Democracy, Squatting, and My Forthcoming Book

Here is one last piece from the recent Association of American Geographers conference.  This was for a session organized by Pierpaolo Mudu and Miguel Martinez called “Squatting and Social Centers: Resistance and Production of Critical Spaces.”  Unfortunately, because of travel challenges I was unable to be at the session in person, but the benefit of that is I prepared a more polished text to be read at the session, which I will paste below.  It serves as a good preview for my forthcoming book, The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy, which I hope will be out sometime early next year.  Here is the text:

What I want to contribute today is an idea of democracy that I hope is useful in thinking about popular struggles in general, and about squatting and social centers in particular.  The idea is taken from a book I just completed on democracy.  In the book I examine a range of theorists—particularly Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe, Hardt and Negri, Rancière, and Nietzsche, as well as the work of David Foster Wallace.  I argue that it is possible to find in all of them a deep desire for democracy, and this desire is remarkably similar across the various writers.  So the idea of democracy I offer in the book and today is a kind of bricolage assembled from the work of these multiple theorists.

For me, the point of thinking and writing about democracy at all is to help build a conceptual frame, a way to think about a larger political project in the contemporary era.  By “contemporary era,” I mean right now: the financial collapse and the wave of austerity policies that seems to be the best the state and the financial oligarchy can come up with as an answer to the crisis.  Certainly austerity is not only the wrong approach, it is in fact so preposterous that we should respond with indignation, as so many have.  That’s easy, but I also want to suggest that our long-term goal should not be to merely return to social democracy, or the welfare state, or Keynesianism.  These strategies aim at rebuilding a strong state as a means to mitigate (or even, for some, to overcome) the problems of capitalism.  Whatever the value of those strategies in the current moment, I want to argue that they are not really democratic strategies.  We are capable of much more than the welfare state.  We are capable of democracy.

So then clearly I want to argue that the liberal-democratic state is not the democracy we should seek.  In that state, a relatively few people are selected, separated out from the population, and designated to govern the whole.  In other words, the few rule the rest.  This arrangement is by definition an oligarchy.  And more generally, the state, any state, is what Hobbes said it is: it is an arrangement where people alienate their own power to an entity outside themselves, and that entity uses their own power to rule them.  Liberal-democracy gives people a voice in choosing the oligarchs, but it doesn’t change the state’s fundamentally oligarchic structure of rule.  This structure is equally true of all state institutions: elections, parties, laws, bureaucracies, and representative bodies.

So then what is democracy?  Let’s try this: democracy is a mode of living together in which people manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence.  People in a democracy are thus autonomous rather than heteronomous; that is to say that in a democracy people “give themselves the law” rather than having the law given to them by another.  People rule themselves instead of being ruled.  Moreover, in order to be autonomous, they have to be politically active rather than passive.

One predictable objection to this way of thinking about democracy is a practical one: it is impossible for all the people, everyone together, to govern themselves directly.  This objection holds an element of truth, and in response we might revise our original idea: we should think of democracy not so much as a state of being or as a perfect political community at the end of history.  Drawing on Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution, we can think of democracy as a horizon toward which we travel, one we can never reach because a horizon always recedes, but one that suggests to us a direction in which we must move.  Or drawing on Deleuze and Guattari we could think not in terms of “democracy” as a state of being but in terms of “becoming-democratic” as a process, as a struggle, as an ongoing effort to manage our affairs for ourselves as much as we are able.  This idea is precisely what Lefebvre means when he says in State, Space, World that democracy is nothing other than a permanent struggle for democracy, an ongoing striving toward the horizon of democracy.  Becoming-democratic.

So of course such a struggle to become democratic would require that all people also “become-active,” that they continually refuse passivity, refuse the temptation to “let someone else do it,” that they continually cease to be the political spectator and become the political actor.  Here Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator is quite useful, but even moreso is David Foster Wallace’s exploration of this very issue, most famously in Infinite Jest.  In that book characters engage in courageous struggles to remain active, to manage their own affairs against overwhelming temptations to give in, temptations to let themselves be carried away, in their case by drugs and by entertainment.

What we find in Wallace is a vivid sense of the personal struggle to become active and autonomous.  And that individual struggle is critical.  But of course the struggle must also be collective.  We must struggle together to become democratic, to rule ourselves as a community.  So it is essential to consider what kind of relations we should have in that community, what kind of collectives we should be trying to create.  This is an enormous question, of course, so let me offer just a few points.

In the theory I have been working with, as well as in the many popular initiatives we have seen in 2011, there is much interest in creating leaderless groups whose members engage each other in horizontal, non-hierarchical relations.  Deleuze and Guattari talk of rhizomes, centerless assemblages in which any can connect to any other.  They also talk of “bodies without organs,” which are collectivities that are able to operate effectively without specialized nodes of organization.  Such groups try to avoid developing fixed organizational centers that are responsible for certain tasks (research, strategy, communications, logistics, etc.), since such centers would be oligarchies, rendering the rest of the body passive and ruled with respect to that function.  Deleuze and Guattari are imagining, in other words, a body (politic) without (party) organs.  Such organ-less groups would need to develop a kind of emergent intelligence or consciousness so it can act.  Here Deleuze and Guattari, and many others, have turned to the natural world for models.  A wolfpack, a flock of starlings, and a bee hive are commonly cited as masses of individuals that act without a centralized leadership.  But there are models in the human world too: Hardt and Negri have argued that the human brain functions as a rhizome, as a leaderless network of neurons that coordinate themselves whenever “a person” makes a decision.  And we could say too that at certain moments the crowds in Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, and Zucchotti (not to mention Tiananmen) operated spontaneously in this way as well.  And that does not even take into account the conscious experimentation with leaderlessness and horizontality evident in Sol, Syntagma, and in the Occupy struggles in the US.

As with becoming-democratic more generally, we are unlikely to achieve this kind emergent organization as an end state, as a stable state of being.  Rather, we should think of ourselves as engaged in an ongoing, collective struggle to become-leaderless and horizontal, to become-starling and wolf, to become-Sol and Syntagma.  To return, over and over, to Tahrir Square.

As a final thought let me try to link all this back to the question of squatting and social centers.  Lefebvre insisted that the struggle to become-democratic, the struggle to increasingly manage our affairs for ourselves, was necessarily a struggle over space.  That is, for Lefebvre democracy was nothing other than the struggle to manage for ourselves the production of space.  Living as we do in a city and a world where inhabitants are alienated from the space they live in, where that space is managed for them by an oligarchy that cleaves to the dominant logic of private property and market exchange, what we need is a collective struggle by inhabitants to re-appropriate space.  This is a struggle to reclaim space for their own use, yes, but it is also a struggle to reclaim the management of space, to reclaim collective control over the complex processes of its production.  “Any revolutionary project today,” Lefebvre writes, “must…make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda” (Production of Space, p. 166-7).  Certainly it seems clear that squatting and social centers are attempts by inhabitants to reappropriate space.  In part, this reappropriation is in order to use the space.  But it is also often an attempt to reappropriate control over the management of space.  It seems to me, and I think Lefebvre would agree, that this latter effort is the key.  Becoming-democratic means not only an effort to seize and occupy space; but also it requires that we become autonomous and active though an ongoing struggle to manage the production of that space for ourselves.

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