Afropessimism

wilderson_afropessimismFrank Wilderson’s much-heralded new book, Afropessimism, is uneven, inconsistent, frequently repetitive and frustrating, even off-putting. At the end of it all, I’m not sure I liked it much. But it is also often compelling and definitely an important statement, a manifesto of sorts, that should be read by anyone involved in critical theory or political movements today. Indeed, its faults and rough edges are part of the point. This is not a book that seeks to win friends. Quite the opposite: Wilderson notes without apology that it is “common for most people to feel like they’d been mugged by Afropessimism” (328). This is a book that aims to take you by surprise and leave you reeling on the ground, even (especially) if you thought yourself an ally of progressive anti-racist politics.

What is Afropessimism? It can perhaps most easily be contrasted (as it is throughout this book) with identity politics such as feminism. If feminism has been defined as “the radical notion that women are human beings,” Afropessimism is the perhaps still more radical notion that Blacks are not human. More precisely, Blacks are “the foil of Humanity” (13). It is their exclusion from the Human, effected through constant, gratuitous violence, that enables the constitution of Humanity as such that is thus parasitical on a Blackness that it both requires and refuses: “just as economic production is parasitic on the labor power of the working class, the production of Human capacity is parasitic on the flesh of the Slave, the Black” (192). Hence, where the aim of feminism (or, say, LGBTQ politics) is to reclaim a humanity denied to women (or lesbians, gays, etc.), Afropessimism by contrast refuses a humanity that it sees as inherently “unethical” (333) because of its dependency on anti-Black violence. Hence, indeed, Afropessimism is cast not simply in contrast to identity politics but also against them, as well as against any other notionally progressive movement (Marxism, postcolonialism, or whatever) for which the Human is taken for granted or even upheld as the terrain or object of its struggle. The “pessimism” of Afropessimism, then, surely arises in part because (it claims) Blacks will be perpetually disappointed if not betrayed by their would-be allies on the Left. And the mugging that it delivers hits hardest at those (Black or non-Black) invested in a solidarity politics that it claims is at best impossible, at worst damaging to any prospect of Black liberation.

What is Black liberation? Wilderson spends much more time describing what it is not than what it is. As he puts it, “Afropessimism has no prescriptive gesture.” In so far as it envisages a future, it is quite literally apocalyptic: “The end of our suffering signals the end of the Human, the end of [the] world” (331). This is, Wilderson admits, “a program of complete disorder” (250). But Blacks can welcome the end of the world because whereas (say) women or “non-Black people of color [. . .] have something to salvage,” Blacks by contrast “have nothing to lose” (176). Moreover, Wilderson adds that “The desire to be embraced, and elaborated, by disorder and incoherence is not anathema in and of itself. No one, for example, has ever been known to say, Gee whiz, if only my orgasms would end a little sooner, or maybe not come at all” (250). As such, liberation seems to involve an affirmation of the Real, not far distant (despite the reference here to the “faux-politics of Deleuze” [183]) from the untamed expression of desiring-production championed by schizoanalysis.

So Afropessimism is not entirely novel, however much it breaks (at time abruptly) from many of the assumed verities of identity politics or the mainstream left, even in its “intersectionalist” guise. It has much in common with at least one strain of Subaltern Studies (à la Spivak, for instance), as well as with the approach that some of us have been advancing in terms of “posthegemony” and “infrapolitics” and the like. Wilderson certainly has no truck with the Gramscian conceptions of hegemony and civil society, but he returns to them repeatedly as they encapsulate all that he finds wrong with so much of what passes for progressive thinking and leftist political strategy today: “coalitions and social movements [. . .] bound up in the solicitation of hegemony [. . .] ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners [. . .] but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (222-3). For Wilderson, political analysis and strategy alike must move beyond the confines of a hegemony theory that only makes things worse, blind as it is to the constituent violence that grounds hegemony itself, seared into Black flesh before the play of either consent or coercion can kick in. Where Afropessimism most strikingly breaks from Subaltern Studies or posthegemony, however, is precisely in that it is Black flesh that is at issue. Here, the excluded subaltern position is explicitly and specifically (and uniquely) coded as Black. Women, gays, the indigenous, the working class (and so on) are never, for Wilderson, subaltern in this sense, as they always have something at stake in the struggle for hegemony. For Blacks, by contrast, what is as stake is hegemony itself, which is only thinkable on the basis of their a priori exclusion from civil society tout court.

