Why rights-centric politics is not a politics of freedom


Exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is not in and by itself value (and value-relations). Rather, exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is appearance or representation of the essence of capital that is value (and value-relations). Hence, juridical rationality — or rights — is the appearance or representation of the arbitrary and irrational operation of social power but is not in itself that mode or structure of arbitrary and irrational (and hence entirely political) operation. Conversely, even as value-relations as the arbitrary operation of social power necessarily inform exchange-relations and the juridical rationality of rights in their constitution, the former is irreducible to the latter.

In other words, even as the essence (value or arbitrary operation of social power) must and does appear (as exchange-value or juridical rationality of rights), appearance (exchange-value or rights) is not the essence (value, or social power in its arbitrary operation). That is demonstrated with a fair bit of clarity by Marx in the first volume of Capital. The problem with a political subject that envisions freedom as right is that it misses this dialectic between essence and appearance, and thus hypostatises the essence into its appearance – or, conflates essence with appearance. The politics of rights then is no more than exertions to correct (reform) the asymmetries of exchange, which presupposes the legitimacy and continuance of the rationality of exchange-value, and thus the legitimacy and continuance of the irrationality of value-relations that is the former’s constitutive mode.

Such politics of rights, needless to say, serves to reproduce and reinforce exchange-relations and its constitutive value-relational mode by merely displacing rights deprivation to yet another historically concrete moment or location of the capitalist social being. In other words, the subject that envisages politics in terms of demanding rights is one that is interpellated and articulated by the logic and structure of value-relations. Its politics of making a concrete moment of exchange less asymmetrical succeeds, if at all, by way of increasing the asymmetry in yet another (qualitatively old or new) concrete moment of exchange. This is precisely what technical recomposition of social labour by capital, through its re-segmentation, amounts to. In such circumstances, a politics driven by demand for various rights – including workers’ rights – cannot be affirmed and embraced as the politics of the working class. In its basic impulses, such politics is petty bourgeois, reformist and restorative, not proletarian and revolutionary. The ‘understanding’ of political economy that animates such political impulses is deeply Ricardian, and not at all Marxist.

That is, however, not to claim that the question of rights-deprivation stands rejected from the standpoint of revolutionary working-class politics and Marxism. But, for a Marxist, there is surely the need to distinguish between rights-deprivation — as an objective systemic fact and a concomitant subjective experience — being an inescapable question for working-class politics, and the politics driven by demand for rights. Only a liberal dimwit or nincompoop would think they are one and the same thing. And that the abandonment of one is tantamount to the jettisoning of the other. Rights-deprivation is a revolutionary question not because a politics ought to be made out of demanding the absent rights – the rights one is deprived of. Rather, it’s a revolutionary question because it enables one to cognitively access and concretely target value-relations (or the arbitrary, and thus entirely political, operation of social power) in and through their determinate appearance as (or mediation by) a particular exchange-relation whose particular asymmetry is what the absence or deprivation of a particular right amounts to.

This, among other things, demonstrates how a group of rights-deprived individual subjects could grasp and seeks to actualise the social subject sedimented in its individual selfhood or subjecthood precisely through the concrete experience of right-deprivation that is constitutive of that particular subjecthood in its individualised salience. What this, in other words, means is that the individual right-deprived subject is egged on by his/her experience of being thus right-deprived to struggle, not for the winning over of the absent right for that individual subjecthood, but for the destruction of the value-relation that is represented by the concrete exchange- relation constitutive of that particular individual subjecthood and its objective factuality and subjective experience of being deprived of the particular right in question. Clearly, such destruction would also mean the disavowal of the particular individual selfhood/subjecthood that experiences the particular right-deprivation in the first place because that individual selfhood/subjecthood is constitutive of value-relations that are sought to be destroyed by accessing those relations through their mediation by the particular exchange-relation in question that determinately instantiates the value-relations.

