Destituer le monde est un sport du combat — cursory remarks on M.Tari’s ‘There Is No Unhappy Revolution’

The world too will end; this is certainty and not hope.
In fact, countless worlds have ended, are ending as we speak

The end of the World depends on us.
True friendship is the end of the World,
the beginning of our play together.
The secret is to begin at the end.

How to approach a work such as Tari’s There Is No Unhappy Revolution? How to read this text in light of the prevailing fact that the politics of reading that remains hegemonic is that of the militant-intellectual who either admits or rejects a text into the canon of revolutionary materials? The beginnings of an answer to these question lies, perhaps, with the work of historian and influential figure for the Subaltern Studies group, Ranajit Guha, and particularly his tripartite classification of primary, secondary, and tertiary documents/sources that are produced in relation to a particular movement or struggle. While, for Guha, primary sources refer to the documents produced at the time of the insurrection/rebellion/etc, and tertiary sources are works produced by academics, social scientists, and historians, after the events have passed, Tari’s book exemplifies what he calls “secondary sources”: a record produced by someone who lived through and participated in the events yet also written with a partial chronological and analytical distance.” Of its many virtues is that of providing English language readers with one of the more sustained engagements with the writings of Colectivo Situaciones, whose collective practice of militant-research was to be the process from which destituent power would find its first, explicit, formulation. By way of his reading of the Argentinian insurrection of 2001 as a paradigm of a particular fusion of strategies of living with strategies of combat/rebellion, the communism of destitution is given the following formulation: “a form of life and a form of organization that builds through destituting” (There is no unhappy revolution, 170).  

What follows are notes that attempt to clarify, at least for myself, Tari’s singular synthesis of the writings of Walter Benjamin, on the one hand, and the practice of militant-research undertaken by the Argentinian comrades of Colectivo Situaciones. More incomplete fragments than definitive conclusion, these are undoubtedly not the only, or perhaps even the most systematic figures, in order to substantively recount the text in its entirety. Rather, they appear to function as two of the clearest instances of the practical effects of what Tari has termed the ‘communism of destitution,’ and what Agamben, before him, understood as the revocation of all factical vocations. The language is made all the more striking when we read the following lines from Colectivo Situaciones themselves: “The insurrection of December had a de-instituent character. Its overwhelming efficacy consisted—precisely—in its revocatory power.”

when people are happy together, it becomes subversive behaviour [1]

  • ‘Theological-Political Fragment’ (1920/1937)

Why does revolution necessarily imply happiness as one of its essential attributes? The answer to this is two-fold and proceeds by way of the work of Walter Benjamin. It is to Tari’s credit to provide a clear exposition of Benjamin’s oft-cited ‘Critique of Violence’ and how Benjamin’s technical use of the term Entsetzung (meaning oust, depose, and in a more archaic sense, it means to dispossess… as in to dispossess one of their property as a legal penalty), informs the notion of destituent power as a type of power or collective capacity that is neither law-preserving (constituted) or law-founding (constituent). But it is to Benjamin’s Theological-Political Fragment (1920/1937) that Tari alludes to, not only in the title of the book, but in the book’s chapter that links revolution and love entitled ‘There is No Unhappy Love.’ So, in his Theological-Political Fragment, we read Benjamin defending an historical materialist concept of redemption, which he terms ‘the profane,’ against redemption as defined by theology and its political expression in theocracy: “The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness […] For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its [theocracy’s] downfall […] and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality…the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing…is the task of world politics.” This gives some insight into what justifies the substitution of the concept of abolition for that of destitution, and not just in the work of Tari but in the writing of the invisible committee as well who make this substitution explicit when they define communism as “the real movement that destitutes the present state of things.” Happiness is not a predicate of an individual subject but the name for the collective process that subjects itself and the political and economic organization of the world to this “eternal transience”, rendering capital “transient in its totality”, subjecting this totality to “its eternal and total passing away.”

  • “Notes for a Work on the Category of Justice” (1916)

But why does this understanding of Happiness necessarily relate to questions of revolution? Benjamin’s 1916 ‘Notes for a work on the category of Justice’; a work, like many of Benjamin’s, that would go unfinished; provides us with one of Benjamin’s clearest statements on his view of the relation between law and justice: “To every good, as delimited in the order of time and space, there attaches the character of possession…Possession, however…is always unjust. Hence no system based on possession or property…can lead to justice / Rather, justice resides in the condition of a good that cannot be a possession. This alone is the good through which other goods are divested of ownership” (A Critical Life, 82). And it is this early formulation that Benjamin will employ as the opening salvo of his 1921 Critique of Violence, from where destitution is derived. As Benjamin writes in the opening sentence of this essay, “The task of a critique of violence may be defined as setting out its relationship to law and justice” (One-Way Street, 1). And further on, writes Benjamin, while providing a new formulation to his earlier distinction of law and justice: “Justice is the principle of all divine end-establishment, power the principle of all mythic law-establishment” (One-Way Street, 22). For Benjamin, it is only when society has divested itself of bourgeois right, which is nothing but the legal expression of the property-form, that the totality of capital can be said to have been brought to an end–not as the terminus of the progress of history but as the termination of history’s progress. Thus it is no surprise to read Benjamin affirming the necessity of history’s termination, a type of redemption no longer alloyed to the most errant of metaphysical determinisms and thus wagers on the experience of freedom enriched by the indeterminate as everlasting form: “Pure divine violence is free once again to adopt any of the everlasting forms that myth has bastardized with law” (One-Way Street, 28).

Tari himself alludes to this 1916 text and its understanding of Justice as the condition for a form of social organization and form of life that has been divested of the (actual and concrete reality of) ownership. For example, early in Tari’s text, on page 35, we read the following: “True justice is no longer identified with an authority or with virtue, but—as Benjamin himself wrote—with a “state of the world.” Or again, now on page 100, amidst a discussion on the relationship between law, territory, and destitution, Tari writes “If the first gesture of taking immediately becomes the right to property…[then] the destitution of the law always begins with the Earth, with territories.” This line of thought leads, within  the archive of destitution, to the commune (or common) as the ethical and political FORM of destitution because it is a form of sociality that cannot, itself, be the property of any one individual. I say all of this as a way of providing some background and related information that is not made explicit in the text for those who may pick up the book and find themselves wondering why it would make sense to oppose justice to law, or view destitution as something intimately related to property, commodities, and all the other real abstractions of capital.

  • to be loved by Communism as only a mother is loved

For Tari, there is perhaps no less innocent term than happiness save that of love, since to grasp the possibility of redemption that inheres in every idea of happiness (“there vibrates in the idea of happiness…the idea of salvation” (Arcades Project, [N13a, 1]) proceeds by way of love. This gives rise to a properly Benjaminian formulation that one finds it hard to improve upon: “This is love against history” (There is no unhappy revolution, 127-28). Thus, Tari continues: “Only those who have experienced love can access communism immediately. And, logically, the more we know how to love someone, the greater the possibility of communism’s arrival” (ibid, 128). Indeed, for this link between love and communism is such that it becomes possible of “freeing oneself by freeing the other from the very need of loving back,” which, as Claire Fontaine rightly note, is love’s “potential communist dimension” (‘Raising the Uprising,’ 278). Fontaine continues: “Being a mother is a work that can be summarized in making onself less and less necessary everyday for one’s children, disappearing as such through the very work that one does and then eventually being abandoned…But if considered outside of the cycle of reproductive work, as a creative activity, this capacity of envisaging love in a non-accumulative, anti-capitalist way, could be a vital resource for feminism. Love is there conceived as a gift of freedom…a love that is noursihed by the implicit emancipation that it contains: the freedom of the loved one and our own, its potential communist dimension” (Raising the Uprising, 278).

For Tari, we must heed to Benjamin’s dictum: if happiness is to be found in subjecting capitalist totality to an eternal transience via worldly means and suggests that the task of politics is to reproduce forms of life in its wake, then it is the collective formation of anti-capitalist social relations that renders this ideal of love as the gift of freedom into more than the promissory note that it currently remains. That is, if the relation between love and communism is as foundational as we are led to believe, it might be the case that to make good on the Benjaminian desire for the redemption of all those said to be without history we must locate his place in this transient totality, to adjudicate a properly profane appropriation of this relation between love and communism that inheres in every desire for redemption. It is perhaps Claire Fontaine who, again, provides us with an ideal punctuation to this first set of disparate remarks via her commentary on the communist prospect that inheres in every love that is emancipatory vis-à-vis Benjaminian happiness/redemption, drawing the portrait of the difficulty and resilience of desire that remains tethered to the value-form:

“The idea of ‘social motherhood’ […] is not simply conceived as the act of mothering, but it is a metaphor for any charitable bond that ties women to the possibility of community; it is the extension of the work of care to adults and companions in order to preserve the stability of a political formation or militant structure…Some memorable reflections on social motherhood can be found in Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Brecht’s The Mother…which is a key text because it presents the human community of communism as a vital necessity and the struggle to reach it as a decision of common sense […] Pelagea Vlassova, the protagonist, is a widow of a worker, mother of a worker, therefore twice exploited: as a member of the working class and as a woman and mother […] She begins distributing flyers and going to demonstrations. Pelagea “adopts” communism and Benjamin writes that “she is loved by Communism as only a mother is lover…as the inexhaustible source of help. She represents help at its source, where it is pure-flowing, where it is practical and not false, that can still be channeled without reservations towards what, without reservations, needs help—namely Communism. The mother is the praxis incarnated”…The conclusion of this text…makes us shiver: ‘The dialectic has no need for a distance shrouded in mist. It is at home within the four walls of the praxis and it stands on the threshold of the moment to speak the closing words of the play: ‘And ‘Never’ becomes: ‘Before the day is out!’ This ‘never that becomes before the day is out is exactly the problem that can only be fought against through a form of resistance that intersectionally crosses existential and political aspects of life…which is human strike.” [Human Strike and the Art of Creating Freedom, 280-81]

some loot, others picket, assemblies “escrachan [2]

  • Militant-Research

Colectivo Situaciones brings various theoretical and philosophical traditions to bear upon the urgency of finding the means to resolve the crises of the social reproduction of daily life without reproducing the nation-state and the value-form in turn.[3] Perhaps the most novel contribution of militant-research to this history of inquiry is that unlike its predecessors, which had good reason to assume the existence of an inquiring subject and object of inquiry, militant-research begins from the acknowledgement that there is no object or subject that pre-exists collective research into militant forms of struggle. Terms such as ‘destituent potential’ not only refers to concrete collective practices of meeting one’s social reproductive needs without reproducing value or relying upon the state in the process; it is a term that proved to be effective for establishing relations of solidarity (or what they call ‘non-capitalist sociability’) in the place of relations of exchange. In a sense, militant-research addresses the long standing problem that plagued the method of inquiry–i.e. the oscillation between assigning primacy to either theory or practice, intellectual or manual labor… and the attempts of overcoming this division between revolutionary intellectuals and the working class gives rise to humorous anecdotes. Militant-research shifts epistemic inquiries away from refining descriptors of our present and toward collective attempts at formulating what could be (an exercise of their collective capacity to actualize emancipation as a self-organized/self-determined process). This is one of the fundamental aspects of Foucault that Tari approvingly cites on page 113, in the midst of the discussion of the destituent strike as striking against ourselves: “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be” (Foucault, ‘Why Study Power?’; There is no unhappy revolution, 113). It is because we do not know what collective practices of destitution can do under different socially determinate conditions that elaborating the potential of what could be becomes of primary importance. 

  • De-instituent Practices

Despite the self-avowed incompleteness of the notes presented here, their incompletion could not be justified without the inclusion of Verónica Gago’s (one of the founding members of Colectivo Situaciones) reflections on Argentina’s destituent insurrection of 2001 and its legacy more than 15 years on. As she writes, “The 2001 crisis in Argentina – tied to a continental sequence of anti-neoliberal revolts and uprisings – provided a space for theoretical-political creation. The moment of eruption of “subjectivities of the crisis,” that took the form of movements of the unemployed, experiences of self-management in factories and neighborhoods, and practices of alternative and popular economy (from barter clubs to the community supply networks to popular markets), demonstrated a capacity for opposition and action that was capable of breaking the neoliberal consensus. At the same time, it was able to articulate, in a new way, forms of resistance that had been woven together over the course of years. All of political theory is put to the test in moments like those […] In our collective militant investigation, we called that power destituent: precisely for its capacity to overthrow and remove the hegemony of the political system based on parties and for opening up a temporality of radical indetermination based on the power of bodies in the street. We also wanted to emphasize that what was called spontaneous was actually the visibilization of a fabric that had been patiently constructed, that synthesized a long elaboration from below, and that went deep enough to question the very distinction between the “social” and the “political.” Therefore we spoke of a “new social protagonism” (Verónica Gago, ‘Intellectuals, Experiences, and Militant Investigations’).

And so… destituent power names a kind of collective practice, a type of social activity, that suspends the political and economic processes that govern/manage populations by establishing a (false) equivalence between the lives of individuals and the place they come to occupy in society, their subject-position relative to capitalist nation-states. It is a collective practice that achieves this effect of suspension via the self-organization, and self-determination, of relations, internal and among groups, that resolves various crises of social reproduction without the reproduction of value. The paradigm of destituent insurrection that emerged from the events of the 19th and 20th of December 2001 is that of a political form incommensurate with the form of value. If theorists such as Hardt and Negri, who both witnessed the unfolding of the 2001 insurrection and would go on to write forewords for Colectivo Situaciones text, relied on the language of the commune, it is because, as Marx put it regarding the commune of 1871, it was there that the political form of freedom was, again, discovered. That is, the novelty of this political sequence is its having assumed a form other than those of production and circulation struggles, but that of what Amy De’Ath calls “anti-social reproduction” struggles. And this is what Marx saw as the “form of freedom” with the Paris Commune and it is what we see again at the turn of the century in Argentina via the form of a destituent insurrection. Thus, when Tari theorizes the destituent strike via his reading of Luxemburg’s theory of the mass general strike, and (rightly) characterizes Luxemburg’s position as one that understands that “the real strike is not a one-time event but a process” and that the “so-called Italian ‘long 68’ was such a process,” we should recall the historically and geographically situated “processes” that was itself a veritable “visibilization of a fabric” of collective freedom, of the destituent potency lived in the collective social practice of communisation.


[trans. this is not a country, this is a mass grave with a national anthem]

Now, aside from the more spectacular and well known tactics drawn from the repertoire of Argentina’s insurrection, two examples help clarify the specificity of the process leading up to December 2001—in case these are not familiar to the reader and because 2001 would not be the dialectical-image that it remains in lieu of their absence: 

  • Barter clubs: relied upon by 7 million people at the time of the insurrection. First established in 1995. This is necessary to highlight since it is a phenomena found throughout Argentina and is used/concerns roughly 7 million people. Thus, it is by no means a marginal phenomena, but a form of social-reproduction that did not imply the reproduction of value and was a practice that makes up the “content” corresponding to a “form of life” that can be said to be destituent to a certain extent. 
  • Escraches / H.I.J.O.S: self-organized form of popular justice established in response to Menem’s government’s decision to pardon members of the military dictatorship who were responsible, directly or in part, despite the government’s knowledge of their responsibility for those who were disappeared or brutally murdered by far-right paramilitary death squads: “The escrache does not work by “putting pressure on the judges to act,”…it removes an entire chain of complicities that made the genocide possible and thus summons…thousands of people, particularly the neighbors of the perpetrators of the genocide, who are the ones taking into their hands the task of exercising the punishment. Thus, the one who gets the escrache will no longer be ‘just another neighbor.’ From this moment onwards, “everyone” knows who he is and what he did” (19/20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism, 204-05). But it is H.I.J.O.S themselves who have gifted us with a perfectly incisive formula that names this particular form a practice of justice, of justice as praxis. “Social condemnation is a way of rethinking justice, making it less about seeking legal reparations and more about the reconstruction of the social fabric that was destroyed by the dictatorship’s actions” and hence they say: “Our slogan is very clear: if there is no justice, there is escrache. It’s because there is no justice, that there is escrache. It’s not that the escrache is the best thing that could ever happen to us, it’s because in this country there is no justice so we came up with this” (Genocide in the Neighborhood, 69)

All of these struggles—from the unemployed to the mothers of those disappeared by the paramilitary units of the military dictatorship—pre-existed the 2001 insurrection. But it was by virtue of intervening as a coordinate struggle on many fronts (what Colectivo Situaciones called the ‘new social protagonism,’ or what Guattari called ‘transversal relations’ [4]) that a really existing concrete capacity to destitute the state and the market was effectuated, was made a lived reality rather than becoming another democratic ideal. And it is understandable if, under these circumstances, readers cannot help but recall Benjamin’s defense of a kind of justice that cannot take the form of propriety or ownership. It is this notion of justice as ground rather than principle of judgement that we find amidst this de-instituent insurrection, where there is no longer a need to even march through the streets with banners since, as the MTD from Solano put it,

“We have marched together with them [caceroleros, autonomous neighborhood assemblies, etc.], we blocked roads together, but we do not go with banners. They know we are from the MTD, that we are piqueteros, but we understand that we should not put a banner to this struggle. We think it is necessary to unify the struggle, but that nobody should homogenize it. We all have to go out, strike together, but nobody owns that struggle. We contribute from where we belong and of not think, as some comrades understand, that we have privilege because the piqueteros started this struggle.” [19/20: Notes, 119]

Interestingly enough, it is with respect to the issue of this “new social protagonism” that there emerges a small yet clear difference that distinguishes Tari’s understanding of destituent potency from that of the Colectivo. For Tari, the idea of a new social protagonism unwittingly rehabilitates a vision of revolution predicated on some revolutionary subject despite Colectivo Situaciones’ best efforts to think of the possibilities opened up by various situations rather than indulging in Bolshevik fantasies that leave one wondering as to the social group primed to carry out a revolution already underway. These are moments rich with all their respective particularities and of interest, not because it marks another split over competing interpretations of history, but because it tells us what the paradigm of destituent insurrection and the grammar of its unfolding means something different in differing contexts… this being due to the fact that the relation of life to struggle means something different in the global south than it does in the global north. 

What remains unclear, however, is what is gained or lost by this reading of “social protagonism”, which is used by the Colectivo less as a reference to classical theories of revolutionary subjectivity and more to the type of social bond, or social relation, that allowed disparate and differing self-organized communities to coordinate and aid in the reproduction of all other groups; the reproduction of a form of struggle that no longer depended upon the reproduction of forms of value and techniques of governmentality (this is the nature and function of “anti-social reproduction” where social reproduction is realized without relying upon the market or the state).

The protagonist of 2001 wasn’t any one form of struggle even though the piquetero would become one of its most iconic figure; rather, it referred to what Verónica Gago called the “fabric patiently constructed, that synthesized a long elaboration from below” to which the notion of “social protagonism”, where what was “new” was precisely the relations that constructed a social fabric out of decades long processes of living amid ever increasing immiseration. It is in this sense that what the Colectivo called ‘social protagonism’ is a singular concretization of what Guattari termed ‘transversal relations’; relations between various social groups in order to wage a “struggle on many fronts” as he put it. Whether it is the vocabulary of social protagonism or transversality, it amounts to the same: the suspension or nullification of a degree of estrangement that we begin to see and act on the basis of the fact that the problems of one social group are the problems of the social whole, and the emancipation of each is possible via the abolition of the capitalist social relations. “Almost as unknown as the piqueteros were the different nodes, networks, and circuits of barter that drew together millions of people in the harshest moment of the crisis […] All these experiments—to which we could add, among others, the escraches of the group H.I.J.O.S. against the unpunished perpetrators of the genocide of the last dictatorship, or the struggles carried out by the Mapuches in the Argentine south and the organization of campesino initiatives in the north of the country, such as the Movement of Campesinos of Santiago del Estero—were more or less known, but remain in relative isolation. The events of December provoked a visibilization…among them and before those that rose up massively to participate or to learn about those initiatives” (19/20: Notes, 228-29).


[ Without being able to touch on several of the other fundamental themes that structure Tari's text, it is to the questions of race/racialization and coloniality—with specific attention paid to the nexus of the terms of territory-inhabit-land—that the above fragmented-commentary will turn at a later date.]