It is this assertion that is no doubt one of the most controversial among the many incendiary positions that Wilderson stakes out. Indeed, he chronicles at length the fall-out of one occasion in which he made this argument about Black singularity, at a conference in Berlin where all hell broke loose after he gave a paper on Afropessimism. We can agree that there is something at best distasteful about what he calls an “oppression Olympics” in which injustices would be compared and measured. To use Wilderson’s terms, there is no analogy between (say) the genocide that was the transatlantic slave trade and the genocide that was the European Holocaust. The two histories are incomparable. Indeed, Wilderson would argue that anti-black violence is not even historical; it is what grounds historical narrative without fully being registered by it. Yet, on the one hand, it is undeniable that the slave trade is also historical; its trace can be found even in the historical record that can never do it justice. And, on the other hand, there is something about the Holocaust (and not just the Holocaust) that also both subtends and escapes narrative rationality. In other words, we may accept Wilderson’s analytic distinction between a “contingent” violence that is subject to the logic of hegemony, and an “absolute” or “gratuitous” violence inflicted upon those constitutively excluded from that logic, without necessarily agreeing that only Blacks suffer gratuitous violence, or that the violence inflicted on other social groups is always and inevitably contingent.

Take for instance the post-conquest treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or more generally colonial violence. Addressing the “Native American genocide,” Wilderson acknowledges that “there are pre-logical or libidinal elements to the murder of eighteen million people–to be sure. But,” he continues, “land acquisition and usurpation give the genocide a kind of coherence and reasonableness” (219; emphasis added). Here that qualification that this is only “a kind of” reasonableness is doing a lot of work, and elsewhere even such qualification is absent as when (only a few pages later) Wilderson posits that “I know that I am not Black because when and if I experience the kind of violence Blacks experience there is a reason, some contingent transgression” (225; emphasis in the original). This is all too close to saying that such violence is indeed reasonable (or at least, that it has its reasons), when surely in fact there is always something in colonial violence–and likewise in the violence of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and so on–that exceeds or undermines any possible reason. Conversely, it is surely also true that reasons have been adduced to justify slavery, however rephrehensible those reasons may be, mere figleaves for motivations grounded in what Wilderson denotes as “libidinal economy,” but without them there would never have been debates between slavers and abolitionists; without them, the tireless campaigning of someone like Fredrick Douglass would have been literally senseless.

In Wilderson’s book, the argument that Blacks are not (simply) the foil of Humanity is put most eloquently by the author’s mother, and her critique goes unanswered when she tells her son that “she wasn’t anybody’s slave, and that even when our ancestors were slaves they were Human beings” (329). Wilderson’s response is an uneasy joke (with reference to his white wife, “’Being Human isn’t anything to aspire to,’ I said. ‘Just ask Alice’” [329]). A better rejoinder might have been the observation that they weren’t simply Human beings, and that Afropessimism is interested in operationalizing the gap between Human and Black. But one would have to add that, as the old feminist slogan indicates, such a gap between Human and non-Human traverses many social groups, and perhaps ultimately all of us in one way or another. And to say this is not to assert any false equivalence, any reactionary equalization along the lines of “All Lives Matter.” On the contrary: the gap between any violence to which I may potentially be subject and the violence of slavery (whether historical or ongoing) is incommensurable. But as is attested by Wilderson’s own frequent recourse in this book to autobiographical stories (of his childhood in Minnesota, of a breakdown in Berkeley, or of his experiences in South Africa, for instance), the trace of that incommensurability is to be found in narrative, in history, even if it also always subverts and escapes them.

In short, Wilderson concedes all too much to hegemony, as though it fully (and implicitly without remainder) explained all other forms of oppression and violence that are not anti-Black violence. And at the same time, he could do more to think through the relationship, however contingent, between the anti- or non- (post?) hegemonic position that he ascribes to Blackness and the discursive procedures, his own included, by which that position is both acknowledged and inevitably disavowed. This may win no more friends, but it might suggest a theory of friendship (fleeting or otherwise) that could suggest paths to common programs without the mystifications of solidarity.

