1968-2018: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose(?)

may 68 barricade bordeaux

Transcript of my talk for the ‘’68 & its Double-binds’ conference at the University of Kent

Prefatory note: What motivated the writing of this presentation was the Badiou quote that was used on the CFP for this conference, which reads: “We are commemorating May ‘68 because the real outcome and the real hero of ‘68 is unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.” Upon reading this I felt compelled to revisit Badiou’s original essay, if only due to my immediate intuition that a conclusion such as this one strikes one as being at odds with the place reserved for May ‘68 in Badiou’s overall political thought and life. And if it sounds at odds with Badiou’s own thinking on this topic, it is because it is; for the the sentence directly preceding the quote just read reads, “There is also a second even more pessimistic answer [to why we are commemorating May ‘68 forty years after the fact].”[1] Now, the purpose of this anecdote is not to put anyone on trial but rather to revisit Badiou’s own analysis in detail and to inquire into whether or not his thesis remained true ten years on: can we still be said to be the contemporaries of May ‘68 or have the relations between the Left in 2018 and the Left of 1968 undergone a substantive transformation?   

[Introduction]

Today it appears that rather than the presentation of a solution or set of proscriptions, May ’68 persists 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?”[2] while for those like Guattari, ‘68’s problematic was socio-economic in essence (“…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.”)[3] And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May reveals itself to be decidedly metaphysical in nature (“Democracy is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics.”)[4] 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.[5] Hence our suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more so a formulation of a set of problems. However, for us it is necessary to ask whether or not we still remain its contemporaries, as Badiou suggests. In other words, is it as simple as recognizing the fact that contemporary struggles continue to lack the relevant forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of capital and its attendant social relations?

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. And it is by understanding why it becomes difficult to simply affirming or denying Badiou’s claim 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 searching for an answer to a singular question – namely, what form will collective subjectivity take such that it is adequate to the abolition of itself and its present state of affairs? – what becomes clear is that the possible solutions this question solicited in 1968 are significantly different from those offered up in 2018.

[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 40th 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 40 years of silence has come to pass. Beginning with this question what Badiou outlines two of the dominant modes of responding to this question.

On the one hand, there are a set of answers that can be said to be pessimistic & propose the idea that it is possible to commemorate May ’68 precisely because it no longer has any socio-political influence on the present .7 Or we could say that this commemoration is possible because what was really achieved through the events of May was the establishment of the conditions of possibility for neoliberalism.8 On the other hand, there are those answers that are decidedly optimistic – ranging from arguments that view this commemorative moment as a 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. Now, in contradistinction to these positions, and by emphasizing what he takes to be May ‘68’s irreducibly complex character, Badiou argues that there are not two but four different May’s:

the 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.[9]

So, in place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystifications, what goes by the name ‘May 1968’ was a political sequence that was effectuated due to the interplay of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general and wildcat strikes organized by workers, and (iii) the cultural protestations which arose most notably from young people and filmmakers. And it is for this reason, says Badiou, 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.”[10] Now, while each of these segments of ‘68 correspond to the first three iterations of May, what is it that constitutes this supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and the struggles of 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’ regarding ‘68’s movements relation to previous cycles of revolutionary struggle. This fourth iteration of May, was defined by the various social movements shared rejection of the Leninist outline of revolution (or what Badiou, in his essay on Sylvain Lazarus, calls ‘the bolshevik mode of politics’) – a vision of revolution that proceeds via workers’ parties, backed by labour unions, all while professional revolutionaries organize the masses in the bid for seizing state power.[11] And it was this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy characteristic of the fourth May that laid the ground for the unification of the student, worker, and cultural struggles active during ‘68. 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.’[12]

Now, in addition to this collective rejection of ‘classic revolutionism,’ the other aspect of the fourth May was the rejection of working-class identity as being the sole determinant of one’s revolutionary potential. And, for Badiou, this rejection, which was founded upon the idea that ‘the classical figure of the politics of emancipation’ to be ‘ineffective,’ had its validity confirmed by his 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.[14]

 

Thus, for Badiou, to commemorate or reflect upon the events of 68 means to necessarily confront and understand it as a political sequence that was realized only because of students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups (youth, women, Algerians, etc.) sharing 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. A 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?”[15] And 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. Thus it comes as no surprise that we can find Kristin Ross give a description of May ‘68 in a manner similar to the portrait of political subjectivity drawn by Badiou himself:

What has come to be called “the events of May” consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: 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—trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers’ housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and later against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. 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.[16]

And so the notion of there having been not one or 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 collectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal ‘that links the other three [May’s].’[17] And 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; and thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been said to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free.

[1968 – 2018?]

Today, however, things do not seem as clear as they did during 1968. With respect to politics, 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 (Labour in the UK, DSA backed candidates in the Democratic Party in the United States, etc.) 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. And this alone is already a significant divergence from Badiou’s assessment regarding our relation to the legacy of ‘68. For if we are the contemporaries of ‘68; and if ‘68 was truly defined according to the diagonal function of this ‘fourth May’ which united various social movements via the shared rejection of both the Party-form with its unions and the electoral process; then, from the vantage point of the present, this consensus forged during ‘68 has now been put into question.[18]

An analysis such as this was already put forward in 2015 by Plan C’s Keir Milburn. In their article ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands,’ they note 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 they put 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.”[19] 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 regarding this reinvestment of the Party-form – and this largely happens either through compromises made between the elected government and the EU or by the EU’s, IMF’s, 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.”[20]  So what are we to take away from all this?

1). The Left: First, in terms of a collective subject whose consistency is drawn from a shared horizon with its principles and analyses, 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],” we must recognize that one possible slogan that could encapsulate the Left of 2018 would be the idea that ‘elections are a mode through which class struggle can again be waged.’

2). The Subject of Politics: Second, while the problem of constructing a form of subjectivity adequate to the current organization of capital remains as urgent as it was in 1968, this problem 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 – regardless if the solutions to this problem assumed different names such as sans-culotte, the peasant, the slave, the colonized, and of course the worker. And regarding the current relation of Capital’s socio-economic structure to the possible existence of the long sought after agent of abolition, the prospects of the Left being able to determine for themselves the form and organizational structure struggle will assume appears to be even more difficult than 1968 – a milieu that, as we saw, was already characterized by the established parties and unions fighting both their electoral rivals and those who defected or exercised insubordination in the face of union and party officials. What is more, given the recent research on various forms of struggle such as Joshua Clover’s book on riots, it is worth emphasizing what he lays out so carefully: 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.

3). The Party, The State: However, if it is precisely a shared orientation defined as anti-state, anti-party, and anti-parliamentarian that is lacking from our present and whose absence is the felt in the Left’s division from itself, the solution cannot simply be calls of support for more ‘diversity of tactics,’ because when the parties of the Left end up in power what we have seen in the past and what may come again in the near future is the repression of all those extra-parliamentary groups struggles, whose very existence participated in building a political climate favorable to the Left as a whole. This is a tendency that realized itself  in post-’68 France and whose most well known example is that of the Italian Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise.’ And regarding the recent years leading up to 2018, 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 cutting funds to police and emergency personnel (Labour Party Manifesto, 46-47). How exactly? By placing an additional 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 (JME), all of whom come from communities that are at the highest risk of being harrassed, beaten, wrongfully stopped and searched, verbally and physically assaulted, or worse, by the police themselves.

Endnotes

  1.  Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, (Verso: London, 2015), 33.
  2.  Ibid, 39-40.
  3.  Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolutions, p. __“…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.”
  4. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy, p. 34. Or as Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas put it, “Democracy must therefore be thought as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible but can in no way be reduced to the political. As such, it is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics. It was May 68, Nancy argues, that demonstrated all this in an exemplary way and so deserves to be not simply remembered and commemorated but rethought and renewed.” Ibid, xi.
  5.  In other parts of the world, however, 1968 means something more than the struggle over historical interpretation. In 2014, 43 Mexican students who were kidnapped by police whilst in transit to Mexico City to commemorate the students and civilians massacred by the Mexican state in 1968. And to this day their families remain in the dark with only the repressive state to turn to for answers. For these 43 students publicly remembering the events of Mexico’s ‘68 is not simply a theoretical exercise. For them and their comrades, remembering 68 requires the courage of the militant Badiou often speaks of – since 68 in the global south is a game of life and death.
  6.  Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, (Verso: London, 2015), 33.
  7.  “We can now commemorate May ‘68 because we are convinced that it is dead. Forty years after the event, there is no life left in it” (Ibid).
  8.  “The libertarian ideas of ‘68, the transformation of the way we live, the individualism and the taste for jouissance have become a reality thanks to post-modern capitalism and its garish world of all sorts of consumerism…Sarkozy himself is the product of May ’68, and to celebrate May ’68…is to celebrate the neoliberal West…” (Ibid, 33-34).
  9.  Ibid, 34-5, emphasis mine.
  10.  Ibid, 39.
  11.  Or as Badiou recounts from his own experience of May, “At the time we assumed that the politics of emancipation was neither a pure idea, an expression of the will nor a moral dictate, but that it was inscribed in, and almost programmed by, historical and social reality. One of that convictions implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were site of power or intervention. There were certainly wide-ranging discussion about what the party was…But there was a basic agreement that there a historical agent, and that that agent had to be organized. That political organization obviously had a social basis in mass organizations that plunged their roots into an immediate social reality…This gives us something that still survives today: the idea that there are two sides to emancipatory political action. First there are social movements…[T]hen there is the party element…”
  12.  Ibid, 43.
  13.  Ibid, 44.
  14.  Ibid, 45.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Kristin Ross, May 68 And Its Afterlives, 25, my emphasis.  
  17.  Communist Hypothesis, 44.
  18.  For more see Keir Milburn’s essay, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands’ https://www.weareplanc.org/blog/on-social-strikes-and-directional-demands/
  19.  Keir Milburn, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands’

20.   Keir Milburn, ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands.’ Additionally, it is important to recall Yanis Varoufakis’ anecdote regarding a conversation he had with Christine Legarde, head of the IMF. After Varoufakis informed Legarde that it would be mathematically impossible for Greece to repay its debt according to the austerity measures proposed by the IMF, Legarde in fact agreed with him but replied that it was something that must be done – a telling remark since it reveals the function of the Troika as the set of institutions who secure the smooth running of neoliberalism regardless of the material needs of those who live in debtor countries.

