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.

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).

Revolution: A Practical Guide

Che

This semester I am finally teaching a course I have long envisaged: a “practical guide” to Revolution. I can’t say that I am not a little anxious. I have already had departmental administrators worriedly suggesting I eliminate that phrase from the information I put about the course. And it’s the first time I’ve felt the need both on my syllabus and in class to state explicitly (for the sake of the lawyers, if no one else) that I am not actively condoning armed insurrection.

Anyhow, this post will be a repository of things I write in connection with the class:

The Coming Collapse

Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger

A famous story goes that when in 1972 Richard Nixon asked Mao Zedong’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou’s response was that it was still “too soon to say.” Whether or not Zhou actually said such a thing, and whether even if he did he was really referring to the events of 1789, is a matter of some doubt. But in any case, as Nixon’s interpreter apparently put it, it was “a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction.” For it seemed very much to substantiate the notion that the Chinese play a very long game, patiently waiting for history to unfold. But it also resonated with the notion that, far from being merely punctual political events, Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term. Their real effects, if any, may take centuries to discern.

David Graeber

In “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, David Graeber offers something like a spatial correlative to this temporal caution. Drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein, he suggests that instead of our habit of seeing revolutions in strictly national terms–as American, French, Haitian, Iranian, Nicaraguan, or whatever–we should understand any true revolution in global terms: “revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.” So the impact of the French Revolution might be felt in “Denmark, or even Egypt” as much as in France; perhaps “even more so.” And that impact might be judged in terms of the ways revolutionary spirit jumps national boundaries or crosses oceans: think of the interplay between the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, for instance. Or it might equally figure in the ways in which elsewhere the social order is reconfigured in response to and against that spirit: as the Russian revolution was “ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states” as the rest of the world tried to inoculate itself against the threat perceived on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Hence, against the pessimistic view that the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s (which was perhaps encapsulated in the single date of 1968) is long vanished, Graeber goes on to argue that contemporary neoliberalism continues to be a reaction against the perceived threat posed by the protests almost fifty years ago in Paris, Rome, Berkeley, and elsewhere. If so, “the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper [and let us add, broader] than we now imagine,” and leads directly to a set of contradictions at the heart of the contemporary order: that “preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority” that ensuring that the system itself works. Or in short, if the Left long seems to have abandoned the notion that there are alternatives to actually-existing capitalism, Graeber suggests that social and economic elites remain obsessed with the notion that those alternatives exist and may reappear at any time. So the paradox is that while those who purport to work for change see revolution as a musty concept buried in the past, those who want to forestall change at any cost are the ones who truly act as though Revolution were around the corner.