Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Alberto López Cuenca

Writing Errancy: Outcasts, Capitalism and Mobility

Alberto López Cuenca

Mediating 'Piracy as a Business Force' by Adrian Johns in vol. 10 (2009) Pirate Philosophy

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurousoffshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, rag pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars: in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call ‘la bohème’.

With the ‘discovery’ of America in the 15th century, new ways of inhabiting the world had to be devised. For the Europeans, the so-called new world was not just a territory to be explored and evangelised but also a resource to be capitalised. Raw materials, gold and silver, and an unlimited workforce were made available. An unexpected space was found for the exploitation and expansion of the European empires. A true globalisation process took place and with it the configuration of a new experience of space. The American continent opened new and conflictive political horizons, not only in its territory but also in Europe – a reconfiguration of the world that made room for exploitation and also for freedom. The colonial expansion throughout the continent meant its integration into a global network of production and commerce. This subsumption of the new world was bloody and violent, annihilating forms of subsistence that were not productive for the Europeans, and giving rise to forms of slavery and subjection previously unheard of.

The modern side of colonial slavery consisted, in its capitalist form, as being concerned to extract as much value as possible by means of exhausting natural resources and workforce in order to guarantee an insatiable consumption of products that were in themselves addictive (tobacco, sugar, coffee, rum). Shaped by the economic trends fashionable at the time, why would the plantation system not become the dominant form of industrial labour in Europe as in the colonies?

As different forms of capitalist accumulation and social organisation were taking hold from the 16th century onwards, a whole array of individuals, practices and ways of life became unproductive within this new logic and, in due course, illegal. A drastic redistribution of resources and workforce took place. And so different forms of enclosure and privatisation hit the countryside, depriving large parts of the population of their communal lands and eradicating their customs and social bonds.

Historically, the ‘commons’ meant the agricultural fields used freely by farmers in England to grow food and pasture animals. Between 1500 and 1800, however, many of these common fields were transformed into private property in order to boost agricultural production, accommodate population changes, improve soil, advance industrial development, and bring lands under the control of wealthy aristocrats. This ‘enclosure’ movement transformed a traditional, communal method of agriculture into a system in which one person’s farm became separated from his neighbors.

This process of enclosure had many implications, among them: that a dispossessed workforce with no communal land to labour arose; that the labour of this workforce was used to produce benefits and not a common wealth; and that social relations became a by-product of their now salaried work and not the direct result of it. This process of enclosure did not take place just in England, however. In the American colonies, after the Spaniards took control, communal property and community based forms of production were displaced by the encomienda and the hacienda: large plots of land exploited by the native population in a condition of servitude, and devoted to a mass production that was not meant to feed the community but sold in the market for profit.

All in all there were a little over 500 encomenderos. Each encomendero was to oversee within his dominion – that is, his encomienda – the smooth-functioning of the already established social relations as well as put a stop to any insubordination. As a remuneration for his service to the Crown, he could keep the tribute of that dominion. Thus, the encomendero got his hands on a variety of products, besides the fact that he could make use of a large number of workers for almost anything he pleased. This sort of tribute, paid not in goods but in work, was known as personal service.

In the process of transforming the population into a productive workforce for nascent capitalism, a panoply of outcasts, unproductive and shadowy characters emerged, living not just at the margins but at the very centres of the burgeoning cities in Europe and the colonies: beggars, bandits, rascals, ragpickers, vagabonds and fugitive slaves spread all around.

I shall consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they will work, they can't work, and they won't work.

During the process of originary accumulation that took place before the 18th and 19th centuries and prior to the consolidation of the industrial working class that would later settle in cities, mobility was a regular trait among the population that had lost its communal land or its place within a community in the countryside.

Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are — socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered — but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers — the vagabond and the citizen — the nomadic and the civilized tribes.

During the consolidation of capitalism in Europe and the colonies, mobility would end up being related to precarity and illegality – when not directly linked to the condition of being a runaway. In connection to the newly expected productive working habits of the population, mobility was basically seen as a threat, and would then be condemned legally and morally.

Parinetto also argues that the flight, the travel, an important element in the charges against the witches, should be interpreted as an attack on the mobility of immigrants and itinerant workers, a new phenomenon, reflected in the fear of vagabonds, that much preoccupied the authorities in this period [the 16th Century]. Parinetto concludes that, viewed in its historical specificity, the nocturnal Sabbat appears as a demonization of the utopia embodied in the rebellion against the masters and the break-down of sexual roles, and it also represents a use of space and time contrary to the new capitalist work-discipline.

