The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

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We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez, which styles itself as “a people’s history of the Venezuelan Revolution,” is a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the contemporary Venezuelan government and its origins, but also if more indirectly to debates over the so-called Latin American “left turns” and indeed to our thinking about the relationship between social movements and the state in general.

Ciccariello-Maher positions his book as a response of sorts to the debate initiated by John Holloway, whose influential Change the World Without Changing Power was inspired by the experience of the Mexican Zapatistas. Holloway argues that the Zapatistas, who famously opted out of and even argued against participation in the electoral process with their “Other Campaign,” offered a vision of what we might call constituent power trumping a constituted power that only ever repeats all-too-familiar structures of domination. A few years later, drawing on the Venezuelan case in which Hugo Chávez was merely the first in a series of often stunning electoral victories by the Latin American Left, Gregory Wilpert followed with a book whose title is an explicit rebuke to Holloway: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. In trying to bring together these perspectives, refusing to choose in any simple fashion between social movements “from below” and the role of the state “from above,” Ciccariello-Maher’s contribution is broadly in line with the account given by Sujantha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez’s Venezuela, the main methodological difference being that where Fernandes provides a more thorough-going and textured anthropological account focussed on the urban poor, We Created Chávez is more broadly historical, examining a range of groups and organizations across the country from the 1950s to the present. Unfortunately, Ciccariello-Maher provides what is only a response “of sorts” to this debate in that specific references to this previous work is muted, most often found buried in footnotes.

Moreover, there are other references that are simply missing. For instance, on another, more theoretical level, this same debate about Venezuela and the contemporary Latin American Left is to some extent replicated in the exchange between Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding, and Slavoj Zizek, who like Wilpert turns to Chávez (as elsewhere he turns to Lenin) to justify the importance of seizing the “commanding heights” as much as the grassroots in any serious effort to effect social change. Invocations of constituent and constituted power also suggest the controversies surrounding Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s theorization of Empire and (more recently) Commonwealth or even Negri and Giuseppe Cocco’s GlobAL, on “biopolitics and struggle in a globalized Latin America”; and one might have thought that (for instance) Bruno Bosteels’s reflections on the similar situation of Bolivia, addressed in The Actuality of Communism, deserved a mention. But while Hardt and Negri are mentioned in passing (and again, in footnotes), these other names are absent.

Ciccariello-Maher’s main points of reference are, instead, Régis Debray (as antagonist) and Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Enrique Dussel, mixed with a little Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau where occasion seems to merit. At the very end, Lenin comes to save the day and resolve the apparent “paradox” that despite their “militant autonomy and rejection of the Venezuelan state,” so many social activists and ordinary people alike “nevertheless pledge their loyalty, however temporarily and contingently, to the man currently [as Ciccariello-Maher was writing] sitting atop that state” (5-6). The problem remains that there is very little explicit dialogue in this book with other contemporary critical approaches to Latin American politics and culture. Translating both that paradox and Ciccariello-Maher’s proposed solution into the terms of broader debates in the region and elsewhere is left, then, as an exercise for the reader.

One possibility is a turn to the dialectic. For if one were in a dialectical frame of mind (and Ciccariello-Maher very often is, on occasion finding even a “dialectic within a dialectic” [236]), one might suggest that We Created Chávez resolves the apparent antagonism between the positions outlined by Holloway and Wilpert in terms of the triumphant synthesis of a Revolution whose revolutionary nature is constantly asserted and never questioned. This is the synthesis of the constituent process and the constituted fact of institutional organization; this is the negation of the negation that presents us with the revolutionary state incarnated in “an individual, Chávez, as an expression of [. . .] alternative power ‘from below’” (242). Hence the need to support Chávez and his government: he is after all (as the book’s title reminds us) the creation of popular energies that long predate him, and that the narrative Ciccarielo-Maher presents dates back to the 1950s and the origins of Venezuelan democracy.

The book begins with the various guerrilla groups that sprang up in the wake of the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tracing the effects of their misjudged vanguardism and the relative ease with which they were routed by the state, only for the masses to grow in power and finally show the bankruptcy of “Venezuelan exceptionalism” in the Caracazo, whose consummation was Chávez’s electoral victory of 1998. On a somewhat shorter timescale (and perhaps another dialectic within the dialectic), if the violent protests of 1989 were “a mass charge without a vanguard” and Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt were then the actions of “a vanguard that was not able to immediately coordinate its masses” (101), Chávez in power represents their sublation or Aufhebung.