What this operation of the social subject actualising itself evidently means is that such individualised subjecthood, precisely on account of its constitutive experience of rights-deprivation, risks its existence as that individualised subject to emerge as the social subject that tends towards abolishing the structure of value-relations in and through its determinate representation by a concrete instance of right-deprivation (or asymmetry of exchange). Clearly, the operation constitutive of such risking of existence of individualised subjecthood – the agentic subjecthood of rights – is a politics not of ending various particularities of rights-deprivation. Rather, it’s a politics of abolishing the general condition of such particular and particularised rights-deprivations – and the juridical realm of exchange they are integral parts of — through and in its constantly shifting determinate instantiations. Hence, one must think freedom as risk, not as a right.

The difference between politics of freedom as right and politics of freedom as risk is then the radical modal difference between two kinds of intervention on the same concretely apparent terrain of exchange-relations. The former driven towards ending particular rights-deprivation by demanding the absent rights, the latter geared towards unravelling value-relations, and its concomitant force-field, which constitute the condition of possibility of juridical rationality of rights – and thus rights-deprivation – in their determinate instantiation in and as a particular case of rights-deprivation. It’s in this latter sense, and not in the former, that one ought to understand, among other things, Benjamin’s insistence about every moment in history being a strait-gate through which the messiah can come in.

It must also be mentioned here that legal equality has as its necessary condition of possibility substantive/social inequality. Besides, the former in its existence also acts back upon the latter to reproduce and further reinforce it. If one attends to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — to say nothing of his brilliant demonstration in Capital of how concrete labours (qualitative singularities) are rendered differential quantities of “human labour in the abstract” through qualitative equalisation — even half carefully, one would see that.

Immediate forms of oppression in the capitalist social formation get registered as rights-deprivation and legal inequality. But such registration is, for subjects of struggle against those forms of oppression, precisely part of the problem and not its overcoming. Struggles against oppressions must be struggles against the structure of exploitation, which is the necessary condition of possibility of various concrete forms of oppression, and not struggles for rights and legal equality. Subjects struggling against various forms of oppression must recognise those oppressions for what they are — that is, oppressions — and call them by their name, and not register them in their subjectivity as legal inequalities to be remedied.

Zeleny and Althusser: A New Humanism through the Antihumanist Route


“In France and Italy Althusser’s interpretation of Marx has recently attracted attention. As opposed to a mass of superficial literature –unscientifically grounded and lacking textual analysis — which is trying to surmount a dogmatic Marxism by reinterpreting Marx in the spirit of a Feurbachian, existentialist anthropology, Althusser emphasizes the text and the intellectual development of the young Marx. When he insists that we have before us in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology a new stage of Marx’s theoretical and philosophical development which transforms his preceding views, in particular the standpoint of the Paris manuscripts of 1844, we find that our results agree. But they are distinguished from Althusser on such questions as the content of those stages. Althusser characterizes the transition from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to The German Ideology as a break or clevage (‘rupture; coupure epistemologique’) which corresponds to a transition from humanism to anti-humanism; in that sense Marx utterly rejects his old problems and concepts, and appropriates radically new ones and a radically new method.
“Our analysis is the foundation for the view that the theoretical, philosophical standpoint of the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology represents a new form of humanism. In the Paris manuscripts and in The German Ideology Marx deals above all with ‘real’ men. In both cases he takes on the task of explaining social and historical reality solely from the life process of ‘real’ men. If from the standpoint of The German Ideology, from that conception of ‘real’ men and history as introduced in the Paris manuscripts, Marx appears ‘ideological’, then we are dealing in The German Ideology — following our preceding analysis — with the radicalization of humanism, the creation of a new form of humanism.
“Althusser’s error in connection with humanism can be illustrated in his citation of one of Marx’s comments on his method in Capital:

“[Wagner] who has not once noticed that my analytic method, which does not start out from man, but from the economically-given social period, has nothing in common with the academic German method of connecting concepts…’

