political writers. We may not always use Marxist jargon, but we, as the so-called working class, experience this alienation every day. Yet, first-hand accounts and diverse narratives are overshadowed by the writings of communist icons. Marxist theory is often equated with a well-grounded criticism of the capitalist system, as opposed to working people’s lived experiences and knowledge. I am here to dispute that, for it is clear to me that anti-capitalism was and is not exclusive to Marxist thinkers, and Marx did not ‘coin’ the ‘concept’ of anti-capitalism.
The first time I was properly confronted with the issue of ‘anti-capitalism equals communism’ was in Budapest, about a decade ago. I was there to present my DIY zine project, which was as a tool for overcoming the framework of intellectual elites being unwilling to perform the manual labor required of a print publication. Naively, I described the DIY approach as a disruption of capitalism. The space was historically anti-fascist and of Jewish resistance, and it surprised me that this did not necessarily mean the audience had heard of or knew something about anarchism. When the term “anti-capitalist” was spoken, “pro-USSR” was heard, and all the transgenerational trauma of the Soviet invasion of Hungary flooded in.
At the time, the discussion seemed clear-cut enough to me, “sure, communism is not our goal either”, but being critical of capitalism was such a trigger, that there was no opening to explain any anarchist principles. In my work today, this issue persists from the opposite side of the spectrum — an approach to anti-capitalist thought is perceived as inadequate if it does not reference Marxists. Either theorizing critically about capitalism is too communistic, or not communistic enough. Clearly, the discussion is still not as clear-cut as I assume it to be, so I decided to cut through it, specifically as it relates to publishing.
The issue of division of labor was discussed in print (and about print) throughout much of the 19th century, and is still a relevant discussion today. In removing the distinction between producing and authoring, we remove (to the best of our abilities) the capitalist division of labor. This rationale comes from the idea that industrialized mass production, as a tool for maximum profit within an expanding capitalist system, has the self-production of goods as its antithesis. To do-it-yourself is, therefore, not only an anti-capitalist statement but also a tool to address alienation. In this sense, DIY zines are not utopic objects made 100% by hand. These are publications which can be created at home, without industrial grade machinery. Which means, they do not set out to be identical, profitable, or printed and distributed in a corporate scale. Even though it is impossible to live completely outside this current industrial/economic system, an imperfect attempt to do something yourself is enough to raise a critical consciousness around how this paradigm is made to be alienating and inescapable.
Now, “alienation” and “division of labor” sound like Marxist jargon, and many anti-capitalist theorists do use them as such. I do not. Alienation in a Hegelian sense is not something experienced specifically by the proletariat in capitalism, it is part of an existential process which makes us human. Let’s not get into who qualified as human under Hegel’s unhinged German-centricness, but let’s highlight that the word within the Hegelian framework is an unavoidable step towards liberation, rather than a specific abusive practice by the bourgeoisie.
“[T]he self that has an absolute significance in its immediate existence, i.e. without having alienated itself from itself, is without substance, and is the plaything of those raging elements.” (Phenomenology of the Spirit, pp. 295)
When it comes to ‘division of labor’ as a particular source of alienation, Tocqueville had noticed it of the United States and written about it in the mid 1830s:
“In proportion as the principle of the division of labor is more extensively applied, the workman becomes more weak, more narrow-minded, and more dependent.” (Democracy in America, pp. 627)
Through the brazen frenchness of his writing, critical snippets of this emerging economic paradigm can be seen — capitalism as a paradigm shift rather than an improvement from aristocracy. This division of labor as it pertains to art and authoring is discussed in more detail in the book What Is Art, where Tolstoy exclaims:
“the laborers produce food for themselves and also food that the cultured class accept and consume, but that the artists seem too often to produce their spiritual food for the cultured only — at any rate that a singularly small share seems to reach the country laborers who work to supply the bodily food!” (1897).
This anti-capitalist approach towards art and publishing through doing away with borders between classes and their labor is further highlighted by Lucy Parsons, who invites her readers to “make of [a newspaper] what [they] choose” (1905, Salutation), and that freedom will only come to be “when labor is no longer for sale” (1905, What Freedom Means).
The list of political theorists throughout the 19th century which occupied themselves with discussing the problems of capitalism might be longer than the list of those who did not. Marx was one who provided a detailed framework, but there were other methods and approaches to dealing with capitalism being discussed by a whole era of thinkers. None of them were perfect, and few of those registered were as detailed as Marx’s, but the absence of perfection and details does not mean worthlessness.
Anarchism, in particular, proposes something other than resorting to the imposition or enforcement of guidelines. In fact, this is what Lenin described as the “historical sin of Tolstoyism!” — Tolstoy’s disinterest in ruling was seen as a rejection of politics. As a novelist, however, his passion for subverting the arbitrary morality and norms of the aristocracy was far from apolitical; his method was moving hearts and minds through literature, and I would argue that Lenin not only learned from that, but took advantage of what Tolstoy achieved in Russian society through his work. Anarchist anti-capitalist publishing is a legacy, a valuable resource passed on through generations, for approaching persistent global socioeconomic issues. Anarchist anti-capitalist writing has the power to form an undercurrent of public discourse which renders authority and force obsolete.