Revolution: A Practical Guide


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.

Rethinking Community from Peru

[Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.]


What kind of political philosophy should one expect of a novelist? Irina Feldman’s fascinating Rethinking Community from Peru: The Political Philosophy of José María Arguedas prompts this question, as it proposes to present us with the political philosophy of José María Arguedas, the Peruvian author of Los ríos profundos, Todas las sangres, and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (among much else). Her starting point is the (in)famous 1965 Mesa Redonda sobre Todas las Sangres, in which (as she explains) Arguedas’s vision of Peruvian society was “severely questioned by a group of progressive scholars” (p. 3). His interlocutors felt that Arguedas had spurned class analysis in favor of an atavistic (if not reactionary) attachment to indigenous cultural forms such as the ayllu. For Feldman, what they missed was that Arguedas saw in such forms “an alternative project of community” that might carry over to a socialist society. But the more fundamental problem with this discussion was that the social scientists reading the novel had overlooked the fact that ultimately it was literary artifact, not sociological analysis. And to some extent Feldman replicates that mistake in seeking to squeeze a full-flown “political philosophy” from Arguedas’s fiction.

The bulk of this book is a reading of Todas las sangres highlighting the failures of the Peruvian state to achieve anything like hegemony in the highlands. What we see instead, we are told, is something more akin to what Ranajit Guha terms “dominance without hegemony” (p. 85). But in fact, in the Andes the state is not even dominant. As Feldman shows, Arguedas’s novel documents at least three other competing powers: the traditional hacendado system of large landowners with quasi-divine authority over “their” Indians; the indigenous ayllu, with its rotating leadership of varayok’s; and the forces of multinational capital, represented here by the Wisther-Bozart mining consortium. And though the haciendas are in decline–also, if more arguably so, the ayllu–the pressures of capital investment and resource extraction are such that the state can hardly carve out space to institute a liberal civil society, even if it wanted to do so.

Arguedas has a surprisingly positive view of the landowning class, perhaps because–like the varayok’s–they manifest the “solid bodily presence of the figure of authority” in contrast to the absent, “ghostly state” (p. 33). Hence the novel presents us with Don Bruno, a landowner who mobilizes his authority on the Indians’ behalf. But he can do so only by means of a self-sacrifice that destroys any chance of an effective alliance with the indigenous, and that further undercuts the state’s claims to sovereignty, rendering ordinary people all the more defenseless in the face of the mining corporations.

The saving grace of Andean culture, Feldman tells us, is its refusal to grant a “negative connotation” to physical labor, enabling “the indigenous serfs [to] escape the process of alienation” thanks to “the ritual appropriation of work in the mine [. . .] which signals a possibility of symbolic appropriation of the means of production” (p. 116). It is not clear, however, how much the real owners of the means of production are concerned about such symbolic reappropriation, so long as the workers continue to do their jobs without grumbling. In other words: is this not the most minimal, even self-defeating, revolution imaginable? Yet this is a phenomenon that Arguedas repeatedly depicts in his novels, from the communal road-building in Yawar Fiesta to the procession demanding a Catholic mass in Los ríos profundos: even in hegemony’s absence, the indigenous continue to struggle for their own servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation.

This may indeed be (as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest) the fundamental problem of political philosophy, but it is not clear that Arguedas grasps it as such. Should he? I am unconvinced that Arguedas ever satisfactorily rethinks the concept of community. His work is more symptom than solution, and if anything its weakness is that too often he does think like a social scientist, not least in his anguished concern for a Peruvian national project. The fact that Feldman’s examples of an Arguedan “political philosophy” in action all come from Bolivia, not Peru, shows the error of taking the nation-state as political horizon. More fundamentally, rather than trying to extract a political project from Arguedas’s fiction, it is more rewarding to see it as among the best mappings of Andean infrapolitics; that is, as an exploration of the conditions of possibility (and impossibility) of politics tout court.

La utopía en ruinas

Ahora será convertido

Presentado en el I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)
Santiago de Chile, agosto de 2015

“La utopía en ruinas: el hospital Ochagavía”

una ruina incompleta

Parece superfluo llamar a una ruina “incompleta”: ¿no es parte de la definición misma de ruina ser una estructura a la que le falta algo? Una ruina siempre debe perderse la plenitud: está descompuesta, desintegrada, deteriorada, destruida, imperfecta. De ahí el énfasis abrumador en la negatividad o negación (en todos los sentidos de la palabra) en la mayoría de las reflexiones sobre ruinas: se asocian con la pérdida, con la nostalgia, con la ausencia, con todas las formas en las cuales la ruina no llega a estar completa. Una y otra vez, el acento se pone en lo que no está, en lo que falta y solo puede evocarse con la imaginación o la memoria. En el mejor de los casos, la ruina evoca fantasmas, espectros, sueños o promesas: complementos insustanciales de su materialidad bruta e inútil. Una ruina es una estructura que tiene que completarse por otros medios: a través del discurso, de la narración, de los relatos. Parece pedir la intervención de la arqueología, la historia o la política para que nos cuenten lo que significan esos fragmentos, cuál es el todo al cual no pueden unirse por sí mismos. De hecho, una ruina solamente se convierte en ruina (en vez de una serie de partes desvinculadas) una vez ha sido asumida por esas formas discursivas. Al estar incompletas, las ruinas no pueden hablar por sí mismas y tienen que ser explicadas; requieren un suplemento que les asegure su representabilidad. Necesitan algo más. De este modo es cómo las ruinas vienen a ser la imagen misma de la dependencia de lo material en lo inmaterial, de la promesa narrativa de compensar la pérdida por otros medios, de la subordinación de lo real al mundo. Es la imagen misma de la hegemonía, del modo en que los fragmentos disociados se articulan en una cadena significante para dar la ilusión de totalidad.

