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

may 68 barricade bordeaux

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

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

[Introduction]

Today it appears that rather than the presentation of a solution or set of proscriptions, May ’68 persists in the form of a problem. For someone like Badiou, this problem of 68 belongs strictly to the order of politics insofar as the era was defined by, and preoccupied with, the question, “What is politics?”[2] while for those like Guattari, ‘68’s problematic was socio-economic in essence (“…one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”)[3] And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May reveals itself to be decidedly metaphysical in nature (“Democracy is first of all a metaphysics and only afterwards a politics.”)[4] Thus it seems that the fate of “May ’68” is to remain an eternal site of contestation, always irreducible to any single sequence of events.[5] Hence our suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more so a formulation of a set of problems. However, for us it is necessary to ask whether or not we still remain its contemporaries, as Badiou suggests. In other words, is it as simple as recognizing the fact that contemporary struggles continue to lack the relevant forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of capital and its attendant social relations?

In what follows, I would like to propose that our relationship to May ‘68 is more complicated than any straightforward affirmation or rejection of our contemporaneity with the political sequence that bears its name and date. And it is by understanding why it becomes difficult to simply affirming or denying Badiou’s claim that we are able to grasp how our relationship to ‘68 involves, by necessity, both responses. While it may be the case that what we share with ‘68 is our searching for an answer to a singular question – namely, what form will collective subjectivity take such that it is adequate to the abolition of itself and its present state of affairs? – what becomes clear is that the possible solutions this question solicited in 1968 are significantly different from those offered up in 2018.

[Badiou’s ‘Four May’s]

I would like to begin by asking a very simple question: why all this fuss about May ‘68…40 years after the event? There was nothing of the kind for the thirtieth or twentieth anniversary.6 Thus begins Badiou’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of the events of ‘68. And not without justification, for it is indeed strange that May ’68 becomes worthy of national commemoration only once 40 years of silence has come to pass. Beginning with this question what Badiou outlines two of the dominant modes of responding to this question.

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

the reason why this commemoration is complicated and gives rise to contradictory hypotheses is that May ’68 itself was an event of great complexity. It is impossible to reduce it to a conveniently unitary image. I would like to transmit to you this internal division, the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ’68. There were in fact four different May ‘68’s. The strength and the distinctive feature of the French May ’68 is that it entwined, combined and superimposed four processes that are, in the final analysis, quite heterogeneous.[9]

So, in place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystifications, what goes by the name ‘May 1968’ was a political sequence that was effectuated due to the interplay of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general and wildcat strikes organized by workers, and (iii) the cultural protestations which arose most notably from young people and filmmakers. And it is for this reason, says Badiou, that it comes as no surprise that the symbolic sites of ‘68 are “the occupied Sorbonne for students, the big car plants (and especially Billancourt) for the workers, and the occupation of the Odéon theatre.”[10] Now, while each of these segments of ‘68 correspond to the first three iterations of May, what is it that constitutes this supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and the struggles of everyday life?

According to Badiou, this ‘fourth May’ is nothing other than the generalization of what one could call an ‘absolute refusal’ or ‘absolute rejection’ regarding ‘68’s movements relation to previous cycles of revolutionary struggle. This fourth iteration of May, was defined by the various social movements shared rejection of the Leninist outline of revolution (or what Badiou, in his essay on Sylvain Lazarus, calls ‘the bolshevik mode of politics’) – a vision of revolution that proceeds via workers’ parties, backed by labour unions, all while professional revolutionaries organize the masses in the bid for seizing state power.[11] And it was this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy characteristic of the fourth May that laid the ground for the unification of the student, worker, and cultural struggles active during ‘68. It is for this reason that Badiou will go on to define this fourth May as a collective attempt to construct ‘…a vision of politics that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision… [a politics] seeking to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism.’[12]

