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).

Previously unpublished writing from Tarnac – ‘Against the State of Emergency’

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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.

 

____________________

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.

The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape

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Transcript of a short talk I gave @ b-books for the German book launch of Dark Deleuze in Berlin. 

Introductory Remarks

The terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility are perhaps three of the most essential concepts that constitute the lexicon of Dark Deleuze; a lexicon that seeks to refute and replace the consensus of Deleuze as a thinker of affirmation, of joyous affects, and lover of rhizomes. If this is so, readers may find the text’s development of these terms merely suggestive, especially since the notion of escape is given its most interesting treatment in the final passages of the text’s concluding chapter. However, as I hope to show, these concepts of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility, gain in significance insofar as we understand them in relation to the interlocutors Andrew brings together in his reading of Deleuze; and particularly the work of the Paris based art collective Claire Fontaine (and to a lesser extent Tiqqun) whose names appear at key moments in the development of this politics of escape.

1. Escape, Opacity, Indiscernibility


To begin, we can ask the following question: how are we to understand a politics of escape in light of Dark Deleuze’s argument that Deleuze, has always been, a partisan of the anti-state communist tradition? At the outset we can say that escape is not to be confused with some generalized notion of deterritorialization or even with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of lines of flight. To escape requires lines of flight, but the two are not one and the same. For Andrew, escape is given a decidedly political inflection where lines of flight pertain to the objective tendencies of the world that, if taken to their logical conclusions, force a qualitative change of the situation:

Escape is never more exciting than when it spills out into the streets, where trust in appearances, trust in words, trust in each other, and trust in this world all disintegrate in a mobile zone of indiscernibility (Fontaine, ‘Black Bloc’). It is these moments of opacity…and breakdown that darkness most threatens the ties that bind us to this world. (Dark Deleuze, 70)

Regarding this passage it is worth noting the reference to Claire Fontaine and her writing on the black bloc, which suggests to the reader that between Fontaine and this Dark Deleuze there is something in common. What both Fontaine and Dark Deleuze hold in common is their antipathy toward those who envision the task of Thinking being one of adequate description, or the verification of conceptual representations. In contrast to these positions that equate thinking with representing/describing the world, Fontaine and Deleuze assert that before all else Thinking is a response to a problem whose nature is political. Or as Deleuze and Guattari write in the 8th chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘…politics precedes Being’ (ATP, 203). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the reason for the reference to Fontaine’s work is because it is Fontaine who develops a key distinction that is implied in Dark Deleuze’s conclusion and one that will allow us to understand how the three terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility relate to one another. In her essay ‘This is not the black bloc’ Fontaine distinguishes between what is ontologically indiscernible and that which is politically indiscernible. As she writes:

A distinctive feature of one who finds themselves in what we call a black bloc is to demand nothing for themselves or for others, to cut across public space without being subjected to it for once, to disappear in a mass or factory exists and public transportation at rush hour…In this night where all demonstrators look alike there is no point in posing Manichean questions. Especially since we know that the distinction between guilty and innocent no longer matters, all that counts is the one between winners and losers. (Claire Fontaine, ‘This is not the black bloc’)

A world of difference, then, keeps apart the fabled ‘night in which all cows are black’ from the night of insurrection ‘where all demonstrators look alike’. Regarding the former, we find ourselves disabled in the face of pure immediacy. In this situation, there is nothing about the world that allows us to distinguish something from anything else; a cause from its effect; a principle from its consequences. However, in the night where all demonstrators look alike, we find ourselves enabled in our confrontation with capital’s imposed daily rhythm and its state apparatuses of capture. For example, while one may ordinarily be subjected to ‘random’ stops by the police or even the violence that always arrives at demonstrations, the indiscernibility of the black bloc affords this mass of individuals more opportunities for attack and resisting arrest than if they were to assume the transparency model of peaceful protest and orderly conduct. Fontaine continues:

Continue reading “The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape”

Cinema In The Age of Control Societies

machinesoflovinggrace

(Incredibly rough draft of part II of an article for Carte Semiotiche Annali 4, IMAGES OF CONTROL. Visibility and the Government of Bodies. Part I can be found here).

