The Reality of Destitution is The Destitution of Reality

Finalized draft for Unworking; a forthcoming collection of essays
on désoeuvrement and inoperativity that will be out this Fall.

[0.] Introduction

On the 19th and 20th of December, 2001, 1 million people took to the streets of Buenos Aires to protest the collapse of Argentina’s economy — a collapse set to the tune of 150 billion US Dollars (the amount of debt owed to the IMF). In the midst of what would prove to  be the opening salvo of a decade long crisis, there appeared new forms of struggle, which subsequently gave rise to the invention of new forms of theorizing and political practice. For example, while traditional models of workers organizations in the 60’s and 70’s revolved around the factory (e.g. sit-ins, work slow downs, strikes, and so on), these nascent social movements found themselves displaced from the point of production. And given the decades long increase in unemployment leading up to the 2001 crisis, Argentina witnessed the emergence of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupandos (Unemployed Workers Movement or MTD), for whom the piquete (blockade) served as the new form of struggle outside of the factory-site. The piquetes, which first appeared in the center of the country, had as its aim the obstruction of the circulation of commodities. Thus, the blockade, was the practical resolution devised by MTD to the following questions: What would it mean to strike outside of the workplace as the traditional site of struggle? Or, as one unemployed worker put it, “who is going to be in control? The people in struggle or the bastards in the government?”  Devoid of any particular place to strike, MTD attacked the world of the commodity that extended beyond the factory walls.

It was in light of the emergence of these new social movements and their corresponding forms of struggle that the militant research collective, Colectivo Situaciones, developed the concept of counterpower or de-instituent power; a category of political theorizing that has now come to be known simply as destituent power: “[A]t long last we have learned that power — the state, understood as a privileged locus of change — is not the site, par excellence, of the political. As Spinoza stated long ago, such power is the place of sadness and of the most absolute impotence. Thus we turn to counterpower. For us, emancipatory thought does not look to seize the state apparatus in order to implement change; rather, it looks to flee those sites, to renounce instituting any centre or centrality” (‘On the Researcher-Militant’). Despite the eighteen year difference that separates the present moment from that of the early days of Colectivo Situaciones, the current cycle of struggles appear to have found themselves in a similar situation.

Approximately one month into the gilets jaunes uprising, the French online magazine, Lundi Matin, published an editorial entitled, ‘Next Stop: Destitution,’ wherein one encounters the following passage:

The question is as follows: what does it concretely mean to destitute the system in practice? Obviously, it cannot mean electing new representatives, since the bankruptcy of the current regime issues precisely from the bankruptcy of its representative system. To destitute the system means to take over locally, canton by canton, the material and symbolic organization of life. It is precisely the current organization of life that is today in question, that is itself the catastrophe. We must not fear the unknown: we have never seen millions of people allow themselves to die of hunger. Just as we are perfectly capable of organizing ourselves horizontally to set up blockades, we have the capacity to organize ourselves to relaunch a more sensible organization of existence. As revolt is organized locally, so it is at the local level that our solutions will be found. The “national” level is only ever the echo that issues from local initiatives.

While the number of articles and analyses regarding the gilets jaunes uprising increases with each of its ‘Acts,’ it is worth emphasizing that destituent power, as it is proposed here, is not simply an attempt to implement in practice the concepts developed by “ultra-left” theorizing done in isolation. Rather, in light of the concerns that emerged early on regarding the presence of far-right and fascist elements within various locales of this nation-wide mobilization, destituent power is seen as the means of attempting to give determinate form to the indeterminate character of the movement as a whole. For as the Italian comrades at Common Ware have correctly noted

In the streets and in the squares of France over the last few weeks it was not only this impoverished middle class in its crisis of mediation that was present, of course. From time to time, in different cities and urban conflict zones, there were various proletarian and sub-proletarian segments, stratified and held in tension by generation and race. It is precisely the recomposition between the middle class in its crisis of mediation and a proletariat deprived of a future that, as we have said for some years, constitutes the decisive political point of the movements within the crisis […] To be clear: we are not saying that insurgencies such as that of the Gilets Jaunes have in fact solved the problem of recomposition. We are simply saying that within this terrain the question has been materially and spontaneously posed.

The crucial point is this: it is within the context of the dissolution and recomposition of class relations within French society that we must understand this call for ‘destituting the economy;’ for it is only by grasping the condition and problem that defines the gilets jaunes uprising as one of recomposition that destituent power can be understood as an attempt at giving determinate form to what is still an underdetermined movement. In what follows, we begin with an interrogation into our present conjuncture as one in which Marx’s original formulation of communism as the real movement of abolition and Agamben’s “coming community” appeals to its destituent power encounter one another; a moment that has perhaps been captured best by the Invisible Committee’s provocative reworking of this Marxian dictum when they write, “Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things” (Now, p. 89). However, a statement such as this necessarily raises the following question: What becomes of communism if it is said to be the real movement that“destitutes” the present state of things? Does the substitution of “destitution” for “abolition” signal a principled divergence from the vision of communism found in those pages of the German Ideology and as intended by Marx and Engels? Or does this destituent movement mark a progressive refinement in light of the failures of historical communism and its various workers movements? As the above epigraphs already suggest, any beginnings of an answer to such questions can be found in the works of Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee; both of whom have perhaps gone farthest in reconceiving communism via the category of destituent power.

When one reads Agamben’s more recent political writings alongside his 1993 text, ‘Form-of-Life,’  as Jason E. Smith has noted, what becomes clear is that through Agamben’s reworking of the set of ideas that came out of the workerist tradition,  the author is led to view capitalist society and its attendant social relations as asymmetric and antagonistic to the community that is claimed to be the content proper to forms-of-life:

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

It is for these reasons that, over a decade later, Agamben reformulated the anti-work thesis of operaismo and autonomia as follows: “If the fundamental ontological question today is not work but inoperativity…then the corresponding concept can no longer be that of ‘constituent power’ [potere constituente] but something that could be called ‘destituent power’ [potenza destituente]” (What is destituent power (or potentiality)? p. 70).

Now, with respect to the Invisible Committee, their reconceptualization of communism as the real movement of destituent power may appear especially deceptive to some, or lead to a fundamental misunderstanding, if such an invocation of destituent power is taken to mean a tacit affinity and endorsement of Agamben’s equation of the communal content of forms-of-life with the potential realization of communism as such. As will be seen in what follows, nothing could be further from the truth, for the Committee’s usage of the concept of destituent power actually finds common ground with the very figures (operaismo/autonomia) from which Agamben sought to distance himself. If the Committee privileges destituent, as opposed to constituent, power, it is not due to destituent acts being the very means of arriving at the pure potentiality at the heart of forms-of-life (i.e. ‘intellectuality as antagonistic potentiality of forms-of-life’). Rather, theirs is a vision of communism as the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things insofar as we understand ‘the destitution of the present’ as meaning: (i) affirming the rupture with the current state of affairs in order to (ii) organize and render this rupture ever more real, and with the hopes of bringing this state of affairs to the point where the crises and social problems that have long persisted as the open and public secret of everyday life under Capital are now directly confronted — and precisely because they can no longer be avoided. And it is with respect to these two aspects of destituent power that Samuel Hayat’s analysis of the gilets jaunes is worth recalling here:

Today, far from disappearing, social antagonisms have multiplied, something which constitutes both a resource and a challenge to emancipatory politics. The old socialist solutions, centered around the question of class, already in 1848 contributed to invisibilizing the question of women and of race, even though the voices existed to put these questions front and center. A new emancipatory politics, which remains to be invented, should be based on making the ensemble of relations of domination visible, without hierarchy and by remaining open and responsive to new antagonisms which will inevitably come to light.

And so, the conclusion to be drawn from this comparative analysis is not simply that Agamben and the Invisible Committee arrive at qualitatively different understandings of the concept of destituent power; a disagreement that appears as nothing more than a difference in how each position themselves toward a shared philosophical heritage. More importantly, their respective analyses propose two distinct and competing frameworks by which we can think through the problems that determine the historical and material conditions in which communist struggle is waged today. And insofar as destituent power has appeared once again, an incommensurable difference at the level of analysis translates into a mutual antagonism at the level of practice. At the very least we can say that what is at stake, in light of ongoing social movements, is nothing short of the possibility for theoretical activity to materially effect collective practice and re-potentiate the antagonism at the heart of capitalist social life.