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

What happened at the gates of the Chausson factory would have been completely improbable…a week earlier. The solid union and party dispositif usually kept workers, young people and intellectuals strictly apart…The local or national leadership was the only mediator. We found ourselves in a situation in which that dispositif was falling apart before our very eyes. This was something completely new…This was an event in the philosophical sense of the term: something was happening but its consequences were incalculable. What were its consequences during the ten ‘red years’ between 1968 and 1978? Thousands of students…workers, women…and proletarians from Africa went in search of a new politics…A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other…At that point, we realized…that if a new emancipatory politics was possible…it would turn social classifications upside down [and] would…consist in organizing lightning displacements, both material and mental.[14]

 

Thus, for Badiou, to commemorate or reflect upon the events of 68 means to necessarily confront and understand it as a political sequence that was realized only because of students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups (youth, women, Algerians, etc.) sharing one and the same horizon of struggle – replete with its dual rejection of the politics of parliamentarianism, party led unions, and transitional programs; and the figure of the worker as the sole bearer of revolutionary potential. A sequence whose guiding question was the following: “What would a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like?”[15] And it is precisely in this sense that 1968 is said to mark the birth of a political subjectivity defined by a defiance of the social positions (‘places’) allotted to it by Capital. Thus it comes as no surprise that we can find Kristin Ross give a description of May ‘68 in a manner similar to the portrait of political subjectivity drawn by Badiou himself:

What has come to be called “the events of May” consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural “givenness” of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside—trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers’ housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and later against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics — moving it out of its…proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party.[16]

And so the notion of there having been not one or two, but “four May’s,” retains its analytical usefulness insofar as it allows us to conceive of ‘68 on its own terms; as a form of politics whose horizon of struggle was one that rejected past and present iterations of left-wing politics and gave consistency to collectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal ‘that links the other three [May’s].’[17] And in following Badiou we are necessarily led to the conclusion that it was only by virtue of the diagonal function of the fourth May that ‘68 succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself; a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line; no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left; no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production; and thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been said to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free.

[1968 – 2018?]

Today, however, things do not seem as clear as they did during 1968. With respect to politics, the radical left (at least in the United States and UK) is increasingly confronted by an internal split between that portion of the Left that has invested its energies and belief in progressive change, in candidates and parties on the parliamentary left (Labour in the UK, DSA backed candidates in the Democratic Party in the United States, etc.) and the extra-parliamentary portion of the Left, which remains ever skeptical of achieving the radical transformation of our social totality via presently existing political institutions and organizations. And this alone is already a significant divergence from Badiou’s assessment regarding our relation to the legacy of ‘68. For if we are the contemporaries of ‘68; and if ‘68 was truly defined according to the diagonal function of this ‘fourth May’ which united various social movements via the shared rejection of both the Party-form with its unions and the electoral process; then, from the vantage point of the present, this consensus forged during ‘68 has now been put into question.[18]

An analysis such as this was already put forward in 2015 by Plan C’s Keir Milburn. In their article ‘On Social Strikes and Directional Demands,’ they note how one of the key contributing factors that has led to this impasse is the failure of the movements of 2011 to bring about the desired and/or expected level of change. As they put it, “[A]n impasse was reached in both the pure horizontalist rejection of representative politics and the initial attempts to address the crisis of social reproduction autonomously from the State and capital.”[19] Reflecting upon SYRIZA and the limitations of a straightforwardly parliamentarian approach to radical change, Milburn, in my estimation, correctly underscores the fact that electing various Left leaning parties into power reveals what is inherently limiting regarding this reinvestment of the Party-form – and this largely happens either through compromises made between the elected government and the EU or by the EU’s, IMF’s, and World Bank’s, isolation of said government in order to elicit the desired set of austerity measures, thereby rendering it amenable to the demands of the market: “Neoliberalism…seeks to either replace points of democratic decision with pseudo-market mechanisms or, where this isn’t possible, insulate points of political decision from pressure and influence from below.”[20]  So what are we to take away from all this?