Given our critique of the affirmationist interpretation, and while Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is Patton’s exemplar of something that approximates a Deleuzean ethico-political program, we should turn our attention to Godard’s 1965 sci-fi noir film Alphaville as the measure (and critique) of this affirmationist reading. Turning to Alphaville is crucial since it is the film where Godard achieves in cinema what Deleuze himself would only put down to paper towards the end of his life: the problem of how one makes revolution from within the contemporary paradigm of control societies. Not only were societies of control emerging as the latest form of capitalism’s ongoing globalization in Deleuze’s own life time; specific for our purposes here, what Deleuze understands as the technical and material conditions of control societies is precisely what Godard explores through the figure of an artificially intelligent computer (Alpha 60) that regulates the city of Alphaville as a whole with the aim of ensuring ‘civic order’ and dependable (i.e., predictable) citizenry. It is Alpha 60 who surveils, polices, and determines the guilt or innocence of the citizenry; that is, this AI form of governance is the perfect instance of those cybernetic machines at work in capitalist-control societies. Additionally, this emerging problem of control was a consequence of the shift from the ‘movement-image’ to the ‘time-image,’ as Deleuze notes. It is a shift to the paradigm  that “registers the collapse of sensory-motor schemes: characters no longer “know” how to react to situations that are beyond them, too awful, or too beautiful, or insoluble…So a new type of character appears” (Negotiations, 59).

However, what Deleuze leaves implicit and under theorized in his concept of the ‘time-image,’ is the following: after the second world war, where we see a shift from the ‘movement-image’ to the ‘time-image,’ there was a simultaneous shift in how nation-states began to conceive of the role of global strategies of governance. During and after the war, information theorists, scientists, and academics were employed by the American government to develop the technological means for establishing a certain degree of civic order in a world that has proven itself capable of succumbing to the ever looming threat of global war. It was this emerging group of scientists and academics that would construct the very means for actualizing societies of control (Deleuze) and were the real world correlates for the social function of Alpha 60 (Godard):

the very persons who made substantial contributions to the new means of communication and of data processing after the Second World War also laid the basis of that “science” that Wiener called “cybernetics.” A term that Ampère…had had the good idea of defining as the “science of government.” So we’re talking about an art of governing whose formative moments are almost forgotten but whose concepts branched their way underground, feeding into information technology as much as biology, artificial intelligence, management, or the cognitive sciences, at the same time as the cables were strung one after the other over the whole surface of the globe […] As Norbert Wiener saw it, “We are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we make look forward as worthy of our dignity.” Cybernetic government is inherently apocalyptic. Its purpose is to locally impede the spontaneously entropic, chaotic movement of the world and to ensure “enclaves of order,” of stability, and–who knows?–the perpetual self-regulation of systems, through the unrestrained, transparent, and controllable circulation of information” (The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, p.107-9).

In the last instance, whether we speak of the paradigm of control in contemporary modes of governmentality or Alpha 60 in Alphaville, both Deleuze and Godard are concerned with the possibilities for the radical transformation of social life from within this context of cybernetic governance. Thus, it is against the background of societies of control that Patton’s affirmationist interpretation, and the politics that logically follows, will be measured and tested; if only to underscore how the affirmationist’s Platonism demonstrates that the application of metaphysical and epistemic truths into the domain of politics culminates in a praxis that is impotent at best and reactionary at worst.

Continue reading “Cinema In The Age of Control Societies”

‘5 Theses on the Politics of Cruelty’ – Hostis: A Journal of Incivility

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(A preview from the forthcoming Issue of Hostis: A Journal of Incivility)

I). The politics that seduces us is not ethical, it is cruel.

We contrast the politics of cruelty to the politics of ethics. Ethics goes all the way back to the Greeks, whose ethics was the study of ‘the good life.’ Our interests do not lie in being better than our enemies.There is only cheap satisfaction in telling yourself that you have more exciting sex, stronger friendships, or fiercer personal convictions. The point is not to be better, but to win. Perhaps this leaves a bad taste in some mouths. However, we ask: is ethics not just a last resort for the impotent? Are ethical people what is left after struggles collapse into impossibility, futility, or counterproductivity

If abandoning ethics leaves one disturbed, it is because ethics is a wholly personal affair. To be ethical today is not even reformist – it is politics rendered as fantasy, a live action role play of those who ‘mean well.’ The sphere of ethical life is a world of braggarts and bullies looking for others to affirm that they have made the right personal choices. Ethics valorizes the virtue of activist intentions while leaving the systemic destruction of globally-integrated capital intact. In other words, it is fueled by the elitism of ‘being better than everyone else.’ And the problem with elitism is that it plunges us back into the milieu.

