Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Precarious Communism:
Manifest Mutations, Manifesto Detourned

Reviewed by Matt Bernico
Greenville College

[1] The changing landscape of 21st century capitalism requires communists, anarchists and leftists of all types to renegotiate theoretical positions with the prevailing historical conditions. Richard Gilman-Opalsky does just this in his new book Precarious Communism: Manifest Mutations, Manifesto Detourned. Precarious Communism gives a carefully constructed, yet radical new direction to critiques of capitalism and communism. The new direction is performed in an innovative way, not simply text, but détournement. Gilman-Opalsky's text uses détournement as a philosophical method to give new life to Marx's 1848 manifesto. Gilman-Opalsky's détournement is a beautiful work that makes a possible, but precarious, space for new plateaus of revolt as well as a multiplicity of autonomist manifestos. The overall argument in Gilman-Opalsky's détourned text is a push for a theory of precarity that informs the critique and practice of communists and anarchists.

[2] Using détournement as a medium and methodology for a philosophical text is an interesting choice. Détournement is the practice of "hijacking or rerouting of primary source material against itself, beyond its original intentions." [1] To détourn a text is a political practice that calls back to Guy Debord and the work of the Situationist International. Here, Gilman-Opalsky stretches détournement as more than just a hijacking; he uses it as a long form philosophical method. It shapes the overall structure and content of the text itself. In the text, Gilman-Opalsky uses détournement to make a strong critique as well as helpful update to Marx's manifesto. détournement is a means by which one can get very close to the text, to co-opt it, and to make Marx's manifesto "speak to different historical and political contexts." [2]

[3] While détournement makes for an innovative and exciting project, without an intimate knowledge of Marx's manifesto one might miss the importance of the medium all together. The détournement lies at the subterranean depths below the words of the text, one might not even realize it is there if one is not familiar with Marx or one carelessly skips over the introduction. However, this negligence would be a detriment to the reader. Détournement is often walled off and subsumed by "culture jamming," however this is a rather careless mistake perpetrated by those not paying close enough attention to project of Debord and the SI. Détournement does not belong only to the realm of Adbusters or visual culture, but to the trajectory of subversive aesthetics. Gilman-Opalsky's text is helpful in that it stretches détournement toward new aesthetic and political horizons.

[4] The performance of détournement in a philosophical locus does something unique. It changes the way philosophers interact with historical texts: "détourning" a philosophical text lets us reroute the energies and insight of the text toward contemporary situations. It is an act of deterritorializing and reterritorializing, undoing various institutionalizations or fixities and making the text speak again. Détournement does something that simple close readings cannot; it puts the author and readers back into the spirit of the text. Interacting with a text like Marx's manifesto may be rather historical: it is like a corpse that has been pinned down. détournement of a philosophical text re-animates or resurrects the corpse. The manifesto becomes something dynamic again.

[5] Gilman-Opalsky's détournement of Marx's manifesto leads in an overall helpful direction for rethinking what it means to be a communist or anarchist in 21st century capitalism. Marx certainly recognized the precariousness of labor and life in industrial capitalism. This is what Marx calls everlasting uncertainty brought on by the "constant revolutionizing of production" [3] While Marx recognizes precarity; Gilman-Opalsky updates Marx by way of détournement. Marx's industrialized capitalism brought everlasting uncertainty, though further bourgeois revolutions in production amplify this uncertainty. [4]

[6] Gilman-Opalsky demonstrates the dual meaning and use of precarity throughout his text. On the one hand, the 99% as well as the 1% are precarious, anxious and unsure about the future. The other meaning of "precarious" that is important for Gilman-Opalsky's text is precariousness as philosophical disposition or an uncertainty. The first meaning of precarity is rather normative in current discourses on labor, however the second is far more interesting. This second understanding of precarity is wrapped up in the title of the text: Precarious Communism, though what is a precarious communist? The precarious communist is one who defends the logic of communism, but remains uncertain about those characteristics of former "communist" struggles. The only defining characteristics of this subjectivity are that in many differentiated and perhaps opportunistic ways they try to "exacerbate the breaking apart of both the ideological and material bases of existing society and its operational logic." [5] The precarious communist is unsure or uncertain about party politics, the state and so on. This philosophical disposition urges a skepticism toward the central characteristics of past communist projects.