[1] Felix Guattari, Préface à Radio Alice, Radio libre, par le Collectif A Traverso (Jean-Pierre Delarge: 1977).
[2] "In 1984, the newly-installed democratically-elected government commissioned a report to detail the repression under the dictatorship. This report, issued by the Comision Nacional Sobre la Desaparicion de Personas (CoNaDep), was titled Nunca Mas, or Never Again. The conclusions of the report, which included the documentation of the disappearance of almost 9,000 persons, shocked the world. As a 1985, former junta leader Jorge Rafeal Videla was sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison of Magdalena. However, the report also advanced for the first time a theory which came to be known as "theory of the two demons"...a politicized interpretation of the historical experience of the dictatorship advanced by the Union Civica Radical, the party in power during the "transition to democracy." The phrase attempts to cast the political struggle of the 1970s as a confrontation between two irrational demons: on the one side the militarists and on the other the left (guerillas), whose struggle held "normal society" hostage [...] As a result, Argentina's democratic government soon passed two sweeping pieces of legislation: the Ley de Punto Final and the Ley de Obediencia Debida. The Ley de Punto Final was passed in 1986 and put an end to the investigation and prosecution of people accused of political violence during the dictatorship through December 10, 1983, the day democratic rule was instituted in Argentina. The Ley de Obediencia Debida, passed in 1987, stipulated that all military and security personal could not be tried for their actions during the dictatorship as they were acting out of "due obedience." The, in 1990, in what was seen as the ultimate affront to justice, then-president Menem issued a sweeping pardon absolving from prosecution key leaders of the National Reorganization Process (i.e. the 1976-1983 dictatorship) and certain guerillas on the grounds of "national reconciliation." Thus, when the group HIJOS began working in the mid-1990s it was within this complicated context [...] in the run up to the massive, wide-spread protests on December 19th and 20th, 2001, the escraches fueled and fed off of the spread of a multitude of radical colectives and innovative social movements across Argentina...However, the escrache as a practice began primarily as a response to Menem's pardons, the Ley de Punto Final and the Ley de Obediencia Debida" (Genocide in the Neighborhood, 18-20). Brian Whitener, 'Introduction' to Genocide in the Neighborhood, trans. Brian Whitener, Daniel Borzutzky, and Fernando Fuentes (Chainlinks: 2009), 11-36.
[3] A note on the theoretical and practical traditions that Colectivo Situaciones synthesize in a novel manner: Theoretical tradition: a short and incomplete list would include Marx, Benjamin, autonomia, italian feminism, the history of indigenous struggles throughout the Americas, and critiques of the legacy of marxist-leninism and the left-wing progressive governments that followed them once the guerrillas put down the gun (most notably the Tupac Katari Revolutionary Army in Bolivia, which included the country’s future vice-president under Evo Morales’ government, Alvaro Garcia Linera, and his long-time comrade in armed struggle who would become one of his sharpest critics, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar); Practical tradition: militant-research draws from the long tradition (& its various adaptations) of what Marx originally called ‘workers inquiry’ (Marx 1881),Correspondence produced by the Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs’ collective formed after their split with Trotskyism (circa 1947), Socialisme ou Barbarisme which lifted Correspondence’s method/format almost entirely (50-60s), co-research with Quaderni Rossi (1961), and even the Prison Informations Group (1970-73), and went on to influence further uses of the method of inquiry after the events of Argentina in 2001, and this is perhaps clearest in the mobile inquiry into the lives of precarious and feminized workers via the Spanish collective, Precarias a la Deriva (2002). For an exhaustive and rigorous overview of this history, written by one of the former members of Precarias a la Deriva, see Marta Malo's two-part essay 'Common Notions,' here and here. For an equally thorough and clarifying genealogy of the method of inquiry from Marx to the present, see Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi’s ‘Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy’.
[4] "I envisage schizo-analysis as a political struggle on all 'fronts' of desire-production. There can be no question of focusing on a single area...What transversality means is simply continual movement from one 'front' to another" (Molecular Revolution, 257). Or again, "There is not one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospitals, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in 68, the problem of the university is not just that of the students and teachers, but the problem of society as a whole and of how it sees the transmission of knowledge, the training of skilled workers, the desires of the mass of the people, the needs of industry and so on" (ibid, 255). F é lix Guattari, 'Molecular Revolution and Class Struggle,' Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, trans. Rosemary Sheed (Penguin: 1984), 253-261, 255-57

Communism Is The Riddle Posed To History

[ An especially rough draft of a book chapter for the forthcoming collection,
Neoliberalism and its Double-Binds (2022) ]

On May 24, we admired on television the impressive Paris demonstration called by the central CGT trade union. Throughout the country were other demonstrations. We were jubilant. If the most important workers’ union embraced the movement, we had an avenue for hope! We saw proof of this in president, General de Gaulle, casting his bait on television: he announced the organization of a June referendum on participatory decision-making for workers in enterprises and for students in the universities. We feared seeing students fall into the trap set, but not much effort was needed to avoid potential demobilization. We learned that the response to the chief of state’s proposal was another demonstration in Paris, with new barricades, and nec plus ultra, the burning of the Bourse! On May 25, at the Ministry of Labor in Paris, negotiations began between the trinity of trade unions, employers, and the government. On May 27, we learned the epilogue. The content of the so-called Grenelle agreement: increased unemployment benefits and base wages, the workday gradually reduced to forty hours a week, the age of retirement lowered, revised collective agreements, recognition of trade union sections in enterprises, and increased trade union rights. To the horde of hungry dogs, the owners threw some bones to chew on. Some affordable employer concessions to suffocate social change aiming to eliminate ownership itself. The following day [May 28], there was Francois Mitterand, who announced his candidacy for the presidency. The next day [May 29], we learned that the secretary-general of the CGT, Georges Séguy himself, went to Renault factories in Boulogne-Billancourt. He presented the agreements to the strikers. Against his expectation, they voted to pursue the strike. All of this was coming about without elections, without “palace” maneuvers, without an armed coup d’etat, without a Day of August 10, 1792, against the Tuileries, without an attack on the Winter Palace, without a Bolshevik “avant-garde Party,” and without a long Maoist grassroots war. This is how the slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” became a reality. Alas! Those who pretend “genuinely” to represent working people, the leaders of the “communist” party and the CGT trade union, took fright at the liberation struggle of the same working people.

— Kadour Naïmi, Freedom in Solidarity: My Experiences in the May 1968 Uprising

Rather than some set of solutions or revolutionary program, May ’68 appears to persist in the form of a problem. For someone like Badiou, this problem of ’68 belongs strictly to the order of politics insofar as the era was defined by, and preoccupied with the question, “What is politics?”, while for those like Guattari, ’68’s problematic was socio-economic in essence, with “one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is […] the problem of society as a whole.” And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May ’68 reveals itself to be decidedly metaphysical in nature (“Democracy is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics”). Thus it seems that the fate of May ’68 is to remain an eternal site of contestation, always irreducible to any single sequence of events. Hence the suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more the formulation of a set of problems – the effect of which was a critical interrogation of the inherited figures and institutions of the workers’ movement, which thereby altered the very meaning of communism as such.  Perhaps the most significant outcome of the struggles of ’68 stems from these confrontations between the emergence of new social movements on the one hand, and the unions and Party of the Left, on the other. 

As the main institutions and organizational forms inherited from previous cycles of struggle, both the union and the Party were either unwilling or unable to advocate for the political and economic demands of an emergent, collective, political subject. That is, if ’68 achieved anything, it succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself: a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line, no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left, and no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production. From this dual rejection of the classical identification of the industrial worker with the locus of revolutionary potential and the union and party as inherited organs of proletarian struggle, emerged an insurrectionary praxis aimed at overcoming the limitations of the union and party as the forms of organization inherited by ’68.  What this means from the vantage point of the current conjuncture, however, is an altogether different matter. In other words, while it was the failure of the 1848 revolution that established the aim of seizing state power for an organized working-class anticipating 1910 (Mexican Revolution) and 1917 (Bolshevik Revolution), the theoretical and practical effects that were born out of ’68 left its contemporaries uncertain regarding the potential actualization of the possible futures implicated within that year:  

After 1848, the world’s old left were sure that 1917 would occur. They argued about how and where and when. But the middle-range objective of popular sovereignty [i.e. seizing State power] was clear. After 1968, the world’s antisystemic movements—the old and the new ones together—showed rather less clarity about the middle-range objective […] We have no answer to the question: 1968, rehearsal for what? In a sense, the answers depend on the ways in which the worldwide family of antisystemic movements will rethink its middle-run strategy in the ten or twenty years to come.

At the very least, ’68 still merits the title of an event insofar as it refers to a political sequence whose refusal of capital as the structuring principle of social existence  opened up new fields of the possible. It marks a period when a generalized antagonism proved itself capable of wresting back what was determined as impossible, via the counter-actualization of its present – thereby initiating an experiment in constructing an anti-state communist form of life adequate to the task of establishing a new norm regarding the relation of the economic and the social. And yet, all that was promising in the specific reorganization of forms of everyday life that obtained during ’68 eventually became so many revolutionary breaks with history that were unable to produce a determinately anti-capitalist future.. Thus, if, in 1844, Marx could still confidently write that “Communism is the riddle of history solved […] and knows itself to be this solution,” after ’68 and no longer certain of itself, communism now appears as the riddle posed to history

That said, it is still necessary to ask whether or not we remain its contemporaries fifty years on. In other words, this is to ask whether the problem that has come to preoccupy the Left of today is still the search for the forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of capital. For as Badiou suggests, today “we have the same problem and are the contemporaries of the problem revealed by May ’68: the classical figure of the politics of emancipation was ineffective.” In what follows, I would like to propose that our relationship to May ’68 is more complicated than any straightforward affirmation or rejection of our contemporaneity with the political sequence that bears its name and date. Moreover, it is only by understanding why we cannot simply affirm or reject all that is implied in Badiou’s assertion of a singular problem as that which binds us to ’68 that we are able to grasp how our relationship to ’68 involves, by necessity, both responses. While it may be the case that what we share with ’68 is our search for an answer to a singular question—what form will collective subjectivity take such that it is adequate to the abolition of itself and its present state of affairs?—what is also made clear is that both the context and possible solutions this question solicited in 1968 are substantively different from the context and solutions that are currently in existence. 

In this way, we are forced to recognize that if there is a double bind proper to ’68, it is of an altogether different nature than the properly dialectical trap, which confronts us today. Inasmuch as ’68’s double bind was marked by a “becoming-revolutionary without a revolutionary future,” what defines the double bind of the current conjuncture is the Left’s division within itself between those who call for a reinvestment in the Party-form and parliamentary politics and those who reiterate their commitment to the recomposition and furthering of extra-parliamentary struggle. That is to say, unlike the movements of ’68, the current cycle of struggles  no longer find themselves in a condition solely defined by the existence of a revolutionary process that lacks an attendant, and emancipatory, future. Rather, contemporary social movements are circumscribed by the temptation of engaging in either a melancholic reflection on the past but in the form of the grounds for revolutionary struggle in the present, or a farcical repetition of this past pure and simple. And so, in the concluding section of this essay, it will be demonstrated how it was Blanchot rather than Badiou who best captured the double bind that serves as the political horizon for ’68’s contemporaries: the dialectical trap of melancholic reflection and farcical repetition. No longer simply bearers of a shared problem, to be a contemporary of ’68 is to think and act against the temptation of the former—which substitutes an historical materialist analysis of the present for the derivation of “lessons” that are said to be immediately applicable in the present (an approach that incorrectly presupposes an unchanged composition of the relation between Capital and Labour)—while rejecting the parochialism of the latter, which “anxiously conjure[s] up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes” whilst failing to produce a “new scene in world history.”

Badiou’s ‘Four May’s

“I would like to begin by asking a very simple question: why all this fuss about May ’68 […] 40 years after the event? There was nothing of the kind for the thirtieth or twentieth anniversary.”6 Thus begins Badiou’s reflections on the fortieth anniversary of the events of ’68. And not without justification, for it is indeed strange that May ’68 becomes worthy of national commemoration only once forty years of silence have passed. Beginning with this question, Badiou identifies two dominant modes of responding to this question. On the one hand, there is a set of answers that can be said to be pessimistic, which suggest that it is possible to commemorate May ’68 precisely because it no longer has any socio-political influence on the present. In other words, such a view holds that commemoration is possible precisely because what was really achieved through the events of May was the establishment of the conditions of possibility needed for neoliberalism to emerge. On the other hand, there are those answers that are decidedly optimistic—ranging from arguments that view this commemorative moment as looking towards the past for the inspiration needed to change the present, to those who still hold on to a certain image of insurrectionary politics, which is said to contain the promise that another world is indeed possible. Contrary to these positions, and emphasizing what he takes to be May ’68’s irreducibly complex character, Badiou argues that there are not two but four different May’s: 

[T]he reason why this commemoration is complicated and gives rise to contradictory hypotheses is that May ’68 itself was an event of great complexity. It is impossible to reduce it to a conveniently unitary image. I would like to transmit to you this internal division, the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ’68. There were in fact four different May 68’s. The strength and the distinctive feature of the French May ’68 is that it entwined, combined and superimposed four processes that are, in the final analysis, quite heterogeneous. 

In place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystification, says Badiou, the reality of ‘May 1968’ was that of a political sequence whose realisation was due to the coordination and combined effects of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general and wildcat strikes organized by workers, and (iii) the protestations, which arose most notably from young people, oppressed social groups, and cultural workers. Hence, Badiou continues, it is precisely for this reason that it comes as no surprise that the symbolic sites of ’68 are “the occupied Sorbonne for students, the big car plants (and especially Billancourt) for the workers, and the occupation of the Odéon theatre.” 

While each of these segments of ’68 correspond to the first three iterations of May, what is it that constitutes the supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and struggles over everyday life? According to Badiou, this ‘fourth May’ is nothing other than the generalization of what one could call an ‘absolute refusal’ or ‘absolute rejection’ of the movements of ’68 and their relation to previous cycles of revolutionary struggle. This was a form of collective refusal, which centred on two elements that, historically, have been seen as theoretical and/or practical givens regarding the question of how best to achieve revolutionary transformation: the classical model of how revolutions are to proceed and the subject of history.

As regards the classical model, the fourth May embodied a shared rejection of the Leninist outline of revolution (or what Badiou, in his essay on Sylvain Lazarus, calls ‘the bolshevik mode of politics’) across these various social movements: a vision of revolution that proceeds via workers’ parties, backed by labour unions, all while professional revolutionaries organize the masses in the bid to seize state power. For Badiou, it was this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy – which was characteristic of the fourth May – that ultimately laid the grounds for the unification of the student, worker, and cultural struggles active during ’68. And it is for this reason that Badiou will go on to define this fourth May as a collective attempt to construct “a vision of politics that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision […] [a politics] seeking to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism.” 

In addition to this collective rejection of ‘classic revolutionism,’ the other defining characteristic of this fourth May was its rejection of working-class identity as being the sole determinant of one’s revolutionary potential. For Badiou, this rejection, founded upon the idea that ‘the classical figure of the politics of emancipation’ was ‘ineffective,’ had its validity confirmed by his own experience of factory workers welcoming himself and his university colleagues during a march to the Chausson factory in Reims: 

What happened at the gates of the Chausson factory would have been completely improbable […] a week earlier. The solid union and party dispositif usually kept workers, young people and intellectuals strictly apart […] The local or national leadership was the only mediator. We found ourselves in a situation in which that dispositif was falling apart before our very eyes. This was something completely new […] This was an event in the philosophical sense of the term: something was happening but its consequences were incalculable. What were its consequences during the ten ‘red years’ between 1968 and 1978? Thousands of students […] workers, women […] and proletarians from Africa went in search of a new politics […] A political practice that accepted new trajectories […] and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other […] At that point, we realized […] that if a new emancipatory politics was possible […] it would turn social classifications upside down [and] would […] consist in organizing lightning displacements, both material and mental.

Thus, says Badiou, to commemorate and reflect upon the events of ’68 means to necessarily confront and understand it as a political sequence that was realized only because students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups (the youth, women, Algerians, etc.) shared one and the same horizon of struggle—replete with its dual rejection of the politics of parliamentarianism, party-led unions, and transitional programs, and the figure of the worker as the sole bearer of revolutionary potential. Reflecting upon his own text written in the later months of 1968, Badiou would go on to write, “the obsolescence of a strict Leninism centered upon the question of the party, which, precisely because it is centered on the party, continues to subordinate politics to its statist deviation. It is clear that the question of organization…is indeed central to the lessons of May ’68.” Moreover, it was a political sequence whose guiding question was the following: “What would a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like?” It is precisely in this sense that 1968 is said to mark the birth of a political subjectivity defined by a defiance of the social positions (‘places’) allotted to it by capital. Or as Kristin Ross writes, and in a manner similar to a Badiouian theory of the subject:

May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural “givenness” of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside…And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics — moving it out of its…proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party.

And so, despite the post-war ascendency of communist parties throughout Western Europe in general and France in particular—a period when parties achieved a number of their intermediate objectives, such as the “full organization of the industrial working class and a significant rise in their standard of living, plus accession to a place in the state political structure”—the early 60s began to reveal the Party as an institution that had outlived its utility, insofar as it proved itself incapable of responding to the demands of a shifting composition of the working-class (whether concerning the demands of the feminist and gay liberation movements or regarding France’s ongoing colonial campaigns in Algeria). From the vantage point of Party politics, demands such as these were viewed as secondary or tertiary concerns (at best) relative to those of the industrial working-class. To make matters worse, whatever symbolic gestures of solidarity the PCF gave domestically, it nullified internationally. Ever since the Charonne massacre in 1961, where an estimated two hundred Algerians were killed at the hands of the Paris police, the French Communist Party has continuously “referenced…the deaths at the Charonne metro, as well as to the martyrdom of Audin and Alleg, or the sacrifices of Iveton and Maillot, to bear witness to its anticolonial engagement.” But for all of the authenticity contained in the Party’s bearing witness to these massacres, it was future socialist president François Mitterand, who in 1954, while serving as Interior Minister, summarized France’s position regarding Algerian Independence in the following terms: “Algeria is France. The only possible negotiation is war.” 

What is more, in a series of critical reflections on the PCF’s ongoing ambiguity regarding anticolonial struggle, and in a text whose publication would eventually earn him expulsion from the PCF, Balibar writes: “There is no question that in the years between 1958 and 1962, no opposition to the colonial war could have triggered a historically effective mass mobilization without the CGT, without the Communist Party.” Any domestic mobilization against French colonization could not take place without the support and means of a communist Party, whose underlying nationalism made it a “surprising concentration of contradictions in which the legacy of the working class’s patriotic role in the anti-fascist resistance and the worst “great power” (or medium power) chauvinisms, cemented by the influence and mimicking of Soviet nationalism, are mixed together.” In the end, it was due to the PCF’s hesitation in formulating a clear position regarding the struggle waged by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), that an opportunity for furthering the aspirations of internationalism was ultimately missed:

The opportunity was missed to forge an organic unity in struggle between French workers and immigrant workers. For both, internationalism remained…a calculus of convergent interests, not a common practice in which one learns little by little to know each other, to overcome contradictions, to envisage a shared future.

Errors such as these came to be viewed neither as accidents nor as aberrations, but as the actual functioning of a Party-based strategy of vying for State power. That is, if the missed opportunity for building a really existing internationalist tendency is as grave an error as it appeared to have been, it is only because this jettisoning of internationalism is not simply one error among others, but the founding gesture of the PCF at the very moment of its ascendency: on 8 May 1945, just as France celebrated the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, French colonial soldiers massacred Algerians who were out demonstrating for liberation to reach them not only in Algiers, but in Sétif and Guelma as well. Reversing Marx and Engel’s dictum that the proletariat “has no country,” and in the aftermath of the Second World War, it is no exaggeration to claim that both Mitterand and the PCF “defended the interests of the working-class” in decidedly nationalist terms. Showing that this was no longer a Party in opposition to the capitalist mode of production and to its cycles of so-called primitive accumulation within its colonies, experiences such as these would serve as the material basis for the “fourth May’s” analysis of the PCF and its unions as having effectively substituted class struggle for class collaboration. Thus it is no surprise that, in light of de Gaulle’s call for a referendum alongside public assemblies for workers and students, respectively, Paris saw both immigrant workers and students respond by  sacking the Paris stock exchange (the Bourse) and erect a new series of barricades: “We feared seeing students fall into the trap set by…de Gaulle. But not much effort was needed to avoid potential demobilization. We learned that the response to the chief of state’s proposal was another demonstration in Paris, with new barricades, and…nec plus ultra, the burning of the Bourse!” 

Viewed in this light, the notion of there having been not two, but “four May’s,” retains its analytical usefulness insofar as it allows us to conceive of ’68 on its own terms: as a form of politics whose horizon of struggle was one that rejected past and present iterations of left-wing politics and gave consistency to a collective subjectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal “that links the other three [May’s].” Thus, in following Badiou we are necessarily led to the conclusion that it was only by virtue of the diagonal function of the fourth May that ’68 succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself: a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line; no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left; no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production – thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been promised to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free

1968 – ???

Today, however, things do not seem as clear as they did during 1968. Not only was the beginning of the year marked by a failed right-wing coup composed of various currents belonging to the renewed white supremacist currents at the heart of the history of the United States.  The radical left (at least in the United States and UK) is increasingly confronted by an internal split between that portion of the Left that has invested its energies and belief in progressive change in candidates and parties on the parliamentary left and the extra-parliamentary portion of the Left, which remains ever-skeptical of achieving the radical transformation of our social totality via presently existing political institutions and organizations. This alone is already a significant divergence from Badiou’s assessment of our relation to the legacy of ’68. For if we are the contemporaries of ’68 – and if ’68 were truly defined by the diagonal function of this ‘fourth May’, which united various social movements via their shared rejection both of the Party-form with its unions and of the electoral process – then, from the vantage point of the present, this consensus forged during ’68 has now been put into question. 

That said, such an analysis was already put forward in 2015 by Plan C’s Keir Milburn. In his article ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands,’ Milburn notes how one of the key contributing factors that has led to this impasse is the failure of the movements of 2011 to bring about the desired and/or expected level of change. As he puts it, “[A]n impasse was reached in both the pure horizontalist rejection of representative politics and the initial attempts to address the crisis of social reproduction autonomously from the State and capital.” Reflecting upon SYRIZA and the limitations of a straightforwardly parliamentarian approach to radical change, Milburn, in my estimation correctly, underscores the fact that electing various Left-leaning parties into power reveals what is inherently limiting about this reinvestment of the Party-form. These limitations are due, either to compromises made between the elected government and the EU, or by the EU, IMF, and World Bank’s isolation of said government in order to elicit the desired set of austerity measures, thereby rendering it amenable to the demands of the market: “Neoliberalism…seeks to either replace points of democratic decision with pseudo-market mechanisms or, where this isn’t possible, insulate points of political decision from pressure and influence from below.”  

If it is precisely the “fourth May’s” shared anti-state, anti-party, and anti-parliamentarian orientation that is lacking and whose absence is felt in the Left’s current division within itself, the solution cannot simply be further calls of support for a ‘diversity of tactics’. This is precisely because when the parties of the Left have ended up in power, what we have seen in the past and may see again in the near future is the repression of all those extra-parliamentary groups’ struggles, even though the very existence of these groups has helped to build a political climate favorable to the Left as a whole. This was a tendency that realized itself in post-68 France, though the best-known example is that of the Italian Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise.’ In the recent years leading up to 2021, we have also seen echoes of this from Corbyn’s Labour Party. For instance, in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, one reads that the Labour Party will promise to rectify the damage done by Theresa May’s cutting of funds to police and emergency personnel.  This rectification of the austerity imposed by Conservative leadership, however, is no less compromised in terms of its “socialist” principles insofar as its proposed solution is the addition of 10,000 more police officers on the streets to, ostensibly, “keep our communities safe.” And all of this while Corbyn was meeting with well-known grime MCs (e.g. JME), all of whom come from communities that are at the highest risk of being harassed, beaten, wrongfully stopped and searched, verbally and physically assaulted, or worse, by the police themselves. So what are we to take away from all this? 

(i) Autonomy as Problematic Structure of Politics 

In terms of a collective subject whose consistency is drawn from a shared horizon (consisting of principles, analyses, and strategies), it would be more accurate to say that, today, we are witnessing the undoing of the ‘fourth May’s’ unifying function, which can be seen in the internal split between electoral and extra-parliamentarian approaches. And just as “we must not forget…that May ’68’s last slogan was élections piège à cons [Elections are a con],” one possible slogan that captures the parliamentary Left’s rehabilitation of electoral politics – Pablo Iglesias’ PODEMOS in Spain, to Alex Tsipras’ SYRIZA in Greece and Bernie Sanders’ bid for heading the Democratic Party in the US, and the UK Labour Party previously led by Corbyn – is the idea that ‘elections are a mode through which class struggle can again be waged.’ Viewed from the present, however, 2021 appears to mark the failure of the parliamentary Left’s consolidation of power in the wake of the Arab Spring, the 15M movement, and so on. What is more, nation-states have enacted the policies of increasingly authoritarian regimes, whether the Chinese Communist Party’s passage of the Security Bill effectively eliminating the long-standing ‘one country two systems’ policy regarding Hong Kong, or the passage of the ‘terror bill’ effectively criminalizing public dissent by the Duterte-led Philippine Democratic Party (PDP–Laban). 