But once the long view is introduced, a somewhat different story emerges. In rather less dialectical manner Ciccariello-Maher’s book is also about the varied and torturous paths taken by a vast range of social struggles, some of which become unified under the name of Chávez and the umbrella of the Bolivarian revolution (at least for a time), but others not. Even at its best, this is less the negation of negation than a long, slow consolidation of forces more reminiscent of Laclau than of Zizek or Hegel. At its worst, in Ciccariello-Maher’s account the dialectic is replaced by a sometimes rather teleological narrative of progress. More to the point, what we mostly see as the book guides us through an alphabet soup of acronyms (FALN, LCR, MAS, PCUV, M-28, CFPs, CTV, FRETECO, and many more) is a complexity that is not well served by the proliferation of appeals to dialectical thinking, however fast and loose our conception of the dialectic may be. Any unity appears fragmentary at best, and yet there are even uncanny moments (in the history of the student movement, for instance, or in official reaction to lumpen self-organization) at which the line between chavismo and the anti-chavista opposition becomes awfully blurred, despite Chávez’s (and this book’s) consistent attempts to distinguish as clearly as possible between revolutionary Bolivarians and reactionary escuálidos.

What becomes evident instead is a multiplicity that remains stubbornly resistant to any final unification or even neat divisions. A tension remains, then, to trouble over-confident declarations of synthesis or loyalty. When the book (like Zizek) reaches for Lenin, it is now the Lenin of “dual power,” of the sometimes uneasy, often downright contradictory, cohabitation of popular power and state command, local councils and sovereign institutions, constituent and constituted power in an equilibrium that can only ever be provisional. From this point of view, as the book’s last line has it, support for Chávez can only be “por ahora” or “for now” (255). Theory is abandoned in favor of a pragmatism that sits somewhat uneasily with the radicalism that Ciccariello-Maher otherwise wears rather ostentatiously on his sleeve. And the fact that this watchword of enduring suspicion is taken from Chávez himself–from his brief televised address in the aftermath of his failed coup attempt of 1992–is but a further irony or twist in the tale. It is as though we can go beyond the gran comandante only by mimicking his own rhetorical strategies.

But if there is no tidy synthesis at the end of the story, the excessiveness of constituent or popular power cuts both ways. On the one hand, Chávez can never fully represent the Venezuelan people, however hard he tried (and nobody, frankly has tried harder), because ultimately there is something that always resists and overpowers such representation. But then there are also the aspects of social struggle that are somehow left behind along the road, that are never fully incorporated into chavismo or that are dropped or drop out. Emblematic of the other side or failures of chavista populism, its failure to construct a “people,” is the fate of Douglas Bravo, long-term revolutionary and now disillusioned ex-chavista. Bravo bookends We Created Chávez: he is introduced early, in part to establish Ciccariello-Maher’s credentials, in a book that is very concerned with the bona-fides of the anthropological “I,” with its possession of the passwords and “magic words” (83) that enable and guarantee the authenticity of its and our entry into Venezuelan reality. We are told that Bravo himself checks the author out and ultimately approves: “I can work with you” he “abruptly announces” (25). But it turns out that Ciccariello-Maher cannot work with Bravo, who is twice described as “seething” (28, 253), as in some sense out of control; this is a word otherwise only applied to an anti-Chávez journalist’s denunciation of the “lumpen.” In a final scene, moreover, Bravo is portrayed with “his mind clearly moving quicker than his words” (whatever exactly that means) and depicted with more than a smattering of condescension as “an isolated former guerrilla who cannot accept the reality of the battle ahead, a comandante without troops” (253).

So who, I wonder, created Bravo? Why is he a comandante without troops, while Chávez by contrast has so many battalions to call upon? If we are to blame Bravo for being left behind by history, then why not in turn praise Chávez for his astuteness in figuring out the way the wind blows? Why, in short, ascribe agency only to the losers (here, Bravo) while so resolutely denying it the victors (Chávez)? There are some strange choices at work here. Or perhaps not so strange, merely overdetermined. Everyone likes a winner, after all.