[1.] Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Struggle to Prelapsarian Life

In the Summer and Fall of 2013, Giorgio Agamben delivered a series of lectures in central France and Athens, Greece, under the heading, ‘What is destituent power?’ Now, despite the particularities to which Agamben was responding to in each lecture — the recent occupations and insurrections in Cairo, Istanbul, London, and New York; the necessity to think the end of democracy in the place of its birth — what is consistent throughout is that, for Agamben, destituent power functions as a third term that is said to overcome the static opposition between constituent and constituted power (the former being counter-hegemonic practices and the latter being acts that defend or uphold the existing institutions of the state). As Agamben puts it, “if revolutions and insurrections correspond to constituent power, that is, a violence that establishes and constitutes the new law, in order to think a destituent power we have to imagine completely other strategies, whose definition is the task of the coming politics. A power that was only just overthrown by violence will rise again in another form, in the incessant, inevitable dialectic between constituent power and constituted power, violence which makes the law and violence that preserves it” (‘What is Destituent Power?’ 70).

Perhaps more importantly, this series of lectures also marks a key development in Agamben’s overall thinking since destituent power appears as the means of theorizing one of the central ideas of his work as a whole—inoperativity—a concept which Agamben discovers time and again, regardless of the object of his analysis, be it theology, politics, or aesthetic and art practices. So, whether one considers his study of St. Augustine’s reflections on the salvation of humanity, where human nature is conceived as “blessed inactivity, which is neither doing nor not doing,” or Walter Benjamin, who relates destituent power to Sorel’s proletarian general strike in his essay Critique of Violence, or regarding the relationship between poetry, communication, and language as such — “What is a poem…if not an operation taking place in language that consists in rendering inoperative, in deactivating its communicative and informative function, in order to open it to a new possible use?” (Art, Inactivity, Politics, 138) — what is always at issue is how best to conceive the reality of a form-of-life whose actions, when viewed from the vantage point of the existing order of things, cannot be understood as anything other than blessed/idle in essence, non-productive of value, and impractical for deliberation. The salient point here is that, for Agamben, these characteristics of idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity, are not understood to be products of history. Idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity are ontological facts of human existence; so much so that Agamben will go on to claim that it is precisely these attributes, which are proper to the being of humanity that capital appropriates and exploits:

Human life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. And the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power. This is why feasting and idleness resurface continually in the dreams and political utopias of the West…They are the enigmatic relics which the economic-theological machine abandons on the shoreline of civilization; mankind returns to them wonderingly, but always uselessly and nostalgically. Nostalgically because they seem to contain something that clings jealously to the human essence; uselessly because in reality they are nothing more than the ashes of the immaterial, glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine during its inexorable, relentless rotation. (‘Art, Inactivity, Politics,’ p. 140)

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

However, confronted with a conclusion as bold as this (i.e. the coming politics begins by positing an originary idleness against history as a series of state-sponsored perversions of this essence) a few questions necessarily arise: Insofar as inoperativity and destituent power is said to be the essence of the being of humanity, does this not lead to an understanding of communist politics as a struggle between the ontological, on the one hand, and the historical and material, on the other? And to what extent does the notion of destituent power refer to what are allegedly the echoes of an ontological essence from which we have become estranged under capital? In any event, the crucial point to be emphasized is that what is operative behind such strong claims regarding the substance of humanity, is an equivocation between two conceptions of time: the time of eschatology and that of history. For it is this equivocation of eschatological and historical time that grounds Agamben’s understanding of inoperativity and destituent power as what is most essential to human being. To make matters worse, one equivocation inevitably leads to another, but this time with respect to political analysis, for insofar as inoperativity/destituent power is said to be the originary substance of (human) being, the proletariat as the classical figure of revolutionary politics is now nothing but a means of returning to our once innocent, unspoiled, prelapsarian life. For Agamben, politics is the price paid by humanity’s original sin of state-craft and the various, historical, forms of sovereign power that is each time realized through specific dispositifs of capture:

The originary place of Western politics consists of an ex-ceptio, an inclusive exclusion of human life in the form of bare life. Consider the peculiarities of this operation: life is not in itself political, it is what must be excluded, and, at the same time, included by way of its exclusion. Life—that is, the Impolitical (l’Impolitico)—must be politicized through a complex operation that has the structure of an exception. The autonomy of the political is founded, in this sense, on a division, an articulation, and an exception of life. From the outset, Western politics is biopolitical. (‘What is a destituent power (or potentiality)?’ p. 65)

That said, one may still wonder if we have been unfair with such a characterization of Agamben, for in his 2013 lectures Agamben goes on to provide further clarification to the way in which destituent power can be said to be the shape of politics to come; a politics made possible by virtue of living in such a way

…that a form-of-life can constitute itself as the inoperativity immanent in every life. The constitution of a form-of-life coincides…completely with the destitution of the social and biological conditions into which it finds itself thrown. The form-of-life is…the revocation of all factical vocations…It is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life…Inoperativity is not another work…it coincides completely and constitutively with their destitution, with a life. And this destitution is the coming politics. (Ibid, p. 74)

A passage such as this merits our interest for at least two reasons. On the one hand, destituent power is now said to be something innately bound to, yet distinct from, humanity’s originary inoperativity. And while it remains the case that it is by destituent means that we are returned to our non-alienated inoperative living, Agamben qualifies this previous iteration with the inclusion of forms-of-life as that previously missing mediator capable of overcoming the dilemma of capital’s historical separation of humanity, ontologically considered, and its alienated being, which takes the form of bare life. Given this formulation, destituent power must now be understood as a collective capacity accessible only through this experience of living a life inseparable from its (communal) form: “the destitution of power and of its works is an arduous task, because it is first of all and only in a form-of-life that it can be carried out. Only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (Ibid, 72). Thus, says Agamben, it is only by means of a collectivity that it becomes possible for individuals to “return it [the human activity that is the substance of value production] to the potentiality from which it originates” (Ibid, 73).

On this account it would appear that destituent power is no longer simply the immediate recuperation of alienated (human) being and rather an always-latent possibility of non-alienated living perpetually deferred and rendered increasingly impossible. Thus, Agamben writes

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

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

[2.] Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

According to the Invisible Committee, destituent acts or gestures are realized according to the fusion of the positive/creative logic of founding the conditions for an other world in which many worlds fit and the negative/destructive logic of ending, once and for all, the present world fashioned in the image and likeness of Capital. That is to say, destituent gestures abide by a logic where ‘the One divides into Two’ (“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture” (Now, p. 88-89)); actions that are simultaneously creative and destructive. Moreover, these collective gestures belong to that class of acts, which rely upon the temporality proper to social reproduction and are actualized in times of decision, which is to say, in times of crisis. And what is ultimately realized along the way; in the bringing about an end to this world, is an altogether different solution to the two-fold problem of the estrangement of bodies and fragmentation of worlds. However, destituent power is said to resolve the issue of separated bodies and of the discontinuity that structures the possible worlds of every form-of-life not by rehabilitating some sense of ‘unity,’ conceived as the coming-into-being of a still underdetermined (though latently possible) counter-hegemonic Left. To the contrary, destituent acts resolve this crisis through the construction of a different organization of the fragmentation already underway; a structuring process, which ensures that estranged bodies remain isolated from each other, trapped within their own solitude:

Here is the paradox, then: being constrained to unity undoes us, the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world. There is a certain mental position where this fact ceases to be perceived in a contradictory way. That is where we place ourselves. (Now, p. 46)

What, then, is intended in this redefinition of “the real movement” as a process that abides by a destituent (as opposed to an abolitionist) logic? According to the terms that determine a properly destituent political logic, the virtue of any struggle against the state and capital is to be found in the potential harbored within each action that suggests a future that has finally done away with everything that encourages us to “hate Monday’s” when it is capital that is the cause behind the whatever-object of our lamentations. That is to say, actualizing destituent power is to give material reality to the potential of establishing the distance between movements and established institutions, in order for the former to better desert, or flee, or take flight from, everything that is involved in rendering vacuous the relation we maintain to ourselves, to those we call comrade, friend, or lover, and to the world insofar as it is made in the image and likeness of capital. As a fellow accomplice has recently pointed out with regarding the gilets jaunes movement in France, “[I]t is not the radicals who are making the movement, it is the movement that is radicalizing people” (‘Next Stop: Destitution’).