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Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.

The Girl With the Bomb, The Guardian of Dynamite: Notes on the politics of becoming-woman

poetical licence

Excerpt from a piece on D&G, gender, struggle, and communism as the ‘real movement’ of abolition

 

1. Identifying the Girl of Russian Terrorism

In the tenth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘1730: Becoming-intense, becoming-animal…’, one is presented with a sequence of memories drawn from such a diversity of individuals and conceptual-personae that the sequence itself appears to make very little sense if read as one single extended argument for Deleuze and Guattari’s particular understanding of becoming. In place of the expected rational demonstration of the being and function of becoming, what we encounter instead are the memories of a Spinozist, a theologian, a sorcerer, and a plan(e) maker, among others. However, buried near the middle of the chapter, in the section entitled ‘Memories of a Molecule‘, where we encounter a discussion on the role of becoming-woman and the figure of the (universal) girl as they relate to both becoming in general and becomings within the domain of politics and history, our authors briefly, though suggestively, pose the question of “[T]he special role of the girl in Russian terrorism: the girl with the bomb, the guardian of dynamite?[1]

While it is clear that, at least for Deleuze and Guattari, the girl of Russian terrorism played the role of the guardian of the bomb and of dynamite, what is not at all clear is the reason for why they attribute this special role to the girl in the first place. Is it simply a case of elevating what is particular (in this case to Russian history) in order to treat it as a general principle or maxim? And should it not strike us as strange that Deleuze and Guattari give any example at all–let alone that of the girl of Russian terrorism–since it would present what is tempting in the error of conflating becoming with imitation or role-play, and instead of employing the girl as the means of instituting a break with one’s present material conditions (and which one of us hasn’t encountered a situation where they start to desire, whether from desperation or insomniac exhaustion, a revival of the Red Army Faction or Red Brigades? Or succumb to the hallucination that abolishing capital can be achieved simply through replicating the structure and organization created by the Zapatistas or even the YPG?).

One possible interpretation would be to try and locate the reasons and causes that lead Deleuze and Guattari to attribute speciality to this ‘role of the girl in Russian terrorism’ wholly within the political movements and traditions of Russia itself. The temptation of this reading is that it’s method leads one directly to a rich and largely forgotten dimension of the individuals and organizations that helped pave the way for the atmosphere of the 1917 revolution. Proceeding in this manner, one immediately encounters women such as Maria Spiridonova:

On 16 January 1906 at the Borisoglebsk railroad station in Tambov province, 21-year-old Mariya Aleksandrovna Spiridonova, daughter of a non-hereditary noble and member of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, shot and fatally wounded provincial government councilor Gavriil Nikolaevich Luzhenovskiy, the security chief of the Borisoglebsk district as well as a leader of the Tambov branch of the right-wing Union of the Russian People. The Tambov SR committee had sentenced Luzhenovskiy to die “for his criminal flogging to death and excessive torturing of peasants during the agrarian and political dis- orders” of the autumn of 1905, as Spiridonova afterward explained in her deposition to Tambov court authorities. “In full agreement with this sentence and in full consciousness of my action,” she stated, “I took it on myself to carry out this sentence.”[2]

However, as an unintended consequence of this view is the very discovery that what was so special about the girl of Russian terrorism is the simultaneous neutralization of her haecceity. For if this quality only belongs to Russian terrorism between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, what are we to understand when Deleuze and Guattari write that they are “certain that molecular politics proceeds via the girl and the child”?[3]

Alternatively, one could read this ‘girl of Russian terrorism,’ and that function proper to her, as a function relative to the more general war-machine of which it is said. That is to say, the part played by this girl of Russian terrorism can also be found in struggles outside of the Russian context. Consequently, the special role would simply arise from the requirements of any struggle undertaken against the State. On this view, what is special about the girl exceeds the historical cases of armed struggle and direction action against a Tsarist State that one may find in Russia at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. What is special to the girl in Russian terrorism is only what allows her to institute becomings in the midst of overall capture by the State and its generalized stratification in accord with the universal axiom of capital (produce for the market). As Deleuze and Guattari put it, “The girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable term, man, woman, child, adult. It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is becoming-woman that produces the universal girl.”[4] 

The salient function proper to the girl of Russian terrorism, then, is the fact that she functions as that which maintains or initiates processes of destratification, deterritorialization, molecular becomings, and searches for what is potentially liberatory within lines of flight. Thus, it is true that the quality proper to this girl of Russian terrorism is a general feature of the kind of subjectivity defined as a war-machine; it is seen in every action taken by the war-machine and confront the (actual or virtual) State by means of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘the three virtues’: the impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible. If only to further emphasize the irreducibility of the girl’s significance with respect to the historical and material conditions at the turn of the century Russia, we turn our attention to another instance where we encounter, once more, this special role of the girl (but now as a literal instantiation of the girl as the guardian of explosives): the anti-colonial struggle undertaken by the Algerian National Liberation Front (F.L.N.).

2. When becoming-woman transforms into collective imperceptibility

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With the F.L.N., we encounter once again the phenomena of how girls with bombs act as partisans of an anti-colonial war-machine. In other words, if the girl of Russian terrorism effectuates a becoming-woman that is also at work in the context of the F.L.N.’s struggle against Algeria’s colonial occupation by France it is because becoming-woman is fundamentally an attribute belonging, not to any particular historico-political movement, but to the deterritorializing function of the war-machine wherever it takes hold. It is only by understanding how it is only in the presence of a war-machine that we may speak of becoming-woman as one of its constituent parts. It is in this way that we get a better sense as to why Deleuze and Guattari claim that the becomings that constitute political struggles against the State find ‘their necessary condition [in] the becoming-woman of the warrior, or his alliance with the girl, his contagion with her’; to understand why it is that ‘the man of war is inseparable from the Amazons.’[5] 

In scenes such as the one above, taken from Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo shows his audience how F.L.N. women succeed in infiltrating the French quartiers of Algiers–a task made especially difficult since these areas of the city were surveilled and protected by French police checks. Thus, this scene’s significance is due to its depiction of the necessary relationship between the girl-as-guardian-of-the-bomb and the war machine in itself. Now, regarding such scenes, Peter Matthews proposes one possible reading of this function of the young-girl:

The acid test of this comes in the unforgettable sequence where three Algerian women plant bombs at various crowded hangouts in the French quarter. Masquerading as loose-living Europeans, carrying mortality in a shopping basket, they would be sinister femmes fatales in another context…If we can accept the grievous necessity of these deaths, then we consent to everything. Pontecorvo has penetrated our Western self-absorption and let in the harsh light of reality.[6]

Now, aside from the fact that Matthews’ sentimentalism regarding the actions of the three Algerian women, his is a reaction that is of no use for understanding the relationship between gender, sex, and revolutionary struggle. It must be said, however, that what we find misleading in Matthews’ account of the FLN’s very own ‘femme fatales’ is the claim that affirming the violence enacted by the FLN means that we affirm a politics that ‘consents to everything’ by necessity. Allying with the FLN isn’t to consent to a situation where anything is permissible. Rather, the logic of the FLN war machine is precisely the logical steps colonized subjects must take since theirs is an intolerable situation. Thus, the “horror that we consent to everything” masks the fact that it is only by going to war that the colonized has any chance at liberation. More than some fear regarding the loss of morality in colonial contexts the reappearance of Russian terrorism’s jeuene-fille finds herself far from Russia and on African shores; here she runs and hides in the alleyways of the casbah in order to evade capture and continue the anti-colonial struggle.