In the end, my problem with Ciccariello-Maher’s purported resolution of the conflict between constituent and constituted power is that it comes down to something of a truism. Of course in some ways the “people” created Chávez–though one would have thought that a dialectician would also point out the ways in which Chávez likewise created his people, not least through his consistent politicization of the social field, his insistent division between the people and the escuálidos who fall outside and beyond any attempt at representation. But more to the point: didn’t the “people” also create Betancourt, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and the like? Isn’t constituted power always a result of constituent processes, even when the results don’t turn out quite how we (or the people) might want?

In other words, the simple gesture of pointing to popular creativity and productivity doesn’t in itself legitimate their resultant representatives. Suggesting that it does risks repeating the dual festishism that Ciccariello-Maher sets out to abolish: it fetishes the state and the people at the very same time. Here, indeed, it might have been helpful to consider the distinction between people and multitude upon which Hardt and Negri (among others) insist: it is surely better put to say that it is the multitude that creates Chávez, while he in turn constructs them as a people. Sadly, the very notion of multitude is here dismissed in the tersest of footnotes for its supposed “abstract implausibility” (275). Far from it: Ciccariello-Maher had the chance here to investigate the concrete and quite particular attributes and activities of the Venezuelan multitude, and perhaps also then to complicate Hardt and Negri’s faith that the multitude is always good, always to be trusted. It is this faith that is abstract and implausible, not the category of the multitude itself. But to employ the concept of the “people” so loosely and so uncritically is no great improvement.

In short, this is an important–indeed vital–book that does much to rectify the often short-sighted and shallow accounts of the Bolivarian process by its detractors and defenders alike. By pointing to the centrality of the Caracazo, and beyond that of struggles that originate as far back as the 1950s (and one could go further still, of course, as Margarita López Maya suggests, back to the 1930s or even the 1900s), it displaces the rather sterile debate about Chávez’s (now, Maduro’s) mindset or personality. Along with Who Can Stop the Drums? (as well as the work of others, such as Luis Duno’s important forthcoming contributions), We Created Chávez usefully shifts our attention from the symbolic figure of the sovereign himself, who has otherwise beguiled even those (such as Richard Gott or Tariq Ali) who pledge themselves to him.

But in its tendency to characterize both Chávez and sovereignty more generally simply as product, simply as the result of popular power, this book proposes a new version of Venezuelan exceptionalism, as though the Bolivarian state were unique or somehow singularly organic in its authentic expressiveness of a popular base. It plays down therefore all the various tactics of the chavista state, not least its novel use of media, and utterly ignores the effects of the construction of transcendence, the ways in which constituted power, by folding constituent power back on itself, converts multitude into a delimited people, creating a new range of subalterns and a new set of exclusions. It ignores the ways in which Chávez proved the last gasp of puntofijismo in ensuring some kind of stability for rich and poor alike (“the only leader capable of staving off the threat of civil war” as one of Ciccariello-Maher’s informants rather regretfully puts it [87]).

In sum, and despite all the hedges and provisos that it offers, We Created Chávez runs the risk of re-enchanting the chavista state all the more firmly: no longer as simply the agency that more or less arbitrarily redistributes oil rent, but as the only one that can do so legitimately in the name of its constituents.

Nomad Scholarship

murmurationI’ve been dropped a line by someone involved in “an online blog experiment” that brings together what seems to be a class run by Gene Holland and Brian Rotman on “Multitude, Anarchy, Occupy” at Ohio State, plus a graduate student reading group at the University of Washington.

The OSU course description describes its “core question” as: “What are components–affective, proprioceptive, cognitive, material, and (if any) representational–that make a group of individuals a multitude?”

They are interchanging ideas over at Nomad Scholarship and it’s worth reading their discussions. This week, they’re reading the conclusion to Posthegemony, which you can find here.

Update: And now there are a couple of very insightful (and, I’ll admit, rather flattering) posts up, on Posthegemony: Cheryl Gilge’s “multitudinous” and Keith Harris’s “You had me at ‘posthegemony'”.

