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117

The following lecture was presented at an anarchist 

conference held in Milwaukee in May of  2011.  

In the wake of  the defeated anti-austerity struggle 

months earlier in Wisconsin, the Crisis Conference  

was organized as a space for anarchists  

to theorize intervention into the unfolding crisis  

and the nascent resistance to austerity.

Identity In Crisis

Contention One:

 A Crisis of Reproduction

i

While economists, politicians and technocrats of  all variet-
ies endlessly speak of  this or that detail of the crisis, they 
remain caught up in diagnosing what they perceive as a 
periodic crisis of  the capitalist mode of  production. What 
goes unspoken is that all the various crises of  production, 
consumption and accumulation are simply minor break-
downs within a systematic process that confronts us as the 
domination of  our very lives. This latter is itself  a great 
crisis, one born from the moment we were dispossessed of  
our ways of  being and accumulated as workers, and which 
in our view constitutes the fundamental crisis of  alienation 
and production within industrial civilization. 

The same process which removes us from the world 

and makes us into workers also renders us irrelevant as 
workers. Through generations of  violence, our ancestors 
were destroyed as living beings and recreated as a pool 
of  labor-power. The products of  the labor of  each suc-
cessive generation form the structures that affirm capital 
and render future labor-power redundant. And thus, the 
so-called industrial reserve army becomes a lazarus layer 
of  surplus population, irrelevant to yet hopelessly reliant 
on the means of  production for survival. 

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To put this yet another way, the current crisis cannot 

be viewed as a result of  the actions of  a class of  greedy 
bankers, unscrupulous lenders or even a result of  the 
concentration of  fortune in the hands of  a ruling class. 
Rather, we have to view our current situation as the inevi-
table outcome of  alienated labor — the process by which 
our activity and ability to reproduce ourselves is taken 
from us and used to dominate our lives. All of  the energy 
that is routed into production that is not our own con-
geals to form a system of  apparatuses that become the 
only — and increasingly alienated — means by which repro-
duction is possible, alienating us from any possibilities to 
live outside the capitalist system. The continued existence 
of  the capitalist mode of  production is contingent upon 
the reproduction of  the alienated self. While the analysis 
of  reproduction by Marx (and by many Marxists) focuses 
on this as taking place in the sphere outside of  work where 
the various activities necessary to sustain the workforce’s 
lifeforce are carried out, we will argue that the relative dis-
appearance of  labor from the industrial sphere coincides 
with the appearance of  work’s logic in every aspect of  life. 
The reproduction of  the self, then, becomes a primary 
productive operation rather than a mere secondary sup-
port to the productive process.

We’ll quote Marx in writing:

“Proletarian” must be understood to mean, economically 
speaking, nothing other than “wage-labourer,” the man 
who produces and valorises “capital,” and is thrown onto 
the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need 
for valorisation.

The primacy of  this throwing-on-the-street exposes the 
fundamental crisis of  subjectivity under capital: the col-
lapse of  the worker’s identity. It is from this position — that 
of  the street — that we will begin our analysis. 

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119

1. 

ii

Though we are continually further removed from the 
means to provide for ourselves, we cannot view this situ-
ation as simply a crisis of  this particular mode of  pro-
duction, when it is the very crisis of  living within class 
society. Our irrelevance in the process of  production and 
the misery of  self-reproduction is not an abstraction, but 
a reality that haunts and animates our daily experience. 

In Wisconsin’s anti-austerity struggle of  early 2011, 

we can witness a particularly apparent aspect of  the pro-
cess of  expulsion and immiseration that has been unfold-
ing across the globe for decades. Politicians are quite hon-
est when they claim that the system can no longer afford 
to care for the growing surplus populations without the 
means to care for themselves. Union contracts are dis-
solved so as to more easily cast out irrelevant or unneces-
sary workers. Funding for services, education, housing, 
food, and health are devastated. Teachers vote for their 
own pay cuts in order to preserve a dying system. Union 
bureaucrats offer to concede every possible aspect of  their 
constituencies’ livelihoods in a desperate attempt to cling 
to their own positions in the bureaucracy. “Representa-
tives” flee their positions because they can do nothing else. 