It is in the wake of social democracy’s defeat in its bid for State power, and in light of the anti-police uprisings that began as a response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US, that the parliamentary Left has reorganized itself at the local level, targeting city politicians while identifying possible seats that can be assumed within local office. In contrast to the rights-based and juridical character assumed during the initial formation of the Black Lives Matter movement (which demanded for the State’s upholding of formal equality regardless of race in light of the policing of black and brown lives) the George Floyd Rebellion reoriented public discourse around an explicitly abolitionist character, calling either for the abolition of the police tout court. Moreover, unlike its previous rights-based iteration, both the gains and setbacks of the Rebellion differed from city to city and state to state due to its confrontation with a police force that has grown increasingly explicit in its white supremacist function (e.g. police officers openly displaying blue lives matter and far-right symbols on their person), a State ill equiped to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the various attempts by liberal “organizers” to neutralize the rebellions revolutionary aspirations by supplanting the language of abolition for that of “defunding.”  

As many experienced on the streets and read about in the various independent media outlets of the Left, what appears as the reaffirmation of their fidelity to “grassroots organizing” on the part of the liberal organizers whose true function is to reinforce statist capture, is but the worst form of localism since this strategy’s function, and overall effect, is that of directing popular support for increasingly militant forms of struggle away from the struggles themselves and toward the voting booth. To take but one recent example, at a moment when 54% of Americans felt that the extra-parliamentary act of burning down the third police precinct was a justified response to the police murder of George Floyd, organizing efforts aimed at winning local elections hindered, rather than furthered, the development of a degree of popular support for a direct attack against the State the likes of which has not been seen in the United States in at least fifty years. And yet, this reorientation of electoral campaigns with an eye on potential gains at the municipal and/or city level misses the problem posed by questions of autonomy – whether from traditional Leftist institutions, or from currently existing political parties committed to a strategy of dual power. 

Understood on their own terms via the immanent criteria proper to the political upheaval that conditioned their unfolding, the tactics and experiments in autonomous forms of increasingly militant organization employed during May ’68 in France, or between 1969–1978 in Italy, were not a set of  solutions to the problem of an exhausted and impotent image of revolutionary politics. More than anything, they inaugurated the Left’s decades-long search for a solution. Thus we are compelled to say that the post-workerist conception of autonomy cannot serve as a substitute for the actualization of novel forms of the composition and organization of struggles, if for no other reason than the fact that what autonomy achieved during this period was a rupture, or qualitative difference, established with with the classical vision of revolution as such. This rupture enacted a ruthless criticism of the Left at a moment when leftists felt trapped by  the false choice between the capitalism of the U.S. and the Stalinism of the USSR, without determining the strategies and organizational forms of the politics to come. To say this, however, is not to denounce autonomia or autonomist organizing as such, but to acknowledge what current leftist movements should reasonably expect from the struggles we have inherited. Or, as Gilles Dauvé puts it:

All previous unrest or insurrectionary periods had resulted in the creation of new forms, whether party, union, or autonomous body. In the West and in Japan, since the demise of the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in 1937, no far-left party with strongholds in the workplace has been founded and has managed to fight on. Nothing comparable to early twentieth-century social democracy, Stalinist parties, or the 1930s CIO. Syriza is just about capable of moderating unrest in Greece: it proves incapable of putting forward a platform alternative to mainstream bourgeois politics.

Absent those forms of organization required for the construction of a revolutionary horizon, the trap laid for both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary Left is the treatment of the problems that previous cycles of struggle posed to themselves as the solutions to the crises of the present. Autonomy presents itself as a problem and not as the practical resolution of the problematic already discovered in ’68 (“the classical figure of the politics of emancipation was ineffective”) and taken up again during the 1970s in Italy, such that the problem of autonomy today remains a problem of constructing forms of collective subjectivity adequate to the demands of abolition. “What new forms of political organization are needed to handle political antagonisms? As in science, until such time as the problem has not been resolved, you have all sorts of discoveries stimulated by the search for a solution.” 

(ii) The Fetish for Organizational Form

While the problem of the organizational forms assumed by current struggles relative to the organic composition of capital remains as urgent as it was in 1968, attempting to resolve these issues by specifying a particular figure or subject-position is, in fact, an insufficient ground upon which to establish contemporaneity since this was a problem that every historical period had to pose and answer for itself —even if the solutions to this problem assumed different names such as sans-culotte, the peasant, the slave, the colonized, and of course the worker. That said, what continues to bind us to the events of 1968 is the fact of a shared problem: what form of organization must struggles take in order to carry out a qualitative transformation of capitalist social relations while constructing social relations that are communist in substance? A problem made all the more urgent since it implies that the kinds of organization inherited from the workers’ movement are not only ineffective, but must be left behind altogether; and it was precisely this rejection that rendered the struggles of ’68 capable of establishing a break with its own history. Just as with the movements of ’68, the current conjuncture presents the Left with the task of constructing forms of struggle that aid and further the construction of anti-state communist social relations as well. 

However, with regard to the problem posed by questions of organizational forms, of equal importance is the need to address what one might call the fetish for organizational form, which refers to thinkers and positions that, despite theoretical and/or practical differences, give primacy to (i) the forms assumed by struggles in the course of their unfolding, to the detriment of developing analyses of the shifting compositions of collective subjectivity, which serve as its content, or (ii) to the analytic and logical forms required for providing a materialist account of the current status of the capital-labour relation. Regarding the former, it is in the midst of Sergio Bologna’s reflections on the virtues and limits of the Italian cycle of struggle spanning from the 1960s to the late 1970s, that he inadvertently provides us with an exemplary case of one variant of this fetishism of form:

Despite having apparently left a void in its wake, despite having apparently only laid bare the crisis of political forms, including the crisis of the party-form, 1977 has to be considered one of the greatest anticipations of the forms and contents of political and social life seen in recent years. After 1977 there is no turning back, despite all the errors committed…1977 was a year in which the wealth and complexity of problems was such that the political form able to contain and organise them all adequately could not be found.

Interestingly enough, even Badiou himself asserts the primacy of organizational form, rather than embarking on the development of the theoretical categories necessary to account for the ways in which the historically specific content of antagonism and anticapitalist activity renders equally novel forms of organization possible. As he puts it: “the question of organization…is indeed central to the lessons of May ’68.” In terms of the present moment, addressing this formalist fetish appears to be one more problem inherited by (or one more lesson to be learned from) the contemporaries of May. And yet, this formalist fetish had already been criticized in the years immediately following these events. 

In his 1972 reflections on the limits proper to the Student-Worker Action Group at Censier, François Martin explains his assessment of the group’s eventual re-centring around questions of labour and worker-identity as a regression: “the unions represent labour power which has become capital…The representatives of variable capital, of capital in the form of labour power, sooner or later have to associate with the representatives of capital who are now in power.” For Martin, this reaffirmation of labour and worker-identity was a regression precisely because the very forms of struggle available to collective actions were limited to a concern with the rights of labor, which gave rise to a form of organization—the union—that forecloses any possibility of communism as that “positive transcendence of private property and human self-estrangement.” Martin’s conclusion: “There is only a capitalist, namely ‘unionist,’ organization of the working class.” Thus, the problems that structure the present of May’s contemporaries is a rejection of the two-fold structure of the formalist fetish: a refusal to treat logical and theoretical forms of analysis as concretely revealed in practice, and a refusal of the various attempts at rehabilitating inherited forms of struggle that have outlived their usefulness in the present. 

However, if both Badiou and Bologna fell prey to this fetishism of forms of organization, it is in the recent work of thinkers such as Joshua Clover—despite its inestimable value in having provided a systematic and historical account of the development of riots into strikes (and back again)—that one finds the best example of the other side of this formalism, concerning the status of the relationship between epistemic forms of analysis and the phenomena under investigation. Regarding the current relation of capital’s socio-economic structure to the possible existence of the long sought-after agent of abolition, the prospect of the Left’s being able to determine for themselves the form and organizational structure to be assumed by struggle appears to be even more urgent than in 1968. And it is within such a context that we must begin by emphasizing what Clover so carefully lays out: the strike and the riot continue to be, in large part, overdetermined by the accumulation and production of value—and this, in spite of everything that is redeeming in Marx’s notion of the ‘multiplication of the proletariat,’ which refers to the process that follows from capital’s increasing turn away from production and toward circulation and consumption (reproduction) for the extraction of value. That is, the multiplication of the proletariat, for both Marx and Clover, is still a process of generalized precarity rather than the generalization of a collective and antagonistic subject. 

And it is precisely because of this generalized precarity that Clover rightly speaks of “surplus rebellions,” “circulation struggles,” and “riot-prime” as novel forms of struggles given their position within the arc of capital accumulation. Neither a revival of previous forms of rioting (e.g. bread riots) nor a faithful reproduction of prior instances of rebellion waged by social groups that maintain an indirectly market-mediated relation to  a wage, what distinguishes surplus rebellions and circulation struggles from these prior iterations is precisely the fact that they are practical attempts at resolving the issues of social reproduction within the sphere of circulation as the site both of consumption and of capital’s current means of self-valorization. That said, these are not forms freely chosen and constructed by surplus populations, but, as we are told, are the products of the value-determination and overdetermination of contemporary struggles. Their novelty, then, appears to come not from the self-determination of surplus populations but from the overdetermination of the value-form itself. It is for this reason that, just as the history of the workers’ movement failed in staving off a capitalist form of self-organization via the union, surplus rebellions and circulation struggles, too, find themselves assuming organizational forms determined by cycles of value accumulation rather than by the modalities of (lumpen-)proletarian agency. 

Thus we are compelled to ask: if, as Clover has painstakingly shown, an adequate theory of the riot is necessarily a theory of crisis, such that it is only by understanding the shift of capital flow from production and trade to finance and circulation that one can grasp what is essential in the riot as the way in which struggle manifests today, to what extent is this an already foreclosed or overdetermined image of the nature of the ongoing cycle of struggle today? For, as Clover writes, “The riot, for all its systematically produced inevitability…is the form of struggle given to surplus populations, already racialized…whose location in the social structure compels them to some forms of collective action rather than others.” If riot-prime as the political form surplus rebellions assume in the current conjuncture is determined by the forms of value to which it is indexed by its “location in the social structure,” how, then, is this not a theory of the riot that results in an understanding of riot prime (circulation struggles) as an instance of value-determination, as opposed to a counter-determination of capitalist social relations by surplus populations themselves? Interestingly enough, one possible beginning toward addressing this problem is to be found in Clover’s own articulation of the correspondence between the form of struggle and cycles of accumulation:

strike as the form of collective action that struggles to set the price of labor power, is unified by worker identity, and unfolds in the context of production; riot, struggles to set prices in the market, is unified by shared dispossession, and unfolds in the context of consumption. Strike and riot are distinguished further as leading tactics within the generic categories of production and circulation struggles. We might now restate and elaborate these tactics as being each a set of practices used by people when their reproduction is threatened. Strike and riot are practical struggles over reproduction within production and circulation, respectively…They make structured and improvisational uses of the given terrain, but it is a terrain they have neither made nor chosen. The riot is a circulation struggle because both capital and its dispossessed have been driven to seek reproduction there.

What is striking in this passage is that what comes to define both the strike and the riot is not simply their position within the circuit of capital, but how their primary concern is one of resolving issues of reproduction while only conditionally unfolding as struggles of circulation or production. And this is precisely what is demonstrated here with the definition of strikes and riots as tactics employed in struggles over reproduction. However, to say, as Clover does, that “a theory of riot is a theory of crisis,” subordinates this separation between struggles and their conditions such that crisis acts through riots. If nothing else, it is by maintaining (if not deepening) this antagonism and separation between struggles and their “terrain,” that one can avoid conflating determinations of value with determinations of social movements/uprisings/etc. A separation between determining condition (production-circulation) and determining-agent (proletariat, surplus populations) such that, despite their limitations, the particularly promising content of riots and strikes is not simply equated with the compulsion of value.  That is to say, if the reproduction of labour power and the self-valorization of capital simply name “the same activities…seen from different positions,” it is also the case that struggles over reproduction can be more or less reproductive of value, and suggests the possibility of a mode of struggle that reproduces itself without reproducing the value relation itself. 

Interestingly enough, it is here that Clover nominates the commune as the form of life to come, where “both production and circulation struggles have exhausted themselves”. Unlike its more historically frequent siblings in the riot and strike,the commune appears as a privileged form due to its capacity for reproducing non-valorizing modes of struggle that does not entail the reproduction of the value relation as its necessary precondition: “Alongside these classic circulation struggles, it can be no surprise that Occupy Oakland centered on a communal kitchen signaling the centrality of surplus population to the encampment.” And yet, on this account, what gives rise to the commune as the future form assumed by struggles over reproduction, is not any number of social movements or variations of heterogeneous collective subjects, but “a spreading disorder…that now seems to belong not to riot but to the state, to what had previously been itself a violent order. Against this great disorder, a necessary self-organization, survival in a different key.” 

No longer able to satisfy even the least of life’s reproductive requirements within the production or circulation process, the commune, as presented here, emerges as a form of self-organized survival whereby an individual’s own reproduction can no longer be had at the traditional sites of production or consumption. This, however, is an image of the commune as indiscernible from the realization of increasingly severe capitalist crises, where the realization of the commune is identical to the realization of capitalist immiseration made absolute. And so, it is by insisting upon the separation of struggles from their conditions that strikes and riots will no longer be defined by their place within capitalist society. By acknowledging the riot and the strike as reproduction struggles, we can, at the very least, begin to develop an account – not simply of the ways in which capital establishes the boundaries of a given dispute – that differentiates between the determinations of capital and the determinations of collective subjectivities that avoid reproducing both labor and value in the process. 

Without noting this difference, it is difficult to see how the commune can be said to be “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor,” since it is only when productive labour ceases to be a class attribute and an attribute of society as a whole that our collective activity is concretized as a classless form of social reproduction. Hence the  suspicion regarding the claim that circulation struggles necessarily give rise to the riot as their dominant mode of antagonism, which implies that the determining agent of the riot is not its participants but the socio-economic preconditions for the accumulation of value, and clarifies the problematic equivalence at the heart of Clover’s dictum: “a theory of riots is a theory of crisis.” Thus, what is achieved by means of this “analytical correlation between the present shape of accumulation and the leading tactic of action” is not the delineation of “the contours of a ‘leading subject’ or organization, but precisely its impossibility,” such that it is neither surplus populations nor a recomposed (lumpen-)proletariat but value that riots in the streets.  

« une autre fin du monde est possible » 

Given the preceding analysis, it would seem that there is good reason to agree with Badiou’s claim regarding our contemporaneity with ’68, insofar as ours is a time defined by a search for an adequate resolution to the problem discovered in occupied universities and barricaded streets (i.e. the classical figure of revolutionary subjectivity has been found to be ineffective). That said, what is perhaps the more interesting and relevant point to underscore is that despite Badiou’s best efforts,  the ‘double bind’ characteristic of ’68’s cycle of struggles and of which we are the contemporaries, is of a qualitatively different kind than that which characterizes the historical and political-economic situation of today. And it is precisely on this issue of acknowledging what continues to bind us to, while distancing us from, ’68 that the political writings of Maurice Blanchot become relevant.

Writing in December of ’68, Blanchot articulated what Badiou would only come to argue forty years after the event. This was namely that the problem confronting the movements of ’68 was the question of developing novel forms and organizations of struggle that would adequately resolve the crisis experienced in the face of the notion of revolutionary subjectivity born out of 1917: “May, a revolution by idea, desire, and imagination, risks becoming a purely ideal and imaginary event if this revolution does not renounce itself and yield to new organization and strategies.” Given the benefit of our vantage point it would not be controversial to say that the movements of ’68 largely failed to develop the forms that struggle must  take  relative to the historical and material conditions of the 1960’s. This is not to say that May ’68 was an absolute failure,  for its singular achievement was to reconceive the political horizon of future struggles to come. This being the case, we can say that the double bind proper to ’68 is characterized by the realization of a “becoming-revolutionary without a revolutionary future.” That is, ’68’s achievement was its recognition of the inefficiency and impotence of a certain dogmatic image of revolutionary thought, and its demonstration of this historical break through the collective practices embodied by each of the ‘four May’s.’ That said, and in addition to the prescience of his analysis, Blanchot’s reflections gain further significance with respect to the task of determining whether or not our contemporaneity with May extends beyond this shared problem and includes the same double bind. 

Towards the end of the very same series of reflections, Blanchot provides his analysis of what, in the wake of ’68, it will mean to participate in, and organize on behalf of, the ruptures, insurrections, and revolutions to come. In light of the theoretical contribution of what we could call Badiou’s “contemporaneity thesis” (i.e. the seeking out of new forms for political subjectivity and its attendant organizations that would ensure its reproducibility), Blanchot’s contribution is that of highlighting two particular dangers, or threats, that await revolutionary politics after ’68. Politics after ’68, says Blanchot, finds itself confronted by: 

(a.) The temptation to repeat May, as if May had not taken place or as if it had failed, so that it might someday reach its conclusion. Thus we see the same tactics of agitation that had meaning and effect in February-March-April poorly and painfully retried […] 

(b.) The temptation to continue May, without noticing that all the force of originality of this revolution is to offer no precedent, no foundation, not even for its own success, for it has made itself impossible as such…everything is posed in other terms, and not only are the problems new but the problematic itself has changed. In particular, all the problems of revolutionary struggle, and above all of class struggle, have taken a different form.

By virtue of Blanchot’s diagnosis, we too arrive at what distinguishes the political condition of 1968 from that of 2021. Unlike ’68’s double bind of a really existing revolutionary process devoid of a revolutionary future, it is these two temptations that form the double bind proper to our present, which is that of a dialectic between melancholic reflection and farcical repetition. So if we are to claim the existence of a double bind that is proper to our present, it is not defined by the logic of a “becoming-revolutionary without a revolutionary future”—for what can be said about the progressive and radical Left in 2021 is that, at the very least, each segment offers some vision of an emancipated future world (and this is true regardless of the degree to which their respective proposed futures have been more or less theorized). Rather, what we are seeing today is a Left caught between the temptation to prolong a political sequence that in reality has already come to pass, or to faithfully emulate the images of struggle that became associated with ’68 as a whole. Moreover, and to perhaps make matters worse, the double bind of melancholic reflection and farcical repetition is one that pertains to both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary segments of the present day Left (whether this be in the guise of a nostalgic reinvestment of the Party-form as object of the desire for revolution, or as embodied in the mass mobilizations whose form and organization simply repeat the past in the present). 

However, unlike the fetishization of organizational form that persists throughout Badiou’s critical reflections of this period, and by recognizing the existence of a problem proper to struggles that persist beyond ’68 as something distinct from its characterization as a problem of the exhausted figure of revolutionary subjectivity at the moment of its revolutionary-becoming a la Badiou, Blanchot is able to critically reconceive the necessity of developing new forms of political organization alongside novel modalities of praxis. For this is what is at issue with Blanchot’s warnings regarding the double-bind of political struggle in the wake of ’68. In other words, Blanchot’s identification of the melancholic and farcical dimensions of the cycle of struggles post-68 is simultaneously a critique of a period of which he is a part: a critique of the content of struggle, and only subsequently a critique of misguided attempts at rehabilitating what are essentially obsolete strategic and practical forms. Thus, to affirm the truth of Blanchot’s insight is to acknowledge that to be a “contemporary” of ’68, in the Badiouian sense, is to remain caught within the double-bind of melancholic reflection and farcical repetition. What is more, not only does one’s contemporaneity with ’68 signal the manner by which one remains tied to a past, whose material conditions and modes of composition are no longer capable of affecting the present conjuncture, contemporaneity is itself a sign that the problem that shapes and gives meaning to revolutionary struggles today has been poorly posed. 

If the problem identified by Badiou is an insufficient ground for establishing contemporaneity it is because it presupposes a shared, intuitive or common sense understanding, of the very definition of communism as such. It is as if everybody knows that it is only by abolishing capital that the freedom of some will no longer require the immiseration of others, and thus no one can deny that, after ’68, we still remain communists via a fidelity to communism as an Idea as opposed to maintaining a party line defined by a dogmatic belief in a historically validated program. And yet, it is the very existence of a shared understanding (common sense) of the very idea of communism, let alone the possibility of its real existence, that ’68 has shown to no longer be certain. It is in this sense that we are right to identify Badiou’s “contemporaneity thesis” as a poorly posed problem, insofar as it takes the rupture effected by ’68, which suspended one’s ability to treat terms such as communism as an idea that is as clear and distinct as it is self-evident, as the very grounds for the question that guides theoretical and practical activity. To say that it is the problem of the continued absence of novel organizational forms necessitated by the historical and material conditions of 1968 is poorly posed is not to dismiss the relevance of forms that our struggles can and may assume. Rather, it is to acknowledge the manner by which this formulation of the problem proper to the reality of communist struggle presupposes the primacy of the form of organization over the content of self-organizing activity. 

Interestingly enough, Badiou briefly recognizes this aporia as one of the defining experiences of the French Left in the midst of ’68 itself: “the secret truth, that was gradually revealed, is that this common language, symbolized by the red flag, was dying out. There was a basic ambiguity about May ’68: a language that was spoken by all was beginning to die out.”

Insofar as Badiou is right to claim that May ’68 marked a qualitative break with the PCF and CGT as twin personifications of communism (“May ’68…posed a huge challenge to the legitimacy of the historical organizations of the Left, of unions, of parties, and of famous leaders”), our problem is not simply a question of undoing their conflation of the proletariat with the figure of the industrial worker. Rather, it is a question that inquires into the existence and meaning of a communism shorn of the theoretical and practical dogmas of the “historical organizations of the Left,” raised to the level of orthodoxy. And yet, if our problem is one of discovering a new figure of revolutionary subjectivity, what remains unclear is the manner by which this definition of politics can be said to belong to the continuum of Events constitutive of what Badiou, quite seriously calls, the ‘Idea of Communism.’

It is for this reason that we maintain that, after ’68, we are confronted by the fact that the answer to the question “what is the meaning of communism?” or “what is communism?” can no longer take a self-evidentiary form. Moreover, the very absence of a self-evidentiary reply signals to us that, today, communism presents itself in the form of a problem; a problem that is itself the ground for reinventing, redefining, or renewing the search for the political process that remains incommensurable and mutually excludes the logic of both capital and “really existing socialism.” To affirm Blanchot’s dictum that, after ’68, “all the problems of revolutionary struggle…have taken a different form,” is to acknowledge the fact that communism, too, has taken a different form. No longer the solution to the riddle of history that knows itself to be such, and after ’68, communism is the very riddle posed to history.