So, unlike those collectivities which tend toward “constituent” or “constituted” power and situate their strategy within the dialectical relation of recognition/negotiation with the ruling authority (i.e. organizing in the hopes of realizing a situation of dual power), collectivities that abide by a destituent logic adhere to, and seek to actualize, the vital need to disengage and distance itself from the dialectical trap of constituent-constituted power. But what would this alleged other form of unity mean, when conceived as a collective ‘abandonment’ of the economy and ‘disengagement’ from the dialectic between constituted and constituent power? At the very least, says the Committee, it would mean the reformulation of the communist question itself; for the equivocation that began with Lenin regarding the terms “socialism” and “communism” has given rise to a more profound confusion whereby liberal economists, socialists, and Marxists all have agreed that the question with which we are confronted is nothing but a question of management.

To destitute or ‘abandon’ the economy not only means acknowledging the illusory gains of constituent power in theory; to abandon the economy implies an organization of collective struggle founded upon the fact that “capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations” (Dauvé, ‘Leninism and the Ultra-Left’). Thus the need for an other mode of organization and struggle than that of constituent power (a form of struggle, which poses the problem of the abolition of the present state of things as being a question of management), which begins from the recognition that

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

Thus, it can be said that, for the Invisible Committee, destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.” So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to give form to the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” and thereby rendering them as that which can no longer be avoided or ignored within everyday life, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect society as a whole. What is more, it is by virtue of the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat:

In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (Communist Manifesto, 20)

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

Thus we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem Humanity from that which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of development of insurrection centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations. Thus, it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization insurrectionary struggle takes when founded upon anti-state communist social relations that it comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue this decidedly anti-Agambenian statement:

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

In other words, such appeals to Humanity are possible only insofar as one assumes that the lives of individuals are adequately defined in isolation from the attributes they comes to assume in the course of living; that is, insofar as one follows Agamben in confusing what is ontologically possibile with what is actually an historical and material potentiality.

At stake, then, in this debate regarding destituent power is the material possibility of directly appropriating the forces and relations of capitalist production. Moreover, in contrast to Agamben’s understanding of destitution in relation to law upholding (constituted power) and law establishing violence (constituent power), the Committee conceive of destituent power as being ‘against the economy’ insofar as the question isn’t that of appropriating the means of production and rather poses the question of how to go about constructing the relations of social reproduction measured by something other than labor-time (or what is required for production). For the Committee, what has become evident is that given the present organization of global society vis-a-vis Capital, any politics geared toward the reappropriation of the forces of production will continue to fall short of abolishing the relations of production that organize and form daily life for the simple reason that,

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

Thus, destituent power is said to be a mode of collective struggle that prioritizes transforming the way in which individuals relate to the production process such that the distinction between labour-time and leisure-time is no longer that which structures and organizes everyday life. Or, as they put it:

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

It is for these reasons that destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living, or what they simply call community:

Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Our need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation. (Now, 133)

To seek out the organizational requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself;”  for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (Now, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the demands and temporality of the circuits of production and circulation. As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves” (Taksim Commune, 11:18-11:32).

[3.] Eighteen Years of Giving Form To Shapeless Things: 2001-2019

Roughly thirteen years after the events that led Colectivo Situaciones to construct this notion of destitution power, they would come to identify this mode of struggle as more of a problematic impasse that needs revisiting rather than a simple set of proscriptions to be implemented:

If during what we call the ‘de-instituent’ phase, social movements attacked the neoliberal state constituting practices capable of confrontation in areas such as the control of money, or bartering; of counterviolence, as in road blocks; and of political command over diverse territories, as in assemblies; social movements, if we can still call them that, currently confront new dilemmas about whether to participate or not (and when, and how) in what could be called a ‘new governmentality,’ thus expressing the distinguishing features of a new phase of the state form and requiring us to problematize the concept of social movement itself. (‘Crisis, governmentality and new social conflict,’ p. 397)

What, then, are we to make of this recent and complicated history of destituent power? Is it the case that destituent power can once again be implemented given that the current cycle of struggles resemble those of Argentina in 2001 (i.e. a struggle between social movements and capitalist nation-states)? Or is it rather the case that we remain caught in the impasse Colectivo Situaciones already identified in 2014, thus making destituent power more of a problem than a resolution to the multiplication of crises of capital and the increased immiseration, which inevitably follows? With respect to the current conjuncture, it would appear that social movements have chosen to side with the former analysis; for destituent power is being hailed, once more, as the necessary organizational form that is to be assumed by present day social movements as well as the coming struggles against capital and its nation-states; and particularly with respect to the gilets jaunes movement in France and the impending climate catastrophe expected to make itself fully felt in little over a decade. In line with Lundi Matin’s editorial with which this article began, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright make similar claims in their 2018 text, Climate Leviathan, when reflecting upon the possible paths toward an anti-authoritarian and internationalist climate justice movement capable of integrating the history and lessons of anti-capitalist struggles and the knowledges and practices of indigenous and colonized peoples into a single movement — a mode of organization, which they tentatively nominate as ‘Climate X.’ As they put it,

“There are…two broad but distinct trajectories that might lead to Climate X. The first is a radical analysis and practice based in an open embrace of the tradition of the anticapitalist Left, spring from Marxist roots […] The second trajectory gets its momentum from very different sources: the knowledge and lifeways of peoples who have long historical experience with ways of being that are not overdetermined by capital and the sovereign state. It is no accident that Indigenous and colonized peoples are at the frontlines in the struggles sowing the seeds of any realizable Climate X […] The challenge that defines Climate X is bringing these two trajectories together; not to merge them, or subordinate one to the other, but to find some means by which they support each other, give each other energy and momentum. This is not impossible, although a left turn toward Leviathan or Mao will almost certainly undo the potential for synergy.” (Climate Leviathan, p. 189-190)

For Mann and Wainwright, it is equally important for climate justice movements to avoid the seductive fantasy of a planetary communist sovereignty that would strictly regulate and police the world’s energy consumption (what they dub ‘Climate Mao’) just as it is important to reject the trappings of any liberal optimism that encourages movements to reinvest their political energy into stricter cap and trade deals and the passage of legally binding environmental agreements between nation-states and international governing bodies. Against these two options, Mann and Wainwright view a fusion of the vision of communism articulated in The German Ideology with the Benjaminian/Agambenian appeals to destituent power as the revolutionary way forward in light of an ever warming planet:

The first opening might find inspiration in the categorical refusal that underwrites Marx’s critique of sovereignty and of communism…His clearest statement on the matter is a refusal of the possibility that revolutionary thought can “know” in a definitive manner where revolutionary activity is going. Communism, he wrote, is “not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, the conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” The second opening might be grounded in Benjamin’s call for politically resolute witness to crisis, a stance that finds affirmation in Agamben’s appeal to a “coming community” and “destituent” power. We wager we need to say yes and yes, affirming both positions at once. In this view, Climate X is at once a means, a regulative ideal, and, perhaps, a necessary condition for climate justice. (Climate Leviathan, p. 183)

And so it appears that there remains at least one more chapter in the history of destituent power that is yet to be written; one more attempt made at testing the efficacy of the concept against the structure of capitalist reality. In any event, and given the preceding analyses, what is clear by now is that rather than a shared and working definition, the Committee and Agamben, in fact, operate under qualitatively different, if not altogether incommensurable, conceptions of the very term itself. While Agamben views destituent acts as the type of activity that all those coming communities of whatever-singularities must undertake in order to wrest back the pure potency of inoperativity from which it has been alienated from by Western political sovereignty, the Invisible Committee, following Guattari’s critical appraisal of the Russian Revolution, understand destituent power as the necessary means of resolving the problems that plagued the Bolshevik government from the outset (“they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism… between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form” (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 243-44)). So, with respect to the current cycle of struggles and the conjuncture in which they find themselves, if communism is now said to be the real movement that destitutes the existing state of affairs; and if destituent power is the necessary organizational form struggles must take today given the objective material conditions of globally integrated capital; communism as the real movement of destitution remains a contested form of struggle.