While seeking the systematic exploitation of people and resources, colonialism and the rapidly rising capitalism produced all sorts of precarious strategies of survival. These strategies could just be seen as unexpected side effects of, or even as minuscule resistances to, the newly imposed forms of life. However, a different sense of these strategies can be made which portrays them as being endemic to any process of hegemonisation. From this point of view, such practices of survival were articulated by – and so inextricably connected to and produced by – the conditions set by the different manifestations of capitalism and colonialism. Thus, with the rise of transatlantic navigation, new forms of commercial mobility spread and, with them, unexpected kinds of vagrancy and delinquency.

Piracy’s redistribution of wealth was considered to be a massive international problem, and pirates were declared to belong to no nation. In fact, piracy emerged as one of the earliest crimes of universal global jurisdiction in a time when nation-states were still carving out their own local absolute sovereignties. But piracy was not merely a problem of the failure of the implementation or enforcement of the laws of property. Piracy also established an alternative ethic and an alternate mode of being. Piracy was democratic in an undemocratic age and egalitarian in a highly unequal age. Linebaugh and Rediker provide various accounts of instances in which the pirate ship inverted all rules of social hierarchy and in which, for brief spells, the laws of private property were suspended to allow for experimentation with alternative social imaginaries, even if only very briefly.

Piracy was a threat to business and to colonial politics. But it also became a new way to make errants, fugitives and delinquents productive for the State and commerce. The reliance on privateers and letter of marquee to foster business made clear how useful piracy could be, especially during the 17th century. However, piracy did not always produce what was generally expected of it and easily went out of control. This was a somewhat paraxodical state of affairs, since by then piracy had proved to be valuable both for capitalism's continual renewal and expansion and also as the place in which different lives could be lived.

The ship thus became both an engine of capitalism in the wake of bourgeois revolution in England and a setting of resistance, a place to which and in which the ideas and practices of revolutionaries defeated and repressed by Cromwell and then by King Charles escaped, re-formed, circulated, and persisted.

*

French situationist Guy Debord became openly interested in Spain in the late 1970s. He subsequently wrote a letter of support for libertarians incarcerated at the Segovia prison and published a translation of Jorge Manrique’s Verses on the death of Don Rodrigo Manrique, his Father in 1979. Manrique’s poem is a late 15th century literary classic in which the metaphors of life as travel, the world as a road and so of man as a walker – homo viator – play a key role.

This world is but the rugged road
Which leads us to the bright abode
Of peace above;
So let us choose that narrow way,
Which leads no traveller's foot astray
From realms of love.

Debord was also a devoted reader of Baltasar Gracián, whom he frequently celebrates. Gracián´s best known piece is El criticón ( The Critic), a novel that interrogates the meaning of life, echoing a popular genre in Spain’s 17th century literature: that of the picaresque novel. A pícaro (rascal), who very often speaks of his adventures in the first person, is the main character of these novels in which he tells, in a very crude and satirical tone, the story of his struggles to survive in a cruel and unjust society. As in other picaresque tales, the two main characters in El criticón engage in a journey that takes them to different sites – from the royal court to a madhouse – in which the unexpected presence of these outsiders unveils the excess and misery that gripped the society of the time.

This was one of those strange characters that are found in the varied travels of life, of such a weird ability that to all of those that he met he was telling them the fortune of their life and its whereabouts.

In the early 1980’s, Debord’s fascination with Spain took him to the city of Seville, where he lived for some time. He was so enthralled by the place that he planned to make a film recounting Spain’s history. The film that was to focus mainly on Andalusia.

I have resided in Italy and Spain, principally in Florence and Seville – in Babylon, as they said in the Golden Age...

A key character in the early stages of the International Situationist was painter and visionary urbanist Constant Nieuwenhuys. As with Debord and other fellow travellers at the Situationist International (IS), Constant was particularly interested in liberating everyday life from the yoke of capitalist rationalization and control. Instead of the emptiness and boredom of modern existence, a liberated life would be ludic and creative – aspects he found paradigmatically embodied in mobility. Constant’s best known project, conceived in the mid-1950’s, concerned the utopian urban planning where this new creative classless society would unfold, which he termed New Babylon.

Starting from this freedom in time and space, we would arrive at a new kind of urbanization. Mobility, the incessant fluctuation of the population – a logical consequence of this new freedom – creates a different relation between town and settlement. With no timetable to respect, with no fixed abode, the human being will of necessity become acquainted with a nomadic way of life in an artificial, wholly 'constructed' environment. Let us call this environment New Babylon and add that it has nothing, or almost nothing, about it of a 'town,' in the traditional sense of the term.