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Clover, Joshua. Riot. Strike. Riot. London, UK: Verso, 2016. 
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‘Theory and Practice are but the attributes of an Anti-social Substance’: notes on Deleuze’s periodization of the theory-practice relation

Palestinian fighter looking at artwork by Claude Lazar at 15 May Exhibition, Day of the Palestinian Struggle, Beirut, 1978.

NOTE: What follows are a set of incomplete notes drafted in the lead up to the Quiver Reading Group organized around the theme of ‘new weapons for thought’, and whose first meeting will read Deleuze and Foucault’s ‘Intellectuals & Power’ alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s reflections on weapons, tools, and the nomadic war machine in the 12th chapter of A Thousand Plateaus

We’re in the process of experiencing a new relationship between theory and practice. At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms. In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalization. For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationship between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary. On one side, theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another space, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of a theory is never one of resemblance. Moreover, from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles…which require its relay by another type of discourse…Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another.” [Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power’]

It is with this taxonomy of the relationship between theory and practice, that Deleuze begins his rather infamous 1977 conversation with Foucault. However, neither Foucault nor Deleuze would return to these remarks in their interview, leaving readers with the impression that such a cursory and incomplete periodization was sufficient for establishing the constraints of the conversation itself. And it is this impression of the merely cursory or inconsequential status of these comments that interest us here. This interest, however, is not to be confused with some search for a specifically “Deleuzian” or “Foucauldian” theory of the theory-practice relation, but rather seeks to test the following thesis: Deleuze’s suggestion harbors within itself some (if not all) of the necessary elements for a fully developed periodization of theory’s relation to practice; the requisite elements of a framework that would be capable of grasping the various transformations the theory-practice relation has undergone and in terms of the historical conditions and milieus that correspond to each of its respective determinations (i.e. an immanent account of this particular relation, as opposed to its transcendent reification). It is this thesis that we seek to test.

1. Deleuze’s Tripartite Periodization of the Theory-Practice Relation

Given the above epigraph, we can say that, for Deleuze, the singular and unique determinations that characterize the relationship between theory and practice are (1) relations of consequence, (2) relations of formalizable content, and (3) relations of non-totalizing activity, which are defined in the following manner:

  • (1) Relations of Consequence: within relations of consequence, practice functions as the application of theory, that is simultaneously guided/regulated by theory itself; practice is realized as the consequence of the work of theory (e.g. Kant’s notion of the public use of Reason, or the figure of the revolutionary vanguard, or even the Party, as understood in specific instances, as the intellectual (i.e. non-manual) organ of the proletariat).
  • (2) Relations of Formalizable Content: relations of formalizable content are those in which practice serves as the particular/material/empirical phenomena upon which thought operates; where practice is defined as the necessary material for theoretization in general, regardless of its critical or conservative tendencies. Thus, we can say that under such relations practice is made into the object of the theorizing subject. Practice, here, is said to “inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms” (e.g. liberal sociology, certain Maoist uses of the method of workers-inquiry that required the theorizing subject to get as close as possible to the practical object, which would be, in these cases, the workers themselves, etc.).
  • (3) Relations of Non-Totalizing Activity: relations of non-totalizing activity mutually determines theory and practice as two modes of activity, whose distinction is not formal but real, and where each modes relationship to the other takes the form of, as Deleuze characterizes it, a “network” or “relay” whose processes of actualization, counter-actualization, and singularization result in non-totalizable effects, products, interventions, objects, images, concepts, etc.

But what becomes of theory and practice alike, insofar as they are determined according to relations of consequence? What does it mean to say that practice is the consequence of theory? What is implied when practice becomes the precondition for  theory’s rebirth without sharing in the possibility of reinventing itself as well? And can we say that Deleuze’s claim (that post-68, theory is now defined by relations of (non-totalizing) activity) applies to theory today, after the crisis of 2008 and the global pandemics and rebellions of 2018-2020?

2. Theory, Practice, Activity

In his 1784 essay, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, which was written as a response to the Berlinische Monatsschrift‘s commercial solicitation of responses from the broader intellectual and public readership, Kant developed a notion of what he called the ‘Public Use of Reason’, which would delimit the bounds of one’s justifiable and legitimate exercise of practical reason insofar as it addresses the general public and specific social problems. And while Kant’s is a theory of the legitimate and therefore morally just exercise of one’s critical faculties, it remains an account of critical and practical reasoning that is bound to a very specific example whose figure is none other than the bourgeois intellectual of the Enlightenment who, in times of social and political upheaval, assumes this role insofar as it is simultaneously their own most moral duty. Ever familiar, not only with Kant’s seminal essay but with the logical and transcendental structure that defined Kant’s approach to the question of ‘What is Man?’, Foucault aptly describes the existence of the bourgeois intellectual in the following terms:

the political involvement of the intellectual was traditionally the product of two different aspects of his activity: his position as an intellectual in bourgeois society…and his proper discourse to the extent that it revealed a particular truth…These two forms of politicization did not exclude each other, but, being of a different order, neither did they coincide…During moments of violent reaction on the part of the authorities, these two positions were readily fused: after 1848, after the Commune, after 1940…The intellectual spoke truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness, and eloquence. (Intellectuals and Power, 207)

Alternatively, we find a similar relation of application at work in a figure from an altogether different historical period: that of the revolutionary intellectual whose function, whether as part of the vanguard or as cadre member, is to give liberatory form to what is still history’s shapeless and self-contradictory content. It is perhaps in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? where we find the clearest and most succinct Bolshevik articulation of relations of application: “freedom of debate, unity of action.” The freedom of debate pertained to all, but all were obliged to abide by the decisions reached via the mechanisms of democratic centralism, where the party served as guarantor of both correct ideas and their revolutionary application, that is to say, practice. And yet…

Whether it is with respect to the bourgeois intellectual of eighteenth century Europe, or certain variants of Marxist theory, or the various currents belonging to the history of the workers movement; from public intellectual to the Party-as-intellectual-organ of the proletariat, practice is conceived as having been given its ‘correct’ application, via the theoretical formalization of the idea or maxim and its subsequent prosecution as a mode of living and acting in the world. What is more, with respect to relations of formalizable content, which defines praxis as the privileged, epistemic, site wherein theory may undertake its work, it is perhaps no surprise for a Maoist to find Deleuze’s position perplexing insofar as various Maoist and left-communist groups remained, prior to the events of 68, committed to a notion of revolutionary activity which consisted of bourgeois intellectuals and students “going to the workers” in order to let the proletariat speak for itself, whether this be achieved via the establishment of journals that would publish the voices of workers alongside those of intellectuals and students, thereby ostensibly overcoming the division of manual from intellectual labour insofar as this division divides the working-class from itself (e.g. Socialisme ou Barbarisme, La Voie Communiste, L’Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste (UCF-ML)).

Contra relations of consequence or relations of formalizable content, Deleuze and Foucault’s assertion is that the current relationship between theory and practice is necessarily defined as a relation of action. Deleuze:

For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationships between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary…a theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of theory is action—theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks. (Intellectuals and Power, 206-207)

And so, according to the periodization outlined here, the theory-praxis relation, says Deleuze, no longer operates according to a separation of intellectual from manual labour, of the mind from the body. Rather, theory and practice are themselves modes of ‘activity’ and whose relationship to each other takes the form of a network or relay. Thus, and unlike the period of the Enlightenment, the historically significant political sequence that corresponds to the rise and fall of the workers movement and various Statist approaches to communism (Lenin being its most notable figurehead), or the rehabilitation of the method of workers-inquiry via various political/local groups (e.g. Socialisme ou Barbarisme, Operaismo and Quaderna Rosi), in the wake of what is so often simply referred to as ‘the events of May,’ the theory-practice relation takes on the nature of a relation of action, insofar as the traditional place occupied by the figure of the intellectual was made redundant. As Foucault puts it, 

In the most recent upheavals [May 68], the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves […] The intellectuals role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse.” (Intellectuals and Power, 207-208)

Unlike previous determinations, the relation of action that defines the theory-practice relation in the wake of the events of 68, determines thinking and acting (intellectual labour and manual labour?) as two distinct modalities of action/activity, where what is implied is the assertion that neither theory nor practice can function, and be understood to function, as the completion or resolution of its complementary opposite. And it is precisely for this reason that Deleuze will say at the outset of the interview, “theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it”(205). And it is for this reason that Deleuze can go on to assert that “A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself. It is in the nature of power to totalize and…theory is by nature opposed to power” (208). Thus, says Deleuze, theory must now be understood for what it is: not simply as a set of non-totalizing cognitive acts, but as anti-totalizing cognitive activity (e.g. counter-actualization and diagrammatization). 

3. To Think is to Struggle against Morality (the alibi of Power)

Absent the conditions, which render either thought or action capable of utilizing the other for its own ends (e.g. the public exercise of Reason as Practical Reason’s utilization of Pure Reason for its own, specific, ends); absent the historical and logical conditions that define thought as the logical completion of practice and vice versa (e.g. Lukácsian inspired theories of class consciousness that neglect the fact that struggling for one’s class interests does not necessarily exclude this struggle assuming the form of a defense and preservation of the working-class, and hence of class society in general); and after the experience of the intellectual during 68, who bore witness to the realization of a non-alienated form of life where thought and act, theory and practice, were no longer separated and whose reintegration required, neither external organization or institution, and simply the social groups own self-activity; thought finds itself without the necessary conditions that attribute to its existence the characteristics of finality, necessity, and completeness (telos).

Theory and practice find themselves without the possibility of any final consummation, whether in and through themselves or via their other. For Deleuze, it is the absent ground that frees theory and practice from the dogmatic assumption that treats finality and completion as something essential to thinking and acting themselves. This is the a-moral/anti-moral dimension of Deleuze’s notion of theoretical activity. And so it comes as no surprise to read, in the latter parts of the interview, Foucault take up the fact of the absent ground confronted by Thought, insofar as it invariably places theory on the side of those who struggle, either against power or attempt to wrest their power (i.e. capacities) back from the organizing act that conditions their self-activity. Moreover, Foucault’s fascination with prisons stems precisely from the fact that it is there where power, not only unmasks itself, but reveals its innate link to the framework of morality. As Foucault puts it, prison constitutes a region/locality where power “…reveals itself as the tyranny pursued into the tiniest details; it is cynical and at the same time pure and entirely “justified”, because its practice can be totally formulated within the framework of morality. Its brutal tyranny consequently appears as the serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder” (210, emphasis mine).

And yet, theory finds a task set for itself. Namely, to deprive power of its capacity to ‘act upon the actions of others’ and organize social relations and refers to these collective acts of depriving power of its capacity for subjectification, and in a manner that aids all other struggles that seek to wrest back their capacity for self-activity from the dispositifs that correspond to a specific regime of social relations. It is amidst this discourse on theory’s struggle as the deprivation of power’s functions that Deleuze–in response to Foucault’s remark that the activity of theory “is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at…undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious […] it is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power…A ‘theory’ is the regional system of this struggle” (208, emphasis mine)–offers the oft-cited remark: “A theory is exactly like a box of tools…It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself” (208). A tool box though it may be, it is not as simple as thinkers such as Brian Massumi make it out to be: while concepts can be the many sided weapon akin to the riot brick, the act of selecting elements from the toolbox of theory is an act compelled by necessity. If theory is akin to a toolbox, its acts of selection is not founded upon the transient and accidental whims of the thinker. Rather, one must select elements that would render thought functional and useful precisely because what makes theory into a virtue is external to theory itself. Just as theoretical virtues are no longer located within itself as the self-sufficiency inherent to theoretical activity, theory persists in its foreclosure from every possibility of the consummation of a purpose or task for which it was assumed to be originarily predisposed (i.e. totalization). No longer with any particular necessary function or purpose to be internally deduced, and absent the conditions required for justifying theoretical action as self-grounding ground, there is no longer anything that can be said to be innately proper to theory that would simultaneously ensure its reasonable usage in accordance with either good sense or common sense. In place of the totalizing function of theory’s relation to practice (relations of consequence, relations of formalizable content), says Deleuze, post-68 theory operates as an instrument of multiplication and exists insofar as it is itself implicated in the process: “A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument of multiplication and it also multiplies itself” (208).

4. Multiplication function; Counter-discursive operation

November 1972, Ghandour strike of biscuit and chocolate factory workers, the largest nonunionized labor force in Lebanon at the time. Police would open fire at workers, killing two and wounding fourteen. Ghandour eventually fired all his workers after a month of demonstrations.

That said, just as the contemporary status of theory is defined by its multiplication function, practice is now understood in terms of its counter-discursive operations. As Foucault puts it in his commentary on the self-activity of prisoners:

[W]hen the prisoner began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents–and not a theory about delinquency. (209, emphasis mine) 

Multiplication and counter-discursivity, however, relate to one another insofar as each are qualitatively differentiated modes of activity in general, and struggle in particular. Their difference being less a question of the intrinsic capacities of individual persons or subjects, and more of the set of acts/capacities proper to specific subject-positions in a given organization of social existence. Moreover, theory, here, does not refer to a predicate of individual subjects but to an attribute of the intellectual-as-social-position. As Deleuze puts it: “A theorising intellectual, for us, is no longer a subject, a representing or representative consciousness. Those who act and struggle are no longer represented…It is always a multiplicity…All of us are ‘groupuscules.’ Representation no longer exists; there’s only action–theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks” (206-07, emphasis mine).

If it is the intellectual who now undertakes the activity of theory while the agency of the prisoner (or even the proletariat, as Foucault outlines in the interviews final remarks) is defined in terms of its counter-discursive acts, this is not to repeat the banal separation between intellectual and manual activity within political struggles. Rather, both theory and practice, with their respective figures of the intellectual and the prisoner/worker, are capacities proper to the determinate relation that defines an individuals relation to the dispositifs of power. To define any action as multiplying or counter-discursive is to determine to what extent one’s mode of existence is deemed to be tolerable or intolerable from the vantage point of power itself. Thus what emerges from Deleuze and Foucault’s conversation regarding the function of the public intellectual and the status of prisoners, the proletariat, and the subjects of power, is that the relationship between theory and practice is a relationship between dispositifs and the subjects/functionaries that individuals have been made to become. The relationship between theory and practice is no longer a relation between the faculties of the individual or between the dual functions of the subject of history. Rather than merely the twin attributes of a single social substance—personified as any number of forms assumed throughout the process of valorization or via the universal prostitution of humanity that the individual worker incarnates— the recomposition of the theory-practice relation is, now, determined as the two-fold activity of a decidedly anti-social substance: anti-social insofar as value is the social substance of capital to which abstract labour remains but an appendage; substance insofar as it remains a wager on rendering the potential of communism a concrete lived social reality. For this ‘anti-social’ substance is nothing but the wager on the construction of a form of life that successfully reproduces its existence independent of the state and the market as the sole means of subsistence and the singular point of access to a more or less dissociative-sociability, a more or less strange sameness.

In the midst of its tortured process of realization—tortured by a seemingly indefinite prolongation—this ‘anti-social substance’ agitates in fits and starts, sometimes amassing maximalist aspirations from comrade-viewers on the other side of the globe, while at other times remaining relatively unknown as is the wont of accomplices with a predilection for the clandestine. In any event, the social products of its collective thought and action (i.e. Theory, Praxis) no longer delight in the luxury still attributed to past conjunctures, when there was still good (or at least plausible) reason to assume the existence of an a priori relation between theory and practice, which, once identified, would allow for the self-determination of its revolutionary or reactionary character given the theoretical framework espoused, the mass line dutifully propagated, or the particular organizational form assumed in the particular sequence of its unfolding.

The summary presented here may undoubtedly be developed in a number of directions. Of interest for us, however, is the direction exemplified by Fadi Bardawil whose methodology of ‘doing fieldwork in theory,’ or undertaking an ‘ethnography of the theory-practice relation,’ elaborates all that is essential in Deleuze’s periodization. Developing a properly minoritarian concept of ‘critique’ via his reading of Said’s Orientalism Bardawil writes: “I aim not simply to make a historical point…Rather, I want to make the conceptual point that one cannot determine in advance the uses to which a critical work can be put…Once one starts from the premise that there is no way to fix a priori the pragmatic effects of a critical work as it travels in time and space, and between different constituencies, the injunction to forgo critique because it is being hijacked loses its purchase. This premise is also a reflexive reminder that critique…must not forget its own worldliness. Just as it seeks to apprehend the world, the world too catches it in its webs. The more interesting question as a result is not critique’s appropriation by political forces on the opposite end of the spectrum…It is also not the question of whether critique is exhausted or not. In many parts of the world where intellectuals, artists, and activists are forced to flee, put in jails, and assassinated, critique, which is not practiced from within the secure walls of the academy, does not come with the guarantees of liberal democracies. It is a modality of parrhesiatic practice that flanks the critic’s life with danger. Abandoning it is what those in power dream of. Rather, it is a question of how critical theories can lose their insurrectional spark, become routinized, and start operating like mythological frames that bestow a fixed meaning on the world, excluding in the process emergent practices from the domain of emancipatory politics […] The political defeats of the revolutions appear to confirm the truth of the theoretical judgement. There is, of course, a distinguished genealogy of the collapse of conceptual truth unto political victory on the left. “Little has eviscerated Marxism,” Russel Jacoby wrote a while ago, in one of his signature distilled sentences, “more than its acceptance of the judgement of history as truth itself.” “Victory,” he reminds us, “is not proof of truth.” My wager…is simple” instead of adjudicating political practice…critical theory ought today to be rethought in light of practice. The moral and political failures, primarily of anti-imperialist transcendentalism, in the wake of the Syrian revolution demands, first, a rethinking of the vicissitudes of leftist political criticism and theories. As a second step…to articular a practice a critique for out times attuned to the irruption of events and historical emergences. This is a practice in a minor key, which steers away from an Olympian theoretical will to totality and a dogmatic attachment to ideological first principles. It is also one that remains alert to the risks of detachment from the world critical theory is prone to through the logics of professionalization or its metamorphosis into a mythology” (Critical Theory in a Minor Key).

Let us heed Bardawil’s dictum, developed by way of his reading of Said’s canonical work, that “theoretical practice [must] steer away from an understanding of critical theory as an end in itself, say, the attempt to have the last word on the state of the world, but as an energetic performance and a strategic intervention in a problem-space” (ibid).

From Theological to Historical Apocatastasis: Notes on Benjamin’s ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’

Strength of hatred in Marx.
Fighting spirit of the working class.
Interlay revolutionary destruction and the idea of redemption.
— Walter Benjamin, ‘Notes on the Concept of History,’ (1939)

1. To have repudiated with the utmost vehemence the political significance of Millenarianism is the cardinal merit of Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment

One of the cardinal epistemic virtues of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theological-Political Fragment’ (1921) is its assertion, and defense of, the incommensurable division between Messianic and Historical Time. With respect to the former, what is at issue is a form of time that redeems humanity from its fall from grace (and thereby anticipates a future whereby humanity is reconnected to its prelapsarian form of living). Hence, Benjamin writes, “Only the Messiah…consummates all history…For this reason nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic.” That is to say, historical phenomena maintains a certain non-relation to the Messianic precisely because, according to this theological form of time, it is of the nature of History to be without the means of rectifying its own past. According to Messianic time, history (and humanity) can only be redeemed by something outside itself (i.e. the Messiah); that is, the time of History refers to the object upon which the Messiah acts, creates, and completes. And yet, despite their incommensurability, writes Benjamin, the nature of the exclusive disjunct between the Messianic (Theological) and the Historical (Profane): “…is the precondition of a mystical conception of history, containing a problem that can be represented figuratively. If one arrow points to the goal toward which the profane [historical] dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of Messianic intensity, then certainly the quest to free humanity for happiness runs counter to the Messianic direction; but just as a force can…increase another that is acting in the opposite direction, so the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the Messianic Kingdom.” In other words, just as the order of the Profane (History) exists independently of Messianic time insofar as it is deprived of any internal resource in order to redeem itself, the order of the Profane is conditioned by Messianic time for its existence (precisely because of this impotence).

2. Happiness is the GROUND of History while Catastrophe (or Emergency) is its NORM.

“The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness […] The profane, therefore, although not itself a category of this Kingdom, is a decisive category of its quietest approach. For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in good fortune is its downfall destined to find it. Whereas, admittedly, the immediate Messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through misfortune, as suffering. To the spiritual restitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.”

It is worth nothing at this juncture the manner in which Benjamin speaks of happiness, understood as humanity’s collective striving for emancipation, as the ground and foundation of History (i.e. order of the Profane). This notion of happiness as the ground of History; as that which conditions and determines History; will eventually disappear from Benjamin’s analysis of the nature and structure of this order of the Profane in his 1940 text, ‘On the Concept of History.’ In its place, one finds a discussion, not of grounds but of norms; a discussion the content of which are nothing other than the history of catastrophe and crisis. Moreover, the various states of emergency found throughout history are no longer exceptions to its rules, but are the very norm of History itself. As Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” That said, while Benjamin’s 1937 fragment identifies the ground of History –happiness as the ground upon which the order of the Profane ought to be erected–it is only in ‘On The Concept of History’ that Benjamin discovers the norm of History in the form of catastrophe, or one prolonged state of emergency.

Given this continuity that binds Benjamin’s earlier Fragment to his final text, what is the relationship between happiness and states of emergency; between the ground of History and its norm? In acknowledging the primacy of happiness as ground, does Benjamin establish a relationship wherein happiness (ground) serves as the originary determination while states of emergency (norm) give form to the desire for emancipation? Or do the norms of History regulate the consequences of “the worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall”, which renders eternally transient totality as such? And to what extent does Benjamin privilege, both logically and historico-politically, the ground of History over its norm

3. The Profane order cannot relate itself to anything Messianic; the Kingdom of God cannot be set as a goal of the political sphere, only as an end.

As Agamben notes in his 2019 lecture on the Theologico-Political Fragment, Benjamin’s notion of happiness, which serves as the ground of the order of the Profane, is tantamount to the “eternal and total passing away” of the worldly condition of “misfortune” and “suffering.” Hence, Benjamin’s claim that alongside the vantage point of divine judgement, which views worldly existence as the realm of immorality, corresponds a “worldly restitution,” which the order of the Profane views as a form of redemption whose content is the total abolition of the present state of affairs; for it is this thirst for abolition and the “eternity of downfall,” that Benjamin’s notion of “happiness” corresponds. However, to define happiness as a worldly restitution whose form is the abolition (eternal and total passing away) of suffering and immorality clarifies very little the reasons for why Benjamin views happiness as the legitimate foundations for the order of the Profane. Why is happiness-as-abolition the ground and not the goal or aim of History? 

