The Landing: Fascists without Fascism

We can imagine a person slowly becoming aware that he is the subject of catastrophe. The form of consciousness might be likened to someone peering out the window of a plane. They have been aboard for a long time, years, decades. From cruising altitude the landscape below scrolls past evenly, somewhat abstracted. The stabilizing mechanisms of eye and brain smooth the scene. Perhaps they are somewhere above the upper midwest. Their knowledge of the miseries that have seized flyover country hovers at the periphery of a becalmed boredom. Steady hum of the jet engines, sense of stillness. Borne by prevailing winds the first balloonists detected no wind whatsoever. So this flight. Though the passengers will never travel faster than this they scarcely feel any motion at all.

It is only coming in for a landing that the shaking begins. Structural shaking. Gradient wind at the boundary layer. The ground just below — say it is the terrain around Detroit Metropolitan airport — rushes past at inhuman velocity. It too seems to shake. The eye can’t keep up, can’t smooth things out, can’t register passing objects before they’re gone. Everything happens too quickly. A prelude to disaster? Disaster itself? The signs and portents come too swiftly to discern, replaced as rapidly as they appeared. Panic seizes the passenger. It feels like a sudden event, unsuspected, unforeseeable, begun from nothing, the world coming apart.

So the presidential election of 2016 seemed to those on the plane: the crossing of some threshold wherein political life seemed to acquire an unprecedented and terrifying velocity at the last moment, bringing to a sudden end what now seemed, to those who could afford retrospection, like an era of calm — or at least an era of relative decency, competence, and above all the centrist rationality of the long two-party compact.

Perhaps the political class and its courtiers, possessors of the liberal worldview, thought this compact could be preserved for another four or eight or twenty years. They could not imagine it was time to come in for a landing. Surely the managerial teams and techniques could persevere just a bit longer? And yet it is clear that we had been descending at this deadly velocity all along, things ceaselessly shaking apart. This disaster movie ambience is none other than history in flight, the U.S. era and accompanying organization of the planet that has been ending for more than forty years, a turbulence that has seized the world unevenly but now seems finally to be everywhere, impossible to stabilize. This then is the riddle of Trump: the way in which he appears as a catastrophic break with history precisely because he is that history’s avatar, gathering it into himself so that what has happened is obscured by what is happening, singular, condensed, personal — anything but the consequence of an enduring trajectory.

The results of the election surprised us, without a doubt. This even as the right/left spectrum that had oriented us for more than two centuries fell into collapse: Hollande in France finally destroying the labor protections which had stood off the assaults of the right;  SYRIZA discovering its socialist fate was to ignore heroically a national referendum against, so as to become an instrument of the European banking sector; the Brexit vote unfolding across a series of oppositions between classes, races, south and north, city and country, but with Labor and Tory providing no explanatory power whatsoever. Nonetheless we thought the long disaster would appear elsewhere and otherwise. But what surprised us the most was how many people still seemed to believe that the current interregnum, the long non-recovery, could last indefinitely. That the shaking would never begin, that the bomb was all fuse and no powder. This delusion finally proved deadly for the liberal panderers. In the infinite effusion of campaign blather, the only moment of truth on offer belonged to Trump, hidden in the cargo of his slogan Make America Great Again. We all understood, instantly, that this meant make America white again, male again, straight again, cis again, and so on. In the wake of the racist hatred of Obama and the anxiety provoked by the rise of a national movement opposed to the police privilege of shooting black kids, crude xenophobia seemed a timely play. Trump did so without shame. The shamelessness was part of the appeal. But these appeals were not truths; they were the open carry version of Southern Strategy. The truth was in admitting to the great congregation, as no candidate from either party had done previously in any significant way, that our best was behind us. We were not great, we were the wreckage of greatness. We had a greatness once, which was indexed punctually to the success of the great industries on which the nation rose. When the profit rate tumbled downhill, it took greatness with it. Things got worse for a lot of people.

This has been ongoing. In 2008, it was Obama who promised something different, first under the rubric of humanistic progress — the first black president! — and then formalistic “change” as such. The Republican party, contrarily, stood for continuity, conservatism, a steady hand, no surprises for its constituency, traditional values, and the like. The 2016 election is unique in the reversal of this ideological polarity; while Republicans have previously run as outsiders, never before have they seized the thematic of change as their own. Clinton found herself as the mouthpiece of continuity and conservatism, the steady-handed technocrat who would preserve America’s greatness as needed, here a coup, there a trade deal, everywhere a drone strike. The problem is that, in our era, what passes for the status quo is pure contradiction: it is things staying the same by getting worse. Such was the best promise Clinton could make.

Trump, however, was as forthright as a presidential candidate could be about the long crisis of hegemony unraveling. This far more than his boorishness was intolerable to many in his own party, as well as to the Democrats who might have owned this historical truth years ago. Trump blasts away the same to reveal the worse all at once, to announce the terrible century to come. It is Trump and his cabinet of horrors who have become the party of change, of the new. There is no avoiding it now.

In the preceding decades it must have been eerie to encounter the hysterical disavowal of what was each year a more obvious fact, year after year, election after election. The not-said, the unsayable. This must have felt particularly uncanny in the counties where the decline was a daily brutality, where industrial employment had given way not to tech or the service industries but to opioid addiction and, for the first time in national history, declining life expectancy. To imagine Trump’s victory, engineered via electoral college mechanics whose gyres and gimbals pivoted on the very voters whose lives had been annihilated by those decades, as separate from these developments would be an absurdity.

But this in and of itself does not imply that Trump could deliver the change he promised, particularly the change that these counties imagined. For if the catastrophe of Trump is not an inexplicable and sudden event but the outcome of a long transformation driven by underlying dynamics that are relatively immune to executive policy, a new executive is in the most limited position to reverse its course. Making the worst of a bad situation, however, might be more within reach.

II.

For the passengers on the plane, the interregnum between election and ascension would be filled with anxiety, regret, and a generation’s supply of left-shaming. Liberal grief, as we have learned, will brook no reason nor reflection. Each explanation of what had happened was less plausible than the last, devolving into insipid oppositions of race and class in particular that suggested we had lost intellectual ground since the supposedly less sophisticated days of the fifties, or thirties, or the Red Hot Summer of 1919. Elsewhere a few energetic marches against the outcome came and went, in Oakland and elsewhere turning riotous. People began to get organized. Everywhere, however, there seemed to be a problem of measure, a readiness to believe in a metamorphosis of all social relations without any sense of how to determine whether this was the case or how to describe it. Beneath the noise, though, the right question was being asked: the question of Trump more broadly, concerning how to recognize the moment in which a tendency, a long drift, becomes a phase shift — the dialectical leap from quantity to quality which dramatizes historical change.

Meanwhile it was autumn and then winter. Amidst all of this resentment and dread, there was only the most limited sense of what might happen next, what Trump would or could do. It was common enough to believe that institutional inertia would limit his lunatic bellicosity. Clintonites and Sandernistas alike offered secret prayers to the “deep state” — a phrase ten million experts had acquired rather recently, during the tragic collapse of the Arab Spring. The deep state, perhaps reasonably, functions in this imaginary like Freud’s death drive, an absolute and prior compulsion to return things to a previous and less volatile condition. To bring the good parent back into the room. So went the prayers of November, December. In short, it was not yet too late for the fantasy of stability, of things-as-they-were. This as much as anything spoke the unsayable complicity of the center. In truth the imaginary was simply that structure itself could hold things together, the political-economic system’s very systematicity. Such a hope exists uncomfortably alongside ideas like structural racism or structural violence, deadly social phenomena which are necessarily a part of what is devoutly wished for through the invocation of the deep state. Only by supposing the term designates some specific entity can this unpleasant truth be repressed. No matter. If a cringing fealty to the very bureaucratic domination so regularly decried at dinner parties provided solace, if obeisance to an unelected security apparatus were what it took to hold off the shaking, so be it.

The first weeks after the inauguration have been an assault designed to produce this sort of desperate reaction. Nothing that would improve the living conditions of the Rust Belt. Instead, a show of something like imperial madness directed against Muslims, immigrants, the poor, blacks, women, political protesters. The Executive Orders in particular have endeavored to terrify and disorient, to contrive the experience of an unprecedented break while mobilizing machinery continued from Obama. They are absolute and immediate. A week bears a year of travesties. Agitated to exhaustion, a population remains nonetheless on bewildered alert. The anxious buzz of activism, of being ceaselessly summoned to attend to some political crisis — an affect once proper to a self-selected band of spectacular summit-hoppers imagined by the conventional voter as freaks pursuing an alien lifestyle — now comes to permeate all quarters. It proves strange to schedule a date for the movies on Friday night without appending, “…if there are no emergencies.” We must march now for this, now that; must gather swiftly at Planned Parenthood or outside the latest white nationalist pep rally. Anything could happen next.

Except that it can’t. This is not to join in those obscene prayers to the deep state. Just to note that all the players, the president, the state, capital, the gathering mass of antagonists, operate within constraints. The limits are historical. They mediate the present moment even while they appear as an absolute immediacy. To offer another analogy, one might consider a financial crisis: seeming to the casual viewer or submissive economist to appear from nowhere, laying waste to the landscape overnight, lacking origin or warning, it is in fact years and years of material devastation gathering, coiling itself in the corners of what we had been calling daily life, before detonating as if it were a singular event. Canetti described Christianity as a single act of lamentation spread across millennia. The Age of Trump is this very thing, inverted: decades of social disaster compressed into a single season. This disaster supplies him both with his power and his shackles.

In the counties around Detroit Metropolitan airport, white flight and black unemployment are well-known tales. Lesser-known, perhaps, is the dramatic influx of laborers from the Arab world that began more than a century ago and took off with the auto industry in the 1920s until Al Jadid called Detroit the “Arab Capital of North America.” In Dearborn, home of Ford’s River Rouge plant, almost half the population is of Arab descent. As the borders close against the very countries that have populated the region even as affluent whites have slipped away, it will be in part because Trump believes his power lies in the erection of walls, cell walls for racialized exclusion at home, border walls to exclude immigrants from abroad — believes in the construction of Prison America behind the ramparts of Fortress America, believes that harassing and deporting the Arabs of Dearborn and Flint will somehow bring the factories back. This will not be the fate of Michigan, the Rust Belt, anywhere else. The meaning of Trump cannot be understood without a sober survey of its source in transformations of real conditions since at least the late sixties when the descent began. Perfectly false in every regard, he is the real of the long crisis writ large. Writ large is his thing. Has any name been writ larger in recent memories, hovering over a series of hideously exemplary real estate ventures?

Here it is worth restating that this confusion is made by design. It suits Trump well, this shock-and-awe approach that allows him to appear for a moment infinitely potent, unconstrained by the pettiness of reality. But it suits the jetliner’s passengers equally well. They too are compelled to treat Trump as magical errancy, as event, as a present without history. For only in this claim does the fantasy of restoration appear as plausible. Only by pitting the unnumbered exceptionalism of Trump against the irrevocable exceptionalism of America can they propose that the remedy is some return to a status quo only they believe exists, and only a few of them at that; for the rest it is calculation. They will assure us that we have no choice, in this moment wherein long fissures have opened into a break, other than to do whatever it takes to revert to how it was before, resuture ourselves to the center, elect Clinton in some surrogate form as part of a great do-over. They too belong to the death drive. Or it is the most cynical utopianism one could imagine. More practically, it cannot be done. Restoration is less possible than civilizational collapse or communism. Just because the catastrophe is explicable, has a real basis, does not mean that it is not catastrophe. That plane was coming down. We are all of us standing in the debris.

III

Trump is the truth of the long crisis, of the recent and not-so-recent past. But he may also be the truth of class society’s near and not-so-near future, if it is to have any. It is possible that Trump represents an exploratory mission by the global ruling class, surveying the landscape of senescent capitalism and determining the precise brutalities appropriate to it. Furthermore, he takes over where the emancipatory movements launching from 2008 tried themselves to bring some frail new thing into the world, tried to elaborate modes of struggle after the death of the worker’s movement — he takes up where they were were stymied, knocked off course, rendered harmless. From Nigel Farage to Beppe Grillo, the global right-populist class of 2016 is an injured reaction to these emancipatory movements but also an attempt to racialize and nationalize their promises: a cop-loving riposte to the ontological insult of Black Lives Matter, for example, but also an attempt to hijack the populism of Tahrir and Syntagma and Occupy. After SYRIZA and Bernie and Podemos have had their chance to prop up the corpse of these  movements, the field is open for right populism, for white populism.  

In this regard, Trump is monstrous precisely because he is the mirror image of the weakness of these movements, the success of their failure. He lost the popular vote by the largest margin ever; he comes in with the lowest approval rating since such polls began; a pulsating cloud of lawsuits and scandals surrounds him. And yet he lays claim, potentially, to the greatest consolidation of right-wing power since the 1920s, surrounding himself with generals and CEOs  and signaling at every turn that his coalition of spraytan, diet pills, and Viagra can be the social strength that neo-Nazi nerds and failed school shooters so desire.

Trump draws strength, in particular, from the weakness of a politics predicated on scandal and hypocrisy: a politics that mobilizes outraged social media denizens in order to leverage shame and guilt. Troll-in-chief, he feeds off the outrage he provokes, using self-engineered scandal to inoculate himself against the debilitating effects of other scandals. Lies, corruption, rape: none of it affects him, and this should serve as the death knell of a politics that imagines facebook call-outs and Twitter shaming as the royal road to social power. In the war between alt-right trolls and pious internet leftists, the trolls win hands down. Right-wing populists and white nationalists do not hear critique and they can’t be shamed.

Naked force, not persuasion, is the order of the day, and this is why left liberals are so dangerous and so supremely out of touch. They are still hoping for that final scandal that will prove their enemy unreasonable; they still believe that one must manage one’s image, appear the civil party, engage in discourse, persuade with moral argument. If this fails, they will not hesitate to raise the stakes with a good satire. This is why they are so quick to imagine every riot funded by Breitbart and every election hacked by Russia, why they are willing to turn over to the cops someone who makes opposition to Trump look bad. They were okay with Obama’s drone strikes and deportation campaigns in so far as the aura of mild reasonableness swathed these brutalities. But they are the only ones who care how it looks anymore. They failed and will fail again, probably, because they are not about anything; they have nothing positive to offer. In the face of white revanchism, they can offer only table manners.

If it’s true that liberals are now conservatives in the literal sense of the term, it’s also true that Trump’s programmatic vision, an America made great again through racialized economic nationalism, preserves in its heart the very conservatism it pretends to expel. The means with which Trump and his coalition would remake American capitalism are the technocratic tools of his predecessors, Reagan and the Bushes, Obama and the Clintons. His infrastructure project is not a return to the government-funded building projects of the New Deal, but instead imagines that roads, bridges, internet bandwidth, and power plants will magically appear as the result of tax breaks and deregulation, something that challenges reigning macroeconomic orthodoxy not one iota. Why it would succeed now, having failed under more propitious conditions back when it was called “supply side economics,” remains unexplained, necessarily so. Similarly, his plan to bring manufacturing jobs to the US imagines that lowering the tax rate, deregulating industry, and smashing unions is all that it will take to encourage the repatriation of capital and spur investment. This is the very assumption that Bush and Obama made in response to the economic crisis of 2008: if you bail the banks out they will begin lending again and, with lending, capitalists will invest and said investment will create jobs. But builders won’t build and corporations won’t invest if the roads go nowhere and the plants can’t make things people need — in other words, no one will build capacity if there’s already massive overcapacity, which there is. Labor costs have a long way to fall before it’s cheaper to manufacture here, and if firms do invest, it will likely be in totally robotic factories. In other words, Trump’s economic proposals seem, at first pass, as if he plans to make America great by employing the very same methods that have accompanied four decades of decline.

It’s always possible that he will change course, and break with such orthodoxy, economic and otherwise. The situation is dire and we can expect experimentation. Trump assembled an administration that seems split between those who offer a more radical extension of the status quo and those who seem committed to breaking not only with economic orthodoxy but with democratic governance in general. On the one hand: the CEOs of oil companies and fast food empires who would continue in the ruts of the long declension, cutting taxes, deregulating, privatizing, and union-busting. On the other: true counter-revolutionaries like Steve Bannon who would raise tariffs, destroy trade relations, and attempt an economic isolationism of the sort that can only hurt the bottom line of multinational companies like Exxon and Carl’s Jr, not to mention financial firms whose entire trade is in hot money. We might think of the former as hyper-neoliberals; the second are close enough to the project of historical fascism to deserve the name.

But this alliance between billionaire CEOs and the second-rate generals’ junta-in-waiting can hold only for so long without one side dictating terms to the other. Trump probably knows that if the Koch-bred austerians and privatizers are allowed to have their way, we’ll never see growth or jobs; as yet he is unable or unwilling to act without them. The question, then, is whether this will be a brief moment of crony capitalism, the billionaires enriching themselves, stuffing their pockets with loot, and then blowing up the crime scene behind them, as so often happens in the global south — or whether we will really see a reorganization of capitalism along new and newly fascistic lines.

In his first few weeks, Trump has backgrounded the mainstream aspects of his plan and led by showcasing his commitment to the nationalist project: Muslim ban and border wall, steroid injections for the police forces. This is no doubt done in order to galvanize the most virulent members of his base, a bit of red meat for the red-blooded Americans scowling under their MAGA hats, but some large part is also pantomime. Many of the Executive Orders were statements of intention rather than actions, designed to show his commitment to the proto-fascist project without requiring him to put much weight behind it. They simulate absolute authority, as if he were already the kind of leader capable of remaking the country by fiat. But he’s not, at least not yet. And so his administration remains a sort of simulacrum of fascism; Trump is a Mussolini without his Italy. To become a true fascist, he will need loyal people at all levels of the government, as well as extra-governmental forces capable of doing the dirtiest work but also forcing the hand of bureaucrats and judges too loyal to the letter of the law. It is hard to see how he can garner such devotion except by giving people something more than empty rhetoric, fear-mongering, and fake news about fake news. He will actually have to put people to work and build infrastructure and increase their living standards, and to do this, he will have to tell the most rapacious billionaires to get with the program.

We now have some measure of both the challenges he might face in such attempts as well as the forces that might assist him. That there were a number of Customs officers willing to enforce his racist ban despite explicit interdiction from the courts is no doubt worrying; these people are the kernel of a force capable of remaking government service in absolutist directions. But for every one of these officers, there were just as many officials that were unwilling to carry out such orders, or who were openly opposed to them, often for practical more than ethical or political reasons. Trump as yet has no machine, no party institution, capable of making sure his commands are realized without obstruction. Furthermore, we’ve already seen capital begin to hold his actions at arm’s length, particularly Silicon Valley capital (a fraction of the ruling class highly likely to reject most protectionism, given its global domination of markets and its dependence on planetary supply chains). Resistance from such a powerful sector will be a strong and perhaps insuperable impediment to Trump, though it’s always possible many companies could be won over by various forms of corporate subsidy. If he cannot rally Google and Apple and Facebook to his cause, he will have a very hard time.

IV.

In the 20th century, radicals were often made accomplices to their own extermination through participation in popular fronts with liberal and opportunist lefts. What we see on the horizon is the uncomfortable prospect of radicals fighting alongside Google management, import-export capitalists, mainstream journalists, liberal politicians, and rogue factions of the CIA. Here, the theme of this essay returns: more than anything, liberal opponents of the regime want things to stay the same. Or rather, their desire is counterfactual: they want things to have stayed the same. They are partisans of the return to normalcy, the return to the normal that itself bred Trump and his ilk and will, if not destroyed, produce more of the same.