Constant’s New Babylon was meant to undermine the productivist logic of capitalism and its rationalised organisation of time and space in the modern city. Idleness, loitering, errancy were to be guiding practices in New Babylon. If they were not openly criminalised by the laws of the time, these (in)activities were commonly thought of as a breeding ground for criminals.

‘You got any identification, mister?’ the policeman asked in a voice that hoped Ignatius was officially unidentified.
‘What?’ Ignatius looked down upon the badge on the blue cap. ‘Who are you?’
‘Let me see your driver’s license.’
‘I don’t drive. Will you kindly go away? I am waiting for my mother.’
‘What’s this hanging out of your bag?’
‘What do you think it is, stupid? It’s a string for my lute.’
‘What’s that?’ The policeman drew back a little. ‘Are you local?’
‘Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?’ Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. ‘This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavour to discuss the crime problem with you, but don’t make the mistake of bothering me.’

Constant noticed the fine – and moving – line that separates crime from artistic creativity, to the point of frequently merging from the legal and moral perspective of capitalism. He understood the creative as well as the criminal act as transgressions of the approved social mores.

Those who cannot adapt to the structures of utilitarian society condemn themselves to isolation. These are the 'asocial' types, a term often synonymous with 'criminal.' 'Criminality' presupposes transgression of constituted social relations, which explains the different interpretations of which it has been the object. Crime, 'the criminal act,' disturbs the order of these relations and society reacts by eliminating the guilty person. When, from a totally different perspective, 'the criminal act' is considered as an expression of a frustrated will to power, and in admitting that, sublimated, the will to power is transformed into creativity, the 'crime' becomes no more than an abortive attempt at creation. The attitude of the criminal vis-a-vis reality is no more passive than the artist's, since he too intervenes in a given situation. But while the creative act brings together destruction and construction, lending them balance, the criminal privileges destruction. Yet the artist's intervention displays, at least as regards utilitarian society, an 'asocial' attitude whose effect is barely distinguishable from that of the crime.

Constant had a precise source of inspiration for this relationship between creativity and criminality. Indeed, his liberated new babylonians – the sort of artistic criminals that would inhabit his utopian urban spaces – were based on a concrete social character.

The anticapitalist and somewhat criminal nature of the business practices of these nomadic gypsies, and their willingness to transform space through recreational activity (circus, song and dance, fiestas), are referred to throughout the guidelines of the unitary town planning developed by Constant in these works. If he was seeking examples of recreational societies in order to challenge the utilitarian models of capitalism and socialism, then the gypsies provided such a model, as they had done for some time.

Different motives have been put forward century after century, by the Spanish monarchy right up to the Nazi regime, to repress and persecute the gypsy population. Besides speaking a different language and the sort of unproductive work they engage in, the recurrent accusation raised against them has concerned their nomadism – gypsies just could not be located in a fixed place.

These people that consider themselves gypsies are not, neither by origin nor by nature, but only because they have taken this form of life for so damaging effects as we suffer them and with no benefit for the republic.

Constant himself explained how he found gypsies’ temporary settlements and nomadic life (i.e. their disruptive use of space and time) as direct inspiration for devising the urban structure of his New Babylon.

The gypsies who stopped awhile in the little Piedmontese town of Alba were in the habit of camping beneath the roof that, once a week, on Saturday, housed the livestock market. There they lit fires, hung their tents from the pillars to protect or isolate themselves, improvised shelters with the aid of boxes and planks left behind by the traders. The need to clean up the market place every time the Zingari passed through had left the town council to forbid them access. In compensation, they were assigned a bit of grassland on the banks of the Tamaro, the stream that passes through the town: the most miserable of patches! It was there that in December 1956 I went to see them in the company of the painter Pinot Gallizio, the owner who had conceded them this uneven, muddy, desolate plot of land. They had closed off the space between some caravans with planks and petrol cans; they had made an enclosure, a ‘gypsy town’. That was the day I conceived the scheme for a permanent encampment for the gypsies of Alba and that project is the origin of the series of mockups of New Babylon. Of a New Babylon where, under one roof and with the aid of moveable elements, a shared residence is built; a temporary, constantly remodelled living area; a camp for nomads on a planetary scale.

This link between nomadism and freedom, art and the authentic life was not at all new. It had become a cornerstone in the construction of the idea of the artist in 19th century France. Not only were gypsies a topic frequently depicted and celebrated in paintings and engravings, poems, operas and music treaties, the true artist actually claimed to be a gypsy.