Pre-Prison Writings III

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsOf this final selection from Antonio Gramsci’s pre-prison writings, there is no doubt that the most interest text is the final one, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” a manuscript left incomplete as he was still working on it when he was arrested, tried, and thrown into a fascist jail in 1926. It is here, at last, that Gramsci first pays sustained attention to some of the themes and concepts that will be at the center of his reflections in the celebrated Prison Notebooks, not least the role of intellectuals and the concept of hegemony.

The term “hegemony” appears previously in this collection, but sparsely indeed. It crops up first in a passing mention to “the hegemonic positions of the reformists within the great trade-union organization” in an article on “Our Union Policy” of 1923 (250). It reappears in a piece the following year on “The Mezzogiorno and Fascism” (with a reference to “the Piedmontese and Northern governing hegemony” [261]), and then somewhat more insistently in Gramsci’s “Letter to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party” of late 1926, where we are told that what is at stake in internal debates in Moscow is “the doctrine of the hegemony of the proletariat” (312). This last formulation, in an intervention into squabbles in the wake of the death of Lenin, between Stalin’s faction on the one hand and Trostky’s group on the other (Gramsci sides with Stalin), may well be an indication of the concept’s provenance in Lenin’s use of the term “gegemoniya.” In any case, what is clear is that both here and elsewhere (the rather more two-volume Lawrence and Wishart collection, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 and Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 has other instances, including one dating back to 1918, though one would have to check the Italian original; the three-volume Scritti politici has no mention of “egemonia” or “egemonico” before 1920) Gramsci is far from making the concept his own. It is only with “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” that he even attempts a definition and begins to develop the concept further.

Again, this is not to say that something like the seeds of Gramsci’s own “doctrine” of hegemony are not evident already, even before it has received that name. I have noted his interest in the article “Two Revolutions” in an articulation between populist revolt and working-class self-determination. And a slightly different take on the problem of the relationship between politics and economics can be glimpsed in his observation, in “A Study of the Italian Situation” of 1926, that:

Politics is always one step behind–or many steps behind–economics. The State observation is far more resistant than it is often possible to believe; and at times of crisis, it is far more capable of organizing forces loyal to the regime than the depth of the crisis might lead one to suppose. This is especially true of the most important capitalist States. (297)

Indeed, here we surely get an indication of what will motivate the development of hegemony theory. For this is an analysis premised on defeat. We are no longer in the heady days of the Turin factory occupations of the beginning of the decade. In fact, in the intervening years Fascism has come to power, apparently aided and abetted by the “reformists” and Social Democrats who are the main targets of Gramsci’s critique in these articles. The situation is Italy is precarious at best. Not to mention the fact that (as his letter to the Russians indicates, but also judging from his appraisal of developments in England and elsewhere) events internationally no longer seem to be going the way of the Communist Revolution. Gramsci still fervently believes that the objective conditions are ripe for change, but he has to address the series of setbacks that the working-class movement has suffered year on year. And as others, too, will later discover, the notion of “hegemony” seems to offer solace and hope in such troubled times.

Hence, in “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” Gramsci provides his first attempt at defining and elaborating on the concept of hegemony:

The Turin Communists had raised, in concrete terms, the question of the “hegemony of the proletariat”: in other words, the question of the social basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the workers’ State. For the proletariat to become the ruling, the dominant class, it must succeed in creating a system of class alliances which allow it to mobilize the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois State. In Italy, within the real class relations that exist here, this means succeeding in obtaining the consent of the broad peasant masses” (316).

Seeking this consent, Gramsci goes on to explain, will mean confronting the “Southern question” (the relationship between Italy’s industrial north and its still broadly agrarian south) as well as the Vatican (the role of the church).

