Monday, November 29, 2010

On The UAW (My thoughts, a day late and a dollar short)

There has been an unusual amount material about the proposed contract between grad students (represented by UAW 2865) and the university. Most notably, a number of the members of the bargaining team are calling for a no vote on the contract. Here's their response if you want to take a look. However the concerns about the contract can be broken down into two categories, more or less. The first set of concerns focus on the nature of bargaining. They argue that the membership was not properly informed about the bargaining process, and that the power of that membership was not utilized when the bargaining process got sticky. The second argument is that the gains from the contract were minimal and insufficient given grad students economic circumstances. The team got a 2% raise, but that was after no raise last year, and very little in the way of raises before that. In effect, the raise doesn't even meet the costs of inflation and increased inflation. In addition, the other gains were minimal. For instance, we still don't have a full fee remittance, and although childcare subsidies increased, they only cover 10% of the cost of childcare.
The argument on the yes side is fairly simple. They focus on the turbulent political situation, and argue that this is the best that we can do at this in the crisis. The problem with this argument is that it buys into the lie of the crisis. The bargaining team refuses to ask why is it that the upper administration is giving itself millions of dollars in bonuses at this moment of crisis, or why the university is taking up extensive building projects. To put it simply, they refuse to challenge the lie of that narrative, and if we accept the lie, we simply become another cog in the retrenchment of class power.
Those who defend the contract can ask two legitimate questions in response. First, if the bargaining committee had called upon the rank and file to act, would they have been willing to put in the time and energy that would be needed to succeed in such a campaign? Second, could we have challenged the narrative of 'crisis' given our isolation, both as public employees, and as participants in the university? Those questions are legitimate. To begin, any alternative narrative presented about bargaining operates at the logic of a counter-factual. We can never know what would have happened if we did something different. More significantly, I'm less convinced than some of the no vote folks that the current political terrain is somehow defined by a militant and engaged rank and file being stifled by a repressive union bureaucracy. My experiences with organizing on campus tend to gesture towards a rank and file that will sign a union card on the premise that the union will take of the business of the contract and grievances.  However, we should remember that that process was produced by the forms of organizing, as well as our hours of work.
The problem is that the bargaining process never gave the rank and file the opportunity to act in their own interest. Rather than giving us as workers the chance to get involved in the bargaining process, through coherent reports on the bargaining process and through campus activities such as protests, grade-ins, etc.  Those actions could have been used as a pedagogical process, moving towards an active participatory notion of membership, as well as a possible strike.  In effect, the bargaining committee, through not engaging in those processes, forgot that our ability to get a good contract depends on the strength of our rank and file, not the clever skills of the fifteen members of the bargaining committee, the officials of the union, or lawyers. We can never know what would have come out of such a process, but we would have won or lost on the strength we bring to the table as a union, not as an economic interest group being represented by its lobbyists. Those on the sideline would be put into a position where they perhaps would have taken action, would have recognized the need to be active union members.
As a last note, there has been a bit of backlash to the no campaign on the part of folks who support the official position. Their website is here. There argument is not much more substantial than the one that I list above. But, they make a second argument in support of the campaign through the logic of grievance. They point to a set of incidents where no vote folks have attacked the bargaining committee, particularly around their intentions. I don't know about the veracity of these events, but I don't find them particularly surprising. After all, those who were openly opposed to the closed structure of bargaining have been cut out of the process, and there are no votes folks who have lost and are in danger of losing their position because they have challenged that process.
But despite that, I actually agree with them. I see no reason to challenge the intentions of the bargaining team. I suspect that they see their closed approach to bargaining as the strongest approach to the process, because of their belief in experts, because of their distrust of the rank and file, etc.  These factor lead them to believe that they have gotten the best possible contract out of the process. In addition, the kind of bargaining we have seen is a dominant form of bargaining in the country. WHICH IS WHY IT IS WRONG. This kind of unionism, business unionism, a unionism dependent on the activities of a small group of experts representing a largely inactive rank and file, has devastated the level of union power in the United States. The level of union representation of the United States has gone from 35% to less than 10% in the past thirty years because of this logic.
More significantly, all major gains in union power have occurred because of the sacrifices and militancy of rank and file power. The current dominant logic of the unions has pissed away the blood and sacrifice of those women and men through this inaction. Whatever their intentions, the effect of the policies of business unionism has been the wholesale destruction of working class power. Perhaps after three decades of capitulation to the bourgeoisie on the basis of a long dead post war labor peace, we can recognize ineffectiveness of this approach to union organizing within the context of neo-liberalism. For those who are interested in looking into this with more detail, I recommend the work of Kim West, as well as the work of Bill Fletcher.
That is why I am recommending a NO vote on the current contract. The only legitimate basis of labor struggle is based upon the active participation of the rank and file. Democracy is the process of making decisions collectively, not the simple passive act of voting on a contract. We need to go to the table again to bargain on that basis.  I think that we are capable of remarkable things when we act, and perhaps we should give ourselves the chance to do so.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Short Essay on Bloch's Munzer and its relation to Schmitt

Written for a German class a few years ago during my obsession with Muntzer. There is some material that is untranslated, that I can provide translations for if there is the interest.

Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein
--Rosa Luxemburg

“Our sabotage organizes the proletarian storming of heaven. And in the end that accursed heaven will no longer exist!
--Antonio Negri

     Modern sovereignty can be defined by a dialectical process of revolutionary crisis and the deflection of that crisis into colonial expansion. In this sense, the dialectical process gives capital a unique ability to productively subsume its crisis into itself. The process rebounded back on itself in the First World War. Mass death left the laboratory of the colonies and entered Europe proper. All of the techniques that defined World War I were first tested in the colonies. The explosive violence that defined that war destroyed the easy progressive teleology that even was starting to impact the workers movement. The immediate response was a series of failed uprisings that marked the first years after the war. The specific aftermath that I am interested in is the collapse of the Wilhelmite German State after World War I and the failed revolutionary insurrection afterwards.

     The impact of the war and the insurrection led to a radical philosophical shift in two significant thinkers, Ernst Bloch and Carl Schmitt. Ernst Bloch’s Jewish messianism took on an increasingly radical turn as he turned increasingly towards a radical marxist politic. At the same time, Carl Schmitt moved away from a neo-Kantian interpretation of legal theory towards a radical authoritarianism defined by decisionist, rather than a normative, definition of sovereignty. These shifts also produce the work that both figures are best known for. Although the two figures are defined by substantial political differences, their political transformations are defined by a revolutionary energy that I want to conceptualize as the ‘schwarmgeistig.’

     This concept, which I draw from Bloch’s book on Munzer, is tied to a self-destructive quality that I want to argue is immanent to the process of capital itself. It represents the self-destructive element in the structure that Marx continually pointed to. We can see this expressed best in the end of the first chapter of the manifesto which itself is a translation of these theological concerns. “Mit der Entwicklung der grossen Industrie wird also unter den Fussen der Boureoisie die Grundlage selbst hinweggezogen, worauf sie produziert und die Produckte sich aneignet. Sie produziert vor allem eignen Totengraber. Ihr Untergang und der Sieg des Proletariats sind gleich unvermeidlich.” I want to first begin by looking at what that might mean a revolutionary politic, before shifting to the way that Ernst Bloch explores the concept in Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution. I will end in the ways that Carl Schmitt theories attempt to return to the policies of the Absolutist State in order to nullify this radical possibility.

     To understand this notion of the schwarmgeistig, the element of religious fanaticism, of utopian dreaming in the turmoil of revolutionary movements, I want to turn to a passage in Anson Rabinbach’s theorization of the Messianic. Rabinbach points out.