If things get bad enough, these people will give up on their political etiquette and accept the use of force, but if they do so they will wreck the world for a return to the bleak certitudes of the Obama years, and they will betray everyone who wants more. They will gladly endorse a military coup if it means Hillary for Prez, particularly if they can somehow disavow their violence as they have the ceaseless violence of the years before Trump’s onset. The question for radicals — which at this point need not mean the wild-eyed, the militant, but simply those shorn of the fatal fantasy of return — is how to act in the same field as such groups without subordinating oneself to them, how to betray them before they betray you. One cannot maintain separation from them but one must remain separate. One must stand alongside and apart, within and outside.

The last few years have been dominated by social movements such as Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL which, in particularizing the tactics and rhetorics of movements such as Occupy, managed to focus and radicalize them. And yet, these movements suffer the same scissions and founder upon the same false unifications that bedeviled their predecessor movements. Within Black Lives Matter, divisions between a college-educated and largely middle class activist layer and the thoroughly proletarian kids whose riots started the movement; at Standing Rock, divisions between pacifist elders astride the moral high ground and the more confrontational factions who derive from the militants of the 60s and 70s. There is perhaps no clearer example of this division, historically, than that found within western feminist movements, each wave featuring a faction oriented toward formal equalities and inclusion within capitalist society and another faction committed to something like abolition. In the present moment of antipatriarchal politics, impelled by Trump’s overweening misogyny, this split again presents itself in the gap between the large and pacific Woman’s March the day after the inauguration and the avowedly anticapitalist International Woman’s Strike planned for March 8th. Though the former has endorsed the latter, the divisions remain.

These are the internal splits which have persisted as something like an invariant within social movements; if they are historical artefact, its persistence spans the long history of liberal democracy. Trump represents the possibility of a weak unification of these movements. Things come to feel so dire —  as we’ve seen, the production of this direness is central to Trumpism — that the factions within any social movement might be drawn to unite around his expedient eviction. The most pitiful and dangerous replacements will be offered as solutions, ‘ound which all will be pushed to rally. Once this is done, the militant factions will be systematically destroyed. The structural shaking, meanwhile, will continue.

But there is another set of possibilities. As we’ve seen, the splits internal to these movements are cut across by a split extending the length of western liberalism, between those who have yielded already to the logic of Anything But Trump, and those for whom the catastrophe retains its aura of possibility — between those who want a new president and those who want no presidents at all. In one sense, Trump’s unification of recent movements is possible in so far as he names an enemy common to them. He is the president of police murder and pipelines alike, of sexual assault and border walls equally. But this unification is weak, as we’ve said, because it in no way overcome the divisions internal to these movements. As such, the larger split provides an axial consistency to the splits within each particular social movement, allow each of them to see more clearly that their potential accomplice is not the less militant side of their own struggle but the more militant side of another. But these movements cannot really unify; their formally shared position on the militant side of the split does not equate to shared content, to some identity of ends. Their divisions do not line up cleanly with each other or with the broader social division.

Contrary to those who worry over any disunity, however, such slippages are in truth a necessity. They are the engine of duration, as they prevent the possibility of an early foreclosure of struggle which appears inevitably as the subordination of everyone to the common denominator of the popular front. The fraught interaction of these movements allows for new and newly intense dynamics of antagonism along previously invisible faultlines. In our reading of history, the path from movement to insurrection does not follow a straight line, does not occur through the simple aggregation and unification of existing groups, but instead involves centripetal, unifying forces as well as centrifugal, polarizing ones. The forces that unify on one level often divide on another. Divisions are, in other words, what allow for the possibility of success, not what obstruct it.

This is by no means to argue that people can do nothing to draw themselves together, to find accomplices and comrades, strategize about and prepare for future. But such organizations should remain flexible, open to forces that they might transform them, lest they become a mechanism for funneling people into previously prevailing and defunct political forms. In many of the futures we can see from here, the state will be both turbocharged and weak; its oppressive mechanisms will churn in higher gears without being highly functional, as jurisdictional and factional disputes proliferate. Civil war, as it approaches — and we are closer than most imagine — will not look much like two color-coded armies clashing on a plain, but like one state’s national guard carrying out orders another will not, the overriding of one branch by another, the spurning of electoral legitimacy, while at the level of daily life opportunities will open for dual-power organizations to step into the breach: workplace and neighborhood assemblies, rapid response networks for dealing with attacks and crises of all sorts, land and resource reclamation projects. As fissures within the state begin to yawn, these projects will become all the more vital. They need to be coordinated, of course, otherwise they are likely to be redundant or, worse, act at cross-purposes. But they certainly need not be centralized under a single organizing body; the value of dual-power institutions is that they are flexible and, given such flexibility, can permit the emergence of these productive divisions and subsequent reorganization around new projects. If we conceive of civil war and breakdown of the state as the upper limit of what’s possible in the next few years, then such institutions are indeed the way forward, as they will become indispensable as rallying points in such scenarios.

 

In imagining this, or in trying to reconstruct such ideas from other times and places, we are trying to think of what is possible now. Trump is, among other things, a sign of what is impossible, both in his own intolerability and his role as registration of a long failure. Alongside dual power, a dual thought: this can’t endure, there is no way back. This is what it means to think from the wreckage. The plane has crash-landed in the shuddering present. It will not magically reassemble itself like film running backward, that most comforting version of the uncanny, and take wing in reverse, easing itself tail-first back into the open sky. It has come down in the least metaphorical sense. We find ourselves at the airport. We find ourselves at the airport on January 26, 2017, in city after city, assembling against a specific Executive Order. It is perhaps adequate measure to note simply that a sentence unimaginable five years ago appears now as a simple fact: liberals blockade a series of airports across the nation. Not just liberals, of course, but still. For many it is political life beyond the polling place, often promised, rarely lived. This kind of massing — inevitable for all its contingent occasion, vast for all its instant coalescence, spontaneous for all the mutual coordination and aid that had built its constituent groups and collectives — is now part of each day’s possibility. The airports are an offset image of the Ferguson rebellion, the Standing Rock encampment, the Jungle at Calais.

 

These terminals are among the most dizzying spaces that modernity presents — militarized malls, at once lush and severe. Fill them with tens of thousands of people, blockading all their pathways, and they become even more vertiginous. But they are also legal hyperspaces, borders internal to the state, an enclosed outside. The federal guards there are not encumbered by the niceties of habeas corpus. Citizen or not, they can detain you until the end of capitalism, confiscate and search every possession without warrant. Every airport is already in fascism, but these spaces not only represent the extra-legal powers of state, but also its limits. The state’s edges are everywhere: at Standing Rock, in Ferguson, in Calais. As the state endeavors to assert its strength where capital is weak, these edges proliferate; its borders web the land. Its despotism is greatest at these borders for the simple reason that this is where some force beyond its power makes itself felt. As Nipsey Hussle raps, in the anthem of the hour:  You build walls? We gon’ prolly dig holes. Everyone now.

 

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HIC NIHIL, HIC SALTA! (a critique of Bartlebyism)

[We offer up to our comrades the following critique of the nihilist turn in communist and anarchist thought, in part because we find some of its appeal mystifying and some of its appeal understandable. We hope that at very least it will provoke some conversation among friends and comrades sympathetic to this line of thought.]

After the jailings and beatings and trials; after the last-ditch efforts you knew wouldn’t work, the surprising turn-of-events you thought just might, the labored attempts to force the situation; after the too-many meetings, the too-little sleep, the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here; after the list of former friends has grown longer, after deciding there must be a snitch, after all the terrible things have been said and regretted and then said again and not regretted; after afraid, sad, tired, and after admitting, finally, sooner than some and later than others, that you failed, that it was over, that they won and that you can’t just call it a day, give up, go home, because when they win, they don’t just go home and feel happy and count their money and their votes and their weapons, they fuck your life up bad, they fuck up the people you love, they put them in jail or on probation, they take your money, they raise your rent, they wreck the place where you live, they kill and kill and keep on killing—after all this, it’s natural to feel pretty depressed; it’s natural to feel that everything you did was just stupid, that you were a fool, that you must have done something wrong or, better, that someone else must have done something wrong, even though you’re up against an enemy who is stronger than you, and even though the history of every struggle ever is a concordance of failures, and even though no one has ever figured out how to succeed against such an enemy in any kind of consistent and repeatable manner. It’s easier if there’s someone to blame. It’s easier if there was some mistake. If there was a mistake, then there was hope; if there was a mistake, then one can remain melancholically attached to the grim specter of what might have been…

The world is depressing enough as it is, of course. For many of us, it’s the return to normality, the prospect of another year of the grinding everyday, that makes the end of a political sequence unbearable. Through the experience of defeat we realize that the quotidian is constituted by defeat; the normal functioning of capitalism is continuous counter-revolution. Depression and anxiety are forms through which this victory is secured, through which people are rendered compliant, isolated, but only when these moods are modulated by brief moments of hopefulness, relief, imagination, ambition. What capitalism wants is a continuous, low-level unhappiness. They want people engaged in a continuous process of emotional management – with images, with work, with sex, with commodities. Anything more extreme makes people unpredictable, and it’s no surprise that communities that define themselves in opposition to the status quo are filled with the most wounded and miserable types. Once such feelings get politicized, once their political origins are disclosed, all sorts of problems result. Because these affects are the one thing that people in such communities are guaranteed to share, they tend to be valorized as a mark of authenticity; they become markers of an identity, something to hold onto, burnish, aestheticize, worship. Our feelings become not the motivation for our politics, not their energy source, but their object. The result is miserabilism, a community formed by a shared unhappiness, whose reproduction secretly depends upon the continuous provision of more sources of unhappiness.

Most of the theoretical expressions that emerge from this confused condition share a fundamental misidentification of effects as causes. Identifying the source of their unhappiness in their own naïve optimism and commitment, their investment in some political project or process, they reason that, in order to spare themselves future suffering, they must cease to hope, to commit, to desire, they must treat each new event as dead from the start. They conclude not only that disaffection and pessimism will cause us to suffer less in the face of the failure of struggles, but that optimism, earnest commitment, investment, are the source of these failures. In other words, they reason that the reason we lose is because we keep trying, despite the fact that it is obviously the other way around. There are now dozens of accounts of how struggle against capitalist domination requires some form of withdrawal, subtraction, de-subjectivization, removal, impassivity, patience, slowness. In some cases, there may be real practical and psychological insights in these accounts, but each one makes, in our view, a fundamental mistake – it turns a political process into a psychological operation; it substitutes an ethics for a politics. Though it’s true that capitalism uses our investments and passions against us all the time, the better to render us compliant, exploitable; the better to set us against each other; the better to keep us scrambling after illusory goals, capitalism has no problem mobilizing various forms of disaffection, indifference, and unfeeling. These moods quite obviously render one just as pliable as the excited, enthused worker; the passionate consumer; the overly sentimental parent; the enraged activist. Depression is not a weapon, it’s a wound in the shape of a weapon.

These expressions go under various names – anti-political, nihilist, post-left. We call this phenomenon Bartlebyism because we think the best introduction to its misprisions can be had through an examination of the nearly identical claims made about the main character in Melville’s duly famous story of clerical work, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” by a whole generation of soi-disant left philosophers, from Badiou to Hardt and Negri, from Zizek to Agamben. Bartleby is a law-copyist, encharged with duplicating the various contracts and affidavits upon which 19th-century Wall Street depended, and so the story allegorizes not only the violence of the labor-capital relationship but the legal superstructure it requires, the intimate acquaintance of cop and boss. Bartleby is famous for defying his employer in a manner that stymies all response; rather than refusing outright the work he is asked to perform, he instead utters the famous reply, “I would prefer not to,” when called by his employer. Readers of the story have been quick to note the peculiarly unanswerable quality of this answer, with its mixture of politeness and refusal. As his employer, the narrator of Melville’s story, notes, “Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience of impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.” But the conditional character of Bartleby’s utterance gives it a strange power that a more steadfast, indicative or future simple declaration would not have. In the contemporary political imagination, the passive aggressive power of Bartleby’s utterance circumvents the reactive, reflexive character of the destructive impulse, which as we so often know, often ends up sustaining the object of attack. Bartlebyism sees in this kind of phraseology a way of divesting the object of attack – here the work process – from any kind of cathexis. Bartebly is simply indifferent to work, and thereby work has no power over him. This is the core of the nihilist vision of struggle.

But in reality, this weak power is truly weak, rather than secretly strong. The law-copyist Bartleby ends his days, as a result of his curious workplace action, in a New York city jail, victim of the legal apparatus his refused scrivening would have sustained. Though Bartleby manages to occupy the office in a prefiguration of the sitdown strikes of the 20th century, defeating his employer’s entreaties to either work or depart, and eventually forces the employer to vacate the premises and set up office elsewhere, the new tenant is not so obliging, nor is he flummoxed by Bartleby’s bizarre actions. He calls the cops and Bartleby is sent to jail where, refusing all food, he dies.

This is not a promising model for a resistance movement. As Nikil Saval shows in his book on the history of the office, Melville may have been inspired here by an 1841 movement among New York dry-goods clerks to get the stores where they sold goods to close earlier. But rather than imitating the forms of struggle of manual laborers, who were at that time exploring the powers of direct action, these clerks remained entirely identified with the employers (whose seat they hoped some day to fill). Instead of making demands, “they sought a ‘solicitation’ of merchants good will and argued that a few hours of rest would make more “willingly devoted servants” in the store. The tone of Bartleby then is the tone of the refined, genteel clerk who prefers to struggle through diplomacy rather than confrontation. It may also be possible that Melville had in mind Henry David Thoreau’s contemporaneous essay on “Resistance to Civil Government,” which was published in 1849 and which he might have seen while writing those stories. Portions of Walden were published in Putnam’s Monthly, where “Bartleby, the Scrivener” also appeared, and Melville caricatured Thoreau’s friend and colleague Emerson, transforming him into the philosophical huckster Plinlimmon, in his weirdest of novels, Pierre, the book published right before “Bartleby.” Intentional or not, the resemblances between the Bartlebyan and Thoreauvian mode of resistance are striking. In his outrage at the Mexican-American war, and the continuing horrors of slavery, Thoreau decides in his famous essay that the only admirable path for a person of conscience is to withdraw all support for the US government, chiefly by refusing to pay tax. The important political distinction which Thoreau articulates, and which was relatively novel, is that this is a form of resistance that concerns itself only with one’s own participation in the detestable action: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” This is a doctrine of withdrawal rather than active contestation. Thoreau imagines it as a method of peaceable social transformation; if such tax refusal were to spread it would mean a bloodless revolution:

 I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name — if ten honest men only — ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.

Bartleby himself might have been withdrawing from such a dreadful copartnership; as a Wall Street law-scrivener, the “rich men’s bonds, and mortgages, and title deeds” which he reproduced would certainly have involved the deeds to slaves, given that almost all Southern planters were reliant on financing from Northern Banks. Like Bartleby, Thoreau’s story natural ends in jail. It is jail where a man demonstrates his spiritual superiority to the law not to mention his solidarity with the humans in bondage under slavery: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principle… the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.” Thoreau even mentions that it may be preferable to give one’s life than to participate in an unconscionable system.

As we know, Thoreau’s essay and the Bartlebyan principles it systematizes has been enormously influential if not enormously effective. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are only two of the most famous names who have sought to convince would-be rebels that the path of withdrawal, noncompliance, and aggressive passivity is the way to success. Today, there is an entire industry built around systematic and technicized noncompliance as protest. Its ineffectiveness is legendary. Such routinize, scripted forms of nonviolent protest – instrumental non-compliance of various sorts, whether by locking one’s neck to a tractor or locking arms and refusing to move – join a panoply of “violent” tactics to form the tactical repertoire of contemporary activism. These techniques are perfect for what is the usual social situation of activism – that is, protest by dedicated radicals in the absence of any kind of mass rebellion. These techniques carry very low risks; the consequence for being prosecuted for such forms of noncompliance are usually very low. And therefore despite their demonstrated ineffectiveness in most social contexts, people keep turning them again and again in situations where people want to do something, anything, to demonstrate their serious unhappiness with the world as it is. This is of course to say nothing about their use in situations like the Jim Crow South or India, where they were one set of tactics among many, in the context of mass rebellions that involved riots, bombings, the taking-up of arms, and constant exposure to deadly force from state and non-state actors. These situations simply can’t be compared to the context in which the same tactics of noncompliance are used today.

There is an important difference between systematized noncompliance of the sort we see today and Thoreauvian civil disobedience: Thoreau concerned himself only with refusal of activities that were part of his daily routine, and which gave indirect support to the oppression of others. The activist, on the other hand, ignores Thoreau’s proviso about interfering directly in the affairs of others. The activist is always rushing to the rescue of some oppressed entity somewhere else: the trees, the whales, the children, the workers. This is not to deride solidarity struggles and actions; actions undertaken on a moral basis. They are an important part of the way that political sequences unfold, and we engage in them routinely, but it is easily verifiable that the most powerful and successful struggles involve self-interested antagonists, fighting against the conditions that face them directly. Seen in light of this distinction, we immediately see what Thoreau’s protests share with the activism of our day– they are still conducted on a moral basis, they are still undertaken on behalf of others, even if they refuse direct support, and only concern themselves with indirect complicity.

*

In the last 20 years, powerful critiques of the logic of activism have emerged from within the antagonist milieu, critiques we borrow from above. But as is so often the case, these critiques share more with their object than they are willing to admit. Both the activist tendency and its “passivist” critics share a common origin in Bartlebyan thinking. The best critiques, such as the one offered by the famous article “Give Up Activism” emphasize the importance of strategic context, pointing out that a series of tactics developed in order to affect the behavior of specific institutions, corporations, or state-actors, lose all effectivity when there is no longer a clear, well-defined opponent, as was the case in the so-called anti-globalization movement. The worst critiques, however, misconstrue the implications of their entirely accurate critiques of spectacularized and routinized activism. Rather than treating activism as a failed strategy against a formidable enemy, it becomes the enemy itself, as if protest itself were what sustained capitalism and as if enervated activism were itself one of the prime weapons in the arsenals of our enemy. In some sense, what we note here is a target of opportunity. Lacking any effect beyond the microscopic demimonde of their would-be comrades, they look for opponents they might actually vanquish. In reality, those preaching the gospel of St. Bartleby lack the courage of their convictions; if they didn’t hang around the edges of the radical milieu and instead took their own advice, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the effects of their critique; instead they keep the necrotizing body alive in order to savor the truth of their diagnosis. Few are fooled, of course, since investment in preaching hopelessness to the true believers of activism is its own opiate and its own distraction. If they didn’t doubt the wisdom of their own advice, they’d depart for good. But like Bartleby, they remain stubbornly encamped in the antilaw-offices of the radical milieu, weakly re-enacting their passive aggressions at each new turn of events, each new failure-to-come.  This is a fundamentally therapeutic politics; a politics of feeling, that takes our own investments in things to be the problem; it proposes the dogma of certain failure as response to the pain of hope.