For those who side with Agamben, destitution as the practical means for rehabilitating the originary being of humanity (inoperativity) implies a certain vision of politics that posits emancipation as a fundamentally ontological problem, before being a problem for politics. To detourn Heidegger’s well known dictum, destituent power is necessary because, says Agamben, we have forgotten the originary question of the meaning of the being of humanity. Thus, despite the best efforts of thinkers such as Bruce Braun and Stephanie Wakefield who attempt to find the resources within the work of Agamben to overcome the lingering Heideggerianism that plagues his thought as a whole — “Ultimately, a politics of destitution puts us in uncertain territory where being is again a question. If Western philosophy has always tried to determine life/being by giving it a name, a ground, a foundation, then following Agamben and Heidegger…we might begin to acknowledge that we cannot know what it means to “be” in advance…Being is not a state or a fact but rather a question, whose answers are rooted in space and time. The fatal, ongoing error of Western thought has been to forget this” (‘Destituent power and common use’) — Agamben’s notion of destituent power describes the type of collective action proper to all current and coming communities of whatever-singularities who struggle against the historical separation of life from its form, on behalf of a form of life that can only be conceived as existing prior to the history of Western governmentality. In the end, it is due to the idealist trappings that ground the opposition of the originary inoperativity of humanity to the separation of life from its form via political sovereignty that Agamben, abstractly, “calls out to Humanity. He tears the veils from universal History, destroys myths and lies, uncovers the truth of man and restores it to him. The fullness of time has come. Humanity is pregnant with the imminent revolution which will give it possession of its own being. Let men at last become conscious of this, and they will be in reality what they are in truth: free, equal and fraternal beings” (Althusser, ‘Feuerbach’s Philosophical Manifestoes).

By contrast, for those who side with the Invisible Committee (as well as Guattari and Colectivo Situaciones), destituent power is the necessary measure and organizational form that communities must take in order for the struggle against capital and its nation-states to succeed. For the Committee, human emancipation has never been a problem first posed at the level of Being and only subsequently is to be addressed at the level of concrete material collective praxis. Rather, for the Committee, there has never been any ‘originary’ meaning of the being of humanity toward which struggles can orient and organize themselves. The ‘truth’ of the being of humanity has never been a mere given, or an already accomplished fact; it is discovered to be subject to the perpetual becoming of what is made, re-made, and un-made: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” (Marx, ‘6th Thesis on Feuerbach’). For it is only by taking aim at, and ultimately transforming, the very “ensemble of social relations,” which is the essence of a humanity everywhere confronted by the accumulation of capital that struggles realize the necessary conditions for bringing about a real and concrete genesis of what Agamben uncovered in an idealist manner: the revolution immanent to the potency of inoperativity.

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

(trans. There are no people. There are only classes. Fuck the bourgeoisie!)

[[ What follows is a draft of a longer essay yet to be written on the genealogy of destituent power covering Bataille, Blanchot, and Tronti, as well as Agamben and the Invisible Committee ]]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Existence to Prelapsarian Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

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

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

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

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

Thus, it can be said that destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.” So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to cause the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” to appear in every day social reality, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect the whole of society. What is more, it is precisely through the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore mean, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat:

In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto)

Thus, we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem the Humanity from which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of proletarian development centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations. And it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization struggle takes when founded upon communist social relations that it comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue a decidedly anti-Agambenian statement as the following:

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

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

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

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

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

To seek out the organization requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself” (ibid, 80); for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (ibid, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the time of labour and the time of “leisure.” As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves.” For the Committee, then, destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that are not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living; or what the Committee simply call “community:” Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Out need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation (Now, 133).

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.

 

 

 

‘June, 1972 & A chief who does not command:’ Clastres/Deleuze/Guattari

welcome to the struggle

(part I of an on going research project on political anthropology, D&G, Clastres, etc.)

“Primitive society has always been considered a place of absolute difference in relation to western society, a strange and unthinkable space of absence – absence of all that constitutes the observers’ socio-cultural universe: a world without hierarchy, people who obey no one, a society indifferent to possession of wealth, chiefs who do not command, cultures without morals for they are unaware of sin, classless societies, societies without a State, etc. In short, what the writings of ancient travelers or modern scholars constantly cry out and yet never manage to say in that primitive society is, in its being, undivided.” – Pierre Clastres, ‘Archaeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies’ p. 259

/0/. ‘The Permanent Exercise of the Decolonization of Thought’

In June of 1972, Pierre Clastres participated in a roundtable discussion on Anti-Oedipus, where Deleuze and Guattari were present as respondents. After a long period of questions and criticisms from other participants (through which Clastres remained silent) he interrupted the conversation with this striking claim: “Deleuze and Guattari have written about Savages and Barbarians what ethnologists up to now have not” (Desert Islands, p.226). Now, given the ethos of the French philosophical scene at this time such laudatory remarks tend to suggest a tinge of irony if not a complete lack of seriousness (cf. Foucault’s comment that perhaps, one day, the century will be called Deleuzean). However, if there is something serious intended by this claim it is due to a shared assumption by Clastres and D&G; namely, and to borrow its formulation from the Deleuzean anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, true philosophical and anthropological thinking must become a “permanent exercise in the decolonization of thought” (Cannibal Metaphysics, p. 48).

For Clastres, this means acknowledging and addressing the covert forms of eurocentrism that persist within the epistemic framework of anthropology. Thus, what was signaled by the remark with which we began is something like the truth of the socio-political embeddedness of the knowing-subject: it is the ethnographer’s and anthropologist’s subject matter that obliges them to enter into a relation with that ‘unthinkable space of absence’; the absence of all those social cues and normative values that render European social life as an intelligible and lived reality. If the ethnographer can successfully excise these dogmatic presuppositions, as Clastres thinks is possible and as we will see below, they wouldn’t merely benefit from a certain level of epistemic certainty about their subject matter. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, one would understand the positive reason for why certain societies are without States: namely, that non-State societies have intentionally constructed an entire way of living that is antithetical to State capture. In Clastres’ words, they are societies against the State.

For Deleuze (with and without Guattari) we see a similar notion as early as Difference and Repetition regarding the nature of ‘social Ideas’ and constructing a Thought that is adequate to Ideas themselves: “In short, the economic is…the totality of the problems posed to a given society. 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…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)

For Clastres, as with Deleuze and Guattari, attaining a Thought that is adequate to its Idea does not guarantee the moral virtue, or constitute the innocence and objectivity, of the thinker: the Idea may clarify the various fields of resolution to the economic problem but the Idea does not legislate its outcomes due to some innate moralizing logic of establishing an equivalence between a problem and its resolution. Thus, in order to understand the points of convergence between these thinkers we’ll begin with an explication of Clastres’ analysis of the function of war and violence in what he calls ‘Primitive’ societies. Then, we will turn to D&G’s Nomadology chapter in order to see how Clastres’ ideas inform their understanding of the nomadic war machine and the State. Finally, we will conclude by showing how D&G extend and modify Clastres’ initial insights on the relationship between the war machine, the State, and the modification of this relationship effectuated by capitalism.

/1/. War Is ‘The Pure and Social Form of Violence’

In order to address the limits and errors of anthropology, Pierre Clastres resurrects the question of the role of the violence of warfare in non-State societies. For Clastres, the question of war has marked the internal limit of various anthropological accounts – where this limit is constituted by the inability to understand warfare from the perspective of non-State groups. Thus, war in societies without a State has continuously been ‘accounted for’ by its reduction to something other than itself: whether as a mere doubling of biological aggression, as the struggle over the scarcity of resources, or as the symptom of an unsuccessful transaction between two different social formations. These three ways of understanding war in ‘primitive’ societies are categorized under the headings of a naturalistevolutionist, and exchangist framework. 