1). The Left: First, in terms of a collective subject whose consistency is drawn from a shared horizon with its principles and analyses, it would be more accurate to say that, today, we are witnessing the undoing of the ‘fourth May’s’ unifying function, which can be seen in the internal split between electoral and extra-parliamentarian approaches. And just as “we must not forget…that May ‘68’s last slogan was élections piège à cons [Elections are a con],” we must recognize that one possible slogan that could encapsulate the Left of 2018 would be the idea that ‘elections are a mode through which class struggle can again be waged.’

2). The Subject of Politics: Second, while the problem of constructing a form of subjectivity adequate to the current organization of capital remains as urgent as it was in 1968, this problem is, in fact, an insufficient ground upon which to establish contemporaneity since this was a problem that every historical period had to pose and answer for itself – regardless if the solutions to this problem assumed different names such as sans-culotte, the peasant, the slave, the colonized, and of course the worker. And regarding the current relation of Capital’s socio-economic structure to the possible existence of the long sought after agent of abolition, the prospects of the Left being able to determine for themselves the form and organizational structure struggle will assume appears to be even more difficult than 1968 – a milieu that, as we saw, was already characterized by the established parties and unions fighting both their electoral rivals and those who defected or exercised insubordination in the face of union and party officials. What is more, given the recent research on various forms of struggle such as Joshua Clover’s book on riots, it is worth emphasizing what he lays out so carefully: the strike and the riot continue to be, in large part, overdetermined by the accumulation and production of value – and this, in spite of everything that is redeeming in Marx’s notion of the ‘multiplication of the proletariat,’ which refers to the process that follows from Capital’s increasing turn away from production and toward circulation and consumption (reproduction) for the extraction of value. That is, the multiplication of the proletariat, for both Marx and Clover, is still a process of generalized precarity rather than the generalization of a collective and antagonistic Subject.

3). The Party, The State: However, if it is precisely a shared orientation defined as anti-state, anti-party, and anti-parliamentarian that is lacking from our present and whose absence is the felt in the Left’s division from itself, the solution cannot simply be calls of support for more ‘diversity of tactics,’ because when the parties of the Left end up in power what we have seen in the past and what may come again in the near future is the repression of all those extra-parliamentary groups struggles, whose very existence participated in building a political climate favorable to the Left as a whole. This is a tendency that realized itself  in post-’68 France and whose most well known example is that of the Italian Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise.’ And regarding the recent years leading up to 2018, we have also seen echoes of this from Corbyn’s Labour Party. For instance, in Labour’s 2017 manifesto one reads that the Labour Party will promise to rectify the damage done by Theresa May cutting funds to police and emergency personnel (Labour Party Manifesto, 46-47). How exactly? By placing an additional 10,000 more police officers on the streets to, ostensibly, “keep our communities safe.” And all of this while Corbyn was meeting with well known grime mcs (JME), all of whom come from communities that are at the highest risk of being harrassed, beaten, wrongfully stopped and searched, verbally and physically assaulted, or worse, by the police themselves.

Endnotes

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

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

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May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground”

1 may taksim sqTaksim Square (May 1, 1977)

[An excerpt from Sakine Cansiz’s memoir Sara: My Whole Life Was A Struggle] 

The days crawled by, and May 1 [1977] approached. We decided to celebrate the workers’ holiday here in [the Buca] prison and discussed the program. In the outside world, preparations were running full steam ahead. In Istanbul all the leftist groups were planning to demonstrate at Taksim Square. I wondered how May 1 would pass in Kurdistan. Surely the friends would participate in the action at Taksim Square. In Kurdistan, police attacks were usually much harsher. I suspected there would be clashes. 