But what is a becoming-woman in all of this? And the ‘special role’ of the girl related to the aims of the war machine? If it is the case, as D&G claim, that waging war is the best means of warding off state, then the function of becoming-woman is to aid the war machine in ensuring the non-existence, or abolition of, the State:

…just as Hobbes saw clearly that the State was against war, so war is against the State, and makes it impossible. It is should not be concluded that war is not a state of nature [an error that grounds Matthews’ fear], but rather that it is the mode of a social state that wards off and prevents the State.[7]

Unlike Matthews, D&G understand it as imperative, in the confrontation between the FLN and the colonial violence of France, to differentiate the actions of each from the other in order not to confuse or conflate both. Consequently, for D&G, this means that we lack any right/legitimacy in saying that only a state of nature exists (as implied by Matthews) between the war machine and the State since it’s a confrontation the nature of which ‘consents to everything’; a confrontation wherein the actions of both the FLN and France can only be treated as having equal ethico-political value. If the FLN constructed its own war-machine and correlating becoming-woman, it means, then, that the actions of the FLN and France are not only unequal, but fundamentally incommensurable. And as seen in the passage above, it is the State that seeks to prevent war while it is the war machine that seeks to prevent the existence of States. So… if the actions of the FLN and the State cannot be treated as equal, it is because their respective political projects involve the mutual exclusion of their opposite. And while it may be the case, objectively speaking, that the colonial context held open a number of possible resolutions to anti-colonial struggles (liberation, neo-colonialism, genocide), for the FLN liberation was always the only legitimate option.

 

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 277
[2] Boniece, ‘The “Shesterka” of 1905-06’
[3] ATP, p. 277

[4] Ibid.
[5] ATP, p. 278
[6] Matthews, ‘Bombs and Boomerangs’
[7] ATP, p. 357

What would it mean to love as a Communist? To love as a comrade?

proletariat of the world who will wash your socks?

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This is a modified excerpt from a forthcoming publication of a roundtable discussion with Jules Joanne Gleeson, Andrew Culp, and myself. The full transcript can be found here.

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We must remember that only a code of sexual morality that is in harmony with the problems of the working class can serve as an important weapon in strengthening the working class’s fighting position. The experience of history teaches us that much. What can stop us using this weapon in the interests of the working class, who are fighting for a communist system and for new relationships between the sexes that are deeper and more joyful?

– Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle’ (1921)

One of the key contributions of Marxist Feminism has been the development of a theoretical framework that affords us new ways of conceiving and understanding the relationship between work and sex, and how their relationship bears on the possibilities for love; and all on the basis of how it has been able to deepen the specificity of what exactly a communist politics promises and entails. The example that immediately comes to mind here is Silvia Federici’s seminal essay,  ‘Wages Against Housework.’ It is in this essay where Federici makes a comment that appears as nothing but a passing remark; a statement that is less a materialist description and more a declaration regarding just what exactly is entailed and implicitly asserted in the project of bringing about a communist future. And so, in the course of her analysis, Federici writes: ‘[W]e want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known.’ Given Federici’s insight, and inquiring into the the opportunities afforded to us by Marxist Feminism, we could begin by attempting to understand the precise sense in which Federici makes this remark. In other words, is it the case that Federici is implicitly arguing for a view that seeks out the meaning and social relations of love, intimacy, and familial bonds, insofar as they are stripped of their determinations by the social relations of Capital?

However, my suspicion is that the question with which Federici is occupied is one that is as difficult and profound as it is simple and concise: What would it mean to love as a communist? To love like a comrade, or to love as someone who is in solidarity while simultaneously as someone who loves within a romantic partnership? And finally, what are the modes of loving, both ourselves and others, that are made possible only by virtue of communism? This is to inquire into the possibility of an image of communism as one that is irreducible to its being the solution to the riddle of history. So, if what is implied by Federici’s remark is that communism is the historical condition upon which questions of love and sexuality can be posed, in its most profound and meaningful manner, then what is potentially discovered within the tradition of Marxist Feminism more generally is a vision of communism as something more than historical resolutions; a communism that was to be the very condition through which the meaning and function of love no longer derives its sense or value through its participation in a time no longer defined as that of labour or of leisure.

And so, regarding the connection between love and the form of time adequate to it, and with respect to Federici’s insistence on the political necessity of maintaining a clear separation of the time of work from that of sex/love/life, we catch a glimpse of how this Marxist Feminist analysis of the relationship between production and reproduction are immediately related to Marx’s own position on the differing forms of time proper to capitalism and communism.  For example, Marx makes a relevant observation in the Grundrisse when he writes that: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time‘ (Grundrisse, tr. Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, 708). This disposable-time that is said to be the true measure of the wealth produced under communism; this time with which we can do as we please and that structures one’s life as a life defined by this form of time that can only be attributed to communism; this time, then, is the form of time that not only corresponds to Federici’s separation of sex from work but does so in a way that moves beyond the brute opposition of labour-time vs. leisure-time (which is simply unwaged time put in the service of reproducing labour-power). In this way, one would be able to see how disposable-time is the form of time adequate to communism; adequate because it is only through disposable-time that society’s negotiation of the questions/problems/experiences of love and sexuality can be determined in a specifically communist manner (and communist because disposable-time is a form of time the existence of which necessarily implies the abolition of any notion of time as the measure of value). It is in this way that we can say that disposable-time is a properly communist time since in its abolition of life organized according waged and un-waged activity it also creates and organizes social life according to the time it would take for everyone to rediscovery what love can be independent of the obligations to satisfy either waged or unwaged labour, and would allow for, as Federici yearns for, the creation of sexualities we have never known. To put this in terms favored by someone like Dauvé: Disposable-time is the time of communism because ‘[T]ime is…the dimension of human liberation, providing the measure of time does not turn into measuring the world and us according to time.’ Disposable-time, then, is nothing but the measure of human liberation whereas the forms of time appropriate to capital are those which measure ourselves and the world against a standard that is, in essence, other-worldly and in-human. And so, to engage in class struggle is not simply to engage in a process of increasingly equitable distributions of the total surplus-value of capital. It also means to struggle against situations where our lives are measured according to capitalist Time instead of Time being measured according to the life of human societies and the world it requires for its self-reproduction. 

And yet… 

Problems immediately present themselves regarding the position I have just outlined since it is a reading that proposes Federici’s insights taken in connection with Marx’s comments on disposable-time as a form of time distinct from that of labour- or leisure-time, are important and useful for thinking through possible determinations or meanings regarding the content of expressions of love or sexual relations. However, my above comment is actually an account that responds more to the question of a life determined under communist social relations (i.e. what are some of  the material and symbolic effects of loving relations under a communist society?) and less to that of sexual lives and love lives formed in the midst of the real movement that abolishes both itself and the present state of affairs (i.e. what are the relations of love and care required for communism understood as the real, abolishing, movement?). And, perhaps to make matters worse, I feel myself almost guaranteed to fail at giving anything close to an adequate answer to configurations of sex and love that are contemporary with revolutionary struggle. However, on this question of love and sex in times of struggle, there are at least some examples from past cycles of struggle to which we can return to in light of these questions. And one example that immediately comes to mind is the phenomena that came to be known as ‘forest wives’ – which was a temporary social relation whose legitimate invocation pertained only to periods of revolutionary struggle, and particularly to the cis-male guerrilla fighters of the Hukbalahap, which served as the armed wing of the Partido Kommunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). The phenomena of ‘forest wives’ is relevant for us insofar as it presents an historical example of how a communist party and its armed wing embarked on devising explicitly communist solutions to the problems that guerrilla’s inevitably faced in the countryside and/or jungle (loneliness, alienation, sexual frustration, desire for intimacy with another person, etc.) n light of how best to integrate the desires of its guerrilla cadre: the Hukbalahap (the guerrilla army’s full name in Tagalog being ‘the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon,’ and in English translates as ‘the People’s Anti-Japanese Liberation Army’). 

In 1950, the party drafted a document with the title “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem” – and it is in this document that the PKP sought to consider the so-called ‘sex problem’ (in addition to questions surrounding marriage and family structures) as they were objectively determined by the requirements of an ongoing guerrilla struggle against the Japanese and then later against the United States. Thus, in an effort to begin  to think through the relations of sex and love afforded by communism understood as a collective and abolitionist struggle, I would turn our attention to the work of Vina A. Lanzona’s, and particularly her significant text, Amazons of the Huk Rebellion. It is here that Lanzona’s historical research into how questions of sex and gender were treated by the PKP and Huk guerrillas demonstrates at least one possible approach of what sex and love mean in a time of resistance and/or struggle. As Lanzona shows, it was clear that the PKP viewed problems of sex and family life as primarily social in nature as opposed to individual or personal matters. And it is for this reason that the party sought out explicitly social solutions instead of viewing these as the problems that plague bourgeois sentimentalism regarding the betrayal caused by desire and/or private, as opposed to public, matters of the heart:

The policy set out in this document permitted married male guerrillas to have extramarital relationships with single female cadres as long as they followed strict regulations. Claiming “biological necessity,” the frustrated male cadre could present his problem to his superiors and…[A]fter an unofficial review he would be allowed to take a forest wife as long as both his legal and forest wives were aware of the arrangement and he agreed to settle down with only one woman at the end of the struggle […] In their efforts to negotiate relationships between male and female members, party officials moved issues of sex and family from the private to the public realm, weighing the “private” interests and desires of individual cadres in relation to the collective interests of the…movement…personal matters that had once been negotiated solely by individual men and women were now discussed and regulated by the revolutionary movement. (Amazons of the Huk Rebellion, 13-14)

What is evident in the PKP’s solution to the ‘sex problem’ is its inability to (i) critically distance itself from conflating sex with gender and (ii) its ignorance to the way in which sex is labour, and therefore leisure-time is nothing other than unwaged labour-time that acts as another constraint, historically considered, on the material lives of women under capitalist social relations. Such is a position taken by Jeff Goodwin in his essay on the libidinal-economy of the Huk Rebellion. As Goodwin writes, it would turn out to be the case that the PKP’s official response in legitimizing of relations between cis-male guerrilla fighters and their ‘forest wife’ counterparts culminated in a situation whereby the very ‘affectual ties’ outlined by the party ultimately  ‘eroded the solidarity of this…movement. The libidinal constitution (i.e., the structure and “economy” of the affectual ties) of the Huk movement’s [sic] predominantly male activists…undermined their collective identity and discipline’ (Goodwin, 53). However, despite these blind spots the significant contribution we are forced to acknowledge and as outlined in the “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem” is the attempt made at resolving problems that arise within relations of sex and love from a decidedly materialist standpoint. Materialist, because despite its shortcomings the PKP occupied the position that began from the admission that both the essence of, and material basis for, problems arising within relations of sex and love are products of a process that is equally historical and material. In other words, the problems posed by sex and love are fundamentally social and not individual because the social relations that govern how we have sex and love ourselves/others are determined, in the last instance, by the fact that the social relations of capital are simultaneously gendered. 