For the Italian proletariat, then, winning over the majority of the peasant masses means taking on board these two questions, from a social point of view; understanding the class needs they represent; incorporating these needs into its revolutionary transitional programme; and incorporating them among the objectives for which it is struggling. (316)

Here, then, hegemony is envisaged as a project that entails overcoming long-standing social divisions: between North and South, city and countryside, worker and peasant. The project’s success would also mean acknowledging a diversity of positions and perspectives, albeit then translating them into the idiom of class. But perhaps above all it is a matter of adopting “a social point of view” as a means of establishing the “social basis” for the new, socialist state and the dictatorship of the proletariat that will usher it in. That dictatorship will involve the elimination of the peasantry (just as much as it involves the elimination of the bourgeoisie), but for now a “transitional programme” is envisaged, for which the perspective, needs, and objectives of the peasantry are to be acknowledged.

As Gramsci continues to explore and develop this conception of hegemony, he increasingly associates it with the role and social function of the “intellectual,” a social group to which he had paid little attention hitherto. At present, in this truncated, unfinished text, this is a category that is rather amorphous; it includes civil servants and school teachers, as well as writers and priests. What they have in common is their mediating function: “the Southern peasant,” for instance, “is linked to the great landowner through the mediation of the intellectual” (330). And while Gramsci continues to identify “the urban proletariat as the modern protagonist of Italian history and hence also of the Southern question” (334), he is beginning to come to conclusion that the working class is perhaps not yet ready for revolution. For “the proletariat, as a class, is short of organizing elements; it does not have its own layer of intellectuals and it will only be able to form such a stratum, very slowly and laboriously, after the conquest of State power” (336). It is then just as Gramsci’s pen runs out (the text trails off a paragraph later) that he stumbles across a key paradox, even Catch 22: the working class will only be able to produce its own intellectuals (and so, hegemony) after the capture of state power; and yet the state will not be captured, as the previous five years seem to have shown, without the contribution of intellectuals to the labor of hegemony.

We will see whether the concept of hegemony survives this contradiction in the subsequent phase of Gramsci’s writing, the Prison Notebooks, or whether in some sense the unfinished “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” is both high-water mark and dead-end for hegemony thinking.

Pre-Prison Writings I

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing is quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.

Friends, Enemies, and Others

bercowPresented at “Theologies of the Political: From Augustine to Agamben, and Beyond”
UBC Medieval Workshop
Green College, UBC, 29-30 March, 2019

“Friends, Enemies, and Others: Political Theology and the Art of the Encounter”

To adopt a phrase from the liturgy of monarchical succession: Political theology is dead, long live political theology. In what follows, the argument I hope to sketch out concerns the link between sovereignty and politics. For Carl Schmitt, who first coined the phrase “political theology,” this link is fundamental. Schmitt defines sovereignty as the ascription of a singular point that has the power to decide over the exception, and politics in terms of the dyadic distinction between friend and enemy that such an ascription frames and enables. I argue, by contrast, that this link is broken (if it ever functioned), that there is no such singular point (if there ever was), and that the friend/enemy distinction is, and always has been, a misleading distortion.

Along the way, I will not even pretend to be a medievalist, for which I hope you will forgive me. The case study that I will be analyzing, through which I will be reading Schmitt’s concepts, is about as contemporary as one could imagine: it is the ongoing legislative uncertainty around Britain’s projected withdrawal from the European Union, an event that should have happened yesterday but which may now take place on April 12 or May 22, or sometime, or never. Brexit is an unusually odd and complex affair; it is, in every sense, exceptional. But it is an exception that does not ground traditional conceptions of sovereignty (as Schmitt would have it); it radically undermines them. And I argue that Brexit is symptomatic, that it tells us something about the limits of political theology today (and perhaps always), and not only in the UK.

One response to this dilemma might be to jettison political theology. In the end, however, I suggest (all too briefly and cryptically) that political theology can still be redeemed, perhaps via a return if not to the Middle Ages (though Geoff Koziol’s discussion of ninth- to eleventh-century insurrections suggests that the Carolingian era might provide fertile ground) then at least to the Early Modern, and to a counter-tradition that has run parallel to the contractualist orthodoxy that is now utterly exhausted.