Cruelty has no truck with the individualism of ethics. It does not guide political action with virtue or best intentions. We are not looking to win the respect of those we wish to defeat. Ethics is the trap laid for those who walk the earth searching for respite from the destruction and violence of capital and the state. There is no use in making peace with an enemy whose realized interests entail your subjugation. There was nothing ‘ethical’ about the colonial world. And as Fanon reminds us, it could only be destroyed by giving up on an ‘ethical’ method. It is in this sense that a politics of cruelty picks up the old adage that one must ‘destroy what destroys you’.

II). Few emotions burn like cruelty.

It is already old wisdom that emotions are at stake when we talk about becoming ‘politicized.’ Emotions are what render the speculative and abstract into a lived reality. Winning is not simply a question of having the right ideas or right principles, this is why we define politics as the transformation of ideas into a whole mode of existence where one’s principles are at the same time one’s impulsion toward the world. If the politics of cruelty follows from the belief that we must destroy what destroys us, the emotion of cruelty is revenge. Only this taste for revenge offers resistance to the voices of this world that tell us to put up with the daily violence done to us. To feel cruel is to know that we deserve better than this world; that our bodies are not for us to hate or to look upon with disgust; that our desires are not disastrous pathologies. To feel the burning passion of cruelty, then, is to reclaim refusal. We refuse to compromising ourselves and the million tiny compromises of patriarchy, capitalism, white-supremacy, heter/homo-normativity, and so on. As such, the subject of cruelty no longer convinces themselves to love the world or to find something in the world that redeems the whole. Simply put: the subject of cruelty learns to hate the world. The feeling of cruelty is the necessary correlate to the politics of cruelty; learning to hate the world is what correlates to the political task of destroying what destroys us all. And as we already noted, it is because these two principles have a long history behind them that a politics of cruelty does not posit itself as a novelty: The Women’s Liberation movements are correct in saying: We are not castrated, so you get fucked.

III). Those motivated by cruelty are neither fair nor impartial.

Fairness is the correlate to the ‘ethics-as-politics’ paradigm. Why? Because fairness suggests that we relate to everyone in the same way. There is nothing about this world that encourages universal fairness or acting according to mutual support of any and all interests. Rather, we live in a world where everyone is pitted against each other – we have a structurally determined interest to be mean and to succeed at the expense of others. Fairness, as it currently exists, is the fairness of neoliberal competition; a state sponsored ‘state of nature’. Impartiality is the counter-tendency to the subject of cruelty. Unlike the cruel subject who understands that there can be no agreement made between capital and its dispossessed, the impartial subject furthers the myth that agreements can and should be found between the two parties. Impartiality is the idea that power is symmetrical and that a social contract can give this symmetry its proper force through law.

We know that we are in the midst of a civil war. We act as partisans. And as in any war, we have friends and enemies. For our enemies, we have nothing but disdain, hatred, and cruelty. Our only engagement with them is when it strategically advances our side in the conflict. For our friends, we extend care, support, and solidarity.

Some say that capital and the state operate through cruelty; and contrary to their cruelty, our struggle is to take the higher ground. This is to misunderstand what few things are unique to our position. Our enemies must reproduce their bases of power, which is takes a costly investment in corrupt political systems, crumbling industrial infrastructure, and expensive wars of ideology. As anarchists, we do not need to reproduce much  – we do not need to justify our actions, we do not need to be consistent in our activities, and we need not defend any of the institutions of this world. To limit ourselves even more than our enemies by following the narrow path of ethics is to give up our only advantage.

IV). Their actions speak with an intensity that does not desire permission, let alone seek it.

There is a qualitative difference between the cruelty exercised by us and the cruelty of capital and its State(s). In the United States, there is the idea that the 18th amendment guarantees the protection of citizens from ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ This was to juridically curtail the power of the State over and against its citizenry. But due to the explicitly bourgeois heritage from which it emerges, this guarantee against State-cruelty only goes as far as the eyes of the State can see; that is, only insofar as two isolated individuals are coming into conflict with one another, and where the State intervenes impartially as the mediating third term. It is in this way that the curtailing of State-cruelty remains within the logic of recognition: metrics of intelligibility only pertain to situations of isolated actions. State recognition ignores situations of collective antagonism. What is more, is what we gain via the channels of State recognition (e.g., desegregation in the 1950’s) was already being eroded through other State sanctioned economic mechanisms (e.g., redlining as early as the 1930’s). The conclusion should be obvious by now: State-recognition is nothing more than the continuation of war by other means.

