A tension between political hunger and fruition runs throughout Kevin Van Meter’s new book on building contemporary revolutionary struggle, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible, published this month by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies. Van Meter’s book is a welcome contribution to build meaningful revolutionary struggle and to revive the sorely needed tradition of autonomist Marxism. Indeed, in the era of Trump and neoliberalism, the urgency and the desire for a revolutionary transformation animates many on the left. But we often struggle to realize these desires.
Van Meter’s central metaphor in this book, “guerrillas of desire,” seeks to awaken us to the revolutionary potential already found in everyday popular struggle. Resistance and refusal, sabotage and obfuscation, Van Meter argues, all bring forward revolutionary potential, the ability to break with the structures of an exploitative society and begin to construct something new. These acts of refusal, in particular the “refusal of work,” are central features of the book. Those who fight back against capitalism in this way are guerrillas, fighters against an ongoing war by capital to impose work and seize commons. These are regular people, often lost to history, the slaves, peasants and workers who fight to retain some degree of autonomy of their lives and themselves through acts that include the “theft of time and materials, feigned illness, sabotage, arson, murder, [and] exodus.” Their acts also clear the space for alternative worlds, and hence Van Meter’s use of “desire.” Quoting Zapatista militant Subcomandante Marcos, for guerrillas, “in our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly fairer than the one in which we now live.” A desire for a new world, with revolutionary tactics, make the metaphor: guerrillas of desire.
What the book does exceedingly well is engage and update autonomist Marxism, bringing ideas into 2017. Van Meter’s concepts of class struggle are especially refreshing and deserve wide circulation in both activist and academic circles. Using the autonomist notion of the “social factory,” he shows us that class struggle is greater than wage conflicts on the shop floor, or coal miner shootouts with Pinkertons. Instead, if the structure of society supports the process of profit accumulation, and all of society is a “social factory,” then resistance and contestation in schools, in the home, in the bedroom and in the streets, are part of the struggle against capital. Further, the contestants on the bottom, the oppressed and marginalized, whether employed or not, are part of the working class. Therefore, the myriad forms of everyday resistance are both part of working-class struggles and the building blocks for revolutionary emancipation from capital.
This framework is hindered, however, by some overly general formulations. One frustrating element of Guerrillas of Desire is that Van Meter tries to convince us that capitalism is defined by the “imposition of work,” rather than wages, profits and commodities, and that resistance therefore looks like the “refusal to work.” But defining “capitalism as the endless imposition of work” is too narrow; capital is engaged in bigger projects than this single act. Furthermore, work can, with different social relationships, become a fundamental and meaningful part of human expression. Resistance, therefore, should be defined as the refusal to work on the terms of capital, of exploited or unremunerated work not in our interests and from which we are alienated, and not from work in general; his rhetorical use of “work” is more confusing than revealing. So, too, with his use of “everyday” in the forms of resistance he highlights. For slaves, peasants and workers, the groups that compose the three central chapters of the book, Van Meter is quick to include arson and murder in the forms of everyday resistance. Including these unusual forms of resistance with more common forms, like stealing, confuses the meaning of “individual” with “commonplace.”
At stake here is the relationship between individual and collective resistance. Van Meter is excellent in convincing us that these forms of small, “everyday” methods of resistance are the beginnings of potentially revolutionary struggle; what is not clear, however, is how these forms can be “scaled up” to make social revolution possible. Van Meter hints at this idea but does not fully explore it in the chapter on slavery, in which individual acts, “exodus” or fleeing, assassination and tool-breaking take center stage. Citing George Rawick, Van Meter argues that during the American Civil War, enslaved people refused work on a massive scale, provoking a crisis for Confederate leadership. True enough, but the progenitor of that idea, W.E.B. Du Bois, called those actions a “general strike” and placed them at the center of both forcing emancipation and leading to the ultimate defeat of the confederacy. If ever there was a revolutionary moment in US history, this was it, formed in collective struggle. Du Bois’s argument makes Van Meter’s case for him: The acts of individuals, increasingly moving in concert, can form enough collective power to topple even the most brutal of systems.
Van Meter and Guerrillas of Desire shows us that revolutionary struggle is already happening all around us, and for many of us, is already a part of our daily practice. Were this enough, however, we’d have achieved “fully automated gay space luxury communism,” to paraphrase a favorite meme, long ago. We haven’t. And so, the question that confronts us from the book is where to go for struggle of this type; in the author’s phrasing, exactly how “to make a revolution possible.” That Guerrillas of Desire can so thoughtfully provoke this question means it deserves a wide audience indeed. Our task is to take up the call.
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Michael Reagan is an organizer and historian based in Seattle. He has a forthcoming book with AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies on class theory in the left tradition. Find him: @reaganrevoltion and www.mbreagan.com.