Read more… (PDF)

The Politics of Rage

politics_of_rage

Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Life During Wartime

RACAL

“Life During Wartime: Infrapolitics and Posthegemony”
(with a coda of eleven theses on infrapolitics)

Presented at the III Seminario Crítico-Político Transnacional
“Pensamiento y terror social: El archivo hispano”
Cuenca, Spain
July, 2016

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time.
Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard.
I can’t write nothing at all.
–The Talking Heads

In what is no doubt the most famous theorist of war’s most famous claim, Carl Von Clausewitz tells us that “war has its root in a political object.” He goes on: “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means. [. . .] War is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (119). There is, then, for Clausewitz an essential continuity between war and politics; they share the same rationality and ends. And this notion has in turn led many to think of politics, reciprocally, as a form of warfare. The German theorist Carl Schmitt, for instance, defines politics in suitably martial terms as a clash between “friend” and “enemy”: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (The Concept of the Political 26). Moreover, this invocation of the term “enemy” is scarcely metaphorical. Schmitt argues that “an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity” (28), and he further qualifies the particular type of enmity involved in political disagreement in terms of classical theories of warfare: the political enemy is a “public enemy,” that is a hostis, as opposed to a “private enemy.” He quotes a Latin lexicon to make his point: “A public enemy (hostis) is one with whom we are at war publicly. [. . .] A private enemy is a person who hates us, whereas a public enemy is a person who fights against us” (29).

Likewise, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also calls upon the language of warfare to describe political activity, which he classifies in terms of the “war of manoeuvre” by which a political party bids for influence among the institutions of so-called civil society, and the “war of movement” when it is in a position to seek power directly from the state. Indeed, the notion of an essential continuity between armed violence and civil dispute informs Gramsci’s fundamental conception of “hegemony,” which characterizes politics in terms of a combination of coercion and consent, the attempt to win or secure power alternately by means of force or persuasion. War is politics, politics is war: the basic goals and rationale are the same, we are told. It is just the means that are different.

Keep reading… (PDF document)

eleven theses on infrapolitics

  1. Infrapolitics is not against politics. It is not apolitical, still less antipolitical.
  2. There is no politics without infrapolitics.
  3. It is only by considering infrapolitics that we can better demarcate the terrain of the political per se, understand it, and take it seriously.
  4. The interface between the infrapolitical and the political cannot be conceived simply in terms of capture.
  5. Only a fully developed theory of posthegemony can account properly for the relationship between infrapolitics and politics.
  6. Infrapolitics corresponds to the virtual, and so to habitus and unqualified affect.
  7. The constitution (and dissolution) of the political always involves civil war.
  8. Biopolitics is the name for the colonization of the infrapolitical realm by political forces, and so the generalization of civil war.
  9. But neither politics nor biopolitics have any predetermined valence; biopolitics might also be imagined to be the colonization of the political by the infrapolitical.
  10. None of these terms–politics, infrapolitics, biopolitics, posthegemony–can have any normative dimension.
  11. Hitherto, philosophers have only sought to change the world in various ways. The point, however, is to interpret it.

Homage to Catalonia I

Homage to Catalonia cover

George Orwell is probably the most famous English political writer of the twentieth century. As such, it is surprising, in Homage to Catalonia, to read him telling us that, at the front of the Spanish Civil War, “the political side of the war bored” him (208). He says of his initial impressions of Catalonia that

the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names–PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (197)

This book, then, part memoir and part political analysis, documents a change in Orwell’s perspective, a form of politicization. For, in his words, “everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later” (198). Homage to Catalonia is, as much as anything, an account of how and why Orwell took side, and began to view the array of political acronyms as more than just some alphabet soup. For it turns out that the war had everything to do with politics–“it was above all things a political war” (197)–and so boredom or disinterest are no longer viable options. It is in the name of politics that a certain–largely fictitious–narrative of the conflict had been propagated, and it is likely that it is in the name of politics that the Republic would be lost.

Yet, if this is the message of the book, Orwell remains strangely ambivalent about it. He tells us, at the start of his first extended disquisition on the internal struggles between Anarchists and Communists, that “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” As he notes, he separates out the analysis from the memoir “to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters” precisely so that the disinterested reader can pass over them and continue following Orwell’s personal journey unperturbed. In other words, in this conflict in which “everyone” has to take sides, the reader is carefully shielded from this responsibility. In fact, in later editions of the book the “political” chapters are relegated to appendices, pushed even more to the margins of the main narrative. But does this not allow precisely the depolititicization, or refusal to engage in politics, against which Orwell’s book is otherwise written? Orwell wants both to protect us against the “horrors of party politics” and (if we are curious to read through the appendices that contain them) to tell us that they are essential to any understanding of the situation in Spain–and indeed, Europe as a whole. At one and the same time, the book both directs us to the centrality of political disagreement and aspires to shield us from it.