The most coherent of these contemporary nihilisms – the so-called Nihilist Communism of Monsieur Dupont – makes all of the above very clear.  The authors (who use the collective pseudonym Monsieur Dupont) are to be commended for their comparative honesty and lucidity. What makes the authors interesting is that, unlike others who proudly claim the term nihilist, Monsieur Dupont believes that proletarian revolution is possible. However, such a revolution emerges as a fundamental discontinuity with all which precedes it; nothing we do or say today will hasten its arrival. The frantic to and fro of the active minority serves no purpose except to assuage our own anxieties and so the only meaningful response to activism’s “desperate injunction to press every button to save the world” is the Bartlebyan “I would prefer not to.” Once said, Monsieur Dupont confronts an immediate problem. If what they say makes no difference, why do they write at all?  Some attempt to solve this apparent contradiction with reference to personal expression, enjoyment, the usefulness of the useless in an instrumentalized world, etc. But Dupont have a more sophisticated answer. The authors draw from the historical ultraleft a deep belief in political narratives of betrayal; they offer a cartoonish version of this story, in which proletarian self-activity was continually diverted, subverted, managed, contained and betrayed by the egoism, self-aggrandizement and incompetence of its would-be leaders. As such, while every attempt to hasten the arrival of such a revolution is useless today, tomorrow those selfsame activists will be an active hindrance. Therefore, the only meaningful activity that a group of communist writers can undertake in non-revolutionary times is to try to actively destroy the left, to neutralize their capacity to manage, contain or otherwise fuck-up revolutionary possibilities in the future (never mind the fact that “the left” committed suicide a few decades ago). All of this raises a deeper question: if the revolutionary proletariat that arises from some definitive future crisis can, in the view of Dupont, produce communism entirely on its own, without the meddling of intellectuals, professional revolutionaries, and other parasites, why can’t it also resist the usurpation of its would-be friends, evaluate and reject the bad theory and strategy it receives from the past, and otherwise think for itself? It is a curious political theory that treats a revolutionary class as both profoundly gullible, on the one hand, and possessed of a unique, essential genius, on the other.  There is therefore no reason whatsoever for Monsieur Dupont to continue writing, on the terms they’ve set for themselves, a fact they seem to have realized, retreating into spasmodic and convoluted orations on modernist art.

Other approaches fare much worse in trying to confront the contradictions of this approach, though they present deeper ambitions. A popular recent tract, Desert, attempts to marry the Bartlebyan perspective to Green Anarchism. They offer a “simple realization – the world will not be ‘saved.’” As counter to a straw-man optimist, they bring the Bad News: “Global anarchist revolution is not going to happen. Global climate change is now unstoppable. We are not going to see the worldwide end to civilization/capitalism/patriarchy/authority.” They are right, of course, to stress that climate change is unstoppable. Any future revolution will have to contend with this, though it remains to be seen just how catastrophic its effects will be; it is of course true that different social structures will entail different mediations of its effects. Climate change is a social-natural phenomenon. But this seems as likely to be the cause of revolution – leaving aside for the moment the curious adjective “global” – as its foreclosure.  The authors of Desert direct our attention to the psychic wounds that revolutionary hope produces, and propose, in its place, “active disillusionment.” But true disillusionment, the removal of all illusions, would not mean supplanting one false certainty with another, supplanting the certainty of triumph with the certainty of failure. This is an avoidance rather than acceptance of the uncertain. What the authors offer, then, is not disillusionment, but therapy. And it is a therapy likely to fail, inasmuch as the authors want to remain actively opposed to the world as it exists, a stance that will cause pain as long as the world remains a world of pain. The only true therapy would be the one that could somehow effect a readjustment of person to the world, an acceptance of the status-quo, a return to normal and an abandonment of all talk of struggle. The authors attempt to split the difference, however, by suggesting that we look for the kinds of tactics that might lead to modest, meager success. What results is a kind of “nihilist reformism,” an endorsement of partial, limited conservation struggles undertaken on an ethical basis, the creation of temporary zones of autonomy in unsettled places and frontiers where a few people might make a difference. They are therefore, despite their critique of activism, brought back to a fundamentally activist position.

The authors have no choice, of course, given their conclusions and assumptions. The most important of these assumptions is their commitment to the curiously ahistorical figure of the “anarchist” as the essential and determinative ingredient in meaningful revolution. Only anarchists – dedicated, self-conscious revolutionaries, opposed to capital and the state – can make an “anarchist” (that is, real) revolution. And because, as the authors conclude, anarchists will always be a minority, meaningful revolution is impossible. They devote one sentence to the obvious counter-argument here, the idea that anarchist (or antistate communist, as we think is largely synonymous) revolution can be made by people simply acting in response to the oppressions and miseries they encounter. Their argument: capitalism has indoctrinated people to prefer authoritarian and hierarchical structures. All “social movements” will always be thus. Never mind the obvious question of how “anarchists” become “anarchists.” Never mind the possibility that experience of struggle might provide the impetus for an education in anarchism, might cause people to draw anarchists conclusions, to look for answers in anarchists texts. Never mind the fact that anarchism was itself born from historical experience, and not the unbroken transmission of a line of elite humanity, passing their enlightened ideas from person to person. The argument is foolish, obviously, but it is also indicative of the fundamental voluntarism of so many anarchists, who for the most part remain incapable of thinking revolution or insurrection or anarchy as anything but the action of the right people with the right ideas. This can lead to the most aristocratic contempt for the common people, as with the nihilists of the “Conspiracy of Cells of Fire,” who lambast the “resignation of the exploited, their herd mentality, their collaboration with the system.” Drawing curiously from the language of Marxism, they describe capitalism “as a social relation in which all have their responsibility – and make or don’t make the choice to fight against it.” Once politics is submitted to the egodicy of choice, of the sovereign decision, it’s impossible to retain any sense of strategy. The spectacular bombings of the CCF and its associated groupings are simply personal expressions, declarations of “I exist” detached from any sense of purpose. Occasionally, these groups commit solidarity attacks in the name of other like-minded groups, but if these have a social meaning, they don’t have a political one. They have zero instrumental effect, and do nothing to help the imprisoned in Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, or wherever. They might as well send an email.

It’s worth noting that this view, the one that stresses consciousness and the meaningfulness of decision in the here and now, is diametrically opposed to the position of Dupont, the would-be colleauges in nihilism of groups like the CCF and the authors of Desert. Dupont, of course, who insists that conscious decision is entirely meaningless at present.  And yet, beneath this apparent opposition, there is a shared structure of feeling. Whether one thinks that consciousness is all that matters, or it doesn’t matter at all, the result is the same, as one has failed to think consciousness and activity together. One has made one’s feelings, one’s attitudes, the object of politics. This kind of politics is therefore fundamentally moralizing, even when its emphasizes in a Nietzschean manner the transvaluation of all values.  The questioning of value, the reduction of action to value, is not itself questioned. Hic nihil, hic salta.

*

Bartlebyan politics emerge, as often as not, from a recognition that resistance is a motive force within capitalism, that capitalism benefits from its loyal and disloyal antagonists by using them to induce the sort of meaningful systematic restructuring that it needs in order to respond to ever changing historical conditions, new forms of crisis. After such a recognition, withdrawal seems promising. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is Melville’s reflection on this problematic, but it’s not his only reflection, and is best read, in our view, as an example of a failed response to such a dilemma. “Benito Cereno,” the story published after “Bartleby” in Piazza Tales, offers a very different strategic outlook. It is also a story of rebellion, based upon an actual slave uprising on a Spanish ship in 1805. The putative leader of this uprising, Babo, shares with Bartleby more than a similar-sounding name (both names might be transforms of the word “baby”). Like Bartleby, Babo exerts power from a position of presumed weakness. The story begins when the American captain of another ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, comes across the captured ship, San Dominick (the name of which suggests the colony of Santo Domingo, and the Haitian slave revolution which was broadly contemporaneous with the time of the story). Thinking the ship in distress, the captain of the Bachelor’s Delight, Amasa Delano, who narrates the story, boards the ship to offer his services. There the mutinous ex-slaves, under the direction of Babo, perform servitude and enslavement for Delano, pretending to follow the directions of the Captain Benito Cereno. Like Bartleby, the power of Babo and the other slaves is exerted from a feigned servility, and Babo, playing the part of Cereno’s personal servant controls him as a puppeteer might a marionette. Much of the drama of the story involves the narrator’s inability to read the scene, to interpret what he observes through the racial codes and logics of power of the US. Like the narrator of Bartleby, also American, and also characterized by a naïve trust in other humans, he fails to parse the ambiguities of what he sees according to established rubrics, just as Bartleby’s employer fails to parse the ambiguous utterance, “I would prefer not to.” Both Melville and Babo have a great deal of fun with the carnivalesque reversals and manipulations taking place on the page of “Benito Cereno” and on the deck of the San Dominick, presenting one of the ex-slaves, a former king, Atufal, in chains, where he is periodically brought before Benito Cereno, who asks if Atufal will apologize. Atufal refuses, proudly, of course, and so we have not only the performance of servility but the indication that servility can be no more than performance, that Atufal is possessed of a dignity and integrity indifferent to chains symbolic or otherwise. Then there is of course the scene in which Babo carefully shaves Cereno, performing a servile task that is, at every turn, a domination through threat of violence. On the bow of the ship, next to the figurehead on the bowsprit, cloaked in a sheet at the beginning of the story, are written the words “Seguid vuestro jefe” or “Follow your leader.” Later we learn that the slaves have hung the skeleton of their former owner on the bow, and put the phrase up as warning to the crew, lest they think of resisting.

The brilliance of the phrase is that it suspends the question of leadership – the “leader” might be Babo, Benito Cereno, or the dead slavetrader Aranda. The resistance on the San Dominick is illegible through the established protocols and hierarchies that Delano expects. There are no longer leaders and followers as we might come to expect; Babo and the other former slaves take power without occupying the place of power, and thus they avoid the risk of becoming their own owners, of becoming liberal subjects. In the place of the legal, self-possessing subject, some other identity and organization of identities emerges, at least for a while, and it is this that allows them to successfully fool the Europeans. It ends poorly, of course (Melville is a man of the 19th-century, after all, and one can at the same time read this story as the exposition and subtle enforcement of all sorts of white supremacist logics); the ex-slaves are defeated and Babo brought before a tribunal and hanged. Like Bartleby, Babo ends his days in stubborn refusal, in this case refusing all speech when questioned by the judges. As Captain Delano recounts, “His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words.” This is many regards the exact opposite of Bartleby, who speaks words because he can do deeds but won’t. In Babo, we see a promising synthesis of passive refusal and active contestation, one that requires collective solidarity, cunning, active judgment, and discrimination. But there is no magic, here. This position risks failure as much as it risks success. There is more to come. Let’s keep our wits about us.

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The Wreck of the Plaza

In an epoch characterized by disequilibria political and economic, none has been more perplexing than the inability to match means with ends. Everywhere, violent eruptions find no demand or objective around which to cohere, while struggles for the most minor of reforms burn with revolutionary intensity. Either the means overrrun their ends, or they find no end at all. In Turkey and Brazil, demonstrations over a change in the price of transit, or the development of a city park, provoke violent conflicts of an almost insurrectionary intensity. In France, teenagers barricade their schools against the withdrawal of a pension that is as yet fifty years off. Any pretext, any provocation can become the adventitious occasion for mobilization of antagonism that finds no outlet, no name or program. Do we suppose that French kids are really concerned about what will happen to them once they are ready to retire? Does any young person expect the current social order to last that long? What can it mean when a .20 real increase in transit fares becomes the occasion for petrol bomb attacks on the National Assembly, when a conflict over a half acre of green space sets in motion a national uprising involving millions? What can be glimpsed through this gap between tactics and strategy, discourse and praxis, between the slogans and signage of a social movement and what one is willing to do with friends and strangers on a given evening after the future has come to an end?

Five years ago we wrote from an absent future we had encountered on the grounds of the American university. Today, the absence of that future is everywhere present. Neither capital nor its would-be antagonists can provide a compelling portrait of the next decade, let alone the next century. All the sci-fi utopias of flying cars and robot servants, of full automation and zero work, seem truly ridiculous. No one can imagine capitalism providing a series of progressive social reforms, any more than they can imagine seizing the state and the economy to provide a more egalitarian distribution of resources. No, the future presents only as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert. There is no possibility of an instrumental linking of means to ends, a linking of people to party, party to program. Everywhere, means exceed their ends; everywhere, the registration of social catastrophe must find its occasion lacking any remedies carried forward from the past. In such a conjucture, the masses are opportunists; they find in immediate and often trivial demands an opportunity to mobilize grand antagonisms which otherwise find no clear expression.

Spring

The “Arab Spring” seems at first glance to defy this accounting, to offer a natural equilibration of means and ends. The people want the fall of the regime. The unmaking of the associated figurehead, metonym for the regime, becomes the natural “end,” the seemingly self-evident demand of a heterogeneous mix of social antagonists. The hatred of a singular figure unites the antagonists, and provides, in countries where such figures exist, a contagious model for rebellion, leaping across a dozen nations in a mere matter of months. Mass movement, regime change, repeat.

But the repeat will prove decisive in turning this understanding on its head, in ways that will become clear; means and ends are not so neatly equilibrated. The dramatic sequence begins, after all, when a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid burns himself to death over the seizure of his merchandise, and over humiliation at the hands of a petty bureaucrat. The chain of events that follows can be understood as, among other things, an attempt to equalize that decisive violence with its occasion, to match means and ends, to understand the excessiveness of this act and the excessiveness of the people’s response to it: the proper circumstance for self-immolation is mass unemployment, is unrelenting corruption, is violations of human rights, is the incontrovertible rule of a strongman still in power 25 years after a coup d’etat. The equilibration now seems complete. It takes only 27 days; Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia.

The wheel will turn even more swiftly in Egypt. No one misses that things have been amiss for some time; strikes of textile workers in Mahalla three years earlier are alternately recalled and forgotten as the drama hastens along. Given a form by the Tunisian sequence, the presidential palace now given as the focus of antagonism, it takes Egypt only 18 days from the protesting masses’ entrance into Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s exit. The “Pearl Revolution” in Bahrain meets a different fate, as does the massive gathering in Sana’a, Yemen. But the structure, the logic of the struggles across the Arab Spring, is solidified. Massive gathering in a public square; a willingness to resist, to defend the ground from which the singular demand is made: the president must go. Territory and regime, plaza and palace, are the two unifying factors.

But this antagonism is in fact endless, circular. The decapitation of this or that boss cannot satisfy it, and so it repeats eternally, deposing leader after leader — presaged, in our conjuncture, by the fourfold collapse of Argentina’s government in a matter of two years, without achieving much of anything. Nothing can make this circularity more plain than the departure of Mohamed Morsi, 30 months after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, one year and a week after his own election. It turns out that it was not the fall of the regime the people wanted, was not democracy in some abstract sense. What is discovered in this repetition is that the ends have not yet been discovered.

Plaza

When the European “movement of the squares” attempts to adapt the Tahrir moment — and its accompanying tactics and strategies — to the fight against austerity in Spain, in Italy and Greece, it finds quite quickly that there is no Mubarak, no Quadaffi, no natural end which can harmonize and coordinate its motley antagonisms. This is itself an odd catastrophe of Europe; its vaunted “modernity” cannot summon even the metaphor of storming the palace. There is only the square itself, the territory, which now becomes the site of a self-referential, inward-directed process, the enactment of democracy and the self-organization of the constituent assembly.  The turn toward internal process is the logical consequence of the absence of any unifying antagonist. Only endless processes of deliberation, discussion and consensus formation can unite the crowds. As anyone familiar with the process will attest, this is a means that cannot end.

The plaza is the material embodiment of the movement’s ideals — a blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, the agora, the assembly-place of ancient Greece that served also as marketplace. These plazas are not, however, the buzzing bazaars filled with economic and social transaction, but vast pours of concrete and nothingness, marked by a few fountains or trees here or there. These are spaces set aside precisely by the separation of the “political” from the economy, the market. Nowhere was this more clear than in the leading U.S. iteration, which endeavored, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange — the stock exchange — but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, its barricades turned on itself, penned by police. It was this separation which would prove decisive.

In reality, the unity of these gatherings was not internally defined, nor constructed through deliberation; it was vouchsafed by its difference from the surrounding and hostile world.  This obtained even in places like Spain where the movement presumed to be the movement of everyone, of the 100%, of their unity beyond the false differentiations introduced by ideology. There, the antagonist was anyone who dared to represent others, or to differ from them through the adoption of some particularistic identity. No Nos Representan: a phrase which nonetheless contains an us and a them.

Despite their will to include everyone, these movements succeeded at the precise moment when they were given an explicit antagonist — as with the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens, which in the face of the parliamentary vote on a new round of austerity measures in June 2011, passed from intransitive occupation of the square to intransigent assault on the parliament and associated buildings. In the present age of austerity even the most meager of demands will require the social democrats to pick up bricks. As a question of tactics, there is no longer a meaningful opposition between revolution and reform; both now require exertion of maximal force. Even a slight modification of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity, a fact whose simultaneous unspeakability and self-evidence within the left lends anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation.

East Coast/West Coast

The unfolding of the “Occupy movement” in the United States finds itself polarized by this incommensurablilty. For all the underlying similarities of New York and Oakland, the popular narratives of each register a dramatic opposition — at least temporarily.

At the eastern pole, after an initial bid to agree on a singular demand dead-ends, the rhetoric shifts dramatically. “The camp is its own demand.” Forwarded by celebrity anarchists, the politics of prefiguration collapses means and ends altogether, insisting that the encampment’s forms of life are a version of the desired future; all that remains is for the whole world to become an Occupy camp. For a few dreamlike moments in the autumn of 2011 this seems imaginable.

At the western pole, while labor over the daily life of the camp holds sway in Oakland, this is grasped as a rather desperate bid for survival, for the preservation of a space from which sallies against the present might be staged. The figure for these sallies will be the black bloc, the rebel march, the smashed window and the ceaseless mourning it inspires. It becomes — both in the opportunistic travesties of the media, and to some degree in truth — a hyperbolization of means approaching their own desolate autonomy.

The official origin story of Occupy begins as an attempt to bring the logic of the Arab Spring and the movement of the squares to the US. The journal Adbusters, its politics revolving around a vision of alternative consumerism, proposes the convergence on Wall Street as a “Tahrir moment” while borrowing its rhetoric of occupation from the university struggles of 2009 through which circulated the proposition of demandlessness. The scheme is to gather as both manifestation and deliberative body, to determine thence the one demand of the movement-in-the-making: to discover, as it were, a Mubarak for Main Street.

But one is not to be found. No demand can coalesce in the curiously ambiguous park, a privately owned space set aside for public use — a sort of allegory for the underlying entanglement of the economic and political even as they are cordoned from each other in practice. The inability to discover a demand is by now overdetermined. In part it must be understood as a hesitation before the complexity of crisis, and the many forms of suffering it carried in train. What one demand – besides an end to capitalism – could possibly answer the crisis? Add to this the strange problem of the movement’s unexpected force and breadth: having gathered considerably more bodies and credibility than expected, there is a great unwillingness to split the crowd with the adoption of inevitably divisive programs that would invariably promote the demands of some groups over others. And finally, against such tentative divisions and the murkiness of the movement’s enemies, there is the lived situation; a new power has been constituted, a form of life based on free access to food and other necessaries, communal life, voluntary participation in the various groups and committees. Of course, this power is paltry before its immediate opponents, hemmed on all sides by the facticity of state power and the absent stare of world capital circulating somehow nearby but with imperial indifference. These two things share the same source; the more impotent Occupy is, the more it withdraws inward, becoming an end unto itself, a post-capitalist future purportedly lived in the now. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today: an assembly ringed by cops.

Stripped of the rhetoric of prefiguration – and the pretence that one could produce a future society today, amidst all the misery of the present – the camps are a success, not as miniature utopias, but as vehicles for some of the most destitute people to organize for their own survival: food, supplies and basic shelter, all of it given and received freely. Here, the camps are means toward an obvious end: not social modeling, but survival, life. They provide the means of subsistence, even production. And importantly, these things are no longer forms of charity as with the soup kitchen or shelter, but collective activities open to participation on all sides. The structures of free giving create a practical unity against the failure of the assemblies’ bid for discursive unity. And though everyone eventually comes to hate the assemblies, to see them as an essential waste of time, this is only because the conversations are continually forced into the straitjacket of a decision-making process. It is easy to forget the simple optimism of the exuberant crowd, the happy experience of listening to people who had never done anything but listen tell the assembled hundreds or thousands what they thought and what they wanted to do. In America, a country based on a practiced ignorance of the lives of others, this is something of a miracle.

