Another session I participated in at the Los Angeles AAG was part of a series of sessions on Austerity and Local Politics organized by Deb Martin, Gordon MacLeod, and Katherine Hankins. This is a shorter piece, since it was a panel. I argued for a methodological focus on constituent (popular) power (the will to govern ourselves), rather than on constituted power (the power of the state and capital). Sadly, the discussion afterwards seemed to suggest that most in the audience were still resolved to continue being fascinated by constituted power…
The Will to Govern Ourselves
I agree with the organizers when they call for detailed empirical analyses of local politics. But before we rush off and get started, I want to ask what we would be looking for out there. And I want to suggest a provisional answer to that question, which is that we should be looking for our own will to govern ourselves. This will is always present, but it is often hard to see, and it is always engaged in a struggle with another will, our will to be governed.
As the recent wave of uprisings makes clear, this will to govern ourselves is more or less intense at different times and in different places. And so in looking for it, we should be attentive to its history and geography, about where and when it is likely to be found. And we have just been through a particularly intense surge of this will to govern ourselves. It was articulated with passion and clarity in 2011 by the People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square:
For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands. In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.
For many Spanish in that same year, it was que se vayan todos (get rid of them all) and no nos representan (they do not represent us). Not a cry to replace one set of rulers with another. But an outcry against the whole architecture of rule.
I think if we use this lens in our search for local politics, if we search for the will to govern ourselves, it will offer us at least one very important benefit: it will allow us to see beyond the many extortions that we are currently subjected to, that currently frame our politics, that reduce the options available to us and render contemporary local politics virtually apolitical.
What are these extortions, and how might the will to govern ourselves help?
One extortion perhaps most familiar to those in the U.S. and Northern Europe is this: if you don’t want neoliberal localization, devolution, and privatization you have to accept a strong national redistributive state. More generally, it says if you don’t want neoliberalism, you have to accept a welfare state. Here the will to govern ourselves rejects both options as starkly oligarchical and searches for a democracy beyond.
A related extortion says if you don’t like capitalist markets you have to accept a state command economy. Our will not to be governed is searching here for something beyond, something like Eugene Holland’s free-market communism.
Or on the Left, we are often subjected to this: if we don’t accept a strong party leadership the neoliberals will have their way. Here anarchists, radical democrats, autonomist Marxists, and people in the new social movements have been searching for something beyond.
In Southern Europe, they know only too well this extortion: if you don’t want utter financial collapse, you must accept austerity. Que se vayan todos.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, and other places, they faced a more stark and cynical extortion: if you don’t want the entire society to descend into violent chaos, you have to accept the rule of an autocrat. This is the old Hobbesian extortion: bellum omnium contra omnes or Leviathan? The devil or the deep blue sea? In Tunisia and Egypt people responded: we’ll take our chances in the deep blue sea.
If we are to overcome these extortions, I think, we must do something that takes tremendous courage and creativity: adopt a politics of refusal. We need to adopt, with the Spanish, Bartleby’s motto: “I would prefer not to.” We need to say no to such extortions. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, this saying no is not a negative act. It is a positive one. Saying no is a declaration that we intend to search for a way forward. It is an attempt to push through and find out what happens next, to discover what we are capable of building instead.
So, in thinking about the empirical investigations we might undertake, I think we should seek out the Bartlebys, seek out those who have already found the courage to refuse extortion, of whatever kind, find those who have been confronted with the abyss and not been cowed. We should look for those who have been exploring what possibilities there are beyond welfare-state-or-neoliberalism, beyond austerity-or-collapse, beyond leviathan-or-chaos. How did they summon the courage to say no? Did they organize their refusal? How? What consequences did they face? What new lands did they discover in the wake of their refusal? What lies beyond, in the deep blue sea?
In Spain, for example, what comes next after indignation and revolution? What kind of politics, and actions, and activities, and initiatives, and moods, and feelings, and forms of life are emerging in the wake of their historic awakening and their declaration that they intend to begin governing themselves? What new tendrils, new connections, new intensities, new paths, new strengths, new escapes are emerging? Are those new forces finding each other? Are they connecting? How? What can we learn from their example? To what extent is a new common, a new non-State republic, a new democracy emerging?
My sense is that in the study of local politics today our lips dripping with the words of neoliberalism, austerity, and oligarchy. Far fewer voices are singing the emergence of constitutent power, of potentia, of puissance.
This is one voice, from Puerta del Sol, saying “the revolution was in our hearts but now it flies free in the streets.” My sense is that we are not yet obsessed with such voices, with the continual re-emergence, all over the world, of the will to govern ourselves. But we should be. We are experiencing an incredibly intense burst of the continual, insistent, and joyous desire for democracy. And we should be rapt in our attention.