Thus, if our politics of cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us coupled to its subjective correlate of revenge – which means our learning to hate the world while staving off the internalization of those norms which teach us to hate ourselves – then it is clear that our political-cruelty cannot treat the state and capital as reliable sources for recognition since what we want and need cannot be tolerated by globally integrated capital and thus pre-emptively renders us all variations of pathological, trouble-making, hysterical, killjoys alike.

V). While social anarchism sings lullabies of altruism, there are those who play with the hot flames of cruelty.

Altruism comes in at least two variants. The first is already well known; the emphasis on collectivist ethics that diffuses any antagonism through its criteria of absolute horizontalism. The second, more insidious, is a zealous altruism; here the emphasis is placed on the absolute destruction of the individual put in the service of actualizing an Idea. These are not the actions of the dispossessed. Rather, it is the altruism of an anarchists crucifixion. If the latter at least agrees that struggle is an ineluctable fact of politics, the zealous altruists weakness still lies in his belief that to engage in civil war means to burn out in the process. For every form of communal horizontalism that defers the moment of attack there is a correlating tendency to collapse heroism and martyrdom. Additionally, it is true that we have said that our political-cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us. However, this does not necessitate the assertion that real transformation means our own self-destruction. There is a world of difference between converting structural oppression into a fight for abolition and identifying existential abolition as the proper means toward the abolition of capital as such. In a word: “Even if we had the power to blow it [the State] up, could we succeed in doing so without destroying ourselves, since it is so much a part of the conditions of life, including our organism and our very reason? The prudence with which we must manipulate that line, the precautions we must take to soften it, to suspend it, to divert it, to undermine it, testify to a long labor which is not merely aimed against the State and the powers that be, but directly at ourselves.”

That said, the first iteration of altruism should not be given scant attention precisely because of its prevalence. In place of weaponizing our feelings of cruelty, social anarchism substitutes a straight forward Habermasianism sutured to the mantra of ‘returning to a class based analysis’. This helps some sleep at night. Contra these political sedatives, we again confront the history and cruelty of our politics. What is at stake is the feminist lesson we must never forget: that the personal is political; that few emotions burn and catalyze collective insubordination like those of pain, vengeance, and cruelty. The lesson is that the efficacy of political-cruelty lies not in the never ending reflections and discussions on what pains us; rather, that emotions such as cruelty are what constitute the armature of our collective antagonism.

Frankenstein Revenge Poster

A Brief Note For Enemies And Allies:

We could care less about those whose politics amounts to being a good ‘friend’ to those who struggle, or being a good ‘ally’ by reading up on the history of people of color, queers, and so on. A politics of cruelty is not a politics of friendship; since we do not see a softer world here because sociability has its cruelties, friendship has its rivalries, and opinion has its antagonisms and bloody reversals.

Friendship is already too Greek, too philosophical, and too European for our politics of cruelty. In its place, we should reinvigorate the politics of the Guayaki in Paraguay or the many tribes in that territory known as Zoma. That is, political cruelty does not seek to be included into the universality proposed by the history of Western capitalism and instead seeks to find the means of escaping from a universality that was never ours from the start. For those who would prefer reductive formulations, we could say that while the West continues its process of inclusion and expansion, our political-cruelty maintains its relation to the Outside. To our enemies who get off on finding contradictions that abound in this politics of cruelty we say to them ‘all the better!’ For them, whose desire is to be the intelligible subjects of globally integrated capital, these contradictions are mere impasses on their road to being exceptions to the rule. To our allies, who opt for a politics of cruelty, we say ‘savor these supposed contradictions!’ From the point of view of political-cruelty a contradiction simply means that we have a weapon with more than one side.

Notes on Badiou’s ‘Affirmative Dialectics’

Soyez réalistic demandez l'impossible '68

 

The fundamental problem in philosophy today, for Alain Badiou, is the creation of a new logic “or more precisely, a new dialectics” (1). It is this new logic that precedes any considerations regarding “politics, life, creation, or action” (1). For Badiou, the two main problems that Marx dealt with (revolutionary politics and a new dialectical framework) are our problems today. Thus, Badiou’s search for a new form of dialectics is characterized by his concern with rectifying revolutionary politics “after two centuries of success and failures in revolutionary politics, and in particular, after the failure of the State-form of socialism” and by articulating a new logic which corresponds to “a new philosophical proposition adequate to all forms or creative novelty” (1). This can be summed up, as Badiou himself does, in one word: negativity. “If you want, our problem is the problem of negativity” (1).