     "The apocalyptic element involves a quantum leap from present to future, from exile to freedom. This leap necessarily brings with it the completed destruction and negation of the old order. Messianism is thus bound up with both violence and catastrophe. Scholem has emphasized the importance of this aspect of the Messianic idea to underscore the contrast between “the destructive nature of the redemption on the one hand and the utopianism of the content on the other.” This tension, which the Marxian idea of “transition” only weakly captures, is the essence of the apocalyptic vision of catastrophic upheaval as the handmaiden of redemption. In history this image constantly recurs, appearing in the creation of the revolutionary calendar of 1793, in the Munster Anabaptists destroying the records of the old church, Komsomol youth disinterring the bones of the Saints in the Russian revolution, or the specter of the Maoist Red Guards demolishing the ancient art works of Confucian China—each symbolizes a total destruction of the prior age as the precondition for the full restitution of the Messianic period."

      This description brings in the two elements that I want to tie in with this concept of the schwarmgeistig, this concept is produced in the dialectical relationship between the destructive power of the apocalypse and the redemption contained in the figure of a utopian future on the other hand. The notable quality of the violence can be found in the fact that it is enacted in the open. Revolutionary transformation is supposed to occur through its very performance. It evokes the notion that, “the people are good, but the magistrate is corruptible,” which acted as a constant irritant to Carl Schmitt. At the same time, the violence can not be explained in instrumental terms. It opens up the world to a general economy of expenditure that places those in the more limited economy of instrumentality in a state of both bewilderment and horror.

      This motif is a reoccurring one, but the moment that both Bloch and Schmitt focus on is the explosive conflicts of the wars of religion. This places the notion of the “schwarmgeistig” within the conflict that led to the creation of the secular. I want to understand it as a border concept, one that is defined by a whole series of translations that occur in that period. In this, I take seriously the statement made by Carl Schmitt, when he states, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development… but also because of their systemic structure.” Schmitt is recognizing that the concepts of god that defined this period were always also concepts of society at large. In this sense, the notion of the ‘schwarmgeistig’ could be translated into a secular term such as the militant, but this translation misses out on the radicality of such a figure. At the same time, one cannot collapse it entirely into the transcendental concept of messianism, both because of its tendency to mystify the discussion, and because not all the figures in this category embrace that transcendental notion.

     This concept can neither be tied to the Enlightenment, nor can it be described as a sort of archaic holdover from an earlier time. Instead, it charts another genealogy of modernity, one that is defined by defeat, and allows for the more limited transformation that occurred in the Enlightenment. Paolo Virno perhaps captures this best when he refers to Spinoza’s multitude as a sort of archive of civil liberties. The moment of the wars of religion becomes significant because it both represents the most open expression of this tradition, and points to a contingent element in the creation of Enlightenment rationality. For the most part, this trajectory remains either hidden or disguised in translated forms. Bloch codes this deformity under the term “slave talk,” which he links both to readings of the Bible and to certain literary traditions. In his book, Atheism in Christianity, Ernst Bloch points to this tradition.

     The fact remains, however, and nothing can detract from it, that thinking men, as such, were refusing to be priest-ridden any more. Long before simple, devout feelings had grown rusty, long before the real Enlightenment, pamphlets against the clergy and their lies were going the rounds among the peasants, complaining about the miserable swindling and deception of the poor. The real complaint was about the way the Scriptures were twisted to serve the exploiters and drudge-merchants, but these pamphlets also show the common man’s will to speak for himself: he has finished with being struck across the mouth. The peasants, however, were defeated, and their place was taken by the rationalistic bourgeoisie: in their Enlightenment the will to come of age became an all-consuming

     Bloch is making an argument for the existence of another critical network of knowledge, one that created the logic for a form of counter-governance in a negative form. It placed the structures of legitimization into question, while positing the possibility of a different structure of society. One can turn to a comment made by Foucault in a talk on critique to get the full meaning of this. “Not wanting to be governed was a certain way of refusing challenging, limiting (say it as you like) ecclesiastical rule. It meant returning to the Scriptures, seeking out what was authentic in them, what was really written in them, what was really written in the scriptures. It mean questioning what sort of truth the Scriptures told, gaining access to this truth of the scriptures in the Scriptures and maybe in spite of what was written, to the point of finally raising the very simple question: were the Scriptures true?” Foucault is reading this in the tradition of the Enlightenment, while Bloch is arguing that it can already be found in a crude form in this peasant circulation.

     Bloch’s reading of Thomas Munzer in his book Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution charts how this alternative network found its way into the daylight, if briefly, with the coming of the reformation and the printing press. The book acted as a sort of companion piece to his more famous text, Geist der Utopie, and Bloch always saw them as companion pieces. Geist der Utopie was Bloch’s critique of a trajectory of Enlightenment thought including music and the German philosophical tradition defined by Kant and Hegel. Although still concerned with the utopian impulse, Bloch made a significant shift in the archive he examined, moving from the dominant thought of the Enlightenment to the legacy of a defeated radical tradition in the Reformation. He looked at both how Munzer was produced in this tradition and at the way that the image of Munzer traveled

     Bloch links Munzer to this specific history in his description of Munzer’s influences, both its tradition of conspiracy and its tradition of oppression. It links his thought not so much to Luther’s reformation, but to a tradition of mystical thought and conspiracy. For example, we find this description early in the book,

     “Die garende Zeit zog an, jung fur sich, boll ungekannter Dinge, das Land lag wach, ruhelos, wie voraufgeschickt, wanterten Boten, Kundschafter, Prediger umher. In den Waldtalern des Harz waren ohnedies geisslierishe Lehre, Erinnerung an die Feme noch lebendig.” Munzer, a product of the poor and outcast, was also intimately aware of its networks of knowledge, of its secret histories and of the attempts to repress it. This plays an important double feature for the production of the movement that Bloch describes. It both allowed for Munzer’s critical reading of the scriptures in order to challenge the ruling authorities both religious and secular, and for him to have the critical mass support in order to do so.

     However, it would be incorrect to define Bloch’s understanding of Munzer as merely being defined by his production in a certain environment. It is also related to a concept of inwardness that Bloch links to the Utopian in his previous book. “In the end, however, after this internal vertical inner movement: may a new expanse appear, the world of the soul, the external, cosmic function of utopia, maintained against misery, death, the husk realm of the mere physical nature.” The ‘authentic’ knowledge of the self allows for the question of the ‘We’ to be answered according to Bloch. Bloch reads this inwardness in Munzer, an inwardness that stands on the borderline between the mystical and the autistic. Bloch points to this in the words of Munzer himself. Munzer states, “Was Bibel, Bubel, Babel, man muss auf ein Winkel kriechen und mit Gott Reden” Munzer’s mysticism goes beyond the critical reading practices of Luther towards a reading of one’s interiority, an interiority that he felt had a privileged position in understanding the truth of what preceded him, the essence of several generations of mysticism. The inwardness contained in this statement holds both of the notions of besessen together, possession and madness

     Like Bloch, I take the singularity of Munzer seriously, and I take the singularity of the community that Munzer operates in seriously, doing so produces the preconditions for the concept that I want to develop. But the relevance that Munzer has for the concept of the ‘schwarmgeistig’ that I want to develop lay less in those singularities than in the way that history has been taken up, both by revolutionaries and by counter revolutionaries. Bloch points the way to this in his chapter, “Munzer als Gestalt und Gegenwart.” The chapter opens by discussing the difficulty of getting at the essence of the significant individual. He links it to a similar blindness that Nietzsche sees, “Unerkennbar liegen wir uns selbst noch im blinden Flick.” He eventually argues that the ability to put together an honest answer to this involves a serious transformation. We can see this in the following passage.