Policing is expanded and prison terms are dramati-

cally lengthened in order to quarantine surplus popula-
tions. At all levels, the state is reduced to and exposed as 
its primary function — the management and discipline of  
the growing population of  bodies who are entirely unnec-
essary to the continuation of  the economy. In order to 
prevent the chaotic revolt of  these bodies, more diffuse 
and sinister forms of  policing are deployed. Through a 
whole series of  mystifications, police-logics are internal-
ized within the protest body. The ideals of  democracy, 
non-violence, and civil disobedience serve to re-route 
popular rage as a desperate plea for the continuation of  

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120

a system that first exploits us and then, when we are no 
longer necessary, leaves us to die. 

 To this deeper crisis, there is no reformist or progres-

sive answer. Progress itself  has only meant an intensifica-
tion of  the alienation and the division of  labor at the heart 
of  the fundamental crisis of  class society. A renewal of  
the workers’ movement would be meaningless for those 
who might never be able to even be traditional workers — a 
status quickly becoming the norm. An expansion of  the 
welfare state can only act as a band-aid fix, a ploy for social 
peace. Even if  the solutions offered by the Left were ten-
able, they’d be entirely undesirable all the same. When 
protesters say “this is what democracy looks like” they are 
entirely correct — this situation is exactly what democracy 
looks like: a shit sandwich, without the bread. For those 
who constitute the ever-growing and intrinsic outside to 
the economy, there is no integrated operation or mode of  
protest that can save us. Our choices are obvious — auster-
ity and the continued immiseration of  our daily lives, or 
the immediate destruction of  the means of  production 
and the class society they produce.

 

1. 

iii

We will quote at length a communique that circulated 
during an earlier struggle against this system of  universal 
and deepening austerity, “Communique from an Absent 
Future” by Research and Destroy. This communique 
elaborated a theory of  the crisis with regard to the univer-
sity system in the state of  California. It is relevant to our 
discussion because it poses the crisis in terms of  a crisis 
of  subjectivity:

For those whose adolescence was poisoned by the nation-
alist hysteria following September 11th, public speech is 
nothing but a series of  lies and public space a place where 
things might explode (though they never do).  Afflicted by 

Identity In Crisis

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121

the vague desire for something to happen — without ever 
imagining we could make it happen ourselves — we were 
rescued by the bland homogeneity of  the internet, finding 
refuge among friends we never see, whose entire existence 
is a series of  exclamations and silly pictures, whose only 
discourse is the gossip of  commodities.  Safety, then, and 
comfort have been our watchwords.  We slide through the 
flesh world without being touched or moved.  We shepherd 
our emptiness from place to place.

But we can be grateful for our destitution: demystification 
is now a condition, not a project.  University life finally 
appears as just what it has always been: a machine for pro-
ducing compliant producers and consumers.  Even leisure 
is a form of  job training.  The idiot crew of  the frat houses 
drink themselves into a stupor with all the dedication of  
lawyers working late at the office.  Kids who smoked weed 
and cut class in high-school now pop Adderall and get to 
work.  We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in 
the gym.  We run tirelessly in elliptical circles.

It makes little sense, then, to think of  the university as 
an ivory tower in Arcadia, as either idyllic or idle.  “Work 
hard, play hard” has been the over-eager motto of  a genera-
tion in training for… what? — drawing hearts in cappuc-
cino foam or plugging names and numbers into databases. 
The gleaming techno-future of  American capitalism was 
long ago packed up and sold to China for a few more years 
of  borrowed junk.  A university diploma is now worth no 
more than a share in General Motors.

