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Gustavo Rodriguez: ‘Who are the passionate communards of our time working for?’

“I will be a worker: such is the idea that holds me back, when crazy anger pushes me towards the battle of Paris – where, nevertheless, so many workers continue to die while I write to you! Work now, never again.”i


Originally published by 325.

Since 1871 – the year in which the “cursed poet” wrote this missive – it was not necessary to be a “seer” to see the obvious: the masses of workers fighting on the barricades of Paris were still working. That “wildcat strike” in the face of the authority of Versailles was in turn a new labour that produced new obligations and condemned them to perpetuate work in saecula saeculorum. Such a deep reflection, from the middle of a necromantic trance, probably incited Rimbaud to question himself: for whom were the passionate communards working for? He prophesied a system of domination based on direct democracy as the axis of political-social management, which ensured the permanence of authority and the continuity of work.
That is why he furiously rejected (never again!) the process of human alienation, aware that total liberation “consists in reaching the unknown”ii; the only way to escape from the cultural market in which he was forced to sell his “merchandise”. Perhaps that is why, for Bakunin – with his subversive spirit and his lustful irreverence – those seventy-something days of generalised insurrection were a never-ending party and not an exhausting day of social construction; the same as for the brave pétroleuses who enjoyed the fleeting moments of spring 1871 as an orgasmic apotheosis of fire and sedition. For Engels, that event was the “most vivid example of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, and it gave a glimpse of the future usefulness of the working masses.

The historical slogan of the Marxians (“Abolition of wage labour!”), still echoes these days, repeated by friends and strangers alike – with regrettable acceptance in our stores – as if the miserable economic retribution of the exploitation of our physical and intellectual strength were the problem, and not the work itself, forgetting the root of the word. Although an etymology is not the Truth (with a capital “T”) but an allegory that once described a specific reality constituting a world view in our minds, it really reveals what the word “labour” represented in some periods of history.
The words “trabajo” (in Spanish), “travail” (French), “trabalho” (Portuguese), “traballo” (Galician), “trabayu” (Asturian) and, “treball” (in Catalan and Valencian), derive from the Latin vulgar tripalium: an instrument of torture similar to the stocks that consisted of “three sticks”” to which the person receiving the torment was tied. Hence the meaning of tripalium: “torture”, “torment” or “provoked pain”iii.
If etymologically the expression “forced labour” is a kind of pleonasm; under the heading of “wage labour”, the nonsense of the term is revealed, unless we are dealing with enthusiastic masochists who, consequently, refuse to be paid for being tortured. Not to mention those peculiar beings so well domesticated that they love work, going far beyond Von Sacher-Masoch’s narrative, with forgiveness for all lovers of inflicting pain on themselves (at will) with pleasant results, reconciling the tension between pleasure and death in a profound alteration of time itselfiv.

It is not by chance that Debord’s psychogeographical incursions – four years before he founded the Situationist International – ended with graffiti near the [river] Seine with the inscription “NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS!” (Never Work!), echoing Rimbaud’s battle cry, charged with the sharp intuition of Dadaist denial “contre tout el tous” (against everything and everyone) and the “war on labour” of the Surrealist movement. It is not by chance that at the end of the 1970s comrade Alfredo Bonanno and the most hardened anarchist sectors in Italy focused their struggle on the destruction of labour after the experience of the rampant May of 1977, giving free rein to insurrectionary theses in the face of anarcho-syndicalist immobilism and the degeneration of synthetic libertarianism.
In contrast, Marxians of all denominations – Social Democrats, Spartacists/Luxembourgers, Council-communists, Leninists (Trotskyites, Stalinists, Maoists and other sub-species), Operaians, Autonomous, Libertarian Socialists and Anarcho-syndicalists – postpone the destruction of labour and the consequent destruction of the economy, by putting the programme of consolidation of workers’ power (communist/anarchist) before this emancipatory moment, by stimulating the development of the productive forces and limiting themselves to managing or “self-managing” – in the case of libertarian trade unionists and councillors – the economy, therefor ensuring the development of Capital. Neither would the situationists be exempt from this (short-sighted) vision. Debord himself would retract that enduring graffiti, choosing to promote industrial automation (first) and, later, to encourage a “society of Councils”. Vaneigem, too, would not shed his Marxian DNA, leaning towards “Workers’ Councils” (first) and, later, generalised self-management.