     “Andereseits freilich tont der bedeutende Mensch, aus der Erscheinung zurucktretend, zugleich als Mundstuck, Antenne, Mandatar: und so dunkel er wird, so ist doch Bessenheit darin. Auch Munzer ist besessen, und nicht das Charakterologische also, sondern das Nachwirkende, Allbetreffende, zur Legende Taugliche, der Schein uber seinem Haupt schiesst an Munzer, dem Mandatar, zum halbwegs moglichen Bild zusammen.

     A reasonable picture of Munzer’s importance can only be created by stripping away his individuality, and looking at him as a representative figure. This accomplishes two significant goals. First, it strips away the ability to individualize, and therefore pathologize Munzer. Bloch argues that Munzer’s “ist besessen, und nicht das Charakterologische.” If there is a madness involved, it is both collective and political. At the same time, it points to the quality that Munzer takes on as a “Gestalt.” We can link this up to the notion of the ideal type that Weber develops, but that is too secular a concept for this phenomenon. The Gestalt is theorized as a light over his head that flashes up periodically. This light can either be read in terms of an aura or a halo, but either way it keeps us out of the disenchanted world that Weber inhabits.

     This figure flashes up in the revolutionary movements of 1848, returning as the figure of primitive revenge and redistribution to the poor. It taken up major political thinkers including Engels, Seidemann, Kautsky, etc. Munzer becomes the figure of ‘schwarmgeistig’ par excellence not because of an individual uniqueness, a uniqueness that has eroded over time. All of the physical features that are typically used to describe the man can be questioned. But instead he becomes a significant figure because he is repeatedly re-imagined. This re-imagination returns repeatedly to the fact that the current organization of the world only exists because of the active destruction of its alternatives. It points to a continual lack of completion of this project, a horizon, which may not lead to its inevitable end, but does point to the fact that it is not itself inevitable.
We can track the phenomenon negatively as well through the attempts to neutralize it. I propose that we make that effort through the figure of Carl Schmitt. Translator George Schwab attempts to pay tribute to Schmitt by linking him to the figure of Thomas Hobbes, referring to him as the Thomas Hobbes of the 20th century. Although I am not nearly as generous a reader of Schmitt as Schwab, I think that we should take him seriously. Just as Hobbes theorized the absolutist Leviathan state in order to suppress the radical forces that exploded out of the wars of religion, Schmitt tried to return to this stronger decisionist notion of the sovereign in order to suppress the revolutionary upheaval that defined the end of the First World War. The state of exception became the protection of a homogeneity that is much more contingent due to this upheaval. He also attempted to do this on practical grounds in his interpretation of article 48 in the Weimar Constitution, the emergency clause.

     The opening statement of Political Theology is perhaps the most defining one. Schmitt states, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” This statement defines the figure of the sovereign by two capabilities, both what constitutes the exception to the order of things, and when to suspend the rules in order to preserve them. This state of exception is precisely the opposite of “anarchy and chaos” because “order in the juristic sense still prevails even if it is not of the ordinary kind.” The law is defined by this constant need to neutralize various crises that put it in jeopardy. In this sense, Schmitt returns to the absolutist concept that Hobbes conceptualizes, a state that mirrors the sovereign god, and a state that attempts to neutralize an essentially evil man.

     Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of Article 48 became the most practical way that he attempted to preserve this order. Schmitt’s interpretation depended on a reading of the article that most legal scholars could except. He repeatedly tried to expand the powers of both the presidency and the points at which the president could claim a state of exception. Schmitt attempted to use this as a basis of closing off the electoral system to those who wanted to destroy that system. This led to his support of both the creation of a state of exception by President Hindenburg and later by the NSDAP.

     In this sense, perhaps we can conceptualize the ‘schwarmgeistig’ against what Schmitt is describing as the task of the sovereign. Just as the sovereign is defined by decision rather than as the sole legitimate source of violence, the schwarmgeistig can be defined by the ability to escape this decision rather than as the figure that contests the monopolization of violence, although the question of violence is implicit in both formulations. Schmitt tracks this as it shifts from the realm of the theological, to the realm of the political, to the realm of the economic. Each act of neutralization creates another space of the political decision and contestation. For Schmitt, this acts as a sort of horizon, the creation of an exteriority that makes “all law” into “situational law.” But from the other side, it points to the contingency of the current order of things, one that can be changed.
It is in this terrain of contingency that I want to end this essay. In his last writings, Louis Althusser attempts to conceptualize a new type of materialist philosophy, one that he calls “the materialism of the encounter.” Within it, he makes an attempt to rethink the dual concepts of contingency and necessity. “It is only after the world is constituted that the realm of reason, of necessity, and of sense is established…. Rather than thinking of contingency as a modality of necessity or as an exception to necessity, one ought to think of necessity as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies.” To invoke this notion of contingency is to embrace a continual potentiality that exists within the seemingly uniform space of necessity. The schwarmgeistig points back to the contingency and potentiality by its continual return.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Noting the Backlash: The Response to the Student and Worker protests of the U.C. system

       Many of you have probably already seen or heard about the footage of Officer Kemper pulling his gun on student protesters in San Francisco in response to dropping his baton, along with the extensive use of pepper spray on protesters. For those who haven't seen the footage, I have included it below.

Most of the coverage has gone to these incidents, but I don't want to focus on them. Rather, I want to focus on a set of events that have occurred on a number of campuses within the day to day activities of organizers and activists. I'm not dismissing those incidents. They are significant. We should also recognize the students and workers involved in the protests, and their willingness to resist the continued privatization of the university. But, we need to recognize that our ability to fight the efforts of the regents, President Yudof, and the upper administration to privatize the university is dependent on our ability to congregate, demonstrate, speak, and communicate to the broad public of the university. That ability is currently being challenged by the university in very practical terms.
Those challenges have taken very practical forms on the University of California-Irvine campus. Student groups ranging from the Muslim Student Union to the Worker Student Alliance have had difficulties obtaining permits for demonstrations in the so-called 'free speech' zone of the university. The university has made unprecedented demands on those groups, such as lists of speakers and the content of the speeches. Furthermore, the administration has sent threatening emails, attempting to curtail the activities of those demonstrations. Additionally, student activists were briefly detained by police for chalking the campus, and a significant activist group is being threatened because they were associated with a protest action put on by an unknown group of students. That action involved releasing helium-filled balloons with messages into a number of lecture halls. Each of these actions effectively reduces the ability for activists to communicate a message of an alternative vision of the university to the broad base of students and workers of the University of California-Irvine. (see below for footage of the UC Berkeley balloon action, a minimally disruptive action, designed to re-purpose public space.)

      Perhaps, these activities should be expected on the famously conservative University of California-Irvine campus, but similar responses to student protest have been occurring on the University of California-Berkeley campus as well. There have been police responses to simple activities such as chalking and fliering with police ripping down fliers and harassing students for the use of chalk. More notably, police have been posted outside of public meetings of student activists.  Once again, these forms of repression have been in response to traditional forms of activist communication on the university, attempts to communicate a message to students, and to freely assemble for peaceful political action.

       While the activities of two campuses cannot stand in for the entire UC system, these actions can't simply be dismissed as anomalies.  There has been an increased effort on the part of the UC system to shut down the protest movement against privatization through curtailing the rights of protesters.  It has been a response that has taken the most visible form of police presence, but it has also included disciplinary threats to students and organization, attempts to divide organizations by administrators, etc.  We should see these actions as the other side of privatization, the restriction of the ability of students and workers to utilize the public sphere of the university as a commons for assembly and communication. It is as much of a threat to the public status of the university as fee and tuition increases and military contracts, because it restricts the ability of students to use the space for their own purposes.