We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow.  
And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have.  
Close to three quarters of  students work while in school, 
many full-time; for most, the level of  employment we 
obtain while students is the same that awaits after gradu-
ation.  Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s 
debt.  We work to make money we have already spent, and 
our future labor has already been sold on the worst market 
around.  Average student loan debt rose 20 percent in the 

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122

first five years of  the twenty-first century — 80-100 per-
cent for students of  color.  Student loan volume — a figure 
inversely proportional to state funding for education — rose 
by nearly 800 percent from 1977 to 2003.  What our bor-
rowed tuition buys is the privilege of  making monthly 
payments for the rest of  our lives.  What we learn is the 
choreography of  credit: you can’t walk to class without 
being offered another piece of  plastic charging 20 percent 
interest.  Yesterday’s finance majors buy their summer 
homes with the bleak futures of  today’s humanities majors.

If  the university teaches us primarily how to be in debt, 
how to waste our labor power, how to fall prey to petty 
anxieties, it thereby teaches us how to be consumers.  Edu-
cation is a commodity like everything else that we want 
without caring for.  It is a thing, and it makes its purchasers 
into things.  One’s future position in the system, one’s rela-
tion to others, is purchased first with money and then with 
the demonstration of  obedience.  First we pay, then we 
“work hard.”  And there is the split: one is both the com-
mander and the commanded, consumer and consumed.  
It is the system itself  which one obeys, the cold buildings 
that enforce subservience.  Those who teach are treated 
with all the respect of  an automated messaging system.  
Only the logic of  customer satisfaction obtains here:  was 
the course easy?  Was the teacher hot?  Could any stupid 
asshole get an A?  What’s the point of  acquiring knowledge 
when it can be called up with a few keystrokes?  Who needs 
memory when we have the internet?  A training in thought?  
You can’t be serious.  A moral preparation?  There are anti-
depressants for that.

The collapse of  the global economy is here and now. 

Identity In Crisis

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123

1. 

iv

The disintegration of  the guiding narratives of  futurity 
and social expectation marks a real crisis in our own repro-
duction as subjects. One was told that on the trajectory of  
the locomotive of  life would be suburban homes on mort-
gage, white picket fences, marriage, 1.5 children, comfort-
able unionized jobs, two automobiles, a big television. One 
was told to view his family, his home, his very life as the 
future product of  his own “hard work.” But none of  this 
will exist for us. For many of  us, it never did and we would 
never have desired it. And yet, the period marked by the 
industrial revolution of  daily life and the real subsumption 
of  daily activity through machines (dishwashers, automo-
biles, microwave ovens) has come to an end. Forget the sub-
urbs. This is a crisis of  the individual atomized reproduc-
tion of  the capitalist family unit. People are being forced 
out of  their homes and their union jobs in droves. What is 
a family, even? The regime of  hostile privatism is in crisis. 
We are seeing all its hallmarks disappear as the ideology 
of  whiteness is thrown into crisis. The middle class, and 
with it, middle class subjectivity are disappearing from the 
face of  the earth.

The construction of  the middle class had as its foun-

dation the home mortgage. Home ownership on mortgage 
effects several things at once: a shift from working-class 
identity to middle-class identity, a change in the alignment 
of  actual class interests (insofar as one’s interests come to 
involve the value of  one’s home), and the weight of  life-
long debt (necessitating more and more work in order to 
pay it off). Additional markers of  middle-class position 
were a stable career and ownership of  small amounts of  
stocks. The collapse of  the housing market, the loss of  any 
reality of  stable employment in all but a few sectors, and 
the collapse in the stock market (severely cutting into the 
financial basis for retirement in 401K plans, etc.) all add 

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up to the massive looting of  the middle class. This process 
cannot, however, be simply described as widespread prole-
tarianization, nor does it signal the inevitable collapse of  
the capitalist system. On the contrary, the current crisis 
is a crucial battle in the struggle between the potential 
for insurgency on one hand, and the potential for another 
restructuring of  class society on the other. 

The crisis of  whiteness bears with it a set of  unique 

opportunities, but also a set of  crippling limitations. The 
limits: Those who are recovering from middle class delu-
sions can be seen en masse concerning themselves with 
what brand of  tape to use so as not to hurt the walls of  
the capitol building, or thanking the armed police officers 
about to arrest them, or believing that the police and the 
union leadership is on their side, or having a whole range 
of  absurd ideas that the problems they face can be fixed 
by a recall election. Never mind a whole mythology of  
non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Some rather 
large pushes, activists, if  you wish to become dangerous.