All of this to qualify my initial answer in order to make the following clear: if what we understand by communism is the real movement of abolition, and if what we are asking when we inquire into what communism makes possible for the life of desire, then the example of the PKP’s ‘revolutionary solution’ to the so called ‘sex problem’ is important. And equally with respect to the PKP’s framework which lead it to understand that it is of the nature of problems to be social and political prior to being private and individual; additionally, it was due to the PKP’s understanding of the lasting effects of colonization (Spain) and imperialism (United States) that their framework implicitly asserted the claim that problems are generated out of historical and material processes and produce specific gendered social relations that also function as what determines the particular problems of sex, love, and family life for all individuals under the gendered social relations constituted by, and constitutive of, a life lived according to the dictates of capital’s raison d’être (i.e., the development ad infinitum of both the means and relations of production placed at the service of satisfying the obsession that lies at the heart of capital’s logical self-development: the continuation of primitive accumulation and unemployment as guarantees for the existence of a global reserve army of labour as well as the existence of lucrative nation-states for the realization of value and therefore a guarantee for one more revolution around the globe for value-creation). In other words, if anything is to be taken from the PKP’s “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem”, it is more historical than practically useful. And it’s historical significance lies in the fact of this party document that renders coherent the relationship between sex, love, and family life vìs-a-vìs what is required by a period of struggle and whose grounds and conclusions presage what would come to define the values and discoveries made by the second wave (white-European) of feminist movement. The significance of this attempt at actualizing a revolutionary solution the sex problem is in its having avoided, in theory and as early as 1950, prioritizing the false problems/debates that would arise and that would lead some elements of the Left to view questions regarding ‘identities’ (and specifically gender and sexual identity) as having nothing but a divisive consequence for the overall unity of the proletariat as the agent that determines the outcomes of the real and abolishing movement against the present. 

In the end, the PKP’s missed opportunity remains painful since its failure to remain faithful to an intersectional analysis translated into its failure to realize what is revealed as common to the nexus of sex, gender, and communism: Abolition. So to bring this rambling comment to a close, and from within the present conjuncture, it is only by relating communism to notions of sex, love, and gender through the category of abolition that the questions of ‘What it would mean to love as a communist?’ and ‘To love as a comrade?’ move beyond the limitations of the PKP as well as forecloses any possible legitimacy of positions supported by TERFs when speaking of communist politics. And since Jules has already articulated how abolition serves as the vanishing mediator between communism and questions of sex, love, and gender I will simply end with what her own words towards the end of an essay entitled ‘The Call for Gender Abolition: From Materialist Lesbianism to Gay Communism‘:

Trans womanhood in this respect constitutes womanhood existing in its own right, and against the wishes of a considerable body accustomed to the prevailing heterosexual order. Politically, this can be a point of pride. Our inability to bear children is cited by traditionalists and radical feminist ‘abolitionists’ alike as grounds to disqualify us from womanhood, demonstrating at once the fixing and fragility of womanhood as a sex class. For as long as women remain often defined by their relationship to biological reproduction, trans women can only be considered inadequate imitations. Abolishing womanhood, as defined by Wittig, could be furthered by inclusion of trans women in that category as currently constituted. If co-existence can not be achieved, abolition is inevitable. This struggle will surely be a refiguring and visceral one, challenging and overcoming arbitrary demarcations in embodiment through diverse and unrelenting means (surfacing in hospitals, street corners and bed rooms). In reclaiming this abolitionary drive towards unchecked expressiveness, revolutionary trans feminism has much to learn from the gay communist and materialist lesbian traditions.

 

 

 

Guattari & Italy’s “Hot Autumn”

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Guattari was dreaming of building a federation of regional protest movements, which could open up secondary fronts and weaken the Nation-State. Despite his extensive network of contacts, he never managed to realize this perilous project, which was located on the cusp between democratic combat and terrorist action

[…]

Guattari became a hero figure in Bologna. He was considered one of the essential sources of inspiration for the Italian left, and he watched the marches with the utmost delight, seeing his thoughts take shape in a social and political force. The day after the gathering, the daily and weekly press put his photo on their covers, presenting him as the founder and creator of this mobilization. Guattari had suddenly become the Daniel Cohn-Bendit of Italy.  

– François Dosse, Intersecting Lives, 284-91

As history has sometimes shown, engaging in revolution can be a perilous project. Such was the situation of the deleuzoguattarian political experiment, as well as its supposed fate as recounted by François Dosse in the epigraph above. It is our wager that in order to get a better sense of the specific ways in which the political experiment of molecular revolution succeeded and failed, we must begin with Guattari’s political writing in conjunction with the movements and struggles he was engaged with at the time of their writing. As such, our inquiry is aimed to demonstrate the following thesis: by shifting the focus away from class-identity and toward the minor/minority, Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘molecular revolution’ overcomes the limits and dangers of more orthodox images of how revolutionary praxis is defined and how it manifests itself in concrete terms. To make this argument, however, requires a consideration of the similarities and differences to traditional Marxism that are operative in Guattari’s political thought. After a comparative analysis, we will then be able to see how Guattari’s notions of the ‘minor’, and ‘minority’, contribute to an alternate understanding of the current possibility of revolution as being nothing other than ‘molecular’ in nature.

Guattari developed the notion of a ‘molecular revolution’ in response to his involvement in Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1977, as well as in response to the lessons he learned in the afterlife of ‘68. For Guattari, what these cycles of struggle signaled as necessary was a shift away, in both analysis and praxis, from more classical notions of collective subjectivity organized around a shared, class-based, worker, identity; and this being the specific social group that according to marxist orthodoxy, is said to occupy the  privileged place in society from where the abolition of capital can be successfully achieved. For Guattari, instead of reiterating the centrality of the composition of class struggle according to class-based identity, revolutionary theory and praxis would be better served by avoiding (i) the strategy of organizing a revolutionary movement in terms of ‘class unity’ and (ii) any analysis of capital’s possible overcoming that places class as the central category. In place of class and the composition of class struggle along a shared worker identity, Guattari’s wager is that it would be more fruitful to substitute the category of ‘class’ with that of ‘minority.’ However, if ‘minority’ was to eventually supplant ‘class’ within Guattari’s theory of revolution, it was caused by a few key reasons and political experiences. However, in order to understand the significance of Guattari’s ‘molecular revolution’, a few things must be said regarding the concept of minority; and particularly, how it is defined and how it is used in response to specific political developments during the 1970’s.

  1. Minority, Class, Politics

First, the category of ‘minority’ was offered as an alternative to that of ‘class’ insofar as class itself was a category that did not sufficiently account for the ways in which specific sections of the global population were primed for engaging in communism as the abolition of capitalist social relations as such. When Deleuze and Guattari assert that a ‘minority is defined as a non-denumerable set, however many elements it may have,’ this means that what constitutes a minority is not a shared identity. Rather, a minority is constituted by that particular conjunction of individuals whose collective existence is defined by the possibility of abolishing all identities offered by the world of capital:

Women, nonmen, as a minority, as a nondenumerable flow or set, would receive no adequate expression by becoming elements of the majority…Nonwhites would receive no adequate expression by becoming a new yellow or black majority…Minority as a universal figure, or becoming-everybody/everything (devenir tout le monde). (ATP, 470)

However, upon what basis can Guattari substitute the figure of the minority/the minor for that of class/class-identity, without jettisoning the revolutionary aspirations of a class analysis of capitalist social relations? For Guattari (as well as Deleuze) replacing class with minority is justified precisely because what defines the minor/minority is a mode of engagement with capital that eschews all attempts of trying to secure its identity within capital itself. This is not to say that Guattari understand the category of class as inherently fated, or as a concept whose only promise is that of securing a more equal distribution of wealth while failing to abolish the value-form, for example. But if this is so, why replace a category as central as that of class? That is, what made Guattari view this substitution of minority for class something essential and necessary for the possible of theorizing revolutionary struggle? In a word: Italy’s “Hot Autumn.” It would be this period of revolutionary activity in Italy, starting from the summer and fall of 1969 up through the late 70’s, that would inform Guattari’s thoughts regarding the form and content any future revolutionary movement must take. In addition to his participation (Radio Alice) and relationship to key figures (Negri, Berardi) of this moment in the country’s history, Guattari found therein the existence of a mode of engaging in class struggle that could not sufficiently be theorized in terms of simple class-identity or class-belonging. Unlike its more traditional organizational counterparts (i.e. unions, parties) that remained obedient to union bosses and the Party, Autonomia was a form and composition of struggle that maintained close relations, “with non-industrial workers, particularly service-sector and radicalized professional workers, as well as with unpaid labor, such as the “houseworkers” (operaie di casa) of the operaist section of the women’s movement, the movement of the unemployed in the South, and the university and high school students’ movements” (Cuninghame, ‘Hot Autumn:’  Italy’s Factory Councils and Autonomous Workers’ Assemblies, 1970s’, 324).