       I suspect that most of my readers will be sympathetic to this basic premise, but in case there are some folks who aren't because of the disruptive or volatile nature of the protests, I'll add a couple comments about those concerns.  To begin, there has never been a successful protest movement that has not been disruptive.  Events that we take for granted as positive for our society, such as the Civil Rights movement and the fight against Apartheid in South Africa were not seen in that light.  Instead, the demands of those movements were seen as threatening, creating unnecessary tensions, and disruptive to daily life.  I would recommend reading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s A Letter From a Birmingham Jail to get a sense of the conflicts created by the Civil Rights Movement.  The attempt to divest from South Africa was met with similar confrontations.  Change,  as Frederick Douglass noted, does not occur without a demand, and that demand can only occur through confrontation.

     Additionally, those who claim to be concerned about disruption are ignoring the more profound disruption of students who are unable to complete their education because of the fee increases, and the disruption in students lives because their increased debt load.  There is also little concern for the reduced classes available to students.  Nor does there seem to be much concern for the disruption in workers' lives because of layoffs, cuts in hours, and other austerity measures.  Within that context, the short disruption in a class or in the functioning of an administration building becomes an ethical act, both marking the more substantial disruptions created by the changes put in place by the regents, president, and administration, and simply refusing to allow the functioning of the structures that created those disruptions to run unopposed.

      The administration of our school system can simultaneously celebrate the legacy of that type of protest institutionally, while refusing to recognize our claim as students to draw from that same legacy.  Perhaps more disturbingly, students often are willing to accept this logic, as well, through a combination of the threat of reprisal and the privatized forms of common sense that pervade our campuses, as well as a sense of despair.  Within that context, it is also important to remember that the threats that we face as student protesters are very mild compared to most social movements, and that the vast majority of participants have suffered at most by having to listen to a bad speech or two.  Additionally, the protests have limited the ability of the administration to take further actions, even though they have not advertised that fact.  Within that context, the consequences for all of us if we don't act are substantial.  They open the floodgates of a fully privatized university.

       But beyond that rhetoric, we are still placed in a difficult situation.  What should we do in response to the combined despair of the massive body of students, and the attempts to restrict our rights to speak and organize on the part of the administration?  It seems that we need to do a couple things.  First, we need to defend our rights on campus, by practically challenging the restrictions being placed on our rights to speak and assemble.  On the UCI campus, a small group of activists is organizing a chalking action on Monday, November 22nd at the flagpoles at 11am to challenge the university's restrictions of that activity.  Despite some of my disagreements with people involved in that action, I commend their action, and if well executed, it may constitute a way forwards.  Second, we need to be willing to defend folks who are using their rights to assemble and speak to fight the austerity measures and privatization.  I recognize with the conflicts that occurred last year, that this proposal is easier to state than execute, but we need to recognize this as a form of self-defense.  But beyond these immediate practical responses, I'm not sure what to do.  But without the practical organizing that is enabled by our ability to assemble and speak, no solution is possible.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Gramsci's “The Conception of Law”

      Another modified piece that got produced a few years ago.  When I initially wrote this, I was at the moment that my theoretical world was most defined by Negri and Hardt's Empire.  I'v revised this slightly to cut down on the knee-jerk anti-statism of the earlier piece, although I have not abandoned the autonomist perspective.  However, the notion of autonomism that I now subscribe to links up more closely with the original notion developed by Tronti, one that doesn't reject the formation of institutions such as the PCI as a part of that project.  The collapse of such organizations does not mean that we will not need to create new structures in the future in our attempt to create a new assemblage in response to the continued austerity programs of the crisis.

            “The Conception of Law” is a dense and complex text, as well as being somewhat ambiguous.  One cannot be sure if it is, in fact, operating within the terrain of the capitalist system, in reference to a new type of system, or somehow ambiguously hanging between the two.  I think that the first and third are the most reasonable interpretations.  Gramsci is describing something that is, and there are also some implications that this is something that aspects will continue in the future in a new system.  Within this, Gramsci begins the text by criticizing earlier conceptualizations of the law.  It also creates a conceptualization of the ‘Law’ that works within a larger framework.  It has the following qualities.  1.  It operates as a negative function in a system that is largely positive, that is in creating certain parameters to operate within.  2.  It acts as a moral sanction against those not operating within those parameters.  3.  The superstructural elements that it works within operate in the same manner as the structure to produce individuals.  There also seems to be a sense that the brief statements contained within could be seen as premonitions for some of Foucault’s ideas.

            Gramsci begins by explaining that no current system of thought on the law explains sufficiently how the current system works.  Even the systems thought to be most current, including the notion of ‘positivism’ fail. "It seems to me that one cannot start from the point of view that the State does not “punish” (if this term is reduced to its human significance), but only struggles against social “dangerousness”.” (249-247) His continued barbs against Ferri’s system have an obviously polemic side to them (i.e. in that he is mocking a political adversary that has gone over to fascism), but there is also a constant recognition that the system proposed by Ferri ignores the state’s role as ‘the executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ that creates the terrain within which capitalism operates.

            It’s also for precisely those reasons in which he states that; ”The conception of law will have to be freed from every residue of transcendentalism and from every absolute; in practice, from every moralistic fanaticism.” (246) The law cannot imagine its origin coming from god or anything that would impede its functionality.  It must punish the subject for not operating within the customs and norms which the State wants to see in play to create the superstructure in which the realm labeled ‘economic’ operates.  This new conceptualization of law operates within the notion of the state as ‘educator.’  It is the negative function of the state which punishes the individual for acting outside of norms, which dovetails neatly with other more positive institutions such as schools create the system of norms which the punishment is marked out. “The Law is the repressive and negative aspect of the entire positive, civilizing activity undertaken by the State.” (247) This explicitly coercive function is de-emphasized within the text.  One gets the impression that this function only operates in the last instance.  Rather one is inundated with the emphasis on the state as an organizer within the terrain of the superstructure.

            This is emphatically an ethical conceptualization, rather than one of a sort of Benthamite utility. “It operates according to a plan, urges, incites, solicits, and “punishes”; for, once the conditions are created in which a certain way of life is “possible”, then “criminal action or omission” must have a punitive sanction, with moral implications, and not merely be judged generically as “dangerous”.” (247) In effect, the state creates moral constructions within the superstructure, which allow the economic system to function.  There is a sense in which the factory discipline exists in the superstructure as well.  “The State, in this field, too, is an instrument of “rationalization”, of acceleration and of Taylorization.” (247) It organizes the arena of the superstructure with an eye to creating possibilities, which allow for a new type of economic life.

            There contains a certain relationship to many of the ideas contained in Foucault’s Discipline and Power.  In both cases, the authors lay out an argument in which the law and the state work, “to create and maintain a certain type of civilization and of citizen (and hence of collective life and of individual relations), and to eliminate certain customs and attitudes and to disseminate others.” (246) Obviously, Foucault uses considerably different language in the description of his project, but the same drive to produce the subject lies within Gramsci’s theoretical constructs.  These notions are considerably more ambiguous in their functionality than in Foucault’s elaboration in Discipline and Punish.  For Foucault, these are mechanisms of control that must be destroyed.  Panoptic apparatus and sitting in the central tower, instead of the guards?” (Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 164-165)

            Gramsci, on the other hand, seems to mean something more than, “that which creates,” when he invokes the word ‘positive.’  There is something decidedly prescriptive when he invokes the following notion. “The “prize-giving” activities of individuals and groups, etc., must also be incorporated in the conception of the Law; praiseworthy and meritorious activity is rewarded, just as criminal actions are punished (and punished in original ways, bringing in “public opinion” as a form of sanction).” (247) He sees capitalism filling a certain ‘civilizing’ function that will need to continue for some time into the future.  One can’t help but note that Foucault has the benefit of operation in a system where the process of modernization is complete, or perhaps to put it differently, the completion of the project of modernization remained firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

            For Gramsci, an alternative mode of modernization still seems to exist, despite the passive revolution of the fascists, a project organized by the PCI, an organization shaping and made up of il popolo, the peasants and workers of Italy.  That project, taken up by Togliatti in a modified form, was clearly a failure, and the PCI was brought into the Italian state through the Historic Compromise of the 1970’s.  One could pose the question whether this project’s failure was inevitable, tied into a particular telos of modernization (see Pasolini’s Fireflies article) or a failure due to the contingency of incompetence or betrayal, although outside of antiquarian interests, it’s largely irrelevant.  At the same time, one should not ignore the other legacy of Gramsci, the self-organization of student and workers throughout the 60's and 70's, which translated into a decade long challenge to the post-war republic.  That legacy gestures towards the Gramsci of the worker's councils and perhaps more significantly, towards the Gramsci who saw revolutionary struggle defined by the long march through the institutions of everyday life, whether the school, the factory, or elsewhere, a Gramsci that rejected the commanding party of Bordiga. 