In our oh-so-civilized society it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage... To that end, I have just set out on the great, independent, vagabond life of the gypsy.

This conceptual constellation that relates zingari and art, freedom, mobility and criminality, lies at the bottom of the Situationist International’s fascination with the gypsy lifestyle. It makes sense, as the very French term for ‘gypsy’ in the 19th century – bohème – would end up paradigmatically naming the free and anti-bourgeois poet and painter as well as other socially transgressive characters.

Maybe unconsciously, artists were expressing not just their isolation from society but also their sensibility regarding pressing social forces. Facing the rise of urban and industrial capitalism, they could look back on the lifestyle of archetypical travellers such as gypsies to find an enviable natural state of independence.

Besides Debord and Constant, the devotion for the lifestyle of gypsies was shared by other members of the IS. Debord’s partner, Alice Becker-Ho, wrote a trilogy of books on argot, jergon and romani language and slang – a celebration of the hurly-burly of criminal and underclass speeches. For Becker-Ho, any hegemonic form of speaking is driven by the will to power and control. This is why argots manifest a struggle for survival. They are remnants of the modus vivendi of the ‘dangerous classes’. They are ways of escaping the language of power and the life it demands.

Only with the creation of a new language did the criminals of the fifteenth century effectively organize an independent and unified practice. The term argot (brotherhood of rogues), the name they gave to themselves, became fused later on with their language… Thus it was only when they came into contact with those dangerous classes making their way out of the European old world that most American blacks stopped speaking the enemy's language that, along with slavery itself, they had been learning.

*

Marx thought that the authentic life took place outside the factory. When a worker’s daily waged labour ended, then the real production of life started. Thus only when pleasure, desire and conviviality were preponderant would a human existence worthy of the name occur. Actually, the spread of this form of emancipated labour would entail a different form of collective life.

One form of doing, labour, creates capital... Another form of doing, what we call simply ‘doing’ pushes against the creation of capital and towards the creation of a different society.

A shared conviction in 19th century German philosophy was that the place where humanity could truly express its freedom was in the realm of art. The production and experience of art was necessarily free of any constraint. Art was undertaken for the mere pleasure of the experience of it and was supposed to materially manifest the inner and unbound consciousness of the artist. Art was then a sort of miraculous moment in which objectivity (i.e. necessity) and subjectivity (i.e. freedom) were articulated. And it was through the play of imagination and creativity that this fragile and surprising encounter was made possible. Developing on Marx’s idea, art and creativity could then be conceived as the manifestation of genuinely emancipated labour: truly free and pleasurable labour. Artistic life would then be the life worth living.

For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays... I promise you that the whole edifice of aesthetic art and the still more difficult art of life will be supported by this principle.

Marx, however, did not write in any detail about art, much less did he see in it any emancipatory potential. Actually, the opposite seems to have been the case. Many artists, as part of the bohème of the period, were thought to be just a part of the lumpen-proletariat: a motley crew of declassed individuals striving for survival who lacked any class consciousness. This lack did not only make them worthless for advancing the proletarian revolution, it was an obstacle to it.

In a letter to Cafiero, Engels describes the lumpen mob as follows: '[T]he camp of whores and gypsies, and the resort of only the discontented peasant mass, enlightened and esoteric, mystical and rash, or of those scabby bootblacks, beggars and hit men, who are inevitably as much an enemy of the proletariat as the Reaction … When the Proletariat is victorious it must crush them.'

It seems that neither for capitalism nor for the Marxist project of emancipation was there enough space for the outcasts to fit into. They were just remnants which had to be dealt with by regulating, excluding or exterminating them. They could not be thought of other than as an unwanted result, a failure.

In sum, the Lumpen as left-over can never be entirely disposed of (Bataille) nor entirely re-integrated (Benjamin), for its status as remainder ties it to the system that both excludes and subsumes it by turn. As Marx’s analysis of Louis Bonaparte’s coalition of the abject and the sublime implies, Benjamin’s redemptive and Bataille’s anti-redemptive views of culture rejoin one another in a closed circuit, summed up in the ambiguous figure of the ragpicker, the very personification of the Lumpen in his alternation between recycling entrepreneur and drunken waster, conservative capitalist and subversive outcast.

However, during the 20th century a large part of the bohème and outcasts have been vindicated and have developed their ties to revolutionary movements as well as being integrated into the most diverse forms of commercial entrepreneurship. From too obvious a perspective, capitalism is in need of gypsies and all sorts of outcasts to form an avant-garde that creates new opportunities for business and commerce. Morally dubious when not openly illegal practices, they constitute borders that the continuous expansion of capitalism traverse – be they related to drugs, genomics, art or sex. By normalising these unacceptable practices the market manages to keep expanding. This array of dangerous outcasts and outlaws may well join the ranks of a precarious force of creative producers – one that is morally and politically risky but profitable if adequately managed.