The opportunity: Those for whom any event was always 

experienced as something that happened to other people 
are beginning to see themselves as the people they read 
about in the news: unemployed, homeless. Those for whom 
history was thought to have ended have found themselves 
the victims (and agents) of  its ceaseless progression (and 
potentially its explosion). Divorced from a past, from any 
means to reproduce themselves, from any of  the fictions 
promised to them as children, people are beginning to 
call into question all the assumptions and narratives upon 
which our social order is based. Those who months ago 
could never have seen themselves occupying buildings or 
sabotaging their workplaces have begun to find new ways 
to act together. To a certain degree, people are positioned 
to see that their own survival will be predicated on their 
own self-activity to destroy the conditions that have shaped 
their abysmal future. 

Identity In Crisis

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The collapse of  traditional subject positions begets the 

emergence of  new class positions of  exclusion: on the one 
hand total abjection and unwaged labor and on the other a 
diffusion of  technologies-of-the-self  constituting a global 
petite bourgeoisie. More realistically there will be a com-
plete indistinction and oscillation between these positions. 
The grim reality is that each individual will have to bring 
continually-innovated and newly-commodified aspects of  
her existence to sell on the market, or else starve. 

Contention Two:

 Re-creation  

and Technologies-of-the-Self

i

The new middle class is a class divorced from the promise 
of  steady employment, of  stable home-ownership, bur-
dened with ever-increasing debt and the ever-increasing 
necessity (since nothing can be taken for granted any lon-
ger) for self-upgrades in order to have a chance at continued 
employment. A middle class for whom the self  becomes 
a zero-capital enterprise, a class of  individuals who are at 
once utterly proletarianized (dispossessed, thrown into the 
street) and yet the pettiest of  the bourgeoisie, managing 
their own beings as little businesses. This new disposition 
replaces the structural role of  the older forms of  middle-
class subjectivity (namely, the suppression of  class struggle 
through the bonding of  workers’ survival to the survival 
of  capitalism, and the intensification of  the necessity of  
work through enormous quantities of  debt) by positioning 
the individual in conflict with himself. Class war becomes 
something that is waged internally between one’s prole-
tarian interests and one’s “better interests,” between self-
management and unmanageability, between the refusal of  
work, the scarcity of  work, and the impetus to work more 

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and more… The struggle in Wisconsin saw slogans such 
as “save the middle class” — which meant to save its struc-
tural form — but what the current struggles are effecting 
(because of  their positive character) is a restructuring of  
capitalism toward the global, virtual middle class.

We can give the name real subsumption to the pro-

cess by which a world created and operated through our 
muscles becomes a world operated through energy in the 
form of  fuel. Real subsumption marks the ability of  dead 
labor to dominate the living. When we say dead labor, we 
mean a vast array of  machines and apparatuses, produced 
by the living activity of  humans that is taken from them 
and comes to mediate their relationship to their own sur-
vival. This is the ultimate achievement of  capital: total 
alienation. The shift to privatized and commodified homes 
(made possible by the increasing centrality of  machinery 
in our daily lives) marked the onset of  what can be called 
the real subsumption of  life under capital.

While the real subsumption of  life under capital is 

taken for granted by many, we believe with the advent of  
a whole new set of  machines and apparatuses, that we are 
now experiencing what could be called the real subsump-
tion of  subjectivity. By this we mean the colonization and 
economization of  what it means to be alive at all — the 
totality of  our features, looks, interests, relationships, 
dispositions, inclinations, sexuality, gender, tastes, body 
parts, physique, etc. 

We can follow Foucault in his exploration of  what he 

called technologies-of-the-self. It seems natural that after 
twenty-five years of  inquiry into the production and dis-
ciplining of  subjectivities (madness, deviancy, criminality, 
sexuality) Foucault would turn to the study of  the ways in 
which people can deploy power to shape themselves. He 
named technologies of  the self  as the ability of  individuals 
to effect, by their own means or with the help of  others, 
a certain number of  operations on their own bodies and