     There seems to be an ambiguity contained within Gramsci as to whether the machinery to the state is something that should be perfected, or if in fact, it is something to be destroyed.  This suspension (a decidedly Marxian tension in some ways) allows for him to see the powerful and productive ways that the state (in this case in the form of the law) creates the possibilities for capital.  At the same time, there is a sense of unease with the attraction that these processes seem to hold for Gramsci, in and of themselves.  One is caught up in the tentativeness of the text, which cannot be escaped.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Part II: On the attack on Behind The News with Doug Henwood

Part two of a loosely structured argument.  Part One which deals with the Deficit Commission is here

       To escape from the increasing abstraction that often drives me around the bend with other analyses, I would like to turn to a tangentially related topic, that of the current situation with Doug Henwood's show, Behind the News, which up until recently was broadcast on the Pacifica station, WBAI.  I've been intending on writing about this situation for a few days, but have gotten caught up in the work of day to day life.  However, it struck me that the situation was relevant because of Doug's ability to discuss and write about the subject of economics with such thoughtfulness and clarity, a skill that is often missing from the current Left.  For the few who don't know about Doug, he is the author of an excellent analysis of the U.S. finance system, entitled Wall Street, as well as an analysis of the post-tech bubble economy, entitled After the New Economy.  These works, along with his newsletter, the Left Business Observer, and his radio program have created a body of works that activists can use to understand and critically engage with the occluded and mystified world of finance and economics, tools crucial to fighting the upcoming process of austerity.  The radio program provides weekly updates on the current economic situation and brings in a variety of guests to discuss the economic, cultural, and political news of the day.  It's a great show.  For those who haven't heard it, Doug has an archive, and you also can get material from itunes.
       Unfortunately, the station has decided to cut back severely on Doug's program moving it from Thursday evening to Saturday morning, and transforming it from a weekly show to a bi-weekly show.  These actions were taken in a context in which Doug's show has been regularly canceled for dubious fundraisers which have promoted all sorts of quackery from 9-11 conspiracy theories to new age nonsense.  Doug has decided to quit in response to these pressures, although the show will continue on sister station KPFA.  Here is his statement on the matter.  Additionally, he points to these email addresses to protest the decision.  I plan on writing a complaint over the weekend, and I highly recommend that you do so as well.  It's important to recognize this is occurring in a context in which some of the best programming on Pacifica is being threatened with cancellation, including Against the Grain, which has presented interviews with a wide variety of left public intellectuals, on a multiplicity of topics, and the recently canceled KPFA morning show, despite the fact that it was one of the most popular shows on the air.  (Here is Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar's take on the morning show issue.)  At the point in which we desperately need a radical political, social, and economic analysis, Pacifica is offering us a toxic blend of conspiracy and new age nonsense, destroying the legacy of one of the largest radical media projects in the United States.  For more on this see the analysis of Ian Boal.  (Boal also points to ways to get involved in the struggle.  Also see the website of KPFA Worker.)

Part I: On the initial proposal of the Deficit commission

      I had initially intended to write about the Deficit Commission proposal and the Pacifica situation in the same posting, but it struck me that these might be slightly more digestible as separate postings.  Here is the first of them with the material on Pacific to follow in a couple seconds. Here is part two.
     Some of you may have taken note of the recent proposal by the bi-partisan Deficit commission created by President Obama.  For those of you who haven't, here are a couple descriptions of the initial proposal.  From the standpoint of the vast majority of the country, workers and future workers, the proposals are devastating.  The commission has proposed major cuts to social security and medicaid, as well as proposing removing a number of tax benefits for the middle classes and the poor, including tax credits for parents with children.  Additionally, the commission proposes to make substantial cuts to domestic spending.  At the same time, the commission has proposed to reduce corporate taxes and continue tax credits for research.  Precisely at the moment when the world is in the largest economic crisis since the depression because of the policies of neo-liberalism, we offered more neo-liberalism.
         We should recognize the proposals for what they are, a project of class domination.  Not only do we need to recognize this reality, we also need to respond in kind.  Within the context of where I am, the context of the university, this really can take two forms, introducing the conversation to students in the form of education, and bringing up the issue within our events and protests.  Most substantially, we need to link this issue to the fight over fees and tuition that began last year, and continues this year.  However, the ability to respond effectively is ultimately dependent on the trade unions and the less venal players in the non-profit sector and community organizations.  The trades have already begun to respond, but that response has to break out of the stultified, bureaucratic forms that it currently feels are safe.  Real social movements are participatory and democratic.  The same reality must occur within the community groups and ngos (those that are on the sidelines of the what some have called the industrial complex... we need to get another term to describe that, really.)
      Some may question why the urgency for a proposal that 1. is only in its initial stages, and 2. highly unlikely to pass in the form that it is in.  My response is simple.  This bill sets up the topography of struggle for the next couple of years at least, and we need to make it clear that taking away these resources can only occur at a substantial cost.  We need to take a page from our colleagues in France and England and recognize these benefits as our rights gained from struggle, or perhaps in the language of Sylvia Federici, as forms of the commons created in the struggle against  Fordist capital.  Our inability or unwillingness to do so allowed the government to destroy the welfare infrastructure, strip our ability to organize ourselves into trade unions, and the ability to attend a university without amassing extraordinary debts.  Each of these was enacted with only the faintest of whispers on our part, and has produced the conditions in which attacks on policies and institutions that benefit the majority of the country have been naturalized and enacted by both political parties.  Without action, that process will continue.
     We also need to recognize that the attack on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society has largely been legitimated and structure by white supremacy.  The attack on welfare programs has been legitimated as an attack on the Black body, as has the increased power of the police and prison systems.  White activists additionally have to recognize that this structure of white supremacy is not a simple enactment from above, but is linked into social fabric of whiteness, particularly through the social policies of the New Deal, although the history is much longer.  The current Tea Party movement also marks the extent that unthought white supremacy is linked to the defense of austerity measures.  At its heart, a project of class recomposition has to confront this dimension of the conflict, neither denying nor minimizing it.
       Perhaps Marx phrases it best in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, when he notes that the fight against the proletarian class in the struggle of 1848 was organized on the platform of "property, family, religion, order" as a sign of conquest.  This platform is equivalent to the platform of Reagan, Thatcher, and continues to today for practical purposes.  Within this context, the attacks on women's rights, on the GLBT community, etc. are the cultural face of this new platform of class domination.  At the practical level, this means that we must continually approach our struggles through an intersectional lens, and make our actions and programs continually engaged in these questions.  This also requires breaking out of the generalizations that I am currently engaged in, and thinking about struggles at the institutional level, and the history and terrain of struggle within those institutions.  I'd be interested in hearing from folks about what they have been involved in within this context, and also from fellow students and university workers on their thoughts on how to incorporate this into our struggle around privatization, and how to link this into a larger anti-austerity struggle.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A short comment on Rob Latham's Consuming Youth