Lee más… (documento pdf)

Utopia in Ruins

Ahora será convertido

Presented at the “I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)”
Santiago de Chile, August 2015

“Utopia in Ruins: The Ochagavía Hospital”

an incomplete ruin

It would seem superfluous to call a ruin “incomplete”: is it not part of the very definition of a ruin that it is a structure that somehow lacks something? A ruin must always miss out on plenitude: it is decayed, disintegrated, deteriorated, destroyed, imperfect. Hence the overwhelming stress on negativity or negation (in all senses of the term) in most reflections on ruination: ruins are associated with loss, with nostalgia, with absence, with all the ways in which the ruin falls short of completion. Over and over, the focus is on what is not there, what is missing and can only be conjured up through the imagination or memory. At best, the ruin conjures up ghosts, specters, dreams, or promises: insubstantial complements to its brute and senseless materiality. A ruin is a structure that has to be completed by other means: through discourse, narrative, story-telling. It seems to ask for the intervention of archaeology, history, or politics to tell us what these fragments mean, what is the whole to which on their own they do not quite add up. Indeed, a ruin only truly becomes a ruin (rather than a series of disaggregated parts) once it is taken up by such discursive formations. It is because they are incomplete that ruins cannot speak for themselves and have to be spoken for; they demand a supplement that will ensure their representability. They demand something else. This is how the ruin comes to appear the very figure of the dependency of the material on the immaterial, of narrative’s promise to make up for loss by some other means, of the subordination of the real to the word. It is the very figure of hegemony, of the way in which discrete fragments are taken up in larger signifying chains to give the illusion of wholeness.

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Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

Strong Constitutions: Cameron Responds

Strong Constitutions

I am grateful to Jon Beasley-Murray for his review of Strong Constitutions. The greater part of the review is a perceptive and accurate account of the central argument of the book. I also appreciate the objections Jon raises, which I think are important and deserve a response.

First, Jon argues that Strong Constitutions, despite its critical intent, ultimately falls within the mainstream of political science. Indeed it rests on a kind of scientific naturalism that is as bad as the pseudo-scientific rationalism it rejects. Second, Jon suggests the argument of Strong Constitutions is actually a rather conservative one. It confuses description with norms—what is, with what ought to be. Such a view limits rather than expands human freedom because, in the end, what ought to be is reduced to what is. Finally, Jon is skeptical of what he calls the “humane” tradition rooted in Aristotelian practical wisdom.

It would please me a great deal if Strong Constitutions were to be seen as part of mainstream political science. I have a strong commitment to social science. I do not, however, think the social sciences should seek to replicate the natural sciences. Strong Constitutions is written in support of an interpretive or human science that starts with the recognition of the centrality of agency and purposiveness, intentions and goals. I can’t agree with the claim that the vision of agency in this book is “as reductive” as rational actor theories. For me—like many social theorists, from Guillermo O’Donnell, to Amartya Sen, to Martha Nussbaum, to Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz—agency implies practical reason and moral judgment, which are missing in rational actor models. I assume agents can plan their lives and distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. A social science theory that does not incorporate that human capacity is not just limited—it becomes complicit with the unchecked instrumental rationality that undermines practices and institutions that are vital to self-government.

This brings me to the next point. Moral judgment, care and concern for others, and deliberation about both means and ends in aid of sociability, are human capabilities. They are by no means unique to humans (precursors of morality can be found among other mammals, birds, and, yes, even fish!), but they are massively reinforced by the use of language. The fact that we are speaking agents, among other things, contributes to our potential to be moral agents—that is, the ability to construct ought-based institutions. That is the sense in which Hume’s law (you cannot derive an ought from an is) is flawed. Morality is an emergent property of human sociability, a necessary feature of conscious social activity. Morals are social facts.

Morals as social facts are often embodied in institutions. I attribute recognition of this to Montesquieu, which is why he is a forerunner of sociology (Durkheim’s claim), and that is not at all a bad thing—my work also purports to be sociological. What makes institutions so interesting, in my view, and this is lost in a positivist perspective, is that in order to work they have to make normative claims that are always contestable. Merely reading the riot act is never enough—as we can see today in Ferguson. The factual power institutions generate is grounded in contestable claims that involve ought-statements. These are the moral resources institutions can mobilize, though they often fail to do so.

A critical insight of the book is that planning an action or activity before and judging the action after it has been executed are fundamentally different kinds of things. The first involves deliberation about the aims of an activity and how to achieve them. The second involves judgments about whether the aims were right and the means the best suited to achieve them. That these are not distinctions made in rational actor models is obvious, since such models focus on means-ends calculations exclusively. For that reason, such models cannot explain our deliberative institutions except in highly “reductive” ways. By contrast, the view that institutions are emergent properties of social action that in turn shape and give potential to agents implies reciprocal causality (where the causal arrow go both upward and downward between agents and institutions). I agree this can seem circular, but it is not an iron cage. On the contrary, recognizing this fact is essential to progressive social change.

There is, in the social sciences, too much faux realism masking complacency about the status quo. I am happy to be associated with a more “humane” tradition, though that is not a label I would have chosen. But I don’t see any basis linking Strong Constitutions to a kind of law-and-order ethic. It is, instead, written in support of the idea that human freedom is a collective goal, and to be truly free and flourishing we need to be participate in collective self-government. That is, at their best, what constitutions enable.

My thanks to Jon for his careful reading and probing analysis.