It may then be better to think of this as an infrapolitical book, in the sense that it is about what is simultaneously a necessary link and an absolute breach between war and politics. The Spanish Civil War is at the same time a thoroughly political war and absolutely non-political at the same time. The “horrors” of politics are both inevitable and to be avoided if at all possible. Orwell has both to show the connections between the “common decency” for which he came to fight (197) and the political machinations that make it both possible and impossible, and at the same point to keep them utterly separate. This is, of course, an impossible task, which is why in some sense this is an impossible book, fractured and somewhat absurd. But it is in that fracture that we see the struggle between politicization (taking sides) and commonality (common decency) played out, which are the stakes of the war itself, which ultimately can only be understood in these infrapolitical terms.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: Homage to Catalonia II; Spanish Civil War novels.

Stasis

Agamben, Stasis

Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.

Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:

it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)

For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).

To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.

The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

Declaration

Hardt and Negri, Declaration

Slavoj Zizek famously said of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire that it was “the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century.” With Declaration, Hardt and Negri apparently repudiate Zizek’s praise, as they argue that manifestos are “obsolete” in that they “provide a glimpse of the world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change.” But that subject is with us here and now, they claim: “Agents of change have already descended into the streets and occupied city squares, not only threatening and toppling rulers but also conjuring visions of a new world” (1). So it is not a manifesto that we need, but an updated Declaration of Independence, and Hardt and Negri unabashedly take the US Declaration as their model when they write that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are equal, that they have acquired through political struggle certain inalienable rights, that among these are not only life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also free access to the common, equality in the distribution of wealth, and the sustainability of the common. (51)

On this basis, they call then for a new constitution, and begin to outline some of its possible features (again) on the lines of the US model, examining in turn the requirements of an executive, legislature, and judiciary in a federal structure that would “constitute the procedural horizon of a participatory democracy of the common” (84).

But not so fast. Who are these “agents of change” who are already among us? It turns out that they are in the first instance the multitudes who participated in the wave of protests, encampments, and rebellions of 2011: from Tunisia and the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish indignados. Declaration, published in 2012, is written in the heady aftermath of these movements. Five years on, however, in each case disillusion and even disaster are the order of the day: the Arab Spring has left us with new forms of authoritarianism or bloodshed in Egypt, Libya, and Syria; there may be something of the spirit of Occupy in Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign in the primaries, but the US is likely to end up with Clintonian business as usual or, worse, Donald Trump; and in Spain (as in Greece) the initial radicalism of the indignados has devolved into the tepid compromises with a dominant political order negotiated by Podemos (and Syriza). The subject of any Declaration of Independence is once again more spectre than actuality: it refuses to go away, but it is not exactly fully here. There may still be room for a manifesto or two. The Revolution is almost as distant as ever, and that is not simply because the structures of power remain as resilient as ever, but also because the revolutionary subjectivities that would overthrow them are perhaps somewhat less tangible than Hardt and Negri would here have us believe.

In fact, in practice Declaration recognizes this dilemma. The best parts of the book are not so much its re-imaginings of specific constitutional arrangements (which become increasingly vague and repetitive) as its analyses of the ways in which multitudinous subjectivity is (still) captured, mystified, and folded in upon itself in contemporary neoliberalism. Hardt and Negri thus offer a typopology of neoliberal subject positions, all of which we collectively inhabit to one degree or another: the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented. Debt prevails as “rent, not profit” increasingly drives the capitalist economy (12); unlike traditional wage exploitation, it produces subjects whose productivity is obscured as they see themselves only as consumers. The media, meanwhile, shape subjectivities that are not so much alienated as co-opted, “constantly absorbed in attention” (16); here it is their affective capacities that are hidden and betrayed. Surveillance society generalizes fear but also makes us all would-be vigilantes; we find ourselves “deprived of every possibility of associative, just, and loving social exchange” (29). Finally, representation “gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatized, and the securitized and, at the same time, epitomizes the end result of their subordination and corruption” (25); here it is political action that is proclaimed to be forever inaccessible to ordinary folk.