        Rob Latham’s Consuming Youth operates somewhere between the field of cultural studies and the forms of cultural critique that one would find in the Frankfurt school, particularly with Adorno.  It stands between the mode of cultural celebration that is traditionally associated with the American cultural studies moment (which he presents the work of John Fiske as a symptomatic figure) and the condemnation of popular culture as without redeeming value (Baudrillard’s paranoiac reading of ‘the code’ stands in here.)  In both cases, Latham argues that, “despite their various protestations of fidelity to marxist premises, neither side is sufficiently dialectical in its analysis of consumption; neither, in short, fully grasps the contradictory force of the vampire-cyborg, in which exploitation and empowerment function and develop together (Latham 37).  Latham then attempts to present another model to understand a set of fantastic and science fictional texts and films from the 1970’s to the 1990’s
            Reflecting this tension seems to be one of the most significant goals in Latham’s work.  He uses both Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and the particular deployment of the Regulation school to capture this tension.  As he points out, “hegemony is neither automatic nor guaranteed, but must itself be reproduced.”  (Latham 11)  That hegemony is dependent on consent and is constantly at threat due to political and economic crisis.  This threat can easily be seen in the last days of the Fordist structure.  Although Latham doesn’t discuss it explicitly, this era is defined by political unrest in both the center and periphery.  Rather, Latham focuses on showing those tension precisely at a moment where consent seems much more assured, starting with the period of the late seventies and moving into the eighties and nineties, opening with the period of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Winter in America.”
            Latham does a good job of defining why the Fordist and post-Fordist periods are defined by their relationship to consumption, and how this relates to the figure of youth.  It becomes a “site of integration between the natural body and the newly mechanized labor process.”  He marks how this structure of youth and consumption has created crisis as well as consent.  “This is the dialectical paradox at the heart of Fordist consumer culture: its capacity to unleash the most powerful, exhilarating desires, and its inability finally to satisfy the epochal hungers it has itself invoked.” (Latham 41)  The structures of flexibility become a way to try to resolve these tensions, creating a process in which forms of subcultural resistance are captured and transformed into niche markets, that is, new possibilities for accumulation.  Latham marks how this has created mediation in the crisis, but it hasn’t resolved the profound tensions in the process.

            The transformation in the process is represented by the cyborg and the vampire.  These two figures “metaphorically embody the libidinal-political political dynamics of the consumerist ethos…  The vampire is literally an insatiable consumer driven by a hunger for perpetual youth, while the cyborg has incorporated the machineries of consumption into its juvenescent flesh.” (Latham 1).   Within this context, the figures both act as symptom, and simultaneously, allow for a critical exploration of the social formation that creates the symptom. This connection of the question of the libidinal-political is interesting and once again links up Latham’s work with that of Fredric Jameson.  Both take Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of libidinal assemblages seriously.  Whether deliberately or not, this language takes up that conceptual language, and also takes seriously the idea of the critique of the repressive hypothesis.  At the same time, he holds onto the concept of the dialectic, which is explicitly rejected by Deleuze and Guattari, focusing on contradiction rather than lines of flight or apparatuses of capture.

            Interestingly enough, Latham takes the dialectical structure of argumentation much more seriously than Jameson does.  While Jameson constantly references this tension in his work, the emphasis is on the negative side of the equation. This emphasis is structured into the entire argument, as Latham begins by showing the utopian possibilities of consumption hidden in the figure of the vampire, and reverses this with his reading of the cyborg.  All the central arguments are defined by this tension, between dystopian reading that see a closed system and readings that offer an interpretation that emphasize possibilities for self creation.  As a good dialectician, Latham then shows how the dystopian readings already contain a utopian trace, and the readings emphasizing agency contain the fears contained in the former reading.

            While there is something relentless in the way that Latham returns to this trope, it accomplishes a couple things.  To begin, it constantly emphasizes the moments of incompleteness contained in the structures of consent of hegemony, through gaps, lacunae, and small moments of resistance.  He can point these out in even some of the most banal sources, the celebrations of video games and pulp novels.  The dialectic also stops this from becoming celebratory, recognizing that these text remain incorporated within the logic of capital.  At the same time, there is an emphasis on the active critical engagement of these texts that can’t be found in Jameson.  For Jameson, the text is most aptly read as symptom, primarily acting as an expression of economic forces.  In this sense, Jameson has a habit of falling into crude economic determinism, despite his sophisticated theoretical apparatus.  Latham certain reads texts symptomatically as well.  This is gestured towards in the way the texts read the ‘60’s, but Latham is willing to see these texts as having a critical awareness of world that they operate within.  For instance, Latham reads Romero’s Martin as a narrative that is engaging in some of the same problems that are taken on by the Birmingham school rather than using that work to read the film as symptom.  The same can be said of the work of Coupland, Rice, etc., which Latham critically reads for both their engagement with the logic of the commodity, and for the subversive moments contained within that often uncritical engagement.

            This occurs through Latham’s emphasis on the satirical elements and texts that operate through satire.  We are given several satires on the malls and given readings of texts normally read negatively with this satirical dimension in mind (I have the reading of The Hunger in mind).  Satire becomes a way of mapping a politics without a horizon, a criticism of a system that is simultaneously without alternative.  This breaks out of the utopia/dystopia binary that he reads in so many of the theorists that he approaches and makes a case that these texts are as constitutive as they are reflective, critical as they are reproductive.  It offers a critical symptomatic reading of the collapse of the 1968 revolution, and the counter-attack of capital, recognizing the shift in the relation of forces, while refusing a narrative of capitulation. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

An essay on organizing after the Anti-War Movement

 Here's another older article.  It made me realize that there was a time when Leninists really annoyed me.  Not sure if they've gotten less annoying, I've become more tolerant, or simply my politics have changed.  Probably the last option, to be honest.  The other notable aspect of this essay is the strong influence from Empire.  This was written at the height of my fascination with that book.  I could say more, but I will stop for now.

“We should say right away that this new militancy does not simply repeat the organizational formulas of the old revolutionary working class.  Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited.  Revolutionary political militancy today, on the contrary, must discover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity.  Militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity….  In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community.”
                                    --Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire

“The best response to a bad movie is to make another movie.”
--Jean Luc Godard

            A whole series of demonstrations occurred before and during the early stages of the war.  They were just another moment in a global anti-war movement.  This movement cannot be precisely called new, but at the same time, it has grown to a level that dwarfed its former constellations.  This popularity is leading to a number of contestations both within and without the movement over the matter of representation.  I am not so much interested in debating who is the legitimate “speaker” for this movement, so much as I am interested in looking at the way that contesting groups attempt to represent this movement.  I’ll begin by following the debate between liberals and Leninists, and show where there conflicts come from a certain common ground.  At that point, I’ll begin to discuss the attempts to resist these modes of representation, in both their sense of possibility and their limitations.  At that point, I will try to point to a way out of this morass, not in the sense of a blueprint, but rather in the sense of a process of thought.[1]
            Former SDS head Todd Gitlin has been conducting a formidable campaign against the burgeoning anti-war movement.  He has been able to bring this message to a number of large public venues, ranging from radio to print.  He is only the most significant of a group of liberals making critiques.  Their critiques can be formulated on two large points.  1.  The anti-war movement is far too apologetic to dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.  2.  The anti-war movement is far too dominated by Leninists, and their modes of expression and messages.  There has been a tradition of dismissing this sort of message as mere red-baiting.  I propose that we take it quite seriously, even if we reject all of its implications in the end.  The call of red-baiting has been for too long a cloak for deflecting the criticisms of Leninists in the movement.  