For Badiou, when we think of political action in a dialectical manner, we find ourselves already immersed and committed to the classical dialectical logic which privileges negation and understands novelty to arise from this process. In this framework, “The development of the political struggle is fundamentally something like ‘revolt against’, ‘opposition to’, ‘negation of’, and the newness – the creation of the new State, or the creation of the new law – is always a result of the process of negation. This is the Hegelian framework; you have a relation between affirmation and negation, construction and negation, in which the real principle of movement, and the real principle of creation, is negation” (1-2). If we commit ourselves to the classical dialectical logic, then we are necessarily committed to understanding “the very definition of the revolutionary class” as that which is “against the present State or against the present law in the precise sense that revolutionary consciousness, as Vladimir Lenin would say, is basically the consciousness that one stands in a relation of negation to the existing order” (2). Therefore, in classical dialectical logic, negation is the principle of creativity, novelty, and political action is characterized by the oppositional manner in which the proletariat engages with the bourgeois state.

For Badiou, the classical dialectical logic “cannot be sustained today” (2). The crisis of the ‘trust in the power of negativity’ is characterized by a critique which claims, on the one hand, Hegelian dialectics being too affirmative (e.g., Adorno), and on the other, Hegelian dialectics being too negative (e.g., Negri and Althusser). The crisis, then, is characterized by either side that Hegelian dialectics goes too far in either the direction of negativity or affirmation: one either risks submitting to “the potency of the Totality and of the One’ or one risks forgoing the model of philosophy set forth by Spinoza, who is the main source of the anti-Hegelian critiques of Negri and Althusser. With the latter group of neo-Spinozists, Badiou writes “They find in Spinoza a model of philosophy which is finally without negation. We know today that in this way, we have an accepting of the dominant order, through the conviction that this order is full of newness and creativity, and that finally modern capitalism is the immediate strength which works, beyond the empire, in the direction of a sort of communism” (2). While not the most accurate of portrayals of the positions taken by Negri and Althusser, what is essential for Badiou is underscoring the full affirmation, the abandoning of the role played by negation, in analyzing and making sense of contemporary capitalism. It is true that both Negri and Althusser opt for Spinoza’s substance in opposition to Hegelian dialectics, and for this, Badiou remains skeptical since he remains convinced that the role of the negative retains a certain importance in thinking revolutionary politics and a new form of dialectics which can account for creative novelty without relying on negation pure and simple. To choose the paths of Adorno, or Negri and Althusser result in either “the aesthetics of human rights” or a “Nietzschean ‘Gay Science’ of History” which destroys all forms of dialectical thought, respectively (3).

Given the crisis of our trust in the power of negativity, Badiou writes, “I think the problem today is to find a way of reversing the classical dialectical logic inside itself so that the affirmation, or the positive proposition, comes before the negation instead of after it. In some sense, my attempt is to find a dialectical framework where something or the future comes before the negative present. I’m not suggesting the suppression of the relation between affirmation and negation – certainly revolt and class struggle remain essential – and I’m not suggesting a pacifistic direction or anything like that. The question is not whether we need to struggle or oppose, but concerns more precisely the relation between negation and affirmation. So when I say that there is something non-dialectical…formal it’s the same idea” (3). Ultimately, for Badiou, the answer to this crisis in the negative is the understand that it is, what he calls “primitive affirmation” that comes before negation and therefore, the principle of change and novelty is not negation (although it has its role to play) but rather affirmation (Affirmative Dialectics) (3).

Affirmation Precedes Negation: From St. Paul to Democracy

In order to understand how positivity precedes the negative, Badiou relies on his vocabulary of Event and Subject. So, how do we account for how affirmation precedes negation? For Badiou, it begins with understanding how Events transpire in Worlds. For Badiou, it is with an Event that we can begin to understand how affirmation precedes negation. As he writes, “an event is not initially the creation of a new situation. It is the creation of a new possibility, which is not the same thing. In fact, the event takes place in a situation that remains the same, but this same situation is inside the new possibility” (3).