For Agamben, the answer to this question is to be found in Benjamin’s reworking of the theological category of apocatastasis and the restitutio in integrum; in his reformulation of the theological ideas regarding the restoration of all that exists [Being] to its “original condition/state,” via the final judgement of God (“the judgement of God marks the end [termination] of history”). Against a theological apocatastasis where the end of time is realized via the final judgement of God — wherein this divine restitution of all beings (including Satan and all the fallen angels) in the present to their originary condition — Benjamin asserts that it is actually the past that “must be recovered in the present as a sort of historical apocatastasis.”  Thus, while the order of the Profane and the Kingdom of God are both characterized by their shared attribute of abolition, History and Messianism persist in their non-relation to one another since to each order corresponds qualitatively different temporal structures to the process of abolition as such: theological apocatastasis redeems existence by returning Being to an originary condition in the past while historical apocatastasis redeems the past by abolishing the present state of affairs. This is how we must understand Benjamin when he writes, in ‘On the Concept of History,’  

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger…[T]he danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

To redeem the past is not to restore that which is no longer to its original state; it does not mean the reconstitution and recomposition of how things actually were (‘To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was”). Rather, for the historical materialist, it is the Messiah as figure of historical apocatastasis who “arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ,” in light of the understanding that what threatened previous and the current generation is the persisting victory of the ruling classes. 

It is for these reasons, then, that happiness cannot serve as the goal or telos of History since “the great error and failure of all modern ideologies consists precisely in flattening the Messianic order onto the Historical one.” In other words, and as Agamben is quick to remind, we must conceive of political ideals such classless society or revolution, not as a goal that is to be realized in some distant future, but as an end to the political and economic organization that conditions everyday life in the present [Jetztzeit], just as God’s Final Judgement terminates and completes history, thus marking its end, its completion. Implied in this distinction between goal and end is the claim that ideals such as revolution or classless society “cannot be posited as goals without losing their force and nature”. And if revolution cannot be posited as a goal, it is not because it is no longer desirable, nor is it because Benjamin believes that messianic categories must remain ineffective within the order of the Profane. Rather, it is because the process of realization/actualization [Verwirklichung] demonstrates that what is achieved through historical restitution or a revolution is neither History nor revolution but a state of affairs that excludes either term.

For Agamben, it is due to the peculiarities of the logic of abolition that neither happiness, nor revolution, nor a classless society, can serve as a legitimate goal/aim of collective action since each term would exhaust itself in the process of its realization; a process whose product or outcome would be a qualitatively different state of affairs. Thus, it should come as no surprise that we find an alternative formulation of historical apocatastasis as a restitution in the present and of the past in his 1940 text, ‘On the Concept of History’:

[T]he class struggle…is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual thing could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. 

To treat the task of abolition in all its seriousness is the challenge posed to both theory and praxis, since it obliges us to acknowledge that the means of abolishing the present state of things; the means for achieving what Marx called human emancipation; is a means for putting an end to the norm (state of emergency) that has regulated and governed History as such. And it is precisely because the means of abolition terminate emergency as History’s normative regime of power that abolition cannot also serve as a goal or aim. What is realized/actualized through abolition is not abolition itself but, as Benjamin points out, the spoils of class struggle: courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. In other words, the product of the process of abolition is a mode, a tenor, by which class struggle is waged in the present, and a mode of struggle that is bound to be rediscovered once again by the struggles to come. Happiness, then, as the self-abolition of the present state of worldly affairs, and historical apocatastasis as the restitutio in integrum proper to the order of the Profane, form the ground and consequence of the Profane order of History. 

4. Realization. Actualization. Verwirklichung

We will leave the discussion on the logic of realization/abolition for a later post, which concerns two groups of passages. First are those comprising descriptions and articulations of abolition and its figure:

(i) “Just as he who is called is crucified with the Messiah and dies to the old world (Romans 6:6) in order to be resuscitated to a new life (Romans 8:11), so too is the proletariat only able to liberate itself through autosuppression. The “complete loss” of man coincides with his complete redemption. (From this perspective, the fact that the proletariat ends up being identified over time with a determinate social class–the working class that claims prerogatives and rights for itself–is the worst misunderstanding of Marxian thought. What for Marx served as a strategic identification–the working class as klesis and as historical figure contingent on the proletariat–becomes, to the opposite end, a true and proper substantial social identity that necessarily ends in losing its revolutionary vocation).” [Agamben, The Time That Remains, 31]; (ii) “In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title… a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.” [Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’]; (iii) “Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy” [‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’].

Second, are those comprising the generic and general character of abolition: (i)The messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation” [The Time That Remains, 23]; (ii) “The messianic concept of the remnant undoubtedly permits more than one analogy to be made with the Marxian proletariat…which underwent “no particular wrong but wrong absolutely [das Unrecht schlechtin]” [Ibid, 57]. For it is among these passages where we will discover what is specific to Benjamin’s and Agamben’s, respective, understanding of the Profane logic of abolition.

A Model of Behavior Like A Cop or A Female Saint: On Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Nada

Before the Red Army Faction in Germany (1970–1998), the Red Brigades in Italy (1970–1988), and Action Directe in France (1979–1987), there was Nada. This latter group was a significantly smaller formation relative to the three other militant, extra-parliamentary, post-68 contemporaries; more importantly, it was work of fiction that has, at its center, neither an historical actor nor a marginal organization of the post-war European ultra-Left, but rather, six disaffected militants who comprise the titular group and owe their existence to the french crime novelist, Jean-Patrick Manchette. Manchette, similarly disaffected, if for radically different reasons, produced an important corpus of literature over four decades that demonstrates an engaging attempt by an ultra-left thinker to respond to the ossification of Europe’s institutionalized left, and its capitulation to authoritarianism. However, reminding us of someone like Nanni Balestrini, for one example, he did this with fiction. Not theory as culture, but rather an appeal for a change in social relations as an anti-fascist cultural practice in itself.  

“When Manchette began to write his novels in the mid-1970s, the French polar had become a still pool of police procedurals and tales of Pigalle lowlife. Manchette wanted to throw in rocks, disturb the calm surface, bring up all the muck beneath—to demonstrate that the crime novel could be (as he said again and again) ‘the great moral literature of our time.” [1] For these reasons, Manchette was far less interested in the novel form in-itself—though he was an avid admirer of late 19th century French literature, Proust especially, and sought to reconcile literary mastery with pulp forms—but rather with its potential for constituting a genuinly “anti-fascist” platform: at one time a staple of the genre, only to have become atrophied in the years following the golden age of Chandler and Hammett. Avoiding any obvious and uninteresting interpretation regarding the roman noir as the “great moral literature of our time”— a statement that is cited as often as it is taken out of context—Manchette sought to bridge the politics of the “neo-detective” as others have called it, with the literary form itself. A more direct statement of Manchette that gets to the point: “The polar for me, was—and still is—the novel of violent social intervention.” [2] Having been involved in the French Left in the postwar years, veering slowly towards the “ultra-gauche” after stints at La Voie Communiste, Manchette would arrive at a decidedly anarchist-inspired situationism, a singularly self-styled composite political position which  inevitably came to infuse his fiction and, ultimately, his non-fiction essays on the genre. 

Beginning in the late 60s, Manchette would embark on an eleven-book cycle, which would have little in common except anti-statist and anti-institutional outlooks, their fascination and erudite usage of noir tropes either genuinely or sardonically, and characters developed quickly and with minimal interiority. In most novels, the anti-heros and the killers who chase after them are developed not through dialogue or interior monologue but rapid-fire descriptions: what kind of gun, what kind of jazz, what kind of breakfast pastry. These characters exist in a dog-eat-dog world, one wherein all fight each other relentlessly. As Sallis writes “For Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs—be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians—compete relentlessly.” [3] This is not to say that Manchette leveled the same level of scorn for police as for corrupted militants. Imbuing all the works, Manchette paints struggle to be the characteristic of the post-war era, when even a worker’s revolt had been forsaken by the Communists who once fought the Nazis in the Latin Quarter. 

Nada’s success lies in its having synthesized the reception of the American crime novel in France with the prevailing critiques regarding the ossification of the European Left after the “events of May.” And as with every reception, the adoption of the genre inevitably implied its modification. As Kristin Ross aptly writes, regarding the differences between the American and French crime novel:

Of all the various kinds of literary characters, the detective is one of the easiest to think of as little more than narrative scaffolding, a string or device whose wanderings link the various anecdotes, local histories, and glimpses of local color into a narrative whole. After all, what other fictional character’s underdeveloped personality or lack of ‘roundness’ is so regularly compensated for by an all-consuming fetish—the love of orchids, for example, or the love of opera? […] Philip Marlowe, it is important to remember, is a literary hero without a background, and without any cultural or political substratum. The same cannot be said of Victor Blainville, ex-soixante-huitard, sometime journalist, sometime photographer, sometime investigator and Vilar’s recurrent protagonist. [4]

Like Victor Blainville before them, the individuals who comprise the Nada group are made up of nothing other than cultural and political substance, a motley crew of would-be or long-ago compromised revolutionaries: Buenaventura Diaz is an anarchist militant in his 50’s whose anti-fascist father died defending the Barcelona Commune; André Épaulard a former communist resistance fighter; Marcel Treuffais a young philosophy teacher, author of the group’s manifesto, and the only member to rescind participation from the group’s actions; Meyer, a waiter, and D’Arcy, an alcoholic, constitute a duo that has been forgotten by society; and Veronique Cash a militant in spirit with anti-civilization proclivities who provides the farm in which the group uses as their hideout. Their plan? To kidnap and ransom the U.S. ambassador to France. Given Treiffais is said to have constructed the intellectual basis of the group, it is telling that he is the only one to abandon the plan—yet more indicative of Manchette’s scorn for mediatization, he would ultimately be the one to telegraph their story to the press. As the translator for the book described to us, this may be Manchette saying: “this too, your position, can be recuperated.” 

Far from valiant, Manchette stages the act, with his characteristic quickness, as an adventurist ploy: something prefiguring small scale militant extremism void of insurrectionary fervor that was characteristic of the era after the left fragmented, and was left looking for a spark. Manchette seems so intimate that the spark cannot be produced, and especially not by a band so naive or corrupt as this. This fragmentation that made the Left all the more susceptible to cooptation by an ascendent neoliberalism; with hindsight this is clearly what happened in Italy and France after the years of Lead and with Mitterand, respectively. And yet, in light of all this, Manchette’s novel was already, if only intuitively, aware of this too. To this end, it carries a clear warning: without popular support, militancy will not awaken the lumpenproletariat, but rather will alienate not just the middle classes, but the worker as well. Absent this generalized rebelliousness on the part of a general population, even the most revolutionary of propaganda will be but one more sacrifice at the altar of the Spectacle. Manchette’s own words here, quoted by Luc Sante in his introduction to Nada, are succinct: “Politically, [the Nada group] are a public hazard, a true catastrophe for the revolutionary movement. The collapse of leftism into terrorism is the collapse of the revolution into spectacle.” [5] 

Of the wide influence that Manchette’s work had on a later generation of French crime novelists (Dominique Manotti and Didier Daeninckx most prominently), this last point may be the most prevalent. Though, Manotti’s Escape (2013) seems to reply that even with popular support the neoliberal carceral apparatus will track you down and employ every biopolitical act in their playbook to neutralize it—she is a historian of economics—and Daeninckx’s Murder in Memoriam (1984) adds that historical amnesia may be enough to subdue that popular action regarldess. Writing in Liberation on the importance and singularity of Manchette’s work, Daeninckx remarks that Manchette “could have drafted history theses,” but instead wrote polars “and [the latter are] a lot more useful.”

With regards to Nada, we see the beginnings of Manchette’s recovery of the genre, and its use for spreading the gospel of extra-parliamentary action through cheap paperback pulp. It is a story of anarchist illegalism and revolutionary violence, of a group of militants’ unwavering commitment to the abolition of capital at a moment when the Left found itself divided around questions of both strategy and tactics (most notably, for Manchette, was the French Communist Party’s [PCF] support of France’s ongoing colonization of Algeria during the anticolonial struggles that emerged after the Second World War), and whose inflection points reside at the level of history. This is the historical moment in which Nada unfolds. It is a moment defined not by an unrealized, though wholly tenable, transformation of society via the PCF, but by a Party that has been reduced to nothing more than “a desperate attempt on the part of a traditional body to keep itself going in the context of radically altered production relations.”[6] As once-colleague Guattari with whom Manchette briefly worked with during his stint at the Trotskyist newspaper La Voie Communiste, aptly put it: “Under these [historical] circumstances, the French Communist Party is peculiarly badly placed to combat the myths of the consumer society, for it has no sort of alternative to offer. By comparison, the leftist groupuscules undoubtedly represent an attempt to keep alive the basic themes of an independent, working-class revolutionary policy.” [7] And as if to anticipate, not only the novel’s conclusion but Manchette’s own assessment of the groupuscule [8] as a political form of organization, Guattari concludes: “Unfortunately, all we see of them is their failure.” [9] 

And yet, Nada’s is a storied history as well. For in the course of the novel’s unfolding, one cannot help but recall previous moments of France’s history, when various extra-parliamentary groups were formed with the intention of sustaining, or reviving, the revolutionary fervor that was felt during their respective cycles of struggle. Thus, it is no coincidence that the way in which Manchette narrates the Nada group’s kidnapping of the US diplomat bears striking similarities to the actions of the Bonnot Gang—one of the most well known French anarchist groups and were active between 1911–1912. Manchette even goes so far as to dub the group’s hideout “the tragic farmhouse,” which was the “epithet used by the newspapers in 1912 to refer to the death scene of Jules Bonnot.” [10] And before the Bonnot Gang there was, of course, Blanqui.

While it may strike some as odd to view a group such as the Bonnot Gang and an individual such as Blanqui as having a shared orientation toward capital and the state, both advocated for an extra-legal form of organization; whether in the attempt at building a clandestine vanguard (Blanqui) or through various interventions in everyday life that directly seize the means for reproducing the organization and its goals (Bonnot). Moreover, and of equal importance regarding Manchette’s relation to the history of radical politics in France, both the Bonnot Gang and Blanqui share a similar fate in terms of their reception within the dominant currents of Leftist politics: a reception that presents both as exemplary figures of what becomes of an allegedly unprincipled and excessively voluntarist form of organizing revolutionary struggle.

Once more, this type of historical reception is carried forward by Manchette and is brought to bear on the members of the Nada group. However, rather than any moral posturing and subsequent denunciation, when reflecting on figures and organizations of the past—Lenin’s celebratory dance in the snow to celebrate the Bolsheviks having been in power for one day longer than the Communards of Paris, for example—Manchette makes use of the novel-form in order to delineate the fate that is most likely to befall those who give primacy to direct actions against the State and an escalation of tactics, absent a situation defined by an wide enthusiasm for struggle and, by consequence, an expanded notion of what people view as acceptable and unacceptable with respect to certain strategies and tactics. For it is precisely in light of these debates, that we find the young, defacto “theorist” of the group, Treuffais, accusing his older and more seasoned comrade, Buenaventura, of engaging in Leftist terrorism: “You’re falling under the spell of terrorism, and that’s really stupid. Terrorism is only justified when revolutionaries have no other means of expressing themselves and when the masses support them.” [11] By adapting the hard-boiled caper format “to the single most newsworthy leftist-terrorist scenario of the 1970s: the symbolic abduction,”[12] Manchette achieved a novel fusion of pre-existing literary form with, what was then, presently existing extra-literary content. In short, pulp across spheres of literary production. 


[ 1 ] 

Not one to keep his readers waiting, the kidnapping of the US ambassador to France takes place in the first third of the novel. After some minor planning, and minimal scoping out, and some punches exchanged among them, the Nada group descends upon a brothel frequented by the ambassador. The kidnapping, however, is not without loose ends. Not only does the Nada group end up exchanging fire with the Parisian police upon exiting the brothel but, much to his horror, D’Arcy ends up killing one of the officers. (“‘I killed him,’ D’Arcy repeated calmly. ‘I want to drink myself to oblivion’”[13]). As it turns out, the entire kidnapping was filmed from the apartment building directly across the street as part of a surveillance operation that sought to create dossiers on “important clients” who frequented the brothel. Further complicating matters is the fact that the group’s action was filmed by a member of the Renseignements Généraux or RG (which refers to the Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux or DCRG): the intelligence branch of the French Police that answered directly to the Minister of the Interior and, in 2008, would eventually be folded into the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), which now oversees and operates as a domestic surveillance agency.[14] And despite the RG’s shared role with the police as incarnations of the repressive arm of the State, the RG are unwilling to simply hand over the footage to the Paris police, since every exchange has its price. Again, Manchette is at his best when he shows that everyone is at war with everyone else—class collaborators pitted against each other. Thus, the State will enter into negotiations with itself. 

In exchange for the footage, the “Grabeliau faction” of the RG “demand the removal of the sanctions, the rehiring of fired officials, and…those expelled from the SAC [Service d’Action Civique].”[15] That is, in exchange for the video recording the Minister must re-employ and ultimately pardon the Service d’Action Civique (SAC)—that historical militia who unconditionally supported de Gaulle’s push for continuous occupation and colonization of North Africa and  that engaged in paramilitary tactics, such as kidnapping and torturing students and demonstrators during May ‘68 while establishing far-right youth organizations to counter left wing youth groups; and who, in 1981, carried out the massacre of a police inspector and his family under suspicion of corruption and for maintaining strong ties with the Left. With these scenes of intra-bureaucratic dissensus, Manchette demonstrates the extent to which the State is always-already primed for absolving itself of the violence it inevitably wishes to employ. What is more, it is via this process that the figure of the “left-wing terrorist” emerges and serves as the new grounds for the self-absolution of the State. But what is Statist self-absolution if nothing other than psychic disavowal raised to the level of the juridical? A disavowal, which announces that “it is because I am no longer responsible for past violence that I am justified, and therefore free, to engage in the violence of the present?” And just like that, “a thousand leftists [are] questioned in Paris.”[16]

Back with our protagonists, their next move is a “wait and see” style retreat to Veronique Cash’s farmhouse just outside of the city after distributing their manifesto to various media outlets throughout the Paris metro area. From the safety of the countryside, the group gets wind that the media has began reporting on the manifesto: Le Monde, France-Soir, Libération, to the newspapers of the French Communist Party, The Communist League, and the Parti Socialiste Unifié (Unified Socialist Party, PSU), as well as a communiqué from the New Red Army, all weigh in on the group’s kidnapping. With each new editorial, review, and communiqué, however, a consensus takes shape denouncing the group’s actions: the Communist Party “condemns what it calls provocation,” the Parti Socialiste Unifié accuses of the Nada group of putting the revolutionary front at risk, France-Soir’s editorial accuses the “terrorists of the Nada group” for “aping the Tupamaros [17]  in demanding the publication of their manifesto,” while Libération publishes the New Red Army’s communiqué dismissing the Nada group as “petty-bourgeois nihilists…who are objectively complicit with the power structure.”[18] Complicit though they may be, it is not the same complicity maintained by propaganda outlets of the reformist and bourgeois parties (Le Monde, France-Soir, Libération) and left-wing orientalists fetishistically wanting their own ‘Cultural Revolution’ (New Red Army). 

Meanwhile, from the privacy of his Paris apartment, our young philosophy teacher and author of Nada’s manifesto, reads the following analysis from Le Monde

The style is disgusting…and the childishness of certain statements of an archaic and unalloyed anarchist might raise a smile in other circumstances. In the present situation, however, they inspire disquiet, a deep anxiety in the face of the nihilism embraced, seemingly with delight, by this Nada group, which chose such an apt name for itself but which, in its texts as in its actions, express itself in an utterly unjustifiable way. [19]

Thus, Treuffais, without having aided in the kidnapping, still finds himself being held to account. From the vantage point of Le Monde and its editors, not only was the kidnapping a counterrevolutionary measure, the idea and its subsequent justification via the manifesto format, was already an embrace of the nihilism at the heart of the group’s “unalloyed anarchism.” Scenes such as these lead readers to feel that the group and their plans are the mere playthings of a fate they have yet to grasp; an intuition that is confirmed soon after the critiques of the groups activities went to print. Not only does the Minister of the Interior agree to pardon Grabeliau and his followers from the Service d’Action Civique (thereby allowing for the French police to track down the group to Cash’s farmhouse by means of the newly released video footage), the group, caught off guard, find themselves surrounded by police on all sides. The police, for their part, waste no time and lay siege to their farmhouse and all but one of the group (Buenaventura) makes it out alive, having found himself on a supply run. 

As for the Spanish anarchist, it would take the utter failure of the kidnapping, the murder of fellow comrades, and a protracted evasion of the law while attempting to make it back to Paris, for him to eventually realize the truth of Treuffais’ reservations; that the condemnation of terrorism “is not a condemnation of insurrection but a call to insurrection,” with the necessity of wide support. [20] Or as he puts it in a recording made to be broadcast over radio and TV alike:

‘I made a mistake…Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of […] the same mug’s game,’ he concluded, and went on right away: ‘The regime defends itself, naturally, against terrorism. But the system does not defend itself against it. It encourages it and publicizes it. The desperado is a commodity, an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint. The State’s dream is a horrific, triumphant finale to an absolutely general civil war to the death between cohorts of cops and mercenaries on the one hand and nihilist armed groups on the other. This vision is the trap laid for rebels, and I fell into it. And I won’t be the last. And that pisses me off in the worst way.’ [21]

It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the novel, that we find Manchette at his most Situationist. The trap laid for all would be rebels, we are told, resides in the illusion that national, or even international, media attention can be immediately and directly used for the purposes of social transformation in the absence of the popular support that is realized during periods of struggles. As Buenaventura points out, while political parties may defend against the variants of ultra-Left praxis, it remains the case that the market and its media outlets seemingly encourage and happily publicize it. And if so, it is precisely because the circulation of the image of the revolutionary is nothing more than another commodity readied for mass consumption. That is, the ‘left-wing terrorist’ is never simply “a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” [22]

Nada, however, does not end with this critique of the figure of the urban guerrilla but with Treuffais, dialing the number of an international press agency, saying, “Listen, man, and take careful notes…I am going to tell you the short but complete history of the Nada group.” [23] We do not know if he includes Buenaventura’s recordings in this “short but complete” history of the group. And in some sense, neither of these are of great importance. What is of import in this final scene is the manner in which it acts as a critical rejoinder to Buenaventura’s discovery of the commodity that lies at the heart of the desperado. The fact that the urban guerrilla’s commodification and circulation as that spectacular image, which would shape the relationship between the Nada group, the broader Left, and the masses (and would eventually come to shape the Left’s relationship to itself and the broader public in the decades following 1968) does not culminate in Treuffais’ resignation but in his reassertion of the revolutionary principles around which the group came together within the realm of the media. Nada ends by acknowledging that it’s finally become clear that the media is but one more site of contestation in the long game of revolution, and counter-revolution.