Each of these four mystifications, however, is equally an index of powers of the multitude that can no longer be simply repressed or ignored: the powers of productivity, affect, association, and constitution. In brief, just as Hardt and Negri (somewhat heretically) overturn the Marxist Labour Theory of Value, because it is no longer simply labour that produces value for capital, so they aim to expand our sense of the powers that can be put to the building of a new society. So instead of the “lament” to which the Left always tends (as left-wing parties “lament the destruction of the welfare state, the imperial military adventures, [. . .] the overwhelming power of finance” and so on [87-8]), Hardt and Negri ask us to prepare for the event that will “completely reshuffle the decks of political powers and possibility” (102). Ultimately this is how they see “the cycle of struggles of 2011,” as “preparing ground for an event they cannot foresee or predict” (103). They tell us that history is full of such unforeseen events and assure us that “you don’t have to be a millenarian to believe that [. . . they] will come again” (102). Maybe not. But it sure helps if you are.

Manifesto of the Communist Party

Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

Some of the least read and least remembered pages of Marx are those in which he takes on various other radical thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a litany of names that are now almost entirely obscure and forgotten: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the like. Scanning these pages–and others like them, denouncing for instance the state of German philosophy at the time–the eye tends to glaze over, the mind wander. These are surely intellectual battles that belong in the past. However much Marxism is a minority option today, these other thinkers seem to have left still less trace on our contemporary debates. Where, after all, are the Fourierists and Owenites now?

Yet it’s surely worth reconstructing (what Pierre Bourdieu might call) the full field of positions occupied by the nineteenth-century Left, if only to bring out the stakes of what Marx says elsewhere, and to uncover the limits of what could and could not be said or thought at the time. Plucking Marx alone as the sole voice for radical change is to mangle and misunderstand his ideas as much as it means forgetting a wealth of other options that he chose not to take.

It is quite clear, for instance, that one distinguishing factor for Marx was the Communism in his view had to be revolutionary. To talk of “Revolutionary Communism” would be a tautology. Hence in the Manifesto of the Communist Party he and Engels criticize what they call “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism”–represented here by Proudhon–for desiring “the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. [It wishes] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Or, in a second variant, they argue that “by changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism [. . .] by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be effected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations” (70). Of course, put like that, we might suspect that there are still a few Proudhonites (in all but name) lurking in contemporary politics. Indeed, in some sense they seem already to have succeeded, rhetorically at least, in their wish for “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Aren’t we all middle class now? And is it not the case that we endlessly see politics replaced by administration of one sort or another, from the Welfare State to the neoliberal technocracy that has all but replaced it?

The paradox, however, is that to be anti-revolutionary is also to be against the very same bourgeois order that the “Socialistic bourgeois” seek to uphold. For the “revolutionary and disintegrating elements” are essential components of modern capitalism, as Marx and Engels argue in an earlier (and rather more famous) section of the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production [. . .] and with them the whole relations of society. [. . .] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (36, 27). Any attempt to mitigate the constant crises that are intrinsic to the capitalist order are reactionary at best, missing both the spirit of capitalism essence of Communism.

So what kinds of revolution do Marx and Engels endorse? The perhaps surprising answer at the end of the Manifesto is: any and all. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (77). These very much include bourgeois revolutions, too, which is why “the Communists turn their attention to Germany,” precisely because (Marx and Engels argue) it is “on the eve” of just such a revolution that, in turn, “will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution” (76). So for all the now-obscure apparent splitting of hairs with Proudhonites and the like, it’s striking that the Manifesto is also surprisingly pragmatic as it tells us that Communists will work with a wide range of parties–in France, the Social Democrats; in Switzerland, the Radicals; and so on–despite acknowledging their flaws and limitations. For everything is in the service of the goal: “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. [. . .] Working Men of all Countries, Unite!” (77).