Thus, with an Event we have the existence of a new possibility within a world, while at the same time having that world remain fundamentally unaltered by the event. These are the Events two defining characteristics, for Badiou. Second, and following from this definition of an Event, we have the understanding of the subject, or a “new subjective body:” “A new subjective body is the realization of the possibility that is opened by the event in a concrete form, and which develops some consequences of a the possibility. Naturally, among these consequences there are different forms of negation…but there forms of negation are consequences of the birth of the new subjectivity, and not the other way around; it is not the new subjectivity that is a consequence of the negation. So there is something really non-dialectical – in the sense of Hegel and Marx – about this logic, because we do not start with the creativity of negation as such, even if the site of negativity is certainly included in the consequences of something which is affirmative” (4).

This idea, that affirmation and the positivity of an event precedes the various forms of negation is what Badiou understands to be at stake in figures like St. Paul. As Badiou writes, “what is interesting in the example of Paul is that the very beginning of something new is always something like a pure affirmation of the new possibility as such. There is a resurrection; you have to affirm that! And when you affirm the resurrection, and you organize that sort of affirmation – because affirmation is with others and in the direction of others – you create something absolutely new, not in the form of a negation of what exists, but in the form of the newness inside what exists. And so there is no longer negation on the one hand and affirmation on the other. There is rather affirmation and division, or the creation that grounds the independence of new subject from within the situation of the old. This is the general orientation of the new logic” (5).

Paul, by virtue of the fundamental change instituted by the resurrection regarding his own existence, becomes the figure of Badiou’s affirmative dialectics: the principle of change is affirmation, whereby negation takes a secondary role. The example of Paul, because he is the figure of this new logic, is exemplary of a new relationship to Power and a new conception of resistance. As Badiou goes on to inquire, “is there today a possible good use of the word ‘democracy’?”(5). This simple question is what allows Badiou to unfold the difference between classical Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and Badiou’s affirmative dialectical logic. The further we begin to inquire into the debate between the good and bad use of the word democracy, its political relevance and the debates political importance, we may often find ourselves in a particularly defensive position, if we want to retain the word ‘democracy’ in our political vocabulary. Badiou opts for this position, while outlining the possible trap laying at the end of the road for those who remain committed to the classical version of dialectical thought:

“I have decided ultimately to keep the word, ‘democracy’. It’s generally a good thing to keep the word, because there is something problematic about leftists saying, ‘I am not interested in ‘democracy’ at all, because it has become practically meaningless’…The situation is difficult because we have to criticize the actual ‘democracies’ in one sense and in a different sense we have to criticize the political propaganda made today about the term ‘democracy’. If we do not do this we are paralyzed. In this case we would be saying ‘yes, we are in a democracy, but democracy can do something else’ and we would ultimately be in a defensive position. And this is the opposite of my conception, because my position is to begin by affirmation, not at all by a defensive position. So, if we keep the world, we must divide the signification of the world classically and differentiate between good democracy and bad democracy, between the reactionary conception of democracy and the progressive conception of democracy” (6).

Thus, everything rests on the division: the division between good and bad democracy, between reactionary and progressive democracy, etc. While in the traditional Marxist framework this division is grounded on class divisions, which then allowed on to understand popular democracy as distinct from bourgeois democracy. However, for Badiou, “this strict duality, however, is not convincing in the framework of a new dialectical thinking; it’s too easy to determine negatively the popular democracy as being everything the state democracy is not” (6-7). In order to evade the trap and the inefficient logic of Hegelian dialectics, Badiou offers “three understandings of democracy” (7). These ‘three understandings of democracy’ are all rooted in this new logic which has four terms, instead of Hegel’s three: “Hegel has three terms, because after the negation and the negation of negation, he has the totality of the process, the becoming of the absolute knowledge as a third term, but for me, after two different affirmation [Event and Subject], the conservative one and the affirmation of the new possibility, I have two different negations. It’s because the conservative negation of novelty by the reaction is not the same as the negative part, against the conservative position, of the new affirmation” (7).

Thus the three understandings of Democracy: 1) Democracy = a form of State (representative or parliamentary). 2) Democracy = “movement…which is not democracy directly in the political sense, but perhaps more in the historical sense.” So when democracy takes place, it is democracy in the form of an event. This is the sense of democracy in the work of Jacques Rancière, for example. For Rancière, as for me, democracy is the activation of the principle of equality. When the principle of equality is really active, you have some version of our understanding of democracy: that is, democracy as the irruption of collective equality in a concrete form, which can be protest or insurrection or popular assembly or any other form in which equality is effectively active” (7).