The Naturalist interpretation accounts for violence/war by reducing its social manifestations to biological necessity: humans are naturally aggressive and in pre-state societies the use of violence is a means for the survival of hunter-gatherers (the hunter does violence, and kills, the hunted animal). The problem here is that war, then, is seen as the mere double of the necessary violence of the hunter. So war, if it is this very same violence, is the hunting of other humans with the aim of satisfying hunger. However, says Clastres, even the phenomena of cannibalism isn’t sufficiently explained by this naturalist framework since it would be easier in the life of non-state societies to hunt non-human animals. The Economist interpretation accounts for violence/war by interpreting war as indicative of the poverty of ‘primitive’ life; where, due to the underdevelopment of the productive forces (e.g., the lack of technological means for things such as agriculture), war is fought over the scarcity of resources. The Economist position asserts a metaphysical economy of scarcity as the natural precondition of non-state social life. For Clastres, this idea appears to be disproven by the research of Marshall Sahlins whose field work proposes that life in pre-state societies was actually predicated on an economy of an abundance of resources; where the majority of time is understood as leisure-time since the labor-time is reduced to a minimum. The Exchangist framework, which is developed above, is attributed to Lévi-Strauss’s thesis that “exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions.”

While each account of war is historically significant for Clastres, it is the exchangist framework of Lévi-Strauss that is given the closest treatment since it is via structural anthropology that we are closest to, and yet farthest from, alleviating ourselves of the eurocentric horizon of anthropological study. Thus, Clastres cites the following passage from the Elementary Structures of Kinship as emblematic of this exchangist perspective: “…in Lévi-Strauss’s great sociological work, Elementary Structures of Kinship, at the end of one of the most important chapters, “The Principle of Reciprocity”: [Lévi-Strauss writes] “There is a link, a continuity, between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations: exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions.” (Archaeology of Violence, 252-3).

Thus, according to Lévi-Strauss, war in pre-State societies is what happens when the diplomatic exchange between autonomous social groups fails. However, says Clastres, Lévi-Strauss’s assertion that exchange is logically prior to war cannot obtain for two main reasons. First, drawing on the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, exchange does not precede war in pre-State societies due to Sahlins’ discovery that the true economic structure of non-state societies was predicated on an abundance of natural resources. Given this economic relationship between non-state societies and their territorial milieu the logical relationship between exchange and violence appears as suspicious; if for no other reason than the unquestioned assumptions Clastres finds at the heart of the the exchangist hypothesis: “One would assume, all things being equal for all local groups, a general absence of violence: it could only arise in rare cases of territorial violation; it would only be defensive, and thus never produce itself, each group relying on its own territory which it has no reason to leave.” (AV, 258).

Thus, Clastres wonders, what motivates the exchange among social groups when each group, due to abundance and surplus, is materially and economically self-sufficient? That is, how can Lévi-Strauss posit the logical priority of exchange over war if exchange appears as superfluous from the perspective of each social groups relative autonomy and natural condition of affluence? It is for this reason, says Clastres, that we need to understand that it is not exchange that explains war, but it is war that gives rise to exchange among different non-State social groups. In other words, war is not the negative side of the positive determinations of non-State societies. Rather, war constitutes one of the fundamental and positive features of non-State societies as such. If war is given logical priority over exchange it is not simply because war comes before peace; rather, war is given logical priority due to the autonomous, autarkic, and self-sufficient desire of societies without a State. As Clastres writes

“At its actual level of existence…primitive society presents two essential sociological properties that touch upon its very being: the social being that determines the reason for being and the principle of the intelligibility of war. The primitive community is at once a totality and a unity. A totality in that it is a complete, autonomous, whole ensemble, ceaselessly attentive to preserving its autonomy: a society in the full sense of the word. A unity in that its homogenous being continues to refuse social division, to exclude inequality, to forbid alienation. Primitive society is a single totality in that the principle of its unity is not exterior to it: it does not allow any configuration of One to detach itself from the social body in order to represent it, in order to embody it as unity. This is why the criterion of non-division is fundamentally political: if the savage chief is powerless, it is because society does not accept power separated from its being, division, established between those who command and those who obey” (AV, 261).

What gives non-State societies their ‘reason for being’ is simultaneously the relative abundance of nature and the political aim of the autonomous self-determination of each social group for-themselves. Thus, we encounter an economic and political reason for constructing a society without a State: not only is non-State society self-sufficient economically but it is also self-determinant politically. Implicit in Clastres’ analysis is not only the necessary corrective to the eurocentric practices of anthropology and ethnography (i.e., societies without a State are not in some state of nature but are social wholes that attain a certain degree of economic and political autonomy); in addition, implied here is the existence of a socio-political intentionality on the part of non-State social formations. It is not enough to say the nomads lacks a State, and thus lack civilization. What Clastres shows us is that the nomad finds nothing of value in becoming assimilated into the State apparatus itself; and this lack of value attributed to assimilation from the perspective of non-State social groups is, in itself, a socio-political prescription. Hence Clastres’ well known formula of non-State societies as not simply being without a State; rather, they are social wholes fundamentally against the State. Thus, one of the fundamental features of non-State societies; one of their positive definitions; is the intentional organization of a society that seeks to ward off the State.

/2/. Societies Against The State

So what does this mean for war as the other positive determination of societies against the State? Given what has been said, war must now be understood as the social and political mechanism by which each autonomous social group ensures its autonomy relative to all neighboring groups. When Clastres characterizes war in non-State societies as the ‘pure and social form of violence’ we must understand two things: the function of war, as pure form of violence, is oriented toward the continuous guarantee of each social groups autonomy and self-determination relative to all other groups. War, in its pure form, is never something embarked upon for-itself or for the purposes of simply eliminating a rival group; war is not the object of nomadic society. Rather, it is the means by which the autarkic principle (the true object of nomadic society) is preserved at each step of the way. War, as the social form of violence, responds to the problems we encountered with Lévi-Strauss’s exchangist account. If war in its pure form is understood to be the means to secure the political desire for autonomy respective to all rivalling non-State groups, war in its social form is the cause of, or the sufficient reason for, exchange to take place. Why? Because, says Clastres, one never wages war without acquiring the means for a successful campaign. For non-State societies the means for success are not simply economic or technological; rather, each social group

“is resigned to alliance because it would be too dangerous to engage in military operations alone, and that, if one could, one would gladly do without allies who are never absolutely reliable. There is, as a result, an essential property of international life in primitive society: war relates first to alliance; war as an institution determines alliance as a tactic […] We see now that seeking an alliance depends on actual war: there is sociological priority of war over alliance. Here, the true relationship between exchange and war emerges. Indeed, where are relations of exchange established, which socio-political units assume a principle of reciprocity? These are precisely the groups implicated in the networks of alliance; exchange partners are allies, the sphere of exchange is that of alliance. This does not mean, of course that were it not for alliance, there would no longer be exchange; exchange would simply find itself circumscribed within the space of the autonomous community at the heart of which it never ceases to operate; it would be strictly intra-communal. Thus, one exchanges with allies; there is exchange, because there is alliance” (AV, 267).