This might seem a contradiction, and it is – a productive one. What we learn is that the more these spaces withdraw from confrontation with the antagonistic forces surrounding them, the less they are able to open up spaces of difference with them, and the uglier and more terrible become the new forms of community they create. Conversely, the more the camps fight the surrounding police-world, the more they become actually liberated zones, rather than simulacra of liberation.

In Oakland, this process is taken to it limits. In the plaza in front of city hall, thousands gather and together create an autonomous zone off-limits to the police, intractable to the entreaties of the city government. On one occasion, city managers distribute a warning notice throughout the camp with the most negligible proffers: the promise, for example, that amplified sound will be allowed, as long as a request is made. Talk to us. Say anything. An hour later, the general assembly puts the pages to the fire. As an old Belgian once said, everything is of a muchness.

The attachment people feel toward this space is directly proportional with its avowed antagonism to the surrounding world. The principles of mutual aid and care, freedom and autonomy from compulsion, the practical communism of its kitchens and childcare centers, libraries and meeting groups, have as their necessary complement a willingness to burn and smash and riot in defense of these things. This is what it means to refer to the camp in Oakland as the Oakland Commune, and as a result, the state’s eventual attack on the camp is resisted forcefully, first by thousands and then by tens of thousands during the “general strike” of 2 November 2011.

That day’s blockade of the sprawling Port of Oakland, its attempted occupation of a social center and the night of rioting that followed, put on display both the heights and limits of the commune. These moments of expansion emerge primarily as a defensive response to the state’s attacks on the camp. The territorialization of the struggle, the movement’s reliance upon the shared space of the camp as the guarantor of its coherence in the absence of any explicit demand or target, is both the source of its strength and its chief weakness. Though it is clear to most that the obvious horizon of expansion for the Oakland Commune is the occupation of buildings and houses rather than public parks, as well as the expansion and diffusion of the general assemblies into neighborhood assemblies, such attempts fail, in part because they are undertaken too late, and in part because of the movement’s literalistic attachment to the plot of grass in front of City Hall, for which people fight in a series of losing battles.

New York and Oakland differ in their choice of means. Oakland’s means run wild in the streets. New York, on the other hand — run aground on the tautologies of nonviolence – worries the question of means, afraid to antagonize, lest it polarize. But in Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza, there is the same sense of the camp as end in and of itself, and both movements are ultimately buried within the enclosure of the square. After the evictions, they never regain their lost force.

Idealism and the Party

Thus arrives the moment of greatest uncertainty in the unfolding sequence. It is clear enough that the wave of unrest will not subside; equally apparent that the movement of the squares has reached its limits. It is here that two traditions from the past, immeasurably contrary to each other, rise to test the contours of the moment. One is the riot, to which we will return. It is not, to say the least, a convivial apparition for those married still to the mechanics of the party, to the rose-tinted memories of the social wage at it existed half a century back.

This belated dream of a social democratic contract gotten via reinvigorated parliamentarism seems to many the only course: a demand which seems makeable precisely in its cautious desire to impose only the most modest limits on capital. But this is not some autonomous character of the demand; it does not float independent of given conditions. The overdeveloped nations of today cannot reverse course and paddle upstream to the headwaters of Keynesianism. There is no possibility of an expanded productivity that can internalize rather than expel labor, generating the profit with which capital can purchase the social peace. Nothing in the swells and lulls of capital’s crisis suggests such a reflux. Indeed, the dream of an impossible Keynesian refoundation bears with it the nostalgia for a moment of limited social struggle, the synchrony of means and ends. In the breach of the here and now, it cannot be conjured.

Into this rift enters the theoretical stopgap of The Party, arising from its historical sleep. It has slumbered long in the salons of the penseurs; suddenly it is roused as the only possible guarantor of the right end for political uprising. Everywhere, the same refrain. In the wake of the Arab Spring and its frequently pyrrhic victories; in the failure of any of the European occupations to block the successive austerity measures; in the inability of Occupy to deflect the US from its race to the bottom — in all of this we are told that what we see is a failure of organization. In the great political hierarchy of being, spontaneous movements are valuable only inasmuch as they incidentally recruit potentials for the formation of durable organizations that can leverage the powers of the multitude, disciplining it in the name of the achievable and the possible.

In one regard, the point here is an obvious one. Each of these movements failed to find a way forward, and we can certainly agree that whatever ways forward existed would have involved new forms of organization, since there is no collective struggle that does not involve, at some moment, people agreeing to proceed together, to do this rather than that, to multiply and coordinate and organize their powers. But those who call for a party, sometimes openly, sometimes behind a veneer of philosophical deniability, presume that the contradictions and vagaries of these movements can be resolved through the imposition of a principled objective from outside, be it communist hypothesis or social democratic pragmatism. Or perhaps it will simply be organization for organization’s sake, because it is good, because it worked before. Sort of. In either case, the question of ends and means will be answered with a program delivered to the waiting crowd. This after all is the role that the program served, once upon a time, in its grandest sweep. Seizure of the state, dictatorship of the proletariat, a purported withering away: this mediation between bourgeois parliamentarism and communist plenitude is the historical function of the transitional program. Indeed, the program is nothing less than the violent adhesion of means and ends. It is this history, by now reduced to flotsam and jetsam, that washes up the open stone of the plaza.

What the belated prophets of such programs don’t realize is that the absence of a shared objective, at the level of ideals, is constitutive, and that only the most diminished or abstract objectives can unify the various groups set already in motion. The very fact that no credible attempt to create such a party has emerged from any of these struggles — in stark opposition to the mobilizations of the 20th century — seems to indicate the dubious character of this proposed path forward. Rather than laying the failures in Egypt or Spain at the feet of the masses unable to reason their way forward according to the syllogisms of our philosophes, we might look for explanations in the changed conditions of 21st century capitalism: a capitalism which no longer offers a fantasy of mastery to any but those still adrift in the dream of 1917, no longer creates a class that imagines itself master-to-be of the technological powers capital has conjured into being.

This matters little to the theorists for whom the clash in the streets is largely a matter of competing idealizations: the individualism of the neoliberal era against altruistic fidelity to the collective, as one dean of the communist idea has it. Communism, we are told, is primarily important as an idea, a principle, a watchword to which the mobilized remain faithful after the square has been cleared, after the arrested have been tried and sentenced, after yet another conference on communism has emptied into the dreary evening of the status quo.

But communism is not an idea; it is a process, and the only things capable of mobilizing fidelity to it are the concrete activities of which it is composed. If we want to locate the ways forward for the blocked movements of the present, we should look to the activities of the participants, the practices of struggle that might be extended, elaborated and transformed. Organization is not a thing, in this sense, but an action. We would do well to distinguish between organization as such – organization as static form – and what the admirable left communist Anton Pannekoek once called the “spirit of organization” – that is, the ability of proletarian antagonists to ceaselessly elaborate new forms as the occasion requires, out of the felt need for collective forms that emerges from occasions of struggles and the experiences of proletarians. Such ideas were marginal among militants, and for the most part, the ideas of the idea-communists of Pannekoek’s time carried the day, despite the fact that nearly every significant tactical development – the mass strike, the councils – emerged from behind the backs of militants. Then as now the idea-communists see the party as the only force capable of piloting the benighted working-class through the treacherous waters of capitalism, providing for it the theoretical vision which it does not possess.

Riot

As the idea of the party returns from its slumber, it encounters an old havoc. The great chaos of the riot – self-destructive, pointless, we are told – demonstrates for the organisateurs the need for the disciplining force of the party. It is certainly fitting, therefore, that one of the most significant riots of recent years emerged less than 10 kilometers from Birkbeck College. Nothing could make the situation clearer. The riot presents the conference communists with their order’s other. But this misses the inner character of the riot, its dialectical motion, in which a “violent order is a disorder; and … a great disorder is an order.”

The riot is not a new fact upon the earth. It is a sort of primeval tactic, as old perhaps as civilization itself. In the centuries before capitalism proper the riot was central to the tactical repertoire of the dominated classes. This persists within the generalization of the marketplace that presages industrialization and the formation of a working class. Riots, while sometimes concerning themselves with taxes, land rights, and other traditional privileges, find their modern coherence as struggles in the marketplace over the price or the destiny of foodstuffs, subsistence goods. These struggles often passed over into open insurrection, into the great “risings of the people” of the 18th century. They meet modernity with machine breaking, led by General Ludd and Captain Swing, phantoms from beyond the wage.

But with proletarianization, the site of class struggle moves from marketplace to workplace, from circulation to production. Over the course of the 19th century, the strike emerges as the tactic of choice. It contains an inherent discipline and even asceticism. Even when it takes up the violence and confrontation of riot, transforming sometimes into general insurrection, the strike nonetheless begins from the standpoint of labor and its product. At its center: a refusal, a withdrawal, a form of powerful, Bartleby-like inaction toward which response proves difficult, as any violent counterattack by employers risks seeming excessive, allowing the workers to defend themselves and even go on the offensive with impunity. This moral logic of intransigent refusal, provocation by reactionary forces, the opening onto riotous insurrection, is rendered explicit in the theories of the mass strike – Sorel’s especially. The mass strike provides a blueprint for the revolutionary sequences of that period, which so flummoxed and surprised the social democratic and, later, Bolshevik leadership bearing other ideas about how class struggle should proceed.

Eventually, in the waning of the revolutionary period and the integration of a certain diluted class struggle within the developmental logic of capitalism, the strike is formalized. The pacific and moralized element is emphasized. It is legitimated precisely insofar as it is purged of violence; with this, the latent opposition comes to the fore, and the riot becomes the strike’s other. It is transformed, as it were, behind the back of the strike. It thence appears as the métier of the lumpen, the urban poor, the colonized peoples of the third world, of women and homosexuals and that strange new social category, the “youth.”

The party of the party has always loved this disciplinary aspect of the strike, its emphasis on control, restraint. The strike, in this sense, becomes an allegory of moderation: the self-denying asceticism of sad militants lost in the night of capitalism in which all conditions are forever immature, all actions adventurist. Self-knowledge as self-limit. Postwar trade unions have been exemplary in this regard, turning the strike into a machine for deferral, temporizing and compromise. But with onset of crisis in the seventies requiring firms to drive wages below the cost of reproduction itself, even these docile creatures became too much a hindrance for capitalism.

And so began a process of corporate restructuring, fragmenting the labor force such that the opportunities for effective workplace action are now few and far between. This restructuring has meant the weakening of the strike weapon and with it the revolutionary compact that joined class, union and party for an assault on state power. All this is dead, and in its wake reemerges a weapon older than the worker’s movement: the riot testifies to that movement’s eclipse, and presents itself as one of the few weapons on offer.

Here we approach something like the core of the puzzle. To say that ends and means have come apart is to affirm again the changed character of our present moment: the very measure of ends and means learned by revolutions of the 20th century no longer holds. No wonder so many contemporary struggles fail its test. The riot goes out of the square post festum. There is a sense in which it is the purest case of incommensuration — that riot is the very name for the inability of means to find their ends in our moment. It searches for them in the glow of intersection fire, in the glass of shop displays, in the prised rocks tossed at riot cops. This urgent quest underlies the confusion by which riots are thought to be entirely distant from strategy and tactics, lacking in politics — concentrations of chaos set loose for one or three desperate nights.

Inevitably then, the riot unites the left organisateurs with the party of order: each dismisses the riot’s irrationality and opportunism, its ideological character, its unreason. They differ only in the amount of hand-wringing, the varied tones of  tedious and paternalistic “understanding.” What could it mean to suggest that the great disorder of the riot is an order, albeit one not contemplated by our moment’s Kautskys and Lenins? We have seen already that the limit of the riot is not its failure to get with the program, as it is precisely the eclipse of the program that the new riot registers. We might argue, obliquely, that riot is cradle to a different order altogether. In every riot that earns its name there is the moment when all things come loose, when the physics of social existence seems to undergo a qualitative change. In this moment the participants realize that they can engage in no small number of forbidden activities and get away with it — they realize, that is to say, that the implicit threat which has bound them to good behavior no longer holds sway. You will recognize this moment — sound of shattering glass, pregnant pause, no response — as the euphoria of the drift, the long and frictionless slide of crisis now come down, minute by minute, to daily life.

It is in this sensation that one discovers a secret kept most carefully by the enemy: that we are not bound to the law, to public order, to society by some immanent power that traverses our consciousness and our days. We are bound by specific applications of force. This force is real and being real it is calculable. Like everything calculable it can be overcome. It is entirely possible for there to be too many antagonists to be managed, moving too quickly and wildly. This is the beginning of counterorganization as we understand it: the real knowledge that the struggle is concrete, a matter of bodies, maneuver, speed. One must know this in one’s nerve to make revolutions.

At the same time, the riots of the present are as transitory as they are intense. This is part of their very essence. Habitually called into being by police violence and then harried further by the same police, the riot orients itself rather fatally toward the state. As our friends have written about England in 2011

The riot itself already carried this content; the verbalised justifications in its midst merely clarified something already evident. This riot demanded the presence of the police, as the immediate interlocutor for whom it was performed, whose recognition it insisted upon, whose presence and participation it invited, and through whose efforts it was constituted.

The revelation of the state’s concrete character, the deadly but finite rule of the police, becomes an enticement. The compulsions of capital remain for the moment abstract, removed; the capacity of the riot is expended on the state because the state presents itself as the practical enemy. One might say that the state was once strong but attenuated over distance, from king’s keep to countryside, while the economy was weak but intensely local, baker and bootmaker just down the way. Now the situation is reversed. There is no state but the police, always near to hand; it is the economy that is now attenuated along global supply chains and abstract financial networks.

This is why we understand the beginning of looting not as a divagation from struggle but as a moment of truth. It points backward to the price-setting of the 18th century; it points forward to the meeting of needs, a preliminary turn to reproduction. Of course it is opportunism, as is no small part of struggle. At the same time, it engages the abstract enemy on concrete terms. It asks a question that capital cannot answer: that of social reproduction beyond the wage. This is not a question the riot itself can answer; if the market seemed three centuries ago to be the place where the matter of self-reproduction could be addressed, this is no longer the case. The market can no longer express the productivity of the crowd, made objective and merely alienated by a single degree. Now endlessly familiar, it is nonetheless a perfectly alien place. The foray into the market can be only momentary. Still it marks the riot as a turn from production to circulation, betraying its secret relation to the range of circulation struggles which have taken on such a crooked charisma in our moment: the blockade (echoing the old export riot), the occupation — and finally, the commune.

Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation – this is where we find ourselves. Two paths open for us: each one, in its way, a deflection from the burning heart of matter. On the one hand, the endless process of deliberation that must finally, in its narrowing down to a common denominator, arrive at the only single demand possible: a demand for what already is, a demand for the status quo. On the other hand, the desire that has no object, that finds nothing in the world which answers its cry of annihilation.

One fire dies out because it extinguishes its own fuel source. The other because it can find no fuel, no oxygen. In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion. The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination.

We do this by facilitating a situation in which there is, quite simply, enough of what we need, in which there is no call for “rationing” or “measure,” no requirement to commensurate what one person takes and what another contributes. This is the only way that an insurrection can survive, and ward off the reimposition of market, capital and state (or some other economic mode based upon class society and domination). The moment we prove ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of everyone – the young and the old, the healthy and infirm, the committed and the uncertain we create a situation where it is only a matter of time before people will accept the return of the old dominations. The task is quite simple, and it is monstrously difficult: in a moment of crisis and breakdown, we must institute ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend neither on wages nor money, neither compulsory labor nor administrative decision, and we must do this while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.

[Addendum: We finished a draft of this essay, a revision of an earlier piece, “Plaza-Riot-Commune,” more than a year ago, but work for pay and other misfortunes have delayed its release. In the meantime, it’s become clear that the essay failed to pay adequate attention to the question of nationalism and populism. Following are supplementary remarks on that topic:

That the passage beyond the limits of riot and plaza rarely occurred we already know. The exceptions are instructive, however. Wherever the passage to revolution occurred, it did so in ways that left capital largely unharmed; the distribution of the things of this world according to the rule of value and wage, money and price, was never challenged except in the most transitory manner. These were revolutions superintended by armies whose integrity remained inviolable, revolutions that devolved quickly into civil wars in which almost any sense of an objective beyond the capture of power for the sake of power’s capture would be lost. This has only become clearer as the sequence continues to unfold, in 2014, with the hopeful efflorescence of Turkey, Brazil, Bosnia, and the ugly fascism of the Ukraine, where the symbols and tactics of the political sequence have been directed toward explicitly reactionary ends.

The dilemma we confront is this: where the uprisings were strongest they were weakest; where strongest in terms of material force, where armed insurgency appeared, it was vouchsafed by the sign of nation or people. The ambiguities of populism and nationalism were visible from the beginning, of course, visible in the hesitance of the Egyptian masses in the face of the army, audible in the horrifying and unintentionally revealing phrase, the army and the people are one. One hears it too, in the way that the concept of the 99 percent halfway disavows class struggle, a populism minus one. The insistence on formal togetherness, on formal unity, in the absence of a unity based upon shared objective must be a placeholder for the unity of people or nation. The openness to the populist and nationalist turn emerges directly, in this regard, from the failure to link means to any kind of end, to find any meaningful objective beyond the overturning of all that is. In the present, it’s either all or nothing. Communism or the nation. The proletariat or the people. The fixation on the state and state power — and we include here the conjuncture of rioters and police that so easily becomes a pas de deux — enables the populist turn, by providing a convenient target that all manner of unsavory groups might agree to hate. This is the unity of one’s enemies enemies, arrayed as far as the eye can see: an impressive massing no doubt but inevitably bearing objectives that outstrip our worst imaginings. Rather than attempting to draw everyone together into a formal unity, the movements that succeed where the present sequence failed will likely need to find tactics and strategies that polarize as much as they unify.]

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Land and Liberty

against the new city

 

Pietro 3

[foreclosures in the East Bay]

1.

Debt, wage-labor, rent. These are the three scourges of the modern, fully capitalist world, the three faces of exploitation that confront the proletarian of today. Rent might be the least examined of these terms, the landlord all too easily conflated with banker and boss. Perhaps this is because rent is one of the most naturalized of property relations – a tax one pays for the simple crime of existing in space dimensional, of being a body not always in frantic motion, a body needing rest. The idea that space can be owned in the same way that one can own an object is so strange, if one thinks about it, that it is hardly surprising few of us actually do, that the landlord is forgotten about when we list the enemies we will send up the steps of the guillotine. In the fully capitalist world, the trinity of neoclassical economics – labor, capital, land – is often translated into the simple binary of labor and capital, since the aristocratic, land-owning class that once lived off of ground-rent has vanished and with it, at least in the majority of the world, the peasantry it once terrorized. The owners of land are now all capitalists, and so it is perhaps true that we can call Monsieur Le Capital to account for the crimes of Madame La Terre once the party of disorder takes to the streets. But if we think about what makes life unbearable today, rent is surely at the top of the list, if not in first place. The hardship of life in the metropolis derives directly from the difficulty of making rent, of finding a place to live. This is, in many regards, an effect of the developmental trajectory of capitalism, an effect deriving from its miraculous success in generating an excess of wealth that is experienced by most as an excess of misery.  One result of the massive increase in capitalist productivity has been to bring down the cost of all wage goods, food most especially, relative to shelter. Rent grows simply because it doesn’t shrink. For most proletarians in the US, the largest share of their available income goes to rent or mortgage payments, rather than food, as was the case in the past. Though hunger has hardly been eradicated, and people suffer from lack of food all the time, it is homelessness that today characterizes poverty, that marks the threat of wageless life.