Badiou notes that this second definition of democracy is less understood as a system of governance than a “form of a sudden emergence in history, and ultimately of the event” (8). That is to say, when democracy signals collective equality within a situation understood as a movement, democracy is present insofar as democracy means, in this instance, “collective equality in a concrete form” (7). However, the third form of democracy is still different from these two understandings. As Badiou writes, “we have to find a third sense of democracy, which is properly the democracy of the determination of the new political subject as such. This is my ultimate conception. Democracy for me is another name for the elaboration of the consequences of collective action and for determining the new political subject” (8). It is from these three articulations of democracy (State, political action in relation to an Event, and Determination of New Subjects) that Badiou arrives at his 4 terms:

i) classical representative democracy (form of State power)

ii) mass movement democracy (historical)

iii) democracy as a political subject

iv) Communism (vanishing of the State, which is the historical and negative inscription of politics in History).

Badiou provides another example – the relationship between politics and power – to illustrate how affirmation precedes negation in his affirmative dialectics. Here Badiou takes as an example his own political activism regarding sans papiers  and one’s relation to the State in this circumstance. If we are to struggle for the livelihood and political power of immigrants coming into France, “we will have to confront new laws and decisions of the State, and we will have to create something that will be face to face with the State-not inside the State, but face to ace with it. So, we will have a ‘discussion’ with the State, or we will organize various forms of disruption. In any case, we will have to prescribe something about the State from outside” (9). Here we see the role of “struggle” as it appears in affirmative dialectics: in confronting State power, and particularly, a State which excludes and perpetuates violence against a portion of its population, what is necessary is not simple negation, mere opposition to the State. Rather, Badiou claims, resistance to State power begins with a prescription, from those who resist and addressed to the State, all from the outside. Here we are reminded of what Badiou writes in his text Metapolitics regarding the relationship between the power of the State and the truth procedure of politics, which alludes to the same thought: “The real characteristic of the political event and the truth procedure that it sets off is that a political event fixes the errancy and assigns a measure to the superpower of the State. It fixes the power of the State. Consequently, the political event interrupts the subjective errancy of the power of the State. It configures the state of the situation. It gives it a figure; it configures its power; it measures it” (Metapolitics, 145).This is, for Badiou, what characterizes politics: the prescription and measure of the power of the State by a mass or movement which has “collective equality in a concrete form” as its axiom.

If struggle, in accord with this new dialectical framework with two affirmations and two negations, does not privilege negation as its creative principle, it is because, as Badiou writes, “to be somebody is to be inside the State, otherwise you cannot be heard at all. So there are two possible outcomes. Either finally there is a discussion and some political results or else there is no room for discussion because we are nobody. It is once more the precise question of affirmation: how can we be somebody without being on the inside? We must affirm our existence, our principles, our action, always from outside” (10). That is to say, there is a ‘primitive’ affirmation which precedes negation when we understand political activity as finding its place outside of the State. It is outside of the state that characterizes Badiou’s conception of ‘class struggle.’ For Badiou, class struggle is no longer internal to State power, and therefore the contradiction of bourgeois society is not between Labor and Capital. Rather, for Badiou, if resistance always begins, and comes from, the outside, this new logic must articulate the relationship between the State and those who resist the state. Articulating the logic of resistance as first, beginning with affirmation which precedes all negation, and second, operates as an ‘outside’ to Capital can be seen in the passages of Tiqqun, which seems to dovetail nicely with Badiou’s project to think beyond the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic:

“…under Empire, negation comes from outside, that it intervenes not as heterogeneity in relation to homogeneity, but as heterogeneity itself, as heterogeneity in which the forms-of-life play in their difference. The Imaginary Party can never be individuated as a subject, a body, a thing or a substance, nor even as an ensemble of subjects, bodies, things and substances, but only as the occurrence of all of that. The Imaginary Party is not substantially a remainder of the social totality but the fact of this remainder, the fact that there is a remainder, that the represented always exceeds its representation, that upon which power exercises itself forever escapes it. Here lies the dialectic. All our condolences.”

In the end, Badiou’s article provides one with many starting points, and various ways to begin to pose the question according to his ‘affirmative dialectics,’ and allows us to understood what is at stake and how processes of truth relate to Events on account of the affirmation which precedes negation.