In light of this Guattari adopted a framework that now viewed all individuals relative to their position within society as having their own, specific, potential for engaging in revolutionary activity. Thus, it is no longer simply the proletariat who hold a privileged position within the circuit of value creation and capital accumulation. In light of the mutations undergone by capital at the beginning of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, the struggle waged against capital can begin and organize itself from any point within capitalist totality as such. Thus it isn’t just the working-class, or those who are exploited at the point of production, who are potentially partisans of the revolution. For Guattari, and beginning in the 1970’s, it is anyone anywhere who can take up the struggle for abolishing value as the social relation that dominates and exploits every dimension of public and private life. However, what makes this a truly molecular understanding of revolution is not simply this democratization of the latent revolutionary character of more social-positions within capital. What makes a movement molecular in nature is its inclusion of those elements of society ignored, or placated, by the unions and Party leadership – a movement that includes these elements in accordance with the idea that what is required is not the progressive embetterment of the lives of workers as workers, of their daily life within capital, but rather the abolition of the identity and function of work and the worker all together. Thus, alongside the inspiration he drew from autonomia, Guattari’s qualification of revolution as ‘molecular’ was also a response to what those sympathetic to autonomia saw as the actual, concrete, role played by both the official unions and the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

During this decade of revolutionary upheaval, and against their supposed role as advocates and representatives of working-class interests, the official workers unions and PCI continuously revealed themselves as acting according to their interest of maintaining the greatest degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the state. What was revealed in the course of Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ was the way in which both unions and the PCI acted with a view toward consolidating political legitimacy at the expense of jettisoning any strategy for the abolition of work and worker identity. And this is clearest seen two key examples: Alberto Asor Rosa’s ‘two societies thesis’ and the Moro Affair of 1978.

  1. The Class That Struggles Together Stays Together

The figure of Asor Rosa, who was himself a former member of Potere Operaio and later joined the PCI in the early 70’s, is important for understanding how the official channels of the Left came to betray the workers themselves precisely because it was Asor Rosa who provided the PCI with the very analysis that would come to define its relationship to the Left in general. As Jason Smith aptly summarizes: ‘…Alberto Asor Rosa…spoke of a deep and potentially unbridgeable cleavage in Italian society, indeed of “two societies.” One society was made up of the classical workers’ movement…This first society…had formed a parliamentary alliance with the center-right Christian Democrats, and, most importantly, espoused an ethos of work. The second society was composed of a complex stratification of students, the unemployed, the precariously employed, southern immigrants, proletarian youth circles, and other strays who refused this ethos of work and who even refused worker identity altogether…He argued that these strata that made up the second society were unable to assume enough distance from themselves to comprehend the PCI’s strategic compromise with the center-right. The parasitic strata were, he lamented, completely absorbed by the “hard and desperate perception of their own needs” (Smith, ‘The Politics of Incivility”, 124). It would be Asor Rosa’s “two societies” thesis that would serve as the basis for the PCI’s strategy of representing and denouncing the extra-parliamentary Left as nothing but the violent, criminal, and opportunistic elements in society. In this way, the PCI was able to consolidate its self-image as the Party of the proletariat as not of the lumpenproletariat: ‘Asor Rosa and PCI …frame this illegibility in orthodox terms, describing it [autonomia] as a reformatted version of the nineteenth century’s dangerous classes and their lumpen criminality’ (‘Hot Autumn’, 125).

Now, with this ‘two societies’ framework now in use, both union and Party officials had the means for policing and isolating various factions among the extra-parliamentary left. This is perhaps clearest seen in the events following the Moro Affair, which saw the criminalization of Autonomia Operaia by the PCI due to their alleged participation in the Red Brigades’ kidnapping and murder of former DC prime minister Aldo Moro. “Following the Moro Affair in 1978, the overall level of repression and fear intensified throughout civil society, causing demobilization and a mass withdrawal into private life on the one hand, and the increasing resort to armed, clandestine, organized violence on the other, leaving a vulnerable minority in open political activity…Lists of suspected terrorists and sympathizers were drawn up by the unions and passed to management in the same way that the PCI called on the public to denounce anyone who seemed to be a terrorist” (‘Hot Autumn,’ 335). And so what began with the Fiat strike in Mirafiori in 1969, with its emergence of modes of composition that broke with what was widely accepted to be a revolutionary mode of struggle, eventually culminated in a situation whereby the unions and PCI assume the function of policing those elements of society deemed to be extremist, in order to maintain the appearance of political legitimacy. This was a situation that demonstrated both the unions and PCI’s comfortability in sacrificing class struggle for an image of the existence of a reasonable, and civil, Left government. In the end, however, the failures of this strategy adopted by the unions and PCI quickly revealed themselves at the moment when, in 1979, factory workers needed them in the face of Fiat dismissing ‘…sixty-one of the most militant New Left and autonomist activists for “moral behavior not consistent with the well-being of the Compact” (Red Notes 1981, 71).’ To make matters worse:

The unions reacted sluggishly given that some of the workers were accused of using violence during strikes and because they, like the PCI, were keen to see them expelled. With the initiative in hand, Fiat announced the redundancies of 14,500 workers in September 1980, “the biggest mass sacking in Italian history” (ibid.). A sense of profound outrage filled the working-class districts of Turin…However, the national unions were paralyzed by confusion; as well the PCI had recently ended the “Historic Compromise” pact, no longer useful to the elites, as a state of emergency with all-out repression and criminialization of the extraparliamentary left had taken its place. The rest of the Italian manufacturing industry quickly followed suit, launching a wage of mass sackings and redundancies…’ (“Hot Autumn,” 135)

Thus, while the PCI claimed to be acting in the interests of the working-class, it was clear to Guattari that, in fact, the PCI was more interested in guaranteeing its own future electability. It is due to the ways in which parliamentary forms of organization have betrayed and further exploited the proletariat as revolutionary subject that Guattari will go on to write the following:

It is not easy to obliterate from public memory the half-dozen or so powerful swerves to the left in the past forty years, all of which ended in retreat, in compromises with bourgeois parties and a consolidation of capitalism, and all of which were followed by long periods of demoralization and lethargy among the popular forces. While the militant base grows no stronger in its convictions and fails to expand in proportion to its enlarged audience among the parties of the left, the leadership, for its part, continues to consolidate its position, harden its views and bureaucratize itself. Preparatory to playing a role of normalizing and defending the established order at national level (as the Italian Communist Party leadership are already doing), officials are expected to maintain discipline within the organization, and keep a close watch on anyone who looks like upsetting sympathetic outsiders. Anything not relevant to the winning of the current election is felt to be dangerous…all creative urges…all attempts to try new methods and struggles, all unplanned desires and strategies seem to be suspect. (Molecular Revolution, 243)

  1. Conspiratorial Communism

If, as Dosse’s epigraph suggests, Guattari imagined a federation of regional protest movements as constituting the minor subjects of his molecular revolution, it is because what constitutes minor subjectivity is precisely what was lacking from the compromises made by the PCI and labor unions: namely, the composition of a collective subject that included individuals from a wide variety of social positions – from workers to women; from students to the unemployed and the youth – in the name of abolishing work as such. If the PCI and its unions sought to wage class struggle by strengthening the proletariat on the basis of a shared, worker, identity, Minor subjectivity is the composition of a collective subject that refuses work and worker identity altogether. Guattari’s concept of molecular revolution, then, takes its cue from Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ since it proceeds by a refusal of work, which is tied to the aim of abolishing working class identity as such. And it is for these reasons that we can hear Guattari’s statement regarding the ban of Radio Alice in 1977 as a statement delivered in a decidedly autonomist manner: ‘No more of the blackmail of poverty, the discipline of work ,the hierarchical order, sacrifice, patriotism, the general good. All this has been silencing the voice of the body. All our time has always been devoted to working, eight hours’ work, two hours getting there and back, then relaxing over television and family supper. As far as the police and the law are concerned anything outside this routine is depraved’ (Molecular Revolution, 238). And if it was Italy’s “Hot Autumn” that would inform Guattari’s concerns regarding the failures of a movement that sought out nothing short of the abolition of work and worker-identity, it would also provided Guattari with an example of how to reconceive the relationship between capital and the state for his present moment:

…would a Statist policy of stimulating production under State control…succeed in bringing back full employment, stopping inflation and restoring the confidence of investors? A ‘left’ government would…launch new programmes of low-cost housing, hospitals, schools, motorways, supersonic aviation, nuclear power stations and so on. But there are limitations to a policy of this kind…Suppose that…a few declining banks and corporations are taken into State control…what real difference will it make? In effect, the State will continue to come more and more under the control of modern capitalism, and once again the left will have helped to speed up the change […] ‘During the rising, ambitious phase, the State came to assume control directly or indirectly of the least profitable branches of the economy; this, for example, requiring large amount of available capital, or too large a work force…it thus ended by assuming responsibility for running and financing the general infrastructure of the capitalist economy. Private profit began a kind of parasitical growth on the great tree trunk of the State and its national industries [which resulted in] State support for private capitalism and it’s national underpinnings… (Molecular Revolution, 242-47)

Thus it is because capital has become globally integrated and functions with the aid of the State, that any transitional program is forced to reckon with the fact that, today, seizing State power and the imposition of social democratic measures simply represses the State’s function as a center for the exchange, extraction, and realization of value. And as we saw above, it was due to their rejection of cooperating with union bosses and Party leadership that the extra-parliamentary left in Italy (autonomia, LC, etc.) are said to participate in a molecular revolution; if for not other reason than it was the extra-parliamentary left that aligned itself with the goal of abolishing work and working-class identity; a project that was to be undertaken by maintaining a position of non-participation/collaboration with the parliamentary Left and the state. And finally says Guattari, in light of the mutations undergone by capital at the beginning of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, it is no longer simply the working-class who exist as potential partisans of revolution: in contrast to Asor Rosa’s ‘two societies’ thesis, Guattari’s molecular revolution maintains it to be the case that anyone, anywhere, can begin to take up the struggle for abolishing value as the social relation that dominates and exploits every dimension of public and private life. Thus, what makes this a truly molecular understanding of revolution is not the democratization of the potentially revolutionary character to more and more positions within social life but rather its inclusion of the very elements society ignored, or placated; that is, the very same elements deemed by Asor Rosa to be nothing more than the lumpen strata eating away at authentic proletarian life, and unanimously demonized by union officials and PCI leadership alike. And so… perhaps it is due to the failures and betrayals of this decade in Italy’s history that we can read the following passage from Guattari’s essay on the banning of Radio Alice by the State as both an homage to the victims of state repression and as a reassertion of a ‘conspiratorial kind of communism that lies at the heart of molecular revolutions: “Conspiring means breathing together, and that is what we are being accused of; they want to stop us breathing, because we have refused to breathe deeply in their asphyxiating work-places [sic], in their individualist relationships, their families, their pulverising houses. Yet, I plead guilty to assault – to an assault on the separation of life from desire, on sexism in inter-presonal [sic] relations, on reducing life to a wage-packet” (Molecular Revolution, 239). 

“Are There Social Ideas in a Marxist Sense?”

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[An extremely rough sketch of some sections from the first chapter of the dissertation]

Third example: are there social Ideas, in a Marxist sense? In what Marx calls ‘abstract labour’, abstraction is made from the particular qualities of the products of labour the qualities of the labourers, but not from the conditions of productivity, the labour-power and the means of labour in a society. The social Idea is the element of quantitability, qualitability, and potentiality of societies. It expresses a system of multiple ideal connections, or differential relations between differential elements […] In all rigour, there are only economic social problems, even though the solutions may be juridical, political or ideological, and the problems may be expressed in these fields of resolvability. (Difference and Repetition, 186)

 

We would like to begin with the following thesis: it is by way of what Deleuze called ‘the social Idea in a Marxist sense’ that his theory of Ideas is established as a theory of the nature and function of Ideas. Additionally, Deleuze’s theory of Ideas, and particularly of the social Idea, is a theory that aims to show how Ideas maintain a logical and necessary relation to the questions and aims of revolutionary organisation and praxis. Thus, the importance and utility of social Ideas does not end with their role in the relationship between Thinking and Difference-itself, since Deleuze also goes on to show that it is social Ideas that give Thought access to the particular relationship between society and its possible, virtual, and structural, transformation. Thus, social Ideas allow us to think Difference-itself while also enabling our thought to have a political and practical import for the present. Now, just how Deleuze envisions social Ideas satisfying both thinking and acting (politically) achieve these two ends, becomes clear when he returns to a consideration of Marx in Chapter 4 of Difference and Repetition, and wherein he provides the following comment:

In short, the negative is always derived and represented, never original or present: the process of difference and of differenciation [actualisation of the virtual] is primary in relation to that of the negative and opposition. Those commentators on Marx who insist upon the fundamental difference between Marx and Hegel rightly point out that in Capital the category of differenciation (the differenciation at the heart of a social multiplicity: the division of labour) is substituted for the Hegelian concepts of oppositions, contradiction and alienation, the latter forming only an apparent movement and standing only for abstract effects separated from the principle and from the real movement of their production. (DR, 207)

Thus, for Deleuze, the reality of phenomena such as alienation exist is their existing as consequences of a more fundamental, more profound, circuit of Capital’s value-creation/self-valorization. Seen from the point of view of its social Idea, capitalist society is not simply defined by the contradiction between labour and capital, for example. More fundamental than this is the actualisation of the conditions of class struggle that aid in capital’s self-reproduction at an ever larger scale. And this is achieved, says Deleuze, by none other than the division of labour. That is to say, by means of the actualisation, or production, of individuals whose livelihood and social function is determined by their class belonging.

Additionally, regarding the above passage, it is worth noting that what is implied by Deleuze’s assertion of the division of labour as being more fundamental than the contradiction between classes, or alienation, is a position that views the distribution of identities bound to social obligations/functions and its social organisation as constituting that which fuels all other, secondary or tertiary phenomena such as contradiction, negation, and alienation. But what is this more profound, or founding, distribution and assignation of individuals to classes that Deleuze implies? It is, and this comes as no surprise for Marxists of all stripes, nothing other than the process of primitive accumulation. In other words, the division of labour that is the founding gesture of capitalist society begins with the division of labour-power as it was established in the genocidal processes of colonisation. In plan terms, primitive accumulation and colonisation continue to affect and determine the division of labour and subsequently the contradiction between labour and capital. This does not mean, however, that Deleuze denies the reality of categories as fundamental for a marxist theory of society as contradiction, negation, or alienation. Instead, for Deleuze, what this means is that it is neither contradictions, nor negation, nor alienation that can be considered as the ‘motor’ of the development of capitalist social relations. Rather, it is differenciation–or the process of individuation whereby what is virtual becomes actual–that determines capitalist development. Consequently, if it is this double process of differenciation-differentiation that acts as the motor of our present society, it means that the world of capital proceeds in such a way that any actualisation of its virtual elements entails the exclusion and foreclosure of other, alternative, virtualities.

More fundamental than phenomena such as alienation, production, and contradiction, then, are those objective and material processes by which Capital actualises (differenciates) various virtual configurations of society, considered both globally and locally. However, says Deleuze, this process of differenciation is governed by a logic of an exclusive difference: exclusive disjunction. If differenciation is said to explicate itself only on the condition that the actualisation of one virtual potential also means the barring from empirical existence all other alternative virtualities, it is because it is of the nature of the virtual to be both real and ideal, and thus real without possessing empirical existence. Of interest for our purposes here, Deleuze’s best and clearest example of this logic of exclusive disjunction that pertains to the actualisation of the virtual is given in his treatment of the figure of the Other; a treatment that concludes the final pages of the aptly titled fifth chapter ‘Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible’:

In order to grasp the other as such, we were right to insist upon special conditions of experience, however artificial – namely, the moment at which the expressed has (for us) no existence apart from that which expresses it: the Other as the expression of a possible world […] For it is not the other which is another I, but the I which is an other, a fractured I. There is no love which does not begin with the revelation of a possible world as such, enwound [sic] in the other which expresses it. Albertine’s face expressed the blending of beach and waves: ‘From what unknown world does she distinguish me?’… It is true that the other disposes of a means to endow the possibles that it expresses with reality, independently of the development we cause them to undergo. (DR, 261)

If it is true that the Other is an expression of a possible world, then we are obliged to inquire into the particular kind of existence that is granted to this ‘possible world.’ Is it the case that the Other express mere possibilities; where possibility is determined as resembling what is real and simply lacks the attribute of existence? Or, does the Other express a possible world, where possibility is defined as a kind of existence that does not lack the attribute of existence due to its non-participation in empirical or phenomenal experience? Relevant for our inquiry into the nature of this possible world are Deleuze’s remarks made prior to Difference & Repetition, which are found in his 1962 text of Proust, Proust & Signs. In this earlier work, Deleuze embarks upon a reading of Proust as a quasi-neo-Platonic theorist of the nature of Signs; and particularly of signs one encounters in the world. From this Deleuze offers a similar characterization of the possible world expressed by an Other:

The first law of love is subjective: subjectively, jealousy is deeper than love, it contains love’s truth. This is because jealousy goes further in the apprehension and interpretation of signs. It is the destination of love, its finality. Indeed, it is inevitable that the signs of a loved person, once we “explicate” them, should be revealed as deceptive: addressed to us, applied to us, they nonetheless express worlds that exclude us and that the beloved will not and cannot make us know. Not by virtue of any particular ill will on the beloved’s part, but of a deeper contradiction, which inheres in the nature of love and in the general situation of the beloved. (Proust & Signs, 9, my emphasis)

What makes this passage significant for our purposes is that despite their differing subject matter and when taken together, Deleuze’s characterization of various ‘expressions of a possible world’ clarify why it is that the actualisation of the virtual (differenciation) abides by a logic of exclusive disjunction or exclusive difference. That is, the expression of a possible world, whether as it is given in Proust & Signs or in Difference and Repetition, is the positive assertion of a virtual organization of the world that excludes my existence. The virtual as that which in the process of actualization expresses itself through the cancellation of certain components of actuality (e.g. one’s existence in the present world of the beloved).