Cities are now for the rich. That is the message posted at the city limits of Seattle and San Francisco, Washington DC and New York. They belong to the rich; they belong to the renters who are also rentiers. There was a period in the development of capitalism in which states and capitalists felt constrained to make cities affordable for people, if not livable, to produce infrastructure that would facilitate the reproduction of a working class. But this is no longer the case; such a class is no longer necessary in large numbers in the age of drones and deindustrialization, and whereas previously rent was a necessary weapon to ensure that workers showed up to work the next day, needing to earn something in order to pay for the roof over their heads, today rent is used not to keep workers in cities but to push them out.

There is no surer confirmation of the absurdity of capitalism than the fact that one of the chief effects of the economic crisis of 2008, besides persistently high unemployment and an ongoing wave of foreclosures, has been a massive explosion in rent prices across many US cities. In the neighborhoods hit hardest by mortgage crisis, neighborhoods whose composition is primarily black and Latino, those who were not excised by foreclosure are now being squeezed out by rent. To the income lost from unemployment one subtracts a new amount lost to rising rents. Landlord, banker, boss — everyone gets a piece.

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2.

The explosion of rent prices in the Bay Area is the effect, first, of the massive amount of capital set free by the crisis, unable to find any productive outlet. Once the real estate market began to bottom out, the capital that had been pooling found its level and poured in, buying up all the houses from which people had been evicted. In the new loan-averse banking context, where most people with modest means have a hard time getting a home loan, profit taking in the real-estate market occurs increasingly through rentals. Instead of the mortgage-backed financial instruments that precipitated the crash of 2008, now Wall Street has created a new class of rent-backed assets to funnel capital toward the purchase of houses for rent by big institutional buyers. REO Homes, LLC, an investment firm, has bought up over half of the foreclosures in West Oakland; after making a few repairs, it can rent these out for prices that are at the very top of the range for the area. None of this would be possible without the surge in demand; the main driver of rent inflation is the fact that San Francisco and Santa Clara County together added over 50,000 new tech jobs from 2010 to 2013, jobs that pay a median income of around $100,000. The effect of this new money on the rental market has been catastrophic. In Oakland, the average price increase is something like 15%; in San Francisco, 10%. But these are averages, and we all know areas where rent is easily 50% higher than it was two years ago. These rent increases encourage real-estate speculation, since they indicate money to be made by landlordage as well as rising home values.

Yet we need to abstract still further from these harrowing numbers. The link between growth in tech jobs and rise in rent indexes a fundamental polarization of the labor market. We might take as a parable an illuminating moment at this year’s Academy Awards, which having received more than 20 million dollars from tech giant Samsung for advertising, would feature their Android by Google phone during the show. Selfies are taken. Tweets are sent. It is a Hollywood event but it is possessed by the spirit of the tech industry. Mid-show the host Ellen DeGeneres, blithe spirit that she is, orders pizza for the audience and when it arrives, she brings the delivery person out on stage. He stands there bemused but cheerful in his apron, hoodie, and ball cap, facing 3400 people in tuxedos and ball gowns. They are almost entirely white. He is not. He descends with the host to serve them food. Ellen herself is dressed entirely in white. “C’mon, I’ve never done this,” she says curtly, “you help.” Later, Edgar Martirosyan will claim, “this is really the American dream.” And it is. But it is surely not the dream of the average delivery guy (it would turn out he was the business owner in worker’s drag) and surely not ours. In this dream there are only the wealthy, the powerful, the creme de la creme. They are the whole population, all that remains, the world exists for them, no one else required. Almost. To make it through the gilded evening of history they will need exactly one service worker who will see to their material needs and then get the hell out. It is like a golden pyramid, inverted and resting on a single point, all its weight bearing down.

Hollywood, not for the last time, provides an image of the world stood on its head, but an image that for all that still holds a kind of truth. Is this not precisely the dream of San Francisco as it is being remade before our eyes? Already, the pop libertarians and econopundits speak openly of a final polarization, “a mash-up between Downton Abbey and Elysium” in the ready-to-hand language of film and TV: a world in which only 15% of the population will possess any of the nominal “skills” that are necessary for economic growth, the remaining 85% automated out of production by intelligent robots, and out of the economically thriving cities now become polished museums and consumption corridors for the super-rich and their remaining courtiers and servants. Against this prospect, these pundits offer the only possible advice: learn to serve the rich, make yourself useful to your new masters. The rise of the machines threatened by a thousand sci-fi films is mere shadow-play, in this vision, for the rise of a new class of techno-elites riding the wealth effect created by the accelerated expulsion of workers from the production process: a new ruling class freed from the dead weight of that old laboring, value-generating class, freed to treat the human remainder with machine-like indifference. The machines in these movies are personifications of the new rich, in cities remade for them and their retinue alone.

For better and for worse (and how tremulously close these two positions now hover), such an outcome remains fundamentally impossible as long as distribution of labor and social wealth is organized according to profit and the wage.  A society that bases its measure of value upon human labor cannot reduce its laboring population absolutely without at the same time sawing off the branch upon which it rests. These elites will have banished the laboring classes into a dim outland they will soon explore themselves.

In that such visions cannot be a real forecast, they disclose themselves as a tension and tendency within the present, stabilized as an image of the future — the spontaneous ideology of the new elite. San Francisco quite obviously already drifts in this direction. It has the highest median income of any city in the nation, $75k — and that figure would still need to be half again as high to afford a median home. It is a city, that is to say, in which only the richest of the rich can stay without the most extreme of sacrifice and hardship, those with top tier tech jobs, those with hedge funds and winner startups and venture capital. They will need a service sector, of course, will need line cooks and bus drivers and sex workers and pizza deliveries. But they will need these people to live somewhere else please, somewhere offstage and out of sight. Perhaps in a system of bidonvilles ringing the great city, pushed ever further out by cascading displacements, expected to be grateful for the right to serve the fine ladies and gentlemen busily giving each other awards and high fives, to be recorded and posted no doubt via GoogleGlass. This is not a movie. But neither is it an unassailable reality.

That this situation is unsustainable, cannot be stabilized into the boom city that Google and Facebook and Twitter want, is little consolation for those of us who try to hold on to the lives we have made for ourselves, against rising rent and militarized cops, against the cameras and data collection programs that will increasingly police all deviance out of existence, in the name of a “safety” which means to package each atom of space and time in its code. Though many cities continue to be organized according to the wealth distributions of the 20th century, with a poor urban core and rich suburbs, in places like San Francisco and Seattle, New York and Washington DC, LA and Portland, New Orleans and Atlanta, we are witnessing a profound inversion of the typical logic — poor inner city, rich suburbs — by which cities have been organized for the last few decades. US cities increasingly seem as if they will be organized on a European model, with a fully embourgeoisified inner city surrounded by proletarian suburbs.

Detroit_riot_police_blockade_op_3723x2261[Detroit, 1967]

3.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the dominant urbanizing logic was city as forcing house, concentrator of the new masses of labor power flushed out of the countryside. In the great industrial centers of developing capitalism, the accumulation of capital meant, fundamentally, an accumulation of workers, a multiplication of the toilers who served not only as providers of surplus value but as purchasers of the increased output of industry. During booms, this laboring class expanded rapidly; relaxed immigration laws pulled in workers from Europe and Asia, and internal migration, especially the migration of blacks from the South, continued to draw workers out of the countryside and into the city. Cities were redrawn to accommodate these new masses and maintain the lines of class and race that the ruling whites expected.

These new urban enclaves were not simply effects. Though created by racial and class violence, by redlining and the trajectory of freeways, by white mobs and railroads, by the maneuvering of political machines and the keying of certain social classes to natural features of the landscape, these zones were also, at the same time, the product of profound struggles for survival, dignity, autonomy. They were spaces of self-organization and self-determination. To the extent that we can speak about a proletarian class identity or consciousness, it depended upon the institutions, the community, produced in these spaces, in the neighborhoods where proletarians lived, as much as it did upon the solidarities and generalized experience of the industrial workplaces.

Class was, of course, merely one of the lines upon which these cities were drawn. These working-class neighborhoods were spaces of ethnic and racial self-organization as well, and in many cities one can narrate the history of a neighborhood through the procession of racial and ethnic groups who lived there. Though created by vectors of money and law, by the location of workplaces, the Jewish and African-American ghettos, the barrios and Chinatowns of the American city were constituted as spaces of counterpower, variously revolutionary or religious, nationalist or mercantile, regulated through a number of venues and institutions: drinking club, church, criminal syndicate, business association, union, communist party. These enterprises rarely offered a clear-cut distinction between organizing on the basis of class identity or some other axis, particularly in places where class identity was experienced primarily in racial terms. Such institutions were especially necessary in the neighborhoods of those who ranked low in the racial hierarchy in economic terms. Because these workers were the last ones hired by the new industrial concerns during booms and the first ones fired when crises hit, and because economic instability often meant a rise in white supremacist pogroms and riots, these neighborhoods needed to be autonomous and self-sufficient to a much greater degree than the neighborhoods where comparatively privileged proletarians lived, providing people the capacity to survive and defend themselves when the flows of income dried-up and the racist mob arrived. As a result, many of these neighborhoods gradually became worlds unto themselves, functionally and culturally autonomous.

The gentrification of American cities is quite obviously, by any account, an attack on these spaces of cultural identity and autonomy, an attack on the institutions and infrastructure and community that people have built in order to survive in a world hostile to them. But we would profoundly misunderstand the present moment if we did not see gentrification as the final stage of a sustained attack on these spaces that has been ongoing for over 40 years. Two things happened in the 1970s that changed the disposition of capital and the state toward these spaces. First, it became clear after the political militancy of the 1960s that the autonomy of these neighborhoods — particularly the African-American ghetto and the Latino barrio — meant not merely the self-management of poverty but a threat to the economic and political order of the time. Secondly, a profound process of deindustrialization began which meant that cities no longer needed vast reserves of labor-power. The various institutions that the political class had established to pacify and contain African-Americans in the immediate postwar era (to take the paradigmatic example of this racialized logic) were widely seen as having failed, and a gradual transformation of paternalistic welfare institutions into disciplinary forms of policing, monitoring and incarceration began. The so-called “war on drugs” that replaced the “war on poverty” of the preceding era had the effect of increasing the number of black men in prison by a factor of four. But the restructuring and corporatization of commerce within the city also had a major effect, with the local grocers, hardware stores, bookshops and restaurants that might have given neighborhoods a unitary feeling and provided jobs and revenue replaced by massive supermarkets and chain stores, often located miles away. The result is the creation of “food deserts,” places starved of any retail outlets beyond convenience and liquor stores — a quality that can make the initial effects of gentrification, with new shops and new “security,” seem seductive to a fraction of residents dismayed by the vanished retail and enforced decrepitude. This brief renovation appeal will not last, once it becomes clear the changes mean greater repression and higher rents.

If civil rights did little to close the wage gap between blacks and whites, it did allow for the mobility of a new, growing black middle class, such that the petty proprietors who once might have owned these local stores could move out of the ghetto. The post civil-rights era has been characterized by a profound polarization of wealth in the African-American community; a new African-American middle-class seems to have absorbed the meager gains of the last few decades, providing whites with a ready-to-hand image of the defeat of racism. Desegregration and the military assault on black communities effectively weakened the link between the black middle class and poor blacks, creating conditions in which many of those who could leave the police-occupied neighborhoods of the 1980s and 1990s did. All of these changes had the effect of making the American ghettos both less self-sufficient and, paradoxically, more isolated from the surrounding city.

fig327thstreetwosp

4.

But now the very model upon which these ghettos were built is being upended. One effect of the white flight and corresponding criminalization that occurred in the postwar period was to artificially depreciate the value of real estate in cities, creating what is sometimes called a “rent gap.” The cheap rent that resulted was one of the things that offset the increasing poverty in these neighborhoods once the halfway decent jobs vanished in the crisis of the 1970s, never to return. But this process of deindustrialization has also meant that there is a massive volume of excess capital, domestic or foreign, that can’t find sufficiently profitable investment in those vanished productive sectors. Hence, the growth of finance and real-estate over the last few decades. As states respond to the slowing of their economies with an increase in the money supply, the problem accelerates in turn. Though the intention is that increased credit will lead to increased hiring, this is rarely the case these days, and instead the money floods into financial assets and real estate. Sooner or later, it finds its way into the crack between the actual and potential values of properties. Because cities and states rely on taxes from real estate, one of their main purposes is to create institutions that can direct these flows of excess capital into their own cities — every state and city has a network of public and public-private institutions designed to facilitate redevelopment, and as we know from countless scandals, there are few local politicians who do not make their way in the world by way of one shady real-estate transaction or another. Clay Davis of The Wire— sheeeitt — barely rises to the level of caricature; he is simply a type. These politicians are a part of the state-capital redevelopment machine designed to reallocate money and everything else toward the cores of wealth and power. Most of these projects fail, of course. But the cities that succeed — Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oakland, Vancouver, Seattle — find that they’ve started an irreversible process, a chain reaction that admits of little modification or mitigation.

People are, of course, not simple utility-maximizers, mindlessly drawn this way or that by the smell of money. There are all kinds of cultural values and subjectivities and affects that have attended these processes, both in the era of white flight and gentrification. Certainly, the 1960s counterculture and its aftermath marked the suburbs as spaces of deep conformity and alienation, whereas the city increasingly became the space of self-realization and freedom. Rejection of marriage and the holy family, of heterosexuality and patriarchy; rejection of conservatism of all sorts meant, by definition, rejection of the suburbs or countryside and affirmation of the city. As people began to have fewer children, as conventional familial forms began to mutate, people moved to cities where it was easier to live. Easier to live as a single man or a single mother, or as a family where both parents work long hours, in places where one can purchase prepared meals and childcare, especially if one has the means. For the middle classes, the city comes to resemble a tech campus: a place owned and operated by highly effective people pulling long work sessions punctuated only by the things that will keep them on the job, a revivifying massage or a quick workout at the climbing gym in their few spare moments before they turn back to making it happen. Perhaps these are what has become of the values that once made the city desirable. But behind this transformation of values there is a rather simple story of money. People had moved to the suburbs because it was comparatively cheap, cheaper than cities. People moved back to the cities because the suburbs had become much more expensive, and were no longer a bargain, especially for those not living in traditional families and especially once you considered the cost of and time spent commuting, the rise in carbon costs, the ongoing collapse of public transit. Add to this the increasing availability of personal services now provided by wage-laborers — a way for the wealthy classes to buy time and purchase their own reproduction, but one that only be exercised only at the scale and density of the city — and the reversal of white flight’s capillary flow takes on a persuasive logic.

Thus is the political economic background of gentrification. We have to be careful not to tell this story as a simple narrative of people and territory, as if the mere presence of a white or middle-class person in a neighborhood instantly meant the expulsion of a long-term resident. We must avoid a Malthusian view of the city. There is, for the most part, no shortage of housing stock in places where gentrification is happening. On the contrary. And even if there were, all scarcity is fundamentally artificial — housing isn’t available because its production is subordinated to logic of profit, and builders make more profit from luxury condos than rentals to low-income tenants. There is a whole chain of causes and mediations which link the new arrivant to the expulsion of the long-term resident. In certain contexts, in cities with renter-friendly laws, as exist in Europe, one can have “first-wave” gentrifiers — artists, squatters and punks — move in to areas without causing any subsequent appreciation in rents or displacement at all.

Nonetheless, in the US at present, one can only with great naiveté pretend not to know how the story ends. US capitalism is a machine for churning money from every differential, for compelling all difference to be lived as struggle. It is a machine for turning nearly any attempt to avoid the misery of contemporary life into a mechanism for beating down someone else. People who came to the city because they had an idea of liberation — say, of finding a community of artists — discover themselves to be gentrification’s cat’s-paws, their own desire for freedom the lever by which another is pushed toward ever greater unfreedom. In the contemporary American city, with its high rents and low wages, refusal of work is only possible as a refusal of rents, and this will mean, for many, moving into neighborhoods that are either presently gentrifying or will be soon. To the extent that political subcultures and radical milieus exist among those who flee paid work in order to participate in other projects, these groupings will bear a particularly intimate relationship to gentrification, especially in places where there are no meaningful struggles over housing, no viable forms of resistance to the tide of appreciating property values.

And yet, we need to demystify the concept of choice underlying this refusal. In a tight rental market, where landlords have their choice of renters, they can name any number of conditions: salary, good credit, lack of criminal record. One may find that, despite one’s ability or willingness to pay a premium to avoid participating in the horrors of gentrification, one can find no place to live except in a gentrifying neighborhood. In any case, one cannot hope to get very far by mobilizing people’s guilt toward different choices; it is akin to fighting ecological collapse by trying to shame people into being vegans or driving fuel-efficient cars. This is not to say that those looking for housing or contemplating a move shouldn’t consider their options (such that they are) carefully and the effects those options will have on those around them. But when people see that the choice of a single person will probably not make much difference one way or another, they are not likely to make the kinds of intense sacrifices that would be necessary to free themselves of complicity in gentrification. At the same time, no one should be surprised when long-term residents display their hatred of the whiter and wealthier arrivals in their neighborhoods. In fact, a campaign to terrorize new arrivants (especially those who act like complete assholes) through violence against person and property would not only be an understandable response to what is happening but one likely to succeed in scaring people away and consequently lowering rents. But then we would be in realm of political force rather than moral suasion.

nypd-testing-google-glass-patrol-surveillance-651977

5.

Let us return to the parable one last time. There we are in the Dolby Theater (formerly the Kodak Theater; everything becomes parable), 3400 of us in suits and gowns, one in a service uniform. It is the victory of wealth, of power, of whiteness, of industry, of spectacle. It is the final triumph of the immaterial economy, the R&D economy, where people make ideas and feelings, entertainments and processes, and beam them elsewhere, to a waiting world.

We know that this can be true only in spectacle: that behind the appearance, the rest of the population must be nearby enough to provide the necessary goods and services for life to go on, must be nearby enough to be exploited so as to generate the wealth on which the blessed float. So the immiserated: displaced but still necessarily present, part of the circuit. It’s a contradiction. This explains all the cops.

The cops are there in the parable, because the parable is also a fragment of real life. Outside the Dolby theater, hundreds upon hundreds of cops. Beat cops, riot cops, line officers, cops with dogs, cops on the rooftops with sniper rifles covering all the approaches to Hollywood and Highland. A fully militarized polarization of wealth. The newspapers try not to write about it, the cameras try to keep it out frame. But there it is. The gleaming spectacle can only be produced by the heavy presence of the military state; the dream of total wealth can only be forged with firepower. These cops are the blue stain of contradiction, the inevitable mold that fills in the cracks in this reality, or tries.

These are the same cops who occupy the cracks between neighborhoods, cracks in neighborhoods, to enforce this ongoing reconfiguration of the social landscape. This is what they are paid to do. Gentrification, scarcity, displacement — these things have a dynamic, but they are not a natural order. The same contradiction is generated time and again: people are fucked over but kept around, priced out of their apartments but still living in the neighborhood, or working there, or walking through to the next neighborhood where they’ve been pushed. Clinging to communities and places and familiars out of love and belonging and the need to stay alive.

This is a volatile scenario. It is volatile in part because the new residents, steeped in class privilege and white supremacy, generally imagine the police are their allies — not a mistake the long-term residents are likely to make. It is volatile because developers, for whom structural racism and the abstract magic of property value have long since become a unified way of seeing the world, have these police at their disposal. It is volatile most of all because the imposition of this antagonistic order, this permanent counterrevolution against the poor, is the entirety of the police’s job: because gentrification cannot be reduced to ethnic cleansing, because the displaced population must in some regard be preserved in their immiseration, needed but not wanted. Thus the war appears as a war of control and of visibility: charged with developing an ever intensifying efficiency for capital, the gentrified urban space becomes R&D City, a city of research and discipline.