The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumer’s goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.

It is precisely the entanglement between productive and unproductive practices, between waged and emancipated labour during the 20th century that has led to a situation that is less clear cut – one in which refuting Marx, alienation and pleasure are not so far apart. In a very disconcerting twist, the dissolution of the oppositions between labour and leisure, freedom and necessity that the communist utopia offered has apparently been attained by capitalism. It seems that capitalism has managed to integrate art and the authentic life under its alienating logic of production. Capitalism and life are no longer a contradiction, as Marx postulated.

Contemporary capitalism suggests that capital has become a form of life, and art or culture has been bent to this end. Opposition to capitalism is therefore no longer a matter of life versus capital, but of non-capitalist life versus capitalist life.

The realm of creativity and freedom, of joy and art, which was thought to be unassailable for capitalism, has become one of its most fruitful resources. Creativity has turned from a source of transgression of constituted social norms to a model for capitalism’s productive labour. It has been the very source of the dissolution of the relation between employer and employee, working and spare time that has made possible the rise of the ‘entrepreneur of himself’. In order to make freedom and creativity productive it must be the individual herself who exploits them as an entrepreneur.

This idea of the individual as an entrepreneur of her/himself is the culmination of capital as a machine of subjectivation…The great difference from Keynesian liberalism is that this freedom, which must be created and organized, is above all the freedom of business and of the entrepreneur, while the freedom of ‘labour’, of the ‘consumer’, of politics, elements which were at the heart of the Keynesian intervention, must be radically subordinated to it. It is always about the freedom of the entrepreneurs.

In the process of putting creativity to work for the productivist logic of capitalism, mobility has come to play a central role while at the same time being necessarily redefined. With capitalism unfolding and imposing its demands on the population to become productive, moving freely had been systematically perceived up until the late 20th century as a danger and as a threat to social life. Mobility had been regulated, declared illegal and prosecuted. Apparently, this is not the case any longer. Even though mobility is still related to precarious working conditions and a hazardous life, it now bears a positive connotation.

However, the seemingly antithetical ideas of bohemian errancy and bourgeoise social mobility came to be strange bedfellows formulated in terms of progress and innovation. Both the gypsy and the bohemian artist were considered to épater le bourgeois but, at the end of the day, the normative order would not stop being interested in them.

Yet the current use of the term mobility hides any references to spatial moving. Border crossing and the geographical displacement of individuals have never been more regulated and difficult than they are today. Mobility has been basically equated with flexible labour conditions, part-time jobs and continuous education (i.e. a never ending process of social and economic adjustment).

Since the mobility of ‘little people’ is most often something imposed on them, it is not really likely to generate a network. Buffeted by circumstances that are dictated by the end of their contracts, they run from one employer to the next so as not to drop off the radar completely. They circulate like goods in a network whose links they have no control over. They are then exchanged by others, who use them to maintain their own connections. As we explain when we refer to the nature of exploitation within the network, the mobility of the great person, the source of fulfilment and of profit, is the exact opposite of the mobility of the little person, which is nothing but poverty and precarity. Or, to use one of our formulas: the mobility of the exploiter is counterbalanced by the flexibility of the exploited.

Today, the creative city is contemporary capitalism’s urban consolidation of this redefinition of mobility. Creativity and freedom are celebrated in order to regulate the way the city is used and experienced. In the name of the supposedly emancipated practices of creativity, unwanted forms of mobility and unproductive ways of inhabiting the city are excluded or exploited.

If you are a scientist or engineer, an architect or designer, a writer, artist, or musician, or if your creativity is a key factor in your work in business, education, health care, law, or some other profession, you are a member.

It seems that just some kinds of mobility have moved out of the shadows of illegality. The key here are the dispositifs that have made the regulation of mobility possible, because there is nothing intrinsically antagonistic about mobility: neither in art nor in creativity for that matter. There is nothing necessarily productive in them for capitalism either. Since the 16th century, the critical power or the productive success of those practices undertaken by the outcasts were dependent on the ways in which the different and evolving forms of capitalism were able (or unable) to integrate them in time and space. The status of those practices are thus anything but stable. The very notion of mobility is unstable. It apparently requires a clear textual articulation in order to produce any precise significance. In this (con)text, errancy keeps meaning.

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