This short-sighted approach undoubtedly obstructs the anarchic goal of demolishing all the existent. Such a conception, instead of putting an end to the so-called “fundamental contradiction” (capital-labour) by destroying labour and the economy and, as a result, Capital, poses a false dilemma between the management of the economy by the “bourgeoisie” and management/self-management by the “proletariat”. In this way, it chooses form over content, giving way to a “self-managed capitalism” (as happened in the anarcho-syndicalist revolution after the fascist coup of 1936) or it imposes “state capitalism” (Russia 1917, China 1949, Cuba 1959, Nicaragua 1979…).
“Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen” (From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs) is the aphorism that St. Charlie of Trier makes his own – after plagiarizing Etienne Cabet and Louis Blanc – announcing the arrival of the “higher phase” of communism, once the guiding principle of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (“To each according to his contribution” or, similarly, “he who does not work does not eat”), a period of indefinite time where, far from being abolished, the working condition becomes generalised, exacerbating the exploitation of the workers in the efficient production of a “better future”. In practice, this translates into more of the same, i.e., the continuation of Capital through supposedly revolutionary means implemented around the division between leaders and those who perform their orders.
What do our contemporary revolts produce? For whom do the passionate communards of our days work? These are probably the initial questions that will help us to formulate new questions and to list our doubts, fears, reflections and proposals, unraveling the black threads of our historicity. This is the only way we will be able to weave the new warp and weft of the struggles to come. This black fabric will take on the polymorphic body that we will grant it without following old patterns. We will no longer have to continue mending an archaic cloth that was made a century and a half ago on the spinning wheel and the loom. That fabric had its own time. The new anarchic thread can only come about in a disruptive way, from an ethos that reaffirms the necessary destruction of labour and the power of the liberating fire. To continue in the present repetition and stagnation, could return us to the historical regression: the imposition of global fascism (brown and/or red).

We need to sharpen our senses to be able to distinguish the smells and see what’s cooking. The aroma of the fire will always tell us what is being cooked. It is not a matter of rejecting the dish once it is served but of interrupting its cooking. The sulphurous aroma of the combustion of oil and its derivatives provokes an unmistakable olfactory sensation that incites a certain transitory state of euphoria and unconsciously gives us a succession of associated images that produce infinite pleasure: a burning barracks, a prison reduced to ashes, a conglomerate of burnt-out antennas, an incinerated patrol or a beautiful charred shopping centre. This becoming fire – which lights up the night – causes a liberating commotion that no other medium, no war machine, can bring about. It begins a gesture that makes anarchy perceptible through the flames of devastation.

Gustavo Rodriguez
Planet Earth, 1 September 2020

(From the booklet “The Aroma of Fire: The Rage of Despair in a Tri-Polar World”, September, 2020)

1. Rimbaud, Arthur, Iluminaciones, Cartas del vidente, Ediciones Hiperión, Madrid, 1995.
3. The word “work” has three European roots which have allowed the semantic accommodation of the term in different languages: Ergon in Greek, Laborare in Latin and the forgotten Tripalium (also in Latin but with a much more dreary origin). In the English language, the word “work” is associated with the Latin root of the word Laborare which means “labour”, although its literal translation would be “difficult labour”, hence the expression “to labour”. This Latin root is the origin of a variety of words, including “collaborate” and “elaborate”. Hannah Arendt uses this etymological root to justify labour, arguing that it has a role in the “process of vital fertility” (La Condicion Humana, Paidós, Barcelona, 1993). In fact, it is clear that there is an abysmal difference between the words Tripalium and Laborare (or Ergon in Greek), and that it lies in the ancestral social (and sexual) division of labour with the arrival of agriculture: one sector “destined” to fulfil the painful obligation of work (Tripalium), losing all freedom; and another, “chosen” for creative work (Laborare) in full freedom.
In Europe, there is evidence of the punitive use of the tripallium at least until the year 578, while in America the use of this instrument of torture is documented in the eighties of the 19th century and, in Mauritania, it is still used to “discipline” slaves and (particularly) female slaves who refuse to comply with their masters’ demands despite the fact that slavery was abolished by law in 1981″.
4. Freeman, Elizabeth, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010.

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