The discipline has as one side surveillance and as the other the occasional police murder. Behind every rent increase, a line of armed cops; behind every posh storefront, an army of CCTV cameras. Thus the incredible force of videos where cops kill black and brown kids: these images synthesize these two faces of discipline, the picture and the pistol, that combine into an immanent and permanent domination of the lives of the underclass. To a considerable extent, control and visibility flow together. Precisely because “race” seems to be visible, to be the main way that the social polarization and social contradiction appears, the grinding, humming mechanisms of control and violence are premised on a regime of visibility: on endlessly expanding surveillance schemes, on “neighborhood watch” programs which have decided how the neighborhood is supposed to look. This is the fundamental linkage between the new resident calling the cops on a suspicious kid in the park — a young person of color — and the asshole wearing his GoogleGlass on the street, in the bar. It’s not simply that the technology is fancy or expensive or peculiarly visible, a sign of conspicuous consumption, a marker of the class divide. It’s that it is so evidently a working piece of R&D City, part of the ceaseless force required to stabilize the contradiction that it cannot resolve. Donning the GoogleGlass is not wearing a computer on your face; it is wearing a cop.

Rent and the cops. So much of what we have said can be summed up by these two terms. There is nothing inevitable about the process we’ve described; it could be stopped, but only through a profound process of destabilization. An ungovernable city is a city in which no luxury condos are built, a city to which firms are unwilling to relocate their workers, a city in which rents stabilize or fall.  The very first barricades in history were used to block off neighborhoods against social volatility; now the volatility must itself become the barricade. Not just one riot, which by temporarily lowering property values and galvanizing the political class toward new repressive projects, becomes a spur to redevelopment — but a series of riots, year after year, that drive a political polarization equal to the economic, that divide a city into those who love the cops and those who don’t. We think rent, too, provides the opportunity for such polarization. This is where there is a profound difference between early arrivants and late arrivants; between those who moved to a neighborhood because it was what they could afford, and those who move to an already gentrified neighborhood because it offers the consumer options they like. The first group naturally wants to keep rents low, and this creates a potential point of alliance with the long-term residents who are displaced when the second-wave gentrifiers arrive. The second group understands that they are trading high rents for certain desirable qualities, among them “safety.” They are paying for the cops. They will not come if the neighborhood is made ungovernable, if evictions are resisted, if rent strikes are organized, houses are taken over and given to those who have been displaced or otherwise need housing, if the offices of developers and real-estate investment companies are targeted, if new construction projects are constantly sabotaged, if employers whose hiring reflects the increasingly polarized labor market are attacked at every turn. Rent and the cops. R&D city remakes itself violently with these weapons; they must be unmade, undone. The sides are clear.

 

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Limit Analysis and Its Limits

published in Sic 2, in response to “Under the Riot Gear”

As a mode of inquiry into the conditions of present-day and historical struggles, much recent output from the so-called ‘communisation current’ might be described as a kind of limit analysis. This mode is something more than the usual exercise in unhappy consciousness we have come to expect from the ultraleft. Rather, we are told, limits are the very condition of possibility for struggles. They are generative, the source of struggles’ dynamism as well as their transience and inevitable failure. The horizon of communisation, in this sense, appears through these impasses, just as the virtual depths of a painting appear as the thickening of paint on a canvas surface. Each historical moment, in this sense, has a form of transcendence specific to the limits it presents for proletarian struggles—communisation, then, is that form of overcoming which opens from the particulars of today’s struggles. In attending to the two-fold character of the limit—both barrier and horizon—such analysis shares something with dialectical thought in general, and its willingness to think two incompatible thoughts at once.

But there are limits, alas, even to the study of limits, which can all too quickly pass over into fatalism and theodicy—as if the tragic text of history were already written, and our task only to discover the fatal flaw present from the outset. When done well, however, this method is about the search for the new in history: a new given by struggles themselves and merely registered by theory, a new immanent to the ever-changing terms under which proletarians meet capital and its powers. To register these new developments, however, requires close attention to all of the forces at play in a particular moment. Otherwise, limit analysis is just a machine for affirming assumptions.

‘Under the Riot Gear’ exemplifies both the good and the bad of such a method. There is no little amount of insight into what happened in Oakland during 2011 and 2012, and it is certainly one of the most rigorous and engaged accounts we’ve read. There are numerous moments worth commending. The distinction arrived at in the concluding pages, between processes ofgeneralisation and processes of unification is incisive and, even better, portable. But there is quite often a mechanical application of certain conceptual frameworks (a mechanisation with the ironic effect of naturalising its own assumptions, as we shall see later on). While we often agree with many of these frameworks, in whole or in part, we can’t help but feel that the way in which they are applied leaves something to be desired.

‘Under the Riot Gear’ follows the analytical schematic elaborated by Theorie Communiste in essays such as ‘The Present Moment’ and ‘The Glass Floor’, in which it is suggested that, for proletarians at present, ‘the very fact of acting as a class appears as an external constraint, a limit to be overcome’. This means that every time proletarians affirm themselves as a class—as labour power—they likewise must affirm and sustain capital. Under present crisis conditions, workers often struggle merely to keep their jobs; in other words, they struggle to maintain the capital–labour relationship as such. Minimal modifications and defensive struggles are the order of the day. As a result of the restructuring of labour, workers are compelled to make endless sacrifices, effectively adopting the standpoint of capital in order to preserve and extend their access to the wage. If previous generations might have imagined working-class struggle as a process of ‘self-valorisation’ in which workers gradually won for themselves an autonomy from capital, now the affirmation of class identity seems one and the same with an affirmation of the imperatives of capital and its right to manage. Action as a class becomes self-undermining.

This shift in the structure of the capital-labour relation has shattered the material coherence of the factory, of industrial production, in the formerly industrial core—via automation, off-shoring, disaggregation of productive processes, and the remaining litany of post-Fordism. Exiled from the factory floor, proletarian antagonism finds itself in the streets, departing the space of production for the space of reproduction or circulation. The December 2008 uprising in Greece is a paradigmatic example of this displacement, in the reading given it by Theorie Communiste: the most explosive encounters occurred between precarious, marginalised proletarians and the state, while the formal, unionised working-class involved itself rather late and ambivalently. Once antagonism has been displaced in this manner, proletarians face off against the apparatuses which reproduce their class identity: the police, the schools, the trade union offices and various governmental agencies. The promise of such struggle is that, in attempting to negate the forms of class belonging which now appear ‘as external constraint’, it might pass into open insurrection that puts both labour and capital into question and affirms neither. The concomitant limit, conversely, is that such antagonism remains at a remove from the heart of production and is unable to bring the economy as such to a halt.

While sometimes insightful about the differences separating Oakland from Athens and Thessaloniki, ‘Under the Riot Gear’ applies this analysis to Oakland somewhat heavy-handedly. We read, for instance, that the unique contribution of Oakland and the other plaza occupations is that, there, the proletariat took in hand the question of its own reproduction. Unlike Greece, ‘the space of struggle was no longer only contained in the face to face encounter against the police, but in the face to face encounter with the reproduction of the proletariat.’ Nonetheless, for the authors, this direct engagement with reproduction brought its own challenges, naturalising an ‘autonomisation’ of the sphere of reproduction consequent on the growth of superfluous, unwaged proletarians. This makes it more difficult to examine the ways in which the materials for the mutual-aid based structures of the camps came from the surrounding capitalist economy (and were sometimes paid for with money earned from the sale of labour power).

This is where the piece displays its own taste for hyperbole, and we read, for instance, that as a result of this autonomisation, ‘[the Oakland Commune] never questioned the idea of production’, a point contradicted shortly; the following pages largely concerns Occupy Oakland’s two blockades of the Oakland Port, and its intervention into the struggle of port workers. This discussion also stands in contradiction with the likewise hyperbolic claims that ‘Outside of the square, nothing could be attacked.’ As is well-documented, all sorts of things beyond the square were attacked in the many nights of rioting, disturbances that spooked the Oakland Business Association enough for it to speak to the press about declining sales and businesses which had chosen not to relocate to Oakland given its lack of security. However, we find ourselves in agreement with the spirit if not the letter of our correspondents’ wording, if by this spirit we are meant to understand that the Oakland Commune was unable to pass into a phase of sustained attack against the economic forms upon which it depended. It’s true that the Commune’s central feature was a fundamentally passive and defensive one: the camp, a space in which the reproduction of the proletariat was directly engaged through structures of mutual aid and free giving. Though this space was defended, the moments of open violence were responses to attacks on the camp, or alternately, responses to attempts to thwart its reestablishment. To overcome this limit would have meant the passage into open insurrection and the transcendence of the ‘camp-form’.

That said, we are compelled to linger over the categories of strike and production which ground the critique—not to defend the virtue of the encampment, but precisely to shake these matters loose from a static conception and bring them to life in the present situation. Without this there will be no understanding of the Oakland Commune, nor the terrain in which the practices of communisation may unfold.

What Is a Strike?

If such a passage to open insurrection were at all possible, it would have occurred during the climactic moment of the General Strike of Nov. 2, when the camp-form was left behind, briefly, for a moment of offensive expansion. This is where the authors’ application of the ‘class belonging as exterior constraint’ thematic becomes most interesting and, in our view, problematic. For the authors, the declaration of a general strike, which might further have meant the transformation of the struggle into a form capable of challenging production as such, merely reproduced the externality of class belonging: ‘inasmuch as almost no one went on strike, the moment where the possibility to recognise oneself as a worker with her power became straight away a handicap. In other words, in the moment when class belonging was outlined, it was only produced as an external constraint’.1

But it is unclear in what way the labeling of this event as ‘strike’ was a handicap: 2 November was doubtless the high point of the movement. If it’s true that the term ‘strike’ was a false one, this seems to have been a generative rather than limiting delusion. In any case, we don’t believe the term ‘general strike’ meant what the authors imagine it meant for the participants – that is, we don’t think it was delusion. As we remember it, to call for a general strike meant, rather, to call for a general attack on the economy as such; in other words, it was a call for an interruption of the capitalist economy, whether by withdrawal of labour power (individually, collectively), blockade, occupation, targeted sabotage or generalised rioting. All of these tactical elements combined on 2 November. This sense of strike is neither new nor lost to history, as we shall see; it persists in dialectical relation to particular conditions. As the authors themselves note, the ‘strike’ as withdrawal of labour is merely one among the ensemble of elements which come together in the ‘general strikes’ of the past. If withdrawal of labour was the primary element in the general strikes of the past 130 years—which from the outset involved blockade, expropriation, sabotage—increasingly that role is now held by the blockade. These blockades have as their subject proletarians in the expanded sense that includes not only labourers, but all those who are ‘without reserves,’ including the unemployed. The blockade is the form for an era of expanding superfluous populations, as the piqueteros of Argentina and more recently the piquets volants of France have already shown us.

Where Is Production?

In many respects, the participants in this new type of ‘general strike’ grasp something, organically and spontaneously, which ‘Under the Riot Gear’ misses. It is no doubt true that the spheres of circulation and reproduction depend upon the sphere of production and productive labour; however, the converse is also true. Production can be halted from beyond, by proletarians who are not productive labourers, through an interruption of the circulation upon which production depends. In the same manner, struggles in the sphere of reproduction might degrade capital’s ability to find the labour power it needs. If the commodities (raw materials, half-finished goods, finished goods) and bodies which capital needs don’t arrive at the factory, the warehouse, or the retail outlet, then all labour and all production of value stops.

Furthermore, production and circulation are today entangled in newly complex ways. Circulation is now internal to production. As noted above, with the supply-chain Taylorism of Toyotaisation and the related logistics revolution, the factory has been disaggregated, parcelised and distributed in planetary networks such that the production of a singled finished item might require the coordination of dozens of producers. These networks are highly brittle; the use of just-in-time transport schemes and sophisticated logistics protocols to accelerate and manage flows of commodities means that there is little room for error, as once-common stockpiles and buffers have been eliminated. Given the extent of these networks, disruptions of circulation at certain key chokepoints can have far-reaching effects on production. Finally, circulation is internal to production in the sense that, under the reign of Walmart and the new mega-retailers, production is driven by consumption in new ways. In the so-called ‘pull-production’ model, goods are not produced or shipped until data is received from the retailer indicating that stocks have fallen. Items are pre-sold under such an arrangement, at least ideally, and consumption exerts a determinative effect on production.

In all regards, then, an intervention into the sphere of circulation is, at one and the same time, an intervention into the sphere of production. And while interventions into the sphere of circulation do not have seizure of the means of production as their horizon in the same way that interventions into production do, it’s unclear that such seizures are even workable today, in most areas, where production is limited to peripheral or secondary items of little use beyond capitalist social forms.

What Is Production?

It proves significant as well that the authors misrecognise the character and present situation of productive labour. There is a risk of pedantry in all such discussions; the authors route around this by cherry-picking a partial idea from Marx, asserting that ‘We can go as far as saying that any labour really subsumed by capital is productive.’ Should the words of Marx be the measure, he himself refutes this in a dozen places; more significantly, his full assessment accords with the developments we have seen in the global economy, including rising volatility and declining profitability beyond the nominal price regimes of the Finance/Insurance/Real Estate sector. Such developments are consistent with, for example, Marx’s careful analysis and verdict in Volume 2 of Capital regarding the non-productive character of work given over to transforming money capital into commodities or the reverse, said work which ‘includes circulation, or is included by it’.

But suggesting that a certain labour is unproductive does not mean, at the same time, disputing the social necessity for such work: ‘Just as the circulation time of capital forms a necessary part of its reproduction time, so the time during which the capitalist buys and sells, prowling around the market, forms a necessary part of the time in which he functions as a capitalist, i.e. as personified capital. It forms part of his business hours. . . The change of state costs time and labour power, not to create value, but rather to bring about the conversion of value from one form to the other, and so the reciprocal attempt to use this opportunity to appropriate an excess quantity of value does not change anything. This labour, increased by evil intent on each side, no more creates value than the labour that takes place in legal proceedings increases the value of the object in dispute’. Seen in this light, banking, bookkeeping, advertising, and numerous administrative tasks are at one and the same time essential to the reproduction of capital and, nonetheless, unproductive.2

This distinction has become more rather than less significant to capital’s struggle for its own reproduction. As it has restructured away from industrial production, capital has sought revenue increasingly in the sphere of circulation—for the given capitalist acts under the compulsion to seek revenue rather than to produce new value. This compulsion precisely constitutes an internal limit for capital, setting profit against accumulation and price against value, and must be understood as an immanent character of the present crisis. It is of little interest to chuckle over the capitalist’s failure to have understood his Marx; rather, we simply note that the shift of resources and jobs toward the task of realising greater portions of decreasing surpluses, at an ever-quickening pace, provides as well an opportunity for capital’s antagonists.

Since capital sustains itself through the generation of value—and enters into crisis where the production of value falls below a certain level—antagonists will want to understand which sectors are value-generating and which are not. But this value-analysis is often taken to be a strategic analysis; Marxists are all too quick to assume that value-productivity equals strategic centrality, and that struggles in ‘productive’ parts of the economy will be more significant. This is quite simply untrue. As above, whether or not something produces value does not, in the end, determine its usefulness for the reproduction of capital. The banking and credit systems produce no value on their own. Nonetheless, the freezing of the credit-supply can bring the productive economy to a standstill in a matter of days. Value-analysis might be a necessary preliminary to a strategic understanding of capital, but it is no substitute for it.

It is no doubt the case that the restructuring of capital, such that the productive sector is ever harder to discern in places like Oakland, presents real difficulties. Rather than a value-analysis, we might instead orient ourselves toward the concomitant difficulty in finding the use-values necessary our survival; the looting of a circulatory entrepôt, after all, can provide only temporarily for material needs. The seizure of reproduction from capital would have remained inaccessible to the Oakland Commune even if had passed beyond its limits. At the same time, attacks on capital’s presently vulnerable nodes, where are aggregated the processes of transforming commodities to money, should be understood as a nascent and tentative advance in the tactics explored by the Oakland Commune. The question for us, then, concerns the elusive unity of practice in coordinating these twin imperatives: the destruction of capital’s self-reproduction and the command of our own. We take the practical discovery of this unity to be communisation.

Class Belonging?

Having forced the general strike rather unrelentingly into the mold of the Greek riots (perhaps because of its misunderstanding of the ways in which production and productive labour present a limit), ‘Under the Riot Gear’ misses the specific points of difference between the unfolding of class belonging and antagonism in the Greek case and Oakland. If class belonging was an external constraint in Oakland, it was one actually personified by particular factions and groups. To understand this, though, one has to look in detail at some of the loathsome political maneuvering that accompanied both the port blockade on the day of the general strike and the subsequent blockade in December.

Though the ILWU (the longshoremen’s union) wears proudly a legacy of radicalism stretching back to the 1930s and is typically much more combative than the majority of American unions, long since domesticated to the needs of capital, it tends to engage in ‘political strikes’ (which are illegal in the US) through a rather peculiar, legalistic mechanism. Because a clause in their contract gives longshoremen the right to refuse to cross a picket line—even a ‘community picket’—they initiate work stoppages by inviting ‘community activists’ to picket at the gates of the port. This bit of theater is performed for the benefit of an arbitrator who perfunctorily declares working conditions ‘unsafe,’ allowing the dockworkers to stop work without risking sanction. This is a curious inversion of the ‘class belonging as external constraint’ thematic—the longshoremen exteriorise their antagonism in the form of a crew of outsiders because their own contractual identity as workers has become a fetter. Even when it originates with the workers themselves, antagonism must come at the workplace from the outside, through a strange political ventriloquism.

Though the idea of blockading the port on 2 November—in support of the call for a general strike—emerged from the exchange between community activists and ILWU union members, the size of the forces conjured up by Occupy Oakland made it something entirely different, a blockade rather than a piece of theater, as the workers had no chance of getting through to the port, regardless of how the arbitrator ruled. And though the blockade was later described as an intervention into the Longview struggle, for the most part, the tens of thousands of people that marched on the port that day had little knowledge of the Longview struggle. They marched on the port for the same reasons that people came out to the events earlier in the day—to protest the destruction of the Oakland camp and the concurrent attacks on Occupy camps throughout the country, and more generally, out of solidarity with the invitingly vague political stance of the Occupy movement, which allowed people to protest against the various conditions of impoverishment, unemployment, and dispossession (often dispossession of the rights and privileges of the American middle class) that they experienced. For all the vagueness of Occupy, the attendees were there for themselves.

But as plans for a second blockade emerged in the following weeks, the entire narrative was rewritten such that the sequence of blockades became largely about lending support to the heroic but insufficient activity of the Longview workers, as well as to the incipient struggle of port truckers in Los Angeles. This had the result of domesticating the antagonistic forces which were unleashed by the General Strike, essentially making the Oakland Commune into the volunteer militia of port workers who, for the most part, would not act on their own behalf. Thus the external constraint appeared once again, a mirror image of the first time: with the help of some labour activists in the movement, the port workers—as image of class belonging—harnessed the combative energy of Occupy Oakland and diverted it away from any question of acting for itself, which would have meant acting against this image of class belonging and of the self-appointed activist leadership which facilitated the second blockade. Such an arrangement was paralysing for both sides: the longshoremen were rendered complacent by the externalisation of their capacity for antagonism, and the tatterdemalion mob from Occupy was directed away from the question of its own needs and toward the defense of this essentially passive class identity, one it couldn’t even inhabit. The problem, therefore, is not that the assorted proletarians from Occupy deluded themselves that they were labour. Rather, the problem is that they accepted that such actions are only meaningful and potentially decisive when done on behalf of labour: that the labour strike must always subsume the strike of non-labour.