            The primary charge it seems is the domination of Leninists in the movement.  The other charge, the one dealing with apologism for dictator can be subsumed under the former, as a form of anti-imperialist politics.  Two of the most prominent anti-war movements, the ANSWER coalition, and the Not In Our Name coalition are tied to the Worker’s World Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party, respectively.  Both groups work to obfuscate the role that the Leninist groups play in them.  Both will bring up ‘red-baiting’ at any time that the connection is made. However, the politics of the groups can be seen at points.  For example the ANSWER coalition will never consider criticizing the Iraqi or North Korean regimes because it would be considered to be outside a certain anti-imperialist politic.  This allows for the pro-war forces to claim themselves as a pro-democratic group, opposed by those who support the status quo.

            Both groups by in large use what is referred to as ‘mass line’ organizing in dealing with these movements.  What this form of politics does is to suppress the particular idiosyncrasies of the groups for a politics that the group interprets as that which allows the greatest number to come together.  This creates the desire for a form of organization that emphasizes uniformity and coherence at the sacrifice of creativity and spontaneity.  The level of joy at these forms of marches is frequently related to the distance participants are away from the bullhorns.[2]  This model is in opposition to the one that was emphasized within the anti-globalization movement, which despite its massive problems, rarely led to boredom.  The politics of the ‘mass line’ simultaneously engages with the perceived politics of the crowd, but it closes off the possibility of the crowd transforming itself into something else, a democratic and communicative body, which can come to its own decision making processes and decisions. 

            Why is it that liberals such as Gitlin make these criticisms of the movement?  What is their stake in these criticisms?  I think that the Northestern Federation of Anarcho-Communists illuminates this to some extent.  NEFAC notes that what these Leninist groups are able to within the anti-war movement is to express the project of liberalism better than the liberals do themselves.  They can put the project of human rights and et al much more forcefully than liberals themselves.  In effect, by representing these values, they displace the liberals.  They can do this precisely because unlike mainstream liberal groups, the Leninist groups are not linked to the Democratic Party, and therefore aren’t responsible for the maintenance of the empire or the reproduction of capital.  Therefore, they can speak in the voice of a particular utopian liberal anti-interventionary politics without flinching.

            Before we express a false nostalgia for some liberalism of the past, it’s important to remember that liberalism is just as willing to crush difference within its movements.  The best example I can think of is Todd Gitlin himself.  Gitlin repeatedly criticized, the women’s and queer movements for their abandonment of ‘proper progressive politics’ for the politics of ‘identity’ and ‘lifestyle’, and in effect, refused to recognize the particular needs and desires of the people within the movement who are different.  Liberal groups as diverse as the Human Rights Campaign to the Democratic Party hold to this assimilationist tendency.  Liberals are just as invested in this form of representation as the Leninists.  The antagonism between these two forces is built upon the need to both represent and displace the complex group of actors within the movement.  Liberalism has constantly acted too put the brakes on social movements through its particular forms of representation, to neutralize political movements and transform the organizers into stakeholders and NGOs.  To make the choice between the liberal representative and Leninist one is to choose who is going speak for you, which actions you make are to be allowed to be legible, etc.  In reality, it is no choice at all.

            In response, anarchism has counterpoised the option of spontaneity.  But all too often, this notion of spontaneity is tied in with a certain humanist, essentialist conceptualization of human agency.  In response to that notion of agency, we need counter-pose a notion of spontaneity that is completely materialist, and immanent in nature.  We can find the beginning of such a model in Rosa Luxembourg’s debates with Karl Kautsky.[3]
            In response to Kautsky’s notion that the class struggle will culminate in massive, general strike, Rosa Luxembourg advocates something quite different.  The class struggle in her view builds in fits and starts.  It comes about from the proletariat learning from its own self-action in small strikes, meetings, etc.  This particular form of production of new subjectivities creates the conditions for acts of spontaneity.  The spontaneous act occurs when the proletariat embodies the knowledge that it has produced through these actions.  To put this in more prosaic language, one can think of it in the same sense as driving or riding a bike.  There comes a point that the act of riding or driving becomes unconscious.  Collective political practice works in the same way, through experimentation.

            In this sense, the field of political practice becomes a sort of laboratory.  This creates a need for both using new forms of organization, and looking back at them critically.  The anarchist community has constantly ignored this second element.  It has tended to blithely ignore its weaknesses, or done the opposite, in condemning itself or others in total.  Critique is something else.  It’s not a form of condemnation, or cynicism, as so many activists seem to think it is, rather it is a joyful act.  It allows one to see the possibilities contained in what is seen to be a failure.

            The primary critique I have of the anarchist community comes out of its refusal to organize, and create organizations.  When one looks at the anti-war movement, the people who have made the contacts, created the alliances, and organized the events have been liberals and Leninists.  They are perceived to be the responsible parties within the activist communities.  They also draw of the most responsible of the activists to their cause.  They have created the activist community within their own image.

            Anarchists on the other hand have managed to isolate themselves.  Far too often, anarchists have become a group of slouching adolescents, grumbling about the protest on the sidelines.  Either that or they organize themselves into exclusionary cells in an attempt to create a militancy that has nothing to do with the crowd.  By doing this, they act as a perverse boon to liberal and Leninist grouplets.  It allows them to act as mediators between the crowd and the anarchists.  It makes them appear as responsible actors.  It also makes anarchist look a bit parasitical in their approach to organizing, letting others do the work, and then entering in as if the event was theirs at their command.

            I don’t want to deny that there are some ideas that are worth embracing within the anarchist camp.  The most significant of those is parody.  This tactic has only been taken up a few times as a deliberate tactic; for the most part it comes out of frustration and boredom with the tactics at hand.  This has led to an implementation of this tactic in a manner that tended to be more sullen, and less creative.  Perhaps this can be moved in another direction, one that is less confrontational with the organizers, and is rather a joyful subversion within the process.

            Anarchist culture within and outside the Twin Cities has developed a number of creative and exciting tactics and ideas.  They range from use of bicycles in demonstrations, shields, radical cheerleaders, etc.  We need to recognize these strengths and use them.  Moreover, we need to use them within the crowd, not outside of it in opposition to it.  The crowd is not a homogeneous mass; rather it’s complex, creative, and vibrant.  So far there are two sides to the same coin when it comes to the crowd, the Leninists and liberals want to control it as a homogeneous mass.  Anarchists want to reject for that same reason.  But there is an alternative that doesn’t stand between; rather it rejects the logic altogether.  It recognizes the crowd as an immanent assemblage, differentiated, constantly shifting, and in constant production.  The point is to become a part of this, not to assimilate to it but to contribute to it, and to communicate within it.

            In order to move beyond the current situation, this is a dire necessity.  The anti-war movement has been pushed as far as it can go within its current manifestation and it was a failure.  A failure that has potentials within it, but it is a failure nonetheless.  Perhaps it represents the last flight of a type of representational politics at its dusk.  At this point, we are at a standstill.  In order to move forward we need to create the alliances and contacts that the leninists and liberals have without the representational forms that they engage in.[4] The figure of the organizer is scoffed at by current avant-garde anarchist thought, but it is the organizer that is at the heart of the strongest anarchist projects, the IWW, the CNT-FAI, the student organizers in Paris, etc.[5]
            There ultimately needs to be a break away from this form of representational spectacle.  We need to return to the question of social democracy[6] in the broadest sense of the term, a form of social democratic politic that allows for people to take control of their lives both collectively and individually.  Revolutionary politics can never be based within the notion of charity, the notion of social changed being handed from above from a generous hand.  That mode of thought holds to the same spectacle and representation of helplessness that traps traditional political thought.  It must instead be tied to the notion of mutual aid. It must be tied into what has always been the proper realm of politics, that is, the creation of different relationships between people.  This is a process that must push itself into the realm of production, and touch upon the most fundamental parts of people’s lives.  It must become a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena, not allow itself to stop at any form of standardized, ‘proper’ form of tactic.  It is only at that point can we successfully resist the perpetual war that Empire calls peace.  