To summarise: the possible world expressed by the Other is to be understood in terms of the latter and thereby is treated as existing since it is only the virtual that is real without needing to acquire actuality, or actual existence. As Deleuze himself formulated it: “The possible has no reality…conversely, the virtual is not actual, but as such possesses a reality. Here again Proust’s formula best defines the states of virtuality: “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract” (Bergsonism, 96). Thus, what determines the possible world expressed by the Other as virtual instead of possible is that while it is of the nature of what is possible to lack the attribute of existence, virtuality can only exist as participant in the attribute of existence as such. Thus, says Deleuze, virtuality is endowed with the attribute of existence, where existence is understood to mean the participation in what is real and whose participation is determined and measured by the degree of  its ideality. Thus, to affirm, as Deleuze does, that the possible world expressed by the Other is of a virtual nature implies the affirmation of an expressed possible world as maintaining a degree of non-resemblance and non-identity with actuality, or with the being of the actual: “[W]hile the real is the image and likeness of the possible that it realises, the actual…does not resemble the virtuality that it embodies. It is different that is primary in the process of actualisation” (Bergsonism, 96). Now, it is with a greater significance than that of an encyclopaedic account of Deleuze’s notion of the virtual that we give attention to the quality of non-identity that pertains to virtual existence, for Deleuze himself will go on to identify the ‘reality of the virtual’ with the ‘problematic’ dimension of the world, or the being of the Problem as such: “The ‘problematic’ is a state of the world…it designates precisely the objectivity of Ideas, the reality of the virtual” (DR, 280).

If Deleuze asserts that the reality of the virtual is identical with that which constitutes the ‘being of the Problem’, and if it is also the case that it belongs to virtuality to exist in a manner of non-resemblance or non-identity to actuality, then what is implied is that Problems (or the being of the Problem) maintain a relation of non-resemblance, or non-identity, with the various Solutions to which it gives rise. It is for this reason that even when Deleuze affirms that in all reality there are only ‘economic problems’ with respect to social Ideas, he simultaneously qualifies this by underscoring what is not implied with respect to Thought as such. Namely, that the posing of true problems via the social Idea produces as its consequence a set of virtual outcomes, none of which are identical to the present organisation of society. And thus we arrive at Deleuze’s well known passage regarding the possible existence of ‘social Ideas in a marxist sense’:

The famous phrase of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve’, does not mean that the problems are only apparent or that they are already solved, but, on the contrary, that the economic conditions of a problem determine or give rise to the manner in which it finds a solution within the framework of the real relations of the society. Not that the observer can draw the least optimism from this, for these ‘solutions’ may involve stupidity or cruelty, the horror of war or ‘the solution of the Jewish problem.’ (DR, 186)

Given what we have shown above this much is clear: what Deleuze discovers regarding any ‘social Idea in a Marxist sense’ is that these notions of non-identity and non-resemblance also come to define the relation between Thinking and the world, and the relation between Problems and their Solutions, and as mediated by Ideas. Additionally, say Deleuze, it turns out to be capitalism that is the Problem confronted everywhere in the present and thus it is only by means of social Ideas that we will be able to both construct this Problem in a true as opposed to false manner and thereby reveal the possible virtual worlds expressed by the problem of the overcoming of capitalism. It is by means of this social Idea understood in a marxist sense that the Problem of the abolition of capitalist society will find its adequate virtual solutions because the content of social Ideais nothing but the objective tendencies constitutive of the present conjuncture whose future existence is in the process of being determined. It is precisely this dual function of social Ideas, as granting Thought access to the world while serving as the legitimate means for Thought to intervene in the world, that Deleuze is speaking of when he writes: 

It is as though every Idea has two faces, which are like love and anger: love in the search for fragments, the progressive determination and linking of the ideal adjoint fields [the tripartite/synthetic determination of the Idea]; anger in the condensation of singularities which, by dint of ideal events, defines the concentration of a ‘revolutionary situation’ and causes the Idea to explode into the actual [Thought as the utilisation of objective tendencies for ends other than their own]. It is in this sense that Lenin had Ideas. (DR, 190)

To determine a system of differences mediated, not by identity but through difference; to discover the possible worlds expressed by this system; this is the conclusion reached due to the dual nature of Ideas. Thus, social Ideas not only apprehend the reality of Problems since they also make Thought aware of those aspects or elements within society where a revolutionary collective subject can reassert, or wrest back, some degree of agency in determining what comes after our capitalist present. 

The Black Bloc Which Was Not: Comments in the lead up to the Hamburg G20

propbdeedMembers of the ‘black bloc’ or fictional characters in a film?

In the 1 July copy of the German newspaper Taz one finds the statements of two leftist organizations – Campact and Interventionistische Linke  – each of which expresses their desire to be distanced from anything seen as ‘criminal’, and especially anything that can be associated with the black block. In the words of one Interventionistische Linke representative: ‘We want a colorful event. [But] Black is too colourful.’ A scene such as this seems to be something of a tradition within the German (reformist) left and rehearses a similar situation when, during the 1988 convention of the World Bank and IMF in Berlin, the Greens sought out discussions with world leaders while the Autonomen rejected any type of cooperation/reformism.

Unlike today, one opens the September 1988 issue of Der Spiegel with a different tone being expressed regarding the arrival of world financial leaders to the capital: “While the Greens met to discuss alternatives to the existing world financial system…the Autonomen declined to cooperate with reformists vis-à-vis the IMF. Der Spiegel quoted one radical as saying: “A death machine can only be combated.” Just as it was the case for this ‘radical’ in 1988 so too is it the case for those of us in Hamburg. In light of all the media attention leading up to the G20 summit, all one can really gather from these reports is the anticipation of any agreement between the Merkel-Macron alliance and Trump, and the arrival of the ‘black block’ and their riots. However it must be said: against the temptation of treating riots as something that detracts from the legitimate form of peaceful protest, or as something doomed from the start due to a perceived limitation inherent to the riot-form, Hamburg should receive the G20 and its affiliates in nothing but riotous fashion. As Joshua Clover has helpfully shown in his study on the historical relation between the riot and the strike, riots are a mode of struggle that simultaneously address themselves to police, the state, and capital. That is to say, riots are not simply ephemeral and spontaneous expressions of discontent but are ‘a mode of survival that seeks to resolve the crisis of the reproduction of labor within the spheres of circulation and consumption.’ To détourn Stuart Hall’s formulation: riots are a mode through which class struggle is lived.

Additionally, riots respond to the reality of the function of policing understood as ensuring the security of an economic system that was born from, and needs to maintain, the subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, women, migrants, and refugees. That is, the job of the police isn’t to ‘protect and serve,’ or to help any citizen whatsoever when they are in danger, but rather to secure, defend, and maintain lucrative economic conditions at the national level for value production, as well as enforcing the illegality of subsistence outside the legally acceptable market of waged-labour. Again, it is this defense of capital and criminalization of those who resist becoming part of surplus populations that is being encountered once more in Hamburg. And as if to corroborate this claim of the police’s inherent role in the protection of capital, Timo Zell, a spokesman for the Hamburg police helpfully puts to rest any remaining doubts: this year’s G20 will be “the biggest operation in the history of Hamburg’s police.” It is because riots are a form of struggle that is equally anti-state, anti-police, and anti-capitalist, that the particular combination of police and capital at this week’s G20 summit should be nothing short of a riotous affair.

So if riots should break out, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are the problematic ‘far left elements’ of this week of protests; don’t believe that there has ever been such a thing as a ‘good’, as opposed to a ‘bad,’ demonstrator. It is the State that divides the masses between the good-citizen and bad-criminal, especially since it is with these so-called ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ elements that anti-police and anti-state struggles are most effective. And, in fact, there has never been such a thing as a good protester as opposed to a bad one, just as there has never been such a thing as a good cop as opposed to a bad cop: in the confrontation with 20 world leaders there are only those who are for and against the G20’s raison d’état (securing the existence and relative stability of global capital); there are only those who aim to preserve this system and those who want nothing short of bringing about its swift end.