Jekyll and Hyde

Stevenson, Jekyll and HydeJekyll and Hyde have become a byword for the notion of mankind’s dual nature, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the immoral. At times the text seems to support this reading: Henry Jekyll’s “Full Statement of the Case,” for instance, opens with a discussion of “those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature” (48) and goes on to describe how the author “learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man” (49). But the first of these two observations is rather more complicated than it might at first appear: it is not that “good and ill” constitute “man’s dual nature”; rather they “divide and compound it.” In other words, any “duality of man” refers to something other than the binary divide between the good and the bad, something that becomes still more complex (“divide[d] and compound[ed]”) when the distinction between virtue and vice is taken into account. Indeed, between these two comments on duality comes the recognition that this is at best a first approximation to the truth: “I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens” (48). We are multiple; we contain multitudes.

Moreover, it is not as though the characters of Jekyll and Hyde themselves incarnate anything like the “primitive duality” that Jekyll mentions here. For though Hyde is perhaps the pure precipitate of all that is wicked in Jekyll, Jekyll himself remains irreducibly multiple: he is an “incongruous compound” (52), “composite” (55). There is, in short, no kind of dialectical relationship between the two, no simple contradiction: Jekyll is already divided; Hyde is best understood as a supplement or embodied overdetermination. No wonder Jekyll “loses” in the end: his good nature has to struggle not only against Hyde but also against the evil that still resides within Jekyll himself. Perhaps for this reason, and again despite appearances, it is never a matter of Jekyll or Hyde, it can only ever be Jekyll and: Jekyll plus a part of his nature that stands beside him without in fact leaving him.

Of course, there is much attention to the differences between Jekyll and Hyde. There is their contrasting stature, for example, or their distinct voices, which is how Jekyll’s manservant, Poole, determines that his master has been disappeared: “Have I been twenty years in this man’s house, to be deceived about his voice?” (35). Moreover, there is much discussion of the distinction between the men’s faces, and indeed of faces in general. Utterson, the tale’s narrator, demands to see Hyde’s face, “and the pair stared at each other pretty fixedly for a few seconds. ‘Now I shall know you again,’ said Mr Utterson. ‘It may be useful’” (16). Utterson goes on to declare to Jekyll that “If ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend” (17). But Utterson is wrong: he doesn’t “know” Hyde at all, and he completely misreads the signature on the man’s face; indeed, his conception of Hyde is as much a projection of his own fears and anxieties as it is a product of Jekyll’s own foibles and failings.

To understand Hyde–and the relation between Hyde and Jekyll–it is best to look to the man’s hand. It is by his hands, after all, that Jekyll/Hyde himself determines, in the absence of a mirror, his qualities at any particular moment. Jekyll’s description of his first transformation into Hyde notes that he “stretched out [his] hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations” (50). Later, when he has started to transform involuntarily from one state into another, again the hand provides the clue: “the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde” (58). But the hand is not only the sign of the difference between Jekyll and Hyde: it is also the sign of their underlying identity. “Then I remembered,” Jekyll tells us, “that of one of my original character, one part remained to me: I could write my own hand” (58-9). Jekyll and Hyde’s hand, in the sense of handwriting, is the same. As a result it is impossible to tell who is writing, except when Jekyll/Hyde deliberately alters his own penmanship–and even then, Utterson’s clerk, “a great student and critic of handwriting” (27), notes “a rather singular resemblance; the two hands are in many points identical: only differently sloped.” Utterson’s response is the horrific thought that “Henry Jekyll [has] forge[d] for a murderer!” (28). But often as not it is Hyde who “forges” for Jekyll, while at other times we can never know who has forged (for) whom. Hence Patrick Brantlinger notes the threat posed by this instability, this duplicity of signature and impossibility of “reading” either Hyde’s or Jekyll’s hands aright: “Hyde menaces society not just by his criminal violence but by his ability to write checks and letters, draw up wills, and pen blasphemies in books of ‘divinity’” (201).