[7] Gilman-Opalsky identifies a logic of communism that precarious communists might defend and desire: an "overall health of the commons" and an "ethical obligation to others." [6] In this way, precarious communism is a type of weak thought; it continues the project of Marx while also rethinking the communist project in light of the history of the 20th century. The precariousness of precarious communism is a philosophical disposition: it is uncertain in the face of ideology. "Ideology is far too certain for anxious, precarious people; uncertainty is the enemy of ideology. Uncertainty has been the oxygen of philosophy, going all the way back to Socrates." [7] To be a precarious communist is also to be a philosophical, meditative and critical communist. Philosophical does not mean precarious communists are all academic, but simply that they carry that spirit of Socrates with them, they question and annihilate ideology.

[8] Precarious communism is a welcome advancement in the current discourse in political theory and action as new theories of political struggle are desperately needed. One particularly interesting point in Gilman-Opalsky's text is his section concerning technology and the body (New Expropriations of Brains from Bodies). This section détourns and updates the latter half Marx's Bourgeoisie and Proletarians explaining the new terrain of cellular time in labor. Essentially, Gilman-Opalsky analyzes Manuel Castells and Franco Berardi's thoughts on the informationalization of labor in 21st century capitalism. Largely, Gilman-Opalsky gets it right. "Practically, what cellular time does is obliterate time 'after work.' In your pocket, always on your person, messages find you." [8] Here, Gilman-Opalsky works to build a theory of labor that accurately describes the more technological and digital means of production. The axiom of this diagnosis is that cellular technology and apparatuses of digital labor merge free or leisure time into labor time.

[9] Tackling the intersection of capitalism and technology is a part of the fashionable discourse in contemporary critical theory. There are two contending ways of approaching the topic. The first approach deals with the design and aesthetics of technological deployments and political economy specifically. The second strategy or approach leaves the deployments abstractly defined and work to understand the logic driving these technical deployments. Gilman-Opalsky follows this second approach.

[10] This second approach is helpful in that it demonstrates the ways ideology becomes material in capitalism. Gilman-Opalsky's adoption of the second approach to the problem demonstrates the capacity or limit to the approach. The problem that emerges is that it forgets the minutia and technicality of human interaction: mediation exists alongside all human interaction and one ought to consider the technology of these interactions carefully. Technology is nothing besides the product of human life and to reify it as something foreign may misunderstand the subject. Gilman-Opalsky says, "The issue is not technology, but its operational logic. Technology is not intrinsically neutral because it exists in its many current forms as the result of research, design, development, and implementation governed by the logic of capital." [9] While largely this is true, the description here misses the cross contaminations in the logic of techne. Not only does capital direct the deployment of technology, but also technology affects the mobility and technique of capital. The problem is that capitalism is mediated and this mediation limits the mobility of capitalism, there is a dialectic relationship between technologies and capital in the way they affect one another. This cross contamination of ideology and technique is often more adequately described in the first approach concerning technology and capitalism.

[11] Richard Gilman-Opalsky's Precarious Communism: Manifest Mutations, Manifesto Detourned gives new breadth and depth to Marx's manifesto. Gilman-Opalsky détourns Marx's work for a new autonomist manifesto: a mutation that may inform communist and anarchist theory while also creating tools for more autonomist manifestos in the future. This approach to détourning a philosophical text does something subversive and possibly blasphemous to the text itself, but it also gives activists and philosophers something new to work with; a new grounding to rethink communism and anarchism in contemporary society. This is not the last manifesto, another corpse for academics pin down and dissect, but a new opening or plateau for further theory and practice. To be a precarious communist is to believe in the liberating power of uncertainty: it is to understand ideology as an enemy and to become ungovernable by it. Precarious Communism demonstrates the insight necessary for carrying on and refreshing the communist project.


Gilman-Opalsky, Richard. Precarious Communism: Manifest Mutations, Manifesto Detourned. Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2014.

Marx, Karl, and Eugene Kamenka. The portable Karl Marx. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.


[1] Gilman-Opalsky, Richard. Precarious Communism: Manifest Mutations. Manifesto Detourned. Pg. 6.

[2] Ibid, pg 9.

[3] Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Pg 207.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gilman-Opalsky, Richard. Precarious Communism: Manifest Mutations. Manifesto Detourned. Pg. 67.

[6] Ibid, 66.

[7] Ibid, 67.

[8] Ibid, 25.

[9] Ibid, 27.