With respect to the G20’s raison d’état, it is important to highlight that its mandate of securing the global economy is not something people voted for. Rather, the political project inaugurated by the G20 is marked by its two ‘birthdays:’ the 1999 and 2008 financial crises, the latter of which has served as the justification for the composition and program of the G20 as it exists today. In other words, the absurd display of diplomatic tug-o-war that has been playing out in the media between global superpowers just so they can lay claim to the title of ‘leader of the free world’ overshadows the G20’s inseparability from previous and future ‘crises.’ That is, the G20 uses economic crises not only to justify its economic existence but also to maintain a monopoly of political control that has come to define the Western world and at least as far back as the fall of the Berlin wall. For us, the G20’s very existence is proof of what the Invisible Committee outlined as the contemporary mode of global governance:

If some commentators made fools of themselves by hastily proclaiming the “death of neoliberalism” with the explosion of the subprime swindle, it’s because they failed to understand that the “crisis” was not an economic phenomenon but a political technique of government. We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. “Crisis” means: government is growing. Crisis has become the ultima ratio of the powers that be…The present crisis, permanent and omnilateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of the actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception. The current crisis no longer promises anything; on the contrary, it tends to free whoever governs from every constraint as to the means deployed. (Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 25-6)

If ‘crisis’ is the definitive mode of governance of groups like the G20, then the State’s response to the demonstrators who were in Hamburg should be of no surprise since ‘they [the G20] speak of “crisis” in regard to what they intend to restructure, just as they [State/police] label “terrorist” those they are preparing to strike down.’[6] Now, even though it was the Invisible Committee who recognized the emerging consensus among various leftist currents regarding slogans such as ACAB or tactics such as riots (“It seems that the epoch has even begun to secrete its own platitudes, like that All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) which a strange internationale emblazons on the rough walls of cities, from Cairo to Istanbul, and Rome to Paris or Rio, with every thrust of revolt”[7]) it was the Parisian youth who, during last summer’s anti-labor law demonstrations and riots, would respond to the Committee’s insight with their own statements of intent tagged across the streets of Paris. And it is one particular slogan that interests us: tout le monde déteste la police. While such an assertion in English would read ‘everyone hates the police’, we find that a more literal translation is appropriate: the whole world hates the police.

The whole world hates the police because the police are the ones who, anywhere and everywhere, ensure the ‘stability of the global economy’, who call for ‘peaceful and reasonable protest,’ and who even claim that hosting the G20 in a big city shows the world Germany’s celebration of liberal rights despite the fact that the police have built detention centers and prisons specifically for those arrested during the protests and at the camps. If police officers can prepare spaces of confinement for those who exercise their state sanctioned ‘rights’ (the right to voice dissent through public assembly being the most relevant liberty in question vis-à-vis Hamburg) it is only because the kind of society afforded by Capital and its nation-states is one where the State claims to act as the guarantor of a set of universal rights while simultaneously arresting its citizens when the exercise of these rights conflict with the interests of the State. Thus, what should be obvious by now is the fact that everyone on the streets of Hamburg are all potential criminals from the point of view of the police, the state, and of capital. For this reason we should not be duped by a discourse on the ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ elements of the demonstration, since everyone is potentially already one of the ‘bad ones.’

And what of the reports predicting the biggest black bloc in history? Surely those individuals who are only recognizable by their all black, masked up, attire would qualify as the rogue elements of civilized protest? For us, however, it would be better to ask the following: is there really such a thing as this so-called ‘black bloc’ that we hear of so often and have allegedly witnessed on our computer screens? We ask this for the simple reason that, to this day, we are not certain if we have ever seen a black bloc.

THE ‘BLACK BLOC’ WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN IN HAMBURG

black bloc vending machines (Marais)While not in Hamburg, the ‘black bloc’ can be found inside the Palais de Tokyo in Paris

Already in 2007, the ready-made artist Claire Fontaine identified why we feel the need to inquire into the existence or non-existence of this thing called black bloc. As Fontaine writes, ‘the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.’ And what led Fontaine to draw such a conclusion about this thing we hear so often about are the very reasons that allow us to say, in good faith, that we haven’t seen a black bloc. For us as well as Fontaine, the black bloc is defined as ‘that which exists only insofar as everyone stops believing in its existence’ because, today, it seems one can encounter the black bloc everywhere one goes. This includes everything from the evening news (“4 February 1007, on the 8 o’clock news I see what appears to be a male figure…throwing stones in a night lit by flames. He is wearing a very elegant Dolce & Gabbana bomber-jacket with a big silver D&G on the back and an immaculate white ski-mask”) to mundane yet unexpected places such as one boutique brand name (as pictured above) in the Palais de Tokyo (“While my eyes follow the footsteps of customers going to the Black Bloc boutique at the entrance to the Palais de Tokyo…Agamben’s words about the souls in Limbo automatically pops into my head: ‘like letters without addressees…they remained without destiny”). In other words, the black bloc exists insofar as we understand that it is a word without image, a word that can be tied to any number of images and regardless of whether the images we associate with this term contradict the very things it comes to signify. Thus, if it is to be anything, the black bloc is that term that exists without an image:

…giving a place like that a name that evokes transgression or even the destruction of merchandise, while here we are selling our merchandise at high prices and we’re loving it. Or maybe the black bloc sounded a bit like the opposite of the white cube, or the idea of a block bloc is suggestive, martial, what do I know?…It’s not just appearances one shouldn’t trust, one shouldn’t trust words either. Or more specifically, the link we imagine exists between words and images…For example, we believe we’ve found the illustration of this concept in photographs of marching people dressed in black, black bloc is a word with an image. The term black bloc alludes to a manifestation of desire for collective opacity, a will not to appear and to materialise affects that are increasingly hard to take. The black bloc is not a visual object, it’s an object of desire. (‘Black bloc’, 18)

Thus it is not a question of what black bloc really means and rather a question of subjective utterance: who is it that speaks about a so-called black bloc, and by doing so conjures up a correlating image to give meaning to their discourse? And for Fontaine, it is the State, more often than not, that has a vested interest in constructing the political significance of this term by relating word to image:

Instead let’s ask what ‘this is the black bloc’ means? Who says that? Wouldn’t that be a definition like an imaged filmed from a window, like the one from the 8 o’clock news…a definition shot from above, taken from the viewpoint of a watchtower, from some panopticon? What we are describing is always a block of ant-men, cockroach-men, a black block, which is black like the earth because it is seen from afar. But the carabinieri, they are also a black bloc. Baudelaire said that his contemporaries dressed in dark clothes that no painter enjoyed depicting, were an army of undertakers, that they were all celebrating some funeral. Enamoured undertakers, revolutionary undertakers. (‘Black bloc’, 20)

Just as we shouldn’t be fooled by the State’s discourse on ‘riots’ and its participants from the ‘hardcore fringe of the left’, we shouldn’t be duped into the State’s paranoia surrounding the arrival of the black bloc as well; especially since it is the State that has constructed what this term has come to be known as in the popular imagination. That is, the ‘black bloc’ that we have come to know through news reports and media outlets are the images of window smashers characterized as rogue individuals acting opportunistically in the midst of the majority of good, peaceful, law abiding citizens. And, according to the State, it is these individuals that come to stand in for what it once meant to dress in all black.

If this is so, then what it means to dress in all black, to wear masks, to de-arrest friends and fight to ensure their safety, what it means to engage in our mutual defense and a collective attack against the various ways this world does violence to us, means that these modes of composition are not the black bloc. It means that this thing we do with each other in the night where all demonstrators look alike isn’t and never was the black blocToday, then, it would be better to say that the one’s who arrive in Hamburg dressed in all black and take to the streets to protect their friends and comrades, that they too are not the black bloc. And if these actions and images are not the black bloc, then, we would do well to recognize the fact that, perhaps, the black bloc will never have been in Hamburg at all. So, when you read some article about the black bloc at this weeks G20 summit, or when you overhear strangers talking about masked up hooligans destroying the city, or when you see images taken by helicopter of far away bodies shown to be causing chaos in the streets, remember that you are hearing about something other than what dressing in all black actually meant; and particularly what it meant not for the ‘black bloc’ but for what, at one time, went by another name:

On the other hand, schwarze Block means something, it roots us in a history of resistance bound with the two 20th century Germany’s […] I could tell you that schwarze Block was a tactical form, that it was a means of preventing the police from identifying and isolation who committed what gesture during a riot. I could tell you that dressing in black meant: we are all comrades, we are all in solidarity, we are all alike, and this equality liberates us from the responsibility of accepting a fault we do not deserve; the fault of being poor in a capitalist country, the fault of being anti-fascist in the fatherland of Nazism, the fault of being libertarian in a repressive country. That it meant: nobody deserves to be punished for these reasons, and since you are attacking us we are forced to protect ourselves from violence when we march in the streets. Because war, capitalism, labour regulations, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, those things are not violent, however you see those of us who want to freely live our homosexuality, the refusal to found a family, collective life and abolition of property as the violent ones. So, if you want to arrest me instead of my comrade just because we are wearing the same clothing, go ahead, I accept that, I don’t deserve to be punished because he doesn’t deserve it either… I could go on like this, and even provide you with more specifics, by supplementing it with the history of demonstrations, of victories, with dates to back it all up and everything, like the time a band was playing around the rioters in the deserted streets, or the time when the police took off running… I could go on for pages and pages, but that’s not the issue here. All this isn’t the black bloc. (‘Black Bloc’, 19-20, my emphasis)

 

black bloc barricade hamburg…the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.