[1] I feel like noting both as a preemptive strike and a moment of modesty that I am critiquing a movement that I am a part of, and that there is nothing in here that does not apply to myself.
[2] I would like to explicitly part from anarchist company on one issue although, that of marshals.  I don’t think that demonstration security is in itself stultifying, and often acts to allow a more diverse crowd.  Those who make this comment, frequently confuse creativity with fighting the police.      
[3] See Rosa Luxemburg “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions”.  I would also recommend reading Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, as well as Kathi Weeks’ work.
[4] For more on this issue, see my article “Politics and Polemics: A Sort of Response to Michael Wood” contained in a previous issue of the journal.
[5] It is also worth noting that in every one of these situations, there were connections and alliance to people whose project was one of a genuinely radical and democratic marxism.
[6] To avoid the inevitable sectarian backlash that this term brings, I don’t mean this term in the sense of the Social Democratic movement that emerged from the Second International; rather I mean it in a way that can be synonymous with “communism”, “participatory democracy”, or even “anarchism.”  The terms don’t mean that much to me.

Interlude (3): Glenn Gould Plays Bach's Goldberg Variations (1981)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Circulation: a short essay on Gallop's reading of Dora, and a look back at my negotiation of Freud, Feminism, and the historical materialist tradition.

This was a short response piece that I wrote a few years back.  For me, it was primarily interesting from the shifts that were going on in my thinking at that time, particularly in the way that the article hints at a rethinking of the proletariat, as well as broader questions within the historical materialist tradition.  There is an obvious feminist influence, one that was particularly inflected through the reading of Freud and that tradition of an analysis of a libidinal economy.  The end hints at the sort of reading that Gayle Rubin's "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex",although I'm fairly certain I hadn't read it yet.  In addition, there are some resonances with the work of Sylvia Federici, although her approach is substantially more interesting.  The essay is an analysis of Jane Gallop's article, "Keys to Dora."

           Jane Gallop’s article introduces something new to the picture in her analysis of Freud’s book Dora.  Up to now, the articles that we have been looking at have not really interrogated the circuitry of the bourgeois family, but Gallop does this, and unlocks something remarkable in doing so.  What she shows is that the moment of danger within the bourgeois family comes from outside of it, in the form of the maid.  This figure plays several roles within the narrative, ranging from the potential sexual threat to the abject figure that both Freud and Dora reject.  It is her appearance that opens up the possibilities as that “she is “at the door” inasmuch as she is the threshold figure: existing between “within the family” and “outside the family.” (Gallop 215)  This will eventually lead us into a dizzying tailspin, where class and gender overdetermine each other, identify each other, and become each other.  But before entering that vortex, it would be perhaps a good idea to move back to the moment before the introduction of the “outside.”
            Gallop begins the article by engaging in a close and intensive reading of what Cixous and Clement make of the notion of the hysteric.  This contested reading looks at the question of the extent that hysteria is ambiguous: she both contests and conserves.” (Gallop 202)  Within this ambiguity, the two authors take sides.  “For Clement, Dora does not pass into “symbolic inscription, “and so Dora’s outbursts burst nothing.  According to Clement: “Raising a ruckus, causing a crisis perturbing familial reactions, that is re-closable.” (Gallop  )  What Clement does is to close off the possibility of hysteria as a form of contestation, because of its possibility of being folded back into the economy of the family.  In a strange sense, she parallels Freud himself, when he notes, “The question whether a woman is ‘open’ or ‘shut’ can naturally not be a matter of indifference.”(Gallop 204)  And as Gallop continues, “although Clement begins by defining the hysteric’s position as ambiguous, once it is tied to the question “open or shut,” that ambiguity becomes intolerable; it must be decided.” (Gallop 204)  In the end, Clement must reject Dora.
            In a certain sense, one can draw a parallel to this with certain debates that occur between activists.  There is a certain section of activists who are looking for a “pure” form of action that cannot be brought back into the fold… that can’t be recuperated back into the system to improve it.  After all, why would one want to put one’s time and energy into something that will in the end aid one’s foes?  But in a sense, that is the risk that one must take in order to change anything.  One must in fact to some extent acknowledge one’s position within the circuit of capital, and use those ideological tools in order to fight it
            This may seem like a tangent to the topic at hand, because it is in a way, the position that Cixous takes in advocating for Dora.  When Clement takes up the position, that Dora is that which is “closable”, Cixous disagrees.  “And it is that very force which works in the dismantling of structures… Dora broke something.”  (Gallop 204)  The strategy of resistance, which Cixous builds on the ideas of “exits, outlets, escapes, holidays, outings, sallies’, also ‘outbursts, attacks, tirades.’” (Gallop 205)  This strategy is one far more built upon contingencies, retreats, compromises, etc.  It in effect becomes more of a strategy on the lines of Gramsci’s War of Position rather than the war of maneuver.
            Besides, Cixous does something else.  She begins to open up the discussion outside of the family, with the introduction of the maid. This breaks the discussion out of the closed circuit of the family that “one of psychoanalysis’s consistent errors is to reduce everything to a family paradigm.” (Gallop 213)  But the maid disturbs this, becoming, as Cixous puts it, “the whole in the social cell.” (Gallop 213)  This hole becomes the opening that allows for the reality of the class relations, which allow for existence of the bourgeois family to flood in.  This forces the family to confront the ideological nature of its own construction.
            Gallop states, “As a threatening representative of the symbolic, the economic, the extra-familial, the maid must be both seduced (assimilated) and abandoned (expelled).  She must be “foutue a la porte.”  (Gallop 216)  She becomes the figure that acts as a link and homology between the figure of the worker and the woman.  There is no compromising with her she must be destroyed completely.  Just as the figure of the proletariat is what is exchanged within bourgeois exchange, women   are placed in those relations of exchange as well.  “As Cixous points out, the Dora case is punctuated by women declared “nothing”.  Both Herr K and Dora’s father say that of their wives.  What is true of the wives (mothers) is even more explicit for the two governesses.  Dora “sees a massacre of women executed to make space for her.  But she knows that she will be in turn massacred.” (p.282) Neither Dora, the hysteric, nor Freud, the governess can tolerate the position allotted them by the system of exchanges.”  (Gallop 216)  What is being offered to Dora and Freud is the logic of the assembly line.  You can fill the position for right now, and we can throw you out or exchange you as we please.
            But at the same time, “neither Neither Dora nor Freud can tolerate identification with the seduced and abandoned governess…. Freud and Dora’s understanding of the “barter” of women never passes through the general term “des femmes,” always remains in the imaginary. The imaginary might be characterized as the non-assumption of the mother’s castration.  In the imaginary, “the mother” unlike the maid, is assumed to be still phallic; omnipotent and omniscient, she is unique.  What is exposed in the Dora case that neither Dora nor Freud wanted to see that Frau K and Dora’s mother are in the same position as the maid.  In feminist or symbolic or economic terms the mother/wife is in a position of substitutability and economic inferiority.  For the analysis to pass out of the imaginary, it must pass through a symbolic third term—“des femmes” on the cover of Cixous’s Portrait de Dora, a term that represents a class.”  (Gallop 216-217)
            “Class” and “des femmes”, Gallop as taken the two terms that have been contested so often and so pedantically, and made them swirl into each other.  The figure of the worker’s body is no longer a male one and the figure of the woman is no longer a bourgeois one.  The proletariat is no longer an economic (and frankly masculine) figure; instead the proletariat is the figure of use value placed into the tyranny and exploitation of indifferent exchange.  Perhaps, this is what Dora “breaks through.”  Within this exchange of bodies that circulates unpredictably and savagely, can one talk of anything that is truly “open” or “shut”?  “Like the hysteric’s role, like the governess’s role, we must learn to accept the ambiguity, learn to make “open or shut” a matter of indifference.” (Gallop 219)