Hyde (or is it Jekyll?) takes advantage of his uncanny literacy, the fact that the difference between himself and his other is strictly speaking unreadable, to send a message to his friend Lanyon and persuade him to collect the drugs enabling him to transform himself back into Jekyll once more. And it is here that the book’s most shocking scene comes: not in the mutation of Jekyll into Hyde, as one might have thought; but in the resurrection (“like a man restored from death”) of Jekyll from Hyde. It is this that prompts Lanyon to say: “My life is shaken to its roots; sleep has left me; the deadliest terror sits by me at all hours of the day at night; I feel that my days are numbered” (47). For the staid bachelor society that Stevenson’s tale portrays, it is not the revelation of the evil in man, the appearance of Hyde, that is the most terrifying aspect of the story. Nor is it any kind of dualistic opposition between Jekyll and Hyde. It is the fact that Hyde gives life to Jekyll, and that in doing so he gives birth to multitudes.

resonance

A long, empassioned post from my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo over at his blog “Space and Politics” discusses “Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution”.

More generally, Gastón is also engaged in an attempt to think what I have previously termed a politics of affective resonance.

There’s much to say about and to respond to in Gastón’s post, and surely we need to develop further a critical vocabulary of resonance, dissonance, damping, attunement (on which see Massumi), and so on.

In terms of the relationship between space and politics, I think it would be worth investigating the ways in which resonance is discussed in Physics or Engineering. And one would presumably have to distinguish between resonance as it functions in solids, liquids, and gases. (This would be one answer to Gastón’s reasonable critique that my tendency is to emphasize spatial solidity.)

But I’d also emphasize that resonance enables an intersection between a concern with space and an interest in time or history. For rhythm or tempo immediately invoke a concern with temporality. A body that resonates moves in space but also in time… literally, “in time” with others.

promise

The BBC’s Paul Mason (to whom I’ve linked before) has a rather interesting post on “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere”.

I’d underline the power of disenchantment, which I’ve discussed previously with reference to the protests against authoritarianism in Chile. At root is a series of broken promises.

Mason says:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

[. . .]

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

This is also much like the reasons Bourdieu gives for France’s May 1968. As I put it in Posthegemony:

Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of the inadvertent effects of increased access to the French educational system in the 1950s and 1960s. The expansion of secondary and tertiary education had led to “diploma inflation” and the devaluation of scholarly certification, such that educational success could no longer be converted straightforwardly into social mobility. Yet “newcomers to secondary education [we]re led . . . to expect it to give them what it gave others at a time when they themselves were excluded from it.” Whereas “in an earlier period and for other classes, those aspirations were perfectly realistic, since they corresponded to objective probabilities,” in the wake of systemic expansion “they are often quickly deflated by the verdicts of the scholastic market or the labour market.” The social field had changed, shattering habitual expectation and provoking an ethical refusal that questioned the very rules of the game: “A whole generation, finding it has been taken for a ride, is inclined to extend to all institutions the mixture of revolt and resentment it feels toward the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] toward a denunciation of the tacit assumptions of the social order, a practical suspension of doxic adherence to the prizes it offers and the values it professes, and a withholding of the investments which are a necessary condition of its functioning.” However much the events of 1968 drew “strength from ideological and scientific critiques,” they were not themselves ideological; rather they constituted a suspension of (practical, embodied) belief in the wake of an interruption to the smooth functioning of social reproduction. They were part of an ethical revolt that drew on habitual inclinations to confront the social order. (pp. 220-21)

The only thing I’d add, then, to Mason’s analysis is the importance of habit and conatus, the instinct for survival or increase. And it is conatus that builds the multitude.

banlieues

This account of the recent protests against tuition fee increases in the UK is fascinating, especially given its source: the Economics editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, Newsnight.

Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations – UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex – the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

[. . .]

When there are speeches, the university students often defer to the working class young people from sixth forms, who they see as being the main victims of the reform. With the Coalition’s majority reduced by 3/4, as I reflected earlier, it is unprecedented to see a government teeter before a movement in whom the iconic voices are sixteen and seventeen year old women, and whose anthems are mainly dubstep.

I have no idea how accurate this account is–I’m a long way away from the protests myself–but it would be quite something it it were. The protests against the initial introduction of fees (which took place when I was at university) were nothing like this.

Meanwhile, the picture of Charles and Camilla’s shock at being caught up in the melée, and their realization that they are perhaps not so insulated from ordinary people as they may hope, is quite extraordinary:


Frankly, this may be the only good reason to have a royalty still: to provide images such as this one.