War as ‘the pure and social form of violence’ is finally revealed as it exists within non-State societies: as the means by which each rival group ensures their relative autonomy from all other groups and as the basis on which alliances are formed and exchanges made. Thus Clastres writes, and in a manner reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari, that to understand the function of war and violence in non-State societies necessarily means to understand that “[A]s long as there is war, there is autonomy: this is why war cannot cease, why it must not cease, why it is permanent…the logic of primitive society is a centrifugal logic, a logic of the multiple. The Savages want the multiplication of the multiple” (AV, 274). At this point it is worth recalling Deleuze and Guattari’s own attempt to properly pose the question of what defines the nomad/nomadic existence in-itself: “The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths…But the question is what in nomad life is a principle and what is only a consequence” (ATP, 380). War is the principle on which nomadic life is predicated; of life in societies against the State; and exchange is merely the consequence of the tactical alliances established in this permanent war of ‘multiplying the multiple’, or of ensuring the relative autarky of nomadic social groups as such. And in line with Clastres’ positive determination of war in non-State societies, Deleuze and Guattari write, “Primitive war does not produce the State any more than it derives from it. And it is no better explained by exchange than by the State…war is what limits exchange, maintains them in the framework of “alliances”; it is what prevents them from becoming a State factor, from fusing groups” (ATP, 358).

In contrast to the nomadic war machine of societies against the State, and for Deleuze and Guattari, the State ‘captures’ nomadic life; the State is the reorganization of the political and economic relations of nomadic society and transforms the nomad into an organ for aims established by the State-as-Organism. Thus, States capture the nomads in order to transform them into an organ of power and exploit the nomad-as-organ for the ends of the preservation of State based sovereignty. And it is on the basis of these contrasting features of non-State and State societies that we can understand Deleuze and Guattari’s remark from the Faciality chapter regarding the role of racism in the construction of the European nation-state: “European racism as the white man’s claim has never operated by exclusion, or by the designation of someone as Other: it is instead primitive societies that the stranger is grasped as an “Other”…From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside. There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be” (ATP, 178). 

The Circulation of Desire: The Emergence of Underground Music Culture In The 1970’s and Deleuze and Guattari (Part I)

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(A project which is a few years old, but have been meaning to return to)

The project embarked upon by Michel Foucault in The History of Madness was an archeological understanding of the transition/translocation of the ‘madman,’ from the Classical to the Modern age; from the outer reaches of society to their confinement in prisons and hospitals. And within the annals of madness, perhaps there is another chapter yet to be added to the evolution of Occidental societies relationship to the “mad.” A chapter, the memory of which, evoked responses such as this: “I want to tell you about walking into an oasis and feeling like I just walked into my family’s living room. It was more than just walking into their living room, it was about completely being safe from the social restrictions of the outside. Everything that the moral majority told you you couldn’t do, it didn’t exist anymore. It was a family that only had one rule: to love thy brother… and that was okay.”

The chapter from this history would seek to trace out the relationship between the formation of identities in the 1970’s, the emergence of underground dance culture in lower Manhattan, and the theoretical works of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and radical psychoanalyst and political activist Felix Guattari. It is my belief that the sites of exchange where each of these three practices converge and diverge provide a deeper and richer understanding of the notions of “disco,” “gay,” and “sexuality” that was mediatized and codified into the narrative which motivated backlash against disco and everything it stood for.

I: A Brief History of Disco Culture

What is of interest for the current study is the construction of space, a territorialization, which made possible various sorts of communities: communities of disciplined bodies, communities of diagnosis, communities of exile, and communities of resistance. Michel Foucault highlights one such construction of space in History of Madness by tracing the progression of the exclusion of those persons considered “mad,” culminating in the inclusive-exclusion of the great confinement, which paved the way for modern psychiatric practice. Alongside this era in which Foucault wrote, it is worth noting another type of territorialization at work throughout lower Manhattan with the emergence of what would come to be known as the “underground disco culture.” The use of these terms ‘underground’ and ‘disco’ should not be taken as the vernacular of the era (early 1960’s and 1970’s). As one underground club goer notes:

“At the time no one looked at it and said, “Oh there it is, the underground!” It wasn’t that. It was “What is this?”… And it epitomized… it went against all those stereotypical expectancies of what a “disco” would be like at the time…back then it was just a little bit after stonewall and at the time Black and Latino gays needed a place to go where they could be just free, and Whites as well. We didn’t go in and go “Wow, this is underground.” What we did say was “This is different.” It was curious because it had a combination of things: organization, architecture, professionalism, atmosphere, music, sound system…But I didn’t go around telling people I found underground. We didn’t know it at the time; we didn’t even label it as underground. We just said, “This is something you gotta check out!””

These “underground” spaces were the polar opposite of the inclusive- exclusion of the mad as noted by Foucault. Instead of disciplined bodies, or bodies typically seen as driven by sexual promiscuity, spaces such as The Loft sought to construct a new set of possible relations which went against biopolitical government or mediatized images of the (gay) body: “The Loft chipped away the ritual of sex as the driving force behind parties,”…”Dance was not a means to sex but drove the space.” Revelers refigured the dance floor as a site not of foreplay but of spiritual communion where, thanks to the unique combination of décor, space, music, drugs, lighting, and dance, as well as Mancuso’s guiding party ethos, sensation wasn’t confined to the genitals but was everywhere – in every new touch, sound, sight, and smell. Freud defined the sexuality of an infant in similar terms – he called it the polymorphous perverse – and while the Loft didn’t enable a literal return to an irretrievable childhood it nevertheless functioned as the affective medium through which dancers invented new possibilities of bodily pleasure that didn’t revolve around genital sex. “There was an exchange of passion,” says Lisa Hazel, who first went to the Loft when she was sixteen. “We would get off on each other’s movements.””

Created by David Mancuso, “The Loft was a community. If you didn’t have money, as long as you had an invitation, you got in. Last thing in the world is to be broke, you want to be with your friends, and you can’t go out and you can’t do this and you can’t do that… oh yes, well you can still go out and see your friends that night. Write down an I.O.U..” Despite the awakening of political consciousness amongst various marginalized groups, it still remained difficult for gay men to “congregate publicly without fear of police harassment. In addition, many gay clubs were still controlled by organized crime, which severely limited the extent to which gays could control and socialize in their own spaces.”(Discophobia, 284). Hence, it was Mancuso’s intentioned response to his current socio-political environment to create a space, which would be made accessible to anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender.

Along with the combination of spaces such as The Loft, prominent police presence within the gay community, and within the underground music culture as well, the mediatization of “disco” through the film Saturday Night Fever contributed to disco’s integration into mainstream culture as well as the heavy backlash disco would eventually experience. While Saturday Night Fever “kind of took disco out of the closet” with a protagonist who was white, male, and middle-class (an image which distorts the demographic of “disco” goers at the time),  it also contributed to the explosion of disco music sales in the pop-music industry; so much so that WKTU, once a low-rating rock station, became New York’s first all-disco station which garnered popular attention. This relationship between disco and rock, straight and gay, underground and mainstream, constituted the conditions of possibility for both the visibility of marginalized communities, and for the repressive forces which would culminate in the Summer of 1979.

Leading up to the events at the Disco Demolition held at Comiskey Park, radio dj Steve Dahl became the organ through which resentments against disco and everything it stood for were being voiced. Commenting on a song Dahl produced entitled “Do You Think I’m Disco,” Gillian Frank nicely highlights just what was at stake in drawing his listeners attention to anti-disco sentiments:

“The song parodied Rod Stewart’s disco song “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and articulated three main ideas: heterosexuality and masculinity could not operate within discos; men in discos were gay and effeminate; and disco culture threatened masculinity and heterosexuality. The main theme in “Do You Think I’m Disco” is that heterosexuality had failed within disco culture, and its failure was linked putatively to the failure of rock music and was attributed to two factors: sexually unavailable women and effeminate men.”

Along with Dahl, John Holmstrom of Punk Magazine wrote: “Death to disco shit!…Long live the rock! Kill yourself. Jump off a fuckin’ cliff. Drive nails into your head. Become a robot and join the staff at Disneyland. O D. Anything. Just don’t listen to disco shit. I’ve seen that canned crap take real live people and turn them into dogs! And vice versa. The epitome of all that’s wrong with Western civilization is disco.” The efforts of persons such as Dahl and Holmstrom not only expressed, but helped create the image of the disco scene as predominantly gay, effeminate, degenerative, and as a moment in the historical progression of American culture whereby the moral value of masculinity was finding itself being called into question.