Manchette, however, is not interested in a programmatism of literature. If it was the case that in the classic mystery novel (which Manchette nominated as the “great moral literature” of the 1920s–1940s) “crime disturbs the order of the law, which it is crucial must be restored by the discovery of the guilty party and his elimination from the social field,” in the world of the roman noir, “the order of the law is not good; it is transitory and in contradiction with itself.” [24] Unlike works of moral literature that presuppose an essentially just world, the roman noir adheres to Benjamin’s dictum that every document of history is a document of barbarism. Thus, the roman noir can no longer be seen as the complimentary opposite of the mystery novel, such that the preservation of justice can be had by correcting unjust laws. The law that grounds the roman noir is identical to the law(s) that determines the world as a concatenation of freely competing interests between various social groups, without recourse to social or historical restitution: for every social group, an Angel of History.

[ 2 ] 

Manchette would retain a life-long commitment to what one could call a “methodological indistinction between the literary and the political,” a penchant for viewing literary crimes as political crimes, and vice versa. And so much so that as late as his 1994 essay, “The Roman Noir and Class Struggle,” we read Manchette continuing to criticize the laws of that govern capitalist reality (which are viewed as the same laws that govern the roman noir):

Against such repression anarchists sometimes toss bombs, and the agents provocateurs toss others, which only worsens the situation and worses the pursuit of “criminal syndicalism.” Other militants, doubtless the best of them, attempt to unify the laboring class in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, very much of a minority, but active throughout the country, has as its slogan One Big Union, and unites workers without distinction as to craft (or ethnicity), leads several large-scale victorious strikes before and during World War I, and suffers many defeats as well. Its program is anarcho-syndicalist and the organization thus refuses any participation in the electoral political game. After the war it is progressively crushed, principally by judicial means […] Its defeat left in tact a tradition of direct action that still flourishes today, where dynamite and rifles periodically resurface in mining and other conflicts. But this defeat showed how impossible it was for the proletarian strata to unify. Which leads us back to the roman noir… [25]

Given that Manchette was not only familiar with roman noir authors in the American tradition — he was a “passionate admirer of Dashiell Hammet and the bare-bones approach of the American hard-boiled school” [26] — but understood that the genre itself emerged during the rise and fall of class struggle across the United States, it would be post-war France in general, and post-68 France in particular, that came to serve as the French analogue to the American tradition of crime fiction. 

Thus, just as the roman noir is born amidst the robust tradition of anarchist practice despite the waning of organized labor, Nada takes place at a moment when the insurrectionary fervor of 1968 is in decline and a critical skepticism towards the revolutionary possibilities harbored within the traditional institutions of the Left (the union, the PCF and the party-form in general, etc.) is reaching its peak. In this sense, the Nada group is founded upon the anarcho-syndicalist tradition’s rejection of electoral politics, believing that, if the Party-form is ineluctably corrupted by its participation in the affairs of the State, then the only way forward is through direct and militant intervention into the matters of everyday life; a disjunct between political organization and an inherited tradition of tactics that proved to be for both questions concerning the revolution and those concerning literature. What is more, it was this disjunct between specific literary and political forms and the set of inherited practices out of which it emerges, that allowed an adaptation of the roman noir to function as a critique of the genre, as well. 

Among the various limitations of the genre, the clearest, if not most urgent, for Manchette, was the roman noir’s apparent allergy to all of those acts of barbarism committed by self-described leftists, no matter what shade of red and/or black:

…the roman noir was still in its golden age during the great criminal period of the Comintern (end of the ‘30’s beginning of the ‘40’s). Without counting the Russian purges, nor the liquidations carried out during the tumult of the wars (Spanish Civil War and the World War), the classic roman noir literally had before its eyes a multitude of kidnappings and assassinations we dare say every bit as novelistic as the acts of the Nazis. And it doesn’t bother with them. While its virtue lies in its criticizing the criminal organization of the world it forgets to criticize the principle politico-criminal form of this organization: the incongruous alliance of the democratic left with the GPU in order to constitute the camp of the “Good” in a world officially organized in two camps. [27]

The problem that plagued the roman noir’s relationship to authoritarian violence, says Manchette, involves a chain of reasoning that holds the implicit belief that revolutionary forces and an institution such as the GPU (Soviet Intelligence Service and Secret Police) not only share a set of temporary interests but share the same horizon that would guide their material praxis. Thus, when Manchette criticizes this idea of “a world divided into two camps” and whose problematic structure is supposedly resolved by the formation of the “forces of the ‘Good’” against those of capital’s functionaries, he is asserting nothing other than the incommensurability between literary genre and political organization; that is, between the roman noir and stalinism. For it is in his 1946 Moscow address that Stalin reconstructs the events leading up to and immediately after the second world war in such a way that not only is war the inevitable product of capital, but so too are its results (“as a result of this [war], the capitalist world is split into two hostile camps, and war breaks out between them” [28]). 

Thus, the roman noir’s reluctance to include within itself the various moments of counterrevolution enacted by self-described communists forecloses the possibility of breaking with the false dichotomy between the capitalism of the West and the state-capitalism of the Soviet Union; of reaffirming the anti-fascist principles of the genre as a whole without restricting itself to questions of party allegiance. Such would be Manchette’s own assessment regarding the crime novel after 1968: “Most of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have either been taken over or have run out of steam. The crime novel has followed suit. It is now no more than a minor cultural commodity perfectly integrated into the order of things and governed by authors who share none of my concerns.” [29] It is, therefore, all the more fitting that Manchette open’s Nada, not with the voice of any one of the groups members, but with a police officer’s hand written letter, expressing his sense of vindication in light of the murders of all but two of the Nada group:

Turning the other cheek is all very well, but what do you do, I ask you, when you are dealing with people who want to destroy everything? Father Castagnac pretty much agrees with me…His opinion is that if policemen are not ready for anything, like I am, there would be no reason for certain individuals not to do anything they want…Seriously, my sweet Mom, would you want a country with no police? [30]

And just to guarantee that the poor, old, mother of this nameless pig understands the struggles that come with his position within the State apparatus, he concludes: “Would you want our property, which we worked so hard for, overrun by levelers and collectivists in an orgy of destruction?…Anyway, yesterday, all I did was do my job.” [31]

Given everything we’ve seen — the groups error regarding their level of militancy in relation to popular support, the narrative arc of Nada’s coming into being only to pass into a relative nothingness, and all of the criticism levelled by various groups across the red-black spectrum at the group’s overall mode of presentation — we are still inclined to reply in the affirmative. We want nothing more than the abolition of the police, though not simply within a single nation-state, but in every nation-state, such that eliminating one aspect of the repressive arm of the State primes us to abolish the State as well. What is more, the horror expressed towards the idea of doing away with private property is nothing but the illusory threat proper to the most uninteresting of bourgeois imaginaries, for it cannot even bind itself to the material conditions of the present, where private property has already been abolished “for nine-tenths of the population,” and whose existence is due solely “to  its  non-existence  in  the  hands  of  those  nine-tenths.” [32]  So all the worse for the cops… who are right in sensing our collective desire for their abolition. 

[ 3 ]

Today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon. — Manchette[33]

Today, as the question of abolition is in urgent need of being reconciled with the question of tactics, Manchette’s diagnosis and critique of the organized left may serve as a crucial reminder for prioritizing the cultivation of popular support and extra-legal formations for the goals of decolonization, revolution, and emancipation. If in the late 60s, Manchette’s scorn was reserved for the capitulation of historically anti-capitalist parties and structures to the totalitarianism that it had once opposed and to global, capitalist, colonial war that it had once stood in opposition to, the organized (decidedly less so) contingents of what remains of the left today can be similarly criticized. Today, however, a more trenchant and necessary diagnosis would read the development of non-profit structures and other complicit forms of institutionalizing struggle that have served to reify capitalism’s structures of austerity and philanthropy/charity even as they often aim to genuinely help those cast aside by late capital’s forms of value production and alienation. 

Returning to Manchette today is not to encourage nostalgia for formerly powerful state communist parties nor to lionize the ultra-left of the post-68 years, but rather for two main reasons: to look to his forms of self-critique as instructive, and secondly to acknowledge that literature, even the bourgeois novel form can be détourned for the purposes of liberation. If collective emancipation and widespread abolition is to occur, we must not only reserve critique for right wing hegemons, but also for the “allies” in elected posts that do more to enshrine capitalist production than undo it. The Green New Deal, for one example, may in fact be one terrain of struggle where popular formations and Indigenous communities can bargain for further recognition, where the goal of full employment can be problematized and made moot (as some, like Alyssa Batistoni have argued), but for that to be the case, we must be mindful to actualize these forms of self-critique. 

Almost 50 years since its publication, Nada continues to remind us of the questions we are continuously obliged to answer. What is to be done once the insurrection has come and gone? How to go on making revolution under the reign of a fragmentation so generalized that it has become indistinguishable from everyday life? Absent the lived promise that one experiences when politics spills out into the streets; failed by the weapons and institutions inherited from the history of the workers movement and Party’s that remain communist only in name; it is no surprise that the end of the 60’s saw the emergence of localized groupuscules tempted into taking desperate actions. And yet, as Manchette is careful to demonstrate, what is desperate about the Nada group is not their affirmation of revolutionary violence, since any effective action taken against capital and its nation-states would necessarily do violence to the existing state of affairs (condemning terrorism “is not a condemnation of insurrection but a call to insurrection” [34]). On the contrary, desperate was their attempted substitution of mediatized attacks against Spectacular society in place of actually existing popular support. That is to say, it is only when there exists a real and solidaritous relation between extra-parliamentary struggle and mass politics that localized actions can become a modality through which collective struggles are realized. Of what use is kidnapping the U.S. Ambassador to France when the Left is in a moment of retreat, and is therefore capable of little else? Hence, the figure of the desperado. Stripped of all social utility, militant praxis becomes nothing more than “an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint.


[1]  James Sallis, introduction to Jean Patrick-Manchette, The Mad and the Bad, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (1972; New York: New York Review Books, 2014); available online as: James Sallis, “Manchette: Into the Muck,” The New York Review of Books, Accessed on 7/6/2020. 
[2] Jean Patrick-Manchette, quoted in Annissa Belhadjin, “From Politics to the Roman Noir,” South Central Review 27, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer, 2010), 62. 
[3] Sallis, introduction to The Mad and the Bad.
[4] Kristin Ross, “Parisian Noirs,” New Literary History 41, no. 1 (Winter, 2010), 96–9.
[5] Jean-Patrick Manchette, quoted in Luc Sante, introduction to Jean-Patrick Manchette, Nada (New York: New York Review Books, 2019).
[6] Félix Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History,’ Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews, 1955-1971, tr. Ames Hodges (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2015), 235–280, 265.
[7] Ibid, emphasis ours.
[8] Derived from the French word for group (groupe-) and combined with the suffix –cule, meaning small or minor, groupuscule refers to an informal and decentralized form of political organization. While the term can be used to classify either right-wing or left-wing political organizations, during the 60’s it was typically used by French leftists to refer to extra-parliamentary groups (e.g. Gauche prolétarienne) that sought to rehabilitate class struggle in the face of the PCF’s strategy of establishing the collaboration, as opposed to the antagonism, between classes.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Luc Sante, Introduction, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Nada,trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB: New York, 2019),vii–xii, xi.
[11] Manchette, Nada, 92, emphasis ours.
[12] Sante, “Introduction,” Nada, viii.
[13] Manchette, Nada, 67.
[14] A Note On Historical Uncanniness: The year that the Renseignements Généraux (RG), who filmed the abduction, was integrated into the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), was the same year that gendarmes (one of France’s national police forces) would descend on the small village of Tarnac in order to arrest the group that has now come to be known simply as the “Tarnac 9.” In response to their arrest, it would be the then Minister of the Interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who labeled the group as an “anarcho-autonomist cell.”
[15] Ibid, 76. The “Grabeliau faction” in question takes its name from its then purged national secretary, Joseph Grabeliau, who, Manchette explains, “set up his own networks within various security and police organizations, networks that he financed in several ways.” Ibid, 88.
[16] Ibid, 82.
[17] The ‘Tupamaros’ refers to the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros, MLN-T); an Uruguayan left-wing urban guerrilla group active from 1967 till 1972. One of its most notable former members, José Mujica, would later go on to serve as the President of Uruguay (2010-2015).
[18] Ibid, 83.
[19] Ibid, 90.
[20] Ibid, 161.
[21] Ibid, 160, emphasis mine.
[22] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone: New York, 1995), p. 12.
[23] Ibid, 179.
[24] Jean-Patrick Manchette, ‘Five Remarks on How I Earn My Living,’ (1976) Accessed on 4/20/2020.
[25] Jean-Patrick Manchette, ‘The Roman Noir and Class Struggle’ (1994), Accessed on 6/21/2020. Emphasis ours.
[26] Doug Headline, Introduction, Ivory Pearl, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB: New York, 2018), viii.
[27] Jean-Patrick Manchette, “The Roman Noir and Terrorism” (1982), Accessed on 6/21/2020. Emphasis mine.
[28] Joseph Stalin, Speech Delivered by J. V. Stalin At A Meeting of Voters of the Stalin Electoral District, Moscow, February 9, 1946, 22.
[29] Ivory Pearl, viii.
[30] Nada, 5-6, emphasis mine.
[31] Ibid, emphasis mine.
[32]  Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Accessed on 6/18/2020.
[33] Jean-Patrick Manchette, Nada, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB: New York, 2019), 169.
[34] Nada, 161.

First published with Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry

‘…a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint…’

What follows are some section drafts for a review of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1972 crime novel, Nada.

Before the Red Army Faction in Germany (1970-1998), the Red Brigades in Italy (1970-1988), and Action Directe in France (1979-1987), there was Nada. Neither historical actor nor marginal organization of the post-war European ultra-Left, Nada was born out of the French reception of American crime fiction. Remarking upon the differences between the American and French crime novel, Kristen Ross writes,

Of all the various kinds of literary characters, the detective is one of the easiest to think of as little more than narrative scaffolding, a string or device whose wanderings link the various anecdotes, local histories, and glimpses of local color into a narrative whole. After all, what other fictional character’s underdeveloped personality or lack of “roundness” is so regularly compensated for by an all-consuming fetish — the love of orchids, for example, or the love of opera? […] Philip Marlowe, it is important to remember, is a literary hero without a background, and without any cultural or political substratum. The same cannot be said of Victor Blainville, ex-soixante-huitard, sometime journalist, sometime photographer, sometime investigator and Vilar’s recurrent protagonist. (Ross, ‘Parisian Noirs’)

Like Victor Blainville before them, the individuals who comprise the Nada group are made up of nothing other than cultural and political substance: Buenaventura Diaz is an anarchist militant in his 50’s whose father was an anti-fascist and died defending the Barcelona Commune; André Épaulard a former communist resistance fighter; Marcel Treuffais a young philosophy teacher and author of the groups manifesto; Meyer, a waiter, and D’Arcy, an alcoholic, constitute a duo that has been forgotten by society; and Veronique Cash a militant in spirit with anti-civilization proclivities who provides the farm in which the group uses as their hideout. 

A story, then, of anarchist illegalism and revolutionary violence; of a group of militant’s unwavering commitment to the abolition of capital at a moment when the Left found itself divided around questions of both strategy and tactics (most notably, for Manchette, was the French Communist Party’s (PCF) support of France’s ongoing colonization of Algeria during the anti-colonial struggles that emerged after the Second World War), and whose inflection points reside at the level of history: such is the historical moment in which Nada unfolds. It is a moment defined not by an unrealized, though wholly tenable, transformation of society via the PCF, but by a Party that has been reduced to nothing more than “a desperate attempt on the part of a traditional body to keep itself going in the context of radically altered production relations.” As Félix Guattari, with whom Manchette briefly worked with during his stint at the Trotskyist newspaper La Voie Communiste, aptly put it: 

Under these circumstances, the French Communist Party is peculiarly badly placed to combat the myths of the consumer society, for it has no sort of alternative to offer. By comparison, the leftist groupuscules undoubtedly represent an attempt to keep alive the basic themes of an independent, working-class revolutionary policy. (Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’)

And as if to anticipate, not only the novel’s conclusion but Manchette’s own assessment of the groupuscule-form [1], Guattari concludes: “Unfortunately, all we see of them is their failure.” 

And yet, Nada’s is a storied history as well. For in the course of the novels unfolding, one cannot help but recall previous moments of France’s history, when various leftist groups were formed with the intention of sustaining, or reviving, the revolutionary fervor that was felt during their respective cycles of struggle. Thus, it is no coincidence that the way in which Manchette narrates the Nada group’s kidnapping of the US diplomat bears striking similarities to the actions of the Bonnot Gang  — one of the most well known French anarchist groups and were active between 1911-1912. Manchette even goes so far as to dub the group’s hideout “the tragic farmhouse,” which was the “epithet used by the newspapers in 1912 to refer to the death scene of Jules Bonnot” (Luc Sante, Introduction, Nada). And before the Bonnot Gang there was, of course, Blanqui.

While it may strike some as odd to view a group such as the Bonnot Gang and an individual such as Blanqui as having a shared orientation toward capital and the state, both advocated for an extra-legal form of organization; whether in the attempt at building a clandestine vanguard (Blanqui) or through various interventions in everyday life that directly seize the means for reproducing the organization and its goals (Bonnot). Moreover, and of equal importance regarding Manchette’s relation to the history of radical politics in France, both the Bonnot Gang and Blanqui share a similar fate in terms of their reception within the dominant currents of Leftist politics; a reception that presents both as exemplary figures of what becomes of an allegedly unprincipled and excessively voluntarist form of organizing revolutionary struggle.

Once more, this type of historical reception is carried forward by Manchette and is brought to bear on the members of the Nada group. However, rather than any moral posturing and subsequent denunciation, when reflecting on figures and organizations of the past (e.g. Lenin’s celebratory dance in the snow to celebrate the Bolsheviks having been in power for one day longer than the Communards of Paris); Manchette, here, makes use of the novel-form in order to delineate the fate that is most likely to befall those who give primacy to direct actions against the State and an escalation of tactics, absent a situation defined by an enthusiasm for struggle and, by consequence, an expanded notion of what people view as acceptable and unacceptable with respect to certain strategies and tactics. For it is precisely in light of these debates, that we find the young, defacto ‘theorist’ of the group, Treuffais, accusing his older and more seasoned comrade, Buenaventura, of engaging in Leftist terrorism: “You’re falling under the spell of terrorism, and that’s really stupid. Terrorism is only justified when revolutionaries have no other means of expressing themselves and when the masses support them” (Nada, 92). 

It would eventually take a failed kidnapping, the murder of fellow comrades, and a prolonged run from the law, for Buenaventura to realize the truth of Treuffais’ reservations; that the condemnation of terrorism “is not a condemnation of insurrection but a call to insurrection” (Nada, 161). Or as he puts it in a recording intended for radio broadcast and international newspapers alike:

“I made a mistake,” he said abruptly. “Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of […] the same mug’s game,” he concluded, and went on right away: “The regime defends itself, naturally, against terrorism. But the system does not defend itself against it. It encourages it and publicizes it. The desperado is a commodity, an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint. The State’s dream is a horrific, triumphant finale to an absolutely general civil war to the death between cohorts of cops and mercenaries on the one hand and nihilist armed groups on the other. This vision is the trap laid for rebels, and I fell into it. And I won’t be the last. And that pisses me off in the worst way.” (Nada, 160)

And it is perhaps here, more than anywhere else in the novel, that we encounter Manchette at his most Situationist; precisely because, the trap laid for all would be rebels resides in the illusion that national, or even international, media attention can be used for the purposes of social transformation in the absence of the popular support that is realized during periods of struggles. As Buenaventura points out, while political parties may defend against the variants of ultra-Left praxis, it remains the case that the market and its media outlets seemingly encourage and happily publicize it. And if so, it is precisely because the circulation of the image of the revolutionary is nothing more than another commodity readied for mass consumption. For Manchette, the ‘left-wing terrorist,’ a figure that became widespread and heavily publicized by media outlets during the 60’s and up through the 80’s, is never simply “a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (Debord, Society of the Spectacle). 

That said, it would be wrong to treat Manchette’s political commitments as merely residing at the level of the anecdotal or ending with the historical and worldly substance of his protagonists. And precisely because, for Manchette, a difference of literary genre involves an incommensurable difference at the level of politics. Thus we find, in the course of his reflections on the differences between the mystery novel and the roman noir from 1976, the following formulation: “In the classic detective novel (i.e., the mystery detective novel) crime disturbs the order of the law, which it is crucial must be restored by the discovery of the guilty party and his elimination from the social field […] In the violent and realist criminal novel of the American type (the roman noir) the order of the law is not good; it is transitory and in contradiction with itself” (Manchette, ‘Five Remarks on How I Earn My Living’). Unlike the mystery novel, whose plot is driven by the detective’s will to uphold and preserve a legal order perceived to be just, the world of Manchette’s roman noir is defined by a legal order that is unjust; a world whose laws are unjust precisely because they are arbitrary. And so, it is more than fitting for Manchette to open Nada, not with the voice of any one of the groups members, but with a police officer’s vindication in light of the murder of most of the Nada group:

Turning the other cheek is all very well, but what do you do, I ask you, when you are dealing with people who want to destroy everything? Father Castagnac pretty much agrees with me…His opinion is that if policemen are not ready for anything, like I am, there would be no reason for certain individuals not to do anything they want…Seriously, my sweet Mom, would you want a country with no police?…Would you want our property, which we worked so hard for, overrun by levelers and collectivists in an orgy of destruction?…Anyway, yesterday, all I did was do my job. (Nada, 5-6)

[1] Derived from the French word for group (groupe-) and combined with the suffix –cule, meaning small or minor, groupuscule refers to an informal and decentralized form of political organization. While the term can be used to classify either right-wing or left-wing political organizations, during the 60’s it was typically used by French leftists to refer to extra-parliamentary groups (e.g. Gauche prolétarienne) that sought to rehabilitate class struggle in the face of the PCF’s strategy of establishing the collaboration, as opposed to the antagonism, between classes.

Epidemics and Revolution (I): Notes on The Cholera Riots, 1830-1831

At the height of a self-confident era of economic growth, material progress, scientific achievement and expanding European dominion over the world, here was a disease that came from the ‘uncivilized’ East and challenged common assumptions of European cultural and biological superiority by demonstrating the vulnerability of even the most civilized people to a disease associated mainly with oriental backwardness. At a time when European literature and culture was celebrating the ‘age of the beautiful death’, with diseases like typhoid or tuberculosis being accorded a transforming, almost beautifying influence on their victims, here was an affliction that killed rapidly, remorselessly and with symptoms that could not be seen as anything other than degrading. Half of all victims died from the disease.”