“The concept ‘economically-given social period’ was not understood by Marx as objective, divorced from the activity of human individuals. This Marxian observation does not prove his anti-humanism, but rather refutes the ideological concept ‘men in general’ (‘Man’) and advances a theory based on ‘real’ men in the sense of practical materialism. He wants to say only what he had already said about the starting point for economic theory in the Introduction of 1857: ‘Individuals producing in society — hence the starting point is naturally the socially determined production [carried on] by individuals.’ ”
–Jindrich Zeleny, ‘The Logic of Marx’

I entirely agree — from the vantage-point of Badiou’s “practical antihumanism” and “theoretical humanism” — with Zeleny’s insistence that Marx in breaking with Feurbach’s expressivist ontology of the human pointed in the direction of developing a radically new conception of generic humanity. But what I wish to doggedly insist is that this theorisation cannot be grasped with adequate rigour unless one necessarily passes through Althusser’s antihumanist reading of Marx. The determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours (or productive forces and social relations of production) must be grasped by disentangling it from its historically concrete, phenomenalised agentic-subjecthood, albeit of course by passing through the latter. Such a move is basically what Althusser’s theoretical antihumanism amounts to. Only through such a theoretical move can real historical men be grasped as historical indices and anthropological-passional registers (not particular agentic-subjecthoods) of determinate antagonism between politics and history, and thus the asymmetrical dialectic of concrete and abstract labours. And only then can real historical men and women truly become the constituents of the radically new generic humanity that Marx sought to theorise. A humanity that would be a constructionist adventure rather than an historical unfolding. So, to affirm real historical men without effecting this shift in the conceptual valency of the term real historical men will keep returning to us through the rear window what we are throwing out of the front door: the expressivist dialectical anthropology of the Left-Hegelians.

I’m not, therefore, claiming that this is Zeleny’s problem too. From the way he affirms the conception of real men — i.e. through a close reading of The German Ideology and Capital — that seems far from being the case. And yet his criticism and rejection of Althusser’s “theoretical antihumanism” misses the importance of Althusser’s conceptual privileging of the determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours, which is registered by real historical men, over this register itself. Even the 1857 Introduction of Marx that ends the Zeleny quote above points precisely in the direction of conceptually privileging that which is registered (productive forces, social relations of production) over that which registers it (real historical men).

In this context, it must be said that what such a surreptitious return of the abstract Feurbachian man, with the conception of real historical men acting as its Trojan Horse, amounts to in political terms is an ethical socialism of commonisation, if not an out-and-out rights-based politics. Ranciere, for instance, walks exactly into such a trap when he breaks with Althusser’s antihumanist Marxism in that thoroughly Oedipalised and cantankerous work of his: ‘Althusser’s Lesson’.

Hence, it is absolutely imperative that one grasps the two distinct conceptual valences that the term real historical men has. For, neither can withdrawal and difference, exhausted solely by a politics of resistance, be equated with subtraction as an articulation of revolutionary (or law-unravelling) violence. Nor, for that matter, is our politics, which accords theoretical and political centrality to the self-activity of workers and self-organisation of the working class, the same as anarchism. To insist on this distinction (both in conceptual and political terms) then, is to guard against being perceived by certain ‘autonomist’ tendencies’ — with whom we vigorously interact and engage as we should — as being part of their thoroughly anarchist formation. What could be far worse, however, is that we ourselves lose sight of that political and theoretical difference between their ethical commitment to an anarchist socialism and our revolutionary commitment to communism.

The distinction of conceptual valences for the same terminology of real historical men must be tightly held on to for another equally important reason. Many of our radical friends, who don’t tire of swearing their loyalty to sundry Marxist-Leninist groups, and thereby also to Marxist theory, seek radical legitimacy for the reformist and rights-based politics of their respective organisations, if not also for their own individual lifestyle politics, through a theoretical manoeuvre that conflates the two distinct conceptual valences for the term real historical men.