These overtly homophobic remarks about the disco scene in the 70’s were not only motivated by resentment toward the place “rock” music found itself, but also fail to take into account the vast array of differences that constitute what “disco” and “underground” meant to those who participated in the community itself. It should be noted that at the time, The Loft was in a league of it’s own; while most other disco clubs created the atmosphere of sex-driven parties and/or exclusionary spaces dominated by one community over another: “The Loft was about dancing, whereas the Tenth Floor was about dancing and getting laid…At David’s, the group was too diverse for that. You would dance with a three-hundred-pound black lady and have the most fabulous time. That wouldn’t happen at the Tenth Floor-they would screen that person out at the door. The Loft was warm and loving, whereas the Tenth Floor was sensual and sexual. There was definitely a feeling of, ‘Let’s go out and get laid,’ and the Tenth Floor met that demand. It was certainly needed at the time.””

Despite the differences between disco clubs during this time, the merit of each was the inauguration of the questioning of the male figure, and the production of anti-normative desire which found ways to construct spaces of subversion in response to the economic, social, cultural, and political confinements of desire.

II: Desiring-Revolution, The Revolution of Desire.

In March of 1973, Felix Guattari published an anonymous essay entitled ‘To Have Done With The Massacre of The Body’ in the ‘Three Billion Perverts’ issue of Retherches, as a response to the neutralization of desiring bodies and a call for the liberation of the body and all of it’s desiring potential. He writes:

“And let us not forget the pleasure…of shaking oneself, of humming, of speaking, of walking, of moving, of expressing oneself, of feeling delirious, of singing, of playing with one’s body in every possible way. We want to recover the pleasures of producing pleasure and of creating-pleasures which have been ruthlessly quashed by educational systems charged with manufacturing obedient worker-consumers. We want to open our bodies to the bodies of other people, to other people in general. We want to let vibrations pass among us, let energies circulate, allow desires to merge, so that we can all give free reign to our fantasies, to our ecstasies, so that at last we can live without guilt, so that we can practice without guilt all pleasures, whether individual or shared by two or more people.

The thought of Guattari (along with Deleuze) helps us understand just exactly what is at stake in the liberation of desire, along with the ways in which liberated desire can become revolutionary. While his writings with Deleuze have focused on critiques of both psychoanalysis and traditional Marxism (most notably Anti-Oedipus), what is at stake in their analysis could be formulated in one particular way: guilt. The role of guilt, at the socio-economic level as well as the familial level, is a key point in understanding the disaster created by Psychoanalysis and its failure to terminate the process of analysis regarding repressed individuals. It was this understanding of the necessity for the reclamation and re-introduction to our bodies in relation to structures of repression and oppression, that drove Deleuze and Guattari’s social and psychoanalytic critique.

In a brilliant inversion of the Oedipus complex, Deleuze and Guattari argue that it isn’t so much so that a subject comes into the world repressed, but has his or her guilt projected onto him/her by the Father (Phallus, Other, Superego, etc.) and then begins to believe in the projected guilt as their own: “The initial theme of the key myth is the incest committed by the hero with the mother. Yet the idea that he is ‘guilty’ seems to exist mainly in the mind of the father, who desires his son’s death and schemes to bring it about…In the long run it is the father who appears guilty, through having tried to avenge himself, and it is he who is killed…This curious indifference toward incest appears in other myths. Oedipus is first the idea of an adult paranoiac, before it is the childhood feeling of a neurotic.”

But why is there a need for the projection of guilt onto the child? onto the culture which emerged around disco music? The reason, say Deleuze and Guattari, is that similar to the projection of guilt onto the subject (subjugated-groups), taboo (the crossing of which produces the imposition of guilt) functions in the same fashion. Guilt and taboo are deployed, and impinge upon the subject-groups from the outside and re-appropriate its desires. And as Deleuze and Guattari write, it isn’t simply that power is the agent of repression and oppression, but the possibility for liberation itself: “If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors.” There would be no need for repression if it wasn’t for desire. Moreover, the force by which desire is repressed provides insight into the power of desire to call into question existing institutions. Hence the backlash experienced by disco was exactly this combination of guilt and taboo in order to maintain the figure of masculinity in American culture, reestablish the position of rock music within the public domain, and provide moral justification for the immoral form-of-life of “homosexuality.”

Thus the merits of underground spaces such as The Loft: not only did The Loft surpass all conventional wisdom as to what a “disco” ought to be, ought to look like, and ought to sound like, but moreover, The Loft operated as a space of liberated desire; a site which decoded the conventional norms and created a space for new semiotic subjugations – new ways of dancing, speaking, hearing, relating, and new raisons d’etre. And as Deleuze and Guattari always remind us, it isn’t enough to deterritorialize onto a new territory, but it’s imperative to continue deterritorializations – produce a becoming-woman, becoming-minor, becoming-animal, etc. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that The Loft tapped into the collective desiring-machine at the time, even to the extent of producing it’s own becoming-animal (a cross pollination):

“Jim Jessup used to come to the Loft, and I got along with him very well…One day he said he and a couple of friends wanted to open a Loft-style party that would be strictly gay and white. They wanted a private club atmosphere so that it would be more discreet, and they said they would only proceed if I said it was OK…I told them, ‘Please, go right ahead!’ I gave them all the help I could…I said we were like bees and could pollinate.”

When Local Knowledge Means Autonomy

Bruges1500

“An aerial view of a town built during the Middle Ages or the oldest quarters (medina) of a Middle Eastern city that has not been greatly tampered with has a particular look. It is the look of disorder. Or, to put it more precisely, the town conforms to no overall abstract form…

The fact that the layout of the city, having developed without any overall design, lacks a consistent geometric logic does not mean that it was at all confusing to its inhabitants. One imagines that many of its cobbled streets were nothing more than surfaced footpaths traced by repeated use. For those who grew up in its various quarters, Bruges would have been perfectly familiar, perfectly legible. Its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements. For a stranger or trader arriving for the first time, however, the town was almost certainly confusing, simply because it lacked a repetitive, abstract logic that would allow a newcomer to orient herself.

The cityscape of Bruges in 1500 could be said to privilege local knowledge over outside knowledge, including that of external political authorities. It functioned spatially in much the same way a difficult or unintelligible dialect  would  function linguistically. As a semipermeable membrane, it facilitated communication within the city while remaining stubbornly unfamiliar to those who had not grown up speaking this special geographic dialect.

Historically, the relative illegibility to outsiders of some urban neighborhoods (or of their rural analogues, such as hills, marshes, and forests) has provided a vital margin of  political safety from control by outside elites. A simple way of determining whether this margin exists is to ask if  an outsider would have needed a local guide (a native tracker) in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion. Coupled with patterns of  local solidarity, this insulation has proven politically valuable in such disparate contexts as eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century urban riots over bread
prices in Europe, the Front de Liberation Nationale’s tenacious resistance to the French in the Casbah of Algeria and the politics of the bazaar that helped to bring down the Shah of Iran. Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy.” – James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

The Tragic Community: Nietzsche and Philosophy as A Treatise on Politics (Part II)

“When someone asks “what’s the use of philosophy?” the reply must be aggressive, since the question tries to be ironic and caustic. Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. Is there any discipline apart from philosophy that sets out to criticise all mystifications, whatever their source and aim, to expose all the fictions without which reactive forces would not prevail?” (NP, 108)

Philosophy’s function, according to Deleuze, is “to sadden” or better, to be unforgivingly critical of reactive forces. Through this unforgiving critique, philosophy seeks to demystify, destroy, debase, deconstruct, etc., all established (reactive) values and in this way Deleuze claims “This is why philosophy has an essential relation to time: it is always against its time, critique of the present world. The philosopher creates concepts that are untimely and not of the present.”(NP, 107) To think actively (Philosopher) is “acting in a non-present fashion therefore against time and even on time, in favor (I hope) of a time to come.”(NP, 107) Thus a new conception of philosophy and thought arises: the thinking of Culture instead of the thought of Method.