The Morality of Production

But there is a risk, as we shall see, of identifying the Commune’s reorientation toward traditional labour struggles as a tilt back toward some natural equilibrium. Instead, it registers an incomplete motion toward rearticulating the place of the strike. Though the temporality of narrative retelling underscores the sequence in which there were strikes at two different times (one in November, one in December), we might instead suggest that the Oakland strike was always in two places: the place of orthodox labour, to which the ragtag crowd brought some novelty, and the place of non-labour, to which the unions brought a pernicious element of moral legitimacy. This doubling too is a form of the moving contradiction, the two strikes grinding against each other as part of a larger dynamic through which the mode of struggle develops, moving against capital by moving with it. But neither position in the contradiction is itself stable, much less natural.

It is here that ‘Under the Riot Gear’ lurches perilously toward the error of recreating ‘labour’ as the natural state of the antagonists. This happens more than once, for example, ‘As soon as a struggle that thinks of itself as being solely political (and economic) comes to confront one of its limits and goes through the process of transforming itself, then it is a natural feeling to acknowledge oneself as labour power [Se reconnaître comme force de travail est un processus naturel]. But, the transformation of this struggle into something else by means of acknowledging everyone as labour power could not, in this case, take place’ (our emphasis).

Contrarily, if the antagonists had a ‘natural’ reaction on 2 November, it was to attack capital where it was accessible and vulnerable—not from an ideological self-identification, but as an objective measure of capital’s own necessary expulsion of bodies from productive labour. This process includes both the production of surplus populations and the redistribution of jobs toward necessary but non-productive labour.

Theorie Communiste argue that programmatism should not be grasped as a colloquy of mistakes, but as an expression of the conditions of revolutionary possibility within the era we now designate as programmatist. We would argue in parallel that the strike in the place of production, the strike of labor as hegemonic form of anticapitalist struggle, also belongs to an era. This era was inaugurated by the generalisation of the wage-form by the industrial revolution; now it wanes in parallel with the decline of the industrial wage and the receding primacy of production as capital’s self-conception. Thus we see a corollary to the struggles of that earlier moment, both return and revision: the blockade, the strike beyond the sites of production, bears a genealogical resemblance to the ‘export riot’ of the eighteenth century. But now with a difference: if those struggles meant to prevent the departure of use-values, of the means of reproduction, from leaving the country, the blockade returns after the production of such use-values has long since fled. Instead it is capital’s means of reproduction that come under attack. Capital, we must recall, has its own limits, and reforms itself in its drive to overcome them; it is precisely this we see in the intensified need to find revenue in circulation. The blockade is this present unfolding of capital’s limits from the standpoint of the proletariat and expressed as immediate struggle. This was perhaps the best possible in the moment; it was not enough.

We would argue, consequentially, that the final inability of Oakland Commune to confront capital on an enlarged scale arises from, in addition to the overwhelming state force arrayed against it, a double dynamic. On the one hand there is the truth that the proletarians of Oakland are increasingly exiled from the abode of valorisation: an effect with an internal bifurcation between those who work elsewhere in the economy and those who do not work at all. On the other hand, there is the persistent moralising character which implies that every seizure from the state or from capital must have some appeal to liberal virtue: that an appropriated building must be a school or library, that a strike must receive a trade union imprimatur—as if somehow these gestures would allow for broad sympathy throughout the larger population, or might defer the blows of the batons.

Indeed, the sequence of events can’t be understood without examining the moral assumptions people preserve concerning strikes and blockades. Because of the history of the worker’s movement, it is commonly assumed that workers have a right to strike their workplace. Strikes are legitimate because it is now widely understood that, even if workers do not own the means of productions, being the temporary caretakers of this property implies they rightly have some say over its disposition, while a random proletarian does not. Blockades of workplaces which do not involve the workers, on the other hand, are by the same token seen as illegitimate, which of course allows the state to respond with much greater ferocity.3 In our view, these ideas about the legitimacy of the strike and the illegitimacy of the blockade are extensions of the logic of property in general. During the second port blockade, activists from Occupy Oakland sought out the legitimacy and shelter from attack which their association with the unspoken rights of the workers offered them, while not acknowledging in any way the dangerous preconceptions on which this legitimacy rested. This is yet another way in which class belonging—here as moral image—has become a constraint.

We return, finally, to the pivotal claim of ‘Under the Riot Gear’: that the Oakland Commune ‘almost never questioned the idea of production.’ We do not think it is self-evident what it would mean ‘to expand the struggle to the labour process,’ nor that this is a natural unfolding; it is a historical unfolding in a changed situation. Similarly, the claim that ‘The linking of the movement with school closures may have been another [effort toward such an expansion]’ discovers an important inflection-point in the struggle, but for the wrong reasons; in point of fact, the struggle was extended to the schools, including a fairly prolonged occupation of one venue. However, the turn to the schools did not discover there students intent on seizing the reins of their own intellectual reproduction. Contrarily, it found a coordination with parents and teachers to replace, in effect, the support withdrawn by the state apparatus and mitigate, somewhat opportunistically, against the bad press Occupy Oakland had received, by seeking out the legitimacy of parent-teacher associations and their sentimental politics.

We believe that the ongoing disarticulation of population from productive labour will inevitably undermine the moral linkage between struggle and labour as understood in its bourgeois form, wherein it appears as natural; indeed, we understand the disclosure of ‘labour power’ as a historically constituted category—one in need of overcoming—to be a critical aspect of communisation. On the necessity of ‘extending attacks from the heart of reproduction to the heart of production’ we find only agreement. La forme d’une ville change moins vite, hélas! que le coeur de la production! But on the question of the structure of production today and the composition and tactical repertoire of the class that will stage such attacks, we found it necessary to add these comradely criticisms.

Research & Destroy, December 2012

1. Once again, the piece relies on hyperbole to make its point, since longshoremen walked off the job in the morning, and there was a ‘sick-out’ by Oakland Teachers which shut down many schools. Furthermore, many other workers took personal days or simply refused to report to work that day. Though one might not want to call such actions a strike, they are nonetheless effective in crippling workplaces. The immigrant strike of 2006, ‘el gran paro’—with which the authors contrast the Nov. 2 General Strike—was largely accomplished this way, through the individual withdrawal of labour power and for this reason not referred to as a ‘strike’ either at the time or afterward.
2. Various passages in Marx are useful for grasping the relation between money capital and productive capital, between circulation and production, and between revenue and value. Consider for example Capital vol. 2, chs. 1 & 6; vol. 3 chs. 4, 16–19; Grundrisse Notebook 2 (‘It is damned difficult for Messrs the economists to make the theoretical transition from the self-preservation of value in capital to its multiplication’, 270–1); I.I. Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theories of Value, Ch. 19 (‘Thus the question of productive labour rests on the question ofproductive capital, i.e., on the well-known theory, in Volume II of Capital, of the “Metamorphoses of Capital”. According to this theory, capital goes through three phases in its process of reproduction: money capital, productive capital and commodity capital. The first and third phases represent the “process of circulation of capital”, and the second phase, the “process of production of capital’. ‘Productive’ capital, in this schema, is not opposed to unproductive capital, but to capital in the ‘process of circulation’). For a full discussion of the literature, see Ian Gough’s ‘Marx’s Theory of Productive and Unproductive Labour’ from the New Left Review, I/76.
3. Of course, such blockades will have deleterious effects on the workers associated with the blocked site. But activists don’t treat these effects in the same way they treat the negative consequences—for potential allies—of any tactic. ‘Harming workers’ is seen as particularly unthinkable.
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Plaza-Riot-Commune

We are the generation of the abandoned, the betrayed. Tossed up on the shores of the present by 150 years of failed insurrection, by the shipwreck of the workers’ movement, the failure of a hundred political projects. But it is not only our once-upon-a-time friends who have departed. Today, even our enemies flee from us, even capital abandons us: no more its minimum promises, the right to be exploited, the right to sell one’s labor power. Abandoned, we greet the world with utter abandon. There is no longer any possible adequacy of means and ends, no way of subordinating our actions to the rational or the practical. The present age of austerity means that even the most meager of demands require the social democrats to pick up bricks. Betrayed by democracy, betrayed by the technocrats of socialism, betrayed by the dumb idealism of anarchy, betrayed by the stolid fatalism of the communist ultraleft.  We are not the 99%. We are not a fucking percentage at all. We do not count. If we have any power, it is because we are the enemies of all majority, enemies of “the people.” As the old song goes, we are nothing and must become everything.

Though it is a key characteristic of capitalism that each generation of its victims has, in its way, considered its persistence beyond a few decades unlikely if not preposterous, the difference between us and them is that in our case it just happens to be true. Now, not even capital’s footservants can paint a convincing portrait of a future based upon markets and wages – all the sci-fi dystopias of flying cars and robot servants seem truly ridiculous. No, the future only presents as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert.  It is easier to imagine the end of life on earth than our own old age.

This is why anxieties over the implicit statism of anti-austerity struggles are baseless. With the exception of a few benighted activists and media ideologues, everyone understands quite well that the Keynesian card was played long ago, blown on wars and bailouts, the victim of its own monstrous success. There will be no rebirth of the welfare state, no “reindustrialization” of society. This much is obvious: if there is an expansion of the state, it will be a proto-fascist austerity state. Nor is there any longer a “Left” in any meaningful sense, as a force that desires to manage the existing world on different terms, in the name of the workers or the people. Those radicals who, tired of the weakness of the loyal opposition, imagine themselves called upon to “destroy the left” find that their very existence is predicated upon this old, vanished enemy. There is no Left left: only the great dispirited mass of the center, some wild and misdirected antagonism at the fringes.

The hopelessness of deflecting the state from its current course; the realization that even a slight reform of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity; the attendant awareness that we would be idiots to go that distance and yet stop short of revolution –all of this gives many anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation and intensity. Our hope is to be found in this very hopelessness, in the fact that, in the current cycle of struggles, means have entirely dissociated from ends. Tactics no longer match with their stated objectives. In France, in response to a proposed change in the retirement age, high school students barricade their schools; roving blockades confuse the police; rioting fills city center after city center. In Britain and Italy, university struggles recruit tens of thousands of youth who have no hope of attending the university, nor any interest in doing so for that matter. There is no longer any possibility of a political calculus that matches ideas with tactics, thinking with doing. Do we suppose that French children are really concerned about what will happen to them once they are ready to retire? Does any young person expect the current social order to last that long? No, they are here to hasten things forward, hasten things toward collapse. Because it is easier to imagine the end of the world than retirement. Because anything is better than this.

*

For the neo-Leninist philosophes who build their cults in the shells of the dying universities, such an impossibility of lining up means with ends is nothing but a barrier or block. Where is the revolutionary program in the Egyptian revolution, they ask, where is the program in the streets of Britain or Greece? Who will discipline these bodies for their final assault on the palaces and citadels?  For such thinkers, only an idea can guarantee the efficacy of these bodies.  Only an idea – the idea of communism, as some say – can make of these bodies a proper linkage between means and ends. But communism is not an idea nor an idealism – it means freeing bodies from their subordination to abstractions. Thankfully, we are skittish, faithless and flighty people. We have trouble listening. For us, communism will be material or it will be nothing. It will be a set of immediate practices, immediate satisfactions, or nothing. If we find discipline and organization, it will come from what we do, not what we think.

By “idea” the philosophes mean something like “the Party.” They intend to make themselves and their ideas mean, as structure and social form. They intend to cement the old pact between the intelligentsia and the workers’ movement. But there is no intelligentsia anymore and there certainly is no workers’ movement to speak of. The entire structure of duty and obligation – Christian in origin – upon which the classical programmatic parties were built no longer exists, because capital no longer needs morality for helpmeet. There is acting for ourselves; there is acting with others; but there is no sustained acting for another, out of obligation.

*

Our indiscipline means that among political ideas only the one idea which is, by its very nature, determined to remain an idea, an ideal, can gain any purchase here: democracy. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Spain to Greece, from Madison to Wall Street, again and again, the “movement of the squares” buckles under the dead weight of this shibboleth. Democracy, the name for the enchantment of the people by its own image, by its potential for endless deferral. Democracy, a decision-making process become political ontology, such that the form itself, the form of the decision, becomes its own content. We democratically decide to be democratic! The people chooses itself!

In the present era – the era of the austerity state and the unemployment economy – radical democracy finds its ideal locus in the metropolitan plaza or square. The plaza is the material embodiment of its ideals – an blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, the agora, the assembly-places of ancient Greece which also served as marketplaces (such that the phrase “I shop” and “I speak in public” were nearly identical).  These plazas are not, however, the buzzing markets filled with economic and social transaction, but clean-swept spaces, vast pours of concrete and nothingness, perhaps with a few fountains here or there. These are spaces set aside by the separation of the “political” from the economy, the market. Nowhere is this more clear than in the most recent episode of  the “movement of squares” – Occupy Wall Street – which attempted, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange, but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, penned by police. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today – an assembly ringed by cops.

If there is hope in these manifestations, it lies in the forms of mutual aid that exist there, the experimentation people undertake in providing for their own needs. Already, we see how the occupations are forced against their self-imposed limits, brought into conflict with the police, despite the avowed pacificism of the participants. The plaza occupations – with all their contradictions – are one face of the present dissociation of means from ends. Or rather, they present a situation in which means are not so much expelled as sublimated, present as the object of a vague symbolization, such that the gatherings come to pre-enact  or symbolize or prefigure some future moment of insurrection. At their worst, they are vast machines of deferral. At their best, they force their participants toward actually seizing what they believe they are entitled to merely want.

How far we are from Egypt, the putative start of the sequence. There, the initial assembly was an act of symbolic violence, decidedly so, which everyone knew would open onto an encounter with the state and its force. And yet, even there, the separation from the economy – from the ways in which our needs are satisfied – remained inscribed into the revolution from the start. In other words, the Egyptian insurrection was not deflected  to the sphere of the political but started there to begin with. And all of the other episodes in the so-called “movement of squares” repeat this primary dislocation, whether they remain hamstrung by pacifism and democratism, as in Spain, or press their demands in material form, as in Greece.

This brings the plaza occupations into relation not only with the entire development of orthodox Marxism, from Lenin through Mao, which places the conquest of state power front and center, but also its apparent opposite in this historical moment: the riots of Athens and London and Oakland, which, bearing the names of Oscar Grant, Alexis Grigoropoulos, or Mark Duggan, treat the police and state power as both cause and effect, provocation and object of rage. Though the looting which always accompanies such eruptions points the way to a more thorough expropriation, these riots, even though they seem the most immediate of antagonistic actions, are also bound by a kind of symbolization, the symbolization of the negative, which says what it wants through a long litany, in letters of fire and broken glass, of what it does not want: not this, not that. We’ve seen their limits already, in Greece –even burning all of the banks and police stations was not enough. Even then, they came into a clearing, a plaza, swept clean by their own relentless negations, where negation itself was a limit. What then? What will we do then? How do we continue?

Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation – this is where we find ourselves. Two paths open for us: each one, in its way, a deflection from the burning heart of matter. On the one hand, the endless process of deliberation that must finally, in its narrowing down to a common denominator, arrive at the only single demand possible: a demand for what already is, a demand for the status quo. On the other hand, the desire that has no object, that finds nothing in the world which answers its cry of annihilation.

One fire dies out because it extinguishes its own fuel source. The other because it can find no fuel, no oxygen. In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion.  The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination. We do this by facilitating a situation in which there is, quite simply, enough of what we need, in which there is no call for “rationing” or “measure,” no requirement to commensurate what one person takes and what another contributes. This is the only way that an insurrection can survive, and ward off the reimposition of market, capital and state (or some other economic mode based upon class society and domination). The moment we prove ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of everyone – the young and the old, the healthy and infirm, the committed and the uncommitted– we create a situation where it is only a matter of time before people will accept the return of the old dominations. The task is quite simple, and it is monstrously difficult: in a moment of crisis and breakdown, we must institute ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend neither on wages nor money, neither compulsory labor nor administrative decision, and we must do this while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.

Research & Destroy, 2011

–distributed on the first day of Occupy Oakland

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From Passive to Active Spectacle: Afterimages of the LA Riots

[written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, one of the most significant events in recent US history – r&d]

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LOS ANGELES, March 3, 1991 – On the shoulder of the freeway, police are beating a man. Because we are in the US, and because the man is black, we will know that this is a routine event, an ordinary brutality, part of the very fabric of everyday life for non-whites. But something is exceptional this time. There is an observer, as there often is, but the observer holds in his hands an inhuman witness, a little device for producing images which are accepted as identical with the real. The images – grainy, shaking with the traces of the body behind them – enframe this event, defamiliarize it, make it appear in all its awfulness as both unimaginable singularity and example of a broader category of everyday violence.  The recorded beating of Rodney King marks, as many have noted, the beginning of one of the most significant episodes of US history. But few have examined this event in terms of the transformative effects it exerted upon contemporary spectacle and its would-be enemies. By spectacle, we mean here those social relations and activities which are mediated directly by the representations, whether visual or verbal, which capital has subsumed (that is, remade according to its own imperatives).

For us, the advent of the Rodney King video marks the first major shift in the political economy of spectacle, which we choose to describe as a passage from passive to active spectacle, from spectacle as pacifying object of passive consumption to spectacle as the active product of the consumer (whose leisures or recreations have long since become forms of work). In its classical form, spectacle creates a situation in which “spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other” (Debord.) But at a certain point in its development, spectacle dispenses with the need for centralization, finding that passive consumers can quite easily be recruited to the production of spectacle. The shift from unilateral toward multilateral relations does not promise an end to isolation, but rather its perfection. We might think of the distinction here as the difference between the television screen and the computer screen, but since we are talking about a set of social relations as much as technological apparatuses, we should be careful to avoid identifying such relations with any particular technologies. The video camera is merely one of many devices which assist in the transformation of administered life into self-administered life.

But back to the origin story (like all origin stories, it’s partly myth). The mutation from passive to active spectacle begins, as seems properly literary, square in the middle of one of the most significant nerve-plexuses of the spectacular world: Rodney King is beaten to the edge of death a few miles from the studios of Burbank and Hollywood, while celebrities whizz by in Porsches and Maseratis. A routine event, an ordinary brutality, an everyday violence: a black man is pulled over by white police officers. They have some reason or another.  There is always a reason, if only raison d’État. They beat King savagely, until he is almost dead. Perhaps they have gone a little too far this time, gotten a little overexcited? In any case, it’s nothing that can’t be taken care of, made to disappear with a few obfuscatory phrases in the police report. Except that, somehow, everything is different here. Recorded, duplicated, transmitted, broken down into the pixels of a million television screens, the video tape is more than evidence. It is self-evidence.  And because these images are drained of all affect, reduced to pure objectivity, they can become the vehicle for the most violent and intense of affects.