On May 1 we put on our best clothes. Red carnations had been sent to us from outside–we put them in cans and arranged them on the cabinets. At 9 a.m., out in the courtyard, we started with a minute of silence, then shouted slogans together. We heard slogans booming from other cells as well. We were loud even though we were only few in number. “Long live the first of May!” we cried, and in Kurdish: “Bijî Yeke Gulanê!” [long live
the first of May!]. 
Then, tensely, we turned on the TV news. State television was reporting mostly on police security measures, but sometimes it switched to showing crowds streaming into Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands were marching with raised eft fists and roaring slogans. It was a splendid sight, strengthening our belief that this mass of humanity could really carry out a revolution. We all murmured with excitement at each new camera shot. Never had I so much confidence in the working class and the prospects for revolution in Turkey. I was fired up, even as I ached with longing for Kurdistan [. . .] The sight of workers in smocks and overalls was impressive. Occasionally they showed footage of the leader of the DİSK revolutionary trade union confederation, Abdullah Baştürk, and the chairman of the TİP, the Turkish Workers Party, Behice Boran. I listened carefully for the slogan “Down with colonialism” and scanned the crowds for banners saying “Kurdistan Revolutionaries.” Suddenly a commotion broke out. Continue reading “May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground””

Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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

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

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

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

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

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ‘BLACK BLOC’ WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN IN HAMBURG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Previously unpublished writing from Tarnac – ‘Against the State of Emergency’

protest 4 - Beestermoellers

This text–originally published in Hostis 2: Beyond Recognition–was translated from the French by Robert Hurley and merits a statement regarding the context from which it emerged. The original article (‘contre létat d’urgence, l’urgence de prendre la rue’) was written upon request by the French newspaper Le Monde. The newspaper had asked for a commentary from some of the Tarnac defendants ( “des mis en examen” ) regarding the 13 November 2015 attacks on Paris and the events that followed. However, despite the papers initial request the piece was accepted but never published. In the end, Le Monde provided no rationale for this and so we leave it up to our readers to determine why.

Gone are the days when they could cynically joke, in the Anti-Terrorist Sub-Directorate: “There are more people making a living from terrorism than there are dying from it.” Gone, too, the days when anti-terrorism à la française, or rather, à la Bruguière,* dripped with self-satisfaction in the pages of the magazines. Didn’t its prize formula, “criminal association in connection with a terrorist undertaking,” enable it to preventively neutralize whomever one wished and keep them in the cooler long enough to “tenderize the meat,” even though there was no incriminating evidence? And what wisdom on the part of the anti-terrorist judges and police! : their sense of the Republic was such that they never dreamed of exploiting that gap in the penal code which the formula effectively constitutes. They could have locked away just about anyone they wanted to on frivolous grounds, and they didn’t. As a reward for this surprising restraint, it was agreed that one shouldn’t focus too much on the falsifications, the doctorings and other little lies they were in the habit of inserting into the procedures and press conferences. Where anti-terrorism is concerned, it’s the intention that counts, and here the intention could only be laudable. The formula in question was an ‘weapon.’ And like every arm, it was appreciated for its ‘effectiveness.’ The police criterion of effectiveness was not very juridical, certainly, but it imposed itself like a Glock in the middle of the face: as they tirelessly repeated, there hadn’t been an attack on French soil since 1995. The blackmail was couched in these terms: “Don’t tie our hands or there will be deaths.” From laws to decrees to the paroxysm of the latest ‘law on intelligence,’ it’s an understatement to say that over the past twenty-five years the successive heads of government bravely submitted to this blackmail. In this way, little by little, the anti-terrorist services were placed above the law. Their field of action no longer knows any limit. The bulk of what they do is classified and the last channels of recourse against them have been dismantled. It must be admitted that governing figures with little purchase on developments in the world have found what they needed here: weren’t the army and the police the last levers available to them, the last forces that were supposed to obey them? And what’s more, the interest of the secret services in terms of communication – the real function of the governing authorities now – is that since the information they hold is officially secret, one can lie about it without risking to be contradicted. That the DGSI* has taken for its headquarters, at Levallois-Perret, the former offices of Euro RSCG,* is a coincidence worth thinking about. Thus, a Cazeneuve* can congratulate himself in a press statement for “the effectiveness of the services of the Ministry of the Interior in the fight against terrorism” as he did last November 10, and only events can reduce such a miserable little exercise in self-promotion to the nonsense that it is. They didn’t fail to do so.