“Method always presupposes the good will of the thinker, “a premeditated decision.” Culture, on the contrary, is a violence undergone by thought, a process of formation of thought through the action of selective forces, a training which brings the whole unconscious of the thinker into play.” (108) Deleuze’s critique of Method is the critique of the “ready-made” theory. To use Method thus means one is not thinking, since Deleuze understands Thinking as an immanent process. That is to say, “Thinking depends on forces which take hold of thought.”(108) To think actively and affirmatively, one must be able to take stock of those active forces which constitute one’s life, understanding, etc. Thinking entails a certain genetic element which “determines the relation of force and qualifies related forces.”

This genetic element is similar to the will to power where will=joy/creation, and power is the differential force in a will. Thus Deleuze says, “The thinker thus expresses the noble affinity of thought and life: life making thought active, thought making life affirmative. In Nietzsche this general affinity is…the essence of art.” (NP, 101) And who are the artists? “We the artists” = “we the inventors of new possibilities of life.” (NP, 103) This is one way to understand Deleuze when he says “the theory of forces depends on a typology of forces. And once again a typology begins with a topology. Thinking depends on certain coordinates.” (NP, 110)

To begin Thinking, and to begin thinking about a Tragic Community, we must begin with an immanent process; untimely and ‘to come.’ Jean Luc-Nancy illustrates the pitfalls of a Method-ological thinking and the need for a Cultural one:

“ What is important is one sense of this truth, namely, that “authority” cannot be defined by any preexisting authorization (whether institutional, canonical, or based on some norm) but can only proceed from a desire that expresses itself or recognizes itself in it. There is no subjectivism, certainly no psychologism, in this desire, only the expression of a true possibility and thus of a true potential of being. If democracy has a sense, it would be that of having available to it no identifiable authority proceeding from a place or impetus other than those of desire – of a will, an awaiting, a thought – where what is expressed… is being all together, all and each one among all.” (Truth of Democracy, 14)

Given this passage by Nancy we can say that to think in the style of Method is to define authority (or that which governs and limits the degree of play, freedom, movement, etc., within a given context; that is to say values and evaluations!) by a preexisting “authorization,” or “ready-made” theory. Rather, for Nancy as for Deleuze, to think in the style of Culture is to think of a community, subject, event, etc., ‘on its own terms.’ That is to say, to think ‘in process,’ to think the forces which take hold of the event, and to have a thought that does not attempt to anticipate the community ‘to come.’ But this isn’t to say that one should have no method of approach, but rather thought/life must be strategic. One must be willing to abandon what is ready-made in theory, and create new concepts because the ‘to come,’  is unknown (chance), is that which we cannot anticipate at all. Thus a Tragic Community doesn’t elaborate any theory but rather its concern is understanding the material conditions (forces, flows, economic, agricultural, cultural, etc.) necessary to be both an artist (an envisioneer of new possibilities) and the critic and criminal.

But a problem, one posed by persons like Zizek, Hardt and Negri, and to a lesser extent Brian Massumi, remains. In the age of postmodern capitalism, does the theorization and practice of a Tragic Community carry out a true critique of capital? The answer appears to be no:

“Individual consumers are being inducted into…collective processes rather than being separated out and addressed as free agents who are supposed to make an informed consumer choice as rational individuals. This is a step beyond niche marketing, its relational marketing. It works by contagion rather than by convincing, on affect rather than rational choice. It works at least as much on the level of our ‘indeterminate sociality’ as on the level of our identities. More and more, what it does is hitch a ride on movements afoot in the social field, on social stirrings, which it channels in profit-making directions. People like Negri talk about the ‘social factory’, a kind of socialisation of capitalism, where capitalism is more about scouting and capturing or producing and multiplying potentials for doing and being than it is about selling things…The product ultimately, is us. We are in-formed by capitalist powers of production. Our whole life becomes a ‘capitalist tool’ – our vitality, our affective capacties.” (Navigating Movements, 55)

Or let us take Zizek’s analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of becoming and its potential for resistance:

“And what about the so-called Transformer or Animorph toys, a car or a plane that can be transformed into a humanoid robot, an animal that can be morphed into a human or robot-is this not Deleuzian? There are no “metaphorics” here: the point is not that the machinic or animal form is revealed as a mask containing a human shape but, rather, as the “becoming-machine” or “becoming-animal”of the human.” (Bodies without Organs, 184)

According to Zizek’s analysis, it appears that capital has managed to materialize Deleuze and Guattari’s own theories of becoming-animal and becoming-machine, and even turn a profit on them. Zizek thus poses a problem-question to those who find potential forms of resistance to capital in this framework of the immanence of forces, essences, power, becomings, etc.: how does one distinguish between the becoming-animal that resists capital, and the becoming-animal that is produced by capital? Is there a ‘real’ or ‘true’ becoming and a ‘pseudo’ becoming? In response to such a caricature (a la Zizek) I would remind us that there isn’t a unitary and solitary, becoming and/or force. Every force can be either active or reactive, depending on the forces that take hold of it. Moreover, becomings can be subsumed into capitalist production or can be used to resist and subvert them.

What cannot be denied is the fact that postmodern capitalism does operate all too similar to Deleuze’s notions of becoming, flow, and deterritorialization. However, what must be resisted is the conception that the immanent critique of capitalism cannot effect any substantial changes to capitalism’s postmodern immanence. Here we must recall a notion, and one I have not yet touched on at length, of Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche: the will to power, which is the counterargument to the Zizekian straw-man. “The will to power is the element from which derive both the quantitative difference of related forces and the quality that devolves into each force in this relation.” (NP, 50) Or put in another way,

“The will to power is thus added to force, but as the differential and genetic element, as the internal element of its production […] The will to power must be described as the genealogical element of force and of forces. Thus it is always through the will to power that one force prevails over others and dominates or commands them. Moreover it is also the will to power (dy) which makes a force obey within a relation; it is through will to power that it obeys.”(NP, 51)

To understand the will to power as the genealogical element of force is to understand that will to power does not mean that a will wants power. Will/willing designate something different from power: will/willing are understood as ‘joy’ and ‘creation,’ respectively. Power, on the other hand, “is the one that wills in will. Power is the genetic and differential element in the will.”(NP, 85) To the extent that power is ‘the one that’ interprets and evaluates life, we must ask who is ‘the one that’? What is the creative deed, the willed creation, of power? Insofar as our answer to this question is active and affirmative force, Deleuze will maintain the term will to power. Will to power is the selection and creation of “a particular relation of forces, a particular quality of forces.”(NP, 85) Insofar as our answer to this question is reactive and negating force, Deleuze will use the term will to nothingness. (NP, 64) But to what extent does the will to power answer the question of distinguishing active from reactive force, or capitalist-becomings from anticapitalist-becomings?

“The will to power as genealogical element is that from which senses derive their significance and values their value…The signification of sense consists in the quality of the force which is expressed in a thing: is this force active or reactive and of what nuance? The value of a value consists in the quality of the will to power expressed in the corresponding thing; is the will to power affirmative or negative and of what nuance?” (NP, 54-55)

These are the guiding questions Deleuze gifts us with: what type of power, or better who is ‘the one that’ wills in the will to power? is it active or reactive and of what nuance? These questions can be summed up as such: what is the creative deed of the one that wills? Nietzsche replies, “slave morality says “no”…: and this “no” is its creative deed.” (NP, 36) Understanding this distinction of will to power and will to nothingness, we can return to the “theoretical weakness” of  “postmodern” philosophy. The becoming-animal, and becoming-machine of transformer and animorph toys embody a becoming, yes. But what kind of becoming? active or reactive? and of what nuance?

The becoming-commodity of these becoming-animal/becoming-machine are reactive becomings arising from a will to nothingness. The creativity of such becomings have been channeled and reduced into profit-machines; becoming-animal has become-commodity, which has become-profit. The ultimate reduction to profit is capitals creative deed; the “no” to that which is outside of itself, to that which becomes something other than profit. This is, too, the point of Agamben’s commentary on Tiananmen square: the becoming-community of whatever-singularities posit a value different from the values of becoming-capital. And to the extent that ‘postmodern’ capitalism cannot tolerate these becomings which are incommensurable to it and thus actively negate them, they are reactive/negating forces: the will to nothingness par excellence.