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The release of this video marks, more or less, the entrance into history of the video camera as weapon, as instrument of counter-surveillance. For a brief moment it does seem, for many, as if the truth really will set us free. As if the problem with capitalism was that people just didn’t know, just didn’t understand, just hadn’t seen what it’s really like underneath the ideological mist. Noam Chomsky’s politics as much as Julian Assange’s seem to hinge upon this kind of moment – so rare, really – when the release of information becomes explosive, as opposed to the thousands of other moments when the leaked photographs of government torture camps or the public records dump indicating widespread fraud and corruption fail to elicit any outrage whatsoever. From here and from the related forms of media activism which the Rodney King tape precipitates, there flows an entire politics of transparency, based on a correlation between the free circulation of information and freedom as such, which we will recognize as the politics of Wikileaks  and the more-libertarian wing of Anonymous. But this is also the matrix from which emerges the ideology of the Twitter hashtag and the livestreamed video that so animates the Occupy movement and the 15 May movement in Spain, an ideology that seems incapable of distinguishing between OWS and #ows, between the massification of “tweets” around a particular theme and the massing of bodies together in an occupied square. As many of us will know from the experience of the last year, this is an ideology that speaks of democracy but reeks of surveillance, whose wish for a world transparent to all means that it sees a provocateur behind every masked face and unassailable virtue in all that is visible and unmasked.

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But we have already skipped to the end, it seems, far from the infancy of active spectacle. At first, it’s true, the mass media display a certain hostility to these newer “participatory” forms of media distribution and production, which seem to threaten the centralized, unidirectional spectacle upon which the mass media are built. The various conglomerates even resort to outright repression on occasion. But from the very beginning it is startlingly clear that recuperation and neutralization are a far easier path.  Take the industry of “news reporting,” for instance. As the cable channels shift over to 24/7 reporting, it is no longer sufficient to pursue the old spectacular schemata, creating, rather than merely reporting on, the various scandals and sensations. It is not enough to simply position the cameras in a certain spot and observe their effect on the filmed. The news must become co-extensive with the time of life itself. One must, therefore, do more than simply create novelties. In the era of active spectacle, one must create the proper conditions for the novel and newsworthy. But, as we know, the news has been manufactured to produce certain effects since long before the appearance of active spectacle. Reporters rarely pursue their prey, as one is led to believe. Instead, the reported-on must actively solicit coverage, since the various agencies will rarely venture out into the wild of lived experience. Why would they need to, when so much material is already manufactured to their specifications by corporations and governmental entities? Therefore, the periodization described above must be complicated a bit. The transformation that emerges with the video camera and social media is really a generalization of the capacity to produce the true which was, during the classical era of spectacle, limited to certain elites. Active spectacle was, in its way, always nascent within passive spectacle. You just had to pay more for its privileges.

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Every scandal loves a trial. And this is the age, let’s remember, of the blockbuster trial, the totally televised trial, followed droolingly by the recently developed 24/7 cable news channels  still looking for content to fill out the hours. The 1990s: one could tell its story solely through the names King, Simpson, Clinton. And so the trial of the police officers begins, a trial that puts at stake the institution of the police itself, if only because the state must insist, in defending the officers, that their conduct was merely exemplary, that they were simply doing their job. But it is a trial in another sense, an experiment with a new form of publicity and sensationalism that places the courtroom square in the middle of every living room: it is a putting-on-trial of a new kind of reason, a new affect, and the various powers are reckless here in stoking a paranoid desire for apocalyptic violence. (Later, they will understand their own capacities better, and exhibit more circumspection in deploying such powers in unpredictable environments).

No one, therefore, is really all that surprised when – after the police officers who beat Rodney King are pronounced not guilty –  thousands upon thousands of the invisible residents of this hypervisible city rise up to smash and burn and loot the very machinery which determines who gets seen and how. In this sense, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 are a rare example of a struggle over the terms of representation which is not a diversion from struggle on the material plane but rather an incitement to it, perhaps because this is not a struggle for representation as much as it is a struggle againstrepresentation, one that puts into question the very means of deciding what gets seen or said, rather than the content of such seeing or saying. For a few nights, it promises the self-destruction of all our ways of making things visible or heard, a bonfire of the means of depicting and speaking which the most adventurous avant-garde could only dream about.

As noted, none of this controverts the extent to which these were bread riots, or their late 20th-century equivalent – organized, as is the case with all looting, around a material expropriation of necessaries and luxuries alike. But perhaps, more importantly, crystallized around the hatred of commodities, a hatred whose satisfaction means, in fact, the slaking of a thirst almost as urgent as the need for the use-values themselves. We have to understand this as a period of outright war, when the number of people – black men, in particular –  serving prison sentences increased by an order of magnitude, when cops were being trained by Special Forces who brought the “lessons” of the Central American counter-insurgency wars home to South Central Los Angeles. Which is to say that these were matters of life and death as well as recognition – closer to the original Hegelian story of life-and-death struggle for recognition than its pale electoral successors . One must see people stealing the video-cameras and televisions – the big-ticket appliances of which they bad been, for so long, the object – as an attempt to secure their very reality. To become subject, not object.  Spectacle, for a brief moment, reveals its own fragility: transmitting, disseminating and relaying antagonism rather than muting and deflecting it. For a moment, self-representation is not the newest face of domination, an internalization of the enemy, but promises the destruction of all mediation, all intermediaries.  Bill Cosby goes on TV to urge the rioters to return to their homes and watch the season finale of The Cosby Show.

In a certain manner, this project of expropriating the means of representation and transmission is an eloquent literalization of the music of the riots itself, hip hop, a music based upon the transformation of consumer electronics – the turntable, the home stereo – into instruments of musical production.  Technologies which were once means of production – capital goods, in other words – become consumer products. But then, in a final turn, these consumer products become, once again, the means of production for a new generation of untrained musicians whose output is based upon appropriation and sampling, which are a particular kind of consumption-become-production. All the dreams of decentralization and horizontality which we will fondly remember in their suffusion through the 1990s begin here: the politics of the rhizome, the network, the galaxy, the autonomous nuclei. They begin here, with mass-produced consumer electronics whose drive is not only toward cheapening but miniaturization. It’s not just that information wants to be free; it wants to become a kind of gas, an array of volatilized nano-machines, circumambient, hyperlocative. “Copwatch” organizations and other counter-surveillance projects – taking the Rodney King video as their clarion call – spread faster and farther as the price of the camcorder falls, as it becomes smaller, lighter.  They spread at the same rate as CCTV spreads, adorning every street corner in cities like Chicago and London. And, of course, tactical representation finds itself eminently suited to the politics of representation that dominates the liberal multiculturalism of the 1990s. An entire ethos is built upon this pedagogical and epistemological basis. Information and its dissemination becomes the means by which everyone can have their voice. The independent media initiatives that emerge at the end of the decade essentially elaborate upon this foundation: the free circulation of information as a placeholder for other freedoms.

In Los Angeles during the 1990s, this made a certain sense. We will render power visible, we thought. We will show everyone that the emperor has no clothes. We will show everyone who they are. Like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live, capable of revealing the slithering horror beneath the familiar present which our normal (that is, ideological) vision construes – the camcorder would disclose what others couldn’t see. It would be visceral and immediate in a way that language cannot, even if language is capable of making finer distinctions. But it would also make things seem unreal. It would also be an instrument of de-realization, shifting struggle from the ground of praxis toward the ground of epistemology, and from there toward questions of knowledge and ideology which, presumably, only the technicians of politics can solve for us.  And so, in the wake of the riots, the recuperation begins. Like all recuperations, it will seem to precede, somehow, the acts of resistance from which it sprang, if only by erasing their real origin.

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The shift from static, passive spectacle to dynamic, active spectacle is nothing other than this process of recuperation and subsumption. Charged with reproducing the social relations necessary for the continuation of capitalism, spectacle adjusts to its critique, subsumes it, offers up a series of false alternatives decorated in the bracing negativity of the day. Spectacle stages its own negation, the way a hunted criminal might stage her own death by leaving behind someone else’s corpse in place of her own. Spectacle in its classical phase proceeded by replacing all exchanges between persons with dead phrases and images subject to the whims of the commodity, with static and chatter designed to baffle and delay any intelligent action. It thwarted any meaningful activity by all manner of phantasms, false leads, cul-de-sacs and proxies. But its weakness was that it required the constant ministrations of a class of petit-bourgeois intermediaries, clericals, creatives and technicians, themselves the group most deeply colonized by spectacle. Active spectacle, on the other hand, does away with some portion of this class. Active spectacle is, first and foremost, a labor-saving device. It is a way of getting the consumer of spectacle to become the producer of spectacle, all the while pretending that this voluntary labor is, in fact, a form of freedom and greater choice, an escape from the stultifying imposition of this or that taste which the vertical power of the passive spectacle forces on us.

This is an alternate way to talk about the recuperation of negativity which has been ongoing since the 1970s. Everyone is familiar with this – the graffiti kids who add value to a neighborhood by fucking it up, giving it the right degree of color and edginess, and perhaps inspiring, with their visual style, some future generation of designers and advertisers. Eventually, as we all know, the great spread of alternative lifestyles and forms and subcultures that follow in the wake of the aborted liberations of the 1960s and 1970s find their final resting place in the boutique or the museum, and this process – let’s call it the turnover time of recuperation – is constantly accelerating. But the paradigmatic case here, the final profusion, comes in the realm of technology: the merger of home and office, work and leisure, effected by the personal computer means that one finally becomes the consumer of one’s own self-designed fantasias. These are tools for taking the dream of autonomy concealed in the notion of self-management and converting it into an efficient machine for exploitation and control – a way of making the cop and the boss immanent to our every activity.  The miniaturization of information technology – which also means the recession and involution of all its working components, so that the surface can be humanized, made aesthetically pleasing – allows for control to be decentralized, networked, built from the ground up in new shapes and flavors. It is a way of spreading the bureaucratic protocols of office technology across the entirety of society.

Once the internet is streamlined,  cheapened, and made easy-to-use, an entire political ontology gets attached to “the net”– its origin in military-industrial and bureaucratic protocols hidden beneath warm, “user-friendly” layers which promise the end of a merely unilateral media, promise a new media based upon participation, self-actualization, democracy, promise to free us from reliance upon authoritarian or hierarchical communication. It is a media, as many will claim, which encourages dissent rather than suppresses it, a media no longer dependent upon the massifications and conformities of the broadcast form. No longer the passive receiver of consumable representations, we become the co-creators of the conditions of our own subordination – we don’t merely choose from the 1001 flavors of horror on offer but actively create them, share them, use them as the basic substance of our connections to others, whether friend, enemy, or acquaintance. We are free to make and remake ourselves endlessly in the shape of a thousand avatars and personae. Never mind that these technologies depend, at root, upon standardized lumps of silica and copper and plastic, on the smoothing of electrical switches into reified patterns and routines,  on the transformation of matter into algebra. For the various “independent media” initiatives, the internet is as fundamental an apparatus as the video-camera was for the copwatch programs.

The advent of blogging and the various social networking sites – MySpace, then Facebook, and finally (once everyone realized that anything worth saying in such fora could be said in 140 characters or not at all) Twitter – essentially build upon the protocols, models and values established by “independent media.” They represent the depoliticization of these forms, something easy to do since, from the start, “indymedia” as a concept was built around a false formalism. Because the website proved itself such an effective tool for the coordination of thousands of bodies at the counter-summit – distributing information about the location of rioting, tactical weaknesses, arrestees, food and medical services – it was obvious that it could also serve to coordinate thousands of bodies in other kinds of campaigns: advertising campaigns, fundraising drives, mobilizations for this or that political candidate. Social media: the term means that our sociality itself has become what is communicated, has become content, not form. No longer do we merely read the news: now we can write it, now we can make it even more banal and empty than before. Yes, everyone their 15 minutes of celebrity, except now these 15 minutes are broken up into millisecond-sized atoms of time, salted throughout our hours and days, held by invisible readers and contacts and “friends.” Here the voyeur meets the exhibitionist. Here the exhibitionist meets the voyeur. Here the most gregarious sociality and the most contorted narcissism are absolutely identical. Tellingly, new cellular phones now contain two cameras – one facing out into the world, away from the screen, and one reflecting back upon the ego.

But because active spectacle takes hostility toward spectacle as one of its primary fuel sources, because it is always cultivating such antagonism at the same time as it neutralizes it, there is always the possibility of explosive breakdown, the possibility that a violent proletarian content may become contagious. Such was the case when the WikiLeaks affair – initially subsumed almost completely by a libertarian logic of transparency and the free flow of information – transformed into a low-intensity cyberwar with the arrival of Anonymous, LulzSec and others. Although originally entirely devoted to a kind of Assangiste framework that cared only about the free flow of internet information (namely, porn, pirated media and software) – a position that still dominates much of their discourse – these groups eventually became frameworks into which more and more radical content could get injected, and now one routinely hears Anonymous communiqués cite various insurrectionary watchwords, and describe their enemy not as censorship but capitalism and the state as such. Perhaps more significantly, we can note the way in which technologies like Twitter – originally developed so that we could better market commodities to each other – are now used for all-out assaults on the commodity, used to organize proletarian flashmobs and rioting in the suburbs of London, in Baltimore and Kansas City and Milwaukee.

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10 years later, we all recognize the limits of the anti-globalization movement, limits that still constantly reimpose themselves even if we have moved into a new age of austerity and riot. The antiglobalization movement failed by winning all that it won on the ground of representation alone. Not only were its politics essentially a representational critique of the representational (direct democracy); not only did it fight via representational means (media activism); but more importantly its focus remained limited to the representatives of multi-national capital: the institutions and ambassadors responsible for maintaining the international monetary and trade system. Over and over again, the countersummit conflated the representative institutions for the thing itself – moving back and forth between an attack on a proxy for capital, and capital itself.

It is obvious that this imprisonment within the imaginary is an effect of the very basis – a technopolitical basis – upon which these struggles are conducted, rather than the other way around.  Representation is means, content and form: everyone has a camera at the protest and the dangers here are not only that one is unwittingly capturing evidence for the state, but that we are therefore entrapped within the imaginary, our finest moments rendered pornographic – that is, made into a simple conduit for charge or sensation, upon which any idea, no matter how fascist, can be overlaid.

Let’s put it bluntly: with only a few exceptions, the journalists whose presence at the demonstration or riot is vouchsafed by the camera are nothing other than the agents of the state, little different than informants in their attitude toward what transpires. Their feigned neutrality is the neutrality of “the citizen,” of public opinion, an enemy position. Except when used with incredible care and sensitivity and artfulness, the camera is basically an instrument of neutralization. We can have no tolerance for those who attempt to use our antagonism as stepping-stones in their career; nor can we tolerate the special rights and privileges which journalists want to claim, as if holding a camera or press-badge entitled them to exceptional status. This is liberalism’s phantasm – the materialization of the abstract personhood which has mangled our lives for centuries. In any case, the police no longer give a fuck. Everywhere there are new laws prohibiting the filming of police and they now routinely arrest peoplebecause they have a camera, not only to protect themselves from scandal but to collect evidence.

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Surveillance and countersurveillance, spectacle and counterspectacle, then, merge together into one representational surround. Riot footage becomes an advertisement for jeans, as if shopping and destroying a shop were equivalent activities. If counter-surveillance aims to light up the unevenesses, the blotches and stains that the picture of the world hides, it also runs the risk, as all struggles do, of fighting on the ground of representation alone, and of winning thusly the mere representation of winning. Though we do not use the term in this sense exclusively, this is what it means to speak of “politics” in the pejorative sense – the translation of struggle to the realm of representation, either through the substitutionism of the assembly, the party, or the image-world.   It means to fight representatives and proxies endlessly and pyrrhically, because capital is nothing more than this process of creating proxies. The catch is that, because they still believe that the question of representation is the question that must be answered, many anti-representational strategies – the participatory democracy of the general assembly, for instance – remain trapped within politics in the same way that the atheist remains trapped within religion because he or she takes seriously the question of god’s existence.

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The one exception to this story of diversion to the ground of representation is the black bloc, which by its very nature refuses visibility. The black bloc emerges as a counterweight to the regime of hypervisibilty, emerges as the avenging angel of all that has been cast into the burning hell of the overlit world. It conjures a black spot which makes the illumination of the world all the more severe; it is a kind of “darkness visible,” as Milton says of Lucifer’s resting place. But at what point does this darkness become only its own visibility, a set of predictable movements and moments, easily recognized simply because it is the thing which refuses recognition?  How often is it the case that the plate glass of the bank is shattered but the camera lens, with all of its frightening transparency, remains? One of the problems, here, as others have noted, is that the black bloc often distinguishes itself from the larger mass of people in the streets. Even if all identity inside the group is quickly liquidated by masks and black clothing, the bloc still affirms an identity – albeit a negative one – with regard to its environment.  Rather than attempting an absolute negation of visibility, we might instead cultivate a kind of chiaroscuro effect, attending to the ebb and flow of light and shadow naturally at play in such situations. True anonymity is the anonymity of the crowd, the anonymity of people in regular dress who begin to throw rocks at cops, loot stores, and burn cars, and whose anonymity comes from their subtle commonalities with thousands upon thousands of other figures. (Though, of course, concealing one’s face is a precaution that can never be dispensed with, and should be actively encouraged on all occasions). The more it becomes possible for the active minority to merge with the anonymous crowd, to dissolve and abolish its own specificity at the height of the attack, the closer we come to the kind of riot which continues past the first night. Whether people continue to use black blocs is a practical matter, of course, and has to do with local conditions which cannot be evaluated in the abstract. But we must be honest about the limitations of the form, and note that there are anonymities superior to the black bloc, forms of self-abolition that do not establish a radical identity apart from the larger mass of people in the streets.

It is not, therefore, merely a question of creating “zones of offensive opacity.” Every opacity has its complementary transparency, and we must attend to both. We must be willing to make ourselves visible here, invisible there, and neither everywhere. Language, in this sense, is often superior to the photograph’s ontological trickery. We all recognize the power of the well-written communiqué or manifesto, the well-designed poster with the explosive phrase. This power is art, poetry, art that lives on, nevertheless, after the death of art. Taken up on the field of battle, conjoined with real practices of negation, this poetry – the beautiful language of our century, as it was once called – has a real explosive force, one that does not pass through reason and understanding alone, but which trades on affect, perception, sensation. The technical means we have at present for conveying such affects and perceptions are, let’s admit it, very weak – a series of pre-given filters and plug-ins which we can apply to this or that image or idea. Why is it, then, that the various radical milieus do not at present produce more films, more poetry and novels, communicate through drawings and illustrated stories as well as photographs? Why must we subordinate ourselves to a barren plain-style, on the one hand, and a mawkish sentimentalism on the other? Why do we accept the self-evidence of the very images which the state uses to speak about us? In expanding our capacities for thought and communication, in expanding the formal and technical means for such, we must learn to speak of and to each other in a way that takes exception with the way we are spoken about, which takes exception with the language of the status quo, the state.  This is a matter of how we say such things as much as what we say. Active spectacle, let’s remember, hides the issue of content by allowing for modest transformations of the form of communication. This is why the transposition of the locus of questioning from what to howrelies on a weak understanding of recent history. Asking how has, for a long time now, been a counter-revolutionary question.

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Late in life, in the midst of his drunken melancholia and paranoid rumination, Guy Debord entertained himself by inventing a chess-like game of war in which the chief innovation was the establishment of lines of communication between piecesPieces that were unconnected via intermediating, communicating pieces could not move at all. Debord understood, in this game as well as in his writing, that all struggles have a communicative dimension. The difference, however, between the situation we confront and the situation in Debord’s game is that we are forced to use the very same lines of communication as our enemy. Every one of our communications is at one and the same time an enemy transmission, part of the enemy system, part of spectacle. To operate effectively, to turn spectacle in its active form against itself, we have to examine our communications both from our own standpoint and the enemy’s, developing forms of communication which are transparent for us but opaque for them, which allow us to communicate and expand our ability to think and perceive collectively without assisting the state in its attempts to monitor and obstruct us, and which reach out to sympathizers, fellow-travelers, and comrades without giving away vital information to the enemy.

In this regard, matters of style are at one and the same time matters of survival.

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Research & Destroy
Oakland, CA
April, 2012

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