The November 13 attacks confirm the total rout of French-style anti-terrorism, a kind of smug, cowardly, and sheeplike bureaucratic monster. The new rhetoric of ‘war’ that has supplanted the promise of ‘security’ doesn’t come out of nowhere: it was concocted over the past few months in anticipation of the inevitable assault and in order to mask the failure of a whole apparatus, the disaster of a whole policy. Beneath its manly posturing, it has trouble hiding the obvious impotence and the profound disorientation of the governing authorities. As a general rule, every foreign war that a government declares should be understood first as an act of domestic war, aimed first of all at its own population – that is, at dominating, controlling, and mobilizing the latter, and aimed against the rival power only secondarily. This is something that the geopoliticians will never understand, and which always renders their considerations on ‘the Americans,’ ‘the Russians,’ ‘the Iranians,’ etc. so pointless. It’s also what explains that the latest French air strikes, which were so urgently publicized, didn’t do any decisive damage: they are their own purpose in themselves.

It needs to be said that apart from these cinematic strikes, the recent ‘declaration of war’ essentially consists in the establishment of the state of emergency – that is, in a revocation of the last protections the population has against the abuses of the government, the exactions of the police, and the arbitrariness of the administrations. It reminds us of the extent to which contemporary war is clearly counter-insurrectionary, or as General Vincent Desportes puts it so well, it “is not conducted between societies but within societies.” “The target of the action is no longer the adversary, but the population.” Its “objective is human society, its governance, its social contract, its institutions.” “Military actions are really a ‘manner of speaking’: every major operation is now a communicative operation first of all, one whose actions, even minor ones, speak louder than words. […] Conducting war is primarily managing perceptions, those of the set of actors, near or distant, direct or indirect.” We are experiencing what is described very accurately by the Invisible Committee in To Our Friends: “from being a military doctrine, counter-insurgency has become a principle of government.” Thus for a whole day the government tested the ‘opinion’ reaction to its announcement of a possible quashing of the planned demonstrations against COP 21.* Given the general confusion and the organizers’ irresolution, the prohibition of demonstrations was decreed the next day. Already, RAID* units have been sent to dislodge squatters in Lille, absurd curfews are being tested, and this is obviously only a beginning. Evidently, with this state of emergency, we are dealing with a policing measure against all political liberties. So one understands the population’s current reluctance to pick up on the executive’s martial refrains: the population knows very well that basically it is the target of the announced offensive.

For our part, and this won’t surprise anyone, it seems to us that the real danger doesn’t come from the Middle-East but from the successive governments that have plunged us into these dark waters and are attempting at present to close their trap on us once more. By getting us to go along with their war, they’re already speculating on the benefits they’ll draw from the next time we’ll be taken as targets. The attacks and the present state of emergency realize the dream of every government: that everyone will stay home – absolute privatization. It’s obviously the opposite that should be done: take the squares, meet in the streets, occupy the universities, directly debate the situation, find the right words for grasping our common condition, restore public space to its political calling, begin to organize and cease to leave our fate in the hands of the bloody imbeciles who claim to govern us. In this way we have some chance of becoming a crowd that holds together, and no longer that collection of anomic solitudes that’s unable to defend itself when it’s attacked – by its government or by jihadists.

 

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Note: The asterisked items above are easily searchable, but briefly:
Jean-Louis Bruguière is a former investigating magistrate in charge of counter-terrorism.
DGSI is the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, a French intelligence agency.
Euro RSCG is a global public relations corporation.
Bernard Cazeneuve is the current Minister of the Interior.
COP 21 was the recent Paris conference on global warming/ climate change.
RAID is France’s primary counter-terrorism police.