The progress of the disease across Europe in the early 1830s was marked by a string of riots and disturbances in almost every country it affected. Popular opinion did not accept that cholera was a hitherto unknown disease, but considered instead that an attempt was being made to reduce the numbers of the poor by poisoning them. Riots, massacres and the destruction of property took place across Russia, swept through the Hapsburg empire, broke out in Konigsberg, Stettin and Mernel in 1831 and spread to Britain the next year, affecting cities as far apart as Exeter and Glasgow, London, Manchester and Liverpool.” 

[Richard J. Evans, ‘Epidemics and Revolutions: Cholera in Nineteenth-century Europe’]

I. The Cholera Riots (1830-1831)

The second cholera pandemic in Russia (1826-1837) and the fifth cholera pandemic in Italy (1881-1896) are notable, not simply for a similarity in terms of the cost and suffering of human life, but for the various moments of resistance and popular revolt that were mobilized at the very moment when the fear of death (as condition) and the fear of contagion (as affect) gripped and enraptured the everyday life of each, respective, population. What is more, the Russian and Italian cases are linked, by a similarity at the level of statecraft and policy regarding the management of the public health crisis. As Frank M. Snowden puts it with respect to the Russian context: “Among European nations the extreme case was Russia, where the consequences of the epidemic were apocalyptic. In Russia not only did the disease cause a terrifying mortality but the regime also magnified the terror by a violent and coercive strategy of public health. The Romanovs reproduced some of the social consequences that accompanied the plague by reviving the anti-plague public health policies of early modern political authorities” (Frank M. Snowden, Naples in the Time of Cholera: 1884-1911, 150).

It is precisely this conjugation of a seemingly unmanageable public health crisis combined with archaic modes of governance that served as the epidemiological and socio-political conditions for the ‘Cholera Riots,’ which lasted between 1830 and 1831; a period that would see riot-form assume a novel mode of struggle. The Cholera Riots are not simply the means by which a surplus population resolves the crisis of social reproduction through the direct seizure of what is necessary to reproduce themselves; these were also attempts made at resolving the problem of biological, if not species-level, reproduction. 

And in light of this combination of the biological and the political, which formed their key characteristics, one would not be wrong in saying that the Cholera Riots were a political sequence defined by (i) a mass display of skepticism and resentment toward the government and political officials, and (ii) collective acts of resistance, whose composition included peasants, soldiers, and segments of the urban population, and were undertaken in light of the Tsar’s decision to embark upon a strategy of military prophylaxis (i.e. Nicholas I’s strategy of containing the spread of cholera employed a variant of early modern means of managing the plague, and ranged from a militarized enforcement of quarantines, the restriction and policing of movement through public space, and the use of ‘armed cordons’ (i.e. police kettling) if deemed necessary). A global North already familiar with the consequences of pandemics such as the plague or even the first cholera outbreak; and with the biological threat of mass contagion, an increasingly draconian nation-State, and with quarantines whose unintended consequence was that of doubling as economic sanction, thereby exacerbating already existing social inequalities; these were the epidemiological and socio-economic determinations that defined the terrain upon which this (re-)composition of popular antagonism, made up of differing subject positions, and its subsequent intervention in the sphere of circulation, would come to take place. Reflecting on this outbreak of cholera in Russia, historian Roderick McGrew perfectly summarizes the role it played in terms of the upheavals experienced throughout Russia at that time when he writes, “cholera scored the European social consciousness, exacerbated contemporary tensions, [and] intensified the impact of current social problems” (McGrew, Russia and the Cholera, 3).

And however brief its appearance in the long history of riots in the face of large scale public health crises, the Cholera Riots saw various modalities of the riot-form, including the raiding of police departments and public hospitals (i.e. expropriation as means for resolving problems of social reproduction) and the killing of landlords, local officials, and State functionaries (i.e. direct action as self-defense). Two of the most notable, if not the most spectacular, events of this period are those that took place in Tambov (1830) and Sevastopol (1831): just as the city of Tambov saw its citizens physically attack the governor, an act of resistance that would eventually be suppressed by military intervention; those who rioted in the streets of Sevastopol were successful enough to have temporarily established directly democratic forms of decision making, replete with the election of their own officials and an expanded capacity for propagandizing among peasants and serfs. 

But what comes of this analysis, if it is to avoid being a mere recounting of history? Namely: just as an understanding of the ways in which the biological helps shape the determinate social conditions of a previous era allows us to grasp more and not less of its historical and material particularity, it is only by thinking the epidemiological as reciprocally determining the economic and the political that we are better able to theorize what will ground and shape the politics to come; that we are able to grasp the coming into being of that which is not-yet. For as historian Michael Durey puts it with respect to the study of cholera, to understand the historical significance of the disease means to account for the ways in which epidemics unsettle “the normal functioning of society” while bringing “to the surface latent social antagonisms.”

Similarly, it is only by acknowledging the epidemiological as an objective tendency that mutually determines the conditions and possibilities of struggle, that our understanding of the present can account for more and not less of this reality, which is not-yet. That is, if the task remains that of constructing the horizon and internal consistency adequate to the needs of a thoroughly internationalist, anti-statist, and anti-capitalist, set of social movements, then it is a task that obliges us to think the biological and the political, the non-human and the human, as the ground of the politics to come. However, unlike the retrospective interrogation of the past, to think the ground of the politics to come means to acknowledge that it can only be understood as a determinate set of social relations (equally biological, political, and economic) that is in the process of its realization. Of course any substantively proleptic analysis of the present is nothing if not the height of theoretical hubris (in these times, reality is the best refutation of those who confidently lay claim to the future as such).

With respect to the present struggles and for those to come, the least we can say is that the spaces of antagonism will be conditioned by a set of social relations, whose reciprocal determination and co-constitution by the biological and the political, bring out into the open that sometimes latent and sometimes explicit civil war, waged by capital and against the living (e.g. living labour as well as non-human life). And therefore rendering ineluctably sensible the fact that the terrain of struggle is always more or less hostile to the real movement of abolition, that the ground of politics is continuously being made and un-made, and thus can be made into a more hospitable position from which to refine all those latent social antagonisms that are quickly coming to the surface.

[ part II on Italy, forthcoming ]

Brief Histories of Invisibility

What follows is a transcript of my response to Andrew Culp’s presentation of research
from his forthcoming book, Indiscernibility: The Politics of the Unseen (currently under contract with University of Minnesota Press)

I would like to begin by contrasting Andrew’s project with the following passage from Jacques Rancière’s On the Shores of Politics as a way of grasping the discrepancy between the two aspects of socio-political power. Rancière writes,

Police intervention in public space is less about interpellating demonstrators than it is about dispersing them. The police are not the law that interpellates the individual (the “hey, you there” of Louis Althusser) unless we confuse the law with religious subjection. The police are above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not there: “Move along, there’s nothing to see.” The police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people, workers, citizens. It consists in refiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see, or to name. It is a dispute about the division of what is perceptible to the senses. (On the Shores of Politics, 242)

Now, just because invisibility studies is said to be an examination of the ‘wars of appearance’ it does not mean that we can discount this analysis of police power put forward by Rancière. Despite the fact that this image of policing as making sure there is nothing to see, that ‘nothing appears,’ is not the image of power emphasized by invisibility studies, the point held in common by Andrew and Rancière alike is that, at the very least, public space or the spaces where someone or something might appear, is first and foremost a space of contestation, that is to say, a space of struggle. However, what notions of invisibility allow us to grasp that is seemingly left out of Rancière’s account is precisely the fact that social and political power has a vested interest in rendering visible/seeable/sayable that which is deemed transgressive, criminal, and militant. For as Claudia Rankine helpfully points out in her remark regarding racist discourse:

Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable…For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. (Rankine, Citizen)

What is more, this rendering of ourselves as something more than simply visible, as something hypervisible, does not simply pertain to language games. 

In their 2015 text, Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford show how the maintenance of white supremacy and its attendant socio-economic form of plantation society also had a vested interested in rendering visible the particular threat posed by the runaway slave. And when undertaking an analysis of the nature and function of the maroon communities that occupied an estimated 1,500-2,000 square miles adjacent to the eastern North Carolina-Virginia border, Shirley and Stafford underscore the fact that the purpose of maroon communities was not simply to encourage slaves and others to runaway and flee. Rather, the purpose of maroon society was the establishment of a territory that would make possible the attack, and hopefully the abolition, of plantation society as a whole: 

Forced to flee above-ground life as debt fugitives, runaway slaves or refugees from the brutal wars waged on Indians, the maroons established a permanent way of life in the swamp waging a long-term, unceasing guerilla war against plantation society in the form of arson, cattle rustling, crop theft, encouraging slave escapes, and coordinating insurrections throughout the area. (Dixie Be Damned, 20)

Thus we can say, with respect to the function of the State and the police, ensuring the reproduction of a society predicated on disparities along economic, gendered, and racial lines gives rise to a form of socio-political power that functions by making all of its subjects, citizens, or otherwise, visible and thus accounted for. And here we can return to the passage from Rancière. For what is at work in the policing mantra of ‘there’s nothing to see here’ is precisely the result of becoming visible to the state; and moreover, it is by rendering citizens/subjects visible and identifiable that the police and the state are able to ensure that no refusal or insurrection of any kind is realized in contested public space.

Now, to avoid historical equivocation it would seem that the idea of invisibility studies isn’t to argue for invisibility as a transhistorical category of theorizing. Rather, the point is to demonstrate how rendering visible certain subjects via certain easily identifiable character traits (skin color, gender expression, clothing, accent, and so on) is always a latent or virtual possibility regarding the expression of social and political power. Therefore, invisibility as a response to a power that singles us out based on personal attributes assumes a dominant role in given historical moments – and not only in the context of slavery as we have mentioned but also in the context of anti-colonial guerilla wars, or during the ‘red years’ defined by the activity of post-operaismo and the Red Brigades in Italy, or even perhaps today, when the ongoing cycle of struggles against capital and resurgent far-right are undertaken in a context where laws such as the ‘Unmasking Antifa Act,’ proposed by Republican Congressman Dan Donovan of New York are put forward as actual pieces of legislation. All of this to say, given certain historical and material conditions, invisibility becomes a mode throughout which anti-capitalist struggle is waged.

That said, we would be remiss to simply treat the notion of invisibility as another determinate judgement regarding a certain state of affairs or as a more adequate descriptor of the world. In other words, if the idea of invisibility is developed in response to the current impasse or impotence of the promise held out by Critique (understood in the sense given to it by the Frankfurt School as demystification of appearances in order to reveal their structural essence which is taken to be the inherent politicizing or radicalizing aspect of marxist theorizing) then invisibility belongs to the order of Thought  as well as to the domain of historical analysis. And if this is so, then the proposal of invisibility studies brings us back to what was at stake in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach (i.e. invisibility is not simply a means of interpreting but of transforming the world). So to conclude, I will simply offer up a series of questions that will hopefully clarify what is at stake in this proposal for the founding of invisibility studies as the less illustrious and estranged cousin of critical governmentality studies: 

(i) What role might invisibility as a concept play given the present state of Theory broadly construed? And what seemingly foreclosed futures might this notion help explicate or develop in a manner that is antagonistic to the current forces and relations of production? 

(ii) Is the notion of invisibility akin to the schizophrenic as conceptual personae of Deleuze and Guattari – whereby a material social relation is taken as the grounds for the development of a concept that doesn’t simply reconstruct the present state of things but orients us towards both the actual and virtual futures generated by capitalist society?

The Reality Of Destitution is the Destitution of Reality: Notes for a Genealogy of Destituent Power

A longer version of this text will be available in Unworking,
an edited collection of essays on inoperativity, destituent power,
and désoeuvrement (Release date: Fall, 2019)

During the 1970s, in Europe, a disenchanted but not hopeless generation came to the fore to lay claim to the political not as an autonomous and totalitarian sphere, but as an ethical community of singularities; history not as linear continuity, but a history whose realization has been deferred too long; not work as economically finalized toward the production of commodities, but an inoperativity deprived of end [priva di scopi] and yet not unproductive. (Giorgio Agamben)

Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things. (Invisible Committee)

What becomes of communism if it is said to be “the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things?” Does the substitution of “destitution” for “abolition” signal a principled divergence from the vision of communism found in those pages of the German Ideology and as intended by Marx and Engels? Or does this destituent movement mark a progressive refinement in light of the failures of historical communism and its various workers movements? As the above epigraphs already suggest, any beginnings of an answer to such questions can be found in the works of Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee; both of whom have perhaps gone farthest in reconceiving communism via the category of destituent power (or destituent gestures). With respect to Agamben, and as Jason E. Smith has already noted, when one reads Agamben’s more recent political writings alongside his 1993 text, ‘Form-of-Life,’ what becomes clear is that through his reworking of the set of ideas that came out of the workerist tradition, he is led to view society/social relations as asymmetric and antagonistic to the community that is the content of a form-of-life:

The workerist and post-workerist traditions understand the concept of antagonism in terms of the dynamic of capitalist social relations. This conflictual and asymmetric relation between living and dead labour is one in which living labour is always ‘primary,’…whose resistance to that form of capture drives capitalist development itself…Agamben’s rewriting of this scenario situates the antagonism less within the dynamics of capitalist production than within the relation between ‘massive inscription of social knowledge in productive processes’, on the one hand, and ‘intellectuality as antagonist potentiality and form-of-life’ on the other…Communist is the enemy of the social, that is, the objective or factual partitioning of society into classes…To the divisions of society Agamben opposes the multitude of community. The overcoming of capitalist society assumes the name not of socialism but of community: communism. (Smith, ‘Form-of-Life and Antagonism,’ 203)

It is for this reason, then, that Agamben goes onto reformulate the anti-work thesis of operaismo and autonomia as follows: “If the fundamental ontological question today is not work but inoperativity…then the corresponding concept can no longer be that of ‘constituent power’ [potere constituente] but something that could be called ‘destituent power’ [potenza destituente]” (‘What is destituent power?’ 70). Now, with respect to the Invisible Committee, what must be said at the outset is that their reconceptualization of communism as the real movement of destituent power may appear especially deceptive to some and thus leading to fundamental misunderstandings; for what could such an invocation of destituent power mean other than their tacit affinity and agreement with Agamben’s equation of the communal content of forms-of-life and the realization of communism as such?

As will be demonstrated in what follows, nothing could be further from the truth (for the Committee’s usage of destituent power/gestures actually finds common ground with the very figure (operaismo) from which Agamben sought to distance himself). If the Committee privileges destituent, as opposed to constituent, power it is not due to destituent acts being the very means of arriving at the pure potentiality at the heart of forms-of-life (the ‘antagonistic potentiality of forms-of-life’). Rather, communism as the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things since to destitute the present means (i) affirming the rupture with the current state of affairs in order to (ii) organize it and make it ever more real to the point that the crises and social problems that Capital has long since covered over become the open and public secret of social life that must be directly confronted precisely because it can no longer be avoided. And unlike Agamben’s left-Heideggerian revision to the workerist and autonomia movements, it is with thinkers such as Guattari, or even with Marx and Engels themselves, that we discover that which inflects the Committee’s own theorization of communism as destituent process.

Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Existence to Prelapsarian Life

In the Summer and Fall of 2013, Giorgio Agamben delivered a series of lectures in central France and Athens under the heading, ‘What is destituent power?’ Now, despite the particularities to which Agamben was responding to in each lecture – the recent occupations and insurrections in Cairo, Istanbul, London, and New York (France); the necessity to think the end of democracy in the place of its birth (Athens) – what is consistent throughout is that, for Agamben, destituent power functions as a third term that is said to overcome the static opposition between constituent and constituted power (the former being counter-hegemonic practices and the latter being acts that defend or uphold the existing institutions of the state). And it is these series of lectures that mark a key development in Agamben’s overall thinking since destituent power appears as the means of realizing one of the central idea of his work as a whole: inoperativity, which is what Agamben discovers time and again, and regardless of the object of his analysis being that of theology, politics, or aesthetic and art practices. Whether it is with respect to St. Augustine’s reflections on the salvation of humanity where human nature is conceived as “blessed inactivity, which is neither doing nor not doing;” or Walter Benjamin who relates destituent power to Sorel’s proletarian general strike in his essay Critique of Violence; or regarding the relationship between poetry, communication, and language as such (“What is a poem…if not an operation taking place in language that consists in rendering inoperative, in deactivating its communicative and informative function, in order to open it to a new possible use?”); what is fundamentally at stake is how to conceive the reality of a form-of-life whose actions, when viewed from the vantage point of the existing order of things, cannot be understood as anything other than blessed/idle in essence, non-productive of value, and impractical for deliberation. However, the salient point here is that, for Agamben, these characteristics of idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity, are not understood to be products of history. Idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity are ontological facts of human existence; so much so that Agamben will go on to claim that it is precisely these attributes proper to the being of humanity that capital appropriates and exploits:

Human life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. And the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power. This is why feasting and idleness resurface continually in the dreams and political utopias of the West…They are the enigmatic relics which the economic-theological machine abandons on the shoreline of civilization; mankind returns to them wonderingly, but always uselessly and nostalgically. Nostalgically because they seem to contain something that clings jealously to the human essence; uselessly because in reality they are nothing more than the ashes of the immaterial, glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine during its inexorable, relentless rotation. (Agamben, ‘Art, Inactivity, Politics,’ 138.)

For Agamben, it is to humanity’s originary idleness/inoperativity that one must center in any engagement with the questions posed by politics. In other words, it is only by attending to what is allegedly ontological regarding humanity (originary inoperativity) that we can adequately determine how best to overcome the political fact of our alienation as imposed by history. Hence, says Agamben, the shape of the politics to come is not that of a struggle over the State or between counter-hegemonies and hegemonic forms. To the contrary, “the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity), that is, an irresolvable disjunction between whatever singularities and the state organization” (Means Without End, 88). Given such an analysis, one is led to the logical conclusion that the politics to come will be defined, not by its struggle with and over the State, but by the struggle between “humanity” (as the nonstate) and the State as various social forms of sovereign/governmental power, which pervert what we have always, originarily, been in truth: inoperative, idle, and therefore free.

However, confronted with a conclusion as bold as this (i.e. the coming politics begins by positing an originary idleness against history as a series of state-sponsored perversions of this essence) a few questions necessarily arise: Insofar as inoperativity and destituent power is said to be the essence of the being of humanity, does this not lead to an understanding of communist politics as a struggle between the ontological, on the one hand, and the historical and material, on the other? And to what extent does the notion of destituent power refer to what are allegedly the echoes of an ontological essence from which we have become estranged under capital? In any event, the crucial point to be emphasized is that what is operative behind such strong claims regarding the substance of humanity, is an equivocation between two conceptions of time: the time of eschatology and that of history. For it is this equivocation of eschatological and historical time that grounds Agamben’s understanding of inoperativity and destituent power as what is most essential to human being. And to make matters worse, one equivocation inevitably leads to another, but this time with respect to political analysis. For insofar as inoperativity/destituent power is said to be the originary substance of (human) being, the proletariat as the classical figure of revolutionary politics struggle is now nothing but a means of returning to our once innocent, unspoiled, prelapsarian life. In other words, for Agamben, politics is the price paid by humanity’s original sin of state-craft and the various, historical, forms of sovereign power, and each time realized as through a dispositif as its particular modes of capture: “The originary place of Western politics consists of an ex-ceptio, an inclusive exclusion of human life in the form of bare life. Consider the peculiarities of this operation: life is not in itself political, it is what must be excluded, and, at the same time, included by way of its exclusion. Life-that is, the Impolitical (l’Impolitico)-must be politicized through a complex operation that has the structure of an exception. The autonomy of the political is founded, in this sense, on a division, an articulation, and an exception of life. From the outset, Western politics is biopolitical” (‘What is a destituent power (or potentiality)?’ 65). That said, one may still wonder if we have been unfair with such a characterization of Agamben, for in his 2013 lectures Agamben goes on to provide further clarification to the way in which destituent power can be said to be the shape of politics to come; a politics made possible by virtue of

…living a life that a form-of-life can constitute itself as the inoperativity immanent in every life. The constitution of a form-of-life coincides…completely with the destitution of the social and biological conditions into which it finds itself thrown. The form-of-life is…the revocation of all factical vocations…It is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life…Inoperativity is not another work…it coincides completely and constitutively with their destitution, with a life. And this destitution is the coming politics. (‘What is a destituent power?’ 65)

A passage such as this merits our interest for at least two reasons. On the one hand, destituent power is now said to be something innately bound to, yet distinct from, humanity’s originary inoperativity. And while it remains the case that it is by destituent means that we are returned to our non-alienated inoperative living, Agamben qualifies this previous iteration with the inclusion of forms-of-life as that previously missing mediator capable of overcoming the dilemma of capital’s historical separation of humanity ontologically considered and alienated being, which takes the form of bare life. Now, says Agamben, destituent power is accessible only through this experience of living a life inseparable from its (communal) form: “the destitution of power and of its works is an arduous task, because it is first of all and only in a form-of-life that it can be carried out. Only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (Ibid, 72). That is to say, it only by means of a collectivity that it becomes possible for individuals to “return it [the human activity that is the substance of value production] to the potentiality from which it originates” (Ibid, 73). And on this account it would appear that destituent power is no longer simply the immediate recuperation of alienated human being and rather an always latent possibility of non-alienated living perpetually deferred and rendered increasingly impossible. Thus, and put it a more direct relation to the prior ontological formulations

Contemplation and inoperativity are…the metaphysical operators of anthropogenesis, which, freeing the living being from every biological or social destiny and from every predetermined task, renders it open for that particular absence of work that we are accustomed to calling ‘politics’ and ‘art.’ Politics and art are neither tasks nor simply ‘works’: they name…the dimension in which the linguistic and corporeal, material and immaterial, biological and social operations are made inoperative and contemplated as such. (Ibid, 74)

Significant in this account of destituent power is the fact that Agamben now appears capable of addressing the issue of how originary being and our future inoperativity can be said to have any relation (insofar as it is the history of sovereign governmentality that has successfully functioned as that which perpetually obstructs our non-alienated living). That said, what is gained in logical consistency is simultaneously lost in terms of its concrete specificity. For while Agamen conceives of the destitution of capital as the process of transforming an overdetermined set of possible forms-of-life into an underdetermined set of possible forms, the potentiality that is (re)discovered through destituent processes cannot be attributed to human being alone; and whether considered ontologically, or historically and materially. Thus we are led to wonder, is a non-ontological conception of destituent power possible?

Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

According to the Invisible Committee, destituent acts or gestures are realized according to the fusion of the positive/creative logic of founding the conditions for an other world in which many worlds fit and the negative/destructive logic of ending, once and for all, the present world fashioned in the image and likeness of Capital. That is, destituent gestures abide by a logic where ‘the One divides into Two’ (“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture”). That is, destituent gestures create and destroy in one and the same act. Moreover, these collective gestures belong to that class of acts, which rely upon the temporality proper to social reproduction and are actualized in times of decision, which is to say, in times of crisis. And what is ultimately realized along the way; in the bringing about an end to this world; is an altogether different solution to the two fold problem of the estrangement of bodies and fragmentation of worlds. However, destituent power is said to resolve the issue of separated bodies and of the discontinuity that structures the possible worlds of every form-of-life not by rehabilitating some sense of ‘unity,’ conceived as the coming-into-being of a still underdetermined (though latently possible) counter-hegemony of the Left. To the contrary, destituent acts resolve the crisis of estrangement and fragmentation through the construction of a different organization of the ongoing fragmentation of forms-of-life and their worlds. “Here is the paradox, then: being constrained to unity undoes us, the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world. There is a certain mental position where this fact ceases to be perceived in a contradictory way. That is where we place ourselves” (Now, 46).

What, then, is intended in this redefinition of “the real movement” as a process that abides by a destituent (as opposed to an abolitionist) logic? According to the terms that determine a properly destituent political logic, the virtue of any struggle against the state and capital is to be found in the potential harbor within each action that suggests a future that has finally done away with everything that encourages us to “hate Monday’s” when it is capital that is the cause behind the whatever-object of our lamentations. That is to say, actualizing destituent power is to give material reality to the potential of establishing the distance between movements and established institutions, in order for the former to better desert, or flee, or take flight from, everything that is involved rendering vacuous the relation we maintain to ourselves, to those we call comrade, friend, or lover, and to the world insofar as it is made in the image and likeness of capital. That is to say, and as a fellow accomplice recently pointed out with respect to the situation of the gilets jaunes movement in France: “It is not the radicals who are making the movement, it is the movement that is radicalizing people.” So, unlike those collectivities which tend toward “constituent” or “constituted” power and situate their strategy within the dialectical relation of recognition/negotiation with the ruling authority (in the hopes of taking possession of the state), collectivities that abide by a destituent logic adhere to, and seek to actualize, the vital need to disengage and distance itself from the dialectical trap of constituent-constituted power. But what would this alleged other form of unity mean, when conceived as a collective ‘abandonment’ of the economy and ‘disengagement’ from the dialectic between constituent and constituent power? At the very least, says the Committee, it would mean the reformulation of the communist question itself; for the equivocation that began with Lenin regarding the terms “socialism” and “communism” has given rise to a more profound confusion whereby liberal economists, socialists, and Marxists all have agreed that the question with which we are confronted is nothing but “a question of management” (Ibid, 138).

To destitute or ‘abandon’ the economy, then, not only means acknowledging the illusory gains of constituent power in theory. To abandon the economy implies an organization of collective struggle founded upon the fact that “capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations” (Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, 107). Thus the need for an other mode of organization and struggle other than that of constituent power (a form of struggle, which poses the problem of the abolition of the present state of things as being a question of management); and precisely since:

Communism is not a “superior economic organization of society” but the destitution of the economy. Economy rests on a pair of fictions, therefore, that of society and that of the individual. Destituting it involves situating this false antinomy and bringing to light that which it means to cover up. (Now, 137)

Thus, it can be said that destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.”

So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to cause the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” to appear in every day social reality, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect the whole of society. What is more, it is precisely through the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore mean, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat: “In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat” (Communist Manifesto). It is here that we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem the Humanity from which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of proletarian development centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations.

That said, of additional and equal importance is that this difference between Agamben and the Committee is understood in light of a key difference that separates the Committee from Marx and Engels. While both the Committee and Marx and Engels share in the idea that capital wages a ‘more or less thinly veiled civil war’ on social totality, the Committee break with them on the question of the proletariat as History’s revolutionary subject. Against the suggestions of the Manifesto‘s authors, the Committee view the contemporary form of capitalist social organization as having done away with that feature of social life (i.e. a mass and shared experience of work) required for the transformation of the objective category of workers into the subjective agent of the proletariat. For the Committee, rather than any prolongation of a shared experience of alienation definitive of the ‘mass worker,’ “[T]he majestic figure of the Worker is being succeeded by the puny figure of the Needy Opportunist [le Crevard]—because if money and control are to infiltrate everywhere, it’s necessary for money to be lacking everywhere. Henceforth, everything must be an occasion for generating a little money, a little value, for earning “a little cash” (Now, 96). The outcome of the ‘Needy Opportunist’ supplanting ‘the Worker,’ being that, today, “Capital no longer just determines the forms of cities, the content of work and leisure, the imaginary of the crowds, the language of real life and that of intimacy, the ways of being in fashion, the needs and their satisfaction, it also produces its own people. It engenders its own optimizing humanity” (Now, 100). Regardless as to whether this break from Marx and Engels is due to philosophical differences or the changes in the historical and material structure of capitalist production, it is clear that, for the Committee, any figure that identifies as the ‘revolutionary subject’ (whether founded upon some new and shared experience of  precarious labour or otherwise) would still aim towards re-unifying the ongoing fragmentation; a gesture that necessarily leads struggles back into the dialectical dead-end of constituent/constituted power. And so… it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization struggle takes when founded upon communist social relations, that it should comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue decidedly anti-Agambenian statements such as the following:

Only be means of this type of confusion did it become possible to imagine that a subject like “Humanity” could exist. Humanity – that is, all human beings, stripped of what weaves together their concrete situated existence, and gathered up phantasmally into one great something-or-other, nowhere to be found. By wiping out all the attachments that make up the specific texture of worlds, on the pretext of abolishing private ownership of the means of production, modern “communism” has effectively made a tabula rasa-of everything. That’s what happens to those who practice economy, even by criticizing it. (Now, 136-37)

For the Committee, such appeals are possible only insofar as one assumes that the lives of individuals are adequately defined in isolation for the attributes it comes to assume in the course of living; that is, insofar as one follows Agamben in confusing what is ontologically possible with what is actually an historical and material potentiality. At stake, then, in this debate regarding destituent power is the material possibility of directly appropriating the forces and relations of capitalist production. Moreover, and in contrast to Agamben’s understanding of destitution in relation to law upholding (constituted power) and law establishing violence (constituent power), the Committee conceives of destituent power as being ‘against the economy’ insofar as the question isn’t that of appropriating the means of production and rather poses the question of how to go about constructing the relations of social reproduction measured by something other than labour-time (or what is required for production). That is to say, for the Committee, what becomes evident is that given the present organization of global society vis-a-vis Capital, any politics geared toward the reappropriation of the forces of production will continue to fall short of abolishing the relations of production that organize and form daily life:

As we know-Trotsky pointed it out long ago in The Revolution Betrayed-the Russians have always imported their technology from the west; but since Khrushchev’s day, they have also taken their economic models from there too […] Obviously it will not be by importing models of desire…that the Soviet bureaucrats will escape the fundamental impasse they have got themselves into, with their endless Five-Year Plans of which absolutely everyone is sick to death. Not merely are they starting no institutionalizing process by importing prefabricated car factories, but by the same token they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism, a hierarchization of technological functions proper to a society based on individual profits, a split between research and industry, between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form. (Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’)

Destituent power, then, is a mode of collective struggle that prioritizes transforming the way in which individuals relate to the production process such that the distinction between labour-time and leisure-time is no longer that which structures and organizes everyday life. And it is for this reason that the Committee will claim the following:

The traditional revolutionary program involved a reclaiming of the world, an expropriation of the expropriators, a violent appropriation of that which is ours, but which we have been deprived of. But here’s the problem: capital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence…It has configured, equipped, and made desirable the ways of speaking, thinking, eating, working and vacationing, of obeying and rebelling, that suit its purpose. In doing so, it has reduced to very little the share of things in this world that one might want to reappropriate. Who would wish to reappropriate nuclear power plants, Amazon’s warehouses, the expressways, ad agencies, high-speed trains, Dassault, La Defense business complex, auditing firms, nanotechnologies, supermarkets and their poisonous merchandise?…What complicates the task for revolutionaries is that the old constituent gesture no longer works there either. With the result that the most desperate, the most determined to save it, have finally found the winning formula: in order to have done with capitalism, all we have to do is reappropriate money itself! (Now, 85)

To seek out the organization requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself” (ibid, 80); for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (ibid, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the time of labour and the time of “leisure.” As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves.”

For the Committee, then, destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that are not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living; or what the Committee simply call community: “Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Out need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation” (Now, 133).

How Many Breakdowns For Every Breakthrough?

(tr. generation collapse)

Ultimately, one escapes from the structuralist impasse by recognizing that an effect of meaning only has repercussions at the level of the signified in so far as potentialities of subjective action are liberated, once there is a breach in the signifier…The machinic breakthrough, waiting, masked by the structure, is the subject in aspic, so to say, time at the ready. – Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’

What are the underlying set of concerns that renders consistent the various interviews and essays throughout Psychoanalysis and Transversality? What was the unifying thread that ran throughout all that preoccupied Guattari between the years of 1955-1971? Confronted with questions such as these, one is immediately signaled to an inquiry already underway; a search for the relevant experiences and conditions under which Guattari practiced analysis while also furthering his activist work. And the promise of this seemingly naive and biographical question is that of understanding what convinced Guattari to treat psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as inherently, and thus necessarily, implicated with each other? Biography, however, only establishes the scope of such a question. As Deleuze would aptly remarked:

a militant political activist and psychoanalyst just so happen to meet in the same person, and instead of each minding his own business, they ceaselessly communicate, interfere with one another, and get mixed up–each mistaking himself for the other…Pierre-Félix Guattari does not let problems of the unity of the Self preoccupy him. (Deleuze, ‘Three Group-Related Problems’)

The thesis we will put forward is the following: Guattari views psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as two distinct yet necessarily related endeavors since each is concerned with, and oriented toward, resolving a singular problem: What should one do when stuck in a situation? (Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 73). In other words, schizoanalysis and revolutionary politics address themselves to those phenomena, which act as an impasse to the freedom of both desire as well as social life. Hence Guattari explains that

[T]he little subject clinging to its mother, or the dazed schizo…are entirely connected to this being. The subject is engaged with it and, paradoxically, it is only along the way that everything becomes blocked. This entire neurotic ball makes it so that at one point…there is longer any possibility of reconnecting, of being articulated with anything that is not fantasy. The problem is to dig a few new holes artificially so that it can reconnect somewhere. Recourse to absolute alterity is something that, in principle, should allow it to remain connected to the foundation of all value.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 74-75)

Now, with respect to institutional psychotherapy, the methodological starting point is still the one offered by psychoanalysis: “to know how to arrive at being a subject under these conditions. What does he or she have to do to continue being a speaking subject and to speak efficiently?”  – where the ‘conditions’ Guattari is referring to is one of blockage, aporia, and impasse where “signifiers…are blocked as significations such that a singular individual cannot express him or herself in it…” (PT, 68-69). In cases such as these, institutional psychotherapy locates the ‘subject’ not in the face to face meeting but in that place where they “have remained prisoner” Hence the necessity for constructing diagrams, whose function is to bring the subject in relation with the ‘Outside’ (alterity) – for it is this need of constructing diagrams that becomes all the more urgent for the subject’s liberation from that which renders it unable to express themselves. In other words, a therapeutic method based on the construction of diagrams maintains, for the subject, the very possibility of achieving a real separation between itself and what is essentially an aporia of the unconscious: “A factory, an asylum, or a patient, they stink…You have to look for something. The first item on the agenda is to open up to the complete alterity of the situation.” (PT, 73).

Subject-Groups, Subjugated-Groups, and Group Phantasies

With respect to the concerns of politics and questions surrounding the organization of a properly revolutionary subject, we once again encounter the same problem. As Guattari puts it,

the revolutionary organization has become separated from the signifier of the working class’s discourse, and become instead closed in upon itself and antagonistic to any expression of subjectivity on the part of the various wholes and groups. The subject groups spoken of by Marx. Group subjectivity can then express itself only by way of phantasy-making, which channels it off into the sphere of the imaginary. To be a worker, to be a young person, automatically means sharing a particular kind of (mostly inadequate) group phantasy. To be a militant worker, a militant revolutionary, means escaping from the imaginary world and becoming connected to the real texture of an organization, part of the prolongation of an open formalization of the historical process.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 218-219)

So, just as it is with therapeutic practices one of the fundamental problems encountered in politics – i.e.  how to realize a form of collective antagonism that avoids the trap of dogmatism, thereby leading to the ossification and curtailment of what is revolutionary within a certain organization. And these problems also take the form of blockages (of signifiers that translate into the silence of individuals) and are seen in those moments when some members of a group begin to speak for the group as a whole. Or, in the worst of cases, blockage develops into a fascistic mode of organization structured according to (i) the groups identification with a single image/signifier (Phallus) such as the leader; (ii) the foreclosure of any individual’s unconscious existence which leads to the substitution of the “I” for a generic, and impersonal, “we”; and (iii) the organizations group phantasy becomes increasingly insular, closed off from any relation to difference, and thus ultimately reinforces and demands the collective denial of individual and collective finitude. And with this final characteristic – a group’s denial of the finitude of its organization – we arrive at what is at work in what Guattari calls the ‘misunderstanding’ expressed phenomena such as racism, nationalism, and sexism:

…the great leaders of history were people who served as something on which to hang society’s phantasies. When Jojo, Hitler, tells people to “be Jojos” or “be Hitlers,” they are not speaking so much as circulating a particular kind of image to be used in the group: “Through that particular Jojo we shall find ourselves.” But who actually says this? The whole point is that no one says it, because if one were to say it to oneself, it would be something different. At the level of the group’s phantasy structure we no longer find language operating in this way, setting up an “I” and an other through words and a system of signification. There is, to start with, a kind of solidification, a setting into a mass; this is us, and other people are different, and usually not worth bothering with–there is no communication possible. There is territorialization of phantasy, an imagining of the group as a body, that absorbs subjectivity into itself. From this there flow all the phenomena of misunderstanding, racism, regionalism, nationalism and other archaisms that have utterly defeated the understanding of social theorists. (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 223)

And it is precisely in light of this always present threat of fascisms resurgence (from the right and within the left) that Guattari proposes the distinction of subject-groups and subjugated-groups. To separate subject- from subjugated-groups, however, must be understood as an analytic distinction integral to schizoanalysis as method of analyzing the potentiality of the unconscious relations and habits sustaining one, or many, individuals, which allow them “to continue being a speaking subject and to speak effectively?” (PT, 69). By formally distinguishing subject-group and subjugated-group, Guattari’s main priority is determining whether the subject as ineluctably bound to a highly particular set of behaviors, ways of speaking, etc., repeats its existence in a manner that saves and/or liberates elements of the unconscious that may harbor the possibility of lines of flight within the unconscious from its reduction to ‘the repressed territories’ of the Ego:

The loss of consistency of a component will not have been followed…by a chain reaction of new inhibitions. It will instead have served as a sensitive plate, as a developer, as an alarm bell. But of what exactly? That is precisely the question! To which, actually, it is best not to answer too quickly. As there is perhaps no answer to it, strictly speaking. An a-signifying sign–the restriction on vocal performances–makes the halt of something without forbidding…that other things intervene. Great! This is already something! Certain paths marked out for a long time: singing, the moralizing surcoding of the mother, are experiencing a pragmatic transformation. Should these facts be considered liabilities and put down in record in the column of lacks a deficits: Nothing is less certain! But nothing is determined either! . . . It must be clear that all transferential induction…could have devastating effects, or, at the very least, bring us back to the depressive tableau which is “normally” expected under such circumstances. It seems less risky to me to think about the material qualities of this component of expression…Is it because of the presence of such a “luxurious” component that the song did not allow a preventative alarm to be raised and to suggest a bifurcation? From then on what was called to vegetate under the guise of inhibition was transformed into the beginning of a singularization process. (Guattari, ‘The Schizoanalyses’)

What is clarified with this example is that subject-groups and subjugated-groups, rather than corresponding to two discrete sets of individuals, corresponds to (and seeks to identify) the moments when a given subject finds itself in a relation with elements that offer an alternative to what Guattari views as the norm in Freudian and Lacanian analysis (i.e. a reductive treatment of the unconscious that continuously makes recourse to the Oedipal relation or the general linguistic structure underlying the whole of unconscious life). At this juncture what can be said with certainty is that, contrary to an analysis of desire in terms of its Oedipal or linguistic overdetermination, schizoanalysis aims to develop an analysis of desire where desire (or the subject, or the unconscious) functions as the guide and agent of analysis as such. In this way, then, to employ schizoanalysis with individuals and within and among groups is tantamount to constituting, within an individual or a group, “the conditions of an analysis of desire” that results in “analysis and desire finally on the same side, with desire taking the lead.” (Deleuze, ‘Three Group Related Problems’). Thus, we could say that what is at stake in schizoanalysis is the development of an analysis that returns desire to potentially liberatory elements, which have been deemed “irrelevant” or “meaningless” from the vantage point of Oedipal relations or linguistic structures.

And with respect to the social life within certain ‘militant’ or political organizations, Guattari identifies the same problem: where do we find the subject with respect to politics and under what conditions is it no longer able to creatively express itself? (218-19). In other words, how does the political subject free itself from structural impasses? (220-222). Just as the analyst takes recourse to alterity, so too must collective subjectivity develop the tools to ward off closing in on itself (through domatism or structuring group phantasy around a sign that assumes a Phallic function), policing its members (dictating, from above, legitimate and prohibited forms of speech, activity, etc.), and substituting a focus on how to identify and interpret, for itself, the unconscious traps that continuously hinder its expression. And it is this latter phenomena that obliges groups to  develop their own “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to liberate collective desire from grounding itself upon the dogmatic images of organization inherited from historical communism and the history of the workers movement. That said, one is still right to ask as to whether or not this development of transitional phantasies within subject-groups is simultaneously a sufficient reason for Guattari’s belief regarding the inherent link between psychotherapeutic practice and the concerns of (revolutionary) politics?

Breakthrough or Breakdown?

Just as he identifies the reductive work of psychoanalysis to be insufficient regarding the therapeutic aim of establishing, for the subject (i.e. the unconscious), a relation to a future that does not conform or repeat the structure of its past, so too does Guattari identify analogously reductive relations that inhibit the revolutionary potential of Leftist groups and organizations (e.g. the Party, the military, State, Capital). For Guattari, and with respect to Leftist institutions as historic as that of the Party-form and its mass organizations (union, youth organizations, women’s organizations, etc.), these forms have proven themselves to be an equally effective instrument of capitalist and state repression; achieved in large part by the alignment of workers’ desire with the interests of Capital as well as the Party’s collusion with bourgeois parties and the State in identifying and policing elements within the workers movement that continuously break with the Party line:

The demand for revolution is not essentially or exclusively at the level of consumer goods; it is directed equally to taking account of desire. Revolutionary theory, to the extent that it keeps its demands solely at the level of increasing people’s means of consumption, indirectly reinforces an attitude of passivity on the part of the working class. A communist society must be designed not with reference to consumption, but to the desire and the goals of mankind. The philosophic [sic] rationalism that dominates all the expressions of the workers’ movement like a super-ego fosters the resurgence of the old myths of paradise in another world, and the promise of a narcissistic fusion with the absolute. Communist parties are by way of having scientific “knowledge” of how to create a form of organization that would satisfy the basic needs of all individuals. What a false claim! There can be social planning in terms of organizing production…but it cannot claim to be able to give a priori answers in terms of the desire objectives of individuals and subject groups. (Guattari, ‘The Group and The Person’)

Moreover, says Guattari, it is only when groups undertake a schizoanalysis of itself that it can then develop “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to: “channel the action of imagination between one structure and another…To move from one representation of oneself to another, though it may involve crises, of at least retains continuity” (‘The Group and The Person, 229). More concretely, and as Guattari would argue with respect to the Italian State’s juridical and spectacular charges brought against Negri and the Red Brigades: “Violence is legitimate when it is the work of workers, women, and youths who are struggling to change their condition. It is no longer legitimate when it is only carried out by dogmatic groupuscules whose principal target…is the impact of their action on the media” (Guattari, ‘An Open Letter To Some Italian Friends’). Hence, Guattari writes:

Capitalism has only managed to consolidate those very bastions that the RAF and the Red Brigades claim too shake, insofar as it has managed to develop a majority consensus founded on social ultra-conservatism, the protection of acquired advantages and the sysmatic misinterpretation of anything that falls outside of corporate or national interests. And whatever works toward the isolation of individuals, whatever reinforces their feelings of impotence, whatever makes them feel guilty and dependent on the state, on collective agencies and their extensions…feed this consensus. To claim to lead a revolutionary movement without attacking these phenomena of mass manipulation is an absurdity. While the secret war conducted by the industrial powers along the north-south axis to keep the Third World is tow in indeed the main issue, it should not make us forget that there is another north-south axis which encircles the globe and along which conflicts of an equally essential nature are played out, involved the powers of the state and oppressed nationalities, immigrant workers, the unemployed, the “marginals,” the “nonguaranteed” and the “standardized” wage earners, the people of the cities and of the barrios, of the favellas, the ghettoes [sic], the shanty-towns, engaging the opposition of races, sexes, classes, age-groups, etc. To conduct this other war, in insure its social and mental control over the whole everyday, desiring world, capitalism mobilizes tremendous forces. To ignore this kind of opposition or to consider it of secondary importance is to condemn all other forms of social struggle led by the traditional Workers’ Movement to impotence or reappropriation. Like it or not, in today’s world, violence and the media work hand in glove. And when a revolutionary group plays the game of the most reactionary media, the game of collective guilt, then it has been mistaken: mistaken in its target, mistaken in its method, mistaken in its strategy, mistaken in its theory, mistaken in its dreams… (Guattari, ‘Like the Echo of a Collective Melancholia,’ 110-11)

Thus, it is for this reason that Deleuze will go on to claim, in his foreword to the text, that Guattari’s project has always been “about grasping that point of rupture where, precisely, political economy and libidinal economy are one and the same” (PT, 17) and that schizoanalysis refuses the misleading assumption that the problem of the Left is that of choosing between spontaneity and centralism, or between guerilla and generalized warfare: Guattari’s strength consists in showing that the problem is not at all about choosing between spontaneity and centralism. Nor between guerilla and generalized warfare. It serves no purpose to recognize in one breath the right to spontaneity during a first stage, if it means in the next breath demanding the necessity of centralization for a second stage: the theory of stages is the ruin of every revolutionary movement. From the start we have to be more centralist than the centralists. Clearly, a revolutionary machine cannot remain satisfied with local and occasional struggles: it has to be at the same time super-centralize and super-desiring. The problem, therefore, concerns the nature of unification, which must function in a transversal way, through multiplicity, and not in a vertical way…In the first place, this means that any unification must be the unification of a war-machine and not a State apparatus (a red Army stops being a war-machine to the extent that it becomes a more or less important cog in a State apparatus) (‘Three Group-Related Problems,’ 15-16).